Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 16 Oct 2020

Wartime Lies by Louis Begley

In all the Holocaust literature I have read, I cannot think of another novel that is quite like Louis Begley’s Wartime Lies. As far as I can recall, only Aharon Appelfeld’s memoir The Story of a Life bears some comparison in that it too is written from the perspective of a young child.

From what little I knew of Begley, and from the very little I knew of this particular book, nothing prepared me for its dreadful honesty nor for the events seared into the author’s memory. If I say it is a strongly autobiographical novel by a child-survivor of the Holocaust as conducted in Poland, and that its narrator is that child – to all intents and purposes, Louis Begley – this is true to the facts. But it doesn't begin to do justice to the narrative complexity of the novel. It is at once an appallingly simple book and a very sophisticated one.

The young boy Maciek is just six when the Nazis invade Poland. He belongs to a family of well-off and highly assimilated Galician Jews, his father a doctor, his mother having died in childbirth. His early years are plagued by illness, a fragile constitution, and he seems to have a somewhat suffocating and curiously eroticised life, looked after by a succession of working class or peasant nurses whom he dotes on and enjoys considerable physical intimacy with. Nonetheless, it is in many respects an idyllic childhood and the opening of the book is very much an elegy for a way of life in a corner of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire that is about to be not just swept away, but destroyed with as great a cruelty as human beings can devise. There are, both here and later, echoes of this dreadful cruelty in the way animals are treated – sometimes by children, sometimes by farmers and peasants. We are gradually being introduced to a world saturated in cruelty, to a world in which the long-term psychic and psychological consequences of the experience of the Holocaust cannot be expunged, cannot be overcome, cannot be mastered. (Others have noted similarities with the quiet, restrained tone and austere prose of Primo Levi and I think this is appropriate.)

At around the time of the German invasion, Tania, Maciek’s aunt, joins the household. Her role, it seems – it isn’t entirely clear: we learn what the young Maciek is able to convey to us – is firstly to become the child’s guardian and later, if things go according to plan, to marry the father. But before this can happen, his father is taken eastwards by retreating Russian forces and the household – Maciek, a nurse, Tania the aunt, and a grandmother and grandfather are left to fend for themselves, rarely one step ahead of the Nazis’ extermination squads, the SS secret police, Polish blackmailers and informers and the Ukrainian militia who act as the Nazis’ advance force for rape, torture and murder.

From this point on, Tania is the indomitable force who will school Maciek in survival. She acquires a protector – a German bureaucrat who perhaps as well as his fondness for Tania may have some links with others in the Polish underground who are seeking to save Jews. She says at one point – with a degree of flinty, clear-eyed pride – that if being a courtesan is what is required in order to save her little nephew, then so be it. But Reinhardt, the protector, is himself betrayed. He has moved himself and the grandmother to another local town, the family believing that split up they will attract less attention. As the door of his lodging room is kicked down by German troops he first shoots the grandmother and then himself.

The grandfather too is living apart and using false Aryan identity papers Tania and Maciek set out to find him and to elude both the Nazis and those who are preying on fleeing Jews – typically for personal gain but sometimes simply from hate. Not even Polish partisans can necessarily be trusted. They may be fighting Hitler’s Wehrmacht forces but some want a Poland free of both Nazis and Jews and will often betray Jews or even hand them over to the Nazis themselves.

Reviewing the book in the New York Times on its first publication in 1991, Judith Grossman said: “The testimony of young children who have survived extremes of persecution and cruelty carries an authority that is all the stronger because they are not yet able to judge the offenses committed against them.” This brilliantly captures the book’s dreadful power.

In a short afterword Begley is at pains to explain why this is a novel and not a memoir. He had to find a way, he says, to erect a “psychic screen” that would allow him access to the events he needed to describe without being overwhelmed by them. This distancing enables Begley to pull off what seems to me to be his greatest achievement: that of interrogating the moral cost of survival sometimes from the child’s perspective, and sometimes from the perspective of the man the child has become. This is the heart of the book’s complexity.

Begley wrote Wartime Lies almost fifty years after the events it describes. He was then a man in his mid-fifties. It was his first novel. He has since written eight or nine other novels and several volumes of non-fiction. In January 2004 he retired from Debevoise & Plimpton, the New York law firm whose international department he had led for many years. He is now 86. If you have any interest in Holocaust literature then on no account should you miss this novel. It is extraordinary – a child’s voice from the very edge of the grave.


Alun Severn

October 2020