Living with a Haunted Past

Commentary | March 25, 2013

Writing for The Washington Post, EWI's Andrew Nagorski reviews Vera Gran: The Accused.

As a young girl, she idolized Marlene Dietrich; much later she sang with Charles Aznavour and was compared to Edith Piaf. Vera Gran, who burst to fame as a teenage Polish Jewish singer in the 1930s, craved admiration. “I wanted to stir emotions,” she proclaimed. She did so with her seductive contralto voice. But when she ended up singing in the nightclubs of the Warsaw ghetto during the German occupation, she stirred much more dangerous passions. For the rest of her long life, she was subjected to accusations that she had collaborated with the Nazis, fueling her increasing desperation and isolation.

By the time Agata Tuszynska, a Polish poet and biographer of Isaac Bashevis Singer, first managed to convince Gran to admit her into her dust-filled, nearly sealed-off Paris apartment in 2003, she was 87, bore almost no resemblance to the glamorous beauty captured in earlier photos and was understandably paranoid. Yet with infinite patience, Tuszynska coaxed her to recount her version of events. This, along with Tuszynska’s review of every bit of testimony she could find, allowed her to write “Vera Gran: The Accused.” It is as much a moving meditation on survival and morality amid the horrors of the Holocaust as it is a reconstruction of Gran’s tragic tale.

Born into a poor family, Vera Grynberg, who later went by the stage name Gran, wanted to be a dancer in Warsaw. After an auto accident ended that dream, she quickly found her calling as a cabaret singer, regularly sang on Polish Radio, and made records and advertisements. She sang in Polish but also had a role in the last Yiddish film made before the war. Suddenly, she was a star, making more than a good living, providing help to her mother and older sisters. 

Click here to read the rest of this piece at The Washington Post.