Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
I’ve been running a Polish film festival in miniature at my house with a series of war movies by Andrzej Wajda, including “A Generation,” “Kanal,” “Ashes and Diamonds” and “Katyn.” As a Polish film historian observes on the commentary track, these are movies that only a Polish director could make — and only a Polish audience can fully appreciate — if only because the blood-soaked soil of Poland was, in a real sense, the ground zero of World War II.
That observation came to mind as I read Yale history professor Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (Basic Books: $29.95), a brilliant, important and highly original look at a swath of territory that includes not only Poland but also Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states. As Americans, we may be stirred by heroic memories of Guadalcanal and Normandy, but in terms of sheer brutality and carnage, they cannot be compared to what happened in central and eastern Europe. And, as Snyder insists on pointing out, the tragedy was not limited to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
To be sure, the concentration camps and killing fields of the Holocaust were located in what Snyder calls the bloodlands, but he seeks to make a different and larger point. Between 1933 and 1945, the death toll in the bloodlands reached a total of some 14 million souls. “Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty,” he writes. “Most were women, children and the aged; none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.”
What’s more, Snyder’s ringing “J’Accuse” is not confined to the usual suspects. “The fourteen million were all victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them,” he explains. “Stalin’s own record of mass murder was almost as imposing as Hitler’s. Indeed, in times of peace it was far worse.”
Snyder also calls our attention to some of the myths and misconceptions that have shaped our perception of the Holocaust. Auschwitz may have been an industrial-scale murder factory, but he argues that “[t]he image is too simple and clean.” More than half of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war who died in the bloodlands were simply starved to death, and many of the other victims were shot, one by one. “The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust,” Snyder notes, “never saw a concentration camp.” And he forces us to confront the intimacy of death even as he considers the casualties that are measured in the millions.
“No matter which technology was used, the killing was personal,” he writes. “People who starved were observed, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seen through the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains, and then rushed into the gas chambers.”
For the Jewish reader, “Bloodlands” can be especially challenging as when he asks us to contemplate the special quality of Polish suffering. “A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933,” he argues. “Nearly as many non-Jewish Poles were murdered during the war as European Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.”
Snyder’s book of history ends with a moral admonition. “Each of the living bore a name,” he reminds us in “Bloodlands.” “Each of the dead became a number. Each record of death suggests, but cannot supply, a unique life.” He demands that we recall the humanity of each victim, regardless of religion or nationality, and he refuses to concede even a statistical victory to the murderers: “The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers,” he concludes. “It is for us as humanists to turn the number back into people.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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December 10, 2010 | 9:51 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
Kim (Freilich) Dower is a svelte and stylish woman, but she looms large on the literary landscape of Los Angeles. Doing business as “Kim-from-L.A.,” she is among our most admired and beloved book publicists, a ubiquitous and cheery presence at every venue where authors and readers gather.
But Kim is also an accomplished writer in her own right, as we learn from her newly published poetry collection, “Air Kissing on Mars” (Red Hen Press: $18.95). Her work is exquisitely crafted but the tool marks are invisible on the printed page, and each poem reads like an intimate conversation with the poet herself — bright and lucid, funny and sharp, and always full of life.
The point was made at a recent reading that Kim gave at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. As always — and she will not be surprised to hear me say it — Kim was superbly attired and accessorized, but it was only in one of the poems in “Air Kissing on Mars” that I found a clue to the origins of her sense of style.
“My mother,” she writes in a poem titled “Different Mothers,” “did know about soil or earth worms.” And she goes on to observe:
“City mothers, we know about bus routes, restaurants/Broadway, the people on the eighth floor./Mine taught me to accessorize/bring the ideal hostess gift./have my keys in hand/when I enter the building.”
Many of the poems in the collection share the same kind of city smarts, and “Air Kissing on Mars” can be approached as a kind of poetic handbook for contemporary urban life in both New York and Los Angeles. A certain wry sense of humor is always at work — the title of “The Nudists Are Getting Ready to Pack” is a joke in itself — but the poems are infinite in their variety. Kim is sometimes subtly but undeniably erotic (“they made out on the carousel swan,/kissed til their lips bled”), sometimes openly confessional (“not even my therapist can know/the things I do in my car”), and sometimes unapologetically sentimental as in a superbly bittersweet poem titled “If My Father Were Alive.”
“If my father were alive/heaven would be calm,/the woman in the apartment next door/would still be dressing up, her fuchsia prints/shrieking into the night.”
My single favorite poem in the collection — and something of an outlier in terms of form and style — is “She Showed Me Pictures of Injuries,” a tour de force that pulses with a strange sexuality as the poet describes an unlikely encounter between a guy in a Wisconsin hotel lobby and two roller-derby skaters dubbed Hot Pink Suede and Jazz Night Queen. To be sure, skating injuries have something to do with what’s going on here, but that’s not all.
“he closes his eyes sees her flying/she tugs at Jazz Night dizzy their short skirts/singing to him he’s cold in Wisconsin he watches them kiss/he met a girl who skates across his face”
The best way to enjoy the poems in “Air Kissing on Mars,” I think, is to gather with friends, open a bottle of wine, pass the book around, and take turns reading them aloud. Something not unlike that took place at Barnes & Noble — a few of the appreciative folks in the audience were definitely aglow! — and Kim Dower’s poems flew off the page and soared around the room.
“Poetry makes nothing happen” warned Auden, but after closing my copy of “Air Kissing on Mars,” I think he was wrong.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.