The Ghosts of Europe by Anna Porter – Book Review

ghostsofeurope_j_900482cl-3Journeys Through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future

The Ghosts of Europe by Anna Porter
I picked up Porter’s book because it won the $25,000 Canadian Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing.

Twenty years ago I spoke to an elderly Polish couple, new Canadian immigrants to Canada after WWII. Their anti-Semitic remarks arising from memories of the Nazi invasion of Poland early in WWII alarmed me. The Polish woman, sixteen in 1939 and separated from her family, forced to work as a farm labourer knew the threat of harm to her family if she didn’t comply. Her husband had been a Polish soldier, captured early in the war by the Germans, spending the war years in prison camps. Their lack of empathy for the killing of Jews baffled me. In Canada the Holocaust went unquestioned as a barbarous crime, and the Western world championed Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Porter’s book goes a long way to explain why the Polish people, whose threatened borders by Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, overlooked the deeper Jewish situation.

Inside Stanislaw Kosta Church are memorials to those killed at Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, Chelmno, Auschwitz–place names that resonate with memories of the Holocaust. Here, however, it is not the Jewish tragedy that is being commemorated but the Polish tragedy that happened over the same years with almost as much brutality as the one that annihilated six million Jews. No other country saw as sustained barbarity as Poland, and none lost as large a percentage of its population during World War II: six million Poles were killed (including three million Polish Jews) — 20 per cent of the population, compared to 2.2 per cent in Holland, for example. After the devastation of the war, there was no interest here in the fact that 90 per cent of the Jews who had lived here had been murdered.

It was in Poland that the worst atrocities of World War II were perpetrated, with full knowledge of a traumatized population, both witnesses to and victims of bouts of brutal mockery, massacres in town squares, sadism, humiliation, unrestrained horror inflicted upon the non-Christian minority that had lived close to the Catholic majority for several hundred peaceful years. Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, and it was here, renamed by Germans, the Generalgouvernment, that the final solution was played out. This is where the locked boxcars from the rest of Europe arrived and disgorged their human cargo, some already dead or dying, and this where most of those who arrived alive were murdered in gas chambers and burnt in furnaces built for the express purpose of turning human beings into ash.

There are remnants of concentration camps throughout Poland, but only Auschwitz has remained relatively intact. The postwar Communists preserved the site but ignored the truth of what had happened here. The museum plaques listed the victims by nationality only. ‘Monument to the Martyrdom and Struggle of the Polish Nation and Other Nations,’ went the tagline at Auschwitz. The fact that more than 90 per cent of them were Jews was unimportant.

Until the early 1980s, scant public attention was paid to the Holocaust, no effort made by the educational authorities to single out the Jewish tragedy as separate from the Polish tragedy of the war years. The subject did not suit the curriculum’s focus on the great Soviet army sweeping over the Nazis, nor Moscow’s philosophy of class warfare. The Holocaust had nothing to do with class. Besides, East Germany had become a faithful ally, a bulwark against capitalism. The truths about the Holocaust were further complicated by the Communist Party’s anti-Semitic campaign of the late ’60s, during which time Jews were forced out of high positions in the army and government, many were interrogated, some expelled, other jailed. Ultimately, about fifteen thousand Jews were encouraged to emigrate. All those who did so lost their citizenship.

I’m on page 85 in the chapter on Poland. By page 278 I will have read chapters:

Nostalgia for the Habsburgs
The Last of the Great Resistance Intelligentsia
The Czech Republic
Outcasts, Emigres and Exiles

Quote by Porter:

History often becomes a political tool to be wielded when needed, distorted when convenient and hidden when harmful to one’s cause. Twenty years after the end of autocracy in Poland, the debate about the former Communists continues. As George Orwell predicted, whoever controls the present controls the past, and whoever controls the past controls the future.

With concerns for a strong European Union, Porter’s title The Ghosts of Europe: Journeys Through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future, sheds light on issues arising from the complexities of political baggage, contested borders, racial resentments, economic strife and competing markets.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada announced Feb 16/2011 that Anna Porter won the $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for The Ghosts of Europe: Journeys Through Central Europe’s Troubled Past and Uncertain Future, published by Douglas & McIntyre.


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