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The Deep Stains of Dictatorship

Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Polish Foreign Minister Stefan Oszowski, Deputy Minister of National Defense Józef Baryła, Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, and Party activist Felicja Fornalska at a Communist Party Congress in the Hall of Culture, Warsaw, 1981

For people familiar with Eastern Europe, Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes is, in spite of its subject matter, delicious. A professor at Yale with much experience in Eastern Europe, she writes with great sureness of touch, weaving personal recollections with intellectual commentary, and ideas with emotions, including her own. The book is remarkable for the first short paragraph alone:

Eastern Europe is special. It is Europe, only more so. It is a place where people live and die, only more so. In these lands between the West and Russia, the past is palpable, and heavy. That past is also merciless: by history’s caprice, here the Second World War and communism were inseparable historical traumas, one bleeding into the other, as Nazi power gave way to Soviet domination.

Has anyone ever put it better than that?

The narrative invites the reader to share in encounters, conversations, and inquiries about the war and the postwar period, each conducted in a very specific milieu. It starts in Prague and Bratislava before settling down in Poland, with sidetrips to Bucharest, Budapest, Vienna, and Kiev. The author pursues research in New York, Moscow, and Tel Aviv, and does not seem to have stood still in twenty years. Her interlocutors are academics, writers, artists, or professionals, predominantly Jewish, and all somehow connected with the erstwhile Communist regimes.

Since they had mostly belonged to the privileged Party elite, they are people whom the average Pole or Czech would never have met. Some have bad consciences; some are confused; most are painfully aware of the near-total discrediting of the Communist movement; a few remain oblivious to its mendacious and murderous record; all have revealing tales to tell. The result is an unusual postmortem on a lost world: a report from a one-person Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose findings can disturb the author herself:

[The writer’s] empathy…is…itself born in voyeurism. Understanding the past is inextricably bound up with guilt: writing history requires an imaginative leap into a time and a place where one was not, an exercise insisting upon a simultaneous violation of and identification with the other. This book…lays bare the ambivalent process of writing history. It also, I hope, reveals something about what it means to understand.

The book centers on wartime and postwar Eastern Europe, Poland in particular, and on its continuing traumas. Marci Shore chooses an admirably inclusive approach:

The war was complicated in Poland: Jews were not the only victims, and Germans were not the only enemies…. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland from the west. Sixteen days later, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. Both occupations were merciless…. Polish citizens in each occupation zone tried to escape to the other, convinced that the other could not possibly be as brutal as the first.

Nowadays, monuments to the different categories of victims stand side by side. In Warsaw, the memorial in Umschlagplatz, the place from which Jews were deported by the Germans to Treblinka’s gas chambers, stands on the same street as the monument to Poles deported and murdered by the Soviets in the east.

Summarizing Shore’s varied encounters with witnesses is not easy. The reader participates in scores of them, each forming a brief episode in a long, tumbling stream. The title piece, “The Taste of Ashes,” recounts a surreal meeting in Prague in 1995 with an American woman whose Czech husband, Oskar, had just killed himself. One of the mourners dips her fingers into the urn of the deceased man’s cremated remains. She, like the author, is trying to experience the reality of something that has passed on. Shore writes:

I went…to the Catholic mass dedicated to Oskar, Oskar who had waited for twenty-five years to return to Prague, only to find that he no longer had any home there. In the church tucked…behind Old Town Square, I took communion for the first time, although I was not a Catholic, although I was not even a Christian, although I did not believe in God.

A later piece, “The Taste of Caviar,” recounts a visit in 2002 to Moscow, where the author sought out the daughter of Wanda Wasilewska, a notorious Polish Stalinist who had been in touch with Stalin. Shore is following up interests first discussed in her earlier Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism (2006). She asks Ewa Wasilewska about her mother’s reaction to Krushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956. The answer was “silence.” Had her mother been Stalin’s lover? Ewa had only listened through a locked door to the two of them talking animatedly on the telephone. By the time Shore talks to her in her Moscow apartment, Ewa is in her seventies and her label of domashnii tyran, the “home tyrant,” is reserved for her pet dachshund. Wanda Wasilewska’s private life had been appalling. Her beloved second husband, a Russian, was murdered by the NKVD “by accident.” (Krushchev apologized for it.) She lived out her years as “a betrayed wife, a foreigner who always spoke Russian [badly], a woman without friends in her adopted country.” Like Bolesław Bierut, Poland’s own “Little Stalin,” Wasilewska was not Jewish. Her father had been a patriotic Polish socialist, close to Marshal Piłsudski.

Exile and separation from one’s roots are recurring themes of Shore’s book. But more remarkable are the individuals who stayed doggedly in place after the world in which they once thrived had evaporated. One such man was Szymon Zachariasz, a lifelong Polish Communist. Shore caught up with his daughter, Ryszarda, in 1997, when she was in her fifties. “The only guests in their home were Jewish communists. Her parents taught her to address everyone as ‘comrade.’ The first grown-up word she learned was revolution.” Later, when she heard of the NKVD’s massacre of 20,000 Polish officers at Katyń, she refused to believe it.

Ryszarda was one of the founders of the confidential hotline for Poles who were conflicted about their Jewish identity. Shore summed up her family’s complex attitudes:

Her parents had felt themselves to be Jews. But they had also felt themselves to be Poles. Even her father—a native Yiddish speaker who never learned Polish well…—was very attached to Poland.
“The only thing was…he didn’t know Poland at all.”

In Stalinist times, Zachariasz had harshly attacked Israel. But he visited it in 1970, enjoyed reunions with old comrades, and returned to Poland to die. Shore told his daughter that she had the impression that many of the Jews who remained in Poland today were—or had been—Communists, and Pani Ryszarda replied:

Of course, the majority …because anyone who wasn’t a communist would have left…. The reality was such…that there were very many Jews in the Communist Party both before and after the war.

Shore writes in a very specific genre. “This is a work of nonfiction,” she insists defiantly in an Author’s Note; she qualifies this elsewhere by admitting to having written “a deeply subjective book.” None of the interviews or interviewees are presented as invented or fancifully embellished; still, the book is subjective in the sense that the author’s word is the sole source of the text’s authenticity. And it rings true. It is contemporary reportage demanding huge stores of honesty and self-discipline, written deliberately in the first person, from, she writes, “the perspective of a young American woman who wanders into a completely different world and attempts to untangle the dark mysteries….”

Shore does not hesitate to criticize where she finds criticism is due. Her “ambivalence toward Zionism” leads her to question the Zionists for “appropriating the Holocaust,” to give space to the rival members of the Jewish Bund, and to criticize the cast of mind that inspires the Marches of the Living—the visits to Poland organized in Israel:

These young Jews [who came to Poland]…wanted to know why the Poles had not saved the Jews. They believed it was not by chance that the Germans had chosen Poland as the site of the death camps. They didn’t know about the heroic Polish underground. They didn’t know that Poles had also died in Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know…. [They] did not offend only the Poles. They also offended the few remaining Polish Jews.

She is equally opposed to the Polish nationalist mentality that recently became evident in the policy of Lustracja, or “vetting,” of Poles who sought or held public positions and of Poland’s chauvinist Institute of National Remembrance (IPN).* She quotes a friend who refused to “demonstrate that I’m not a camel.” She also quotes Adam Michnik, who in 2007 changed his mind about whether the IPN files, which had been written by the secret police and were notoriously unreliable, should remain closed:

Today the files should be publicly accessible to everyone, with all the terrible consequences that will bring. It will be better than the present situation. We have to make the files public in order—this sounds paradoxical—not to live under the control of the files, which are toyed with, whose contents “leak out,” which are ostentatiously used in a political game.

And she cites a brilliant letter from the citizens of a small country town who successfully protested against the IPN’s efforts to remove a street name dedicated to the poet Bruno Jasieński; the IPN thought that it glorified “the criminal ideology of communism.” She quotes the letter:

In the opinion of Institute of National Remembrance’s historians, patrons of streets should be without flaws! Bruno Jasieński with certainty does not fulfill such criteria. [Yet] with his complicated biography he is the perfect admonition against Stalinist totalitarianism. For the errors of his youth he paid the highest price. He spent more than a year in a Soviet prison. He was tortured…. Death for him was a long-awaited redemption…. Fortunately, his poems survived…. If language is our spiritual Homeland and the testament of our ancestors, then as a poet Jasieński did much more for Poland than have those custodians of patriotism who are currently accusing him.

The pages of Shore’s book are filled with literary figures—Słonimski, Broniewski, Glowinski, Wat, Miłosz, Kundera, Mayakovsky….

One of the book’s few defects lies in the overblown subtitle. The Taste of Ashes does little to enter the broad field of “The Afterlife of Totalitarianism.” If it did, it would say more about contemporary politics. The leaders of Poland’s main opposition party, for example, are so saturated with the suspicion-laden, accusatory, and xenophobic instincts of the Communist era that they direct greater venom at their former Solidarity colleagues than they do at the ex-Communists. They maintain that the fall of the Berlin Wall changed nothing. In their eyes, liberal democracy is a façade, which they call the Neokommuna; and Poland’s destiny is endlessly obstructed by the secret designs of Moscow and Berlin. Their deep sense of the inadequacy of Poland today is not appealing to the majority of Poles and fuels the longing for an ultra-special relationship with the US, a substitute for the strategic prop that disappeared with the Soviet Union. If ever there was a hangover from the totalitarian era, this is it.

  1. *

    In 2006, under the Kaczynski twins, the Polish administration introduced a draconian measure that sought to force all state employees to make a declaration of noninvolvement with the pre-1989 Communist Security Organs, and to fire, without right of appeal, anyone who was judged to have made a false declaration. The files of the former secret police, held by the IPN (Poland’s equivalent of the Gauk Commission in Germany), were to provide the information about who was or wasn’t guilty. The State Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the measure was invalid. But many people now think that it was a blatant attempt (a) to create a climate of fear and (b) to persecute political opponents in McCarthy-like style. 

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