The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe
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An inventive, wholly original look at the complex psyche of Eastern Europe in the wake of the revolutions of 1989 and the opening of the communist archives.
In the tradition of Timothy Garton Ash’s The File, Yale historian and prize-winning author Marci Shore draws upon intimate understanding to illuminate the afterlife of totalitarianism. The Taste of Ashes spans from Berlin to Moscow, moving from Vienna in Europe’s west through Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw and Bucharest to Vilnius and Kiev in the post-communist east. The result is a shimmering literary examination of the ghost of communism – no longer Marx’s “specter to come” but a haunting presence of the past.
Marci Shore builds her history around people she came to know over the course of the two decades since communism came to an end in Eastern Europe: her colleagues and friends, once-communists and once-dissidents, the accusers and the accused, the interrogators and the interrogated, Zionists, Bundists, Stalinists and their children and grandchildren. For them, the post-communist moment has not closed but rather has summoned up the past: revolution in 1968, Stalinism, the Second World War, the Holocaust. The end of communism had a dark side. As Shore pulls the reader into her journey of discovery, reading the archival records of people who are themselves confronting the traumas of former lives, she reveals the intertwining of the personal and the political, of love and cruelty, of intimacy and betrayal. The result is a lyrical, touching, and sometimes heartbreaking, portrayal of how history moves and what history means.
Mirka and continued to put her feet down on the large photo of Joseph Stalin, printed in the newspaper, as it often was. In a rapid motion my father made for the phone and grabbed the receiver. Don’t—said my mother sharply before he could dial the number. They’ll kill her, you know that. Henry’s first books were in Russian; to this day he remembered the cheery, colorful illustrations. All images were aggressively cheerful ones in those years: socialist realism was militantly joyful. This was
missionaries. I regretted that I had done this to Jitka, who was so long-suffering, and so good, and who could not entirely believe that the American visitors were impostors. I pleaded with her, with Galina, with my students to trust me. By then it was already December, and the town square was covered with snow—and full of fish sellers: baking fresh carp was a Czech Christmas tradition. The peddlers slaughtered the carp on the spot, at the moment of purchase, and the white snow on the town
clemency were halfhearted, pro forma. Through the windows of the archive I could see the clouds moving. The sky was growing darker. In a few minutes it would rain again. The verdict was delivered on 23 July 1951. It was summer, and Jürgen Stroop and Franz Konrad were sentenced to death. IN LATE SPRING of 1997 I flew back to Israel. It was already summer there, and I wanted to stay by the water forever, feeling the heat and the sun. On the bus the religious Jews with their ringlet peyes,
Vacillating between the lyricism of the Skamander poets and the radicalism of the futurist poets was a young man named Władysław Broniewski, whose room was adorned with ancestral daggers. I learned that during the gray Polish winter of 1922, this young poet was dreaming of a tempestuous romance with a demonic woman. Instead he fell in love with a pretty girl named Janina. Broniewski lived then among the artistic elite of prewar Warsaw. Evenings he would spend with a small group of writers who
florid love letters in the language of epic novels. Janina loved him as well, as she would for her entire life. Her deepest love, though, would be for Adolf Berman and Michał Mirski’s friend Wanda Wasilewska, who was a tall woman with a large voice in a man’s world. Władysław Broniewski, the romantic, fell in love first with independent Poland, then with revolutionary Russia. He was a poet and a soldier who could not live without passion, a man of extraordinary vanity who longed to sacrifice