The Amber Heart by Catherine Czerkawska

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This is meant to be a star-crossed romance set against the complex political, social and ethno-religious background of 19th century Galicia (the Ukrainian/Polish one, not the Spanish one) … but there’s a delicious interlude in which Our Heroine is escorted round the sights of Imperial Vienna by a handsome nobleman who keeps buying her Viennese cakes and pastries.  We get long lists of these.  He even hires a personal patissier, in the hope of impressing the lady.  Maybe this is some sort of romantic fantasy of the author’s?  If so, it’s a pretty good one.  If anyone knows where you can find one of these cake-providing handsome noblemen, please shout up.

The Siege of Atlanta moment in this is the Galician Slaughter/Peasant Uprising of 1846.  Polish history puts a lot of emphasis on uprisings.  1794.  1830-1831.  1863-64.  The leaders of these are all lionised.  However, the 1846 Uprising – very badly timed, because if they’d waited another two years then Austria would have been trying to deal with Hungary and Northern Italy at the same time … although, in that case, Russia would probably have got stuck in – gets quietly overlooked because it ended up with the Poles all fighting each other and doing the Austrians’ job for them.  This is the first book I’ve ever found which deals with it as historical fiction, and one of very few books I’ve ever found which deal with the glorious confusion that is Galicia as historical fiction at all.

I don’t think the author quite knew how much historical/political background to give, and sometimes it seems as if she’s decided that she’d better explain things, so she includes some information about the Partitions and about the Habsburg Empire.  However, she doesn’t do it until after covering events which wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know the background.   The Polish Partitions and the Habsburg Empire are both fascinating subjects, but I’m not sure that they’re that well-known in English-speaking countries, and it would have made more sense to have put the background info in first.  Having said which, it’s rather nice feeling that you’re expected to know what’s going on.  OK, I won’t write an essay on the Partitions, because this book’s about Austrian Poland/Ukraine and I always come at the whole thing from a Russian viewpoint.

Anyway.  A star-crossed romance.  Our Heroine is a Polish, Roman Catholic noblewoman.  Our Hero is a Ukrainian, Orthodox peasant.  You get the idea.  Come 1846, the Polish upper and middle classes staged a rebellion, centred on what was then the Free City of Krakow, with the hope of regaining their independence.  The Polish peasants in Austrian Poland (much of which is now part of Ukraine) rose up against the Polish landlords – serfdom still existed in Galicia at this point, although it was abolished two years later – and actually massacred a fair number of them, and the Austrians were able to put down both rebellions, but not before taking advantage of peasant support against the nobles.  And, to put the tin lid on it, a load of crops got destroyed in the chaos.  And Krakow lost its status as a free imperial city and was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, which it wasn’t very pleased about.  So it’s probably no wonder 1846 doesn’t get spoken of in the same terms as 1863-64 et al.  It was a pretty major disaster from a Polish viewpoint.

Our Hero rescues Our Heroine from the peasant mob who attack her home and murder her husband, and, having fancied each other for years, they then get together.  It doesn’t fit in that well with the historical facts, though.  The uprising was in the Polish areas, not the areas where most of the peasantry were Ukrainian (or Ruthenian, or identifying as Orthodox rather than Catholic … the terminology’s a nightmare with Galicia).  The villages also seem to be very much mixed Polish and Ukrainian, which I’m not sure they would have been … although it’s meant to be set near Lviv (referred to in the book, correctly in terms of historical context, by its Austrian name of Lemberg), and that was much more mixed before the Poles moved out after Lviv was moved from Poland to Ukraine the Second World War … mostly to Wroclaw, which needed repopulating after the Germans had been booted out when it was moved from Germany to Poland.  That all makes complete sense, doesn’t it 🙂 ?

Oh, and how come all the Ukrainians are Orthodox?   Given that we’re near Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg, shouldn’t most or all of the Ukrainians be Greek Catholic?  I don’t like that expression in a Ukrainian/Belarusian context, and think that “Uniate” is far better, but apparently people prefer “Greek Catholic” and “Uniate”‘s seen as being a bit offensive.  Come to that, why are none of the characters Jewish, bearing in mind that we’re talking about Galicia in the mid-19th century?

Oh well, I suppose a bit of historical licence can be forgiven.  It’d spoil the story if the hero and heroine weren’t of different nationalities and different religions, as well as from different social backgrounds!   The idea is that everything’s against them.  It’s a lifelong relationship: the amber heart of the title is a necklace given to him by her mother, who dies after catching smallpox whilst trying to nurse his mother through it.   They never actually marry, and in fact they both marry other people, but they’re involved on and off for years, and have two children who are passed off as being someone else’s.  Funny how some of the greatest romantic novels of all time work like that: The Thorn Birds is the obvious one, and A Dark and Distant Shore is another.  This doesn’t come even close to being in that league, but it’s so rare to find a book set in Galicia.  James Michener’s Poland is, in part, and there’s Michael Andre Bernstein’s Conspirators which is great, but they aren’t sagas about the lives of particular characters like this is.  And there’s quite a bit of interesting description about the homes and lifestyles and customs of both the nobles and the peasants.

There’s even a feminist angle: Our Heroine does not remarry after her husband dies, but runs her estate on her own, with the help of Our Hero as the estate manager.  At the end, whilst it’s usually the bloke who dies first, leaving the woman to ruminate on what might have been – with the obvious exception of Wuthering Heights – in this case she dies first, and he actually does a bit of a Heathcliff: he doesn’t go around kidnapping people and forcing them into marriage, but he does mope around and drink too much for a while.  Then he dies too.  Hmm.  Books that just do the happy ever after thing end with the couple getting married: books like this inevitably end with one or both of them dead.

And finally, what of the cake-buying nobleman?   Well, he doesn’t get the girl either.  She leaves Vienna, and moves back to her country estate near Lemberg/Lviv/Lemberik/Lwow/Lvov.  At least all the commonly-used versions of the name begin with L:  Bratislava/Pressburg/Pozsony’s far more confusing.  Her cousin lives in Vienna for many years, and puts on loads of weight from eating all the cake.  Seriously, this book gives the distinct impression that all anyone does in Vienna is eat cake.  Ahem – not that I’ve got a photo just above the computer of myself in a Viennese coffee house with a huge piece of Sachertorte in front of me.  And I’m always moaning about how much I struggle to lose weight.

Anyway, you’d think that someone – one of these irritating people who eat cake all the time but never put on an ounce – would have snapped him up, but no.  He continues to adore Our Heroine, and, having sussed out what’s going on with her and Our Hero, he reflects sadly that he offered her cake when all she really wanted was rye bread.  That’s supposed to be some great allegory for the whole thing, but it doesn’t work because she carried on living in her big house, with her servants and her expensive gear, so it was hardly as if she was managing on bread and salt all for the love of Our Hero.  But it’d be a brilliant line if she had been.   So, he doesn’t get the girl, but they’re best friends, probably more like sister and brother.  It’s quite sad for him, but it’s nice as well.  Sometimes people aren’t destined to be a couple, but there’s no reason why they can’t still be friends.

Incidentally, I’ve never yet made it to Lviv, but I remember thinking in Krakow (and in various other Slavic areas which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) how nice it was that you could have black bread for breakfast and Austrian-style cake for afternoon tea!   And that’s Mitteleuropa.  As of this week, the Berlin Wall has been down for longer than it was up.  That really makes me feel old!   But I think we still see Europe in terms of Eastern Europe and Western Europe, the way we did during the Cold War, and it’s time to stop that.  And that probably goes right against the grain (bad pun about Ukraine as a major grain producer entirely intended) of the 1846 attempt by the Galician nobility to get away from Austrian influence … and which all went wrong.  Very unusual choice of background for a book, and that’s nice.  It’s hard finding books set in Galicia!

 

 

 

Rewriting history? The Polish Holocaust speech bill

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Rewriting history seems to be, worryingly, a term that we’re hearing more and more these days. It generally runs alongside trying to stifle free speech and debate.  And now it’s causing an international row, following the passing by the Polish parliament of a law making it a criminal offence to state publicly that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”.

Hopefully, no-one is for one minute trying to say that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”. And it’s quite understandable that people in Poland object to the blatantly incorrect but all too frequent use of the term “Polish death camps” when referring to Nazi concentration camps on Polish soil.  But the passing of this law has led to considerable concern amongst historians and others that it will stifle debate about and even research into the events of the Nazi period.  Where is the line to be drawn between saying or writing about the complicity by individuals in Poland with “Third Reich crimes” – in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom in which over 340 Polish Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours, the then president of Poland stated clearly that the murderers were Poles – and falling foul of the new legislation?

This isn’t the first time that there’s been controversy over the present Polish government’s attitude towards the events of the Second World War. There was a long, drawn-out wrangle over the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which finally opened last spring after considerable arguing between the government and historians over the extent to which the museum should focus on Poland’s experience – by which the government meant Poland’s suffering and Polish resistance to the Nazis – as opposed to telling the entire history of how the war affected the whole of Europe and beyond.  Wanting to focus on your own country’s experiences is reasonable to some extent, but this latest controversy goes much further than that

It’s not just Poland where there are issues concerning the presentation of the events of the Second World War. Unless it’s been changed since I was there, the video which is shown to visitors at the Second World War Museum in Riga focuses almost entirely on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Latvia, with next to nothing being said about the atrocities committed there by the Nazis.  And collaboration and support for the Nazis is a very sensitive subject everywhere.  We’ve all heard the stories about how hardly anyone in Austria’s seen The Sound of Music.  There’s a lot of evidence for complicity in Nazi atrocities by local people in Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and elsewhere, but it isn’t really spoken about.  But it isn’t actually banned.

Statues are being pulled down in America. Certain British universities and even Virgin Trains have tried to restrict the sale of certain newspapers. Where do you draw the line between trying to avoid offensive speech and interfering with free speech? It’s a difficult one.

It’s hard to see any other countries following Poland’s lead. For one thing, the present Polish government is not exactly renowned for its free thinking. Concerns have already been raised over its interference in both the media and the judiciary. For another thing, no other country has the same place that Poland, through no fault of its own, has in the history of the Holocaust. But this is a worrying development. It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.

And the Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati

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I’ve had this book for a while, and I didn’t particularly intend to read it just before Holocaust Memorial Day, but it was probably quite an appropriate time for it. It’s one of very few books covering the subject of the Romani genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies – often referred to as the Porajmos, although the term isn’t commonly used by Roma people themselves.

On the subject of terminology, the book was written in the 1980s, and uses the word “gypsy”, which isn’t generally used today but was in both the 1980s and the 1940s, but getting bogged down in semantics isn’t really very helpful: it’s the story which it tells which is important.   The author, Mark Ramati – also the author of The Assisi Underground – claims (and there seems no reason to doubt his claim) to have been given the script by Roman Mirga, the protagonist, a Polish Romani and an Auschwitz survivor.

The title of the book reflects the popularity of Romani music – usually referred to as Tzigane (the Hungarian word for “gypsy”) music, or Zigeuner (the German word) musik in Central and Eastern Europe (and, obviously, in Spain, although Spain doesn’t come into this).  Roman Mirga’s father, Dymitr carried his violin with him into Auschwitz.  There, he became part of a Romani orchestra which was forced to play every time that people were taken into the gas chambers.  The book says that the idea was that the music would calm them.  The book also says that Dymitr Mirga, a particularly talented violinist, was expected to play violin solos to entertain the Nazis – but that the music also heartened the prisoners.  There’s no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, but let’s hope that it is, and that the music brought some sort of comfort in a hell on earth.  When the violins stop playing, Roman knows that his father has gone to the gas chambers.

The story’s told in the first person, and opens in November of 1942, when teenage Roman’s living with his parents and younger sister in Warsaw. The children are at school, with Roman having one more year to go, and the parents are musicians in a popular nightspotThey don’t consider themselves to be at any particular risk – until a relative comes to tell them that Roma and Sinti people have been forced into the ghetto in Lodz.

Roman’s father decides that they’ve got to escape to Hungary – at this stage an ally of the Third Reich but not actually part of it. Due to the Nazis having handed part of Slovakia over to Hungary, there is at this point a border between Poland and Hungarian-controlled territory, in the Tatra mountains.  They go straight to a Roma camp at Brest-Litovsk, which is where the family are from originally and is where Roman’s grandparents are still living.

More confusion over names. And borders.  We’re now supposed to refer to Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus, as Brest.  I do try to remember, but I’m too used to talking about the Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596) and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)!   After the First World War, Brest-Litovsk became part of Poland, and was renamed Brest-on-the-Bug.  Then it was handed over to the Soviets in 1939.  Then the Nazis took it in 1941.  And, to get to the bits of Slovakia which were ruled by Hungary, they crossed through Ukrainian Galicia, part of which was then in Ukraine but part of which was then in Poland.  Anyway.  The book says “Brest-Litovsk”.

Many of the people at the camp, including the leader of the “kumpania” (company/group), are sceptical about what’s being said, even when warned by a leading local Polish man that the Nazis intend to move against them, but eventually they decide to leave, and Roman’s father is chosen as the new leader of the kumpania. They head for the border.   The journey is harrowing.  Many people become ill: some don’t make it.  There are disputes and the group splits up, and some of them are attacked by Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) and murdered.

Everyone is – hopefully – aware of the concentration camps and the atrocities committed therein, but there doesn’t always seem to be the same awareness of the mass killings carried out by the death squads, even large scale massacres such as that at Babi (Babyn) Yar. Without wishing to be too controversial, it doesn’t help that some of these took place with the assistance of local collaborators, and that the authorities in the countries concerned prefer to play that down, and to focus on other aspects of the wartime years instead.

They also pass close to the extermination camp at Sobibor, and are able to smell the burning flesh. Somehow, with the assistance of some of the local people, the survivors of the group make it to the border, and reach a Hungarian-ruled part of Slovakia.  There’s an action-packed border crossing scene, in which the Nazis are pursuing them and Roman’s best friend is gunned down and killed as the rest of the group cross the river: maybe some of them was added for dramatic effect, but it doesn’t really matter.

Despite the fact that this is essentially a Holocaust novel, some of the descriptions of the journey are very normal, and give an interesting picture of Romani customs. The style’s very simplistic, and it’s quite reminiscent of something like Little House on the Prairie, in the middle of all the horrors.  The reader’s shown a lot of Romani customs, and told about different groups of Roma and Sinti people.  There are also some very normal domestic and community scenes, such as Roman getting into a fight with another boy over a pretty girl whom they both fancy – and whom Roman eventually marries, with a lovely description of Romani marriage rites.

It’s good to read about the realities of Romani culture, because it’s something about which there are a lot of strange ideas and stereotypes. Well, there are two main sets of stereotypes.  There’s the romantic one – think Carmen, and the images of gold earrings and gorgeous brightly-painted caravans, and women selling beautiful lace, and, of course, music.  And there’s the negative one about crime and curses, which is so prevalent that it features in numerous Enid Blyton books and even in Jane Austen’s Emma. The stereotype of Romani people as criminals is one of the reasons why the Romani genocide was not recognised at the time: it was, horrifyingly, claimed that Roma and Sinti people had been targeted because of criminal activity, rather than as an ethnic/cultural group.

We don’t hear much about the group’s experiences in Hungary during 1943, but all seems to go fairly well … but then, in March 1944, with the Hungarian government looking to switch sides and align itself with the Allies, the Nazis march in. The Mirgas and the rest of their kumpania are taken to Auschwitz.

There’s quite a lot of documentary evidence about the Familienzigeunerlager (gypsy family camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It doesn’t seem to be widely known, though.  I can’t actually remember it even being mentioned when I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007.  The Roma and Sinti inmates there were, as the name suggests, left together as families, and initially none of the people from there were taken to the gas chambers.  But many died in the horrific conditions.  The doctor in charge of medical treatment of the camp was Josef Mengele.  It’s chilling to come across him in a book, chatting away with characters whom the reader has got to know well.  Again, it seems likely that there’ve been exaggerations for dramatic effect, but the book relates that Mengele took a shine to both Roman Mirga, who worked for him as a translator, and Dymitr Mirga, because of his musical talents.  Roman witnesses some of Mengele’s horrific experiments, especially his attempts to change eye colour, and there are descriptions of the “kindergarten” that Mengele established for Romani children under the age of six.

On August 2nd 1944, the Zigeunerlager was “cleared”: thousands of people were sent to the gas chambers.

The book tells us that Roman was saved. Only one other member of his kumpania was also saved – none other than the boy whom he’d had a fight with over his future wife.  The two of them manage to escape, and meet up with Roman’s sister, whom their father had pushed off the train taking them to Auschwitz and who’d found refuge with a Polish peasant woman.  It doesn’t really sound very likely, but who knows?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much if the story of this particular individual is 100% factually accurate or not.  What matters is that hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, and that everyone needs to know that.

No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Bulgaria had, and still has, one of the largest Romani populations in the world, but, although the Bulgarian wartime government was closely allied with the Nazis, there were no killings of either Bulgarian Roma or Bulgarian Jews: that’s something else which deserves more credit than in gets.  Total estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.

People in the Czech Republic are voting in a presidential run-off today and tomorrow. It’s 2018.  Tomorrow marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Sitting president Milos Zeman has, during his election campaign, made comments about Romani people being “socially unadaptable”.  If a political leader had made comments like that about any other group of people, there’d have been an international outcry.  It didn’t even make the mainstream news here.  Mind you, nor did November’s big far right march in Poland, and there’s only been limited coverage of the rise of the far right in Austria.  Maybe the media should take its eyes off America and the Middle East for a few minutes and have a closer look at some of what’s going on in parts of Europe.

West Germany recognised the Romani genocide in 1982, and a memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazis was unveiled in Berlin in 2012. In 2011, Poland recognised August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.  It’s now marked in many other countries too, but it’s not really very well-known, and the Romani genocide just isn’t very well-known generally.  It’s not like the Armenian Genocide, which most countries refuse to recognise because they don’t want to damage relations with Turkey.  There just doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as would be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  However, that does seem to be changing now, with young people wanting to raise awareness of what happened, and hopefully that’s something that can be achieved now.

This book is not going to win any prizes for literary style, but it’s one that should be read. A film version’s been made of it as well, and is available on You Tube.  It’s a story that everyone should know.