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The Accidental Biographer: Bryna Kranzler ’80

The Accidental Anarchist
Crosswalk Press, 2010, $18

bryna-book-coverAs a child, Bryna Wincelberg Kranzler grew weary of the stories her mother told about a grandfather raised in Poland, a man who died long before Kranzler was born. As an adult, Kranzler recognized the power of these stories, and admired the strength behind the impulsive and resourceful youth who escaped three death sentences by the time he turned 25. In the past two years, she’s turned her full attention to her grandfather’s life, adopting his witty voice as the narrator of her first published work.

The Accidental Anarchist draws heavily from translations of the 28 diaries written in Yiddish by Jacob Marateck, who chronicles his adventures as a baker, soldier, and political prisoner in early twentieth-century Poland and Russia. The result is likely to charm and captivate readers, offering a vivid window into a world that no longer exists, and riddled with so many bizarre incidents that one can’t help but think of the well-worn maxim: Truth is stranger than fiction.

“I call it biography,” says Kranzler, who researched the history of the time period, and worked from her parents’ translations of Marateck’s journals, but at times compressed similar events into one, dropped in a joke or two, and fleshed out details in order to construct a lively narrative. “I tightened up just about every sentence,” she says. “My grandfather’s style was a bit more lingering.” On the other hand, “he has a sense of humor where you least expect it,” she says, and “he always gave me the energy to continue.” Writing the book, she adds, “made me feel the loss of not knowing him.”

Told in the sardonic and immensely likeable voice of Marateck, practically every page of the book sizzles with cinematic detail and plot: There’s the story of how her grandfather, a newly enlisted soldier in the Russo-Japanese war and indignant after an unwarranted punch by a Russian officer, promptly smashes a teakettle across the officer’s face. Another story recounts how Marateck, who dons many identities in this book, from yeshiva boy to political revolutionary, reluctantly disguises himself in a dress, blonde wig, and what he calls “a pair of shoes that could only have fit a ballerina” to hide from the Russian police. Then there’s the story of how as an escaped political prisoner, he travels through Siberia with a pickpocket as a companion, a man who proudly dubs himself Warsaw’s “King of Thieves.” As if that’s not enough, the pair is rescued when Marateck, deep in Siberia, stumbles upon a now wealthy old friend, who also happens to be indebted to him for his life.

There’s the story of how her grandfather, a newly enlisted soldier in the Russo-Japanese war and indignant after an unwarranted punch by a Russian officer, promptly smashes a teakettle across the officer’s face.

At Barnard, Kranzler studied playwriting, and her first full-length dramatic work attracted the interest of a professional theatre. But after a series of tragic mishaps with the play’s production, Kranzler abandoned creative pursuits in favor of more lucrative work in marketing and public relations, earning a degree from Yale School of Management along the way. Kranzler recalls that shortly after
graduation, she received a note from her mentor and Barnard professor, the late Howard Teichmann. “Get off your probably ample fanny and write,” she remembers the note advising. She says, “I couldn’t afford to.”

In the past 15 years or so, Kranzler has returned to writing, and plans to revise an unpublished novel soon. A couple of years ago, she began work on her grandfather’s diaries, after her mother, Anita Marateck Wincelberg, gathered Kranzler and her two brothers for a talk. “I want to see this published in my lifetime,” her mother told them, referring to her father’s journals.

Wincelberg’s words echoed a dying wish made by her father. In the years after Marateck’s sudden death from a heart attack, Wincelberg, along with her husband, Shimon, a writer for television and film, worked to fulfill her father’s dream. In 1976, Kranzler’s parents published The Samurai of Vishigrod, a close translation of the first 12 notebooks. The couple had planned to publish a companion featuring the later notebooks, but Shimon passed away in 2004, before they could do so.

In 2008, Kranzler agreed to take on the project, but only if she could do it her way, “starting from scratch, editing and rewriting,” even “eliminating a number of fantastic stories,” which didn’t fit the narrative arc she designed. Kranzler says she didn’t permit Wincelberg to read the work in progress, but when the book was completed, her mother remarked, “It sounds exactly like my father.”

- by Elicia Brown ’90