Horrors of Survival, Clothed in Grace
WARTIME LIES by Louis Begley Alfred A. Knopf $19, 188 pages


May 16, 1991

The fate of wartime Europe's Jews has been evoked, to the extent it could be, in terms of unimaginable awfulness. Here is a novel, with a hint of autobiography to it, that takes a special case to evoke imaginable awfulness. The result is an unexpectedly new way of regarding the horror when it seemed that no new way could remain.

"Wartime Lies" is the story of a "lucky" little boy. Lucky goes in quotation marks; the child went through terror and degradation. On the other hand, no one in his small family of well-to-do Polish Jews went to a concentration camp. Only two--his grandfather and grandmother--were killed; he, his father and his aunt survived and were able to prosper after the war, even before emigrating. His mother had died when he was a baby.

So what is this fastidious note of desolation with which the narrator prefaces the story? He introduces himself: a cultivated man with a good life. He goes to dinner parties; he is attractive to women. He reads Latin in the evenings, mostly Virgil.

Aeneas' fate--to be launched into a new world out of the wreckage of an old one--is a metaphor of his own. Except that there are no golden gods and goddesses contending over him; only uniformed men beating old Jews.

He has "a nice face and sad eyes." He has survived, except that there are no survivors. He tells us the story of Maciek, choosing the name from a popular Polish song. It stands for himself as a child, but it is not his own name. There is no link between the child and the man; life endured but identity perished. He is without a past; the past, spent in disguise, could have no future.

Put this way, it seems a riddle, but it is not. When the Germans invaded Poland and the Russian army came in from the east, Maciek's father, a distinguished doctor, chose to go with the latter. By doing so, he survived. Maciek's Aunt Tania, who remained to take care of him, found protection with a wealthy Jewish friend who worked for the organization set up by the Germans to administer the Jewish community.

When he fled to the resistance, he introduced Tania to a second protector, a German officer. Reinhard became her lover and kept her, Maciek and Maciek's grandmother safe and comfortable. When he was found out by the Gestapo, he killed himself and the grandmother, who was too ill to flee. Tania, Maciek and the grandfather fled to Warsaw, equipped with papers that identified them as Polish Catholics; they spent the rest of the war in an agonizing and perilous disguise.

Maciek's survival is a wondrous and picaresque story; Begley tells it beautifully. It was survival as a lie; the child had to become a lie in order to live. Thus, the middle-aged man with sad eyes and no childhood.

These are the book's grim bones. But Begley has clothed the bones with a story, told with haunting grace and austerity, of a golden childhood into which anguish creeps gradually and imperceptibly.

Maciek is raised in privilege. His landowner grandparents, his distinguished father and his flamboyant aunt give him a life that gradually strengthens the sickly and nervous child into something approaching happiness.

Even so, he is an insecure maneuverer, a deliberate charmer. Taken to see a doctor, he asks right off: Do you like me? Later, in hiding in Warsaw, a redoubtable woman who gives him lessons scolds him.

"She found intolerable my weak character, by which she meant my habit of insinuating flattery. It will not do, she told me, always to be trying to make oneself liked and then to ask whether one has succeeded."

Begley recounts the gradual darkening of the family's life with wonderful understatement. Incidents of anti-Semitism, the annexation of the Sudetenland, the Austrian anschluss, and then the German invasion, the tightening persecution of the Jews, the flight of the father with the Soviet Army--all these are told without drama, indeed, with a certain complacent sense of insulation.

The boy adapts, pleases. The remarkable Tania--it is hard not to think of Graham Greene's traveling aunt--is a formidable example of resilience, charm and single-minded determination to get her and her nephew through.

Warsaw is full of informers looking for signs of Jewishness among the refugees with "Aryan" documents; a breed of expert physiognomist-informers springs up. The grandfather, the old imperious landowner, is told by one of them to open his trousers to display his--presumably uncircumcised--member. He produces a jack knife instead. "This is mine," he says. "Show me yours and I'll cut it off." Later, he will be caught and die with the same valiant imperiousness.

Begley gives us the fascination and the charm, unshadowed. Remarkably--he is a lawyer and this is his first published novel, although I should disclose that I knew him in college 40 years ago when he studied literature and staged Yeats plays--he has managed to present, in the preliminary and a final passage, the powerful and powerfully told, sorrowful tragedy of Maciek's charm


Copyright 1991, Los Angeles Times   

*Reprinted with permission from Tribune Media Services