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A Matter of Life and Death

Wartime Lies

by Louis Begley
Knopf, 198 pp., $19.00

Early in this chilling novel about a Jewish boy named Maciek and his aunt Tania, who survive the Nazi years in Poland by acquiring false Aryan papers, the question of the child’s circumcised penis is raised. As the narrator dryly points out, Jewish women could represent themselves as Aryans easily enough, but

with men, there was no cheating, no place for Jewish ruses. Very early in the process would come the simple, logical invitation: If Pan is not a kike, a zidlak, would he please let down his trousers? A thousand excuses if we are wrong.

With his old man’s flabby skin” the boy’s grandfather “might even pass the trousers test if he was careful. It was possible, with surgical glue, to shape and fasten enough skin around the gland to imitate a real uncut foreskin. Grandfather was duly equipped with such glue.” But for the boy, only surgery with skin grafts could achieve the desired effect, an alternative considered by the aunt and the grandparents, and ultimately rejected. For, in addition to the risk of infection and of the graft not taking,

there was the problem of growth. My penis would become longer but the grafted skin would not keep pace. I would have trouble with erections. This last consideration tipped the scales. They decided to leave me as I was.

The passage is typical of the book’s irony and metaphoric proficiency. As the narrative unfolds, we see that “the problem of growth” extends beyond the operation of de-circumcision and is the problem of the book. What happens to a child’s soul when he lives his childhood in constant fear for his life and witnesses atrocities that no child should know of, no less witness? In a prologue, the narrator—who is the adult the child has become, “a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country”—refers to skin that covers another part of the anatomy. The man is “a bookish fellow,” a Latinist who “reveres” the Aeneid because “that is where he first found civil expression for his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all the others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration.” Between the images of the tattooed arm and the erect penis Begley has situated his austere moral and psychological fable of survival. Like other contributors to what Lawrence Langer has called the literature of atrocity, Begley writes with a kind of muted and stunned air, as if the words are sticking in his throat. The exquisite soft note of the master writer of the genre, Primo Levi, is sometimes heard in the novel, and Levi’s bitter reflection (so quietly murmured, in The Drowned and the Saved, that it goes by almost unnoticed) that “the worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died” has not gone unremarked by Begley. The thought inhabits the novel and gives it its pervasive atmosphere of moral anxiety.

It is a woman, the aunt Tania, who is the instrument of survival, and who is equipped by character and temperament to take the assertive measures necessary to cheat death in the time of its near-total ascendancy. To create his remarkable heroine Begley has drawn on ancient and modern literary models: the character has the courage and selflessness of Alcestis, the brilliance and inventiveness of the Duchessa Sanseverina, the hardness of Becky Sharp. He has also drawn on Freud for his elucidation of the remarkable psychological situation in which his fable is set—the situation of a boy upon whom dire circumstances have imposed the fulfillment of a child’s headiest Oedipal wishes. The father is absent—he disappears into Russia at the beginning of the novel—and the grandparents also disappear from the boy’s childhood as part of the strategy of survival whereby Jewish families with false papers split up in order to be less conspicuous. Tania, who has been Maciek’s surrogate mother all his life (the real mother died in childbirth), briefly provides him with a surrogate father when she takes up with an influential German officer named Reinhard, a kind of Mosca manqué, but he, too, passes out of the picture, and the field is left to the nine-year-old Maciek.

The aunt and the boy move from place to place with their false identities, never daring to stay anywhere too long (blackmailers, who bleed Jews dry and then turn them over to the Gestapo, lurk like sharks throughout Nazi-occupied Poland); they are like a pair of traveling charlatans, working in ever more perfect sync, and becoming intimate in ways that people who do not lie together (the pun serves the idea) possibly never know. Near the end of the book, the boy begins to feel the debit side of sleeping with his mother. (Although, as it happens, the pair sleep in the same bed throughout most of the novel, they do not literally breach the incest barrier or come anywhere near breaching it; but the relationship is nevertheless incestuous.) He articulates what all children who are brought into arousing relationships with adults must obscurely feel: the sense of the relationship’s crushing inequality and of their own powerlessness. “I admired and loved my beautiful and brave aunt with increasing passion,” Maciek says.

Her body could never be close enough to mine: she was the fortress against danger and the well of all comfort…. I waited impatiently for the nights when I knew she would come to bed wearing only a slip so that I could feel closer to her.

And yet

I had never seen Tania naked. Tania undressed was Tania in her slip or Tania in her long nightgown. Her bodily functions were private, even under the most constraining conditions. On the other hand, my nakedness and my bowel and bladder movements continued to be subject to question, inspection and comment.

In the mind of the boy (as recollected by the man), he himself is a poor, weak creature (there are echoes of the sickly and coddled young Marcel in the self-representation), while the aunt is a being of almost mythic powerfulness, an androgynous goddess embodying the paternal as well as maternal principles, both fortress and well. Her audacity and guile know no bounds; in a scene in the latter half of the novel her mission-impossible capacities reach a thrilling culmination. It is the summer of 1944 and the pair have escaped detection as Jews only to find themselves trapped in a roundup of Poles at the central railroad station in Warsaw following the premature, ill-fated uprising of the Polish resistance. Begley has rendered the scene like an immense narrative painting. As far as the eye can see, frightened men, women, and children, who have been marched to the station and assembled in columns, wait to board trains to Auschwitz; Ukrainian guards with whips and dogs savagely herd people onto the trains as Wehrmacht and SS officers look on impassively. We glimpse Tania and Maciek in the crowd. At the start of the march the previous day, Tania had smeared her face with soot and walked bent over like an old woman so as to escape notice by the Ukrainians, who were raping and sometimes, for good measure, bayoneting attractive young women. Now, as the column approaches the station, she undergoes another transformation:

Over my tearful protests she had used our remaining water to wash our faces and hands. She brushed the dust off her clothes and mine and straightened them. Then she combed my hair, and, with great concentration, peering into the pocket mirror, combed her own hair and put on lipstick, studied the result, and made little corrections. I was astonished to see how she had transformed herself. The stooped-over, soot-smeared old woman of the march from the Old Town had vanished. Instead, when we entered the station, I was holding the hand of a dignified and self-confident young matron. Unlike the day before, she was not hanging back, trying to lose us in the crowd; she pushed her way to the outside row and, holding my hand very tight, to my horror, led me away from the column so that we were standing, completely exposed, in the space on the platform between the rest of the people and the train. Despite my panic, I began to understand that Tania was putting on a very special show. Her clear blue eyes surveyed the scene before her; it was as if she could barely contain her impatience and indignation. I thought that if she had had an umbrella she would be tapping the platform with it.

Pulling the boy behind her, Tania strides over to a fat Wehrmacht captain standing on the platform and,

addressing him in her haughtiest tone, she asked if he would be kind enough to tell her where these awful trains were going. The answer made my legs tremble: Auschwitz. Completely wrong destination, replied Tania. To find herself with all these disreputable-looking people, being shouted at by drunk and disorderly soldiers, and all this in front of a train going to a place she had never heard of, was intolerable. She was a doctor’s wife from R., about two hours from Warsaw; she had come to Warsaw to buy dresses and have her son’s eyes examined; of course, everything she bought had been lost in this dreadful confusion. We had nothing to do with whatever was going on here. Would he, as an officer, impose some order and help us find a train to R.? We had spent almost all our money, but she thought she had enough for a second-class compartment. The captain burst out laughing. My dear lady, he said to Tania, not even my wife orders me about quite this way. Could Tania assure him her husband would be glad to have her return? And where had she learned such literary turns of expression? After he had an answer to these basic questions he would see about this wretched train business. Tania blushed. Should I tell you the truth, even though you won’t like it? Naturally, replied the captain. I think my husband doesn’t mind my being sometimes hot tempered. I learned German in school and probably I managed to improve it by reading, especially everything by Thomas Mann I can find in the original—not much in R., but quite a lot in Warsaw. It’s a good way for a provincial housewife to keep occupied. I know Mann’s work is forbidden in the Reich, but that is the truth. I am not a party member, merely a railroad specialist, announced the captain still laughing, I am glad you have chosen a great stylist. Shall I get someone to carry your suitcases while we look for transportation to R.?

In a review in the Times Literary Supplement of October 14, 1983, Gabriel Josipovici severely criticized a book called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust for the simple-minded note of rejoicing it struck in recounting stories of successful survival through luck, quick-wittedness, or the intervention of the Almighty. Holding up for special disapprobation a tale in which a rabbi survives a mass shooting because he is wearing a garment with apparent magical properties, Josipovici icily asks, “What kind of God is this who saves those with magic cloaks and not others? What kind of faith is this that rejoices in personal safety and spares no thought for those who did not get up?”

Josipovici’s question rings throughout Wartime Lies. The account of the aunt’s brilliant charade of “identification with the aggressor” is told in full awareness of its moral ambiguity. The image of “those awful trains” haunts the book, as do the shades of “those who did not get up.” The foreground fairy story of survival is but a prism through which the horror story of the Holocaust is refracted. In the relation ship of the boy and the aunt we see a kind of distorting mirror image of the relationship of the Jew and the Nazi. Although the aunt is “good,” her methods have a heart-freezing Teutonic efficiency, and the boy’s abject dependence on her has a chilling pathos. Embedded in Begley’s narrative of the boy’s ambivalence toward his too powerful and too desirable protectress and of his, perforce, weak struggle to free himself from her iron hold—since his life depends on strict obedience and adherence to her program of survival—is a meditation on authoritarianism of great subtlety and originality.

The author is a fifty-seven-year-old New York lawyer who has not previously written fiction. He and I have been friends for years. I have known that he spent the war years in Poland, but until reading this book, I did not know anything about his wartime experiences; he never spoke of them. After reading it, I begin to know what he must have experienced, since a book like this could not have been written except out of first-hand knowledge of the history it chronicles. The Holocaust is permanently lodged in the unconscious memory of our time; we cannot free ourselves of our grief and anger. Wartime Lies, even as it brings these emotions to the surface, denies us the solace of catharsis. The crime was too great, the motive unfathomable.

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