The Painted Bird by Jerzy N. Kosinski - 1967 - with preface by author added in 1977
This is my second reading of The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. I first read it about forty years ago. I am pretty sure it was the first book I had yet read related to the Holocaust. I remembered the book as one horrible incident of cruelty experienced by a young boy on his own somewhere in Eastern Europe during World War Two. I recalled the incident from which the book’s title was derived. Since then I have read a number of works of fiction and nonfiction related to the Holocaust. I currently have a trial three month subscription to the Kindle Unlimited Program, The Painted Bird, as well as Kosinski’s Being There, can be read for free for subscribers so I decided to reread the novel. I am glad I had this opportunity.
The narrator is about ten when we meet him. He has been separated from his parents. We go with him wandering through Eastern European territory occupied by the Germans, just trying to survive. Everyone he encounters is very brutal, steeped in superstition, and cruelty. He is taken in by a series of adults who exploit and torture him. As he gets a bit older, he is used sexually by peasant women. He has a dark complexion and dark hair. The peasants think he is either a Gypsy or a Jew. Harboring him could get them in trouble with the Germans. A fear of that along with their own prejudices compound his misery. He begins to seek revenge on those who torment him. He becomes aware of trains full of people being sent to be burned.
There are many fascinating incidents in The Painted Bird. We see how his experiences have destroyed any vestige of humanity he might have once had. He lives now to seek revenge.
After the book was first published a controversy arose about how much of this book might have come from Kosinski’s experiences. His motives in writing were impugned. It was also suggested he was pro-Russian. In a preface added in 1977 he addresses these issues.
There were also claims he fabricated his account of his experiences during the war and suggestions that uncredited assistants helped him write the book.
I think The Painted Bird should be read by all into Holocaust literature. It is a harsh read with very few decent characters. There are numerous scenes of rape and sexual torture.
in Łódź, Poland
June 14, 1933
May 3, 1991
Kosiński was born Josef Lewinkopf to Jewish parents in Łódź, Poland. As a child during World War II, he lived in central Poland under a false identity his father gave him to use, Jerzy Kosiński. A Roman Catholic priest issued him a forged baptismal certificate. The Kosiński family survived the Holocaust thanks to local villagers, who offered assistance to Jewish Poles often at great personal risk (the penalty for assisting Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland was death).
After World War II, Kosiński remained with his parents in Poland, moved to Jelenia Góra, and earned degrees in history and political science at the University of Łódź. He worked as an assistant in Institute of History and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 1957, he emigrated to the United States, creating a fake foundation which supposedly sponsored him; he later claimed that the letters from eminent Polish communist authorities guaranteeing his loyal return, which were needed for anyone leaving the communist country at that time, had all been forged by him.
After taking odd jobs to get by, such as driving a truck, Kosiński graduated from Columbia University. In 1965, he became an American citizen. He received grants from Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967, Ford Foundation in 1968, and the American Academy in 1970, which allowed him to write a political non-fiction book, opening new doors of opportunity. In the States he became a lecturer at Yale, Princeton, Davenport University, and Wesleyan.
In 1962 Kosiński married Mary Hayward Weir who was 10 years his senior. They were divorced in 1966. Weir died in 1968 from brain cancer. Kosiński was left nothing in her will. He later fictionalized this marriage in his novel Blind Date speaking of Weir under pseudonym Mary-Jane Kirkland. Kosiński went on to marry Katherina "Kiki" von Fraunhofer, a marketing consultant and descendant of Bavarian aristocracy. They met in 1968.
Kosiński suffered from multiple illnesses towards the end of his life, and was under attack from journalists who alleged he was a plagiarist. By the time he reached his late 50s, Kosiński was suffering from an irregular heartbeat as well as severe physical and nervous exhaustion. Kosiński committed suicide on May 3, 1991, by taking a fatal dose of barbiturates. His parting suicide note read: "I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.”