The Taste of Ashes

The Aftermath of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Marci Shore

Marci Shore’s new analysis of Eastern Europe in the post communist era takes us into that territory through her personal journeys and the people she has known there for over twenty years. It is similar to Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe (2011) but somewhat more intimate. Where Anna Porter went into Europe as an investigator, Marci Shore lived in Poland and Czechoslovakia and studied there and travelled throughout the region. Thus her analysis tells us from up close about the struggles we have read of elsewhere from a more distant perspective.

She deals with countries where there is no democracy after the Soviets (Romania) and where crime rises dramatically (Poland and Czechoslovakia). She is on the one hand investigating post-communist understanding of the holocaust though those who suffered from it, and showing some impatience for easy generalizations:

…Hundreds  of Jewish teenagers from the United States, from Israel, from dozens of other countries were coming to Poland. They came to Poland wearing stars of David….

The Jewish teenagers did not want to talk to Polish journalists – they did not want to talk to Poles at all…

When Poles tried to talk to them, these young Jews wanted to know how they could live there – in a land that was a cemetery. They wanted to know why the Poles had not saved the Jews Jews. They believed it was not by chance that the Germans had chosen Poland as the site of the death camps. They didn’t want to know about the heroic Polish underground. They didn’t want to know that Poles had also died at Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

This anger and limited view is not limited to young Jews. It applies to many others who are aware of their own suffering only.

She discusses the impact of the book Neighbours, by Jan Gross, which described the destruction of the Jews of the Polish town of Jedwabne (there was also a play of this book, which ran in Toronto last year). A number of Poles did not want to know about this story either.

But The Taste of Ashes does not speak of Jewish relations only. It explores why things have not turned out as well as Eastern Europeans had hoped. It explores in particular the act of collaboration with the communist regime. What did it mean to agree to be an informer?

The book analyzes through an individual what Czeslaw Milosz called “ketman“, the ability to profess one thing publicly and believe another privately. Informers sometimes felt as if they were simply playing a game in which they gave the authorities insignificant bits of information. Yet this act split the personality, leaving neither one the possibility of being authentic.

It is a book about a seriously wounded place, part of the world which Timothy Snyder pointed out in Bloodlands, was the worst place to be in WW2. It is a place where people were often both victims and oppressors. It is arguably not an easy place to be in even today.

Marci Shore says she wanted to understand people and why they came to make the choices they did, among them parents who informed on their daughter to the secret police in an attempt to protect their other children. It is a book about people for whom things turned out, in her words, “really, really badly… This book – their story – is a tragedy.”

And yet the reading of this book was very easy because it was so intimate. I felt as if I were sitting in bars and cafes with Shore, talking with people who could only choose among bad choices, and suffered as the result of them. The book expands our understanding of people living in difficult places in difficult times rather than demonizing a new group.

Anne Applebaums’ Iron Curtain

The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 – 1956

Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum was in Toronto recently to speak about her excellent new book in a Donner Lecture series. Keith Lowe, in his Savage Continent, predicted that there is far more to understand about the destruction in Eastern Europe, and now, months after that statement, we have Applebaum’s book, covering some of the same territory as Lowe and to a certain extent, that of Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt before her.

The great strength of this history is the detailed description of how the communists functioned to destroy civil society in the lands they occupied, flying in Soviet-trained specialists to take control of local radio stations first. Stalin had a sense that radio was the most important tool in taking control of a country, but it was only a first step.

The war had habituated the occupied territories to violence. In Poland, whole buildings of inhabitants were arrested. In Hungary, a man pulling his two children in a cart was arrested and the children left on the street.

Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted on this matter of violence: “The man in the East cannot take Americans (or other westerners) seriously because they have not undergone the same experiences. Their resultant lack of imagination is appalling.”

What Milosz meant was that in the East, one turned away from signs of violence and distress to preserve oneself, while those in the West could not understand the lack of empathy that might stop a man from going to the aid of another being treated unjustly.

The violence of the war had left a vacuum, and into this vacuum came the communists, first with their army and then control of the radio. Some enthusiasts saw this as a good thing, if only because it brought order.

But what order!

Applebaum says the red army’s arrival is rarely remembered as pure liberation  – it is remembered as the beginning of a new occupation. I imagine that could not have been true for Jews, for whom the Soviets were the only hope of liberation in the East, no matter how bad their regime. At least they were not bent on the annihilation of a whole people. The Reds also freed non-Jewish prisoners in camps such as Stutthof.

But the rapacity of the Red army has been documented thoroughly, and Alpplebaum reminds us that in the iconic photo of a Soviet soldier raising a red flag above the Berlin Reichstag, the photo needed to be doctored to hide the several watches the soldiers were wearing on their arms.

Chillingly, Moscow viewed all inhabitants of the new Western territories as potential subversives, so the vice of repression was applied slowly, but relentlessly.

Among banned groups were hiking clubs and charities. The intention was to create a new type of person who was not even capable of imagining alternatives to the Soviet model.

Interestingly, Applebaum raises the question of why more people did not resist. I do wonder if this isn’t a slight application of Milosz’s claim that Westerners cannot understand (although Applebaum is practically an Easterner). Of course one does not resist when the price of resistance is so high. She does mention that resistance (and repression) carried on more intensively in the Baltics and Ukraine, but these areas are outside the scope of her book, which focuses on Poland, East Germany, and Hungary.

Sadly, I might add. These forgotten Baltic and other countries were covered to a certain extent by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands, but they are difficult for most Westerners to understand because they did not have country status after the war. They were absorbed right into the Soviet Union. Their histories remain absorbed to this day. The multilingual Timothy Snyder explained that Lithuanian is too hard to learn (to say nothing of Estonian and Latvian) and as a result, histories of these places have not been written from the point of view of the west.

Applebaum gives plenty of detail in her work about the erasure of civil society (and even the reduction of free time, which now had to be devoted to partry-approved lectures, memorials, and marches). But the happy ending, if one can call it that, is that resistance remained muted, but present, at least in people’s minds, and it became active as Soviet power began to diminish due to the failure of communist economics.

The reaction to Applebaum’s book has been interesting. Timothy Snyder was praised by most reviewers, but as Adam Gopnik pointed out in an article in The New Yorker, some people were offended by his book because it could be used by ultraconservatives to diminish the importance of the narrative of the Holocaust. Snyder has denied this and claimed he simply lays out the facts of what happened. But in extremist circles I have heard echoes from, Snyder’s work was called “disgraceful”.

I couldn’t agree less.

In these various blog posts, I have discussed the idea of multiple narratives coming out of WW2 and the postwar era, but instead a kind of war of narratives has gone on. I still see claims that attempts to document the crimes of the Soviets are a cover to mask the crimes of Nazis and their collaborators. But when I approached Applebaum after the talk, and asked her about this claim, she said it has now become a “fringe view”.

We do tend to look at these stories from a point of view or fixed position, if we have one. Most westerners do not because they are ignorant of what happened in the East, but even so, the New Yorker review of Applebaum’s book is an example of argument from a position.

One of reviewer Louis Menand’s main questions is whether the United States could have done something about the crimes of the Soviets.

Unrealistic though the proposition may have been, most in the East thought so. The lack of interest in the West is still known as “the great betrayal”.

Menand is interested in the belief that Stalin had no grand plans to invade the west and the Soviet military might was often exaggerated by the United States. A subtext here is that the right-wingers in the West were exaggerating for their own motives. He also ads that Soviets really believed in their ideology, but can that be any sort of excuse? The Nazis believed in their ideology too.

Menand also says that USA could not do anything in any case, and that its goal was to destroy Germany, not save Poland.

But Poland did have treaties with England and France. What were their responsibilities?

Menand writes: “What happened on one side of the wall stayed on that side of the wall. It had no effect on the other side of the wall. Few officials in the West really wanted to se the iron curtain lifted”

That sounds like betrayal to me.

To his credit, Menand adds that Alpplebaum has depicted the human price. And what a human price!

When it comes to history, God is in the details. Alpplebaum has laid out the details in a book less horrific than Timothy Snyder’s but no less illuminating.

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 1

A Diplomat’s Diary – Part 1

Lithuanian in the 1920s

Robert W. Heingartner

If Jonas Budrys’s memoir of his directorship of counterintelligence in the 1920s forms the foreground of my next novel, the background is richly fleshed out by this quirky and insightful diary from the American consul to Kaunas from 1926-1928.

Heingartner was a scrupulous diarist with an eye for detail in the new country, which he called a “provisional” country because he doubted whether it could succeed. A cultured American who had been consul in Vienna for many years, he was disappointed by the “hardship” posting in a town with no coffee houses, hideous streets, and a single awful hotel where all the government receptions were held.

He said the houses were desolate, the people poor, and the roads disgraceful, although it hardly mattered because there were only 570 cars in the country of three million. However, there were many cows and many children.

Clearly disappointed not to be in Vienna any longer, he nevertheless comes around to reconciling himself to the place. He describes a lunch buffet with a Lithuanian minister that includes vodka, soup, boiled salmon, partridges, vegetables, and ices. At least he ate well.

He provides exquisite detail for a novelist searching for sources – for example, all houses were required by law to keep rain barrels to help fight fires. A Jewish painter would not work on the Sabbath but he would oversee and assistant who did. There is some casual anti-Semitism in his diary, but also interesting observations. Jews keep to their own restaurants and a Jewish girl will not walk on a street with a Christian for fear of reprimand from her people. Christians and Jews seem to belong to two solitudes, or rather, two of many solitudes, because Polish speakers and Orthodox Russians form separate coteries as well.

Heingartner comes to measure the quality of receptions by the amount of caviar, and French wines, champagne, and cognacs (krupnikas and vodka are always available). Of course, at the time, the USA was under prohibition, so the alcohol availability was welcome, although he came to moderate his intake because he found the locals drank far too much.

I’ll post a few more of his observations later, but I want to mention that Heingartner is practically a Dickensian character. He suffers from acute sinusitis, and so his nose is one of his primary concerns. His search for an appropriate nose doctor consumes him, and eventually leads him to go out of the country for a suitable one.

And he occasionally writes sentences worthy of a novelist. The city of Kaunas lies at the confluence of two rivers, so her refers to the place in winter as “A bottle of champagne on ice.”

A lovely memoir of her grandfather was told by Nancy Heingartner at the recent AABS conference in Chicago.

More later.

Sources

Lenin once said that power was lying in the streets, just waiting form someone to pick it up.

Memoir of a Provincial Counterintelligence Agent

I have been taken to task for quoting Lenin before, but the comparison I am trying to make is just too apt. The same is true of narratives, of stories which lie around us unnoticed until someone chooses to write about them.

The recent mania for the television series, Downton Abbey, led to a series of articles about its sources. Its primary one seems to have been a memoir by a kitchen maid named Margaret Powell.

Source Material for Downton Abbey

In 1968, she penned a memoir called Below Stairs, about what it was like to work in a great house in England before and after the First World War. Amazingly, almost no other source material for this world exists, but this nugget went on to become the inspiration not only for Downton Abbey but an earlier series, called Upstairs Downstairs.

The Lithuanian equivalents are lying around as well, and they are valuable because they give a picture of a little-know part of Europe in the last century.

As my parents’ generation has died out, its books have been tossed or found their way to church bazaars where I pick them up for a quarter. The same is somewhat true in Lithuania, where the table of the used bookseller on Laisves Aleja in Kaunas is one of my favourite haunts.

The books which interest me most are memoirs, often self-published. These are unvarnished and raw and all the better for it because the authors reveal themselves in ways that more practiced writers would not.

One of my most recent finds is a self-published memoir by the late Jonas Demereckis, called Savanorio ir Kontrazvalgybininko Atsiminimai (Memoirs of an Army Volunteer and Counterintelligence Agent).

Born in 1897 Demerckis was a barely lettered village youth who volunteered for the independence army in Jurbarkas. He paints a funny picture of young men in the winter of 1919, travelling out to Kaunas on horse-drawn wagons, accompanied by an accordionist whose bellows came apart due to the wet snow. They were periodically harassed by Bolshevik agitators who encouraged them to join the Red Army.

In Kaunas, during basic training, an officer called out for men who had completed elementary school (grade four) or even had some high school education. Demerckis was one of them. They were taken to a hall and made to write a dictation, and those who could write reasonably well were drifted into office work.

The book is full of colourful anecdotes, mostly having to do with the primitive conditions under which they lived and worked – a barracks without a kitchen – a mission with a wagon to Kybartas to pick up banknotes for a bank – the catching of a Czech spy (?) who had maps of the country rolled into the metal tubes of his bicycle.

Eventually Demereckis was assigned to counterintelligence and worked out of Musninkai, north-west of Vilnius, guarding the frontier with Poland’s closed border (the countries were in a state of war until 1938). There he dealt with Communists, Poles, and smugglers and had various adventures, including fighting off a pack of marauding wolves on winter’s night.

This view of everyday life is particularly valuable to me because it complements the memoirs of Jonas Budrys, who was head of Lithuanian counterintelligence in the early twenties.

But there is so much more good material like this out there, lying around, waiting for someone to pick it up.

Film Option

I am so pleased to have sold the option to Underground

to Tomas Donela of Donelos Studija.

I saw his film, Atsisveikinimas, in the European festival that played in Toronto last fall, and was particularly impressed by the cinematography.

It would be great to see this project come together.

 

Update: May 31, 2016:

The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture awarded twenty-eight thousand Euros for development, so a few years later, this project is still alive.