Posts tagged ‘WWII’

June 30, 2012

“The Solider Who Sold His Soul to God” — An Excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s Novel 2666

by Biblioklept

A standalone excerpt from Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666. This is from the final section, “The Part About Archimboldi”:

During the train trip Hans heard an odd story about a soldier of the 79th who had gotten lost in the tunnels of the Maginot Line. The section of tunnel he was lost in, as far as the soldier could tell, was called the Charles Sector. The soldier, of course, had nerves of steel, or so it was told, and he kept searching for a way to the surface. After walking some five hundred yards underground he came to the Catherine Sector. The Catherine Sector, it goes without saying, was in no way different from the Charles Sector, except for the signs. After walking half a mile, he got to the Jules Sector. By now the soldier was nervous and his imagination had begun to wander. He imagined himself imprisoned forever in those underground passageways, with no comrade coming to his aid. He wanted to yell, and although at first he restrained himself, for fear of alerting any French soldiers still hiding nearby, at last he gave in to the urge and began to shout at the top of his lungs. But no one answered and he kept walking, in the hope that at some point he’d find the way out. He left behind the Jules Sector and entered the Claudine Sector. Then came the Emile Sector, the Marie Sector, the Jean-Pierre Sector, the Berenice Sector, the Andre Sector, the Sylvie Sector. When he got to the Sylvie Sector, the soldier made a discovery (which anyone else would’ve made much sooner). He noticed the curious neatness of the nearly immaculate passageways. Then he began to think about the usefulness of the passageways, that is their military usefulness, and he came to the conclusion that they were of absolutely no use and there had probably never been soldiers here.

At this point the soldier thought he’d gone mad or, even worse, that he’d died and this was his private hell. Tired and hopeless, he lay down on the floor and slept. He dreamed of God in human form. The soldier was asleep under an apple tree, in the Alsatian countryside, and a country squire came up to him and woke him with a gentle knock on the legs with his staff. I’m God, he said, and if you sell me your soul, which already belongs to me anyway, I’ll get you out of the tunnels. Let me sleep, said the soldier, and he tried to go back to sleep. I said your soul already belongs to me, he heard the voice of God say, so please don’t be a fool, and accept my offer.

Then the soldier awoke and looked at God and asked where he had to sign. Here, said God, pulling a paper out of the air. The soldier tried to read the contract, but it was written in some other language, not German or English or French, of that he was certain. What do I sign with? asked the soldier. With your blood, as is only proper, God answered. Immediately the soldier took out a penknife and made a cut in the palm of his left hand, then he dipped the tip of his index finger in the blood and signed.

“All right, now you can go back to sleep,” God said.

“I’d like to get out of the tunnels soon,” the soldier pleaded.

“All will proceed as ordained,” said God, and he turned and started down a little dirt path toward a valley where there was a village of houses painted green and white and light brown.

The soldier thought it might be wise to say a prayer. He joined his hands and raised his eyes to the heavens. Then he saw that all the apples on the tree had dried up. Now they looked like raisins, or prunes. At the same time he heard a noise that sounded vaguely metallic.

“What is this?” he exclaimed.

From the valley rose long plumes of black smoke that hung in the air when they reached a certain height. A hand grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him. It was soldiers from a company that had come down the tunnel into the Berenice Sector. The soldier began to weep with joy, not much, but enough to find relief.

That night, as he ate, he told his best friend about the dream he’d had in the tunnels. His friend told him it was normal to dream nonsense when one found oneself in such situations.

“It wasn’t nonsense,” the soldier answered, “I saw God in my dreams, I was rescued, I’m back among friends again, but I can’t quite be easy.”

Then, in a calmer voice, he corrected himself:

“I can’t quite feel safe.”

To which his friend responded that in war no one could feel entirely safe. The friend went to sleep. Silence fell over the town. The sentinels lit cigarettes. Four days later, the soldier who had sold his soul to God was walking along the street when he was hit by a German car and killed.

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March 10, 2011

The Road — Vasily Grossman

by noquar

I’d never heard of Vasily Grossman until Timothy Snyder referred to him, briefly, as a Soviet journalist who published some of the first unflinching reports of atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and Hitler’s secret police during their conquest of eastern Europe. In Bloodlands, Snyder lauded Grossman as a reporter guided by a clear moral vision and a keen understanding of the tenuousness of human life.  A Ukrainian Jew who rhapsodized the Red Army’s defense of Stalingrad and then followed it all the way to Berlin, he built a literary career under the Soviet system before passing away with little fanfare. Although his early novels sold in the millions, at the time of his death in 1964 his reputation in his homeland was shattered, his health had deteriorated, and his final novels were blacklisted.  He could count himself lucky to have lived through a number of purges of the U.S.S.R.’s literary elite.  Edited and compiled by Robert Chandler for the impressive New York Review Books imprint, The Road collects of a number of his short stories, essays, letters, and articles in one well-curated volume, an excellent introduction to an important but neglected voice.

Organized chronologically, Grossman’s stories are separated by brief biographical notes thoughtfully included by Chandler. Although the selections fall into early, middle, and later works, it becomes clear that Grossman’s life as a man and as a writer (at least how it is presented here) can be broken up into distinct periods marked by increasing dissatisfaction with life under Soviet rule. Chandler labels the periods, from earliest to latest: “The 1930s,” The War, The Shoah,” and “Late Stories.”  The works in this collection are sad—truly sad—but throughout he returns to remembrances of love and small gestures of tenderness.  He is marked by the excesses of the totalitarian regimes he waged war upon and lived under. As a result, his writing demonstrates an appreciation of kindness that could only arise from a true comprehension of both humanity’s potential for cruelty and the limitless power of an autonomous mind.

The first short section, “The 1930s,” collects three concise stories concerning the creation and dissolution of family bonds.  “A Small Life” describes a couple that decides to foster a child from their village orphanage who ultimately finds them weird and boring, while in “In the Town of Berdichev” a rough female commander in a military unit must take a forced leave when her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties to her company. She fondly remembers the father who was shot down in battle, but struggles to balance her duty to protect her child against her duty to protect her county.  Perhaps the most striking of the three stories is the last, titled “A Young Woman and an Old Woman.” The title characters are both rewarded by their state employers with a free trip to a seaside resort and share a train cabin as they journey to the coast.   They talk.  The young woman, enjoying her rise through the Soviet system, befriends the older woman who has been saddened by the surprising detention of her daughter and her own stalled professional ambitions. These two subtly drawn characters never fully understand the hidden mechanisms behind their fleeting instances of happiness. Perhaps these mechanisms have been hidden by the totalitarian state or, maybe because they’re people, they will always be doomed to wonder.

As the book transitions to its second section, Grossman seems torn between his duty as a reporter to inspire his fellow citizens to sacrifice for the greater good and his need to rail against the injustices perpetrated by warring totalitarian regimes. Like “In the Town of Berdichev,” “The Old Man” finds Grossman adopting a tone that might almost be described as propagandistic. A quiet old man, a beekeeper whose livelihood requires patience and silence, overcomes a lifetime of reticence by braining a German soldier with a shovel.  Much better is “The Old Teacher,” a story about a village’s elderly teacher, a Jew.  Distraught by what he sees as Nazi soldiers advance on his town—long simmering feuds settled by prompt denunciations, families thrown out of houses, all sorts of groveling and obsequiousness—the old man reflects on his failings and his fleeting successes.  The teacher and the town’s other Jews are forcefully marched to a ravine.  There they are made to lie down and wait for the firing squad, positioned above them on a hill, to reload.  The victims, in their last moments, see brave assertions of individual dignity, dole out small kindnesses, and console each other with the hope that others will not suffer similar fates. “The Hell of Treblinka” and “The Sistene Madonna” close this section. The former is Grossman’s terrible and moving account of the discovery of the death camp at Treblinka, written while reporting the westward march of the Soviet Red Army. The latter is an attempt to explain the power of Raphael’s rendering of The Sistene Madonna. The Madonna and her child symbolize the universal mother’s struggle to  protect a child —  a child she must relinquish to the world. For Grossman,  the mother and son are recurring historical figures who reappear wherever human life is reduced to a simple mathematical calculation: at the death camps; in blackened cities throughout Europe; in the famine-ravaged Ukraine; at Hiroshima. Freedom requires individuals to confront existential fears — “Their human strength triumphed over the violence. The Madonna walked toward the gas chamber, treading lightly on small bare feet. She carried her son over the swaying earth of Treblinka.”

The final section contains a number of staggering stories, the type you shove into a stranger’s hand with a wild look in your eye. These are stories that remind you of the masters of the form, writers like Hemingway, Chekov, Eudora Welty, and Cortazar. “The Elk” is a fantastic rumination on illness, love, and political repression. “The Road” is written from the vantage point of an Italian mule conscripted into the war on the side of the Axis powers. As he is forcefully marched through northern Africa and then the Russian steppe strapped to heavy artillery he forgets the pleasure taken from green shoots and visions of young mares. His indifference permits his survival. In “Mama,” one of Stalin’s top advisers adopts the orphaned child of parents he may have had a hand in killing. Grossman gives his readers a glance of the luxurious and precarious lives of those residing at the very top of the Soviet system. Even Isaac Babel makes an appearance (read Red Calvary if you haven’t already).

The Road brings together a number of works by an artist who deserves greater recognition. Grossman witnessed some of worst atrocities of the twentieth century, and his writing demonstrates a need to speak out against a particular brand of cruelty.  His writing in The Road is brave not only because a number of these stories could probably have led to his imprisonment, exile, or condemnation, but also because he utilizes terrible situations to illustrate humanity’s best qualities. Without being obvious, he champions mercy, understanding, and unconditional love. Beautiful stuff. Pick it up if you can.

February 17, 2011

The Matchmaker of Kenmare — Frank Delaney

by Edwin Turner

Frank Delaney’s new novel The Matchmaker of Kenmare is set against the dramatic backdrop of Europe in 1943. Its narrator is Ben McCarthy (returning from Delaney’s previous novel Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show), who lets the story unfold in the style of a memoir. Ben’s wife Venetia Kelly has mysteriously disappeared. To assuage his anxiety, Ben begins collecting folklore Irish folklore as part of a government project. In the process, he comes into contact with the titular matchmaker, Kate Begley. The two soon form a close bond, and Kate does everything in her power to aid the grieving narrator. The plot turns when a U.S. intelligence officer named Charles Miller enters the picture. He strikes up a romance with Kate, but their relationship is tested when he asks her — and Ben — to use their country’s neutral status to travel through enemy territory in order to find a man the American’s need before D-Day. Their mission soon turns to finding the man Kate believes she loves, a plot doubled in Ben’s search for his wife Venetia. The Matchmaker of Kenmare, new in hardback from Random House, will appeal to those who enjoy sweeping, richly detailed historical romances with a literary bent.

February 16, 2011

Bloodlands — Timothy Snyder

by noquar

Timothy Snyder’s monumental new history Bloodlands is a staggering work of scholarship.  Using primary sources written in at least ten languages, Snyder documents the nightmarish history of that portion of eastern Europe that stretches from Poland north to St. Petersburg and sweeps southwest to the point where Ukraine runs into the Black Sea.  In these places, the titular bloodlands, the policies of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin converged to kill approximately 14 million people in less than a quarter of a century.  Snyder postulates that the eradication of such large numbers of human beings was possible because National Socialism was the perfect foil to Soviet Communism, and vice versa,  and because each system allowed totalitarian one-party states to deflect blame for their respective failings onto the other, or onto large groups of relatively powerless national, ethnic, or religious minorities.  Rectifying problems required starving, shooting, gassing, or otherwise disappearing hundreds of thousands of the people who inhabited these regions and who had no intention or ability to subvert whichever ruling regime claimed them as subjects at any particular moment.  The particular atrocities committed in these areas were largely overlooked in the West at the close of World War II as these victims and their memories disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

The book begins not in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union but a decade earlier.  After Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin found himself at the head of the Soviet Union’s security forces as well its sole ruling party.  When he recognized that revolutions were not about to sweep over the rest of capitalist Europe, Stalin prioritized ensuring that the U.S.S.R. remained a strong Communist nation and a beacon of hope to committed Marxists across the world.  Despite the  Communist ethos that capitalist excess would be negated by exploited industrial workers in urban environments, the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in one of Europe’s most diverse and rural populations.  When Stalin took it upon himself to collectivize Soviet agriculture, disaster struck in the Ukraine and Bloodlands’ long and nuanced chronicle of paranoia and death properly begins.

The famine in the Soviet Union’s most fertile land, the Ukraine, caused at least 3 million people to starve in the early part of the 1930s.  After the seed needed to plant next year’s crop was requisitioned for the collective, nothing remained to eat and there was no future to look forward to, either.  People died where they fell, women prostituted themselves for bread, parents gave their children away to strangers, and villages ceased to exist.  Fires in chimneys marked the presence of cannibals.  Snyder writes–

In the cities carts would make rounds early in the mornings to remove the peasant dead of the night before.  In the countryside the healthier peasants formed brigades to collect the corpses and bury them.  They rarely had the inclination or the strength to dig graves very deeply, so that hands and feet could be seen above the earth.

In order to ensure their own corporeal and political survival, the Soviet leadership responsible for collecting the harvest had to steal whatever they could from the hungry.

And so it continued.  Hitler rose to power partially on the basis of his powerful condemnation of the popular German Communist parties, and used the famine in the U.S.S.R. to bolster arguments that doomed the opposition to his left and center.  Although Stalin argued that all the excesses of capitalism could be seen in the racist and nationalistic rhetoric spewing from the Nazis, these two nations signed a non-aggression pact and started the war in 1939 when they jointly invaded Poland.  The Soviet reign of terror commenced and the secret police killed and deported hundreds of thousands of class enemies and nationalists in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states.  The Germans and the Soviets began to move Poles out of their homes.  The Germans designed policies meant to kill educated Poles in order to create a population amenable to slavery.  The Soviets killed Polish military officers who were capable of leading uprisings against their new rulers.  Both nations instituted their first policies of mass shootings contemporaneously.

When Hitler disregarded the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union (which now included the portions of Poland both nations had agreed to share), already vulnerable populations were decimated.  Nazism required that a superior race must take what it needed without regard to rule of law or human empathy.  Advancing German forces who came upon obvious signs of recent brutality by the retreating secret police forces of the U.S.S.R. and the Red Army saw “a confirmation of what that had been trained to see: Soviet criminality, supposedly steered by and for the benefit of Jews.”  Hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were condemned to die of starvation and exposure in makeshift camps.  Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring implemented a Hunger Plan, which, although unsuccessful, aimed to “transform eastern Europe into an exterminatory agrarian colony” by purposefully starving its inhabitants or deporting them to Siberia.  The German plan to achieve victory in Leningrad involved cutting off food supplies to the city’s 3.5 million inhabitants and covering all possible escape routes with landmines which would eliminate potential evacuees.  Even before the German security forces began purposefully destroying Jewish populations, a culture of cruelty and privation had been foisted upon innocent civilian populations.

The Jewish populations of cities and regions that had housed their families and their cultures for centuries were then systematically and brutally annihilated.  Snyder argues that Western minds have processed the Holocaust in a certain manner because in our history, the accounts of the soldiers who liberated camps in conquered lands to the south and west of the Reich predominate.  We have been privileged to hear the stories of survivors from the camps at Auschwitz like Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel, but Snyder points out that the labor and death camps at Auschwitz did not come on-line until near the end of the war and most of those sentenced to labor or die there were brought from German holdings in western Europe. Bloodlands is important because it documents that most of the horrors of the Holocaust were committed in the east.  69,750 of Latvia’s 80,000 Jewish citizens were killed by the end of 1941 by bullets.  With the help of Lithuanian conscripts and rifles, the Germans killed at least 114,000 of that nation’s 200,000 Jewish citizens.  Estonian volunteers for the S.S. killed all 963 Estonian Jews that could be found.  Himmler’s security forces were supposed to “pacify” annexed territories.  In Kiev, 33,761 human beings were killed in little more than a day by the concerted efforts of S.S. commandos and conscripted local forces as part of a sustained effort to eradicate Ukrainian Jews. Snyder continues–

Having surrendered their valuables and documents, people were forced to strip naked.  Then they were driven by threats or by shots fired overhead, in groups of about ten, to the edge of a ravine known as Babi Yar.  Many of them were beaten . . . They had to lie down on their stomachs on the corpses already beneath them, and wait for the shots to come from above and behind.  Then would come the next group.  Jews came and died for thirty-six hours.

The ghettos were in the east as were the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec.  By invading Poland and the Soviet Union, Hitler conquered the nations with the largest Jewish populations on the planet, and when it became evident that the German army, like Napoleon’s previously, were unable to conquer Moscow and the icy Russian plains, the death camps were opened with the express purpose to kill massive numbers of people in the shortest period of time.  Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were well-engineered for their horrible purpose of killing those who remained behind.

The Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw was burned to the ground.

Snyder asks the readers to remember that the lives he documents died because of policies that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi German that promoted and committed deliberate mass murder.  The act of recording and remembering must be initiated where evidence is so easy to destroy or manipulate.  People complicit in the murder of their neighbors will attempt to mitigate their shame.  Even those with no connection to such events would probably rather think of something more pleasant.  Where the Nazis razed the Warsaw ghetto and dismantled the death camp at Treblinka in a matter of hours, Stalin purposefully changed the course of the historical discussion in the U.S.S.R. in order to promote nationalism.  The suffering of Jews and other innocents was sublimated to the overall suffering of the Soviet (mostly Russian) population.

14 million people.  Farmers, prisoners, gypsies, peasants, freedom fighters, and the unlucky.  Wives, fathers, and children.  Everyone died to placate ideologies that a great number of people of good conscience did not discount at the time.  Although the historical record is expanding, it seems inconceivable that our knowledge of such events could ever be perfected.  Appreciate your loved ones and relish the warmth in your homes and in your bodies.  Essential knowledge for every conscious, conscientious person.  Absolutely recommended.


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