The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, by Marci Shore, Heinemann, RRP£20/Crown, RRP$27, 384 pages
Awiwa, a Holocaust survivor, stands on the balcony of her New York penthouse in September 2001 and watches the World Trade Center. She recalls how, 58 years earlier, she saw the Warsaw Ghetto burn.
Oskar, a Czech émigré who spends more than 20 years in exile, returns to Prague after the fall of communism – and commits suicide, unable to find himself in his newly democratic country.
Seth, an Israeli Zionist visiting Krakow in 1996, refuses to go dancing because for him “Poland was a graveyard trampled upon by anti-Semites”.
History does not go away. It lingers, especially in places of tragedy and unhappiness. And there are few regions of the world where this applies with greater force than in eastern Europe. As the Yale historian Marci Shore puts it in The Taste of Ashes: “It is a place where people live and die, only more so.”
Her fine book is a very personal account of the people that she came to know in eastern Europe after the end of Soviet domination in 1989. First as a student and later as a historian, she travels the region and confronts the aftermath of totalitarian rule through encounters with its survivors: for example, the provincial Czech couple who plead for understanding as they explain why they denounced their teenage daughter to the secret police.
The subtitle, “The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe”, is misleading. While Prague, Vienna and Bratislava all figure in Shore’s wanderings, this is mostly a book about Poland and a small minority burdened with huge historical baggage – the children of Jewish Stalinists.
This, as Shore says, is a Pandora’s box. Many Jews blame their Catholic neighbours for doing little, if anything, to save them from the Holocaust; Catholic Poles often claim that Jews welcomed Soviet troops in 1939 when the Red Army invaded Poland in alliance with the Nazis, and that Jews were later prominent in imposing communism on Poland.
Shore does not directly enter into the historical facts of these painful debates. But she writes very well about how the discussions, so long suppressed under communism, have exploded in Poland, notably after the 2001 publication of Neighbours, Jan Tomasz Gross’s account of the 1941 massacre of Jews by Catholic Poles in the small town of Jedwabne.
Shore is careful to allow her interlocutors to speak for themselves. There is, for example, the kindly museum curator who recalls that when Szmuel Zygielbojm, a Jewish member of the Polish government in exile, committed suicide in 1943 it was not a protest against Catholic Poles but against the failure of the western allies to react militarily to the Holocaust.
The novelty of Shore’s approach lies in her focus on the families of Poland’s Stalinists. Take, for instance, Kostek Gebert, a Jewish journalist and former Solidarity activist, who says his father and mother helped build “something that became truly evil” but adds: “Everything good in me I have from my parents.”
The book is full of such personal touches. However, it is not for everyone. Those without a good prior knowledge of the region risk getting lost. Shore flits about too much, covering 15 years of travel between the US and eastern Europe. There is, lamentably, no index.
There is also too little recognition of the progress made in eastern Europe in coming to terms with the past. The debates of recent decades have brought a better understanding of the difficult choices people made under Communism, both among the oppressed and the oppressors.
In Poland, the arguments over the Jedwabne massacre have contributed to a greater awareness of the dark episodes in Polish history. The dominant narrative of the second world war remains one of heroic resistance. But it is more nuanced than it was.
Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s emerging markets editor and a former eastern Europe editor