Personal vs political

Night Voices: Heard in the Shadow of Hitler and Stalin
Published on April 1, 2004

Night Voices: Heard In The Shadow Of Hitler And Stalin
Heather Laskey

McGill-Queen's University Press

In Warsaw in 1937, a student named Stasia was told to sit on the “ghetto benches” of her school classroom. She joined the protest that followed as a socialist rather than as a member of any race, because “nationalism was distasteful to us.” She was one of many Polish Jews who believed the international Left would end anti-Semitism forever.

Through Stasia’s story, Night Voices explores what led them to this position, and what happened to them within the communist state they helped create.

During the war Stasia escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, was rescued from an SS jail and sent underground, then joined the Red Army as a doctor. After the Lublin government was established she married a colonel in the Bezpieka, the Polish equivalent of the KGB, and for a while enjoyed the privileged life of the communist elite. She knew Jacek Rozanski, one of the Bezpieka’s most infamous interrogators, and saw his downfall in the show trials that followed the unrest of 1956. She’d been willfully ignoring the regime’s sinister side, so its unpopularity came as a shock to her.

“Maybe Jacek was used as a scapegoat because he was Jewish,” she observes. Fearing worse to come, she left the country.

Along the way she seems to have had, as she puts it, “any boy [she] wanted,” even during her first marriage. “It corrupted me,” she says, and blames her mother Irena Grywinska, an actress of all-consuming ambition. The connection between this and Irena’s beauty first impressed Stasia when a lover shot himself on their doorstep. Though larger events have left their scars, Stasia keeps coming back to her mother’s inconstancy – passed along with her looks – as the original sin, the source of her basic unhappiness.

Stasia’s self-knowledge saves this intensely personal drama from being as embarrassing as it is fascinating, as can happen when you reveal yourself to excess. Yet a little regret goes a long way, and while her personal story weaves through the political one, the two never fuse. The eccentricity of her emotional life insists against her being turned into a synecdoche of the crisis of European Jewry, although she seems to have tried all of its solutions: assimilation, public engagement, forgetfulness, and finally Israel. Such is the ascendancy of personal needs over political consistency that she keeps faith in old-style international communism, yet doesn’t reject the idea that the Russians purposely overrepresented Jews in the Bezpieka.

This is the book’s sore point, worried at by Stasia and her circle – her husband the colonel, her son who grew up in the disaffected second generation, and her friend who was investigated by Rozanski and doesn’t share Stasia’s reluctance to judge him. Stasia’s story finds its larger relevance in the issue of responsibility, though whether the author intends this is unclear. Laskey is explicit in saying the Jewish Left were “Stalin’s pawns,” that they were “set up for future use as scapegoats.” This is a crucial statement that needs documentary backing as well as interpretation, and is supplied with neither. For Stasia’s circle it remains an opinion among other opinions.

Night Voices is fast-paced, eventful, and sensitively arranged. It never feels cobbled together, which can be one of the hazards of books based largely on transcribed interviews. Given the book’s historical resonance, though, an index would have been useful. The passages of background could have done with fewer solecisms, and there are some glaring typos. One of the photos seems to be misattributed, too. Attention to detail conveys credibility. It would be a shame if such sloppiness – by a university press, of all people – should put anyone off this book. mRb

Edward R. Smith is an Ottawa editor.



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