The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War By Halik Kochanski (Harvard University Press, 734 pp., $35) The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery By Witold Pilecki translated by Jarek Garliński (Aquila Polonica, 460 pp., $34.95) ONCE, THE Allied history of the Second World War—the Anglo-American history of the Second World War, the Victors’ history of the Second World War—was the only one we thought mattered.
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948 By Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward (Harper Collins, 467 pp., $29.99) MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, née Korbel, is the first woman and the second foreign-born person to have attained to the highest-ranking Cabinet position in the American government, that of secretary of state. She is also the first East European to have served in any Cabinet position.
Compare the high drama of the Poland-Russia game with the organized tedium of the meeting between France and England. (Never mind the army of Russian nationalists marauding in the streets of Warsaw or the local patriots standing in their way, the police keeping the two groups of drunken patriots apart. That's been done: English fans have patriotically tottered down the streets of the world and clashed with local population and police.) I'm talking about the game in which teams seem to abandon all tactical consideration and attack, as was the case today with the Poles, thereby risking defeat.
Across much of Europe, the economic crisis and dread of Islamic immigrants has boosted the fortunes of the populist right. In France, the National Front candidate won almost a fifth of the popular vote in the first round of the presidential elections this spring. Parties that preach fear and loathing of cultural tolerance are part of the governing coalition in both the Netherlands and Hungary. But, over the past decade, a cosmopolitan populist movement on the left has been steadily growing in what may seem a rather unlikely place: Poland.
I have little patience for overreaction to political gaffes or misstatements, but usually this lack of patience takes the form of dismay at the blatant cynicism involved in such overreactions. In the case of the upset over President Obama's reference last night to "Polish death camps," I'm left with more mystification than dismay, because the uproar of sensible people like David Frum and Michael Tomasky is genuine.
The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir By Claude Lanzmann Translated by Frank Wynne (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 528 pp., $35) I. The film called Shoah runs for more than nine and a half hours. Its subject is the extermination of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis. It features Jewish survivors of the death camps, Poles who lived near the camps, and Germans who organized and ran them—and also its director, Claude Lanzmann, in the background, with his various interpreters. The languages in which these people speak include Yiddish, Hebrew, English, German, Polish, and French: a sound file of Europe.
Poland in the postwar era was a supremely unlucky nation, but in one respect (and perhaps one only) it was among the world’s luckiest. This unassuming country, generally admired not for its scenery nor its cuisine nor its architecture, produced three of the greatest European poets of the last half-century. The first was Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), born in Lithuania to a Polish family, who defected to France in 1951 and emigrated to the United States in 1960; he was Poland’s geopolitical poet, befitting his perch in exile, and its first poet Nobelist.
The Village Voice gives out theater awards called the Obies (for Off-Broadway), and during the 1980s the Voice’s theater department voted to bestow one of those prizes on the distinguished absurdist Václav Havel, who dwelled in the faraway absurdistan known as the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In their New York productions, Havel’s plays ran at the Public Theater, and everyone who kept up with the downtown scene knew them well. The plays were splendidly mordant.
The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945 By Ian Kershaw (Penguin, 564 pp., $35) It can be harder to lose a war than to win one. Nazi Germany won quick victories in 1939 and 1940 against its eastern and western neighbors, Poland and France. Many Germans who had doubted the wisdom of war came around with enthusiasm to the sound of German boots on the Champs Elysées. Warsaw and Paris fell more quickly and with fewer complications than anticipated. Their conquest convinced many Germans, including army officers, that further campaigns could be won by strokes of genius.
The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg Edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza Translated by George Shriver (Verso, 609 pp., $39.95) Once upon a time there lived a Jewish lady, of modest stature and of a certain age, who walked with a limp and liked to sing to the birds. Through the bars on her window she would treat the titmice to a Mozart aria, and then await their call, the transcription of which she wished, as she wrote to a friend, to be the only adornment on her grave.