An Interview with Beth Holmgren, Author of Warsaw is My Country
Warsaw is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945 by Beth Holmgren tells the story of Krystyna Bierzyńska, an acculturated Polish Jew, from her birth in Warsaw in 1928 up to the war’s end in May 1945, when she was reunited with her brother, Dolek, an officer in the Polish II Corps. Bierzyńska not only survived the Holocaust due in large part to the extraordinary efforts of her parents, blood relatives, and surrogate Christian family, but also served as a 16-year-old orderly in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Hers is a Warsaw story, a biography that demonstrates how, in urban interwar Poland, the lives of liberal educated Catholics and acculturated, unconverted Jews significantly overlapped. Co-creating the culture and developing the economy and industries of independent Poland, acculturated Jews at last dared to believe that they qualified as Polish citizens and patriots. Bierzyńska’s story details her experience of two very different Warsaws: a cosmopolitan oasis of high culture, modern amenities, and tolerance, and an occupied capital intoxicated and united by conspiracy, where the residents joined together to overthrow a common enemy.
Academic Studies Press: What motivated you to record Krystyna Bierzyńska’s story in a book?
Beth Holmgren: I met Krystyna Bierzynska in 2008, when I was working on my cultural biography of the great Polish/American actress Helena Modjeska. At that time Krystyna—long an American citizen named Christine Stamper, a resident of Newport Beach, CA—was serving as a docent for the Modjeska Foundation, helping to maintain the heritage site of Modjeska's rustic American home in Orange County, California. When I discovered that Christine had participated in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a sixteen-year-old, hauling wounded Polish insurgents to safety, I wanted to flop down at her feet and listen to her whole story.
Christine demurred. She insisted that only the "true heroes" of the Uprising deserved such attention; she was just a minor player. I stopped bugging her for a year or so. But when Christine finally revealed to me that she had been raised in an acculturated Jewish family in Warsaw and was passing as an "Aryan" in her hometown when she joined the Resistance, I begged her to let me interview her, Christine's story brought together several important stories—the childhood of an acculturated Jewish girl in the interwar Polish capital (the most heterogeneous metropolis in Poland), the horrific dangers that a young Jew navigated in trying to escape death during the Holocaust, and the exciting, if also very dangerous, risks a teenage rebel braved in order to fight for her country against the Nazis.
ASP: Tell us about the interview process. You mention in Warsaw is My Country that the interviews were conducted in “marathon” sessions. What were these sessions like? Where did they take place?
BH: It was a great thrill and a great privilege to interview Christine about her experiences. We conducted these interviews at her home in Newport Beach. Christine is a forthright, keenly intelligent woman and a lively storyteller. She was generous, patient, and completely in tune with me as interviewer. Plus, as Christine has asked me to repeat, she is very funny. We dredged up many dark memories, and I worried about the toll that these interviews would take. But Christine was quick to share funny stories—about the time she showed off her knowledge of curse words to her big brother, mainly to grab his attention, or the moonshine still she was paid to guard in wartime Warsaw.
ASP: How did your research in between interviews with Christine inform your conversations with her, and ultimately shape the book itself?
BH: As Christine's biographer, I felt it was imperative that I frame her story as fully and accurately as possible so that it would be accessible to a general readership. This involved providing background on her family and its place in the very diverse Jewish population of independent, interwar Poland; familiarizing myself with the landmarks and pastimes of Varsovians in the 1920s and 1930s; reading memoirs and histories of Poland during World War II, with special emphases on the Warsaw Ghetto and 1944 Warsaw Uprisings; and learning about the conditions of German prisoner of war camps and the stories of their liberation.
ASP: How does this book, largely about the resourcefulness, capability and heroism of strong women, fit in with your other books about Eastern European women and culture?
BH: Warsaw is My Country resembles my previous books in its focus on a talented, resourceful, heroic woman (Women's Works in Stalin's Time: On Lidia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour In Poland and America). My most pressing concern was to tell Christine's extraordinary story well. But I also hope that Warsaw is My Country: The Story of Krystyna Bierzynska, 1928-1945 will engage its readers—be they fans of biography or students learning about the world—as a succinct, compelling introduction to interwar and wartime Poland and the complex relations between Jewish and Catholic Polish citizens during this time.
Beth Holmgren is Professor of Slavic Studies at Duke University. Her recent books include Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland and America (2012) and Transgressive Women in Modern Russian and East European Cultures, co-ed. Yana Hashamova & Mark Lipovetsky (2016). Her current research examines the role of popular entertainment and the experience of its primarily Jewish performers in the Anders Army (1942-1946).