Hanna Krall was born on May 20, 1937 in Warsaw into an assimilated Jewish family. Her parents and other relatives perished in the Majdanek concentration and death camp, while she survived with the help of some Poles, moving between the village of Krasnogliny, Warsaw, Ryki, the Albertine cloister in Zyczyn and other places. By her own account, some forty-five people contributed to her survival: “I was handed on from one person to another—from Ms. Pulaska to Ms. Pomorska, from Ms. Pomorska to Ms. Podhorska, from Ms. Podhorska to Ms. Jadach. Dr. Tadeusz Stepniewski paid for my expenses from the Polish Resistance funds” (“Gra o moje zycie” [My Life at Stake]). After the war she was placed in an orphanage for Jewish children. She graduated from the School of Journalism at University of Warsaw and for a number of years worked as a journalist for major Polish newspapers, including the Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy (1955–1966) and the relatively liberal weekly Polityka (1966–1981). As the latter’s foreign press correspondent she lived in the Soviet Union from 1966 to 1969; her experiences during that period resulted in three published volumes of journalism. After the introduction of martial law in Poland in 1981, she worked as a freelance writer, contributing periodically to the liberal Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, and later, after the demise of the Communist regime in Poland in 1989, to the major daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Currently she devotes all her time to non-journalistic writing. She is married to a journalist Jerzy Szperkowicz.
Krall’s career was launched by her interview with Marek Edelman (b. 1921), one of the surviving leaders of the Jewish Fighting Organization in the Warsaw Ghetto. First published in the Wroclaw based monthly Odra (1976), it appeared a year later in book form under the title Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem (first published in English as Shielding the Flame and later as To Outwit God). The work, which focuses on the days of the liquidation of the ghetto, is shocking in its conscious deheroization of the Jewish revolt, but simultaneously pays tribute to those who perished in the uprising and reveals their stamina and sacrifice. The book was adapted for the stage and appeared in English under a still further title (To Steal a March on God), which indicates the difficulty in finding a suitable rendering of its original name.
The interview with Edelman was the beginning of a new stage in Krall’s work, to which she has remained faithful ever since. In the books that followed, such as Taniec na cudzym weselu (A Dance at Somebody Else’s Wedding) or Dowody na istnienie (Proofs of Existence), she combines stories about the Holocaust itself with descriptions of Jewish life in Poland before the destruction, recreating minute details of that existence. In this manner the stories of destruction become even more real and devastating. A large number of her informants are “children of the Holocaust,” now in their late fifties and sixties, who often do not know how they survived, who their parents and grandparents were or what happened to them. Some of them have labored for many years to glean this information, others have just discovered their origin, while some prefer not to dwell in the past at all. Krall, who wishes to save these people from oblivion, frequently refers to them as the coauthors of her stories. As she has mentioned in a number of interviews and on public occasions, she fears that a purely historical and statistical approach to the Holocaust focusing on mass murders, deportations, descriptions of death camps, gas chambers and other atrocities, may arouse only terror and a sense of horror in modern readers rather than evoke real compassion, thus possibly even having the reverse effect of causing them to avoid the topic in the future. Real empathy, according to Krall, can be better evoked by recalling individual fates and concentrating on feelings and emotions. In her stories she writes not only about survivors, but also about their rescuers, informers and more or less indifferent witnesses, as well as perpetrators.
Krall often focuses on the paradoxical vicissitudes of her characters. In Sublokatorka (Subtenant), her only novel so far (first published in Paris in 1985 because of the strict censorship current in Poland at the time), she ironically contrasts the tragic disparity between the Polish and Jewish experience under the German occupation through the symbolic “brightness” (the deaths of Polish resistance fighters, stereotypically perceived as “heroic”) and “darkness” (the equally stereotypical “passive” fate of the Jews in the ghetto).
Krall’s style is characterized by brief, restrained narrative, with a focus on dialogues and monologues of the people she writes about, and very little authorial comment. Some of her stories resulted from her travels and the people she met on the way, as well as the contacts she established through the network of survivors and their rescuers; others by her reading of historical works. For example, one of her stories in the volume Tam juz nie ma zadnej rzeki (There Is No River There Anymore) was inspired by Christopher Browning’s study Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, about the infamous unit of “ordinary” Germans who massacred tens of thousands of Jews.
A number of Krall’s stories show how the long silence over Jews in Poland led to the acculturation of survivors who do not even know the basic principles of Jewish tradition and custom, such as the kindling of Sabbath candles, not to mention keeping a kosher home. This is even more dramatic among those who discovered their origin as adults and are only now trying to explore their roots by browsing through archival materials, searching for long-lost relatives and developing an interest in Judaism.
Krall might be accused of repeating certain patterns and narrative strategies, as well as overusing a restrained manner of presentation with little authorial comment, but in a sense this is her consciously and carefully crafted voice, selected to describe the tragedy of the Holocaust via multiple voices of survivors and witnesses. She herself compared her approach to putting together a broken jug.
Critics have noticed her growing use of the fairy tale convention which makes some of her stories read like documentary fables. This is apparent both in the creation of the setting (a wood near a shtetl, snow-covered mountains, an old abandoned building) and in the focus on the spiritual and miraculous in the lives of her characters. In her later stories she often searches for divine intervention and interprets some unbelievable events that befell her protagonists by the presence of the Grand Scriptwriter, as she calls him, who creates and controls human fates. The question “Where was God at the time of the Holocaust?” permeates the narrative, but the answer obviously cannot be given.
Krall’s work has on the whole been received favorably in Poland. Among many other awards, such as the underground Solidarity prize and the prize of the Polish PEN Club, in 1998 she received the Award of the Culture Foundation given to outstanding artists and scholars for major achievements. Translated into many languages, her works appear to have gained most recognition in Germany and Sweden. Her limited or lukewarm reception in the United States may be the result either of a general lack of interest in Polish literature or of a different perception of the Holocaust which obtains in that country.
Krall, Hanna. “Gra o moje ?ycie.” (My Life at Stake) Polityka 16 (1968): 9. Later included in Bartoszewski, Wladyslaw and Zofia Lewinowna. Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej: Polacy z pomoca Zydom 1939–1945 (He Is From My Home Country: Poles Helping Jews 1939–1945). Krakow 1969, 411); Na wschod of Arbatu (East of Arbat). Warsaw: 1972; Syberia, kraj mozliwosci (Siberia, a Land with Potential) (with Zygmunt Szeliga and Maciej Ilowiecki). Warsaw: 1974; Dojrza?osc dostepna dla wszystkich (Maturity Accessible for Everyone). Warsaw: 1977; Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem (To Outwit God, first published in English as Shielding the Flame). Warsaw: 1977; Szesc odcieni bieli (Six Shades of White). Warsaw: 1978; Sublokatorka (Subtenant). Paris: 1985; Okna (Windows). Warsaw: 1987; Hipnoza (Hypnosis). Warsaw: 1989; Trudnosci ze wstawaniem (Difficulties in Getting Up). Warsaw: 1990; Taniec na cudzym weselu (A Dance at Somebody Else’s Wedding). Warsaw: 1993; Co sie sta?o z nasz? bajka (What Happened to Our Fairy Tale). Warsaw: 1994; Dowody na istnienie (Proofs of Existence). Warsaw: 1995; Tam juz nie ma zadnej rzeki (There Is No River There Anymore). Warsaw: 1998; To ty jeste? Daniel (Thou Art Daniel). Warsaw: 2001. Wyjatkowo dluga linia (An Exceptionally Long Line). Warsaw: 2004. Spokojne niedzielne popoludnie (A Quiet Sunday Afternoon). Warsaw: 2004.
Backer, Paul. Review of To Steal a March on God by Hanna Krall. Slavic and East European Journal 4 (1997): 710–712; Dawidowicz, Lucy S. “The Curious Case of Marek Edelman.” Commentary 3 (March 1987): 66–69; “Hanny Krall dowiadywanie sie swiata” (Hanna Krall Is Learning about the World). An interview with Katarzyna Janowska and Witold Bereś, Kontrapunkt, Magazyn Kulturalny Tygodnika Powszechnego (April 28, 1996): i-iii; Kot, Wieslaw. Hanna Krall. Poznan: 2000; Polonsky, Antony, and Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska. Contemporary Jewish Writing in Poland: An Anthology. Lincoln and London: 2001; Wrobel, Jozef. Tematy zydowskie w prozie polskiej 1939–1987 (Jewish Themes in Polish Prose: 1939–1987). Kraków: 1991.