Lidia Ostałowska is a journalist for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Her areas of special interest include those who are disadvantaged – members of ethnic minorities, women, youth sub-cultures and people who are socially excluded for some reason. She wrote the acclaimed book Cygan to cygan – “A Gypsy is a Gypsy”.
Featured reading group title:
Farby wodne (Water Colours)
Water Colours is a many-layered work of historical reportage based on a biographical tale whose heroine is Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt (1923-2009). The world learned of this Czech-American artist of Jewish ancestry, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, in the late ’90’s. That was when Gottliebova undertook her latest attempt to get back the art she had done in the concentration camp, which had since become the property of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The dispute with the Museum became an international scandal, with the American Department of State and the Polish government getting involved.
This central issue branches off in many directions. On the one hand, Ostałowska reconstructs the fate of her heroine (particularly focusing on Gottliebova’s time in the camp), while on the other she strives to grasp more general problems concerning history, memory, trauma, racism, and the relationship between the torturer and the victim. In this case, S.S. Doctor Josef Mengele took an interest in the little painter’s talent. He commissioned her to paint the portraits (using the water colours of the title) of Roma prisoners at Auschwitz, and because she performed these duties so well, this war criminal often showed her special kindnesses. Mengele himself is, in fact, one of the many supporting characters of Water Colours – the overriding biographical narrative subsumes other life stories, too. This ends up creating a dense network of events and trajectories encompassing almost 60 years.
Ostałowska draws on hundreds of studies on and accounts of the hell of the camps, frequently weaving citations and summaries into her own text. It is worth asking, then, what Water Colours has to add to the conversation, what sets it apart. And the answer seems to be all the efforts that tend toward metaphor and parable – in other words, toward the territory of literature. Such, for example, is the function of the Disney story. Before she started working for Mengele, Gottliebova had decorated the children’s barracks with the image of Snow White, and years later she would marry Art Babbitt, the man behind many of the best-known cartoon characters in America, and she herself wound up working for the biggest animation studios in the United States, where she eventually settled.
- Farby wodne was featured in our Polish Reading Group Winter-Spring 2014
- Download English extracts here: Ostałowska sample.