Israeli writer Etgar Keret on how he felt when a Polish architect told him he was building the world’s narrowest house in his honour.
When Polish architect Jakub Szczesny noticed a narrow gap between a prewar apartment building and an 11-storey postwar co-op at the site of the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, he got the idea of filling the tiny space with a house. And he decided to invite Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret to be its first tenant as well as its namesake.
The narrow house would connect the present to the past and, while tiny, it would still contain everything a home needs. Szczesny saw Keret – a Jew with Polish roots and a writer of very short, yet complete stories – as the ideal tenant. Now, three years later, Keret House has opened in Warsaw. At just 1.2 metres across at its widest point, and 71 centimetres at its narrowest, it may be the world’s slimmest home.
Nathalie Rothschild met Etgar Keret at the Transformation of Memory conference in Stockholm – an event organised in memory of Raoul Wallenberg. Below is a transcript of their conversation about why the narrow house was built and why Keret opens his latest collection, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, with a Swede holding him at gunpoint.
What is the story behind the narrow house in Warsaw? How did it come about?
One day I received a phone call from a person who spoke English in a very heavy Polish accent. He told me that he had walked the streets of Warsaw and had seen a gap between two buildings and the gap had told him that he should build me a house there. I said ‘Okay, go for it’. That is what I usually say when crazy people call me and say all kinds of weird stuff. I was with my son in the backyard and I said ‘sure, whatever you want. If the gap tells you to build me a house, go build me a house’.
Later on, he came to Israel and I met him and saw that he wasn’t a crazy man but a very creative and interesting architect. He showed me other projects of his and he talked about this idea of building me a house in the proportion of my stories, which means a house that would be extremely small – as small as a house can be – and still be functional. That’s how he thought of my stories: they are extremely short, but they still have everything you need in a story.
Then I said to him ‘you know what, now that I know you, I don’t think you’re crazy. I just want to say to you that you will not be able to make it. Nobody is going to let you build in a gap between two buildings and you don’t even have a budget for it.’
But he was very insistent so I said okay, go for it. A couple of years later, he called me and said that he was working on the house and he sent me photos. Then, in October this year, I went to Warsaw for the opening. It was a very moving experience. The widow of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Polish-Jewish musician whom the film The Pianist is based on, came to see the house and was very moved by it.
What does the house mean to you personally? It is located where the Warsaw Ghetto was during the Second World War and near the point where your mother, as a child, used to smuggle food into the ghetto for her family. For you, is this project about reclaiming something on behalf of your family or even on behalf of the Jewish people?
Well, first of all I think what’s amazing about this project is that, during the week I spent in Poland, I saw many people coming to the house, and it was amazing how the reactions differed. Architects were amazed by the architecture and people who were interested in literature were very much touched by the connection between the aesthetics and my work as a writer. Children thought it looked like a pirate ship and thought it was really cool that you climb to the second floor with a ladder.
For me, of course, there is a very strong personal connection because both my parents are Holocaust survivors. Both of them are from what used to be Poland. My late father was from Branovichi, which now belongs to Belarus but used to belong to Poland, and my mother is from Warsaw. She was in the Warsaw Ghetto. The house is located exactly where the footbridge between the small ghetto and the big ghetto was and this is where my mother used to pass as a child, smuggling food. The point where the house is located is also the very point where she knew that, if she got caught passing it, they’d kill her.
My mother always told me that surviving the war at some stage felt not only impossible, but also like something she had no motivation for doing after she lost her mother and her brother. But her father said you must stay alive because they are trying to wipe our name off this Earth and you must stay alive so that our name will stay alive, so that people will not be able to ignore it.
The house where my mother lived was totally destroyed – it’s a bank now. None of her family members are alive, none of them are in Poland, and having this Keret House there in Warsaw, it’s basically, I feel, like squeezing our way, or pushing our way, into this little gap, into the collective memory of this place, and it’s kind of like fulfilling my grandfather’s legacy. We didn’t let our name be erased. We kept it alive. We didn’t do it by fighting and we didn’t do it by force. We did it just by creating. We won back our place by producing art.
You have said that it’s important to remember not just how Jews died in Europe, but also how they lived. Is that one of the goals of this house project and maybe of some of your stories?
Well, regarding my writing I think that’s something much more general. But regarding this project, what I like about it is that it has very strong roots in the past. But at the same time it is not only a monument that is enclosed in the past because it’s a present-day project done by a 39-year-old architect. It’s a place that will be the basis for inviting artists to Poland and for collaborations between artists. I think there is something very unique about this ability to commemorate the past while connecting to the present and the future, because I think so many things about the past, especially concerning the Holocaust, get confined to this separate place.
In Israel, many groups of teenagers are sent to Poland to visit Auschwitz and other concentration camps and they are not taught anything about Jewish cultural life in Poland before the war. I know that many Polish people are unhappy about this, but I, as an Israeli, am unhappy about it, too, because I feel that the story of the diaspora Jewry is an amazing one, but that in Israel the education system often reduces it to a series of pogroms, a story of constant persecution, and I think this is only part of the story. Of course, it is an important part and it should not be ignored, but I don’t like the idea of an education system that pushes us to indoctrinate children to think that Europe is a place where Jews cannot live, which is almost the raison d’être of the Israeli state.
I would like children to learn history in its fullest and to make a choice and say we choose to live in this country; and not only to think we will not go to Europe because it’s even more dangerous there.
Regarding your writing, could you explain why you’ve chosen the short story as your form of expression?
I wouldn’t say that I chose short stories, but I chose writing. The moment that I sit down to write, the last thing I think about is how long the story is going to be. For me, when I write a story I’m in the moment with the character. So, many times when I meet the character I can imagine him having children and grandchildren, marrying and divorcing and remarrying – only to find him two pages later getting run over by a truck!
So there is something about the course that a story takes. It always surprises me. My stories, up until now, were almost always very short but it is never a choice, because one doesn’t sit down and say I want to write a 280-page novel, you know. One just wants to tell a story of an incident or a character.
We are in Sweden right now and in the opening, title story of your new collection, Suddenly a Knock on the Door, there is a Swedish character. Could you tell me about him?
The character is a Swedish immigrant who had arrived in Israel and, learning that in the Middle East everything has to be done by force, he knocks on my door and asks me at gunpoint to tell him a story. There is this kind of comparison in the story between Israel and Sweden, saying that Sweden is not only about ABBA and Ikea. It is a place that has achieved great things and in a peaceful way. And of course, in the story, Sweden, or the Swedish guy, is supposed to be the anti-Israel.
Basically, Sweden is the opposite of Israel. Israel is warm, Sweden is cold. In Israel we have war, in Sweden they have peace. In Israel we have confrontation, in Sweden they have tolerance. But of course, it is done in a very ironic way. I don’t think that Sweden is such a perfect place, you know, but in the story I really wanted to have somebody who is kind of an outsider referring to the Middle East as something that is opposite to anything that he has known.