“World War II 1939-1945: Under Nazi rule, six million Polish citizens, many of them Jews, are murdered.”
Between the covers of the Penguin paperback edition of Charles T. Powers’ 1996 novel In the Memory of the Forest, that above might be both the only and most egregious sentence in the volume, and praise be the Gods for this excellent book, the author is innocent of having written it.
For the record, the Holocaust took about six million Polish lives, three million of them Jewish, and in demographic terms, the latter figure has represented 90 percent (or more) of Poland’s Jewish community as it existed before the Holocaust.
What that diminishing sentence tells about, however, may be the delicate matter of being “balanced” or “politically correct” about a history that has left Poland a now long haunted land, and that not least so by the memories of the horrific decisions made in the blood dimmed duress promoted by both Soviet and German barbarism. Powers’ novel finds as much sustained by modern Poles in the ghosts that have lived through them by way of legacy as well as those that have dwelled within individual memory of family identity, old relationships, legends, and secrets.
For readers who percieve Russia still up to its mid-20th Century tricks, albeit by way of thugocrats; who sniff the east European air and find in it the faint sharp reminders of local anti-Semitic brutality–or, perhaps worse, a quaint but vicious second buriel in efforts to restore Jewish life as an artifact best suited to eternal confinement by way of library, museum, and scholarlyl notes–In the Memory of the Forest well illustrates a still living, still unfolding, still engaged and engaging national story.
What to do with so much ugly baggage?
As Hitchens would go on to say by way of praising Orwell and Orwell hiimself might have said through Powers to a contemporary audience: “Face it.”
My friends at our local monthly “Books and Bagels” circle will ask, “Is it a Jewish book?”
My answer would and will be that it is both a fine novel in the guise of a rural detective story as well as one much about our own times in which the Polish national experience and its legacy not only may rediscover old neighbors and sometimes uncomfortable truths but has been doing so slowly, painfully, joyously, unevenly.
Credit British photographer Richard Schofield with this image of a public school wall built partially with the grave stones taken from a a Jewish cemetary (reference: Kotz and Schofield 2011). Schofield’s own web states, “I’m an Englishman currently involved in a number of projects in the former USSR that include both the taking and collecting of photographs. My photographic practice focuses primarily on the veiled peculiarities of everyday life in all its splendid forms” (http://www.richardschofieldphotography.com/). Indeed, memory and ghosts are what “straight photography” have often been about. (Photo republished here with the photographer’s permission).
Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Powers, Charles T. In the Memory of the Forest. New York: Penguin,1997.
Vasager, Jeevan and Julian Borger. “A Jewish renaissance in Poland: There are signs that Poles are discovering their lost Jewish heritage and that antisemitism is in decline.” The Guardian, April 6, 2011.
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