Open letter to The New York Review – “My Europe” by Louis Begley

In the April 5, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books, Begley published an article „My Europe,” in which he relates, with a novelist’s loving eye for vividness, details of his early life in Poland, first in peacetime, then in an urgent wait for his own survival during World War II.  He segues into discussion of his first novel entitled, appropriately enough for a wartime fiction, Wartime Lies.  He admits in his „My Europe” article, that in Wartime Lies, he supercharged his memory using another novelist’s fictional work, Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, „that unlocked my own, very buried but I am convinced very real memory of the brutality of the students and teachers in the gimnazjum I attended in Kraków.”  His one year of instruction in the gimnazjum was his first year of formal instruction since being in kindergarten in Stryj.

So what „memories” did novelist Gombrowicz miraculously unlock for novelist Begley?  Why, none other than the memory of „the Polish rite of beating others about the face.”  I was born in and lived in Poland.  I am 12 years older than Begley, and while he survived in relative comfort on „Aryan-papers” inside private houses in Warsaw, I was imprisoned for 5 years in the German concentration camp Sachsenhausen near Berlin because my existence and activities as a free man were considered a threat to the German war effort.  I paid my wartime dues:  I was a forced slave laborer who cheated death at the hands of murderous Gestapo officers and WaffenSSmen   numerous times, including when I survived the „Death March of Brandenburg.”  I am an on-the-ground eyewitness:  there was no such „Polish rite of beating others about the face,” and Mr. Begley, I don’t need a novelist to „unlock” and „convince” me of my memories about Poland.

Fiction can be a marvelous vehicle for describing the truth of an overall situation; alternatively, it can be an ample opportunity to fabricate and broadcast libel.  So, where do Wartime Lies end and wartime truths begin, and how can you tell the difference?  Begley himself provides a gigantic clue in „My Europe”:  „The truth seems to be that facts actually recalled are of secondary importance for a writer composing a work of fiction—that is to say a work of imagination in which all such facts must, in any event, be altered, transposed, and reinfused with life.”

Like a criminal who is compelled to revisit the scene of his crime regardless that this increases the criminal’s chance of being discovered, Begley self-destructively reiterates the illusory basis of his libel, lest anyone still doesn’t get it:  „The fact is that for me this form of humiliation and degradation is inextricably connected with Poland—via buried memories, true or false, such as those of my gimnazjum in Kraków, and, for me much more important, via Gombrowicz.”  Thus does Begley casually traverse between Gombrowicz’s fiction, Begley’s own fiction, and Begley’s recovered memory „fact” about Poland as postulated in „my Europe,” via „buried memories, true or false.” 

Shamelessly and purposefully confusing lies and truth, Wartime Lies and supposed wartime truths in this way become a whole cloth, seamlessly interwoven into a garment of libel against Poland.  Amazingly, novelist Begley even reveals to us the exact key in novelist Gombrowicz’s fiction that „unlocked” and „convinced” Begley of his own recovered memory:  „the scene in which the narrator and his cousin Zygmunt discuss with such relish the gentleman’s sport of slapping servants, doormen, barbers—anyone who cannot hit back….” Strange tale – in prewar Poland slapping anyone on the face constituted a criminal offence.

Now that Begley’s seamless fiction-to-fact segues have put us in a novelist’s mood, let’s recover some memories and do some of our own postulating, but this time based on fact:  one-year only gimnazjum (high school) student Begley, at age 13, whose previous formal schooling was kindergarten in pre-war Stryj, was most likely an attractive target for garden-variety bullying, the kind that shows up anywhere at his tender young age of transition, even outside of Poland and outside of Europe.  Yes, even the U.S. has bullying, but Begley doesn’t admit to any of this, no siree Bob.  Let’s now put a damper on our novelist’s mood with some alarming facts about bullying in the U.S. and elsewhere:

According to statistics reported by ABC News, nearly 30 percent of U.S. students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 children stay home from school every day because of fear of bullying.  (In fact, Poland does not have a record anywhere nearly as bad as the U.S. or many other countries, for instance, Russia.)  Bullying victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims, according to studies by Yale University.  A study in Britain found that at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.  10 to 14 year old girls may be at even higher risk for suicide, according to the study above.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year, according to the CDC.  For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.  While it is sad to consider that a 13-year old in his second year of formal schooling (the first being kindergarten) might be subject to some bullying, and schoolyard bullying anywhere (even in Poland) certainly is a bad thing, he appears to have survived his sole year in gimnazjum better than the suicide victims who were subjected to bullying who were cited in the U.S. and Britain studies.

„My Europe” is a nice try by a novelist to libel Poland by attempting to establish a supposed Polish ritual of routine face-slapping.  Ultimately, the „nice try” fails, because a fiction-to-fiction-to-fact traversal is not as effective as, say, actual facts.  For example, here’s a fact:  the Russian ritual of face slapping of soldiers by officers is well documented in literature.  Mr. Begley, outside of Gombrowicz’s own fiction, and outside of your own „via buried memories, true or false” fictions, where’s the documented evidence for this supposed Polish ritual?  It’s reasonable to presume that it would be documented in a multitude of non-fiction sources if it was such a commonplace ritual.  Mr. Begley, put your „own, very buried” memories away, and give us the factual sources, or else please stay in the realm of fantasy and fiction, a realm in which you seem to have considerable talent.