Death of a Bookman / Poland needs another history lesson…


…like it needs another hole in the head





Well, it’s another election gone in another European country which is going through all sorts of social, economic, ecological and other upheavals.

And again, while the south of Europe and the US and Canada and numerous smaller states around the globe are realising socialism is the only sustainable way for a civilisations to survive, Northern Europe seems to have its fingers stuck in its ears, screaming “Austerity, conservatism, austerity, blah blah” to the tune of whatever song Auntie Merkel wants to play.

Well, if it is therefore necessary to drill another hole in the heads of those who are not listening, in order for fresh air and good news to flow in, let me offer up a wee drill.

And it will not be aimed at the heads of the sorts of people who vote for the likes of Cameron or Kaczynski, but those who scream and fret and weep all over Facebook at what voting has/hasn’t done for our nations.

Since I moved to Poland a few months ago, I have been translating all sorts of texts. About the Holocaust, about gender discrimination in the theatre, about the relationship between medicine and literature, about wars. More wars than I can now care to count.

And what we seem to have forgotten is what we are still up against – a war none of us can call by its proper name.

Somehow, two generations back, our grandfathers faced the mighty evil that was the nations led by Hitler and Stalin. Millions swarming upon millions, killing the innocent, starving human beings like cattle, worse than cattle, cattle are not dragged through the streets of ghettos naked and weeping and have their gold teeth wrenched from their mouths while still alive and are not shorn of hair and stomped by kapos and filmed for nationalistic newsreels and buried alive alongside babies who got to see nothing and grandmothers who got to see it all through tears of senseless despair.

At a recent public chat between Timothy Snyder, Adam Michnik and Slawek Sierakowski, the question once again came up – how did the Holocaust happen? Was Hitler a nationalist or a psychopath or a racist or a globalist or something else altogether? Now that the collected works of Primo Levi are being launched, alongside Snyder’s new book on the Shoah, are we any closer to an answer?


What is known is that the regimes which wreaked murderous destruction across our continent in the days of our grandparents were not only insane, they were determinedly so. Both German and Russian armies did not kill just anyone – they killed the best of Central European society – doctors, teachers, officers – and of course those who stood up to the regime, the free thinkers, the freedom fighters, the best women and men each nations across the Bloodlands (see Snyder’s last book) had.

And so what are we left with today? The offspring of the timid, the middling and the mad.

You, me, all of us, dear Friends.

As All Saint’s Day approaches and I plan to visit my grandfathers’ graves, I think of their War experience. One spent six years in a Nazi Oflag (officer’s prisoner of war camp), came back to a Warsaw which no longer existed and devoted himself to importing and exporting books. He died a quiet, exhausted man. The other grandfather survived three death camps, towards the end of the War, and no one will ever know if this was because he was some kind of one-in-a-million hero or some kind of collaborator, a kapo, one of the countless inhumane humans of Primo Levi wrote about. No one will ever know because he was hunted after the War, as well as haunted, so he never talked about his experiences and died of a bungled operation when still young, maybe because of a medical mistake, maybe incompetence, or maybe because back then the secret police did that sort of thing – told doctors operating on former freedom fighters to make sure they never left the operating table alive, or else…

And so who am I? A grandson of what sorts of men? And did I “do the right thing” – vote in the elections in England? In Poland?

No. Although I understand much of my families’ history, and think I get much of what went so very badly wrong to have both families today almost gone to the wall, I did not vote and will not vote. Not the way the current system is set up.

What I will do is join political parties. Pay my dues. I already do so with trade unions, but never before the likes of Sanders, Corbyn, Black, Zandberg, Sturgeon, Varoufakis and Trudeau entered the equations have I been tempted to get involved in party politics. But I will now. All my life, I have worked for charities, given most of my income away, used my talents to promote skills and understanding that was meant to benefit the most needy (refugees, prisoners, the psycho-emotionally ill).

But now I am ready for politics. To be counted, not just once every four years, the way I watch my football tournaments, but all day every day – be engaged, be aware, be LIABLE.

How little do I know about the workings of politics? Of electoral representation? About the various levels of government, the complexities of electoral bandwagons, the darkness in the corridors of power?

Little. But Hunter S Thompson said “politics is the art of controlling your environment” and goddamn was he right. Darkness is falling across Europe once again, and once again it is our fault. We the educated, the privileged, the well read, the enlightened consumers, the cyclist re-cyclists, the ones who know they should know better yet never move until someone moves first to say:

The king or the president or the prime minister are all naked. They are meant to serve us, the electorate, but the power we have naively handed them has corrupted the fabric of our societies. The poor are dying by the thousands all across Europe. Women are excluded and made to suffer far more than men. Whites are inheritors of historical privilege they must acknowledge and surrender. Religion is the enemy of reason, but the only way to silence it is through discourse based on education. We must demean moneymakers and celebrate healers and teachers. And we must get busy. Before the cloud descends upon us all. We have four more years, in which to learn to care about the planet, about each other, about our own selves. Else we’ll go down, and down hard. With new holes in our bodies we never asked for…
Marek Kazmierski, editor