My Europe by Louis Begley
My Europe begins with Poland before the war. World War II, of course. Soon, there will be no one left who knew Europe as it was before World War I, the Great War that destroyed the old order and gave the continent a new map, which, with relatively small changes, is its map today. Until she died in December 2004, my mother was one of the two persons with whom I talked about Europe before World War I. The other was Gregor von Rezzori, the protean novelist from Chernowitz, in Bukovina. He died in 1998. The war broke out in August 1914, when my mother wasn’t quite four years old, but she remembered her family’s flight, in the late fall of that year, spurred by the fear of pogroms that came in the wake of advancing imperial Russian troops, from Rzeszów, the town in Galicia where she was born, to Brno in Moravia. They remained in Brno until the end of the summer of 1917. My mother went to kindergarten there, and acquired the almost native knowledge of German without which she might not have succeeded, less than twenty-five years later, in saving her own life and mine when the Third Reich undertook to exterminate the Polish Jews.
At the core of my first memories of Poland is a summer in the remote countryside where my grandparents had a small property. The low manor house was made of wood so weather-beaten that I thought of it as black. One reached it after a journey from the nearest railway station over blindingly white dusty roads that seemed to stretch into eternity. The fat horses drawing my grandparents’ carriage moved at a trot so unwilling that the slow beat of their hoofs and the swaying of that ancient contraption soon put me to sleep. The inside of the house was as dark and somber as its exterior—a cocoon of silence interrupted only by vague barnyard noises during the day, the lowing of cows coming home to be milked at dusk, and, at night, the dogs that my grandfather’s coachman let off their chains.
My grandmother saw to it that I ate copiously, at the five regular daily meals (there was a second breakfast, as well as a late afternoon meal that preceded dinner) and, as though that were not enough, whenever she happened to think of a sweet, or a choice morsel of meat, for instance a chicken or duck liver, that I might profitably ingest. She did not speak much, and neither did my grandfather; the house servants, local peasant women, left me alone. The summer stretched into golden early autumn. I went with my grandmother or one of those rough and silent serving women to the edge of the forest that began just beyond a meadow adjoining the house. In the profound shade, we picked mushrooms. Then vacation was over. It was time to return to Stryj, the town where my parents lived.
My memories of Poland during World War II are set down in the first novel I wrote, Wartime Lies. Wartime Lies is a work of fiction, based in part on recollections of what happened to me and, in at least equal part, on stories I heard during the war and soon afterward about what happened to others. Necessarily, my sharpest recollections were of interiors: the rented furnished rooms in Warsaw in which my mother and I waited and wondered which would come first: the defeat of Germany that would put an end to the nightmare, or the fatal pounding on the door announcing the Gestapo that would put an end to our lives. We went out of those rooms as infrequently as possible, but there were, to be sure, certain notable outdoor events I could also recall vividly, such as the arrival of Germans in our town, the Judenaktionen and scenes of individual violence and murder that followed, the burning of the Warsaw ghetto, which I experienced only vicariously, looking on from the outside, and the burning and destruction of the rest of Warsaw during the uprising that started in August 1944.
When I was writing Wartime Lies, I realized that I had forgotten the topography of every place I had known in Poland, except Stryj, the town in which I was born and where I lived until I was almost nine. But even it had been stripped down to a few essentials: my parents’ house and the street it stood on, the marketplace, the street leading to the railway station, and the riverbank from which one could go swimming. I had to pore over the street map of Warsaw to construct Tania’s and Maciek’s itineraries on their rare walks in the city, to place the boardinghouses where they found shelter, to get them to the old city so that they could, like my mother and me, remain in Warsaw until the final days of the uprising, and then from their cellar to the great square before the central railway station. Such, in the case of that novel, was the paltry store of my specific recollections.