This is, at times, a very dry read but in the end well worth persevering with. I have rated the book highly because of its impact on me; its informati...moreThis is, at times, a very dry read but in the end well worth persevering with. I have rated the book highly because of its impact on me; its informative content and even-handed yet critical analysis of a very difficult and sensitive topic. It looks at the Jewish experience in Poland during the Nazi Regime, and Warsaw quite specifically;
"Ninety-eight percent of the Jewish population of Warsaw perished in the Second World War, together with one-quarter of the Polish population: in all, some 720,000 souls, a number that dwarfs the destruction of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined and is undoubtedly the greatest slaughter perpetrated within a single city in human history. The flight of twenty-odd thousand Jews from the Warsaw ghetto seems by comparison a negligible phenomenon... Yet it was probably the greatest mass escape from confinement in history..."
Paulsson goes on to investigate that escape, the difficulties that faced the Jews in the world outside the ghetto and the circumstances, and substantial network of support, that made Warsaw "the largest clandestine community of Jews anywhere in Europe, in fact probably the largest community of people that has lived in hiding in any city, ever." Half of those who fled perished, but so did 99 percent of those who did not flee.
A particularly touchy element is that of antisemitism amongst the Poles. Polish society had a large number of antisemites because of its Patriotic-Catholic tradition and the growth of a Nationalistic Right-wing movement prior to the re-establishment of the Polish State in 1918. I was, however, surprised to find how separate the Jewish community was considering how long it had been established in the old Polish Commonwealth; there were problems with language, behaviour and "cultural separateness". They weren't, on the whole, just that nice bunch of people next door who apart from eating kosher are no different than us; most of them lived very separate, and often isolated, lives. It is hardly surprising that Poles and Jews eyed each other suspiciously and each thought the worst of each other. This is something that comes across quite powerfully in the study; none of the resistance groups (Polish or Jewish) comes out smelling of roses - the real heroes are those who acted (Jew or Pole) despite their reservations, for whatever reasons. Even those Poles who stood and said nothing contributed towards the preservation of those endangered lives; "... if there was more antisemitism in Poland than in many other countries, there was also less collaboration."
This is an excellent study of the plight of the Jews in this tragic period. I would recommend that, if nothing else, all historians should read the superb conclusion. (less)
This is a superb and knowledgeable coffee-table book full of glorious photos and solid information. It was a catalogue for an exhibition held in the S...moreThis is a superb and knowledgeable coffee-table book full of glorious photos and solid information. It was a catalogue for an exhibition held in the States.(less)
It is not often that I read an art book from cover to cover. I tend to use them more as reference books which I dip into - over the years I will have...moreIt is not often that I read an art book from cover to cover. I tend to use them more as reference books which I dip into - over the years I will have read there right through, some sections more than once, others less thoroughly as I scan them, looking for something specific. Art books can be quite tedious with their inevitable lists of artists, works, architects and buildings with brief descriptions... almost monotonous. This book is one of those rare exceptions that is not only informative and educational but also quite illuminating and often fascinating. It had me gripped from the very beginning when Da Costa Kaufmann explains the differences in the ways that the Italian Renaissance impacted on Eastern and Central Europe. In Russia, for example, it played a more restricted role due to the special mission the Russians saw themselves as having as preservers of the Orthodox faith, and all the prohibitions that accompanied it, with a rejection of the Latin "deviation". Architecture played a greater role in transmitting Renaissance ideas from Italy, but even here the Italians were forced to work to Russian traditional forms (as on the Kremlin) and the desire to imitate, even exceed Byzantium, meant that the Italian impact was muted. It is no coincidence that Russian ideas had to change before she could play a more active role in Europe. In Central Europe, on the other hand, with its greater religious, cultural and political links with Italy the impact was much greater. The multi-ethnic states of Poland and the Habsburgs had an international art which served and drew on the talents of many regions, and Italians and Germans worked side-by-side and we see the dissemination of Renaissance ideas through foreign patronage. Whilst the influence of the courts was great, the economic wealth of the Hansa encouraged the creation of art outside the court, especially in public buildings (and especially, churches) and we see the development of a "civic" expression of status and wealth. Kaufmann gives us a fascinating history of the development of this art, especially in the German and Bohemian lands and points out that whilst there is a tendency to see the Renaissance in Germany as an ethnic expression produced by ethnic Germans, the Renaissance is characterised by the production of hybrid styles which merge the Italianate with traditional local forms. Kaufmann also gives us a super explanation of the impact of the Reformation on Church art. Initially the reformists questioned the place of images in the Church but it wasn't long before a form of Protestant iconography arose (partly in response to the radicalism of the iconoclasts) centred on themes such as the Last Supper and epitaphs. In church architecture we see the creation of an open space and the prominence of the pulpit. As Kaufmann progress through his history he covers a number of fascinating and interesting topics. I was particularly interested in his explanation of the growth of specialist collections (Wunderkammer) where works of man-made art would be displayed alongside works of nature. Some natural objects (ostrich eggs or tusks) would be incorporated into man-made elements as if to complete them, or collaged in mosaics (pietra dure). These collections often also included scientific instruments. These "encyclopaedic" collections reflected the world in microcosm, and through organisation could give understanding of the macrocosm. Art was thus linked to the Renaissance view of the world; the four seasons corresponding to the four humours of Man and, in turn, to the four elements. Often, in the rooms where these collections were stored, there would be depictions of the elements or the seasons, or months of the year, on ceilings or panels (behind which relevant artefacts would be stored). Thus a ruler displayed not only his wealth but also his mastery of his world. This was an era of collecting which led to patronage (not only of artists but also scholars and scientists). Kaufman goes on to look at the impact of the Thirty Years War and points out that not all of Central Europe was involved; Poland saw a golden age of architecture, and even in Germany and Bohemia there were important developments taking place, especially in literature and music, which laid the foundations for the work of the later C17th and early C18th. This was a period of artistic growth for Dresden and Augsburg, whilst Prague and other cities declined, and some Germans, such as Elsheimer, Holler and Kneller, worked abroad (Italy had a particular attraction) and had much impact on art where they practised. In Poland, art and architecture was used as a way of unifying the various and diverse ethnic elements after the Union of Lublin. In Bohemia we see the building of the ground-breaking Wallenstein Palace which was to have huge impact on later developments, especially in Austria. It can almost be argued that it was here that the Baroque grew up; size and grandeur became a metaphor for power. I found Kaufmann's description of the developments in the post-war era particularly illuminating. In this victorious era for the Catholics, religious sculptures made a huge revival and were heavily influenced by Spanish works. Elaborate rituals and dramatic sermons, designed to move their audiences, had their visual counterparts, especially in Southern Germany and Austria. Sculptures of saints often interact with a central painting in a piece of theatre and can be compared to Bernini's work. During the Thirty Years War the Habsburgs had moved their court from Prague to Vienna and a style was developed which resembled the Baroque of Rome and Bologna but, where once it had served the Church, it now served the nobility - it was an architecture of triumph. The second decade of the C18th saw a boom in Church architecture in S Germany and the introduction of the Rococo style. It is more commonly seen in Bavaria which had strong links with France (where the style originated) and was imported by French gardeners and French-trained architects. The clergy seems to have competed with their secular counterparts in the splendour of their projects. In the typical interior everything (painting, sculpture, stucco and architecture) is fused into a whole. We also see a fusion of French and Italian elements (trompe d'oeil alongside rocaille). The joy of religion, of beauty as an expression of the divine, is what is intended to be communicated, and its apogee is to be seen in the Wurzburg Residenz and the work of Balthazar Neumann. In the latter half of the C18th most Central European states were autocracies looking towards France and England for inspiration. State control of the arts, with the aim of independence from foreign influences, and improving quality, led to the setting up of academies. There is a plethora of styles and an interest in Chinoiserie (which grows out of the Enlightenment literary motif where exotic visitors are used to expose weaknesses in Western systems). The Neoclassical style becomes the public face of the enlightened ruler as a country gentleman, the Neo-Gothic is his more private face. There are times where Kaufman managed to lose me but overall he gives a very clear and illuminating account describing the evolution of art and architecture in this part of Europe. The book is weaker when dealing with painting in depth (as with most art books). Quite detailed attempts to describe composition, vibrant painterly activity and the use of colour are actually wasted on us since there are no large-scale colour illustrations of the many works described and, anyway, this style of writing is more suited to film or television documentary. The book ends with the disappearance of two of its main protagonists; the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappears in the Partitions, and the Holy Roman Empire is dissolved after the Revolutionary Wars (1806). The German states became secularised and separated from Austria, and the Free Cities disappeared. The loss of the huge diversity of states impacted on the variety of cultural activity - the new states had more centripetal tendencies. The disappearance of multi-ethnic states and a society in which foreign artists moved about freely was replaced by more nationalist ones with very specific (ethnic) agendas. It is not difficult to see parallels with the world of today; the apparent internationalism and freedom of movement provided by the European Union is belied by a distrust of multiculturalism and the growth of nationalistic trends.(less)
There is a superb opening description of the day dawning. From the beginning you know that this is not a book you can treat lightly - it demands that...moreThere is a superb opening description of the day dawning. From the beginning you know that this is not a book you can treat lightly - it demands that you concentrate, that you pay attention. It demands that you enter into a partnership. Superb, delicious descriptions, lusciously painted. Staciuk's description of his driving along the country roads, through villages, is so vivid, so evocative. Staciuk acts like a conduit between his eyes and the visual centres of your brain. He describes with a clarity and an emotive detail that regenerates those moments in your imagination as moments you have witnessed personally as you pass the villages on the road. He makes you aware that there are lives there, lives you will never know yet lived all the same. And this is just the first chapter.
There's a sort of stream of consciousness to it all. Rich in description and layers of colour, of heat and strong shadows in the street, that remind me of Bruno Schultz or Poitr Szewc. There's a danger of drifting off in all that heat and colour because, so often, there appears to be no real focus, no story... but Staciuk is a writer and somehow keeps you there as he peels his onion of memories, imaginations and observations. We lose all sense of time. The depth of observation and description gets so dense that one sometimes feels like one is wading through treacle. Just as it starts to get too difficult Staciuk introduces a new image and helps us along, but it's dense and at times very difficult to focus - like sitting through a performance of Schoenberg's atonal stuff; bits are really interesting but others lose you... And then along comes that infatuation with the dancing girl, a delicious piece of writing. And this is the secret of the way Staciuk works; he creates a storm then throws out an anchor. This is a journey, a physical one. Staciuk's visual impressions merge with the memories of other journeys. At the core of the journey is the memory of the girl in white. It really is all about the girl and her ability to fascinate and hypnotise. It's about desire and unrequited lust... and the place where it happened and how getting there, going there, being there, are a melange of memories, feelings and imaginings. Staciuk lies and tells us that it's all about light. It's not. It's about memories and the present and how they collide and jumble in a mishmash of feelings and emotions and impressions. Images flash, coalesce and, for a moment, actually become reality, become the present co-existing with the real physical here-and-now. This journey of Staciuk's reminds me of so many of my journeys in Eastern Europe. Villages merge, the emptiness of the wheatfields fades into the outskirts, ditches and green-painted fences, garden fences, orchard fences, trees and shrubbery. Barefoot girls and dogs and old men flash by. A small group of men and women sit round a table, smoking, drinking cold beers. A horse and cart, the driver sitting slightly hunch-backed under the glare of the sun. All the villages take on a generic quality, all villages, all outskirts look the same... looked the same... will look the same. All these things enter the mind, the memory. All these things become chemically bonded with your thoughts and images and smells and the way the sun shines... There's a point when you're not wading through the treacle any more but drift from his memories to your own and, sometimes, it becomes difficult to differentiate. That's what Staciuk has captured here... the way we drift from reality to memory... and back again. When I was an art student we had to go into town one day and carry out a Dada assignment. We had to record our sensations, experiences, snippets of conversations, smells and sights. That's what Staciuk is doing. It's a layer cake and the layers are journeys at different times. Sometimes the places overlap, at other times it's the impressions that overlap. Some layers are about the girl. One layer is about the Papal visit in '97. Word association, idea association. So now I've finished was wading through treacle worth it? Yes. This story stirred memories and ideas and thoughts - that's what made it hard work, that's also what made it special. We talked and as we talked he reminded me of things and took me down paths I haven't taken in a while...
After the treacle it suddenly flows like a dam opened up. The short stories, brief essays, that follow are almost a relief. Their main theme is about nature but the stories abound with life, death, disappointment, heat and cold. They remind me of the pebbles one disturbs on a hillside that then become an avalanche - but at this stage they're still a cascade of pebbles...(less)
Before the war the small town of Gdow, the nearest large community to my grandfather's farm, had a sizeable number of Jews living in it. My father use...moreBefore the war the small town of Gdow, the nearest large community to my grandfather's farm, had a sizeable number of Jews living in it. My father used to talk about them; they ran some of the shops and inns, they traded with his parents, he went to school with them (they gave him their chicken sandwiches and he gave them his pork kielbasa ones). One of these Jews, a trader called Samuel, often came round to the farm and would chat with my grandparents. He would make complimentary comments about my grandmother's Bigos, hinting at being given a bowl. She would joke with him and warn him that the Rabbi would have something to say if he knew he was eating pork... and he would joke back. When the Germans came Samuel came to see my grandfather and asked him to help him. My grandfather said, "I can hide you for three days but no longer, if the Germans find out then they'll not only kill me but my wife and children as well." Samuel replied that he would not impose himself on his good friends but would find another way of surviving. He didn't. He and all the Jews of Gdow; shopkeepers, innkeepers, tradesmen, schoolfriends, ended up in Belzec and were turned into ashes, bones and dust. This book is about something that is almost taken for granted throughout. It is not really about the courage it took to survive in the sewers of Lvov because survival is not about courage, more about determination to live despite all the hazards. This book is about the courage of one man, Leopold Socha. To put your life in danger for others is a brave choice, but to put the lives of those you love at risk... that takes a kind of courage few people actually exhibit - yet so many in Poland did in that nightmare time. Socha may not have started with saintly aspirations but there can be no doubt that saint he became. I was inspired to read "In the Sewers of Lvov" after watching Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" (it's the original book that the film is based on - "The Girl in the Green Sweater" is a more recent 'compilation' of reminiscences written partly by the small girl who survived). It's a very easy read and gives us a reasonable picture of what life was like for the individuals who hid in the sewers as well as in the ghetto and the concentration camp, Janowska, nearby. It's not intellectually demanding since, I believe, it was written for the general audience. I was quite surprised at how much the film reflects the book yet, whilst there is little new in the book (having seen the film), I still enjoyed it and still found it fascinating. It's surprising how little of the dirt and smell, even danger, comes across. The small group of Jews helped by Socha had obviously grown so used to the horrible circumstances in which they found themselves. It's only really towards the end, when outsiders become involved, that that one becomes aware of the dirt and smell and conditions they had to endure. Most of the story, based on the written reminiscences of the leader of the group, Ignacy Chiger, and interviews with other survivors, deals with their day-to-day survival, the relationships within the group, the arguments. Whilst there are deaths they are largely almost incidental... this story is about life... and the courage of that one special man who found safe havens and brought them food, Socha. The moment that really stands out for me is that one when the dirty, hunched, almost blind group finally come to the surface. People stand around amazed, stunned. The little boy is frightened and wants to go back down. Socha stands there proudly. "This is my work," he says, "These are my Jews." How many of us can ever hope to have that courage and that pride? And the final chapter, the one dealing with the aftermath is new stuff to those who have seen the film, apart, that is, from that final tragedy and those disgraceful words... (less)
There is a painting by Jan Matejko, "The Battle of Grunwald", that has always fascinated me. The painting celebrates the decisive battle in which Wlad...moreThere is a painting by Jan Matejko, "The Battle of Grunwald", that has always fascinated me. The painting celebrates the decisive battle in which Wladyslaw Jagiello’s 39,000 Polish-Lithuanian knights and their allies crushed the Teutonic Order, a force of 27,000, one of the strongest military organisations in Europe. The Catholic Polish knights were a minority in an army made up of Lithuanian pagans, Orthodox Christians, Lithuanian Muslim Tartars and “heretical” Bohemian Hussites. I first saw the painting as a Polish postage stamp (in its time it was the largest in the world). It is a chaotic mass. Men are engaged in brutal combat; spears, swords, axes, horses and banners. Within this chaos three figures seem to really stand out: the flowing white of the Grand Master as he leans back, about to fall under the forceful thrust of a spear and the push of a warrior about to take a swing with his axe; the central crowned figure, in velvety red, arms upraised, face aglow as though he has been struck with a divine vision; and, completing the triangle, on the right, a mailed warrior, arms reaching back over his shoulder as he is about to deal a mighty blow with his sword. This is Ziska. So it was with genuine interest that I picked up this book (it had Matejko's Ziska on the cover!). Initially I was disappointed as a slightly confusing introduction seemed to spend as much time on the intrigues of Hungary as it did in the Czech lands. It is only later that I began to appreciate what the author was trying to do; I began to feel that this tale is like a jigsaw puzzle in which my lazy brain is being pushed to start making the connections as the picture comes together. These were interesting, chaotic times, and interesting times create opportunities for individuals to overcome disadvantages in life. The chaos of the late 1300s and early 1400s was a crucible within which much of the future was forged. There is a good explanation of the religious situation in Bohemia, of how the Papal crisis of the 1300s led to the questioning of certain religious issues (especially that of Papal Infallibility and even of the right of the Papacy to leadership). There are also strong connections between the translation of the Bible into the vernacular with the growth of nationalist feelings. The Anglo-Bohemian links of the late 1300s led to the spread of the teachings of Wycliffe in Bohemia and gradually the unsteadiness of the religious and political situation led to disobedience to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Hussite Revolution and war. We dive straight into the Hussite Revolution, and the first Defenestration of Prague, without any real explanation of what was so attractive about the doctrines of Hus; there are suggestions that somehow everything is linked to the chaos of the Papal crisis of the 1300s, to the growth of anti-German feelings, to the rise of Pan-Slavism and even in the birth pangs of Czech nationalism - why? What encouraged these feelings? Was it simply a desire for order within chaos or was it, as hinted at, much more complex? And against this background we have Ziska, one-eyed, rising from relative obscurity and poverty to becoming the king's man, the Queen's chamberlain and, later, the inspired leader of the Hussite army. It was Ziska who realised the importance of discipline, and of the use of weaponry and tactics developed for a largely peasant force expected to meet disorganised heavy cavalry in battle. Ziska created the first really modern army. The Imperial response to the revolt is dealt with well; we begin to see what a devious politician the regent, Sigismund of Luxembourg, is and what the Czechs had to put up with. Sigismund's indecisiveness and the arrogance of his German forces in thinking it would all be over soon resulted in their eventual, ignominious retreat, not just once but on every occasion they came in their crusades. Ziska, on the other hand, showed himself to be decisive and his prestige rose as a result. What becomes really obvious is the antagonism felt by the Czechs for the Germans and the desire for autonomy from the Holy Roman Empire. Czech nationalism linked with the desire for religious freedoms, in other words, acts as a driving force in this unfolding story. Once the immediate threat was dissipated, however, then problems arose between the more moderate (Calixtine or Utraquist) and more radical (Taborite) arms of Hussitism. It is never made clear why Ziska allied himself with the radicals because there are times when he became concerned about some of their beliefs and behaviour, but there can be no doubt that he turned the zealous Taborites into a might military force. This is a real tale of intrigue and violence. It is interesting how all revolutions seem to run out of control as different factions arise and as extremists act, dissatisfied with the pace of things. Ziska appears to be in the background throughout yet he is the real driving force; an able leader, a pious man. At times his actions appear severe and reminiscent of the extremism of religious zealots yet most of the time he seems to reign in extremism. These were violent times with brutal taking of lives; burning prisoners in barns and churches, throwing them alive down mine shafts, mass slaughter. Amidst all the machinations of Sigismund and his German forces, coupled with the real-politics of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was inevitable that the radical Hussite elements would clash with the more conservative ones. If they're not fighting Sigismund then they're involved in internal struggles, if not against Imperial and Catholic supporters then amongst themselves. When facing foreign foes their armies were seen as invincible; Catholic forces began to question whose side God really was on and this religious doubt was encouraged by the spreading of Hussite leaflets among the Germans - an act that predates and predicts the power of the printing press and can be seen as sowing the seeds of what was to come. The sudden death of Ziska, of plague, comes as a surprise. More significant is the treatment of his body by his German foe when the Czechs lost their freedom; like Wycliff and Cromwell, it was disinterred and buried as a criminal's corpse. Such is fear and hate. The moderate Hussites, ultimately, came out the victors. They annihilated the Taborites at Lipany and were able to establish peace abroad... until the Thirty Years War came along. The Hussite Revolution is an important moment in European history: it presaged the civil strife that would come with the Reformation a century later, it showed what was militarily possible with an organised and disciplined army inspired by religious zealotry. It was also the first crack in the shell of the feudal system since, at its height, everyone was seen as being equal before the law. At times one feels one is observing the birth of the modern world. In Matejko's painting, just behind and to the right of Ziska is the Polish knight, Zawista Czarny. He was one of the greatest knights of his era, famed throughout Europe. I always found it strange that this knight is not wearing armour and should be using a lance in such close combat but, because of his proximity to Ziska, I have always linked the two in my mind. It therefore came as a surprise to me to discover that Ziska never actually fought at Grunwald and that he and Zawista Czarny found themselves on opposite sides in the Second anti-Hussite Crusade. Little things... (less)
"Travel here demands a forensic passion, not merely a love of art or architecture or natural beauty; there are many layers of civilisation in the bord...more"Travel here demands a forensic passion, not merely a love of art or architecture or natural beauty; there are many layers of civilisation in the borderlands, and they do not lie neatly on top of one another. A ruined medieval church sits in the site of a pagan temple, not far from a mass grave surrounded by a modern town. There is a castle on the hill and a Catholic church at its foot and an Orthodox church beside a ruined synagogue. A traveler can meet a man born in Poland, brought up in the Soviet Union, who now lives in Belarus - and he has never left his village."
As I read Anne Applebaum's introduction I thought "Every historian, every politician should read this in order to understand the damage that ignorance about a place can do. Every historian and politician should read this to understand the complexity of a place." In just a few superb paragraphs Anne paints a picture of persecution, subjugation and the search for identity that must be a part of ALL histories but dominates that of these ethnically-cleansed lands in which cultural genocide is the norm. I was reminded of the time when, in the early 1990s, countries in the former Soviet Block sought their independence and often fought to establish what they felt was rightfully their heritage, English colleagues of mine, wrapped in the comfort of almost a thousand years of security and national identity, would sit baffled and in condemnation of what they saw as this pettiness. They had that same patronising attitude that they often reserve for the Welsh and the Scots when they try to retain a little of what makes them them. Anne Applebaum is a very good writer - she has a comfortable way of grabbing one's attention and holding it. In her section on Kaliningrad it is almost as if one is in a spy story by le Carre. Her description of a failed society lies in that ruined city and the decrepit hotel where she stays, with its poor construction, plumbing and lively cockroach. The Soviet Union was always going to fail and once it did it would always resemble something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. She writes dispassionately in that she does not take sides, nor does she pass judgement; she observes and records. Being an "outsider" she is able to disassociate herself from the hopes, dreams and myths in a way that almost disappoints those of us exiles who are looking for reinforcement of our illusions - she is a blast of fresh air. She observes the tragedy of rivalry and hatred between the Lithuanian Poles and ethnic Lithuanians. Was it always like this or has it grown out of the years of living apart, the evil of Russification and as a result of the growth of Nationalism? One becomes aware of small communities harking back to a past that was brutally and crudely torn out or eradicated by either the Nazis, the Soviets or, in the worst of cases, both. Sadness permeates. The book is full of conflict as neighbours contest land, contest history, contest the ownership of poets and heroes. Anne Applebaum is a wonderful observer; her stay in Nowogrodek is so evocative of lost glory, lost hope, of decay and poverty, of that hopelessness and neglect one has come to associate with these contested borderlands. Once one crosses the border into Western Ukraine things start to look more familiar. Stories of corruption, dodgy dealings and of the Mafia remind us that we are not only in the borderlands but also at a boundary in time; everything is in a state of flux. This is, in a strange way, a post-apocalyptic world where everyone has to find their new role, where one man is on his way down whilst another is going up, where the exploited suffer whilst the wheelers and dealers grow fat. And the countryside, so evocative of the countryside I saw in Poland at this time, there are poverty, survival, some hope and many ruined dreams made more tragic because of some greater loss. Anne Applebaum writes beautifully. Her easy and evocative prose almost makes her materialise before you and her voice charms images out of the air. Her section on Dobrobych and Bruno Schulz is a masterwork of writing that all aspirants ought to study. This is a strange journey, an exotic journey: from the concrete monstrosities of Kaliningrad and Minsk; through the isolated villages lost in mist, forest and mountains in the South; Kamenets with its Ghormengast castle and the eclectic structures of Czernowitz... this is an alien land. The sense of being on the outer limits of human habitation, on the borderlands of time and place, lingers. It touches your sensibilities like spreading tendrils or cobwebs. There is that sense of time having paused whilst boundaries always shift like rivers breaking their banks in constant flooding... almost surreal. This is a journey that can never be taken again and it ends in beautiful, exciting Odessa. From the cold, concrete Baltic to the warm, exotic sun of the Black Sea and the minarets of Istanbul. Wonderful. Anne travelled this region in 1990-91 (in fact one of the last landmarks she plants for us is the declaration of independence made by Lithuania in February 1991) yet as I was reading the book I was also reading about continuing tensions in the region: tensions between Lithuania and Poland over the rights of Lithuanian Poles; of Polish-speaking Belorussians being persecuted by the Belarus state; of conflict between Eastern and Western Ukraines over the legality of the use of the Russian language. One paragraph among many stands out;
'Politics perplexed her. "I am Polish, he is Jewish, and we have been living together for thirty years," Larisa told me, pointing at her husband. "In all of that time I have never figured out what makes him different from me."'(less)
I was in the Hetmanska bookshop on the Krakow Rynek when this book sang out to me in that mysterious manner that some books do. The title had some hau...moreI was in the Hetmanska bookshop on the Krakow Rynek when this book sang out to me in that mysterious manner that some books do. The title had some haunting sorcery about it and the bumf on the cover was seductive; "A very gifted writer..." it said. I opened it at random and these sentences jumped out at me; "...When I grow up, I'm going to marry her. "Jerzyk, first she would have to divorce her husband." I read the blurb on the back cover; "A comic gem..." I was hooked. The opening lived up to its promises: the morphinistes; the exceptionally cultured detachment of Russian troops who refused to deflower Mr Traba's neice; the irascible Mr Traba himself, constantly in his alcoholic haze; the formulation of an assassination plot that promises all sorts of mishaps and adventures, all indicated that what we have here is a surreal comedy in the vein of "Catch 22". But then I began to struggle. This is not always a light read and it appears to, occasionally, take diversions that break the apparent flow of... I don't quite know what word to use because there is a dry humour here, a tongue in cheek cynicism but also a hint of sorrow and lost youth. There are other times of lovely writing and of moments that bring a real smile to one's cheeks as one drifts amongst the Lutheran community here on the edges of Catholic Poland. I'm glad I read it because it did have its moments. There are moments when you get sucked into this world of insane conspiracy, bureaucracy and religious alcoholic stupor but there was one moment that really took me by surprise and made me realise that, despite being intellectually aware of the fact that it is set in the early sixties, it read more like the world of today... was that good or bad?(less)
This book starts with a birth surrounded by all the pomp and power of an empire at its peak. in reality the book is about failure and indecision, abou...moreThis book starts with a birth surrounded by all the pomp and power of an empire at its peak. in reality the book is about failure and indecision, about the useless sacrifice of thousands in a vain and pointless enterprise that somehow manages to sum up all that is wrong with man's ambition - in fact, Napoleon summed it all up when he coined his quip on reaching Warsaw, having abandoned his men; "From the sublime to the ridiculous there is but one step." Watching the build-up to the Russian campaign is like watching a samurai preparing himself for ritual suicide... there is that sense of inevitability - that driving desire to destroy oneself. The "French" army is actually a massive coming together of forces throughout Europe; the courageous Italians, the various Germans, Austrians, Dutch, Belgians, Spaniards and, of course, the "largest non-French contingent... who numbered some 95,000", the Poles. Napoleon's arrogance towards and exploitation of his allies, his incompetence and dithering is astounding. His deception and abuse of his Polish allies, whose courage is constantly proven, is inexcusable! The French were poorly equipped with out-of-date weaponry, poorly designed and uncomfortable uniforms and a genuine lack of logistical planning for a war to be held in an Eastern Europe that was a total contrast to the more "civilised" and comfortable conditions found in the West. "The troops (were) subjected to a rude awakening... there was an element of surprise at the exoticism and the backwardness of many of the areas east of the Oder. they marvelled at the emptiness of the landscape..." The roads were unsuitable, the villages were squalid, there was a lack of food and infrastructure that could "support" such large invading forces... even the fact that the troops had to bivouac in the field rather than be billeted in comfortable farmhouses and towns... all contributed to the great discomfort of the men and the failure of the campaign. Some of the mistakes made were so similar to Hitler's over a hundred years later... right down to the alienation of potential allies within Russian-occupied territory! "The Frenchmen came to remove our fetters," the peasants quipped, "but he took our boots too." The Russians wore more comfortable uniforms and had superb artillery but Russian troops were conscripted for a period of twenty-five years - when they left their villages they were given a symbolic funeral since they were never expected to return. Their training and discipline was harsh and they did not lay down their arms; "Frederick the Great is alleged to have said that one first had to kill the Russian soldier and then push him over." The real tragedy is that they were lead by a gang of in-fighting incompetents that belong more in a school staffroom than on the field of battle. "Napoleon's military success in the past had rested on his capacity to make a quick appraisal of any situation and to act intelligently and decisively on its basis. Yet from the moment he set out on his (campaign) he displayed a marked inability... to act decisively...(He had) a difficulty in comprehending what his opponents were trying to achieve... The Russians had spent a year and a half deploying for an offensive, only to retreat the moment operations began. This... led Napoleon to expect a trap, and then to assume that they were avoiding battle out of fear of losing. He was not to know that most of it was the result of chaos and intrigue at Russian headquarters." When the fighting begins cities are razed, the slaughter is immense. The agony of the wounded is heart-rending. One small fact jumped out at me - it concerned the battle of Borodino: "It had been the greatest massacre in recorded history, not to be surpassed until the first day of the Somme in 1916." Perhaps the most surprising bit of the story is the march on Moscow. History (or is it romantic vision) concentrates on the horrors of the retreat of a failed army, in the freezing depths, harassed by Cossacks, under fire, starving. Yet the march to Moscow, in the blazing heat and rain, bitten by mosquitos and dying of hunger and thirst cost the French almost a third of their forces! In the retreat, Napoleon's concern about his loss of face meant that suitable, life-saving action was not taken prior to and during the march back. In fact constantly we see not a great leader at the head of his men but a great vacillator, a man full of indecision, skulking in his carriage or hidden away in luxury whist all about him struggle and die. When he did make decisions they were the wrong ones and had terrible consequences. His men "should have blamed Napoleon but did not because he belonged to them as much as they to him... His glory was their common property, and to diminish his reputation by denouncing him and turning away from him would have been to destroy the common fund of glory they had built over the years and which was their most prizes possession." What I really like about this sort of book is the way it tries to tell the story of the ordinary men. We hear (and see) individual tragedies played out on this cruel stage littered with frozen bodies and abandoned booty. The terrible cold, the lack of food, the conditions... even the lice... One shudders as one watches the growing indifference to the torment of their comrades, the desperate acts they became prey to simply in order to survive. My heart went out to them. Every time they thought they'd reached safety things just got worse. And the death toll was astounding! "...it is safe to say that all in all, between the Grande Armee's crossing of the Niemen at the end of June 1812 and the end of February 1813, about a million people died, fairly equally divided between the two sides." Europe was changed. The Russian Campaign set the seeds for the setting up of autocratic structures throughout, and this in the face of the desires for greater freedom the man-in-the-street (especially the Russian exposed to the greater liberties of the West) expected. Russia and Prussia became dominant powers and it is no conceit to see in Napoleon's failure the sowing of the seeds of that greater conflict to come in 1939. That I enjoyed this book should not need stating, that it is a good read is undeniable. Zamoyski writes with an ease that encompasses us and a knowledge that gives us material to bore our friends with for a long time to come. This is an epic tale told in an epic manner. (less)
I have noticed, over the years, that many Post-War Polish writers tend to write in short chapters, even short stories, that appear (often) unrelated y...moreI have noticed, over the years, that many Post-War Polish writers tend to write in short chapters, even short stories, that appear (often) unrelated yet acquire a relationship as the book progresses because of the interrelationships and accidental coincidences that occur. This appears to be largely true with “House of Day, House of Night”. It becomes quite obvious, very quickly, that the book consists of a series of short stories (sometimes VERY short) that remind one of random(ish) notes one might make when researching a topic; recipes, descriptions of places and flora, conversations one has had. Dysfunctional characters appear; an alcoholic who watches his world disintegrate, a bank clerk who falls in love with the man in her dreams only to find reality harsh and disappointing, a survivor of the Gulags who finds himself condemned in a chance statement he reads in Plato. My early impression of the book was of a portrait being painted with dabs of colour and shade here and there. In fact it began to remind me very much of a Swiss cheese full of holes except that it is the holes that are solid and the cheese that is empty space. The solid holes, at times, exude a sort of energy, an electricity that charges the empty space between them and begins to create something shadowy but still unreal. There were times I found the book too disjointed. It is well-written and quite interesting at times but it didn’t always grip my attention wholeheartedly. I would go off and do other things (draw, write, walk) so that my reading experience became even more disjointed. When I used to work I used to read a chapter of a book before I set off... this book would have been ideal for those days. Now, in my retirement, I don’t enjoy “clever” books, I yearn for a gripping read, an interesting story. And yet I do not feel I am doing the book justice. It IS well-written, some of the stories ARE interesting, poignant, even tragic. Every now and then some fascinating thread is developed or some character pulls at you... I feel there was a really good book here but it was left among the notes and jottings and never got written.(less)
I love Witkiewicz as an artist. His drawings are expressive and have a touch of insanity about them. I had also read about this book and gone to so mu...moreI love Witkiewicz as an artist. His drawings are expressive and have a touch of insanity about them. I had also read about this book and gone to so much trouble trying to get hold of it so, you can imagine, I was really looking forward to reading this one... Oh dear! Perhaps it's my age. I found this book difficult to get into but was prepared to give it a go... I struggled. It starts as a pseudo-intellectual self-analysis of adolescent sexual desires and religious belief, of relationships with parents and friends. A tantalising reference to war and communist invasion is thrown in but most of that first chapter, and indeed the one that follows (which is set in an aristocratic party) the words just begin to merge and I found contemplating my navel much more stimulating. Pompous words and ideas just roll off in some sort of autonomous writing experiment... I reall did lose the will to live! Life is too short! (less)
I was raised amongst survivors of the great horror that was the War in Eastern Europe. My mother endured forced labour under the Soviets in 1940 and s...moreI was raised amongst survivors of the great horror that was the War in Eastern Europe. My mother endured forced labour under the Soviets in 1940 and slave labour under the Nazis after 1941. She saw some of her family being deported by the Soviets to almost certain death in Kazakhstan and discovered the rest in a mass grave, shot by the Nazis. Her best friend survived Auschwitz. My Godfather was a partizan in the forests around Lwow, fighting both Nazis and Soviets. My Godmother lived through the Stalinist regime, survived the battles for Kharkov and slave labour in Germany. I was taught chess by a White Russian whose memories of that time were horrific. Even I visited Auschwitz in 1963 - when I returned to England I was shocked to realise non of the English people I knew knew anything about the place. Until recently who, apart from the Poles, knew the truth about Katyn? So, when I started reading Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” my first impression was “There is nothing new here”. I’d heard it all in one place or another. But what Snyder does do is take all those evils and puts them together in his Pandora’s Box - only one thing is missing, Hope. Because there was no hope, only fear and death. The depressing bleakness hollows out the soul. One has to pause to take stock, to look away, to absorb the evil and hear the dead cry out for justice, and an understanding that what happened there, on the “Eastern Front”, in the “Bloodlands”, actually exceeded anything the West could understand: “...The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler...this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.” Timothy Snyder is the conscience of us all. Snyder fills his Pandora’s Box and then he reveals its contents to us. He deals with the real terrors of Stalinism; the tragedy of the Great Famine of the Ukraine, the nightmare of the Great Terror, and the cold-blooded elimination of the educated classes and all forms of potential resistance in Poland. He goes on to deal with Nazism; once more, the elimination of educated Poles, the attempts to depopulate Belarus, and the Final Solution. He looks at Post-War Cold War anti-Semitism in a very knowledgeable manner that makes the era clearly understandable. He does a wonderful job of sorting the truth out from the “false history” we have in the West by reminding us (for example) that “by the time the gas chamber and crematoria complexes came on line in spring 1943, more than three-quarters of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead.” The name of Belzec is less well known than that of Auschwitz because it was a death camp - those who survived it were highly lucky and could be counted on the fingers of one hand. “The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.” Snyder debunks the modern attempts to “balance” out history: the Nazis and the Soviets were not inhuman beasts - they were ordinary men and women like you and me. These men and women had ideals which they tried to live up to. They saw themselves as victims of other groups and their actions were a form of self-defense. They forced others to collude in their plans by giving them a choice between that or death. He reminds us of the real atrocities carried out in the war, for example, “About as many Poles were killed in the bombing of Warsaw in 1939 as Germans were killed in the bombing of Dresden in 1945. For Poles, that bombing was just the beginning of one of the bloodiest occupations of the war... “ and that “German journalists and (some) historians ... have exaggerated the number of Germans killed during wartime and postwar evacuation, flight, or deportation...” Snyder’s “Bloodlands” are, for me, the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth partitioned between 1772 and 1794. The horrors that took place here are just a continuation of the policies of the Germans and Russians to control those lands. Perhaps I fall into that category of historians who try to understand the horrors in nationalistic terms - he debunks the Russian myth of the “Great Patriotic war” and points out that most of the “Russian” dead were “Soviet” and came from Belarus, the Ukraine and Eastern Poland - themselves victims of Stalinism in 1939 (and earlier). I said there was nothing new here - that isn’t completely true. Snyder’s research is so broad as he brings the strands together that there will always be a fact that will surprise you, no matter how much you think you know the history. I never knew that the invading Germans, in 1939, tended not to treat captured Polish soldiers as prisoners-of-war but simply shot many of them as they surrendered. Snyder filled his history with facts and figures throughout. One simple fact stands in for so many in the book: “On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.” There’s nothing new in this book. The story and the facts have always been available. In this post-Cold war era the truth about what went on in the East has been slowly revealed to the West: all the “false” history is been revealed as another version of the West’s anti-Communist propaganda, a Big brother version of history in which Polish troops, for example, were not allowed to partake in VE celebrations because the country was Communist (albeit sold out by the allies at Yalta). Snyder brings the true history of this era to the attention of the West. Everyone should read it - but then I would say that, wouldn’t I, I was raised amongst survivors of the great horror that was the War in Eastern Europe. (less)
Whenever I go to Poland I'm aware of the fact that it is completely different to the Poland my parents knew - half of it is missing. The destruction o...moreWhenever I go to Poland I'm aware of the fact that it is completely different to the Poland my parents knew - half of it is missing. The destruction of the Polish Jews was a great crime but it was also another nail in the Polish cross since it made a very good job of wiping out upto 700 years of an important aspect of Polish history: at the times of the Partitions over 70% of the world's Jews lived in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and just before the start of World War 2 over 90% of Europe's Jews lived in Poland. The ghosts remain - not just in the slaughterhouses set up by the Germans in the most convenient place for extermination of the Jews but also in the cities. Buildings, town halls, synagogues, cemeteries survived. This book is a wonderful record of those surviving fragments whose existence was once an everyday part of Polish society and now... just fade away into memory.(less)
This is a superb book but I can understand Lem fans being puzzled by it. It was his first book and is semi-autobiographical being written not long aft...moreThis is a superb book but I can understand Lem fans being puzzled by it. It was his first book and is semi-autobiographical being written not long after the War. It starts with a funeral and that strange disassociation one gets when mixing with members of the family one does not often meet or know more than superficially. It then moves on to the "hospital" - the Mental Institution - where everything takes on a surreal drifting quality - things are observed in crisp detail but as if through a fog. All comes into sharp focus as the harsh reality of the insane world interposes.(less)