I began to cull yet another bookshelf and the first book I picked up was Wartime Lies by Louis Begley. It hugged Elie Wiesel’s, Night, but I couldn’t remember reading it. The blurb on the back announces it is the winner of the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award and is:
An exceptionally beautiful first novel. It is delicate in recounting the grossest of tales and it is sunny in the face of Stygian darkness. Somehow Begley has written an entrancing novel about hell, a fairytale from the inferno. I read it compulsively and I cannot forget it.
When I was studying history at high school and later university, I read lots of books about WW2 and the Holocaust. Now, working with adults in writing classes and hearing many wartime experiences firsthand, or the pain of the aftermath of growing up in families affected by the Holocaust (especially Jewish refugees from Hungary), I often murmur the lines coined by Rabbie Burns in his poem Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785:
‘Many and sharp the num’rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, –
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
I obviously bought this paperback printed in 1992, from an op shop along with others to read, to help me teach memoir and life writing, but it has sat on the shelf unread – until today.
I started to read and didn’t put it down until I finished the 198 pages. Breakfast dishes congealed in the sink, washing sat in the machine, time literally stood still, although my mind and body suffered emotional upheaval.
Wartime Lies is a fictionalised account of nine-year-old Maciek’s survival in Nazi-occupied Poland. His comfortable middle-class family torn apart in 1939 when his doctor father leaves to fight as an officer in a Polish regiment.
The Russians have been routed by the Germans in an area of Poland bordering the Ukraine, but nationalistic Poles make a valiant, futile attempt at defence. Maciek’s father does ‘the right thing’ against the advice of Catholic friends who encourage him to flee to safer parts of Europe like other Polish Jews.
Maciek’s mother is already dead and he is shown as a sickly, fearful, spoiled boy. His mother’s sister, Tania, has been a surrogate mother running the household and choosing nannies and it is her courage, wits and determination to survive and eventually reunite Maciek with his father that forms the novel.
Tania is an incredible character. If I ever had to face the annihilation of my lifestyle with the heartbreaking brutal assaults and hardship the Jewish people suffered, this book would be my survival incentive and guide.
Tania’s forward planning, realistic plotting, unrelenting scheming, and inventive adaptations to circumstances puts James Bond to shame. The description of how she manages to escape the eviction and slaughter of the Warsaw population after the failed partisan uprising, is harrowing but pure nerves-of-steel genius.
Tania is determined never to be the victim. A fighter, who will do anything to ensure nephew Maciek, and her parents survive and only in a couple of rare scenes do we see her waver. Grandfather is a wily survivor too, having lived through pogroms, but her mother is sickly and a hindrance rather than a help.
Vulnerable but smart, Tania buys false identity cards. The family pretends to be Polish catholics, befriends kind Germans and others to miraculously escape the fate of so many Jewish people. Tania keeps her parents alive longer than most on the run despite the efforts of the SS, Jewish militia and savage Ukranian troops.
The tale is extraordinary, the style minimalist and deserving of the Hemingway Award it received. It deals with the Holocaust through the eyes of a child caught up as an observer and confused participant. The final paragraphs gut-wrenchingly sad as the reader understands that children who go through a war or similar traumatic experience are like the narrator with ‘no childhood he can bear to remember’.
(Think of those poor boy soldiers used by various ‘freedom fighters’.)
Before the war intrudes there are details of class divisions and family ructions and personalities that set the scene and immerse you in a world few people would have experienced.
However, war crushes the innocence of childhood and creates broken adults.
Night after night our TV screens are filled with the horrors from the Middle East and the African continent where wars have simmered, flared and exploded for decades. We herd asylum seekers into camps or hound and vilify ‘foreigners’ and ‘Muslims’ as undesirables and enemies, reminiscent of the world of Wartime Lies. How often do we examine our moral compass?
The power of Begley’s writing is the framing of this semi-autobiographical story as the recollection of a man reflecting on his childhood and trying to understand the man he has become. He is aware it is not a ‘new’ story.
The first three pages show:
‘ a man with a nice face and sad eyes, fifty or more winters on his back, living a moderately pleasant life in a tranquil country. He is a bookish fellow… He reveres the Aeneid. That is where he first found civil expression of his own shame at being alive, his skin intact and virgin of tattoo, when his kinsmen and almost all others, so many surely more deserving than he, perished in the conflagration…
Our man avoids Holocaust books and dinner conversations about Poland in the Second World War… Yet he pores over accounts of the torture of dissidents and political prisoners, imagining minutely each session. How long would it have been before he cried and groveled? Right away, or only after they had broken his fingers? Whom would he have betrayed and how quickly?
He has become a voyeur of evil, sometimes uncertain which role he plays in the vile pictures that pass before his eyes. Is that the inevitable evolution of the child he once was, the price to be paid for his sort of survival?…
The man with the sad eyes believes he has been changed inside forever, like a beaten dog, and gods will not cure that…’
Would you lie to survive? How often and to what extent? Does the end justify the means? How will the choices you make affect the rest of your life? What if the lies strip you of ‘honour’, your identity, forces you to accept and approve actions alien to your beliefs? How do you cope with ‘survivor guilt’? What does it do to a child to have the adult they admire and love not only condone but plan lies and deceit? How do we ‘unlearn’ behaviours?
The questions raised by Wartime Lies relevant to the debate we are having in Australia about asylum seekers arriving by boat and the flood of refugees into Europe. What would you do to flee horror and persecution? What effect will this trauma have on the thousands of children? Will they ever recover and rebuild broken lives? Do people have to wait, suffer indignities and torture before they’re ‘allowed’ to seek a better, safer life?
Apart from the introduction’s philosophical pondering there is no moralising in the book or attempt to make definitive judgement. The story of Tania and Maciek’s survival unfolds with the horrors of the war and the extermination of the Jews in Poland, as a backdrop.
Revelations of terror interspersed with scenes of believable normality. But you can’t turn the pages fast enough, the tension breathtaking. Morbid fascination and nerve trembling fear follow the central characters – will they succumb to the cruel human beings surrounding them? How will they get out of yet another tight spot? Will this person be friend or foe? And always the little voice saying what if this was me…
When asked in an interview, if the novel was autobiographical, Begley replied:
‘It is, in that I was born in Poland and I’m Jewish… I spent the war on ‘Aryan papers.’ I lived in Warsaw during the uprising, but what is in the interstices is fiction…
I’d be doing the reader a disservice if I tried to distinguish the grain of sand from what hope is the pearl that formed around it.
A child’s memory is not like that of a man who keeps diaries. If one wanted to recall precise events, one would be left with what would fit in the palm of a hand. If one wants to tell what really happened in an emotional sense, one has to imagine and invent the facts.’
Not a memoir, not an entirely factual story, but a powerful memorable telling of a period in a child’s life grounded in real life events. The truthful elements completely engage your emotions along with the fiction. An example of great story-telling and writing to remain in memory longer perhaps than if it had been a true life “I” account.
This is a book to remind us of the fragility of human decency and how easily a community can unravel if prejudices and intolerance are encouraged to fester. If ignorance and envy are allowed to devour clear thinking, decent behaviour and mutual respect.
Wartime Lies shows the worst of humanity, but also the best. There seems no limit to what human beings can do to destroy each other, but also no limit to what the human spirit can endure and still survive. Cruelty is countered by compassion, violence is calmed or outsmarted, and fear is conquered.
Apparently, Stanley Kubrick wrote a screenplay based on this novel but scrapped plans because Schindler’s List was being produced at the same time. Yet, this story begs to be filmed, to remind another generation of the damage wreaked on the world by prejudice and war.
Will enough of mankind ever say this can’t go on, intervene and stop the cycle? Or are we forever destined to mourn?
This book remains on my bookshelf.