Wartime Lies

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Novel by Louis Begley, 1991

Louis Begley's novel Wartime Lies is loosely based on the writer's own experiences as a young boy who, with his mother, survived the Holocaust in Poland by passing as a Christian. Begley was just six years old in 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland. His memories would not have sufficed for a full-length novel; neither would they have sufficed for the mature analysis that Maciek, the first-person narrator, engages in. With all its embellishments or inventions, the novel is a compelling and detailed picture of the life of a Jew on the run.

The novel begins with a depiction of prewar life in Poland for Maciek's well-to-do Jewish family. With the war everything changes. New regulations are introduced daily; the family is forced to move and to accept any work that is available. Round-ups become a regular event, and it seems only a matter of time before the family, too, will be caught in an action and deported. To survive requires material resources, which the family possesses (at least initially); a clear but flexible strategy, which requires constant reevaluation and compromise; luck; and, above all, lies. The family is broken up, and some members are killed. Maciek's aunt Tanya cultivates a friendship, which soon becomes a love relationship, with Reinhard, a German who is so sympathetic that he is willing to risk his life to help the family. With Reinhard's help they are able to avoid deportation and relocate from T., their hometown, to Lvov. Betrayed to the Gestapo, Reinhard commits suicide, and Aunt Tanya and Maciek are again on the run. In Warsaw they pass as Christians, watch the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with other Poles from a vantage point outside the Ghetto, and then, one year later, are caught in the Warsaw Uprising. Through a clever ruse—and with not a little luck—the two flee Warsaw and find precarious refuge in the country until the end of the war.

Throughout all these experiences they are threatened constantly by discovery, betrayal, and blackmail. Their ever-dwindling resources, constant hunger, and sickness serve to increase their fears. The necessity to lie—especially when Maciek prepares for and takes Communion—preys horribly on his conscience. The novel accordingly underscores much of the survivor experience that readers may know from other accounts of survival in Poland, such as Nechama Tec 's Dry Tears.

Narrated in the first person by Maciek, the novel is written in a sober style that avoids sensational or lurid description. Violence, atrocities, and death are described plainly and in matter-of-fact language. Dispersed throughout the text are numerous classical passages: Vergil, Catullus, and Dante. These underline just how literary Begley is. They also serve to distance the reader from the text and slow down the action. And finally, they serve to introduce a major preoccupation of Begley's: the role of justice in the human predicament. In an ordered world justice would be an essential element; Maciek would survive because he deserved to survive. But the world that was Poland in World War II was chaotic and irrational, and justice was meted out accordingly.

Wartime Lies is well written and carefully structured and has few weaknesses. There are, for example, no exaggerated descriptions, lurid depictions, or crudely drawn—rather than well-rounded—characters. The reader is provided with an accurate, if often almost unbelievable, account of what life for a Jew on the run in Poland entailed. It ranks with the best of Holocaust literature.

—David Scrase

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Wartime Lies

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Wartime Lies