Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.
But we also saw the bullet holes and shell damage that have been left unrepaired to memorialize the ravages of World War II, and we were reminded of the price that the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians paid when they defied the will of their Soviet masters in the 1950s and ’60s. In Bratislava, for example, we saw one heroic monument that honored the Red Army as the liberator of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and another monument that honored three Slovak victims of Soviet gunfire during the uprising known as the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, we always detected a certain kind of emotional scar tissue in the guides themselves, many of whom are survivors of one or both of these world-historical eras.
It is this same layered complexity that Yale historian Marci Shore has succeeded in bringing to life in the pages of “The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” (Crown, $27), a courageous and imaginative effort to measure how the Nazi and Soviet regimes impacted the private lives of real men and women.
“All historical drama is acted through the lives of individuals,” she announces. “The eclipsing of private space was among totalitarianism’s deepest violations. In this way the totalitarian state was unlikely its merely authoritarian or monarchical predecessors: it distinguished itself — it made itself — by caring what lovers said in bed.”
Here is a surprising and even revolutionary way to write history. To be sure, historians have debated in what ways Nazi and Soviet atrocities were qualitatively different from both earlier and later outrages, but the conversation has usually focused upon the origins, mechanics and goals of mass deportation, mass imprisonment and mass murder. Shore, by contrast, focuses on the intimate emotions and inner emotions of the human beings who are the raw material of history.
Consider, for example, the fate of a young Czech woman named Jarmila. She was the youngest person to sign Charter 77, the manifesto of the liberation movement in Czechoslovakia, but she did so against the will of her parents, who were fearful that it would attract the ungentle attention of the secret police to the rest of the family. “Eventually they denounced her to the secret police,” Shore reports, “and so began a long series of arrests, detentions, interrogations, beatings.” She was forced to go into hiding at her grandmother’s home: “I love her,” the grandmother later told Shore, “she’s my sunshine.” But the whole family understood and accepted that denunciation of a child was a survival strategy under the communist regime.
When Shore sees anti-Semitic graffiti and evidence of criminal violence in Warsaw, she is offered an explanation by a Polish graduate student called Mikolaj: “Envy, insanity, racism and hooliganism,” he muses, “the pillars of Polish reality.” Yet she also allows us to understand the contemporary Poles are put off by Jewish tourists who come only to see the death camps: “They didn’t know about the heroic Polish underground,” Shore explains. “They didn’t know that Poles had also died in Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”
Not many Jews remain in Poland, of course, but the precious remnant is marked in strange ways. A woman named Tamara weeps over the fact that she was condemned to grow up under communism because her grandfather refused to make aliyah after the war ended. “She could not escape from this moment of her grandfather’s refusal to cross the border, this moment of decision, the moment when her life might have been a different one,” Shore writes. “She could not forgive her grandfather for having misunderstood History, for having made the wrong choice — and so, having thrown Tamar from the current of History.”
“A Taste of Ashes” is rich with incident, recollection and conversation, a memoir of the author’s long endeavor to understand in human terms the ideas and events that are the raw material of intellectual history. Every page is alive with face-to-face encounters between Shore and her friends and colleagues. Ultimately, however, a dark fatalism suffuses the whole effort, and the hard truth is captured in a conundrum that she hears from a man who once edited a prominent Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw: “You already know too much,” Chaim Finkelstein told her, “too much and not enough, and nothing.”
I carried a copy of “The Double Eagle” by Stephen Brooks on my recent travels in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, a travel memoir that was written shortly before the fall of communism and has something in common with “The Taste of Ashes.” Next time, however, it will be Shore’s book in my carry-on, a masterpiece that will enrich the experience of being there precisely because the author looks both forward and backward in time, and because she offers a glimpse of history as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at email@example.com.