Due to my exposure to the Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius at a formative age, I’ve always had a weakness for biographies of historical figures with a healthy amount of scandal. There is an admittedly voyeuristic pleasure at poking around the lives of others. Along with that goes a rather questionable, though undeniable, desire to judge the historical figure by your own standards: Are they guilty or innocent? Good or bad? Sympathetic or villainous?
Two biographies I recently read are great at taking this desire on the part of the reader and turning it on its head. Both introduce you to individuals who may have done “questionable things”. Instead of becoming an indictment or whitewash of their character, however, each author sketches a figure that is complex and hard to define. This ultimately frustrates the reader’s desire to judge, but leads to even more meaningful insights.
Vera Gran: the Accused by Agata Tuszynska.
We are first introduced to the subject of this biography, Vera Gran, as an elderly and paranoid woman who rarely leaves her small Paris apartment. The author must first interview her in the hallway since, according to Vera, spies are everywhere and the apartment is bugged. Eventually she is allowed inside the cramped and document filled space and Vera begins to tell her story.
And what a story it is. Vera Gran, the stage name she went by the most often, was a torch singer from Poland who established a career before the German occupation of her country during World War II. It is her activities during the war that, for better or worse, defined her life in her own and many others eyes. Vera and her family, being Jewish, were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto and in order to survive Vera, as well as many other Jewish entertainers, continued to perform.
Almost the entirety of the residents of the Warsaw Ghetto were murdered but Vera was one of the few to survive. The very act of survival, however, brought up questions after the war concerning complicity, culpability and possible collaboration. It is this struggle to defend her actions that becomes the focus of Vera’s life. Her relationship with Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist who also survived the Ghetto and whose life became an Oscar-winning film, eventually becomes the focus of this all-consuming need to clear her name.
Vera Gran: The Accused is a character study that delves into the ideas of guilt, survival and what it actually means to be an “honorable” person during horrific times. As a reader you start to question your own actions and begin to see society’s intense need to judge the past as inherently flawed.
The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel Harrington
Based on a personal journal from Renaissance Germany, this book is the story of Meister Franz Schmidt who was the executioner of Nuremberg from 1573 to 1618. As you can imagine, there are some pretty gruesome details involved in the telling of this story, execution by “the wheel” is not a pretty sight, but the author endeavors to fill out a full sketch of the man and his times and reserve judgment.
Franz Schmidt was actually born into a family of executioners, the odious profession was forced upon his father by an unscrupulous aristocrat, and he had few options to pursue other careers since the profession was considered unclean and inherited. In fact, his whole life’s goal was to ensure that his own family could somehow get out from under the social stigma and transition into a more respectable profession.
In addition to the personal drama of Schmidt’s life, the author paints a vivid portrait of his times describing how the executioner and the citizens of Nuremberg lived day-to-day. While death was all around, in the form of a high infant mortality rate and periodic deadly disease outbreaks, crime and punishment were considered issues of the utmost importance. In the end, the author finds more similarities than are comfortable to admit between our ideas and the attitudes of those who walked the streets of Meister Schmidt’s Nuremberg.
His final conclusion rings true as an assessment of the figures in both books:
Perhaps, in a cruel and capricious world, there is hope to be found in one man defying his fate, overcoming universal hostility, and simply persevering amid a series of personal tragedies.