28 October 2021

Ordinary heroes

I read these two books in quick succession -- first The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933-1945, then Word for Word: A Translator's Memoir of Literature, Politics, and Survival in Soviet Russia. For the past couple of weeks, while I've been reading them, I feel as if I've been given a glimpse of what it means for ordinary people to keep their heads above water ... or not ... in times where the lives of millions were hanging in the balance as the forces of good and evil struggled, and evil appeared triumphant.

Books and films about such periods often focus on well-known heroes and leaders, or on the wider conflicts and battles that provide convenient mileposts for the chronologies of the times. These two books are on a different scale; at their centers are stories of people who are not exactly typical, but who had no apparent power to influence events -- beyond the power of elemental decency and friendship in their own networks of relationships. Nor did they always make the right choices; both books vividly illustrate the occasions when compromise seems the only way forward.

These two books -- one about Hitler's Germany, the other about the Soviet Union -- are set up very differently. Catrine Clay writes as a historian. With the deliberate goal of shining a light on the two-thirds of Germans who never voted for the Nazis and who, for the most part, spent the whole of the Third Reich trying to survive unnoticed by their Nazi neighbors, Clay chose six Germans, along with their families and friends, to represent those two-thirds. To the extent possible, she uses letters, diaries, reminiscences, interviews, photos, and other first-hand documentation to bring them to life, but she stands at a writer's remove from them. Lilianna Lungina, on the other hand, is telling her own story. In fact, she is telling filmmaker Oleg Dorman her story, which became a television documentary series before being published as a book. The recording was made in 1997, almost at the last possible moment for such an important record: her dear husband Semyon Lungin died the year before, and Lilianna would die in 1998.

However different these setups might be, the two books have much in common. Families and friendships are always at the center -- nothing is said or done in isolation. As each person is confronted by the need to make fateful choices in the face of oppression, whether naked or subtle, the outcome may reinforce a lifelong alliance -- or prove to be a terrible betrayal.

One of Clay's representative Germans, Rudolf Ditzen, was a writer whom I already knew as the author of the amazing novel of German resistance, Every Man Dies Alone, written under his professional pseudonym Hans Fallada. But, during Nazi times, he was under unrelenting pressure to produce stories whose heroes and plots exalted National Socialism. Sometimes he played for time, putting off the requests to do a book or screenplay for the cause; sometimes he gave up and compromised.

Lilianna openly admits her compromises -- for example, in an incident following the trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel:

When Alik Ginsburg was released from prison, he gathered material on the Sinyavsky-Daniel case and published the so-called White Book. He gave one copy to Nikolai Podgorny, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and the other copies he distributed among friends, with the request that they pass them on to others when they had finished reading them. He was arrested again. Sima and I were asked to sign a petition about him, but we refused; because at just that moment, at the end of the 1960s, I had received permission to go to France.... I desperately wanted to go, if only to connect my adult life with my childhood. I was afraid that they wouldn't let me out, I told myself that one more signature wouldn't matter ... I was terribly ashamed of myself. It tormented me, but I still didn't sign.

The cost of compromise is a theme with Catrine Clay as well:

It was the day before the Jewish boycott of 1 April 1933. Sebastian came from a conservative but anti-Nazi family. His best friend was Jewish. Everyone in the [High Court] library was suddenly tense. The library doors were flung open and an SA troop in their brown shirts marched in. They looked like the kind of guys who delivered beer from the local brewery, Sebastian said. They made their way from desk to desk, weeding out the Jews, including the Presiding Judge. Most of them had already picked up their leather briefcases and quietly slipped away -- two months of the Nazi terror regime was enough warning for them, not to mention Hitler's stated aims in Mein Kampf. The remaining Jews in the library were ordered to leave, never to return. But one stubborn student refused, insisting on his rights, and he was duly dragged from his desk, beaten and taken off into 'protective custody'. Then the SA went from desk to desk, checking. No one remonstrated. When they came to Sebastian, they asked: 'Are you an Aryan?' To his eternal shame and humiliation, he later admitted to his close friends, he replied, 'Yes.' As he left the building, he realised he'd betrayed his best friend. Everyone hearing the story ... knew what he meant, and each wondered what he would have done in Sebastian's place.

As I read The Good Germans, I couldn't help thinking of my own German family. I've told how I found out that my grandfather in Japan joined the Nazi party in 1934, even as my grandmother continued her opposition to the Nazis. As for the rest of my relatives, the ones who remained in Germany, I hope that most or all of them were among the suppressed two-thirds, but I honestly don't know.

Mira Perper
Tatiana Pavlova

Word for Word also hit me at a personal level. I almost felt as if I knew Lilianna Lungina personally. I did know a few members of her generation with similar commitments to decency and honor -- historian Tatiana Pavlova, who revived the Quaker movement in Russia, and Mira Perper, a literary scholar who collaborated with Indiana University's Bill Edgerton, among others. The interior scenes of Lungina's home reminded me of their homes, with every available space stuffed with books and papers.

Reading Dorman's printed account of Lungina's reminiscences, you'd think it had been edited for readability, but in fact what he recorded in print is what she spoke into the camera, with unrehearsed clarity and vigor. Here, for example, is her account of how she and her classmates were kicked out of the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), followed by the Youtube excerpt in which she tells that story. I don't think you need to know the language to see what I mean about the clear and vigorous flow of her narrative.

When we were in the eighth grade, the fathers of two of our classmates were arrested.... Later their mothers were arrested, too; but at first it was only their fathers. At the school, a Komsomol meeting was immediately called to expel Volodya and Galya from the ranks, on some charge that appeared utterly awkward and idiotic to me. If young people today are reading this, I hope it will be useful to them to hear about the horrific absurdities of life during that period. Modern-day Communists walk around at demonstrations filled with nostalgia for the old times, and yet back then they expelled a fifteen-year-old boy and girl from the Komsomol because they had not managed to denounce their own parents before they were denounced by the KGBV (then NKVD). How do you like that? Not used to keeping my mouth shut yet, at my paltry fifteen years of age, I stood up and said that it was stupid, absurd, and impossible to expel children. First, no one would denounce their own parents; and, second, how could they have done so, on what grounds? The meeting was adjourned for a time, and after it resumed they expelled me for having dared speaking against their decision.

[When she and a classmate went to the local Komsomol office to protest the decision,] ... Why we had been expelled didn't interest anyone in the least. The expulsions of Galya Lifshitz and Volodya Sosnovsky didn't interest them, either....

I think this was the definitive moment in my disenchantment with the system, and my final rejection of it. I realized that it was rotten to the core. I saw that it was all performance, staged theatrics. I remember this very clearly -- my eighth-grade class, the visit to the local Komsomol office, the degree of apathy we met with, the lack of any desire even to pretend that they wanted to listen to us. This produced a very strong impression on a young, unprejudiced person. I realized that I simply couldn't accept such a system. Later, when my peers, my fellow students, especially during my studies at the Institute for Philosophy, Literature, and History, began to think critically about these matters, and to become disillusioned, it seemed that I was the wise one, that I had seen it all coming much earlier. But I want to stress that it wasn't really so. I had simply learned to exercise freedom of thought during my childhood abroad; and that faculty stayed with me. I wasn't better, or smarter, or more prescient, than anyone else. It was just that certain notions had formed in me early on, and had become so deep-rooted in my soul that even the mind-numbing stupefaction that was inculcated in all of us was powerless against them. This was why I didn't believe in the trials of the "enemies of the people" for a single minute. I was absolutely convinced that it was all staged; there wasn't a drop of doubt in my mind about it.

I'm very glad I have spent the last couple of weeks in the inspiring and sobering company of these ordinary heroes.

Here are a couple of reviews of these books:

On The Good Germans.

On Word for Word.


The Leo Tolstoy Center for Nonviolence has assembled a variety of resources on practical nonviolence. Our old friend Vitalii Adamenko is part of the team behind the project, and I worked on some of the translations into English. In the words of the organizers,

For us, the most important concept in nonviolence is the value of human life. Therefore we focus on replacing the current methods of defense (both personal and collective), recognizing that a sustainable peace is impossible while maintaining violent security forces such as armies and police, the main tools of which are threats, murder, and bodily harm.

We also offer guidance for individuals seeking to live nonviolently — from overcoming personal indifference and aggressiveness, to renouncing citizenship, which is a status that relies on involuntary participation in crimes against human life.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Tamara Horsburgh's search for Christians with recent diagnoses of dementia who might be willing to be interviewed for her research on  "the impact of holding the Christian theologies of hope and suffering, when one is first diagnosed with dementia." Here is a simplified information sheet in case you might be willing to be interviewed or know someone who might consider Tamara's invitation.

Timothy Snyder on killing parents in bad faith.

Peter Wehner: "The aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving mindset that characterizes so much of our politics has found a home in many American churches."

The Chambers Brothers and Joan Baez, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."


Phil McLain said...

Thanks for sharing this, Johan

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Phil.