Mina Tomkiewicz drew on her life experiences during World War II and the Holocaust —from growing up in an affluent Jewish family in Warsaw, to the imprisonment and death of many family members in the Warsaw ghetto, to her deportation to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp—to publish two books after the war. Tomkiewicz’s books—one personal account and one novel based largely on her own life, published in Hebrew, Polish, and English—were characterized by astute observation, dark humor and irony, and critiques of sheltered bourgeois society. Despite being recognized by renowned Polish authors, Tomkiewicz is little known in Polish and English literature circles, due in part to censorship by the Polish Communist regime following the war.
Early Life and Family
Mina Tomkiewicz, born on September 18, 1917, to an affluent Jewish family in Warsaw, attended a Polish Catholic high school for girls and then enrolled in medical school, but switched to law and graduated with an M.A. from the Law Department of Warsaw University. In 1938 she married her cousin Mieczyslaw Tomkiewicz, a lawyer. Her husband and her entire family perished during the Warsaw ghetto uprising of April 1943, except for her son and her younger brother Stanislaw (who later settled in Paris, where he became a professor of medicine).
Capture, Deportation, and Survival
Mina Tomkiewicz left the ghetto on January 20, 1943, and stayed on the Aryan side, where her son Marcin (Mosze, today Micha), who was born on May 25, 1939, had been under the care of two Polish women since the fall of 1942. In July 1943 Mina Tomkiewicz came out of hiding and was trapped together with her brother and son in the Polski Hotel in Warsaw, where the Gestapo held Jews with citizenship papers of neutral countries who were allegedly to be exchanged for German nationals interned by the Allies. In fact, most of the Jews in the hotel, including Mina, her son and brother, were eventually taken to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
The three of them survived the camp and after the war Tomkiewicz stayed for a few months in DP camps in Germany and Belgium before settling with her son in Palestine, where she took various jobs and wrote at night. She regularly contributed feuilletons, travel pieces, and reviews to the Polish-language press in Israel and London (under the pen-names of Meta, Donna Quixote, and others, as well as under her own name). In 1964 she moved to London and married Stanislaw Krysztal.
Recounting War and the Holocaust
Tomkiewicz published her first book, Tam się też żyło (There Life Also Went On), in Palestine in 1947. It registers her own experiences as well as those of other Polish Jewish families transported in August 1943 from the Polski Hotel to Bergen Belsen. Marked with an acute sense of observation and black humor, it was first published in Hebrew and a year later in Polish in the United States; it was reissued in London in 1984.
Bomby i myszy (Of Bombs and Mice), her highly autobiographical and only novel, was first published in a Hebrew translation in 1955 and in Polish in London in 1966. It bears the subtitle “a bourgeois novel” and depicts the period from early 1939 to spring 1943 from the perspective of a young woman from a Polish Jewish upper-middle-class family accustomed to luxuries and concerned mainly with life’s little comforts. Even when the war breaks out she seems to be blind to what is going on around her and keeps blaming her husband for being “distracted” by the surrounding events rather than playing the role of a romantic lover. Clearly the writer’s alter ego, Nata née Goldman gradually emerges from her middle-class shell and matures, becoming more and more involved with the world around her. We enter the inner life of the protagonist, who is treated with ironic distance, and at the same time observe a wide panorama of various responses to the catastrophe as represented especially by members of the Jewish middle class. The narrator retains a great deal of objectivity and is at times very critical of the reality around her. In the face of the progressing pauperization and general corruption, the basic middle-class values such as law, order, honesty, and rationality lose their meaning.
Henryk Grynberg considers Bomby i myszy “the most middle class novel in Polish literature” (Grynberg, Prawda nieartystyczna, 107). However, the novel is almost unknown in Poland since at the time when it was written the Communist censorship would not allow its publication (inter alia because it presents some aspects of bourgeois life in a positive light and because it was written by an emigrant writer); after the abolition of censorship it was not re-published in Poland. It still awaits due recognition both in Poland and in the English-speaking world.
Mina Tomkiewicz passed away on October 6, 1975, in London. She is survived by her son Micha, a professor of environmental studies and physics at Brooklyn College, who has spoken widely about his and his mother’s experiences during World War II and the Holocaust and runs a blog about climate change.
Bomby i myszy. Powieść mieszczańska (Of Bombs and Mice. A Bourgeois Novel). London: Gryf Publications, 1966. English edition: Of Bombs and Mice: A Novel of War-Time Warsaw, translated from the Polish by Stefan F. Gazel, edited by Patrick Wyndham in collaboration with the author. London: Allen and Unwin, 1970.
Tam się też żyło (There Life Also Went On). London: Polska Fundacja Kulturalna. 1984.
Grynberg, Henryk. Prawda nieartystyczna (The Non-Artistic Truth). Berlin: Archipelag, 1984.
Grynberg, Henryk. “The Warsaw Ghetto in Polish Literature.” Soviet Jewish Affairs 2 (1983): 33–46.
Tomkiewicz, Micha. “My Global Family Vacation Part 2: England and Brexit.” ClimateChangeFork. August 16, 2016. Accessed June 26, 2020. http://climatechangefork.blog.brooklyn.edu/2016/08/16/family-england-brexit/
Wrobel, Jozef. Tematy zydowskie w prozie polskiej 1939–1987 (Jewish Themes in Polish Prose 1939–1987). Krakow: Universitas, 1991.