Sunday, September 05, 2010
By Louis Begley
Maciek was born in Poland in 1933, the son of a successful and prosperous Jewish physician. Right from the start, though, life was a struggle. His mother died giving birth to him. Her older sister, his aunt Tania, stepped in to help care for and raise Maciek. But Tania was a strong, independent woman who perhaps was a bit unavailable to her young charge. A sweet Polish girl became Maciek's nanny, but as the German's start their pogrom against the Jews and it becomes more acceptable to openly hate and revile Jews, the girl's father removes her from Maciek's home as he doesn't want her lowering herself to work for Jews.
As the crisis deepens and Maciek's father heads for Russia, Maciek and Tania, with the grandfather's help try to maintain their home and dignity. When the Germans arrive, Tania develops a relationship with a sympathetic German officer who arranges an apartment for them and they also acquire fake papers identifying them as Catholic Poles. They eventually have to flee and move to Warsaw, moving from apartment to apartment, living on the money and jewelry Tania brought with them. They get caught in the Polish uprising in Warsaw and are almost packed off to a concentration camp but Tania is able to charm and bamboozle a German officer into letting her and Maciek board a train to another town. The two end up working for Polish peasants, milking cows, digging vegetables, selling bootleg vodka. They even manage to locate Maciek's grandfather, but just as they hope to see him again, he is killed.
All this happened to Maciek at a very young age and although his aunt constantly drills him on the necessity of passing as Christian Poles, little Maciek is troubled by all the deceit and lies. Forced to pretend to be Christian, Maciek finds himself studying with a priest for his first communion. He feels guilty and sad that he cannot make a perfect act of contrition because to do so would be to reveal all the lies and risk his and Tania's very lives. He finds the unending subterfuge a heavy burden, but, even in his struggles, he remembers and he is successful at maintaining his fake identity.
His story is told by his older self, a middle-aged man, who is still struggling with the events and memories of that terrible time in the formative years of a young boy's life.
This captivating and astonishing story is based on the author's own experiences as a Jewish boy in Poland during World War II. He and his mother went through the same trials as Maciek and managed to survive. It's a very moving and personal look at two people doing the all they have to do to make it out alive. I found it very interesting and it is the kind of story that stays with you long after you have read it.