The Jew, by Dominik Poleski is available in Chapters/Indigo stores (including Grandview Corners in South Surrey). (Contributed photo)

‘Silent observer’ revisits harrowing scenes of his youth

'The Jew' is a first novel for South Surrey author Dominik Poleski

“Life is unfair, don’t we all know that?”

The words of a woman clerk in a regional passport office in Poland summarize the prevailing mood in The Jew, a first novel by Dominik Poleski (the nom de plume of South Surrey resident Tadeusz Chmielewski).

The author’s precise and detailed descriptive style documents – like the unblinking eye of a camera – the reality of a particular time and place, a small town in Poland, bordering on the then-Soviet Union, in the late 1960’s.

There, ordinary people must endure – as best they can – life under a communist totalitarian state. It’s a grim environment in which corruption and decay are everyday facts of life. In a depressed – or rather, ideologically repressed, economy – alcoholism, violence, prejudice and spousal abuse are usual outlets for the population’s overwhelming sense of despair.

The local police commandant takes kickbacks and seems uninterested in solving crimes; the influential Catholic priest is rumoured to be stashing collection money in his sofa; everyone is party to a black market trading goods across the border with Russia and no one seems to care that a teenager has quit high school to walk the streets with the town’s only other prostitute.

But the town is not immune from radical changes occurring in the world – widespread students’ protests in both the West and East, the invasion of a liberal-leaning Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union, the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War – as spun by the conflicting voices of the state-run media and the clandestinely-heard Radio Free Europe.

In the town, but isolated by the anti-Semitic discrimination of other residents, live the community’s only Jews: protagonist Alek Brodski, a high school student, and his doting mother Zofia.

Determined to secure the best life possible for her son, Zofia attempts several ways to break the chains of their deadlocked existence, including leaving their native Poland to emigrate to Israel, and, ultimately, a more drastic, unexpected solution.

The Jew is a work of disarming subtlety, in which Poleski’s calmly analytical prose – he counts as influences Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, Hemingway and Graham Greene – suggests multiple layers of meaning as he exposes onion-like layers of hypocrisy, and even absurdity, in Polish society.

“It’s a book stripped down to the bone,” said the author, who by day works overseeing draft plans for a structural steel company. “I wanted no redundancy, no useless conversations – everything is there for a purpose.”

It’s also an immensely personal work, he says.

The reader first encounters Alek as the victim of a harrowing beating at the hands of three racist thugs, witnessed by a kindly old lady, Pavloska – one of the Brodskis’ few allies in town – and a 13-year-old boy.

This silent observer, who recurs several times in the novel, is the author himself, Poleski admits.

“I wrote myself in as a character,” he said.

In what he describes as a “sad childhood” in the town of Terespol in Poland, he often wandered the streets alone at night. And he did witness the real-life beating of the man who became the inspiration for Alek.

“I’d see him and his mother,” he said. “I’ve seen the house where they lived. And for an inexplicable reason I happened to be there at some key points in his story.”

Poleski was virtually deserted – along with his two brothers – in his early teens by his parents, who fled the country (his father had attracted attention from the authorities for making money through a home wood-working business) and emigrated to Canada under the subterfuge of visiting relatives here.

That led to years of hardship as the brothers struggled to make ends meet and complete their education, with the help of relatives and neighbours, before they, too, could emigrate to Canada in the late 1970s.

But somehow over the years, the story of the real ‘Alek’ stuck with him to become a central piece in preserving his memories of the way things were in his youth – and survived several abortive attempts to translate his memories into a novel during the past nine years.

“I was always interested in the arts and literature as a way of escape,” he said.

Not a Jew himself, Poleski said he could not be indifferent to the suffering of others like ‘Alek’ and ‘Zofia’.

“Because I was bullied, I empathized with them. It resonated with me.”

“When he was beaten, when he collapsed against the wall, I was standing 30 metres away – the sounds coming out of him were just horrendous.”

“When he was beaten, when he collapsed against the wall, I was standing 30 metres away – the sounds coming out of him were just horrendous.”

Such scenes were common at a time when several thousand Jews were expelled from Poland “for subversion of the status quo,” he said.

The book is not unrelievedly grim, but Poleski does not repent the inclusion of some salty language, and shrugs off the criticism of some who have declared the book “sordid.”

“This is unvarnished – this is how it was,” Poleski said.

The Jew is available at Chapters/Indigo stores (including Grandview Corners) and at

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