I Met Fantastic People

Talk with Anatol Gotfryd

‘I recall walking the streets of Pruszków after the Warsaw Uprising. I had no home or place to sleep, but the day was so beautiful, so nice!’

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AGNIESZKA DROTKIEWICZ: In part one of your book Der Himmel in den Pfützen (The Sky in the Puddles), where you reminisce about your childhood in Poland’s Eastern Borderlands, you mention two Hutsul women who were your wet nurses. They would tell you stories in the evening. You describe those fabulous tales as characteristic of the region: “They would come from neighboring countries: there were legends from Russia, fairy tales from Hungary, ghost stories from Romania, where in Count Dracula spread his reign of terror in nearby Transylvania. (…) The people of that rocky, mountainous region practiced many protective rituals. The girls would fasten bells and strings of beads (or were they rosaries?) to my crib, which would quietly chime with my every move. But I have a great debt of gratitude to Hanka and Oleńka: their weird stories, which always came to a happy ending, shaped my trustworthy attitude towards others.” The reason this sentence caught my attention is that as I was reading Der Himmel in den Pfützen, I had the impression that even though you were describing a tragic moment in history, your book is an expression of your faith in people and it encourages us to seek out that which is good, interesting, and beautiful in life. In your interview with Dorota Danielewicz-Kerski, you claim that children probably have a greater life force than adults and are more capable of escaping traumatic experiences without suffering mental anguish.

Anatol GotfrydANATOL GOTFRYD: What I think is also important is how we affect the world ourselves, and how we affect those around us. I started working at the Berlin Medical Academy’s dental clinic in 1959. Many of the docents working there at the time had served in Hitler’s army. I felt like an animal that had gone from being hunted to mingling with the hunters. I had a lot of trouble communicating and maintaining cordial relations with the older doctors, so kept my distance from them. Things began to ease up after about a year, and I became friends with the docents and teaching assistants who were my age. I said to one of them, “I get the feeling that the older professors have started treating me completely naturally. They must have forgotten what they did during the war.” He replied, “You’re right, but that’s merely a consequence of how you affect them.” When I was studying dentistry in Wrocław, I had classmates who would easily pass their exams regardless of whether or not they had studied. It’s something along the lines of a feedback loop. But it might in fact stem from our childhood experiences.

What I really liked about your book is its naughty narrative style, starting with your childhood, through World War II and the People’s Republic of Poland, and finally your adventures in Berlin. This naughty charm lends a certain lightness to the book, and at once emphasizes the complexity of the world. You write about an event that took place in front of the train station in Kolomyia on 10 October, 1942. Gestapo officers were splitting the inhabitants of the ghetto into two groups: an “essential work force” and those that were to be sent to the camp in Bełżec. Your cousin, an architect, was directed to the group that was going to stay. He was embracing a dark-haired girl, from whom the Gestapo were trying to separate him. You described the scene as follows: “Despite the unfavorable circumstances in which we had found ourselves, we took note of the fact that Rudy had apparently found his first love.”

I’ve always been a shrewd observer of the world. I took a great interest in everything that was going on around me. I’ve always had some parallel world. When I belonged to the Association of the Friends of the National Gallery and the Berlin Graphic Society and had a say in what the National Gallery bought, I felt as if that parallel world was more important to me.

Anatol Gotfryd

Anatol Gotfryd was born in 1930 in Jabłonowo, a small Jewish town in Poland’s Southeastern Borderlands. He survived the German occupation and the Warsaw Uprising with the help of Ukrainians, Poles, and Germans. He went on to study dentistry in Wrocław after the war, and emigrated to West Berlin in 1958, where he opened his own dental practice on the city’s most exclusive boulevard, Kurfürstendamm, a few years later. He was a long-time member of the Curatorial Committee of the Association of the Friends of the National Gallery and the Berlin Graphic Society, as well as a founding member and vice-president of the Association of the Friends of the “Kupferstichkabinet”, a museum that houses one of the world’s largest collection of prints and drawings. He is the author of the book Der Himmel in den Pfützen: Ein Leben zwischen Galizien und dem Kurfürstendamm (The Sky in the Puddles: A Life Between Galicia and Kurfürstendamm, Wolf Jobst Siedler Jr., Berlin 2005; Polish edition: Niebo w kałużach. Między Galicją a Ku’dammem, Czarna Owca, 2001).

I have to say that I never panicked during the war. I recall never thinking about death or about how things would end up for me. Later, after the war, when I was living in a dorm, I started talking to others who had lived through that period as well, and they would tell me about the state of panic they lived in. I hadn’t even thought about death. I think that a collective tragedy somehow unburdens the personal experience. Even though you’re being persecuted, the fate of the individual is the fate of us all, and vice-versa. It makes a great difference.

The other thing about fear is that if you’re afraid of dogs, dogs are bound to attack you. I recall a certain event that I don’t think I wrote about. It happened in either Lviv or Warsaw — I sometimes get them confused after all these years. The SS were rounding up people to be sent to labour in Germany, and those who were caught were made to stand at a tram stop on a traffic island. I was among them, and I was certainly the youngest of them all. Everyone else was in their thirties. After a roundup, the SS would conduct a thorough examination to see who was capable of doing what sort of work. I didn’t stand a chance. I recall that a German gendarme was standing next to me. I decided to take the risk, and stepped off the traffic island. As I was walking passed the gendarme, I looked him in the eye, and as he looked back, I saw him hesitate momentarily, unsure of how to react. I kept on walking, thinking to myself, “He’s either going to shoot me in the back, or not.” I walked away. And nothing happened, he let me go, he let me walk away. If I were afraid, if there were any fear in my eyes, it certainly would have ended differently. Naturally, that was merely one aspect of it. I have to admit I had a lot of luck, too. But the psychological factor was relevant.

I also recall walking the streets of Pruszków after the Warsaw Uprising. I had no home or place to sleep, but the day was so beautiful, so nice! I walked down the sidewalk, without even giving a thought to the fact that the day would end, that I needed to put a roof over my head, that I needed to find a place to sleep. It was then that I saw a beautiful villa, and thought to myself, “Oh, how I like this place — how I wish I could stay here!” I rang the doorbell and a young women came to the door. They took me in for a while. I think that when you feel good, when you have some trust in you, that feeling is transfered to others. My life experience has shown that when it comes to risking your life to save another, one can never predict how people will behave. Such decisions are highly emotional — it’s just a split second, and our bodies react before we even have time to think.

You described yourself as a person who has always been curious of the world around you. Your sparse descriptions of women are simply fantastic: “Jula was a tiny yet corpulent person who looked as if she had come into the world dressed in a Chanel outfit.” You portray Ms. Bukowiecka, who hid you in her Mokotów apartment, as a “resolute blonde dressed up as a small-town civil servant.”

Aunt Jula’s outfits exuded a certain small-town eroticism. It’s true, I tried to write descriptions that would leave a bit of space to the reader. I chose to merely take note of some things, tracing an outline and leaving it up to the readers to fill in the blanks. It would be impudent of me to rob the readers of their imaginations, so I often leave stories incomplete and let readers come to their own conclusions.

When you sat down to write this book, did it immediately occur to you to build the narrative out of smaller pieces and anecdotes, or had you tried other techniques before?

Anatol Gotfryd in Warsaw

Anatol Gotfryd is visiting Warsaw this May. He will be signing books at the Czarna Owca booth at 12.00 on 15 May, at this year’s Warsaw Book Fair at the Palace of Culture, and is scheduled to appear at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Warsaw (Próżna 8) at 16.30 on 17 May, as a part of the Jewish Book Days.

I didn’t even consider the question of technique. In the book, I didn’t explain why I wrote it, because I thought such an explanation would come across as terribly pretentious. But this is how it went: when I was in the ghetto in Kolomyia, I decided to write a book with my friend Wilczek, the one whom the SS officer later shot down from a walnut tree. We wanted to describe what our lives were like. We sat down on the base of an unfinished fence and started writing. Unfortunately, we started with a dialogue. It was probably an exchange between two women. Anyway, we ended up writing a few sentences, and we didn’t know what to do next. We never ended up writing that book, but I had that image of us in my head for years after the war. That image was very real, I was haunted by it. I felt that it was a weird responsibility of mine to write that book. I had no idea how to start, but I managed somehow. To be honest, I don’t know how and when it happened, even though it wasn’t long ago. I just can’t remember how I started writing. But once I was writing, I didn’t have any serious difficulty. I very much wanted to pay homage to the people who helped me, so that they would not be forgotten. And since I was also helped by people whom I would never have expected to do so, I didn’t want to gloss over anything or make generalisations, either.

Your characters truly are vivid, like Father Julek, the sybarite (to use a euphemism) who enjoyed fine dining and drank Bordeaux, and was so obese that he smuggled money in his rolls of fat, and who changed your family’s birth certificates to make some of your relatives appear only half-Jewish. Then there’s the fascinating Mrs. Storoszczak, who hid you in Lviv — a very pious and pedantic woman who stated that a very neatly made bed looked “as if dogs had been fucking on it”.

I think that feeling of adventure and risk was important to many of the people who helped me. Mrs. Storoszczak certainly did so out of religious and moral motivations. Metropolitan bishop Szeptycki, to whom she confessed that she was hiding Jews, said to her: “Great are your works and great is your courage.” She was terribly proud of it. She was a fantastic person!

But take Ms. Bukowicka, who hid us in Warsaw — why did she do it? None of us paid her anything. We didn’t even have any money. There were four people in her home — it was an insanely risky thing to do. I think there was a bit of pert audacity in it. I also remember how I would visit her during the uprising and find her sitting in her basement like Croesus — she had plenty of cigarettes and vodka. She would always leave me alone with her treasures so that I would take some for myself. I met very interesting and fascinating people, and if I have succeeded in fulfilling my obligation towards them with this book, then I’ll be happy.

I usually hesitate to read wartime memoirs because I’m afraid I won’t comprehend them, and that I’ll be overwhelmed by the subject matter. But your book is more open to the reader; there’s not a hint of pathos to be found in it.

Pathos is dishonest, pure and simple. As far as your fears are concerned, during World War II the fronts were very clearly separated: we had to defend ourselves, there was an enemy, everything was more or less black and white. There was none of that fog that we have now. Naturally, we had to look out for snitches and blackmailers. It’s interesting: when we lived in Berlin, I read a supplement that used to be published with the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”. In it, there was a column with a questionnaire, which all kinds of celebrities were asked to fill out. I was curious to find out what they would write, as many of them — artists and actors — were friends of ours. One of the questions was, “What do you dislike the most?”. There were many responses, but over many years, the answer “snitches and blackmailers” was only given three times at most.

So during the war, we had to keep an eye out for blackmailers and snitches. Things are different nowadays — people have much more existential anxiety, anxiety about the environment, their health, and the economy. I think that extreme circumstances such as war motivate people to summon all their strength, to face the situation head-on.

Allow me to continue the topic of anxiety. You and your wife Danuta had West Berlin’s best known dental practice; the entire art world — and not just from Germany — would come to you to get their teeth done. Most people feel anxious about appointments with the dentist. How did you help your patients overcome their fear?

We didn’t even have anxious patients, such was the atmosphere in our clinic. Apart from the entrance, there were no doors to fence in the patients. Everything was open and transparent. The purpose of this was to create an open, almost familial, atmosphere — this was very important to us. I never tried to do what many doctors do: make social appearances at tennis clubs or whatnot. I was once invited to deliver a lecture on contemporary dentistry at a certain club. After the lecture, we were invited to the club’s Christmas party at some hotel, where all the guests were prominent figures. The head of the club approached me and asked whether I would mind if he pinned a club badge to my jacket. And I was so naïve — like in that joke about the girl from a Muslim family attending a wedding, where she asks her mother “Mother, who’s getting married?”, to which her mother replies “You are, my dear!” — it didn’t even occur to me that the badge meant that I had become a member of the club! According to club rules, each city’s chapter had to include one representative of each trade. Accordingly, every member of the club was required to go to the club dentist. I got out of that club as quickly as I could — no good can come of such systems!

To be honest, I don’t like clubs at all. It’s like Kant said: he who thinks through the minds of others is a slave. A patient should come to me through a referral. When a doctor belongs to a club, he becomes entangled in a web of dependence. We had nothing to do with that; we had our independence. And that’s very important, because you end up transferring it to the patient psychologically. Naturally, if it’s someone’s first appointment, then he’s bound to be a bit nervous. But if you approach him naturally, like he’s just dropped by on an errand, without all the drama, it alleviates the anxiety.

That’s precisely it! The drama — theatre often stirs panic.

The question is, what’s behind that theatre? You either know how to play the violin or you don’t, in which case even a Stradivarius isn’t going to help you. In dentistry, the doctor and patient immediately enter into a very intimate relationship, which is why trust is so important — it’s what determines whether or not the treatment will work. After all, manual labour is just a part of it; a dentist can’t lose his intuition. The intimacy between the doctor and the patient is especially important in moments when the doctor is forced to improvise in order to avoid hurting the patient with a routine approach. In such situations, a rapport between the doctor and the patient is very conducive to improvisation. It’s hard to describe.

Is this something that can be learned, or is it a talent that you either have or you don’t?

I think it involves a certain sensitivity. I worked at the Berlin University clinic for four years, teaching students from the first semester to their final exam. Not everyone was cut out for the profession. Some of them were children of dentists who expected them to continue the family tradition.

In your interview with Dorota Danielewicz-Kerski, you talked about the psychological — or downright metaphorical — dimension of dentistry, and about how our teeth are our weapons as well as our jewelry.

An illness such as periodontitis, to put it in psychological terms, is aggression curtailed. It’s as if we were saying, “Leave me along, don’t hurt me, I won’t bite you either (I don’t even have teeth).” It’s a bit like dreams in psychoanalysis: psychosomatic symptoms can be interpreted. After all, the oral cavity is the first point of contact between the external and internal world! These are very delicate matters, and it often happens that patients behave very childishly at the dentist’s office. Such situations bring back events from their childhood; a patient may remember, for example, that he was unloved as child, or not loved as strongly as his peers.

One of your patients was Samuel Beckett. He must have been unsociable.

I think I was his last dentist. He was somewhat of a oddball, and he was in fact rather unsociable. At first he claimed not to speak German, just English, but after he had loosened up a bit, it turned out that he did speak German, and quite well at that. I got the impression that he was a hypochondriac. I had a few patients like him, particularly writers, who must have hated me as a dentist — they were all hypochondriacs. But I later became good friends with many of them.

Writers were the worst, they always had the most unkempt teeth. It would seem that oral history posed a particular challenge to them. Interestingly, of all the artists who came into our clinic, it was painters who were the greatest “actors”, rather than the actors themselves. Actors would show up in the morning, because they spent their evenings working late at the theatre. So they would come in the morning, unwashed and disheveled (laughs). We never had much trouble with the actors, it was the writers who were the problem.

Zbigniew Herbert was also a patient and a friend of yours, wasn’t he? Did he spend much time in Berlin?

Yes, in fact he and his wife lived with us for a while, and we were close friends. Zbigniew always had a wonderful, astute sense of humour. We were sitting at a café on Kurfürstendamm one day, not far from our practice, when a fourteen-year-old girl walked passed with a provocative gait. We glanced at her, and her face looked so primitive that it made us feel uneasy. I looked over at Zbigniew, and he said to me, “I’m never going to understand that Nabokov guy!”

Your office was a social spot — many of your artist friends would just drop by for a cup of coffee.

I would occasionally sit down to talk to them instead of working (laughs). Who else would come by? There was Sławomir Mrożek, who met Roman Opałka at our office. Opałka is unusually smart and always has an answer to everything. I organised an exhibition of his at the National Gallery in Berlin, accompanied by a public appearance — people would ask him all sorts of questions; after all, his art is rather provocative. It was fantastic to hear him answer all those questions. It was as if he had had it all worked out in his head. So when Mrożek met him at our office, he took me aside and asked, “What does that friend of yours do?”. After I explained, Rożek replied, “Praise God! I was starting to worry that he’s writer!” (laughs).

Is your interest in the visual arts a result of your friendships with visual artists, or have you had this interest since you were a child?

Part of it was thanks to my uncle Filip, a dentist who was interested in art, although there was always a commercial aspect to his interest. Uncle Filip probably had the greatest influence on my development. You always have a model that you strive to achieve or surpass. To me, he was such a model in all regards. But I think I’ve always had an interest in the visual arts.

There were usually ten of use at the Association of the Friends of the National Gallery. Members were split into three groups: the first consisted of those who held important positions in the administrations, the second were those who had a lot of money (that was always a necessity, as we sometimes needed a bit of extra money to make acquisitions). The third and smallest group were the ones who knew what was what. When we held meetings to discuss an important acquisition, the museum director would present a painting or sculpture and we would think about whether to buy it. The director would sometimes say, “First I want to hear what Tolek has to say!” (laughs). [Tolek is an abbreviation from Anatol — ed.]

You lived in all types of conditions during the war and afterwards. I was struck by your ability to acclimatise and adapt to different living conditions. After all that has happened, what does home mean to you?

What I had during the war never really was a home, it was more like a shelter. All I remember from the war was where and how I slept — it was always improvised: I would sleep in straw, or under a trough, or at Iwaśko’s house on a bench that would open up to reveal a bed of hay, or sometimes in a barn in Skniłów, and in Warsaw I slept on a coat spread out on the floor. After the war, I slept on a table at the Perec Jewish Centre in Lublin. So as you can see, I didn’t have my own bed for years.

What mattered to me during the war wasn’t so much my place as the function I had there, whether I was working in the field or employed in a cottage industry in Warsaw. The room itself wasn’t as important to me. I do remember those places, of course, but they are nothing like my grandparents’ home in Jabłonowo, for instance, which was like a second skin to me.

I’ve lived with my wife here in Germany since 1958, and the longer we’re here, the more I long for Poland.

House project designed by Hermann Muthesius

The house you live in now is very special. It’s an early 20th century historic building.

We were very fortunate to have been able to buy it. I bought it as soon as I received the offer, without even giving it a second thought. The house was something like a temple to us, an ark, if you will. It was designed and constructed in the early 20th century by the famous architect Hermann Muthesius in the English country house style, which is something like a manor. Muthesius built the home for himself and his family. This was in the heyday of anthroposophy, and thus the house has a peculiar atmosphere. Its proportions give you the impression of constantly being “embraced” by the rooms. Each room has a life of its own, due to the fact that they all have two floors, separated by two or three steps. This allows the perception of atmosphere and light to shift within a single room.

We’ve lived here for 40 years. Danka tends the garden, and has even received an award from the city for keeping it faithful to its intended style — like the house, the garden itself is historic. Muthesius was a close friend of Mackintosh’s, and the lamp under which we are now sitting here in the library was his personal gift to this house.

The house stands out from the rest of the buildings in this neighbourhood of Berlin, Nikolasee.

Muthesius prided himself on having discovered this part of town — his friends lived here as well, making it somewhat of a refuge. Danka and I found it greatly important to have this private place to which we could retreat.

You write about your visit to Germany’s greatest rock trade centre in Reinersreuth, were you saw rocks from all over the world. One block of red granite suddenly evoked a feeling of “odd excitement” in you. It turned out that it had been mined at a quarry not far from your home town of Jabłonowo, and it felt like a “greeting from your childhood.” I understand you haven’t been to Jabłonowo since the war?

No, I haven’t have had the courage to go back. We went to Włodawa, where Danka comes from. We were looking for a hill that she described as very high, and which she would go sledding on as a child. We looked and looked, and it finally turned out to be nothing more than a knoll. I though to myself that that would certainly be the case with my town as well. If I don’t go back, my memories will still be mine; time beautifies everything, naturally, and shifts the proportions, but I just want it to stay the way it is.

It seems that one can adapt to living abroad. We’ve done just fine over the years — and it’s been 50 years since we arrived — living in very cosmopolitan circles. Artists are egocentric and more absorbed with themselves than anything else, but they also have a rather relaxed attitude, which is great. And yet there’s always something missing in a foreign land. It’s hard to describe; after all these years, all I can say is that there’s a certain longing in me for that weird bit of my homeland that has remained in my heart — maybe it’s the Borderlands. There was something special about them. Perhaps it was their multi-national character.

Historic garden next to the house designed by Muthesius

Out of all the countries, cultures, and places that you have explored in the world, I understand that Italy is the place that is now dearest to you?

I think that older you get, the more you miss that childhood atmosphere, that light you remember from your childhood, the smell of the forest and the wind. It’s no coincidence that the people who fled Nazi Germany and settled in America, where they toiled their entire lives, come back in their later years. They’re looking for the atmosphere of their childhoods. It happens all the time.

I’ve always had a tendency to interpret what I see in a very visual and literal fashion. I remember when I was living in Jabłonowo, a small town, we had some guests from the city of Kolomyia. After dinner, they decided they would like to go for a walk to “breath the fresh air”. I was very surprised to hear about that “fresh air”! So I went with them, certain that the “fresh air” would start just around the corner.

The atmosphere in Italy reminds me of my childhood. Time stands still. Wherever you are, be it a town or a city, there will always be a Piazza Dante with fountains, or a somewhat larger Piazza Della Signoria, where virtually nothing has changed since the Renaissance. You can sit down in a café and mindlessly watch the world go by for hours, with no anxiety, no tension, and no guilt. As a child, I would spend hours in the window, and yet there was nothing there to see. Sometimes a wagon would ride by, or it would rain. The world just stood still. You can find that in Italy.

After all those years of hiding from the Nazis, didn’t the German language make you uncomfortable? In your book, you write that your mother would emphasise the difference between “Hitler’s bandits” and the German nation.

My grandparents moved to Poland from a town near Vienna. They had German friends. My mother finished school in Vienna and grew up surrounded by German literature. She always made the distinction between “Germans” and “Nazis”. When we moved to Berlin, I didn’t have any issues with my attitude towards the German language.

You’re currently writing the follow-up to your memoirs.

Yes, I’m writing about our life in Germany, but that cannot be done without tying in my childhood, my ancestry, and my wartime experiences, as all of this has shaped my point of view. So I’m writing it by going back to the past, particularly with my German readers in mind, who don’t know much about the war from my perspective. I’m writing about the post-war years, but I’m going back to a number of topics, pulling the readers in with me.

How am I doing this, you ask? The working title is In the Shadow of Telegraph Poles, because telegraph poles were the only connection between our town and the outside world. It was symbolic, representing a longing for a world outside my town, a world where great adventures awaited. When I was little, I would lie down in the shade and listen to the crackling of the telegraph lines. I would ask my grandmother, “What is that music?”, and she would tell me, “It’s your uncle Józef in Milan talking to his son in Odessa,” and show me their photographs. The book starts with Danka and me visiting Milan. Grandmother always promised to go to Milan with me one day, but she couldn’t, because they murdered her.

So my wife and I are in Milan, in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. I give a faithful description of the painting — it’s the moment when Christ says, “One of you will betray me.” It is a very dramatic moment, with everyone wondering who the traitor could be, and one of the Apostles wields a dagger behind his back, ready to stab the betrayer, the snitch. That’s when I go back to the subject of the wartime snitches.

22 March, 2011, Berlin-Nikolasee

translated by Arthur Barys

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.