As dull as the job of stoker (the worker who shovels coal for steam engines) might be, John Auerbach’s time as a polish worker in a Nazi shipyard was far from quotidian. Auerbach’s alter-ego in these autobiographical tales begins the novel as a Jewish-Polish soldier facing the Stukas of the blitzkrieg. When the Polish Army disbands, David is confined to the Warsaw Ghetto where he plans to wait out the war reading philosophy and drinking vodka with friends who all have similarly delusional plans. All plans devolve as quickly as the Army had, and David Gordon, young philosopher of identity, existentialist that he is, saves his skin if not his self by morphing into Wladyslaw Grabowski.
Should at any moment a supervisor, friend, coworker, acquaintance, lover, whore guess the truth or should a stranger glance over in the men’s room to see his circumcised head, Grabowski would vanish and David Gordon would be summarily executed. The danger is most directly stated as a memory in "The Border Incident," the last story of the book:
"Let’s play the document game," said the stranger in the leather coat on the train. "I’ll show you mine and you will show me yours," he said, and produced an Ausweis of the Gestapo, with a bird which brought luck to nobody…. Whereupon David showed him an identity card of a dead man, stating that the bearer was a Pole and a Catholic. Whoever wished to verify the truth of these particulars could have challenged David to unbutton his trousers, which would have revealed him to be a circumcised Jew and thus terminated his existence. In fact, the Gestapo agent did not require verification and so prolonged David’s life for some 47 years. But David’s semi-subconscious fear of all police and state officials persisted. (p.303)
A good plot for a bestselling espionage thriller, yes, and if John Auerbach had been a lesser writer he might have bested LeCarre and acheived wealth and fame. It’s not just plot,however, but the philosophical and psychological issues involved in switching selves, issues that the educated David Gordon is fully aware of, that the uneducated Grabowski knows nothing of, that interest Auerbach. Grabowski, a personality created fully from a name on a false identity card, must suppress David Gordon, the human being, unconsciously – for conscious effort would certainly be detected. The Tales begin in a weak moment for Grabowlski as, on a train while the other passengers sleep, he allows David Gordon to slip into reverie – a tentative and cautious, dangerous toying with memory. One thing he remembers is the idea to create Grabowski:
“The monster, David thought, had to be nihilistic in philosophical terms. He also had to be fearless. Fear was erosive stuff, consuming people from within, like cancer. Destroying their defense instincts. If his creature had to survive outside the Ghetto, he must be able to look at the face of the vilest Gestapo torturer, to look him straight in the eyes, and to laugh at him….. Mother came in quietly a few times and escaped noiselessly. He should have stopped her saying: Mama, I am leaving you. She surely would have nodded and said, better consult father. Or asked innocently, why? "Because your son has disappeared. I am not your son." "David has disappeared? Strange. Then, he’ll be back soon. Nobody, nothing disappears, really. Temporarily, yes. But not for good." (p.79)
Auerbach, Grabowski and Gordon sort and share histories. The reader senses both Gordon and Auerbach watching from the depths as Grabowski rebels and risks his new life in possibly worthless espionage, only to later attempt a desperate escape to Sweden, resulting in a stint in a concentration camp. The person who returns from the camp is the monster David Gordon planned to invent, though certainly not the monster of his plans. The later Grabowski has neither fear nor resistance; so little of either that he allows a would-be Nazi party hero, a co-worker, to repeatedly drag him to Gestapo offices to report his vague suspicion that there is something wrong with this guy, Grabowski. The desk men at the Gestapo obligingly beat him up but being mere bureaucrats, they lack the curiosity to uncover his secret.
The confusion of identities, Auerbach/Gordon/Grabowski, is compounded by the structure of this collection, a novella and stories, all of which retell the same life experience. One of which is entitled "Episodes in Autobiography," all of which are fiction. The effect is kaleidoscopic, an experience of emergence, forgetting and reemergence. Usually with such ‘genre-busting’, ‘identity’ confusion and ‘postmodern’ quandaries the reader can expect the accompanying ‘difficult;’ an assignment, not an entertainment. But John Auerbach was no professor turned novelist. After WWII, he went on to fight for Israel, first smuggling European Jews into Palestine (which earned him time in a British prison camp), then with the Israeli Merchant Marine. Later he became a skipper on fishing boats. What we have in Tales of Grabowski are an old sea captain’s war stories, a genre which values narrative and connection with it’s audience. John Auerbach just happened to be a particularly sensitive, autodidactic sea captain, as well as a canny storyteller.