The Deep Stains of Dictatorship

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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 …

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