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Category Archive for 'Poland'

Imagining his father waiting at a train station outside of Auschwitz, where he has just been liberated, Swedish author Goran Rosenberg, the child of two Jewish Holocaust survivors from Poland, has decided to begin his memoir about his father’s life with his father’s journey to Sweden, the place where he plans to live but where he knows no one. There, his father plans to close the book on his earlier life in Poland and his incarceration at Auschwitz and settle down to make a new life. In his early twenties and weighing just over eighty pounds when he arrives, his father David finds and then arranges for his future wife Hala to join him after a two-year separation, then begins his family and their lives as survivors of the Holocaust in a completely foreign environment. Goran Rosenberg’s memoir, monumental in its insights into post-war survival, clear and unequivocal in its presentation of facts, artistic and beautifully written, and emotionally involving for the reader, makes the Rosenberg family, with its difficulties and its triumphs, more than the story of one family, however much we want them to succeed. Through this memoir, Goran Rosenberg makes them symbolic of all the survivors of this terrible war as they try also to survive their survivorhood.

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It is no overstatement to compare Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg’s epic novel about the people in the Lodz ghetto during World War II to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, published almost one hundred fifty years earlier. The real life dramas which the book illustrates, the memorable characters, the carefully developed themes which Sem-Sandburg treats in new ways, and the magnitude of the horrors easily make this book the equal of Tolstoy’s epic. The nature of the subject matter, of course, precludes any hint of romanticism here, but Sem-Sandburg is so good at varying scenes involving a series of fully human, repeating characters, that I cannot imagine any reader not becoming fully engaged with them, even though their stories have been created from piles of archival records, lists, and photographs and obviously have no happy endings. Beautifully written to memorialize the people of the ghetto, rather than the horrors of the Holocaust itself, this book is an awe-inspiring literary achievement.

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This sensitive and memorable depiction of the establishment of Soviet Socialist Republics by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1939, with its bloodshed and violence, is filled with trenchant observations of real people behaving realistically during times of real crisis. In clear, unadorned prose, author Theodore Odrach depicts the lives of rural peasants with sensitivity and an awareness both of their independence and of their shared values, contrasting them with the mindless, bureaucratic officials who enjoy wielding power over human beings which have become mere ciphers to them. A sense of dark humor and irony, which may be the only thing that makes survival possible, distinguishes this novel from other novels of this period, and no reader will doubt that this book is written by a someone who has seen the atrocities unfold, experienced the injustices, empathized with his fellow citizens, and felt compelled to tell the world about the abuses. Odrach sets his story in Hlaby, in the Pinsk Marshes, an enormous marshland which extends into Poland, Belarus, and the Ukraine, a place which is so remote that it cannot be reached except in the winter when the marsh is frozen. When the Bolsheviks arrive in 1939, they announce that henceforth this village will be part of the Belarus Soviet Socialist Republic.

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Set in 1963 in Wisla, the rural Polish town where author Jerzy Pilch himself grew up, A THOUSAND PEACEFUL CITIES feels as much like a real memoir as a satirical, fictional retelling of life in Poland in the years preceding the Student Revolt of 1968. In 1963, the Communist party is in power, and the country is under Soviet influence but not control. At the outset of the novel, the reader immediately discovers t=hat Jerzyk’s father and his father’s friend, Mr. Traba, an alcoholic former clergyman, plan to kill First Secretary Wladysaw Gomulka in Warsaw. They had, at first, thought of killing Mao Tse-tung to make a statement but decided it was impractical: “Better a sparrow in the hand than Mao Tse-tung on the roof.” What follows is a wild ride through rural Poland in 1963—a novel that is, by turns, hilarious, thoughtful, filled with metaphysical and dialectical argument, and embellished with lyrical details from the natural world.

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Eleven years after the publication of Fugitive Pieces, her only other novel (and winner of the Orange Prize), Anne Michaels has published a monumental philosophical novel which is also exciting to read for its characters and their conflicts. Complex and fully integrated themes form the superstructure of the novel in which seemingly ordinary people deal with issues of life and death, love and death, the primacy of memory, the search for spiritual solace, and the integrity of man’s relationships with the earth and the water that makes the earth habitable. The first part deals with the excavation of Abu Simbel and its relocation above the cliffs when Lake Nasser was created. The second with the St. Lawrence Seaway and the dispossessions that caused as a new lake was formed, and the third with the rebuilding of Warsaw after World War II. Michaels’s talent as a poet is obvious in her gorgeous ruminations about the meaning of love and life, and in her evocative, unique imagery, but the beauty of the language is matched by the richness of the novel’s underlying concepts, which give depth and significance to this challenging and satisfying novel.

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