Crime novelist finds ‘Truth’ in anti-Semitic blood libel

Polish writer Zygmunt Miłoszewski explains how an ancient lie inspired his latest book — newly available in English — and reflects on the charged history of Jews in Poland

A painting that still hangs in a cathedral in Sandomierz, Poland, depicts Jews murdering Christian children for their blood. (Courtesy of Zygmunt Miłoszewski)
A painting that still hangs in a cathedral in Sandomierz, Poland, depicts Jews murdering Christian children for their blood. (Courtesy of Zygmunt Miłoszewski)

Critically hailed for pioneering “Polish-Jewish noir,” 36-year-old Zygmunt Miłoszewski began his career covering Poland for Newsweek before delving into crime fiction.

Miłoszewski’s latest novel — “A Grain of Truth” — picks at uncomfortable scabs from centuries of Jewish life in Poland, especially the notorious blood libel myths emanating from picturesque Sandomierz on the Vistula.

The site of 120 monuments from the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Sandomierz is also home to two cathedrals that house a series of paintings depicting local Jews murdering Christian children for their blood. Four so-called “blood libel” cases between 1605 and 1710 led to death sentences and the expulsion of Jews in 1712, followed by a slew of anti-Semitic literature disseminated throughout Poland.

The paintings themselves are a composite of gruesome, anti-Jewish themes, including the strangling of Christian children by a Jewish mob and the torturing of children in a barrel with nails to yield blood for matzah. The murals still hang today, viewed by thousands of tourists each year without textual explanation of their role in spreading hatred of Polish Jews.

Enter Miłoszewski, trained in journalism and known for unflinching critiques of Polish society embedded in gritty crime narratives.

“A Grain of Truth” is the second in a trio of novels featuring maverick prosecutor Teodor Szacki, a sharp-tongued detective tasked with cutting through the layers of secrets and shame so often found in Miłoszewski’s favorite setting — the provincial Polish backwater.

"The job of artists and writers is to show a nation its own ugly face," Miloszweski says. (Courtesy of Bitter Lemon Press)
“The job of artists and writers is to show a nation its own ugly face,” Miloszweski says. (Courtesy of Bitter Lemon Press)

In “Truth,” Szacki investigates a series of murders in modern-day Sandomierz. The first murder appears to imitate kosher ritual slaughter, and other clues point to the infamous cathedral paintings and the town’s troubled Jewish past. Convinced the murders have been staged to reignite fears of the blood libel, Szacki must hunt through town archives and abandoned medieval tunnels to uncover the truth.

Untouched by industrialization, downtown Sandomierz looks much as it did several hundred years ago, when it was home to a significant Jewish community. Most of the town’s Jews were murdered by the Nazis in Treblinka and Belzec, and the several dozen who returned from the war left Poland for good following the Kielce pogrom in 1946.

Citing influences including Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut, Miłoszewski says his books are not “written in blood,” a style he attributes to Polish novelists. Miłoszewski sees his work as more akin to American novels, with emotions and character development coming first.

Like his other crime fiction, “A Grain of Truth” earned Miłoszewski critical praise, as well as nominations for Poland’s top literary awards. Accused of “reproducing harmful anti-Polish stereotypes” by some critics, Miłoszewski relishes the opportunity to shatter national myths and revive history’s ghosts through fiction.

When he’s not writing, Miłoszewski enjoys computer games and skiing, as well as playing with his children. You won’t find the young Polish author listening to music, however, which he finds “boring” because “it doesn’t tell stories.”

For his final novel featuring prosecutor Szacki, Miłoszewski plans to set the action in Olsztyn, another Polish town dripping with historical intrigue.

Integrated into Germany after World War I and largely destroyed by Stalin’s Red Army two decades later, Olsztyn underwent a period of “Polonization” to reconcile it with the rest of Poland. Both the tireless Szacki and his creator will trod familiar territory in Olsztyn, a backwater filled with conflicting identities and echoes from a bloody past.

Miłoszewski recently participated in an e-mail interview with The Times of Israel. A version of the exchange, trimmed for continuity and length, appears below.

‘The Poles like to think of themselves purely as victims and heroes — which, by the way makes, us pretty similar to the Jewish race’

How did you become interested in Jewish topics?

On one side my family are typical mustachioed Poles, and on the other, they’re bourgeoisie with a touch of German and Swedish blood. So I have no family connections to Judaism. But the topic interested me because it is well-suited to showing the pitfalls of racial identification based on false mythology. I have always thought that if you want to be the scion of your nation, you can only be proud of its moments of glory when you own up to its inglorious moments of vile behavior. The Poles like to think of themselves purely as victims and heroes — which, by the way, makes us pretty similar to the Jewish race — and that leads straight to hatred and xenophobia. I wanted to show this process, and two of the blackest pages in Poland’s recent history involve the way we treated the Ukrainians and Belarusians before the war, and how we greeted the Jews who survived the Holocaust and tried to return to their homes.

How would you describe the role of Jews in Polish society today?

The Jewish diaspora in Poland is small — only a few thousand strong — and it’s pretty much invisible. By comparison, before the war, there were almost three million Jewish Poles, and in some cities the non-Jewish Poles were in the minority. I mention this because over several hundred years of shared history and life together, the borders between ethnicities became fluid. Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in Poland, but he was a Jew from a shtetl who wrote in Yiddish. Janusz Korczak was a Pole of Jewish origin who, while writing — in Polish — in defense of the child, was just as critical of conservative Christian Polish families as of traditional Jewish ones. Were they Poles? Or Jews? Or Polish Jews? What does it matter? It’s particularly pointless to waste time debating this nowadays — the ethnic divisions were created according to the principle of “divide and rule,” to make it easier to manipulate the masses. In the 21st century, racial identification is absurd.

Your writing has been called “Polish-Jewish noir.” What do you think of this?

The former synagogue in Sandomierz is now a state archive. (Courtesy of Zygmunt Miłoszewski)
The former synagogue in Sandomierz is now a state archive. (Courtesy of Zygmunt Miłoszewski)

The press is too fond of labels, but I like that one, because it looks as if I’m the first author in this genre. And for me, it’s very flattering to find that in writing about elements of Jewish culture, I’ve managed not to make any mistakes that cause Jewish readers to start gnashing their teeth. I’m curious to see how the novel will be received in Israel. [A deal has been reached with an Israeli publisher to translate the book into Hebrew.]

What were some of the challenges in dealing with this sensitive historical subject matter?

In my view, the job of artists and writers is to show a nation its own ugly face, not to crawl up its backside. Anyway, there’s no room left in there – the politicians have already occupied it all. And if you’re asking whether it was difficult for me to gather information on the history of Polish-Jewish relations, then no, it wasn’t. There are a large number of books and academic works, and people were helpful. But it’s also true that the people who work at academic institutes and libraries are a bit different from the ones who go to soccer matches and vote for the extreme right. In Sandomierz, some people were offended because I presented them as being terribly provincial, not because I dragged up the city’s anti-Semitic past.

What do you like most about your lead character, the prosecutor Teodor Szacki? To what kinds of “places” will you take him in future novels?

Szacki is a tool, black letters on a white page – I don’t have an emotional attitude to him. All right, I like the fact that he’s so grumpy and frustrated, because sometimes that allows me to express some of my own rage toward Poland and the world in general through him. I’m sending him to Olsztyn next, a lovely city amid the forests and lakes of northern Poland — a place which belonged to Germany before the war. It’s going to be another tricky topic.

‘In Sandomierz, some people were offended because I presented them as being terribly provincial, not because I dragged up the city’s anti-Semitic past’

Has Poland learned from its past? In what ways does history inform — or not inform — Poland today?

Don’t make me laugh — no nation ever learns from its past. If that were the case, we’d have been living in nirvana for thousands of years. To quote the great Polish historian Janusz Tazbir: “History was and is a vast costume hire shop for various kinds of celebration and commemoration.” Each person sees in it purely what meets his own needs — the histories of nations are the histories of myths, not facts. Every American will say they are the nation that produced the Declaration of Independence, and few that they grew out of genocide and slavery. The Poles are always heroic insurgents, never peasants who carry out pogroms. The Jews are always victims of the Holocaust, never the occupiers of Palestine. And so on, and so forth.

In recent months, we’ve seen that kosher animal slaughter could be banned in Poland. What do you think of this controversy?

It’s not a controversy. Ritual slaughter is utter nonsense, just more proof of the harmfulness of all religions that manage to tack ideology onto any act of cruelty. Luckily, in this respect, we have to adapt to European Union law. I recommend reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom I mentioned earlier, who was a committed vegetarian, and what he said about killing and torturing animals.

Have you ever been to Israel? If you went, what kinds of stories and people would you seek out?

I have never been there, but I’ll probably be going soon, because “A Grain of Truth” is going to be published in Israel. As usual when I’m abroad, I’ll go to grocery stores, restaurant and bars, and roam the streets. And do my best not to get involved in endless conversations about Polish-Jewish relations. Haven’t I already said these two ethnicities are really very much alike? Just as hypersensitive about themselves, just as ready to argue endlessly about things that don’t matter? It’s quite funny. We’re like a married couple who’ve spent several hundred years together, and then suddenly broken up.

Are there other aspects of Judaism, or Jewish history, that you might want to probe?

These days, more and more young Jews are looking for their Polish roots and applying for Polish citizenship. Of course, on the one hand, nowadays Polish citizenship means EU citizenship, and all the advantages that come with it. But I like to think genes have their own memory, and that those people can sense that for many generations, their ancestors spent their lives not in the desert, but in a place where the seasons are very changeable. I’m curious to know what they discover about themselves here, and whether they’re able to break free of the baggage of history. That’s a topic for a novel.

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