The World's Best Unknown Books
14 09 2014

Eastern European Writers about their Forgotten War

A war still visible in classical literature

On March 14, 2014, at the Leipziger Buchmesse, Alida Bremer and Martin Pollack organised an event entitled “The Forgotten War”, a discussion between the authors Yuri Andrukhovych (Ukraine), György Spiró (Hungary), Vera Dzyadok (Belarus), Svetlana Slapšak (Serbia/Slovenia), and Saša Ilić (Serbia) about the consequences of the First World War in their respective countries and the current, sometimes quite dramatic, situations there. Excerpts from various classic works were presented and read to the audience.

The evening opened with a mini-drama called “Peace Hunting” by Hungarian essayist, dramatist, and novelist György Spiró, an imaginary, rather ironic dialogue between the German emperor Wilhelm II and the Russian Czar Nicholas II on the eve of the First World War. Photos from the private collection of Martin Pollack were projected during a reading of inscriptions from different soldier cemeteries.

Why the title “Forgotten War”? The acts of war in these parts of Europe are quite unknown in the Western parts of our continent; the attrition warfare on the Western front was indeed the main theatre of war operations. But the atrocies of the war in East and Southeast Europe seem to have been blanked out. One of the reasons may be that hostilities were ongoing even after the 1918 armistice: the Polish-Ukrainian War, the Russian Revolution and the chaos of the Civil War, as well as the Polish-Soviet War and the Silesian Uprisings are just a few of the post-WWI conflicts.

Isaak Babel wrote in his collection of short stories Red Cavalry about pogroms, destruction, and pillage. While the books of Isaak Babel are relatively widely translated nowadays, the name of Solomon Seinwil Rapoport (1863-1920), who wrote in Yiddish under the pseudonym S. Ansky, seems to have been totally forgotten. Best known for his play The Dybbuk, his diaries (published posthumously in 15 tomes) are an ethnographic report about the deliberate destruction of the Jewish community in Poland, Galicia, and the Bukovina.
Józef Wittlin (1896-1976) is another fairly unknown classic author, even if some of his works are translated into German, Russian, and partly into English and French. The Polish author and translator – a friend of Joseph Roth – is best known for his famous anti-war novel The Salt of the Earth (Sól ziemi, 1935), an impressive description of the loss of culture, individuality, and otherness. Unfortunately, most editions of this novel are out of print today.
And what about Maksim Harecki (1893-1938) and Klym Polishchuk (1891-1937), two totally unknown names in the West? Both were victims of Stalin’s purges, and the works of both await translation. Today, Maksim Harecki is considered a classic of Belarusian literature, with an oeuvre that includes short stories, plays, and novels (a German translation of his novel Two Souls was published in August 2014 by the Guggolz Verlag). The works of Klym Polishchuk, a Ukrainian intellectual, urgently await discovery.
Other potential Schwob authors were mentioned, such as Miroslav Krleža, a great Croatian classic author.

I happened to pick up my war diaries, intent on burning them, because there are terrible things written in them. But the blue lines of lived memory did not want to burn – imbued with solitude and gloom, they were begging for mercy. Let them live, although I’m pretty sure they hold something of the suspect in them. “Something of the Suspect”, an excerpt from the war diaries of Klym Polishchuk