Logo: Nazi death camp

Why a book and why a website

The book was originally written as a private memoir for my family and as an exercise in self-recognition, a tentative quest for identity and a memorial to some remarkable people – my parents and their friends and relatives.

Over the years, when I told work colleagues and friends about my research into what was then family history, it soon became apparent to me and others that there were novelistic elements to the unfolding biographical memoir, in other words, it contained real-life contrasts and coincidences as well as the kind of suspense and character development that feature in many novels. What is more, people told me, the span in terms of time and geographical space – the characters start off in Eastern Europe and move through Asia and the Middle East in the 20th century – gave the tale the proportions of a saga. And so the novel was created. I shall leave it to critics to analyse its literary merits if they wish to do so.

Image: Russian doll and child

The main reason for providing a web site to complement the novel was on the advice of some readers who felt that some of the connotations and allusions might be lost on the non-expert audience. Historians and current affairs analysts with a background in Eastern Europe, the Soviet era and Hitler’s Reich would have no difficulty in finding their way through the 20th century historical context behind the novel. Slavonic language practitioners would likewise recognise many of the literary and linguistic signposts dotted throughout the book. That is not to say that the book will not work for a reader who has no expertise in these fields – it can, after all, be read as a book with a beginning, middle and end, I hope, without necessarily delving into the cultural foundations that underpin it – just that there is far more to it for those who want to delve and that is why I have written a few pages of historical context here. I have not tried to explain everything on the assumption that there are always search engines like Google for readers who crave more background information.

While writing and researching the context of the individual stories presented in my book, I became increasingly aware that it was becoming in part a discussion of the 20th century and its great political movements as lived by the characters I was dealing with. To those who lived through that century it was self-evidently a turbulent time marked by nationalistic arrogance and chauvinism, betrayal, colonial aggrandisement, and war (with particularly vicious horrors visited upon many groups and individuals). Those who survived have also attested to many examples of heroism, self-sacrifice and humane acts across ethnic and national boundaries.

Europe in the 20th century stands out in history as being a time of totalitarian ideological wars (sometimes proxy wars) and deliberate industrial-scale death, whether through officially engineered famine (1930s USSR) or genocide. The murderous subjugation of entire nations and economic classes in the interests of a personal interpretation of communism by one dictator (Stalin) was mirrored by the Nazis’ attempted genocide of the Jews – the first time that large-scale industrial death was organised for an entire international population on the basis of racial origins.

My novel is an attempt to portray what happens to individuals when, like flotsam in a flood, they are buffeted by such enormous historical events. A few people were heroic in those times, and books have been written about them. But not everyone is born to be a hero. The very act of survival, of helping others in the face of personal injury or even death (Poland was the only Nazi-occupied country where helping a Jew was punishable by death), and of refusing to do what is felt to be morally wrong - these are all facets of a kind of individual bravery. Everyone is often faced with a choice, and often that choice is not just between bravery and cowardice, but between right and wrong, which may amount to the same thing depending on the circumstances. I cite some examples in my book but could have produced many more: regardless of nationality, religion or politics, there were individuals who risked their necks to help others (Russians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and so on).

There was one particular choice faced by some individuals, indeed entire communities, in the late 1930s when war was about to break out. There were among the communities of eastern Poland and western Ukraine many who felt greater antipathy towards the Soviets than they did towards Hitler’s Germany. In their view there was only one choice, between one or other system, not a rejection of both. And, having chosen Hitler’s Reich, some then wore his Waffen SS uniforms and “obeyed orders” against their fellow countrymen and in particular against Hitler’s target race, the Jews.

This is why, like the characters in my novel, I feel a particular repugnance towards those thousands of members of the Nazi Waffen SS Galizien Division who turned up in the refugee camps of Britain in the late 1940s posing as Polish refugees and victims of World War II. Genuine refugees were astonished to find them in their midst. The well-documented atrocities committed by that division, against people of the same or of different races and creeds, were deliberate choices that, in my view, condemn them to the same ignominy as Hitler’s and Stalin’s killers. Those of that division who still survive seem to feel no shame: there are occasional reunions of former members and their heirs in what is now western Ukraine, much to the disgust of ordinary Ukrainians.

Image: Baba Yaga witch and Nazi death camp

Further reading:

The book was written over a period of several decades and many private, public and official sources were consulted, including newly opened archives in the east (when the "Wall" came down in the former Soviet empire).

Some textbooks in English are worth noting here:

- "God's Playground: A History of Poland" in 2 volumes, by Norman Davies
- "The Holocaust" by Martin Gilbert
- "The Fate of Poles in the USSR" by Tomasz Piesakowski
- "The Forgotten Holocaust" by Lukas
- "The Holocaust in Lithuania" by Arunas Bubnys
- "Vilna" by Israel Cohen

There are also a few in Polish or Russian worth consulting:

- "Kronika Wilenska" 1939-41, 1941-45 (2 vols) by Longin Tomaszewski
- "Z kresow wschodnich" (2 vols) Ed. Danuta Gradosielska and others

Other pages:

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