Medallions by Zofia Nalkowska | Book Review

Medallions by a Polish novelist and essayist, Zofia Nalkowska (1884 – 1954) 

Medallions is considered the masterpiece in the world Holocaust literature, deeply influences by Nalkowska’s experience as a member of the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi War Crimes which was established in 1945. During that time, she visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Treblinka and many other sites of mass killing and extermination. She conducted many interviews, listened to survivors’ and eyewitnesses’ testimonies recorded just a few months after the end of the war in 1945. Nalkowska was profoundly affected by her work as a member of the Commission. 

Medallions consists of eight short reportages in which survivors, eyewitnesses speak for themselves. There is no mythologisation of the victims: they are neither the heroes, nor the martyrs.  In her writing, Nalkowska managed to preserve a deeply personal character of individual experiences. Nalkowska’s style is concise, somewhat laconic, almost economical. The most striking aspect of her reportages is the description of silences where the words are simply too weak to relate the experiences of the protagonists. She records the survivors’ intonations, gestures, postures, emotions of shame, fear, shock as they struggle to relate the atrocities they witnessed.  Nalkowska is aware that much of their experiences is left unspoken as there are no words to describe it. 

Medallions is not merely a record of one of the darkest chapters in the human history; it is also an incomparable portrayal of the human suffering as nothing else that I have read before.  

Using the form of reportage to portray the machinery of the Holocaust, Medallions represents one of the first attempts to give the voice to the victims of genocide, to speak against atrocities from their point of the view. Medallions also constitutes the responsibility of bearing a witness, and not remaining silent in face of the atrocities.  

Medallions starts with an epigraph:

“People dealt this fate to people”.

This phrase became very common in Polish language and serves as a reminder not to forget that perpetrators of the atrocities were also people. There is this connection to the concept of ‘the banality of evil’ which was introduced by Hannah Arendt in “Eichmann in Jerusalem” written almost two decades later, in 1963.  

For Nalkowksa, writing meant to bear a witness to human suffering. She wrote in her Wartime Diaries dated as of 1943:  

“The only reason I’ve ever had to write has been the desire to preserve life, to keep it from being lost or destroyed. (…) The thought of passing without a trace fills me with fear.” 

I will offer a few words about Zofia Nalkowska to better understand the importance of Medallions within the canon of the world Holocaust literature

Zofia Nalkowska was one of the most important Polish and European writers of the early 20th century, liberal, progressive, a voice of social authority, the only woman in the Polish Academy of Literature during the 1930s. In her Diaries, she recalled the significance of literature on her life

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve been surrounded by books. (…) I thought it was like this everywhere, that the world of thoughts and ideas constituted the only reality. Later, I was shocked to learn that it was otherwise.” 

Nalkowkska was born during the time when Poland did not exist as a country. She experienced the First World War, Poland gaining the independence in 1918 when she became an important member of the Polish PEN Club, followed by Nalkowska becoming the first female member of the Polish Academy of Literature in 1933.For the lovers of Bruno Schulz’s prose, it is important to bear in mind that Nalkowska was the one who encouraged Bruno to publish his writings and was vastly responsible for bringing Bruno to the limelight of the Polish literary circles of 1930s.  Nalkowska lived through the Second World War in the Nazi occupied Warsaw. She was an eyewitness to the atrocities committed on the Jewish and Polish population by the Nazis. Following the end of the war, Nalkowkska lived in Poland where the authoritarian communist regime was imposed by the foreign powers (as per the 1945 Yalta conference). She passed away in 1954. 

Those experiences and the constantly changing reality around her affected Nalkowska’s world view tremendously.  

One of the reportages, “By the Railway Track” offers the story of an older Jewish woman who managed to escape the train heading for Auschwitz. In doing so, she witnessed her husband being shot and herself becoming injured. The description of the empty, desolate, solitary landscapes reflects the feelings of dying woman. In the end, she asks one of the villagers to shoot her dead. There is no romanticising, no big words, no euphemism, no ‘music’ in the background.

“The emptiness was the whole of the world she saw”. 

 The testimony is provided by one of the eyewitnesses. It is important to understand the historic context in this story. Poland was the only country under the Nazi occupation where for helping Jewish people there was a mandatory death penalty not only for the one (s) who helped, but also for their entire families, and often the whole village where they lived could be sentenced either to death or sent to extermination camp. This is important in order to understand the behaviour and attitudes of some of the villagers.  

Other reportages, “The Hole” and “The Visa” portray the bestiality of human being, when one is reduced to the number, to a completely dehumanised form of being. There are descriptions of cannibalism.  

Dehumanisation of the Other is also portrayed in “Professor Spanner” where a young man describes the production of soap from human fat which happened in the Anatomy Institute run by the German scientists.  It also shows how the ideology took over German professors, doctors, members of Medical Academy and even after the war some of them justified it as “merely following the orders” and for the sake of the country.  This was the most difficult reportage for me to read. In current times, at least in the West, we often associate, ‘formal education’ and ‘social status’ with decency and wisdom.  But the history taught us numerous times that this is not the case. As portrayed in “Professor Spanner”, a sheer human decency, emotional intelligence, empathy, wisdom are not defined by a social stats or level of education. This reportage depicts a separation between ‘a thought’, and ‘practice’ ‘blindly following the mechanism of the authority”. ‘Professor Spanner’ also refers to the previously mentioned notion of ‘the banality of evil’ introduced years later by Hannah Arendt.  

“Professor Spanner” can be also treated as a reflection of a modern society: efficient, focused on science, rules, and authority. It shows how a lack of empathy, simple human emotions can turn a seemingly liberal and developed society into the facilitators and perpetrators of genocide at the unimaginable scale.  

“The Hole” describes the fate of an older woman who lost her husband and is looking for her adult children who almost certainly perished during the Holocaust. She survived but was completely alone in the world. After the war, the survivors were often discouraged to talk about their experiences…. This is also reflected in “The Cemetery Lady” where the protagonist says:

“Reality is bearable when something prevents us from knowing it completely.” 

 If you are interested in this subject of silence following the Holocaust, I would highly recommend you read “The Lost Shore” by a Polish-French author, Anna Langfus, and “At the Mind’s Limits” by Jean Amery.  

“The Man is Strong” is another example of the dehumanisation of the Other. One of the men who was forced by the Nazis to bury the corpses of the murdered people, recognises the body of his wife and children. He asks the Nazis to kill him, but they refused as they see him as some form of being who is still strong enough to work.  

Medallions offers multi-layered reportages of eyewitnesses and survivors which will challenge readers’ emotions, understanding of humanity, the meaning of responsibility to bear a witness and to speak up against the abuse and mistreatment of the Other before it turns into atrocity and genocide.  

Nalkowska managed to express the reality of her times like no other. It is important to note, there is no commentary in the book. Before you decide to read Medallions, please ensure that you read a good history book to understand those times. A good starting point is “The Holocaust” by Laurence Rees, and “Ordinary Men” by Christopher Browning.  

I would highly encourage you to get a copy of Medallions – it is only fifty pages long and should be read and understood by everyone.   

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    1. I would say that it is definitely worth reading but this is a very difficult read (emotionally). I would advise everyone who wants to pick up this book to be in a good place when it comes to mental well-being. The reason why this book has not been better known in Western Europe might be that it does really portray that reality of WWII as nothing else I ever read before. Maybe Primo Levi’s, Olga Lyengel’s and Borowski’s books come close. Sadly, my grandparents experienced that reality in Eastern Europe. So, all I can do is at least to read about it as much as possible.

      1. Yes, I can well imagine! 🙁 But some books need to be read and, crucially, learned from! I have read Martin Gilbert’s history of the time but also a first-hand account called something along the lines of “You Did Not Return” and written as a letter to her father who did not survive the camps. An unsettling read.

      2. “Ordinary Men” by Christopher Browning is worth reading. It explores the subject of so called well – educated, well-read people including doctors, teachers, scholars who participated voluntarily in those atrocities. A very interesting read and relatable to many other atrocious events in the past.

      3. I imagine that would be an interesting read as we tend to forget the massive bureaucratic and technical infrastructure that underpins organised mass-slaughter. Thanks for the tip!

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