Archive for the 'poland' Category

Norman Davies: Trail of Hope

May 17, 2017

Norman Davies is probably the leading expert on Polish history in Britain; he has written the best and most detailed academic history of Poland, as well as several books on specific episodes in the nation’s history such as the Warsaw uprising or the war with the Soviet Union in 1920. Here he attempts to trace the Polish diaspora which resulted from the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 that led to tens of thousands of Poles from the eastern half of the country being deported to and imprisoned in the Soviet Union, thousands of them being deliberately murdered and thousands more dying of starvation and ill-treatment.

It’s clearly a labour of love, and not one in the style of earlier academic works. It reflects Davies’ travels through many lands, and his friendships and contacts with many Poles in many countries; it’s copiously illustrated with photos, maps, drawings and detailed extracts from memoirs, and manages to give a voice to the generations which have now largely died.

When the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941, Stalin agreed (after a fashion) to allow the Polish prisoners of war to leave the country and join the Allied war effort in the West. Of course, the many thousands of officers whose deaths Stalin had sanctioned and the NKVD carried out at Katyn were not available to join them. A Polish Army was established on Soviet soil and gradually made its painful way, with many thousands of civilians in its wake, first to Persia (as it then was) and subsequently by many diverse routes, and over a lengthy period of time, came to take part in various campaigns in the war, notably at Monte Cassino in Italy, and Arnhem in Holland. For some reason which I have yet to fathom, Davies concentrates almost entirely on the Monte Cassino trail, and the Arnhem battle merits less than a page. This I found particularly disappointing, as it’s my father’s story…

Davies spares no-one in his criticism and condemnation of the Allies’ betrayal of the Poles all down the line, and he’s right, I think: men who had lost everything gave all they had left in the hope of freeing their country and eventually returning home. This was not possible, as their part of Poland was ceded to the Soviet Union, which automatically regarded them as Soviet citizens, not Poles. Few did return, and of those who did, a good number disappeared. The rest remained, exiles, refugees, and not very welcome in post-war Britain. It’s a shameful story which is not widely known.

Trail of Hope is a weighty tome and a very welcome addition to the existing works on the subject. At the same time, it has its flaws, which I will charitably put down to poor proof-reading and checking at the production stage – careless typesetting, spellings and transliterations of names and place-names in many countries lack any consistency, with variations even on the same page (!). And I shall be attempting to discover why the Arnhem story is sidelined. But if you want to know about a little-known aspect of the Second World War, this is a book to read.

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

On Europe…

February 8, 2016

There’s a lot of talk and argument about Europe at the moment, and it’s not going to go away. So, I’ll add my fourpence-worth, at least, from the perspective of my blog.

Sense of belonging is a curious thing. I’ve never felt British; it’s a weird concept, and alien to me. I know it says it on my passport. If I acknowledge anything, it’s Englishness, as England is where I was born, brought up and have lived; however, half of me is Polish, and I feel an affinity with that nation, too, some of the time, although I feel alienated by its currently bonkers politics… so I’ve never really been sure where I properly belong.

Most of my travelling has been in Europe, a place I feel at home in and understand to varying degrees, depending where I happen to be visiting. We share a great deal in Europe: the past, the Romans (for a sizeable chunk of Europe) Christianity, which for better or worse has shaped our beliefs and philosophy, and our approach to literature and the arts links us together, too. There’s a great deal we can be proud of as Europeans, and probably rather more that we should be acknowledging is shameful.

Although other parts of the world, perhaps tutored by our past example, are beginning to approach the savagery let loose during two world wars, those wars blight our history and collective memory in aeternum. And somewhere, the European project of the last sixty years or so has been about ensuring that we do not slide into that kind of anarchy and mayhem again; apart from the Balkans in the 1990s, on that front we have done quite well. Many nations are increasingly closely tied together by economy, law, travel and culture, and it’s pretty difficult to see those bonds disintegrating.

And yet, the cynic kicks in: despite all those lofty ideals to which our petty leaders pay lip-service, the EU is actually a gigantic capitalist club, increasingly forged in the interests of big business and profits, if not actually run by those businesses, as they pull the strings of the Brussels puppets. It’s not the Europe I’m really interested in, and feel part of.

Then there is the refugee crisis and immigration, which is being exploited by nationalists who would be happy to see the European project dismantled. Those of us who are reasonably comfortable with immigration, and want to help those in need, nevertheless must recognise that we live among other people who are profoundly unsettled by what is going on, who would like to restrict or end immigration and asylum. To this I can never subscribe, being the son of a Polish exile. So what should Europe do?

Because Europe is prosperous and peaceful, it’s attractive to people who live in war zones. And, to begin with, Europe should be looking at its contribution in creating those war zones in the first place: invading Iraq, bombing Libya, bombing Syria: as we collectively trash those countries and interfere in others, we both make ourselves more attractive to our victims, and also make ourselves the potential objects of revenge. It doesn’t take an Einstein to put that two and two together…

So, yes, I feel European, and want my country (England) to remain an integrated part of it. I’m not worried about loss of sovereignty (whatever that may mean); I’m concerned about lack of democratic accountability within EU institutions, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw my toys out of the pram. And I hope to continue enjoying travelling in Europe, visiting its cultural treasures and marvellous landscapes, and enjoying its amazing music and wonderful literature for many years yet. English and happy to be European!

 

Not a historian

October 15, 2015

I made a very deliberate choice at 16. I chose to change one of my A level courses from History to English Literature; the consequences have been with me ever since. I don’t regret the choice at all; my sixteen year-old self told me that I could always read history books anyway. And since then, I have.

So I have pursued my own particular interests in history, quite eclectic and I’m unsure whether anyone else shares them. History of Poland (my ancestry), history of Eastern Europe and the Second World War (my origins). History of religion (brought up religious, one never seems to leave it behind). And the question of experts and expertise often rears its head: one of the things I can’t always be sure of is how reliable a particular writer is, what axes s/he has to grind, that might be getting in the way of a clear understanding and judgement. Is X a ‘real’ historian, or just a populariser for the masses?

Expertise is a tricky thing; I once read that sometime in the seventeenth century there was so much knowledge being discovered and published that it was no longer possible for any one educated person to keep up with it all. Isidore of Seville was lucky: he lived a thousand years earlier. No-one can now be up-to-date in the entirety of any field of knowledge or learning. At school, students used to regard me as an expert on literature. True, I had studied, and acquired degrees, but what they didn’t know, unless they dared to ask, was where my gaps were – the periods I hadn’t studied, the lectures I’d skived, the authors I’d never read because I found them too dull… they knew I was well up in Shakespeare and some of his contemporaries, Jane Austen, twentieth century literature from all sorts of odd places…

It was also empowering to students to demonstrate to them that there were subjects in which they were also experts, especially compared with me, and I remember the dawning of the awareness, as I drew to the end of my time at school, that there were some areas where I now knew (almost) as much as my teachers, and clearly after a few more years of study, I had surpassed them. I used to remind my best students that they would also be in that position one day, and how empowering that would be.

History I find fascinating, partly because it connects me with the rest of the human race and our collective past, which I can never be part of, though it has surely shaped and influenced me, and also because it reminds me that there is a future which I will never know about or be part of. The human story is a fascinating one, and I waver constantly between marvelling at our achievements as a species and being overwhelmed by our apparent collective stupidity. We can create stunning works of art and music: Bach’s cantatas still leave me speechless, and I can never forget the day over forty years ago when I was fortunate enough to be taken to a cave in the South of France where I saw real cave paintings from thirty thousand years ago… And then, we invent horrendous devices of torture and mass destruction and still fondly imagine that war and greed are capable of solving the world’s problems, leading us to a better future.

It has been fascinating, over the course of a lifetime, to see how research in certain areas of history seems to have changed and developed our understanding of various periods – thinking particularly of new material coming to light about Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, for instance. Equally, though, I have noticed perspectives changing, themes and topics moving up and down an agenda according to what suits research interests and also the interests of today’s politicians: history is clearly not a neutral discipline! But, I’m not so sure I’d necessarily make the same decision if I could rewind to my sixteen year-old self…

My small world of Polish literature…

September 19, 2015

So I’m fifty per cent Polish, but neither read nor speak the language; I’m proud of my ancestry and even have a coat of arms to go with it… I’ve read widely in Polish history, and sought out some Polish literature which is available in translation – not that there’s very much, to be honest) and have to say I’ve been mildly disappointed thus far.

The national epic, Pan Tadeusz, by Adam Mickiewicz, I have yet to read. It’s a lengthy poem, and the translation I possess looks rather daunting. On the other hand, the little of Czeslaw Milosz‘ poetry I’ve read I have enjoyed.

One major Polish novel I’ve read and enjoyed is Boleslaw PrusThe Doll, a nineteenth century naturalist text which reminds me of the works of writers such as Zola or Balzac… and then there’s the epic Quo Vadis, by Henryk Sienkiewicz, superficially a tale of the very early days of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome, but also an allegory about Poles suffering under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian yoke; though the translation available is very dated, the story is engaging and by no means saccharinely religious, which one might have expected froma Polish Catholic writer.

My acquaintance with twentieth century fiction has been limited to Witold GombrowiczFerdydurke and Transatlantyk, both of which I found interesting rather than gripping. Memoirs, history, criticism, reflection and essays are what Poles have done well, in my experience thus far, and with the nation’s fraught history over the past century, perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

Milosz writes sensitively and hauntingly about his vanished past – his home city of Wilno, formerly in Poland, was allotted to Lithuania by Stalin as the city of Vilnius – in a similar way to how Günter Grass writes about Danzig/Gdansk (in fact Grass develops a lengthy fictional parallel between the two cities in his novel The Call of the Toad), and also about the vice-like grip of Stalinism on the intellectual life of post-war Poland, which led to his leaving and settling in the United States. The Captive Mind is a classic analysis of those times. The memoirs of Aleksander Wat and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski also deal with the 1930s/40s/50s and the mentally and physically tortured lives many Poles had to lead during those years, either under the Nazis or Russians or both. One might argue that the times were so fantastical in themselves that no fiction could do them justice…

The history of all the different Polands is admirably treated by Norman Davies in several masterly works: his two-volume History of Poland, Rising ’44, Microcosm, Vanished Kingdoms… and the incredible complexity of relations between nations in the region and between races and nationalities, that were at the heart of so much conflict and destruction have been expertly traced and unravelled by Timothy Snyder in Borderlands and The Reconstruction of Nations. Again, the truth is so bizarre, you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.

Sadly, I feel my knowledge and understanding of Polish literature is very limited, due to the lack of texts available in either English or French; if anyone knows of anything I’ve overlooked, I’d be pleased to hear of it…

* Polish readers must excuse the lack of Polish diacritics in my text; I can’t find an easy way to include them, from a UK English keyboard.

Witold Gombrowicz: Trans-Atlantyk

May 20, 2015

9780300175301I should have stuck to the resolution I made after reading Ferdydurke. But I couldn’t resist a cheap French paperback edition of Trans-Atlantyk, which (apparently) some have described as Gombrowicz’ best novel. Hm.

It’s very strange. It’s supposedly a satire, and also a parody of an old Polish literary form, a kind of tale about the doings of the aristocracy. It was the author’s response to the fact that he left his homeland just before the Second World War broke out, and he didn’t go back. The same themes and ideas emerge: the throwing off of the shackles of the past, choosing freedom to be different over the slavery of past memories, symbolised by the hero’s inability to choose between father and son…

There is some interesting use of language, which comes through even in translation, but my overall impression was of Tristram Shandy without the plot or the humour, if you can begin to imagine that. Why write it? Why read it? I’m afraid I can’t answer that. It’s surreal, very much of its time, and therefore very dated; I cannot imagine many people reading it in the future, I’m afraid. I am with the critic, whose name I cannot recall, who said that Gombrowicz’ most important writings are his diaries and journalism.

I shall resist any further urges to read his novels.

On reading history…

May 4, 2015

I had planned to do A-level History when I entered the sixth form, but on the first day, I switched to English Literature. Thus are historic decisions made. This means that, although I have never lost my interest in history, my knowledge is scattered, unstructured and probably pretty uncritical. It hasn’t put me off, though!

I studied Ancient History at school and still retain some interest in Ancient Rome and its politics and achievements; it enabled me to make sense of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, too.

Having had a fairly religious upbringing, I’m also interested in religious history. I’ve been taught the history of the Reformation several times, from various different perspectives. For me, the crucial issue has been how spiritual organisations have so quickly lost their way and got into bed quite shamelessly with secular powers, and the subsequent mayhem that this has caused throughout the centuries. I have found books written half a century ago by Philip Hughes very interesting, and much more recent tomes by Diarmaid MacCulloch very stimulating. I don’t think my reading counts as balanced historical knowledge, though.

I’m somewhat interested in the history of this country, although I am put off by the Ruritanian monarchy to which we are expected to submit, and the appallingly damaging and damaged class system which endures while everything else seems to crumble around us. Delusions of grandeur based on the glory of past centuries don’t help either. Norman DaviesThe Isles was very interesting, and challenging, when I first read it, and I’m thinking of going back to it. Shakespeare’s history plays have made rather more sense when I’ve explored their historical background.

As someone who is half-Polish, I’ve long been interested in the history of that country and of Central Europe in general, which has been so radically different from the experiences of the natives of our small island that I’m repeatedly brought back to the idea that here in England we don’t really know very much about the rest of the world at all. Poland fascinates me in numerous ways: an elective monarchy (!?), the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools (allegedly), a country with crazy and romantic notions about itself, delusions perhaps in a similar way to those of the English. A country that has moved around the map over the centuries, so that maps of where my forebears came from are maps of nowhere, places that do not exist. Here again, Norman Davies’ writings have informed me and also made me think a great deal, and more recently, books by Timothy Snyder which explore the incredibly complex national, political and racial issues of that part of the world have been very illuminating.

My previous post alludes to my interest in the history of the Second World War; my teaching of literature at school has led me recently to become very interested in the First World War too, visiting various battlefields and trying to imagine the mindset of politicians who could make such mayhem happen, and those who participated in it (often voluntarily!) as soldiers.

Finally, I suppose because somewhere I yearn for utopia, I read quite widely about the Soviet experiment. It failed, horribly and murderously, and has enabled capitalism to retrench its hegemony on the grounds that communism and socialism ‘have been tried and have failed’. And, as one Polish relative, who is a historian, pointed out to me once, the Soviet era was just another way for a different group of people to get their snouts in the trough… But, I am fascinated by the possibility that humans might find a way to do things differently, though they probably won’t in my lifetime, and I will always remember that those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it…

Witold Gombrowicz: Ferdydurke

April 3, 2015

41L3hsuxUbL._AA160_ (1)So, I’ve finally read another of the oldest unread books in my library, which has been languishing there for about 35 years. I think I’ll stop reading Gombrowicz now. This novel articulates in fictional form many of the ideas that he wrote about at length in his diaries; it seems on so many levels to be allegorical, about the difficulties of the new Poland in coming to terms with its new self and its past.

Superficially it’s a story of transformation: an adult of thirty regresses into a schoolboy of half that age, who then undergoes a number of increasingly bizarre, often hallucinatory adventures. I found myself wondering about transformations in the literature of th 1920s and 1930s: there’s Gregor Samsa in Kafka‘s Metamorphosis, the transformations I mentioned in The Street of Crocodiles, and now here.

Our schoolboy adult in class is forced, by idiotic teachers in the most asinine ways possible, to admit to liking the traditional classics; the idea is that the past perpetuates itself and its values in spite of subsequent generations who want to escape it. I could see how Gombrowicz’ contemporaries were challenged and shocked by his onslaught on the old ways, beliefs and traditions. His allegory presents a new Polish Republic that is not a nation rejuvenated, so much as a nation infantilised by a semi-moronic insistence on past glories. He is also desperately searching for the key to how one can escape the bonds of one’s past, either as an individual or as a nation.

There is an almost coherent narrative strand to Ferdydurke, with the newly-infantilised schoolboy standing for the new Polish nation, though interrupted by Shandean authorial interventions where the author seeks to direct our thinking himself… There are farcical scenes about duelling, about a daughter who invites two different men, a teacher and a fellow-pupil, to her room for an assignation… on the same night, and a bizarre episode in an aristocratic household where the author’s friend wants to ‘fraternise’ with a servant: the consequences are farcical. Gombrowicz is setting up the ridiculousness of the bourgeoisie, and using anarchy as his secret weapon. And what, exactly, were the relations between social classes in interwar Poland supposed to be? The aristocracy was legally abolished in 1919.

Ultimately it’s a book of its time, I think, and will be increasingly hard to approach for subsequent generations. As I worked my way towards the denouement, I found myself thinking of James Joyce‘s realisation, at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that he must leave his native land and go into exile, and seeing the parallel working itself out in Gombrowicz’ mind: there was no place for him in the new Poland, and he left forever, a couple of weeks before Hitler and Stalin snuffed out its brief existence.

Witold Gombrowicz: Diary

March 25, 2015

51d6XzdUABL._AA160_I recently read his Memories of Poland, which dealt with his early life and the pre-war years in Poland; this massive tome (800 pages) deals with his later life and is apparently regarded as his most important work; he sailed to Argentina a couple of weeks before the outbreak of the second World War and didn’t return to Europe for twenty-four years; he never went back to Poland.

So he’s in a world I’m familiar with from the writings of several other Polish authors, Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz the first two that spring to mind, an involuntary exile. The Poland that they left behind disappeared; the Poland that re-appeared under Stalin’s thumb in 1945 was not their home; in many cases their home soil was no longer in Poland…

Gombrowicz is still focused on the relationship between Poland and the West, its inferiority complex and its immaturity, its need to boast, to prove itself a peer of other, really European nations; in places it almost seems an obsession, and, whilst it’s pretty clear what he is criticising, what he would replace it with is much less so. There is a yearning for Poland and Poles to be authentically themselves and original rather than be imitative of, or worhipful of Europe. Despite the lack of clarity I experienced, there is true challenge and originality, questioning and analysis in Gombrowicz’ work. He is very interesting on Milosz’ important work The Captive Mind, a study of intellectuals under communism.

The Diary feels like a blog from the 1950s, before the invention of the concept; it’s certainly not a diary in the ways many of us would understand it; occasionally there are bizarre, even hallucinatory passages; sometimes he writes about himself in the third person. Some aspects of his own story and his past are clarified. There are some real nuggets buried in places, such as his enthralment with Beethoven’s late string quartets, which he writes much about.

He develops a detailed and very interesting – I can’t judge how accurate – analysis of why the inter-war Polish Republic was ultimately a failure, and why Polish art and literature failed: his focus is on the real difficulty of a new nation emerging after 120 years of non-existence, and yet still clinging to the baggage of the distant past. And yet I found myself thinking of the emigre and his relationship to his country, from a distance of 8000 miles and two decades or more; as time passed, he seemed to become more tormented or perplexed by his relationship with Poland, with other emigres and Polish emigre journalism; he seems out of sympathy with many of his peers. When he finally returns to Europe for the last five years of his life, he seems rather lost and out of place. The diary confirms for me the awfulness, and the loneliness of exile and separation from home, even in such a perverse character as Gombrowicz.

Usual moan: for a book from Yale University Press, I’d have expected a much higher standard of proof-reading.

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