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Vera Gran: The Accused

The life of beautiful World War II torch singer Vera Gran – who became trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto – is one of the missing chapters from the story of "The Pianist."

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Vera Gran- The Accused by Agata Tuszynska
Knopf Doubleday
320 pp.

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The story of Vera Gran – the beautiful 1930s Polish singing star who was caught for a year in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and later dogged by suspicions that she had collaborated with the Nazis – ought to be many things.

A reader might reasonably expect a touch of prewar glamor and a large measure of the horror and suspense that marked Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning 2002 film "The Pianist." That movie, after all, told the story of Wldayslaw Szpilman, who was Gran's accompanist, ultimately trapped in the same ghetto.

Instead, Vera Gran: The Accused, Agata Truszynska’s archeological dig of Gran, is less history than obsession. It’s as much about Tuszynska as it is about Gran, and in the end, neither is compelling enough for such a labored work.

Tuszynaska knew Gran toward the end of her life, when she was living in a basement apartment in Paris. Tuszynska frames her book as a biography of Gran, who died in 2007. But Tuszynaska detours incessantly, bringing up figures without demonstrating their importance to the narrative, and interrupting what could have been a more direct, dramatic account with musings on her reportorial process. 

Today Gran's story is significant largely because of her relationship to Szpilman, a far more famous ghetto icon. But while Szpilman would go on to become a symbol of courage for his survival and resistance, Gran instead was a pariah in Israel for her alleged collaboration with the Nazis. She, in turn, accused Szpilman of being a Gestapo policeman who sent Jews to their death.

Szpilman, who didn’t mention Gran in his autobiography (she also doesn’t figure in the film, at least not by name), denied the charge.

The larger story here is a tale of revenge, vindication, and the shades of grey that segmented ghetto society and color history. In telling that story Truszynska occasionally offers a sharp insight and her treatment of Gran in old age – losing her senses and, saddest of all, her style – is sensitive.

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