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Life after Communism: East European Sufferings and Paradoxes

October 21, 2013
by Zelda Gamson A review of The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, by Marci Shore. Crown, 2013, 384 pages. Published in the Summer, 2013 issue of Jewish Currents. “It requires certain kinds of energy, certain capacities for taking the world into our consciousness, certain real powers of body and soul to be a match for reality.” —M.C. Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person, 1964 StalinMarci Shore sought out Czeslaw Milosz, the poet and Nobel laureate, in Krakow after the fall of communism. She was “struck by his laughter, unusually deep. He was an encyclopedia . . . the only one left.” When she asked him about Adam Wazyk, a poet who became a “terroretician” of socialist realism, Milosz refused to condemn him. “We were good friends . . . even in the time of Stalinism, Wazyk sort of winked at me.” What about Antoni Slonimski, who supported the Polish communists after World War II and later wrote a diatribe against Milosz? They, too, were good friends, he said. When Milosz was Poland’s cultural attaché in Washington, DC, Slonimski had told him to “listen to an old Jew” and stay abroad as long as he could. Milosz defected a few years later, and then told himself that Slonimski was attacking him because he “was clearly out of his wits from fear.” When Slonimski later went to Paris, “we became friends again . . . because I forgave him.” Like-what-youre-readingIn The Captive Mind, the book he wrote soon after his defection, Milosz wrote about the appeal of Stalinism to intellectuals like himself in postwar Eastern Europe. With this understanding, he was inclined to forgive his former friends and colleagues. Still, he did not forgive the Stalinist stalwart Wanda Wasilewska (a novelist and member of the communist Polish government-in-exile, as well as the Supreme Soviet), nor her good friend, Janina Broniewski, a journalist in the Soviet Union during the war and a party activist after the war. Marci Shore was curious about them: “A fascinating figure who chain-smoked and drank endless cups of black coffee,” Wanda Wasilewska was a movie caricature of the communist functionary who combined Stalinist dogmatism and feminine sentimentality. She was Stalin’s confidante, perhaps his lover. Although her husband was murdered by the NKVD, she never wavered in her loyalty to the Soviet Union. Shore corresponded with Janina Broniewski’s granddaughter, Ewa, who had been raised by her grandmother at the height of Stalinism. Ewa loved her grandmother and admired Wasilewska; she pushed away thoughts of the bad things they might have done. Yet Ewa finally wrote in anguish to Shore about how her grandmother and Wasilewska could know about the horrors of Stalin and go along with them:
Wanda Wasilewska knew Stalin. She has to have known that this man was a monster. She knew about the crimes. She helped individuals, but remained in a system where political crime was the daily bread . . . This is the distant past, but for me it remains on the frontier of horror or socio-psychological science fiction. Why did Wanda and my grandmother, knowing about the monstrosities, not recoil? Perhaps, as in the Mafia, past a certain degree of involvement there was no turning back.
The Taste of Ashes grapples with these questions as Marci Shore, an associate professor of intellectual history at Yale, learns about the daily calculations people were forced to make in order to protect themselves and their families. Grzegorz (Hersh) Smolar, for example, tried to save his children after their arrest in 1968 for involvement in student protests against censorship. A partisan against the Nazis, a dedicated communist for most of his life, and the anti-Zionist leader of the Central Committee of Jews in postwar Poland who was later accused of Zionism, Smolar wrote a pleading letter to Party General Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka. Shore quotes from the letter, found in the archives by an acquaintance of hers:
I am writing at a moment when the despair that has overtaken me has begun to turn into desperation. Perhaps,as has been suggested to me by various parties, the situation would undergo a fundamental change if I were to express a desire to leave the country . . . I declare this: If soliciting permission to leave the country can save my imprisoned children. I am ready to carry this out.
The following year, Smolar’s two sons were released from prison, and he eventually left the country. From these stories and many more, Marci Shore constructs a portrait of post-communist Eastern Europe to join her 2006 book, Caviar and Ashes, about Polish and Polish-Jewish writers drawn to Marxism in the 20th century, and Timothy Garton Ash’s 1997 book, The File, a personal account of the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany, and the people who could not escape cooperating with it. Caught in what Timothy Snyder calls the “Bloodlands” between Hitler and Stalin, the people of Eastern Europe suffered immeasurably during World War II. Nazi Germany just about obliterated the Jews in the region. After the Germans were defeated, the Soviets took over East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania. In these satellite states, communist parties imported the Soviet economic and political system, which brought government control over all aspects of life, as well as mass arrests, torture, show trials, disappearances, and executions. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev’s “secret speech” three years later opened space for rebellion in these satellite countries. This happened at an uneven pace. A revolution in Hungary was put down mercilessly by the Soviets in 1956. Soviet tanks invaded Prague in 1968 to suppress a movement for a more democratic socialism. Charter 77, a 1977 human rights petition in Czechoslovakia spread as samizdat (dissident literature, passed from reader to reader), helped create an alternative civil society that shadowed the official one. In Poland, workers went on strike against price increases in 1970, and ten years later the Solidarity movement struck in the port city of Gdansk and brought workers and intellectuals together. Unable to tolerate change, communism in Eastern Europe imploded. By 1989, the Hungarian and Polish regimes had fallen, and East German authorities, realizing that they could no longer control their population, opened the border in Berlin. Two years later, the Soviet Union no longer existed. Shore pieces together the personal side of this history, and she helps us look at it without flinching. How she does this is wholly original: partly as a naif, partly as a relentless researcher. The book starts gently, as she describes how she came to love the region and its people. She talks disarmingly about herself as an undergraduate who knew almost nothing but was drawn by admiration for Vaclav Havel and was “mesmerized by the romance of the Velvet Revolution, seemingly so untainted, and by the imprisoned playwright who became a philosopher-president, who went to live in a magnificent castle, and who appointed Frank Zappa one of his advisors. . . . I came to Eastern Europe,” she continues, “because I wanted to hear a story that ended happily.” Shore was not interested in the economics and politics of the fall of communism, but she did want to meet the poets and the philosophers, learn of peace studies and human rights, participate in the counterculture, and meet members of the rock band the Plastic People of the Universe. In her travels to Prague, and later to Warsaw, Krakow, Bratislava, Bucharest, Vilnius, Kiev, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, and Israel, Shore met everyone (including many, many Jews among her interlocutors): Stalinists and dissidents, Zionists and Bundists, executioners and victims, opportunists and people who managed to get by. Full of optimism and not a little khutspe, she found them even if they didn’t want to be found. She met them in cafes and in their apartments, at funerals, readings and conferences. She chased down relatives. She burrowed into archives and turned up hidden letters and reports. The Taste of Ashes is based on the personal journals she kept through all of this, with entries written years apart. Her title itself is drawn from a striking act that Shore witnessed in Prague: After a memorial for a friend who had committed suicide, “Korina sat down on her knees on the wooden floor, reaching out to touch the porcelain. She put her finger into the urn and tasted Oskar’s ashes.” Her brief chapters, fragmentary sentences and short paragraphs describe the looks and the love affairs of various Slavic poets and philosophers as if it were material for People magazine. Red wine is poured into Bohemian glass in a grim high-rise apartment bloc in Prague; old women are dressed in their remaining pre-war finery. Such details breathe life into people long dead, sketch the mood in a room, and draw us in. A secular Jew, Shore returns many times to the matter of the high representation of Jews among communists. She asks why this was so and gets different answers. The most compelling comes from the editor of a Yiddish-language periodical: “If the Jews accepted the communists, it was only because the communists were the only ones who accepted us.” In a chapter entitled, “The Eternally Wandering Jew,” she takes us on her travels through Jewish Eastern Europe from the early 20th century to the present. She places herself amidst the futurists and the Dadaists. She studies Yiddish with a tutor in California and makes contact with YIVO in New York. She tries to find the editor of Poland’s largest Yiddish newspaper between the wars, Chaim Finkelstein, and is told that he must be dead, then tracks him down to Co-op City in the Bronx. Finkelstein, 100, is angry and clear-minded. He knows everything she has come to find out, but refuses to give her answers. Instead of being discouraged, she presents him as a voice from the lost Jews of Poland:
I could feel that it seemed pointless to him, for how could he communicate this world — his world that by now had no longer existed for over half a century — to a young person from a wholly other world? “You already know too much,” he said, “too much and nothing.”
Shore tells story after story about how some Jews survived in Poland during the war, about the casual and not-so-casual anti-Semitism in Poland then and now. Her reports about current efforts to revive Jewish life in Poland are a revelation: Vying for the attention of a very limited number of Jews are newly Orthodox Jews, Jews who are studying the Talmud, Jews who are militant secularists, Yiddishists, Israelis, and Poles who think they might be Jews or want to be Jewish. Klezmer has been back for a while in Poland, and you don’t have to be Jewish to play it. There is a Yiddish Theater in Warsaw, as well as memorials and museums. There is even a hotline for closet Jews. Visiting the region over the course of two decades, Shore brings us a more heartbreaking and complex story than her first youthful search for heroes and happy endings. She opens a Pandora’s box stuffed with horrors: camp survivors, deportees to Siberia, hidden children, executed fathers, suicides, broken-down families, and omnipresent feelings of guilt and depression. What pulled her back again and again? Clearly, she loves the people she came to know so intimately. Drawn to the poetry of suffering and the Slavic languages in which it is expressed, she prefers gray, damp Warsaw to more cheerful places. Tragic they may be, but her people are full of charm and humor. She shows us their kindnesses and deep emotional attachments, especially towards family members and friends. Marci Shore lets us see the humanity underneath the horrors of Eastern European history. The survivors of that history are lucky in their chronicler — an intrepid American explorer into their dark continent. Zelda Gamson, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts in Boston who helped establish its New England Resource Center for Higher Education.
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