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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Eastern Europe’s lost years

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In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the myriad of challenges dealt with by occupying forces in Poland included the flow of Jewish refugees from one side of the occupied zone to the other. In the spring of 1947, the U.S. Army European Command closed its zone to any further displaced persons.

Jannet Flanner, reporting in the New Yorker in June of that year, allowed that since Jews “were the only national group still flowing into our DP [displaced persons] camps in large number, they were the most affected.”

Key political and cultural developments after the war are the focus of Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Signal).

 Scenarios like that of postwar refugees, the effort on the part of Jews to resettle in Eastern Europe and, ultimately, the rise of authoritarian communism are little understood in the West. Events associated with the wartime simply obliterate them, making Applebaum’s depiction of a troubling decade all the more satisfying.

Applebaum opens with a portrait of the ethnic transfers that took place with the realigning of Poland’s borders, motivated both by Stalin’s wishes in the East and the urge on the part of the victors to incorporate western lands into the revived Polish state. In conquered Germany, the devastation of war had, under Soviet occupation, the added impact of mass rape and pillage enacted on civilians by the Red Army.

Applebaum writes movingly of the spontaneous reappearance of free civil society in Poland and Hungary. Youth volunteered en masse to aid in the massive rebuilding project required by the destruction of Warsaw. Women’s organizations initiated welfare programs, while in Warsaw both the YMCA and Catholic charities undertook to recreate a stable social life. Polska YMCA organized “parties, concerts, camps, clubs, sports, and discussion groups of a kind that could be found nowhere else.”

With the increasing involvement of Soviet government representatives and police organizations in Eastern Bloc redevelopment, such undertakings were gradually suppressed. At the same time, Soviet interference in elections, support for Communist parties and increasing repression of dissent limited the range of organizations available to postwar citizens. The Catholic Church came in for special minding, with its organizational power newly viewed as a threat to the nascent Communist social order. In Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński took a moderate approach to this oppression, while in Hungary, Cardinal József Mindszenty’s outspoken criticism of the increasing centralization of power in the hands of Communists led to his arrest, torture and imprisonment.

Daily life fell prey to the all-too-prevalent surveillance of secret police and informers, while Marxist-Leninist economic policies made it increasingly impossible to survive as a small businessman or tradesperson.

In the aftermath of the events of the Holocaust, these developments had specific meaning for Eastern Europe’s drastically damaged Jewish communities. As many as 70,000 Jews left Poland for Palestine in the first few years following the end of the war. The bulk of emigrating Jews were anti-Communist, while “a disproportionate number” who stayed either had “high expectations of a Communist regime” or had “jobs in the Communist state apparatus.”

Applebaum dispenses with what she calls the “mythology” of substantial Jewish involvement in either the state or security apparatus in Poland. It is true, however, that a number of prominent leaders in Hungary’s Communist regime were Jews, a development that regimes throughout the East viewed as an impediment to gaining wider popularity among the mainstream population.

In the period called “High Stalinism,” which ended with the leader’s death in March 1953, common reasons for arrest tended to follow “Stalin’s own obsessions of the time.” One might be dubbed a “right-deviationist,” a “Titoist,” a “cosmopolitan” or “Zionist.”

Jews, Applebaum tells us, had “come to the forefront of Stalinist paranoia following the establishment of the State of Israel,” leading to a broad attack on Soviet Jews, as well as those in Soviet client states.  With Stalin, his underlings in Poland, Hungary and East Germany believed that the persecution of Jewish Communists – scapegoating Soviet style – would “be welcomed by everyone else.”

Applebaum draws an intriguing portrait of the early efforts by Eastern Europeans to buck the weight of Soviet power, including short-lived street marches in 1953 East Berlin, and a groundswell of independent-mindedness, which followed an ill-considered Warsaw Youth Festival in 1955. With the influx of leftist representatives and delegates from western Europe, postwar Poles got their first look at how free westerners dressed, talked and acted. The shock of recognition is remembered by Maciej Rosalak, who was a child at the time: “Grey, sad, poorly dressed people living among ruins and the rubble of streets were suddenly replaced by what seemed to be a different species. The newcomers smiled instead of listening to the static on Radio Free Europe like our parents, and they sang instead of whispering. Warsaw children ran among them and collected autographs in special notebooks.”

Such notebooks may now reside in the backs of drawers or in shoeboxes, artifacts of a faraway, almost forgotten time.  Applebaum’s Iron Curtain offers readers a glimpse of life “among ruins,” and an understanding of what became of Eastern Europe under the Russians.

Norman Ravvin’s recent books include the novel, The Joyful Child, and Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein, co-edited with Sherry Simon. He is at work on a novel set partly in Poland.


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