My Europe

Louis Begley
Louis Begley at the age of four, at his grandparents’ country house in Poland, summer 1938

My Europe begins with Poland before the war. World War II, of course. Soon, there will be no one left who knew Europe as it was before World War I, the Great War that destroyed the old order and gave the continent a new map, which, with relatively small changes, is its map today. Until she died in December 2004, my mother was one of the two persons with whom I talked about Europe before World War I. The other was Gregor von Rezzori, the protean novelist from Chernowitz, in Bukovina. He died in 1998. The war broke out in August 1914, when my mother wasn’t quite four years old, but she remembered her family’s flight, in the late fall of that year, spurred by the fear of pogroms that came in the wake of advancing imperial Russian troops, from Rzeszów, the town in Galicia where she was born, to Brno in Moravia. They remained in Brno until the end of the summer of 1917. My mother went to kindergarten there, and acquired the almost native knowledge of German without which she might not have succeeded, less than twenty-five years later, in saving her own life and mine when the Third Reich undertook to exterminate the Polish Jews.

At the core of my first memories of Poland is a summer in the remote countryside where my grandparents had a small property. The low manor house was made of wood so weather-beaten that I thought of it as black. One reached it after a journey from the nearest railway station over blindingly white dusty roads that seemed to stretch into eternity. The fat horses drawing my grandparents’ carriage moved at a trot so unwilling that the slow beat of their hoofs and the swaying of that ancient contraption soon put me to sleep. The inside of the house was as dark and somber as its exterior—a cocoon of silence interrupted only by vague barnyard noises during the day, the lowing of cows coming home to be milked at dusk, and, at night, the dogs that my grandfather’s coachman let off their chains.

My grandmother saw to it that I ate copiously, at the five regular daily meals (there was a second breakfast, as well as a late afternoon meal that preceded dinner) and, as though that were not enough, whenever she happened to think of a sweet, or a choice morsel of meat, for instance a chicken or duck liver, that I might profitably ingest. She did not speak much, and neither did my grandfather; the house servants, local peasant women, left me alone. The summer stretched into golden early autumn. I went with my grandmother or one of those rough and silent serving women to the edge of the forest…

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