, Research Paper
Jerzy Kosinski?s The Painted Bird is a tragedy narrated by a young boy with dark
hair and eyes who is abandoned in eastern Poland, at the outbreak of World War II. He
travels from village to village throughout the war years, occasionally protected, but more
often terrifically abused by the local inhabitants, due to their ignorance, superstition, and
fear of recourse from the Nazis. ?He seeks asylum in huts and farms and, everywhere he
is exposed to murder, rape, sadism, sodomy, incest, and the spells of half-human peasant
crones? (Straus,139). The peasantry accuse the boy of being a Gypsy or a Jewish
founding and thus justify his victimization. He ?witnesses atrocities which become literally
unspeakable when he is shocked into dumbness?(Granofsky,256). Ironically, our nameless
protagonist is a ?forlorn Christian child of good Christian parents?(Wiesel, 46) who have
sent him away, hoping this will offer him the best chance at survival if their own anti-Nazi
efforts are detected. This narrative highlights three historic themes.
One predominant theme is the historic domination of the strong over the weak.
Via the victimization of Kosinski?s protagonist by the villagers, Social Darwinism is
thoroughly explored, and condemned. Granofsky eloquently examines the role of Social
Darwinism in his review of Kosinski?s work. He explains that the atrocities suffered by
our young hero are a direct result of ? Nazi racial policy, which in effect, takes to an
inhuman extreme the linearity of Darwinian evolutionary theory, the concept that life on
earth is evolving in a unidirectional and unending way toward higher forms?(257).
The horrors of the Social Darwinism are compounded by Kosinski?s telling of the
story through the eyes of one of its victims. By having that victim be an eight year old
child, Kosinski evokes further feelings of sympathy from his reader. The child is innocent
and pure, his life prior to the start of his victimization, revolves around his nurse and his
?good Christian parents?. He can not have done anything to deserve the treatment he
receives at the hands of the villagers. His victimhood can only be seen as a direct result of
his weakness coupled with the color of his skin, hair, and eyes.
To make matters worse, he is a victim of mistaken identity. He is not a Gypsy or a
Jew as the villagers accuse him of being. He?s an abandoned Christian child who?s ?dark
complexion [is] his misfortune? (Wiesel, 46). Wiesel continues, ?Had his hair been blond
and his eyes blue, this memoir would not have been written. And this is precisely what
makes it so significant and so tragic…?(46). Sadly, Wiesel is precisely right.
Further, the child is very impressionable and has a good heart. At least in the
beginning, he wants what is best for society. This serves to tug upon the reader?s heart
strings as the boy accepts his condemnation as a necessary part of his having been born ?a
black flea? with dark hair and eyes, and accepts his life as detrimental to others.
He looks up to the Nazis, because he has been told all his life of their extreme
power. He has internalized the hatred of the villagers for his dark skin and eyes. Often he
expresses this internalized hatred in passages, such as the following, in which the boy has
been captured by a German officer who is about to decide his fate:
The officer surveyed me sharply. I felt like a squashed caterpillar
oozing in the dust, a creature that could not harm anyone yet aroused
loathing and disgust. In the presence of his resplendent being, armed in all
the symbols of might and majesty, I was genuinely ashamed of my
appearance. I had nothing against his killing me…I placed infinite
confidence in the decision of the man facing me. I knew that he possessed
powers unattainable by ordinary people (114).
Passages such as this are found throughout the book and I was discussed as I read them.
However, the expression of the protagonist?s internalized hatred serves well in persuading
readers that the Darwinian ideals the boy has acquired are perverse and wrong.
A second theme which appears throughout the novel, but primarily in the second
half is Kosinski?s anticommunism. This theme is particularly hard to discuss since his
criticism of the Communists is mainly sarcastic. He does a good job however of using the
boy?s innocence to mock the ideals of communism.
Kosinski?s anticommunist sentiment comes mostly from his childhood. His father
was a strong supporter of the ?reds?, the soviet communists. His family spent the war
passing as non-Jews in Poland. ?Jerzy was carefully instructed to deny he was Jewish if
challenged. It was a lesson that took a lifetime to unlearn? (Myers,2). After the war his
father?s support was honored with a Party appointment, when the soviets moved in
(Myers). ?For Jerzy his father?s position meant a superficially trouble-free postwar
existence? (Myers,2). However, being forced to ?pass? as a Christian left him emotionally
scared and he young Kosinski was not to follow his father?s lead.
Jerzy?s principal biographer, James Park Sloan, attributes Jerzy?s anti-communism
to his dislike of conformity. Judging by The Painted Bird I would say there is reason to
accept such an assertion. However, Meyer, another reviewer, says that ?his
anticommunism seems to have been principled enough. His intellectual mentor…was a
dissident who believed that Marxist orthodoxy was destroying any possibility of Marxist
humanism. Seeing that human values would never be restored to Poland as long as the
Communists were in power… ? (Meyers,2). Thus, ?[Kosinski?s] first two books were
contributions to the literature of anticommunism…?(Meyer,2). Thus, whatever the reason,
it is obvious Kosinski was anticommunist and this is both subtly and not so subtly reflected
in The Painted Bird.
When the boy is taken in by the Red army it is one of the few positive caring
experiences that the boy has during his journey. He is thoroughly inculcated with the
Party ideology by the soldiers. Often times our hero says things such as: ?If it was true
that women and children might become communal property, then every child would have
many fathers and mothers, innumerable brothers and sisters. It seemed to be too much to
hope for to belong to everyone! ?(174). And, he would pray that he could become part of
the communist regime. He would recount his virtues and stress his helplessness in his
prayers. ?I was almost eleven now and …I was mute. I also had trouble with food, which
sometimes came up from my stomach undigested. I surely deserved to become common
property? (174). The boy soon detests the Nazis and looks up to the Communists.
[I]ronicly, Party strength is bought with the same currency of ruthless
evolutionary zeal used by the Nazi overlords who would exclude the boy.
The price in human life can be high, for Party strength ?lay in its ability to
rid itself of those who, like a jammed or crooked wheel on a cart, impeded
His idealism is also used to show the simplistic naivete embodied in communist
sentiment. The evidence for this is in the fact that after the child protagonist has adopted
the Party ideology he becomes destructive. He only seeks revenge and is taught to seek
revenge by his communist army guardians. His friend causes the derailment of a train full
of people riding to market in order to seek revenge for his injuries and the boy delights in
the derailment and death of all the peasants. ?If it had not been for the bandage over my
face and mouth, I would have smiled too?(223). The concept of revenge that he learned
from the atheist Red soldiers had turned him into a heartless fiend.
When he is finally re-united with his parents towards the end of the novel, he is
ruthless and disobedient. He breaks his baby brother?s arm because he is annoyed with
him. He is kicked out of a movie theater and returns the next night to drop two bricks on
the theater attendant from a height of three stories in the name of revenge. Before he met
the communist leaders and donned his miniature Red soldier?s uniform he was a
complacent victim. Afterwards, though he was no longer a victim, he was a terror. Not
part of the solution, he was part of the problem. ?He is oddly detached from the suffering
of human beings? (Straus 139).
A final theme which can be found in Kosinski?s work is that of the universality of
the hatred of the Nazis and its causes. So often when the word Nazi is mentioned it is tied
in with the word Germany. One often hears of ?Hitler and Nazi Germany?. It is not often
that you hear of the effects that the war had upon places other than Germany and upon
people who did not live in cities, but lived in remote woodland countryside areas. This is
another focus of The Painted Bird. Kosinski tries to show some of the secondary effects
of the war on places like Poland. As Wiesel said in his review of The Painted Bird:
Equally terrifying is the realization that what it describes took place in
ordinary villages where ordinary men, women and children led their
ordinary lives and to whom the war, more abstraction than reality, brought
inconveniences but not serious upheavals. Their brutality had nothing to
do with political decisions taken in Berlin; it was homebred eternal. (46).
Kosinski?s work is ?proof that Auschwitz was more a concept than a name?(Wiesel,46).
his book is meant to de-centralize the atrocities of World War II. The horrors and
atrocities didn?t just occur in concentration camps, the camps were only a symptom of a
more widespread disease of bigotry and hatred for people who were ?different?
throughout the world.
The questions raised by Kosinski in The Painted Bird, regarding this theme, are
best summarized by Elie Wiesel in the Forward to ?The Courage To Care?(New York
University Press; New York):
In those times there was darkness everywhere. In heaven and on earth, all
the gates of compassion seemed to have been closed. The killer killed and
the Jews died and the outside world adopted an attitude either of
complicity or of indifference. Only a few had the courage to care. These
few men and women were vulnerable, afraid, helpless – what made them
different from their fellow citizens? What compelled them to disregard
danger and torture – even death – and choose humanity? What moved them
to put their lives in jeopardy for the sake of saving one Jewish child, one
Jewish mother? And what of ourselves? What would we have done?
Would we have had the courage to care? Who knows? We can only hope
that our humanity would not have forsaken us.”
I found The Painted Bird to be both disturbing, often causing me nightmares, and
at the same time deeply touching. I feel it is an important contribution to Holocaust
literature and that it offers profound insights as to the mentality of the people of Eastern
Europe throughout World War II. It raises important questions and leaves some of them
unanswered for the reader to ponder on his/her own. Could it have happened here?
Could it happen now? As Wiesel so eloquently stated, ?We can only hope that our
humanity would not have forsaken us.?