Victor Sebestyen

What price freedom?

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The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

Marci Shore

Heinemann, pp. 370, £

One of the best-known contacts for many Western reporters covering Poland and the Solidarity protests of the 1980s was Konstanty ‘Kostek’ Gebert. A fine journalist who usually wrote under the name Dawid Warszawski, he seemed to know everyone in Warsaw, liked to talk late into the night about ideas and gossip, wore his vast learning lightly and had an invaluable gift for putting complex issues into broad perspective.

Gebert’s parents were Jewish migrants to the US in the 1920s. They were loyal members of the American Communist Party for years and returned to Poland in 1947 to build socialism from the ruins of the second world war. When Gebert, born in the Fifties, was old enough to think he knew he loathed communism. He spent much of his life trying to destroy the system his parents had devoted their lives to creating. His father, to his death, remained an unrepentant Bolshevik, though he knew his life had been wasted. ‘They lived too long,’ Gebert says. But he loved them very much and he believes that anything worthwhile he has done was because of the values his parents had instilled in him.

Gebert, the quintessential East European intellectual, is one of an extraordinary cast of characters in Marci Shore’s brilliant and perceptive book about a part of the world, as she explains, ‘where the past is palpable, and heavy’. It is not a conventional history, with a straight narrative, though it tells an important story about the legacy of the three utopian ideas of the 20th century — Fascism, Communism and Zionism — that transformed Europe. It is part memoir, part reportage, a treatise on the philosophy of history, and part romance written with lyrical beauty in places.

Shore, now a history professor at Yale, spent most of the 1990s in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. As she confesses, she knew little about ‘old Europe’ when she went first in her early twenties as a graduate student and English teacher. Through the lives of a broad range of people she encountered and befriended she tries to understand and to explain. Her journey is an integral part of the story.

We get to know former intellectuals and dissidents, including many who, overnight in 1989, exchanged a prison cell for a ministerial office; former communists who are still trying to come to terms with losing an argument with history, not to mention their jobs. She met musicians who in the 1980s rocked for the revolution and braved secret police harassment, as well as working people who had no time or inclination for protest or samizdat literature, and who think the fall of communism brought freedoms they have no use for, and in any case can’t afford. She met politicians who have honestly tried to make the free market and democracy work, and those who cynically exploit the nether regions of Eastern Europe, extreme nationalism and the simplicities of a former age. She tells of those who could not wait to see the secret police files held on them when the archives were opened, and those who did not want to know.

She knew many who have succeeded and bloomed under capitalism, and those who are as apathetic now as they were under communism or, earlier, under fascism. And she met those for whom the transition has been difficult for a variety of reasons. The most curious is the story of ‘Jarmila’, one of the youngest signatories of Charter 77, a confidante of Vaclav Havel during the Velvet Revolution, who later became disillusioned, emigrated to America, joined the US army, and then changed her name and gender to Todd James.

She met the extraordinary Marek Edelman, one of the handful of survivors who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 — and various Polish anti-Semites of the kind who now proliferate in Polish public life. Saddest of all was an elderly woman who had been a well-known actress. A historian in the late 1990s found that once she had performed in the ghetto. She pleaded with the historian not to reveal the secret, even now. She had two grandsons, who would continue to live in Poland, she said. She did not want to burden them with a Jewish grandmother.

Shore has a fine sense of ambiguity. In this book there’s an interesting and original idea on almost every page. Few who witnessed the fall of communism two decades ago believed they were seeing the end of history. But some hoped it would mark the start of a new cycle. But 1989 in Eastern Europe did not end the silences of parents with their children, or resolve the guilt of crimes committed by past generations. Rather, as Shore shows, it heightened the demands for accounting with the past.