Gene Gutowski's name is associated with some of the great films of the twentieth century: the Oscar-winning masterpiece The Pianist, Repulsion, Cul-de-sac, and Fearless Vampire Killers. Producer of many of Roman Polanski's classics, Gene Gutowski shares here his extraordinary memoirs: those of a Polish Jew, alone in occupied Warsaw after the deportation of his entire family. As a young man who, with the blind courage of one who has nothing to lose, took incredible risks, he narrowly escaped the many horrors of life in Nazi-occupied Poland.
In an extraordinary twist of destiny, and thanks to his prodigious resourcefulness, Gene Gutowski found himself in Germany in 1945, working as an American counter-espionage agent. After the war, he made his way to New York, where he worked as a fashion illustrator and TV producer, then on to London, where he became a successful producer and member of the jet set during the sixties. Finally, he achieved Hollywood consecration with the three Oscars won by The Pianist.
It is an extremely endearing personality that reveals itself here, modest about the difficulties overcome, honest about the successes and failures. Gene Gutowski's youth was a thumb of the nose to death and totalitarianism, and his journey is a formidable life lesson.
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With Balls and ChutzpahA Story of Survival
By Gene Gutowski
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gene Gutowski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly life
My first recollection is that of warmth and complete bliss, sucking warm milk from a woman's nipples. Her breasts were very large and full of milk and, in the summer heat, rivulets of perspiration flowed from her neck onto them. My hand would move gently, feeling the wet skin, and occasionally reach for the tufts of dump hair that protruded from her armpit. Manya was my wet-nurse, a young Ukrainian mother and wife of a policeman who cared for their own child while rendering her breasts to feed me in order to supplement their meagre income. This was still often the custom in pre-war Poland. I was then long past weaning age but I refused the bottle and normal milk made me ill, so a succession of wet-nurses was provided, of whom Manya was the last.
She rocked me gently, humming Ruthenian songs, and I would fall asleep resting on her stomach, tucked between her breasts, inhaling the sharp yet sweet smell of her body. Later in life I would occasionally encounter the same smell, usually in Eastern Europe when, in some crowded place in summer, the natural odour of a warm young Slavic girl's body, not accustomed to frequent showers and deodorants, would waft past me. Manya loved me and well into my boyhood would send me postcards with her Cyrillic scribbles.
Under the German occupation some years later the Ukrainians amongst whom I lived, whose mother-milk I so happily drank and language I spoke, became the enemy, a people to be feared. Full of hatred against the Poles and Jews with whom they had lived side by side for centuries, in thousands of towns and villages in South-Eastern Poland, they had always taken the side of those prevailing powers they hoped would give them their own national identity.
From the time of the bloody Cossack uprising under Bogdan Chmielnicki in the XVIIth century, through the battle for Lwów and the capture of Kiev by the Polish army in 1920 - pacifications and deportations, the mass murder of Poles by the UPA and the "Wisla" action in revenge - the pages of history are stained with blood. Both sides, Polish and Ukrainian, committed unspeakable outrages that included murder, rape and plunder. In the end, their common victims were usually Jews.
And so, when the Soviets invaded eastern Poland in September 1939, Ukrainians joined in the slaughter and pillage of the Jews and Poles. When the Soviet army eventually retreated from the attacking Germans in June 1941, they promptly switched sides, joining the victors. Surpassing their German masters in murderous rage, the Ukrainians eagerly participated in the annihilation of the Jewish people and the final liquidation of the ghettos in small and large Polish towns including Warsaw.
My family, which had settled in Poland in the sixteenth century, were in double jeopardy. For generations they had been part of the ruling class - land and property owners, doctors, lawyers and military officers, first in the Imperial Austrian and later the Polish Army. They were also Jewish, if only on paper.
All this had very little meaning for me while I was growing up and I was hardly even aware of it. A little Polish patriot and an eager Boy Scout, I grew up much loved and pampered in a family so thoroughly assimilated over many generations that Christmas and Easter were celebrated in our home and a pig was slaughtered with sausages and hams made. There were no Jewish holidays observed and I don't remember anyone, including myself, ever going to a synagogue. On the other hand, I loved the dark mystery of churches, the celebration of mass, the incantations and the smell of incense. Often, a friendly priest would dress me in a white lace gown and red collar and invite me to serve as an altar boy. I soon learned the routine: when to carry the heavy prayer book from one side of the altar to the other, when to cross myself and ring the bell. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did all my Polish Catholic friends, embracing me as one of their own. Every spring I watched the Corpus Christi procession from the balcony of my grandparents' house in Lwów, directly opposite the entrance of the Cathedral, as it came out and re-entered three times, led by a flock of priests swinging incense and followed by the bishop carrying the heavy gold monstrance. The town's dignitaries, members of ancient guilds, monks and nuns would follow. Each time the procession entered the Cathedral a platoon of soldiers, stationed directly under our balcony, would fire a rifle volley into the air. This was pure theatrical drama and I was never exposed in childhood to anything equally impressive in the Jewish religion – my loss in the end, I suppose.
The only, and joyous Jewish religious spectacle that I witnessed as a boy was the celebration of the marriage of the son of the Hassidic Rabbi of Belec (later to be the location of an extermination camp) to the daughter of the somewhat less prominent Rabbi of nearby Rawa Ruska. The small, ancient town of Rawa Ruska was Polish-Jewish-Ruthenian and straight out of Roman Vishniac's haunting photographs of 'A Vanished World.' We lived in a big house there for a number of years before the war and my father was a prominent lawyer to Prince Sapieha and other members of the local landowning gentry.
On that occasion the Rabbi of Belec, with his son and a vast crowd of faithful followers, arrived like a king in a horse-drawn carriage, flanked by a guard of mounted Hassidic youth, circling the town amid cries of joy and good wishes from the mixed crowds that lined the streets. These 'Fiddler on the Roof'–style celebrations lasted for several days.
Mine was a carefree, pleasurable childhood spent in the midst of a clan of large, cultured and sophisticated families who lived in houses filled with music and arguments in French, English and German. My mother taught me both English and German and my fluent knowledge of both languages saved my life in the Holocaust that followed and helped me countless times thereafter.
For the most part, from very early childhood I was completely preoccupied with and fascinated by girls and frequently women older than myself. "Inter pedes puellarum est voluptas puerorum," was the Latin phrase we young students quoted most frequently. Instead of studying Caesar's 'Gallic Wars' or Cicero's speech against Catalina in the Roman Senate. "The pleasure of boys lies between girls' legs."
At the age of four, I regret to admit that I sexually harassed a little girl of two or three, the daughter of our neighbours in Zbaraska Street in Lwów, a playmate of mine. On that occasion I locked us both up in the toilet and demanded that the girl take down her panties so that I could examine her. When she refused I started threatening with terrible things that would happen to her unless she obliged. Frightened out of her little wits and crying, the girl pulled her panties down so that I could satisfy my curiosity. Though sworn to secrecy, the perfidious little female immediately told her mother and I was severely spanked as result. Thus I learned early in life not to trust women ...
A couple of years later, when I was five, my little brother Roman was born. His nanny, Anya, about twenty years old, would change his diapers and tend to his other needs on a large white table, under which I promptly established an elaborate toy base, enabling me to look frequently up her skirt. My efforts were frustrated by the fact that she had panties on – until she rewarded my patience and keen interest by appearing one day without them, and from that day never put them on again. She would stand with her legs apart and occasionally crouch to pick something up from the floor so as to give me a better view. After a while she would smile and tell me to come out from under the table, or else I would catch a cold on the floor.
These good times came to an abrupt end one day when my mother caught me in flagrante on my back under the table, lifting nanny's dress up to reveal her bare bottom. She ordered Anya to put on her pants at once and pulled me from under the table, together with all my toys. Later that evening I was given a large teddy bear, with the advice to inspect his (her?) barren crotch if I was so keen on it.
When I was seven a governess was hired for Roman and I. She had dark, long hair and a full body. Her name was Helena. Before too long I was up to my old tricks and developed a new habit of waking up at night, pretending that I was frightened by bad dreams and seeking comfort and solace in her bed. In a short time this became a routine and, as soon as I heard my parents turn in for the night I would creep into her bed and happily cuddle my head on her bare breast. Helena wore long nightgowns, which in her sleep and with my help, would ride up above her thighs to her stomach. After many tentative attempts over a period of sleepless nights and meeting with no resistance, my hand would move down her stomach until it came to rest in her crotch, among her pubic hair. At last I could touch and explore.
I was not very discreet at that age, and could not stop bragging to my schoolmates about my night-time adventures. My highly exaggerated tales firmly established me among my peers as 'primus inter pares' and an absolute authority on female anatomy. Blissful times again came to an end when I was caught by my parents, this time in bed with the governess, and shortly afterwards she was obliged to leave our household, much to my sorrow.
It all came back to me thirty-five years later, when I visited Warsaw for the first time since the end of the war and was invited to the home of my old school friend, Bolek Janiszewski, by now a famous gynaecologist. I inquired how he, who had not seemed particularly bright scholastically, happened to select such a demanding profession: he replied that it was because of my vivid description that he decided to have a more direct involvement with the subject of my boyhood euphoria, the black mystery.
My early childhood years were spent in my family's hometown of Lwów, a wonderful city with a population of around three hundred thousand, situated between many verdant hills and valleys. It was an ancient crossroad of trading routes and the seat of Polish, Jewish, Ukrainian and Armenian cultures. Its architecture ranged from renaissance to baroque to Vienna 'Secession' and 'Jugendstil.' Lwów was a city of the arts and of cultural pursuits, good restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. It was also the social, shopping and banking centre for the many surrounding provincial towns and a hub for the landed gentry and aristocracy whose lands were historically located in the south-eastern part of Poland. In the seventeenth century these holdings had stretched almost to the Black Sea. The Jews moved eastward with their Polish patrons as administrators of estates and lessors of mills and taverns. Unfortunately and unwillingly these Jews came to be associated with the oppressive landowning classes in the eyes of the poor peasantry, thus inviting their hatred. At the end of the eighteenth century, when Poland was partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia, the Russians became masters of those eastern lands where masses of mostly poor Jews lived, and were the instigators of vicious anti-Semitism, pogroms and The Pale.
None of this concerned me as a young boy, and the Lwów of many parks, grand streets and wonderful shops was my playground. At the top of a seven-story building which we called the 'Sprecher's Skyscraper' was a large, neon, rampant stag advertising Suchard chocolates, and the various brands such as Milka and Bitra would light up alternately. I promenaded with my parents on the 'corso' and on Sundays, dressed in a blue sailor suit, would go hand in hand with my father, in his grey flannel trousers and Borsalino hat, to have a traditional tripe lunch at the Teliczkova restaurant.
At Easter the large display window of the Zalewski pastry shop was decked out like a kitchen, with chefs, helpers, maids, food and dishes all made of marzipan and I, with many other children, stood there gaping in wonder and pressing my nose against the glass. Berta Stark was a shop selling exquisite lingerie and some years later, under the Soviet occupation, commissars' wives would buy silk nightgowns there, believing them to be evening dresses to wear to the Opera.
Much time was spent in the parks, where our governess would wheel my brother in a carriage and flirt with young, off-duty soldiers while I used an early version of a skateboard, or ran around propelling a large wooden hoop with a short stick – a toy known in Roman times. In the evenings prostitutes lingered under lampposts in more secluded areas of the park, chatting up passing men. I was fascinated by these encounters and, keeping well out of sight, on occasion watched quick acts of copulation on the grass or standing against a tree. The clients, mostly young soldiers in uniform, would with some ingenuity loop their army belts under the girl's knee and lift her leg, taking the weight on one shoulder. Many years later I was exchanging memories with the artist Felix Topolski in London and he admitted to learning this technique from the soldiers and applying it in his favourite night encounters in dark doorways with New York prostitutes.
The centres of our family in Lwów were the large apartments of my two sets of grandparents, with their separate sets of ambience and attitudes. On one side was the retired army colonel, a medical doctor still practicing in his surgery, immaculate and pristine, with many photographs and knick-knacks in their precisely appointed positions. The walls were hung with pictures depicting the glory of the Austrian emperor, Franz Josef, whose portrait was prominently displayed on one wall next to another of great-grandfather Wolf Edler von Chlumberg, a much-decorated cavalry officer who, born in 1838, ended his military career as Rittmeister in the Vienna Military Riding Instructors Academy. Grandfather Teofil's army insignias and medals were in a glass cabinet, to be brought out and shown occasionally to admiring children. Otherwise, I soon learned that touching too many objects would result in a quick pay-off from grandmother Hannah.
The colonel was a tall, impressive man always immaculately attired in dark suits who clipped his hair short in military fashion, an activity that I loved to watch. Though gruff and overbearing, he used to take me for walks and had an attractive sense of humour. He would tell tales of his long army career when, as a young regimental doctor in charge of the medical commission for young recruits in some small town, he might encounter an epidemic of palpitations and irregular heartbeats among the draft-age Hassidic Jewish youth. Apparently groups of them would jog on country roads night after night, side curls flying, to give themselves heart murmurs, thus disqualifying them for service in the Austrian army. The moreingenious,orpossiblymoreaffluentones,wouldsecreteatightlyrolled 100-krona banknote in their rectums which, when found by the examining doctor, gave the words "dirty money" a new and pungent meaning.
Grandfather never exactly admitted to taking these bribes; still, the family were the quite wealthy owners of a very large apartment house in the best part of Lwów, directly opposite the cathedral. He owned it together with his brother-in-law, Dr. Philip Schleicher, a distinguished lawyer and vice-mayor of the city who, as a result of his patriotic stand during the bitter battle for possession of the city in 1918-19 between Ukrainians and Poles, received the highest Polish Order: 'The Order of Polonia Restituta.' He proudly wore this on all formal occasions, on a blue ribbon across his chest. Grandmother Hannah, a portly lady with a large bosom and a nervous eye-tic, appeared to live in the shadow of her imperious husband, but later I discovered that she had been quite a flirt in her youth, and had countless affairs with young officers whenever grandfather was out of town on one of his inspection trips. It seems one must never judge a book by its cover.
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