Igor Ostachowicz

Igor Ostachowicz

Igor Ostachowicz (born 1968) graduated in international relations. He has worked as a paramedic at the Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology, as a manager at a number of companies, and for the past few years as a civil servant. At present he is secretary of state in the Polish Prime Minister’s office, where he writes the Prime Minister’s speeches and acts as his adviser and public relations manager.

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Noc żywych Źydów (Night of the Living Jews), WAB, 2013

Noc żywych Źydów

Night of the Living Jews deserves attention for at least several reasons. Above all Ostachowicz has succeeded in giving a literary reworking to a topic that is important for the Polish collective imagination, and to tell a story which has demanded to be told for years. Here we see Warsaw, which was razed to the ground during the Second World War, as a wild, dormant graveyard, where the people killed at the time have suddenly materialised as phantoms. Here we have face-to-face encounters between the living and the not-living. Who is really at home in Warsaw, in Poland – a place branded by genocide? This novel, excellently written in a shocking, unsettlingly “inappropriate” genre, seeks the answers. The piquant, comical style of pop-culture horror fiction would seem at odds with the topic of the Holocaust. Even the title, paraphrasing a classic horror film, by juxtaposing the word “Dead” and the word “Jew”, may cause concern.

An avalanche of events is set off by an amulet – a silver heart stolen from the Jews – whose possessor is guaranteed success. The main character, who as the action develops will become more and more like a comic super-hero trying to save the world from annihilation, lives with his girlfriend in the Warsaw district of Muranów, which is built on top of the ruins of the ghetto. One day, through an open trapdoor in the cellar, out come… deceased Jews in tattered coats. Gradually it turns out their favourite way of spending their time is in Arkadia, the nearby shopping mall.

And yet Night of the Living Jews is a very well thought-out, mature piece of writing. Ostachowicz lucidly explains the principles of the world he has created. The Arkadia shopping mall, a place of non-stop happiness thoroughly sustained by trade turnover, gets mixed up with the Muranów district’s ghost world. The commonly held, though locally taboo truth about an alien threat that hovers around the modernised, Europeanised Warsaw city centre actually becomes reality. The idea of writing the novel in the style of horror is both lyrical and strikingly apt, dictated by historic facts. The Jewish history of non-existence has to be completed through menace, through the materialisation of things nobody wants to know about or remember. The way in which the main character becomes aware of this process (and also of the power symbolised by the amulet) forms the profound, intriguing drama of the novel.

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  1. Julia Sherwood says:

    The narrator of “Noc żywych Żydów” is an unnamed university graduate in his early thirties, who makes a living tiling bathrooms and lives with his anorexic proto-feminist vegan girlfriend – to whom he refers only as Chuda (the Thin one) – in a block of flats on the edge of the former Warsaw ghetto. When he comes into the possession of a Jewish relic, this triggers a series of supernatural and grotesque events. An ever-growing army of living corpses of Jews killed during the war begins to emerge from their cellar while the streets outside sometimes go back in time to World War II.

    Igor Ostachowicz’s narrator, a selfish young man interested only in money and his creature comforts is forced to become the Jewish zombies’ guide to the 21st century and gradually turns into their unlikely champion and protector. He takes his charges for outings in the nearby Arkadia shopping mall and protects them against a gang of neo-Nazis assembled by a former yoga teacher. This character, initially called Someone Bad or SB (the Polish acronym, KZ is the German acronym for concentration camp), is transformed into Someone Totally Bad (the new Polish acronym ZZ is visually reminiscent of the SS insignia) and eventually into the devil, complete with horns and a long purple tail. His followers include a man nicknamed Hitler and Colonel Fritzl, an undead real Nazi. In a final apocalyptic scene, uncannily foreshadowing the Nairobi Westgate tragedy, the narrator leads the Jewish zombies in an open war waged inside the mall.

    While most of the characters are caricatures, the Jewish zombies are depicted almost affectionately, as individuals who continue to suffer and cannot find peace because there was nobody left to mourn them. Although all this may suggest a cynical exploitation of the Holocaust, the novel is, in fact, a biting satire on present-day Polish consumerism and latent anti-Semitism, and a commentary on the country’s reluctance to come to terms with its recent history. In a particularly memorable scene the devil drags the narrator into a grotesque modern version of Auschwitz.

    I was quite apprehensive about “Noc żywych Żydów”, as I’m neither a fan of pulp horror or comics, and have reservations about attempts to “lighten up” the subject of the Holocaust with black humour, although some have been successful (Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” and Roberto Benigni’s film “La Vita e Bella” and Jan Hřebejk’s “Divided We Fall” being the exceptions). Having said that I think it’s good that someone – particularly in Poland – has the courage to tackle head on this sensitive subject, usually discussed in hushed tones. The main question is whether Igor Ochwatowicz can pull off this balancing edge and stay on this side of good taste. His controversial book is definitely not for people with weak stomachs. Yet, to my own surprise, I found myself drawn in by the fast-moving plot and the lively, funny contemporary language and slapstick comedy and although I still feel quite ambivalent about it, I thought that he does succeed overall. I’m sorry to miss tomorrow’s discussion – it will undoubtedly be very lively. And perhaps I should go and see Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” after all.

  2. A ordinary-sounding read, to me. I’m captivated by neither the atmosphere nor the subject matter offered in a style that reads, to me as rather “light” or thin. But this may be a question of horses for courses.
    And the speech is habitually qualified in the way that steals my “ear”: “asked Chirico, shooting straight from the hip”; “said Skinny, with a note of hysteria in her voice”; “he said, glancing meaningfully at the empty cup”; “said Rachel with a sad look on her face”. My preference is for dialogue into which I can read my own “heard” context.


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