denise grollmus: A House is not a Home is an Idea

Edgar Keret w Domu, fot. Bartek Warzecha

An attempt at filling in the gaps of the discourse surrounding Dom Kereta

When I first arrived in Warsaw in September, everyone was already abuzz with talk of the October opening of Dom Kereta, known to Yankees like me as Keret House. It wasn’t only Polish acquaintances that said I had to visit, either. I was receiving emails almost daily from friends back home with links to stories about “The Narrowest House in the World.”

“Apparently, this is in Warsaw!” they said.

In fact, a Google search of “Narrowest House in the World,” returned more hits for news stories on Dom Kereta than the architectural wonder’s proper name—a fact that must be totally bumming out Amsterdam, who used to claim that fame until October.

And that is partly why, even after I was told time and time again that I just had to visit Keret House, I stubbornly stayed away.

Trust me: there is no better way of diminishing the value of anything than by giving it a superlative. After spending 18 years of my life in Ohio, I’ve personally had enough of the longest covered bridge, the biggest basket, the biggest apple basket, the biggest cheese wheel, mouse trap, cuckoo clock, and so on and so forth. Anything that starts with an “-est” word usually means, “boring.” I am also absolutely incapable of wrapping my mind around measurements of any kind, especially metric ones, so telling me that something is “only 30 centimeters wide!” doesn’t get me excited. It just confuses me.

The other thing that made me a little skeptical of Dom Kereta was the way in which the evolution of the site was being conveyed through major news sources around the world. The jist of most stories (yes, I’m talking about The New York Times) was that Dom Kereta’s architect, Jakub Szczęsny, became obsessed with a sliver of space between a prewar building and a postwar co-op located in Muranów. The problem was that there was little talk about what that sliver of space represented, which is the way that Poles do and don’t discuss THE WAR, especially when it comes to Things Jewish. There was also little emphasis placed on how important Muranów is as a site of memory, and a site for this structure, in particular. Not only was Muranów where the Warsaw Ghetto was located, but before that, it was Warsaw’s Jewish neighborhood, when the city was still a third Jewish. After the war, the area was completely rebuilt and now, there are barely enough Jews left in Poland who could fill all the apartments in that part of town.

This context is important because Szczęsny fantasized about building something inside this particular space. He wasn’t simply trying to build “The Narrowest House in the World.” He also wanted to address the multitude of tensions that this space represents, from Polish-Jewish relations and Poland’s suppressed Jewish history to questions of how we physically represent history, memorialize it, and then process it in a way that makes it part of our daily lives.

Dom Kereta, fot. Tycjan Gniew-Podskarbiński, dzięki uprzejmości Fundacji Polskiej Sztuki Nowoczesnej
Dom Kereta, fot. Tycjan Gniew-Podskarbiński, dzięki uprzejmości Fundacji Polskiej Sztuki Nowoczesnej

But the way the story was being told time and time again was that it was merely a coincidence of aesthetics, rather than history or identity that led Szczęsny to believe that Etgar Keret, an Israeli writer famous for his short-short stories, was the ideal resident for such a space. Of course, it just so happened that Keret also had a personal connection with the site. His mother, who was born in Warsaw in 1934, lost all of her family in the Warsaw Ghetto, where she survived by smuggling food. It irked me that both Keret’s family history, and how it connected with this very specific site of memory, was being portrayed as some cool coincidences, a bit of emotional color to add to the dimensional matter of “The Narrowest House in the World.”

Even Keret, who, in his famously condensed style, wrote an essay for Tablet Magazine about Dom Kereta, said, rather cheekily, “I’m going to my home.” Of course, this sentence is anything but simple and he did explain his particular connection to Warsaw (through his mother and as a writer). Still, it’s a statement more generally loaded with philosophical, historical, and ethical questions about the idea of “home,” particularly in a Jewish sense and within a Polish Jewish context. And that’s all before we start talking about the word “returning.” Also, an Israeli calling Poland home? Zionists, Beware!

Also: Keret’s return was not really a return, at all, but more like a sleep over in the neighborhood of his mother’s childhood. Keret wasn’t, in fact, moving into Dom Kereta. He was spending the night, along with the international press, who were all sure to snap the cute “Keret in bed” photo before rushing back to file their stories. Still, the idea a home was being built for someone like Keret, who wasn’t actually going to be living in that home, seemed like another loaded gesture, too. In many ways, it spoke to Ruth Ellen Gruber’s concept of “Virtual Jewishness” and “Imaginary Jews,” where Jewishness exists in the absence of actual Jews. It also seemed to extend the work of Yael Bartana’s Polish Trilogy, which deals with the complicated desire for the “return” of a Jewish community in Poland on the part of Poles, Jews, and Polish Jews.

Then there was the closing line of Keret’s Tablet essay, which seethed with a quiet, playful vengeance: “A family once lived in this city. They’re not here anymore, but everyone who walks past me will have to stop for a minute and look at my narrow, defiant body, look at the sign and remember that family’s name.”

Etgar Keret w Domu, fot. Bartek Warzecha, dzięki uprzejmości Fundacji Polskiej Sztuki Nowoczesnej
Etgar Keret w Domu, fot. Bartek Warzecha, dzięki uprzejmości Fundacji Polskiej Sztuki Nowoczesnej

It seemed as though Dom Kereta was resisting the sort of interesting analysis it seemed so suited to engage. Instead, it was all metric measurements and cryptic, baiting allusions to more interesting discussions of loss and recovery. Was it because the width of the building was really that interesting? Or was it because we don’t know how to appropriately unpack these super-loaded issues without getting mired in 50-plus pages of “it’s complicated” history before needing a nap? Or was it just a word count, deadline, rewrite-the-press-release thing?

The other thing that kept me away from Dom Kereta was the fact that it had become such a huge tourist attraction. On the days that it was open for the public, thousands of people lined up outside and waited for hours to gain entrance. I assumed the “-est” had drawn the crowds, but I couldn’t be sure, because I never went to ask them. Crowds make me anxious. And it was cold outside.

But then, I was asked to write this essay, and I could no longer put off “The Narrowest House in the World.” So I wrote the Dom Kereta curators, Sarmen Beglarian and Sylwia Szymaniak, thinking I’d never hear back. But, in less than a day, Sylwia responded and kindly asked me to meet her and Sarmen at Chłodna 25, a café not only close to Dom Kereta, but a place that coincidentally means a lot to me, too.

When I came to Warsaw for the first time in 2009, I went to Chłodna 25 often. I felt that part of the café’s attraction was not simply its location, but the very vibrant newness of the café contrasted with the historical knowledge one had to bring to its location in order to understand why it could be such an important or, at least, thought-provoking site.

At that time, there was nothing on Chłodna that would draw one’s attention to the street’s history, unless the small mural painted by Adam X caught your eye, and even then, the black and grey image is too abstract to understand without a cursory background. One had to bring their knowledge of Ul. Chłodna—which means “Cold Street” in English—to it in order to know its relevance. That information was not going to randomly find you shuffling down the sidewalk.

For those who might not know: During World War II, Chłodna ran directly through the Warsaw Ghetto. But because the street was integral to maintaining the flow of city traffic, the Germans decided to cordon it off from the Jewish district. For Jews to get from either side of the Ghetto—divided up into a “big” and a “small” ghetto, largely along class lines—they had to cross over Chłodna on a rickety, narrow bridge nicknamed the “Bridge of Sighs.”

That fact was important to me the first time I walked along Chłodna. It was night, it was August, and I was looking up at the streetlights, which was peculiar, since I’m almost always hunched over, looking down. But I wanted to figure out where this bridge might have been. I wanted to picture my grandmother both walking across it, and then, underneath it. I tried to imagine what the sound of her shoes was like, first on the rickety wood of the bridge, then, along the paving stones of the street. It was that sort of imagining that had brought me to Poland after learning the truth about my grandmother’s story.

My grandmother was born in Warsaw in 1921. Before the war broke out, my grandmother already had a complicated relationship with her Jewish identity. She often speaks of having felt torn between her identity as a Jew and as a Pole. She was one of the few Jewish girls at her Catholic gymnasium, and she often felt looked down upon by her far more religious relatives. Articles she wrote in 1938 and 1939 for the Kurjer Warszawski were not published under her name, “Krystyna Rosenwasser,” but “Krystyna Ros.Sorrell,” When I think of my grandmother, I think of something said by Ludwig Boerne, an 18th century assimilated German Jewish author, quoted by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Some reproach me with being a Jew, some praise me because of it, some pardon me for it, but all think of it.” [Arendt 1973] I’m pretty sure grandma always felt marked, for better or worse, and desired, more than anything, to be seen as Polish, completely.

When Warsaw’s Jewish citizens were ordered by the Nazis to move to the Ghetto in 1940, my grandmother, who was 19 at the time, refused to go. Instead, she got a new name, a new national and religious identity, and then she hid with a family on the “Aryan” side of town. Still, she frequently made trips to the Ghetto, sneaking in through the courts on Leszno Street, where she’d hide in the bathroom, slip on her Star of David armband, and then rush to the Ghetto side, from where every one of her relatives, except for her mother, disappeared to Treblinka, despite her best efforts to get them out.

When the war was over, my grandmother and her mother immigrated to Chile, leaving everything about their lives behind them, including their Jewishness, until 2008, when my grandmother finally told my mother and me the story about who she was—about who we were. A year later, I came to Warsaw to learn more. And what I discovered was a municipal version of myself. Warsaw, much like me, was a subject discovering its own Jewish identity after decades of silence.

What I loved most about Warsaw were the ways in which the city’s landscape shifted depending on what I knew or didn’t know about it. Without any knowledge of the war, or the city’s Jewish history, one can easily get lost in Muranów in the same way I used to get lost in my grandmother’s presence—struck by how beautiful she was, fascinated by the glint of her bleach blond hair, the glossy rouge on her high cheekbones. Even at a young age, I was sure that the heavy sighs that would sometimes shudder from her petite frame were a sign of something—something important, I could feel—that lay just beneath the surface. But then she’d smile, coo at me in the soporific cadence of her heavy Polish accent while she handed me a Kit-Kat bar and tea in one of her fancy etched-glass mugs with the metal holders, and I’d forget about that thing—that thing that felt so important.

And then, when I finally got the story, I realized that the truth was always out in the open, it was always right in front of me. The bits and pieces of the past were always gathered around her, in between her. All we had to do was speak them aloud so that I could understand them in words, which always feel so necessary.

Warsaw is no different. Its surface speaks its history, and the sites of attempted erasure are often more interesting than any of its carefully constructed memorials. The grey walls of prewar buildings burst with chaotic patterns of “illegal” Communist windows built after the building next door—the one that was too close, the one that blocked out the light, the place where the Jews lived—was torn down. Chunks of ghetto buildings protrude from the edges of those built during Communism—the buildings that tried to forget and which share the same space as those being built now, the megamalls and skyscraping hotels that scream: “Capitalism! Fuck Yeah!”

The city’s haphazard layout is absolutely mimetic of human memory. I learn more about Warsaw’s past from what it has tried to forget, rather than what it has tried to remember. It’s a human desire to move on, to try and start anew. But can one really ever do that? That’s what Warsaw asks and that is what my grandmother has taught me, even though she always tells me to do the opposite. “Forget the past, it is over,” she says, the accent of her past language sticking to the words of her new one so that it won’t be forgotten.

Of course, there is no forgetting, no matter how hard we try or have tried. Everything seems to sit in the open, waiting to be discovered—only waiting to be spoken. Even at a place as unassuming and seemingly ahistorical as Chłodna 25. During my first visit there, my mind went directly to a passage from my grandmother’s book about her life during the war. It was the part where she wrote about Sztuka, a literary café that was located in the Ghetto. “We turned the corner of a small street and my mother stopped in front of a dark store,” my grandmother writes about her first visit to Sztuka. “When the door opened, people sitting on hard wooden chairs around small wooden tables greeted us politely. There were no covers on the tables upon which sat glasses full of a liquid that I suspected was tea….we sat on a wooden bench and listened to someone speaking in one of the corners of the big room. I looked around and saw all kinds of people.”

In this way, for me, Chłodna 25 was a perfect memorial to Ghetto history, largely because it was so unintentional, so un-nostalgic. The history of the place existed among the University students and their laptops, between the notes of whatever American indie rock band hovered above the chatter. People were not performing their memories, but existing with them without even knowing it.

When I returned to Chłodna 25 this month, I first noticed that it had changed a great deal. It had been renovated, and was more sparse and modern than before. But I was glad it still felt special. Context, after all, is everything. I found Sarmen and Sylwia working at a table, where they’d set up shop for the afternoon, taking phone calls and discussing plans for Dom Kereta. As Sarmen tried to get off the phone, Sylwia said they hadn’t expected all the attention. I made a joke about the danger of superlatives. Fortunately, it translated. They laughed, nodding their heads.

As we gathered up our stuff, they said that they’d be closing Dom Kereta to the public for renovations. The unanticipated traffic had done some damage and they also wanted time to plan the installation’s residency program for artists, for which they hope to begin accepting applications next year. Sarmen said it was important to them that the site be used as a living, breathing creative space contributing to the intellectual chatter of the city.

We walked through the parking lot that takes you to the entrance of the house, which I would have never found without my guides. Defiant and proud, it was not, at first. Hidden and inaccessible—yes, much like the history of Muranów and those who used to live there. As Sarmen unlocked the gate, painted a cold flat black, I noticed that the sides of Dom Kereta weren’t touching either of the neighboring buildings, leaving new little pockets of air between all three of them. Sarmen said that the city required the structure not touch either building, and this fact became one of the greatest obstacles for building Dom Kereta, which had to continually push back its opening day because of delayed construction.

fot. Denise Grollmus
fot. Denise Grollmus

For me, this detail seemed most profound of all, particularly because it wasn’t the result of artistic conceptualization, but of city bureaucracy. It was too perfect an irony that spoke to the historical oppression of Polish Jews and their history, by both the Nazis and the Communist regime. It was only fitting that the law would deny Szczęsny his dream of linking prewar history with postwar, of truly filling in the gaps of history, making it all tidy and linear.

But it was also a logistical irony that spoke to the tension between humanity’s greater psychic desire and inability to do the same. Our neurotic attempt to make the past tangible is one that we constantly engage, despite the fact that is always unfulfilled. Whenever we try to fill in the blanks, we simply create new ones. This compulsive psychic activity is absolutely palpable in the fresh gaps that keep Dom Kereta from touching its historical neighbors.

Once he’d opened the gate, Sarmen walked across the pebbled path towards the hatch of the structure, which is elevated off the ground. Sarmen said that in all three of the designs for Dom Kereta, an important factor was that the building would not touch the ground. “In Jewish culture, especially, this area, Muranów, is often considered a Jewish graveyard,” Sarmen said.

In fact, when Warsaw was being rebuilt after the war, hardly any part of Muranów was excavated. All over this area of the city, there are hills made of rubble, buildings slightly elevated above the rest of the city, built on human remains and the artifacts of those lives. It was the desire of Dom Kereta’s team not to disrupt this sort of cemetery, not to desecrate the land, which some feel is exactly what happened when the Poles rebuilt on top of Muranów after the war, as though the Jewish neighborhood had never even existed. This decision expresses a shift in thinking from Communist Polish attitudes about Muranów to those of the new Polish left, ideals that are more aligned with the Jewish community, both in Poland and abroad. It represents a linguistic shift in the thinking of many Poles, who used to refer to sites of Jewish memory as “their,” but now say “our.” It also asks the question: how does one rebuild and move on in sites of trauma?

But this part of the construction—the elevated entrance—has another effect that problematizes the space, too. To climb the stairwell into the structure felt nothing like walking through the front door of a proud home. It was more akin to climbing into a bunker. It reminded me of Krysia, an underground bunker in the Ghetto that hid up to 40 people, who were all discovered by the Gestapo and shot in 1944. Of course, Dom Kereta is not underground, but raised well above the surface, which complicates an important division that existed for Jews during the war—those who could hide on the surface and those who had to go underground. The less Jewish you were, the more of a “right” you had to remain on the surface, while those who sounded and looked “too Jewish” were forced underground.

In fact, the climb up Dom Kereta’s entrance steps spoke not to a return home, but of going into hiding, both in the sense of those who hid in such narrow spaces during the war, and those who decided to continue the concealment of their Jewish identity even after the war, people like my grandmother, of which there are many in Poland. Though post-Communist Poland has made way for a sort of Jewish thawing, where people are emerging from the Jewish closet and embracing their formerly hidden identities, it is still a somewhat taboo subject for many, especially for those generations who experienced the war, as well as the widespread anti-Semitism under Communism. If we are to think of this space as filling a gap between the pre and postwar periods, then this space is one that speaks not to a return home, as Keret claims, but of the point in history that hid Jewishness from Warsaw almost entirely—a cultural truth that still resonates today.

fot. Denise Grollmus
fot. Denise Grollmus

The structure’s materials speak not only to this concealment, but to issues of displacement, as well. From the outside, the metal frame and paneling of Dom Kereta suggest a doublewide trailer. There is a temporariness imbedded in the structure, a sense of transportability, of a home not meant to be occupied for long or of one that can be moved to follow the owner wherever he goes. It speaks generally to Diaspora, to wandering, and to exile, of never really having a “home,” or always being in a state of longing for “home”—a concept which sits at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

It also speaks specifically to the displacement of Polish Jews throughout history. Long before the Nazis ordered Jews into the confines of the Ghetto, Warsaw already had a long history of perpetually recreating boundaries around its Jewish population, ordering Jews outside the walls, then back inside the walls, then into one neighborhood, then into another. Finally, it speaks to the displacement of Jews and Jewish identity from Warsaw during and after war, even during the Communist-sponsored exodus of Jews in 1968. It makes one wonder: is there ever the potential for a Jew to have a permanent residence in Warsaw? History would, unfortunately, tell us no. And, materially, it would appear that Dom Kereta might agree.

Of course, for now, Dom Kereta has no intention of moving. And once I was fully inside and Sarmen closed the hatch behind us, the painful history of the Polish Jewry was suddenly washed away by the anesthetized décor of the house. Almost immediately, the history that had strangled me up the stairs had disappeared into the light wood floors, the white walls, the brightly polka-dotted bedspread and the adorably cute, cerulean blue mini fridge. The sterile, contemporary interior of Dom Kereta appeared to resist history, preferring to look forward, or rather, at the day to day of living in its most practical sense. In the coziness of the sleeping cubicle, the place felt like a sensory depravation chamber. The books lining the desk were not heavy tomes about Holocaust history, but works by Keret. The only “Jewish markings” inside the house were the Hebrew script on his books and a National Geographic about Israel displayed on a built-in end table. It was the anti-thesis of the kitschy Jewish restaurants that now litter historic Jewish neighborhoods throughout Poland, such as Kraków’s Kazimierz. Here, there was no performance of Jewishness, no construction of Jewishness based on romanticizations of the past.

Dom Kereta, fot. Denise Grollmus
Dom Kereta, fot. Denise Grollmus
fot. Denise Grollmus
Dom Kereta, fot. Denise Grollmus

In fact, the interior was absolutely mundane, aside from the comicalness of its “narrowest” dimensions, of course. It even felt lived in—the bed looked like it had been slept in, a blanket tossed at its edge, like someone just got up from a nap. A notebook with a pencil lying in its center sat on the desk of the office area. The hissing of the electric kettle and the whir of the traffic outside described the ambience. Along a wall, were family photos belonging to Keret, including a black and white portrait of what I assume was a relative, maybe someone who died during the war, a consideration I had and then felt silly for having—for projecting what might not be there. In some ways, I actually felt like I’d invaded a private space. Of course, I hadn’t. Because Keret doesn’t actually live here.

fot. Denise Grollmus
Dom Kereta, fot. Denise Grollmus

In this sense, Keret is the “Imaginary Jew” here, and this is his “Virtual Jewish Space,” though not exactly in the way that Ruth Ellen Gruber describes in her 2002 book, Virtually Jewish. The virtuality of Dom Kereta is not manifest in kitschy renderings of Jewishness dependent on an idealized past collectively engaged by non-Jews or Polish Jews that have been severed from their roots. In fact, this space is a collaboration between Poles, an Armenian, and an Israeli, who have decided to activate its emotional, historical, and political charge by building something within that pre-existing space. Dom Kereta, simply by its presence, now speaks that history, much in the way of how Keret articulated it in his Tablet essay: “A family once lived in this city. They’re not here anymore, but everyone who walks past me will have to stop for a minute and look at my narrow, defiant body, look at the sign and remember that family’s name.”

After about 10 minutes of looking around, I felt like there was nothing more to look at, nothing more that demanded my studied gaze. Sarmen, Sylwia, and I hung around in the kitchen area, talking. From time to time, the story of Dom Kereta and all the points of history it touched—its historical context—would hit me, and my mind would flood the room with meaning, with images from the past that I keep stored in my mind, before the cool grey glow of the place drew me back to the present moment. I wondered if it was this psychic pull or just the dimensions of “The Narrowest House in the World,” that was giving me vertigo, or what I imagine vertigo feels like.

fot. Denise Grollmus
Muranów building, fot. Denise Grollmus

When we finally descended from Dom Kereta, Sarmen was kind enough to walk me around the neighborhood and point out a few interesting architectural points relevant to the Ghetto—the “illegal” windows, a bit of old brick bursting from the corner of a postwar building. From the corner of my eye, I kept seeing the sliver of Dom Kereta, no matter where I stood. If its narrowness was interesting, it was only in the way that its overwhelming presence challenged its “narrowest” superlative nature. It has a force, which speaks to the fact how much those who are absent, who are no longer taking up physical space, can still populate our lives. In many ways, our collective memories of the story, before they are spoken, occupy psychic space all around us, expressed by the pocket of air between two buildings that so enchanted Szczęsny years ago. Once spoken, or in the case of this space, built upon, it can feel like these memories burst from the seams, transforming everything around it, always contextualizing our experience, always locating themselves in our periphery, inescapable, even if they materially remain nothing but the narrowest of slivers.

Bibliography:

1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt, New York 1973.

2. Ruth Ellen Gruber, Virtually Jewish. Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, University of California Press, Berkeley 2002.

***

Denise Grollmus is a writer and scholar whose work has previously appeared in The Village VoiceSalonThe RumpusGood Magazine, and The 2006 Best American Crime Writing. She is currently living in Warsaw as a Fulbright Scholar in Creative Writing, researching Jewish Revivalism in Poland. In 2012, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from Penn State University, where she is now a doctoral candidate, interested in extending the critical work of Queer, Trauma, and Identity Theory to memoirs of addiction/alcoholism and recovery.

 
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