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Books on Central Europe

Under a Cruel Star, A Life in Prague 1941-1968, by Heda Margolius Kovaly, Copyright 1986 “Three forces carved the landscape of my life,” Heda wrote. “Two of them crushed half the world. The third was very small and weak and, actually, invisible. It was a shy little bird hidden in my rib cage an inch or two above my stomach.”

“The first force was Adolf Hitler; the second, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin. The little bird, the third force, kept me alive to tell the story.”

I turned to this book in an effort to try and understand what life was like in Czechoslovakia after WWII as I wrote about the escape of the Lamos family from Bratislava to Canada in 1948.

Heda recounts her time as a student during the war spent in concentration camps and her escape from a death march, and the greetings of fear and rejection she received when she turned to non Jewish friends for help upon her return to Prague.  After the war, she describes the rise of communism and how it felt to be in the thick of things as the communist party rose into power.  She marries Rudolph and tells the terrifying tale of his role in the communist government, and the Kafka-esque life they and others live through.

Under a Cruel Star is a slim book, an eloquently written story of unbelievable cruelty and heartbreak, and a must read by anyone who wants to know what living under communism is really like.  I was sad to see that Heda died at the end of 2010 at the age of 91, the same month I discovered the book.

A Winter Journey Through Russia, The Caucasian Alps, and Georgia into Koordistaun, Written in 1839 by Captain Mignan, in Two Volumes. Volume III’ve just discovered this book, which is no longer in print nor covered by copyright, and is made available to the general public through Google Book Archives. You can read the book online, or download it in many ways, including as a PDF.

I’ll read it and come back here with my review…

Memoirs of my Childhood in Yugoslavia, by Wayne Vucinich and Larry Wolff, Copyright 2008 I recently read this memoir and loved Wayne’s rich story telling of a decade of his life in primitive Yugoslavia. He was an American born to Yugoslavian immigrants who both died, leaving their three surviving children orphans. An uncle took them back to extended family in Yugoslavia, where they grew up on a farm, learning a new language, new customs and a whole new way of life.At the same time, modern life was intruding into Yugoslavia, and some of Wayne’s experiences of farm and family life soon faded into history. This book gives me a glimpse into Yugoslavian life as my family may have lived it in Vojvodina after the end of WWI.

Larry’s introduction to Wayne’s memoirs is very stirring, and it made me sad to have not had the pleasure of meeting Wayne or of taking his classes in Eastern European history at Stanford University.  This book is published for nonprofit and privately, and I really encourage you to buy it – it’s a little gem.

NightBy Eli Weisel, Copyright 1972 Night is a quick read physically, but it stays with you mentally a long time. It’s the true story of a young Jewish teenager in Transylvania who is taken from his home in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  What is so haunting about the story is how the events unfold, one little piece at a time, such that the people who are experiencing it don’t really grasp the grim reality of what is happening to them until it is too late.  No one imagines the true horror of Hitler’s war, and so Eli and his family, friends and neighbors go along with their forced departure from home, the long walks, the train rides and eventual placement in the camp thinking, this isn’t so bad, I can live with this, it will all be over soon. But it just gets worse and worse.I have been reading a diary an older Jewish professor kept in the years leading up to the war, and his experience is the same; each little occurrence that is experienced often happens with little or no resistance or is soon forgotten, until he realizes one day, far too late that their freedom has been stripped from them completely.

The Nazis carried out their final plan in 4 steps:

First, identification of Jews and other undesirables

Secondly, the expropriation of their property

Third, physical concentration of the people

Fourth, extermination

While Night covers Eli’s experience through all four steps, it is his experiences in the first two steps that bothered me most. Yes, the concentration camps and extermination processes are completely horrifying, but they are well known to the world now. His description of the all the little details within the first two steps that seem innocuous when they are happening sends chills down my spine; that insidious, stealthy destruction  is happening right under peoples’ noses and they don’t even realize it.  These evil people actively carry out a plan that is known only to them, and they manipulate the innocent victim who is completely unaware that he or she is being led down a path towards their demise.

I think it disturbs me so much because when it happens to you, you realize that you trusted people who really had ulterior motives all along; you’ve been had.  And then the worst part is that you lose that sense of trust, and you no longer trust anyone; you begin to wonder if everyone has ulterior motives.  Your faith in mankind is shattered.

The Balkans, A Short History, By Mark Mazower, Copyright 2000 A brief overview of the Balkan territory’s history, starting in the year 330.  I’ve read it to try and understand why this area is such a hotbed of war and strife, and to gain an understanding of the kind of political and economical atmosphere over the last few hundred years.The autonomous territory of Vojvodina, where my ancestors settled nearly 250 years ago is smack in the middle of the Balkans, and they’ve lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, through two Balkan wars, World War I, the formation of Yugoslavia, Nazi occupation, World War II,  Tito’s communism and then Milosevic, the downfall of communism, the break up of Yugoslavia, the war in Kosovo and the bombings by NATO states of Serbia.  And that’s just in the last 100 years!

It’s a relatively quick read, historically informative and eye opening.

The Vanguard of American VolunteersIn the Fighting Lines and in Humanitarian Service

August, 1914 – April, 1917

By Edwin Morse

You can read and download this book for free from Google Books online.  It covers the incredible role the American Red Cross played during WWI in Europe.  Included in it are stories of Dr. Edward Ryan, whom I wrote about in my post, And Then There Were Two.
The War In Eastern Europeby John Reed, 1916. John Reed’s book is a first hand account of Serbia, Russia, Bulgaria and Greece during WWI, from April 1915, through October 1915.  He and a fellow journalist travel to Europe with hopes of experiencing great events and turning points in the war, and instead find lulls in fighting, and every day life in the warn torn countries that he refers to as “the business of war.”  I love his writing style – he is witty, keenly observant, a great story teller and a real adventurer.  He would have been in Serbia about the same time as Dr Edward Ryan, who was the American doctor who treated typhus patients in Belgrade for the Red Cross, another romantic adventurer.  I would have loved to have met these two guys – talented high risk takers who lived life to the limit, no holds barred, and who died young because of it.Reed’s powers of observation about the everyday, mundane aspects of life lived during these difficult times paints a picture that no history books of war have depicted before, at least not for me.  You feel as if you are on that trip with him, experiencing these events first hand.

John was born into a family of affluence in Oregon, grew up to be an avid socialist, was an ardent supporter of the Red Army Bolsheviks, and for those reasons he was severely criticized in the US as a dilettante and playboy, and as a result, his books were not always well received.  He died young and tragically of typhus in Russia in 1920, about the same time my great grandfather, Paul Milec, was walking home across Siberia after having fought against the Bolsheviks with the Czechoslovak Legion.  His most famous book, Ten Days That Shook The World, was the basis for the 1981 Warren Beatty movie, Reds, in which Beatty played John Reed, and Diane Keaton, who played his wife.

The War In Eastern Europe is in the public domain, and you can read it by clicking here.

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