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In Search of a Soviet Holocaust

A 55-Year Old Famine Feeds The Right

Something therefore always remains and sticks from the most impudent lies…
The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed.

— Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf

The girl is dying. She looks about five years old, but we know she may be older, dimin­ished by hunger. She leans wearily against a gate. Her long hair falls lank about bare shoul­ders. Her head rests against her arm. Her neck is bent, like a stalk in parched earth. Her eyes are the worst — large and dark, glazed yet still wistful. The child is dying, starving, and we feel guilty for our witness …

The Ukrainian émigrés who made Har­vest of Despair knew a gripping image when they saw one. The black-and-white still, played over an arching, minor-mode chorus, was chosen to close the Canadian documentary on the Ukraine of 1932-33. The same photograph was used to pro­mote the film, to symbolize a long-dor­mant cause célebre: a “man-made” fam­ine, “deliberately engineered” by Stalin to crush Ukrainian nationalism and cow a stubborn peasantry into permanent col­lectivization. Seven million Ukrainians were killed, the narrator tells us, as “a nation the size of France [was] strangled by hunger.”

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The result, intoned William F. Buckley, whose Firing Line showed the film last November, was “perhaps the greatest ho­locaust of the century.”

The term “holocaust” still burns the ears, even in our jaded time. As we watch the film and see corpses piled in fields, bloated bodies sprawled in streets, pale skeletons grasping for bits of bread, we wonder: How can such a terrible story have been suppressed so long?

Here is how: The story is a fraud. The starving girl, it turns out, wasn’t found in 1932 or 1933, nor in the Ukraine. Her picture was taken from a Red Cross bulletin on the 1921-22 Volga famine, for which no one claims genocide. Rather than an emblem of persecution, the photograph advances the most cyni­cal of swindles — a hoax played out from the White House and Congress through the halls of Harvard to the New York State Department of Education. Pressing every pedal, pulling all the strings, is a Ukrainian nationalist lobby straining to cloak its own history of Nazi collabora­tion. By revising their past, these émigrés help support a more ambitious revision­ism: a denial of Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews.

There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possi­bly one or two million, Ukrainians died — ­the minority from starvation, the major­ity from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffer­ing. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible. By any stretch of an honest imagination, the tragedy still falls short of genocide.

In 1932, the Soviet Union was in crisis. The cities had suffered food shortages since 1928. Grain was desperately needed for export and foreign capital, both to fuel the first Five-Year Plan and to counter the growing war threat from Ger­many. In addition, the Communist Par­ty’s left wing, led by Stalin, had come to reject the New Economic Plan, which re­stored market capitalism to the country­side in the 1920s.

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In this context, collectivization was more than a vehicle for a cheap and steady grain supply to the state. It was truly a “revolution from above,” a drastic move toward socialism, and an epochal change in the mode of production. There were heavy casualties on both sides — ­hundreds of thousands of kulaks (rich peasants) deported to the north, thou­sands of party activists assassinated. Production superseded politics, and many peasants were coerced rather than won to collective farms. Vast disruption of the 1932 harvest ensued (and not only in the Ukraine), and many areas were hard-pressed to meet the state’s grain requisition quotas.

Again, Stalin and the Politburo played major roles. “But there is plenty of blame to go around,” as Sovietologist John Arch Getty recently noted in The London Re­view of Books. “It must be shared by the tens of thousands of activists and offi­cials who carried out the policy and by the peasants who chose to slaughter ani­mals, burn fields, and boycott cultivation in protest.”

Such a balanced analysis, however, has never satisfied Ukrainian nationalists in the United States and Canada, for whom the “terror-famine” is an article of faith and communal rallying point. For decades after the fact, their obsession was con­fined to émigré journals. Only of late has it achieved a sort of mainstream credibil­ity — in Harvest of Despair, shown on PBS and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and at numerous college campuses; in The Harvest of Sorrow, an Oxford University Press account by Rob­ert Conquest; in a “human rights” curric­ulum, now available to every 10th-grade social studies teacher in New York State; and in the federally funded Ukraine Fam­ine Commission, now into its second year of “hearings.”

After 50 years on the fringes, the Ukraine famine debate is finally front and center. While one-note faminologists may teach us little real history, they re­veal how our sense of history is pulled by political fashion until it hardens into the taffy of conventional wisdom. And how you can fool most of the people most of the time — especially when you tell them what they want to hear.

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THE FILM

Harvest of Despair was the brain­child of Marco Carynnyk, a Ukrai­nian translator and poet who lives in Toronto. In 1983, Carynnyk found a sponsor in St. Vladimir’s Institute, which formed a Ukrainian Famine Research Committee of well-to-­do émigrés . The committee raised $200,000 for the documentary, including a major grant from the Ukrainian Cana­dian Committee (a spiritual descendant of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists), and a loan from the simi­larly right-wing World Congress of Free Ukrainians.

As chief researcher for the film, Caryn­nyk had two major functions — to locate and interview famine survivors, and to find archival photographs. Talking heads would not be enough to make a case for genocide. To gain its intended shock val­ue, the film would have to show what the famine was like. “There can be no ques­tion,” assessed The Winnipeg Free Press, “that without the films and photographs uncovered from the 1932-33 famine, the film would lose much of its authority.”

“I gave them two sets of photographs,” Carynnyk said. “I told them, ‘Here are the ones from the 1930s, and here are the ones from 1921-22.’ But in the cutting of the film, they were all mixed up. I said this can’t be done, that it will leave the film open to criticism … My complaints were ignored. They just didn’t think it was important.”

One problem, Carynnyk said, was that producer Slawko Nowitski faced an im­possible five-month deadline to ready the film during the famine’s 50th anniversa­ry. (In fact, Harvest of Despair would not be completed until late 1984.) But the researcher believes it was more than mere sloppiness at work. “The research com­mittee was more interested in propagan­distic purposes than historical scholarship,” said Carynnyk, who has sued the Famine Research Committee for copy­right violation. “They were quite pre­pared to cut corners to get their point across.”

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In October 1983, Carynnyk left the project — “relieved of his duties,” accord­ing to Nowitski, “because he did not pro­duce the required material.” Three years and seven awards later, the lid blew last November at a meeting of the Toronto Board of Education, where terror-famine proponents were pressing to include the film in the city’s high school curriculum. The show stopped cold when Doug Tot­tle, former editor of a Winnipeg labor magazine, stood up and declared that “90 per cent” of the film’s archival photo­graphs were plagiarized from the 1921-22 famine.

Tottle traced several of the most graphic photos, including that of the starving girl, to famine relief sources of the 1920s. (Some of these resurfaced in 1933 as anti-Soviet propaganda in Voelk­ischer Beobachter, an official Nazi party organ.) Other pictures were lifted from the 1936 English edition of Human Life in Russia, by Ewald Ammende, an Aus­trian relief worker in the earlier Volga famine. Ammende attributes them to a “Dr. F. Dittloff,” a German engineer who supposedly took the photos in the sum­mer of 1933. The Dittloff pictures have their own bastard pedigrees — three from 1922 Geneva-based relief bulletins, others from Nazi publications. Still other Ditt­loffs were also claimed as original by Robert Green, a phony journalist and es­caped convict who provided famine mate­rial to the profascist Hearst chain in 1935. Green, a convicted forger who used the alias “Thomas Walker,” reported that he took the photos in the spring of 1934 — almost a year after the Ukraine famine had ended, and in direct contra­diction of Dittloff.

Although Green was exposed by The Nation and several New York dailies by 1935, right-wing émigrés have used his spurious photos for decades. “It’s not that these pictures were suddenly discov­ered in 1983 and accidentally misdated” in the film, Tottle noted.

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Tottle had done his homework. Caryn­nyk confirmed that “very few” photos in Harvest of Despair could be authenticat­ed, and that none of the famine film footage was from 1932-33. But the Ukraine Famine Research Committee de­cided to stonewall. At first they insisted that any photos from the 1920s were used only when the film discussed the Volga famine — a blatant evasion, since that segment lasts a scant 28 seconds and uses only two still photos, neither especially potent. Committee chairman Wasyl Jan­ischewskyj recently softened that stance: “We have researched further and made discoveries that some photos we thought were from 1932-33 were not … We are now having further deep investigations of these pictures.”

In the main, however, the filmmakers have sought to justify their fraud. “You have to have visual impact,” said Orest Subtelny, the film’s historic adviser. “You want to show what people dying from a famine look like. Starving children are starving children.” A documentary, added producer Nowitski, must rely on “emotional truth” more than literal facts.

“These people have never attempted to refute my claims,” said Tottle. (His book on the subject, Fraud, Famine, and Fas­cism, will be published this fall by Toron­to’s Progress Books, an outlet for Soviet releases.) “They have tried to lie and cover it up, but they have not tried to refute it.”

Nor have the nationalists refuted Tot­tle’s contention that several “witnesses” in the film were Nazi collaborators, in­cluding two German diplomats who served in the Third Reich and an Ortho­dox Church layman who blessedly rose to bishop while the Third Reich occupied the Ukraine in 1942.

“Just because they’re collaborators,” countered Nowitski, “does that mean we cannot believe anything they tell us? Just because they’re Nazis is no reason to doubt the authenticity of what happened.”

This slant pervades émigré research on the famine. Soviet sources are rejected out of hand, while Nazi sources (or known liars like Walker and Dittloff) are accepted unconditionally. In the Goeb­bels tradition, the nationalists’ brief al­ways serves their anticommunism — no matter how many facts twist slowly in the process. Harvest of Despair follows unholy footsteps, and never breaks stride.

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THE BOOK

According to a 1978 article in The Guardian of London, Robert Con­quest got his big break shortly after World War II, when he joined the Information Research Department of the British Foreign Office. Staffed heavily by émigrés, the IRD’s mission was a covert “propaganda counter-offen­sive” against the Soviet Union. It was heady, hands-on work for a young writer, a chance to slant media coverage of Russia by adding political “spin” to Eastern bloc press releases and funneling them to top reporters. The journalists knew little about the IRD, beyond the names of their mysterious contacts. The public knew nothing at all, even as their opinions were being sculpted.

After Conquest left the IRD in 1956, the agency suggested that he package some of his handiwork into a book. That first compilation was distributed in the U.S. by Fred Praeger, who had previously published several books at the request of the CIA.

The shy and courtly Conquest has come a long way since then, from gray propagandist to éminence grise. He is now a senior research fellow at the Hoo­ver Institute at Stanford, as well as an associate of Harvard’s Ukrainian Re­search Institute. But his heart and his pen never left the IRD. The Soviet Union would be Conquest’s lifetime obsession. He churned out book after book on the horrors of communism: The Nation Kill­er, Where Marx Went Wrong, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. His landmark work of 1968, The Great Terror, focused on Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s. But by 1984, his work had turned surreal; What To Do When the Russians Come was the literary equivalent of that politi­co-teen-disaster flick, Red Dawn. Yet he remained a mainstream heavyweight, coasting on reputation, his excesses ac­cepted as Free World zeal.

In 1981, the Ukrainian Research Insti­tute approached Conquest with a major project: a book on the 1932-33 famine. The pot was sweetened by an $80,000 subsidy from the Ukrainian National As­sociation, a New Jersey-based group with a venerable, hard-right tradition; the UNA’s newspaper, Swoboda, was banned by Canada during World War II for its pro-German sympathies. (The grant was earmarked for Conquest’s research expenses, including the assistance of James Mace, a junior fellow at URI.)

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The nationalists knew they’d be getting their money’s worth. At the time, famino­logy was virgin ground. There was little source material available, since the Soviet archives remain sealed. More to the point, most non-émigré historians viewed the 1932-33 famine as an outgrowth of collectivization, not a political phenome­non of itself, much less a stab at geno­cide. But Conquest was different. In his Terror book, he’d already concluded that more than three million Ukrainians were killed by the famine. Here, clearly, was the right man for the job, a man who once stated: “Truth can thus only perco­late in the form of hearsay … basically the best, though not infallible, source is rumor.” And with no one on record to dispute the issue, Conquest’s rumors could rule.

In The Harvest of Sorrow, Conquest outdoes himself. He weaves his terror­-famine from unverifiable (and notorious­ly biased) émigré accounts. He leans on reportage from ex-Communist converts to the American Way. He cites both “Walker” and Ammende. Black Deeds of the Kremlin, a period piece published by Ukrainian émigrés in 1953, is footnoted no less than 145 times.

Conquest can be deftly selective when it suits his purpose. He borrows heavily from Lev Kopelev’s The Education of a True Believer, but ignores Kopelev when the latter recalls Ukrainian villages that were relatively untouched by famine, or relief efforts by a Communist village council.

By confirming people’s worst suspi­cions of Stalin’s rule, The Harvest of Sor­row has won favorable reviews from The New York Times, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books. But leading scholars on this era are less im­pressed. They challenge Conquest’s con­tention that Ukrainian priests and intelli­gentsia — two major counterrevolutionary camps — were repressed more ruthlessly than anywhere else in the country. They point out that the 1932-33 famine was hardly confined to the Ukraine, that it reached deep into the Black Earth region of central Russia. They note that Stalin had far less control over collectivization than is widely assumed, and that radical district leaders made their own rules as they went along.

Most vehemently of all, these experts reject Conquest’s hunt for a new holo­caust. The famine was a terrible thing, they agree, but it decidedly was not genocide.

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“There is no evidence it was intention­ally directed against Ukrainians,” said Al­exander Dallin of Stanford, the father of modern Sovietology. “That would be to­tally out of keeping with what we know — ­it makes no sense.”

“This is crap, rubbish,” said Moshe Lewin of the University of Pennsylvania, whose Russian Peasants and Soviet Pow­er broke new ground in social history. “I am an anti-Stalinist, but I don’t see how this [genocide] campaign adds to our knowledge. It’s adding horrors, adding horrors, until it becomes a pathology.”

“I absolutely reject it,” said Lynne Vio­la of SUNY-Binghamton, the first U.S. historian to examine Moscow’s Central State Archive on collectivization. “Why in god’s name would this paranoid gov­ernment consciously produce a famine when they were terrifed of war [with Germany]?”

These premier Sovietologists dismiss Conquest for what he is — an ideologue whose serious work is long behind him. But Dallin stands as a liberal exception to the hard-liners of his generation, while Lewin and Viola remain Young Turks who happen to be doing the freshest work on this period. In Soviet studies, where rigor and objectivity count for less than the party line, where fierce anti-Commu­nists still control the prestigious institutes and first-rank departments, a Con­quest can survive and prosper while barely cracking a book.

“He’s terrible at doing research,” said veteran Sovietologist Roberta Manning of Boston College. “He misuses sources, he twists everything.”

Then there are those who love to twist, and shout — to use scholarly disinformation for their own, less dignified purposes. In the latest catalogue for The Noontide Press, a Liberty Lobby affiliate run by flamboyant fascist Willis Carto, The Harvest of Sorrow is listed cheek-by-jowl with such revisionist tomes as The Auschwitz Myth and Hitler at My Side. To hype the Conquest book and its ter­ror-famine, the catalogue notes: “The act of genocide against the Ukrainian people has been supressed [sic] until recently, perhaps because a real ‘Holocaust’ might compete with a Holohoax.”

For those unacquainted with Noontide jargon, the “Holohoax” refers to the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

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THE CURRICULUM

In 1982, the New York State Depart­ment of Education set out to blaze a new trail: a definitive curriculum on the Nazi holocaust. The department assembled a distinguished review committee, including such Holocaust ex­perts as Terrence Des Pres and Raul Hil­berg. It assigned the actual writing to three top-rated social studies teachers. The finished two-volume project, which went to classrooms in the fall of 1985, does credit to everyone involved. It is a balanced mix of archival documents, sur­vivor memoirs, and scholarly essays.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the high schools: The Ukrainian nationalists stole the show. Their point man was Bohdan Vitvitsky, a New Jersey attorney and author who was invited to join the state’s advisory council, which would steer the curriculum’s develop­ment. Vitvitsky’s first move was to gain inclusion of an excerpt of his book on Slavic victims of the Nazis. His second victory was to eliminate all but passing mention of Ukrainian war criminals.

“I took the position they should be dealt with,” said Stephen Berk, a Union College history professor and advisory council member, “but Vitvitsky insisted there should be no dwelling on [Nazi] collaborators.” (The Catholic lobby didn’t fare so well; over its protests, the curricu­lum includes a critical assessment of Pope Pius XII’s inaction.)

But Vitvitsky’s major coup, helped along by a nationalist letter campaign, was to install material on the Ukraine famine of 1932-33. In the curriculum’s second draft in 1984, the famine was treated as a 17-page precursor chapter to the second Holocaust volume — a plan which met heated resistance from Jewish groups. By the time the material reached the schools last fall, however, it had swol­len into a separate third volume, with 90 pages on the “forced famine,” and anoth­er 52 on “human rights violations” in the Ukraine.

A key player in the transition was As­semblyman William Larkin (Conserva­tive Republican, New Windsor), a retired Army colonel, assistant minority whip, and old friend of Gordon Ambach, then the state commissioner of education. Lar­kin had ample incentive to help; his dis­trict contains about 8000 ethnic Ukraini­ans. He arranged “four or five” meetings between the state education staff and 20 upstate Ukrainian nationalists in 1985. He also enlisted other Republican assem­blymen to press for the famine book, and says he spoke personally to Ambach. The commissioner “offered to do any­thing be could,” Larkin said. “But if we didn’t go up there in force, if we didn’t push it, it wouldn’t have happened.”

By most accounts, the political pres­sure was intense — enough to squeeze a department deemed relatively apolitical. The Ukrainians mounted “an enormous letter-writing campaign with the Board of Regents,” said Robert Maurer, the execu­tive deputy commissioner. “There were phone calls and visits. There’s not often that much interest in curriculum matters; it was very unusual.”

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The famine boosters found an especial­ly sympathetic ear in Regent Emlyn I. Griffith, then chairman of the committee that unanimously endorsed Volume Three in 1985 — a vote which ensured its future use. “As a member of a minority people put down by a majority govern­ment, I emphathized” with the Ukrainian nationalists, said Griffith, an ethnic Welshman. “There was a significant lob­bying effort … It was persuasive. It wasn’t threatening, it was positive.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who made the fatal decision on Volume Three. Griffith said his committee acted on a strong staff recommendation. Ambach failed to return phone calls for this story. Maurer lodged responsibility with Deputy Commissioner Gerald Freebome, who in turn pointed to Program Development Director Edward Lalor, who referred questions to a low-level official named George Gregory, the chairman of the Hu­man Rights Series advisory committee.

Shrouded by this corporate haze, Vit­vitsky ran in an open field. No one chal­lenged his basic premise. The famine “certainly does represent another exam­ple of genocide,” Gregory asserted. “It was a planned attempt by Stalin to elimi­nate the Ukrainian people.”

(“George is the consummate bureau­crat,” said one educator involved with the series. “His experience is mainly in grade-school curricula — like ‘Appreciat­ing Our Indian Heritage,’ or ‘The Impor­tance of the Finger Lakes Region.’ When I started up there, he really didn’t know anything about the Holocaust.”)

To write the famine material, Gregory hired Walter Litynsky, a Troy High School biology teacher and a local chair­man of Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine. For the job of principal review­er, Litynsky recommended James Mace, the Conquest protégé who also directs the Ukraine Famine Commission under a $382,000 congressional appropriation. Mace and Litynsky proceeded to stack the review committee with Ukrainian academics, the omnipresent Vitvitsky, and four upstate nationalists. “No contrary [review] letters were either solicited or received,” Berk acknowledged. “I’m sorry this came out, because it was distorted — ­but I felt it was a fait accompli.”

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When asked about contrasting view­points from such scholars as Lewin and Viola, Gregory was unmoved. “Quite frankly, we have not heard of any of them,” he said. “We tried to present a balanced point of view. We didn’t ask for the Soviet opinion, since the Soviet view was that the famine never happened. [In fact, the Soviets now concede that a fam­ine was “impossible to avoid,” because of drought, mismanagement, and kulak sab­otage.] We relied heavily on James Mace; he’s the leading historian of that time period.”

This paean would startle academe, where Mace’s work is infrequently read and rarely found in footnotes, the base­line of a scholar’s importance. He is wide­ly regarded as a right-wing polemicist, an indifferent researcher who has made a checkered career out of faminology.

“I doubt he could have gotten a real academic job,” Manning said. “Soviet studies is a very competitive field these days — there’s much weeding out after the Ph.D. If he hadn’t hopped on this politi­cal cause, he would be doing research for a bank, or running an export-import business.”

The Mace-Litynsky partnership yield­ed a predictable end product — the undis­tilled nationalist line. The state curricu­lum on the Ukraine famine apes both Harvest of Despair and The Harvest of Sorrow. (The education department now supplies the embattled documentary, as an audiovisual supplement, to any inter­ested teacher.) Like the film and the hook, the curriculum features faked pho­tos from Ammende, dubious atrocity tales (including 16 selections from Black Deeds of the Kremlin), and sections of the “Walker” Hearst series, all without caveat. Like Conquest and Nowitski, the famine volume red-baits anyone who challenged the genocide scenario, such as New York Times reporter Walter Dur­anty. It goes Conquest one better by re­ferring to the region as Ukraine, with no article, in deference to a sovereignty that exists only in nationalist fables.

The curriculum is most obviously ex­posed in its estimate of the famine death toll: “… it is generally accepted that about 7 million Ukrainians or about 22% of the total Ukrainian population died of starvation in a government planned and controlled famine.”

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How did Litynsky arrive at this talis­manic figure, cited over and over again in emigre literature? “I don’t pretend to be an expert on this subject,” the biology teacher said. “This is not my field. I had a list of people who went from 1.5 million to 10 million. In my reading I saw seven million used more than any other figure, and I decided that was realistic. It got to the point where it was so confusing that you had to decide.” (Mace has opted for 7.9 million Ukrainian famine deaths in his own work, with an “irreducible mini­mum” of 5.5 million. Conquest fixes on seven million famine deaths, including six million Ukrainians, with no appendix to show how his numbers are derived.)

But the magic number, like the geno­cide theory it shoulders, simply can’t pass scrutiny. Sergei Maksudov, a Soviet émigré scholar much cited by Mace and Conquest, has now concluded that the famine caused 3.5 million premature deaths in the Ukraine — 700,000 from starvation, and the rest from diseases “stimulated” by malnutrition.

Even Maksudov’s lower estimates are open to challenge. Writing in Slavic Re­view, demographers Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver maintain that limited census data make a precise famine death count impossible. Instead, they offer a probable range of 3.2 to 5.5 million “ex­cess deaths” for the entire Soviet Union from 1926 to 1939 — a period that covers collectivization, the civil war in the coun­tryside, the purges of the late ’30s, and major epidemics of typhus and malaria. According to these experts, and Maksu­dov as well, Mace and Conquest make the most primitive of errors: They overesti­mate fertility rates and underrate the im­pact of assimilation, through which many Ukrainians were “redesignated” as Rus­sians in the 1939 census. As a result, the cold warriors confuse population deficits (which include unborn children) with ex­ cess deaths.

Which leaves us with a puzzle: Wouldn’t one or two or 3.5 million fam­ine-related deaths be enough to make an anti-Stalinist argument? Why seize a wildly inflated figure that can’t possibly be supported? The answer tells much ahout the Ukrainian nationalist cause, and about those who abet it.

“They’re always looking to come up with a number bigger than six million,” observed Eli Rosenbaum, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. “It makes the reader think: ‘My god, it’s worse than the Holocaust.’ ”

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HIDDEN AGENDAS

Your husband’s courage and dedication to liberty will serve as a continuing source of inspiration to all those striving for freedom and self-determination.
— Letter from President Reagan to the widow of Yaroslav Stetsko, ranking OUN terrorist, murderer, and Nazi collabora­tor, read by retired general John Singlaub at a conference of the World Anti-Com­munist League, September 7, 1986.

In the panel discussion that followed Harvest of Despair on PBS last fall, Conquest addressed the issue of Ukrainian war crimes. “It’s not the case,” he said blandly, “that the Ukrainian nationalist organizations collaborated with the Germans.” Once again, the aging faminologist had tripped on the public record. It is one thing to suggest, rightly, that Ukrainian nationalism had little popular support among the peasantry. (It was actually a narrow, urban, middle-class movement.) Millions of Ukrainians fought with the Red Army and partisans. Many others can be accused of nothing worse than indifference, and a smaller number risked their lives to save Jews from the Ger­mans. But on the matter of the OUN, the principal nationalist group from the 1930s on, the record is quite clear: It was fascist from the start.

In its original statement of purpose in 1929, the OUN betrays a raw Nazi influ­ence: “Do not hesitate to commit the greatest crime, if the good of the Cause demands it … Aspire to expand the strength, riches, and size of the Ukraini­an State even by means of enslaving for­eigners.” This sentiment was echoed in a 1941 letter to the German Secret Service from the OUN’s dominant Bandera wing: “Long live greater independent Ukraine without Jews, Poles, and Germans. Poles behind the [river] San, Germans to Ber­lin, Jews to the gallows.”

As the authoritative John Armstrong, a staunch anti-Communist and pro-Ukrai­nian, has written: “The theory and teach­ings of the Nationalists were very close to Fascism, and in some respects, such as the insistence on ‘racial purity,’ even went beyond the original Fascist doctrines.”

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But the OUN storm troopers, like any terrorist group, prized action over theory. Their wartime brutalities have been am­ply documented (Voice, February 11, 1986, “To Catch a Nazi”). They recruited for the Waffen SS, pulled the triggers at Babi Yar and Sobibor, ran the gas cham­ber at Treblinka. During their brief inter­ludes of Nazi-sponsored “independence” (in the Carpatho-Ukraine in 1939 and in Galicia in 1941), pogroms were the order of the day, in the spirit of their revered Simon Petlura. They strove to outdo the Nazis at every turn.

And when the Third Reich fell, the nationalists fled — to Munich, to Toronto, and (with the covert aid of the U.S. State Department, which viewed them as po­tential anti-Soviet guerrillas) to New York and Chicago and Cleveland.

This is not ancient history. The Ukrai­nian émigré groups still contain more than a few former OUN members, and many of their sons and daughters. The nationalists still heroize their wartime past. On occasion their old passions sur­face as well — as in Why Is One Holocaust Worth More Than Others?, recently pub­lished by Veterans of the Ukrainian In­surgent Army: “In 1933, the majority of the European and American press controlled by the Jews were silent about the famine.”

From this perspective, the “conspira­cy” lives on: “In (February} 1986 the Jew­ish newspaper Village Voice … published one-and-one-half pages of accusations against a high-standing member of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, Mykola Lebed.”

And finally, most transparently: “Tens of millions of people have been killed since the Zionist Bolshevik Jews, backed by the Zionist-oriented Jewish interna­tional bankers, took over Russia.”

Not surprisingly, Ukrainian émigrés are among the harshest and most power­ful critics of Nazi-hunting. They have sought to kill both the Justice Depart­ment’s Office of Special Investigations and the Canadian Deschenes Commis­sion — and with good reason. Sol Littman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Toronto, recently presented the com­mission with the names of 475 suspected Nazi collaborators. He reports that Ukrainians were “very heavily represent­ed” on the list.

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It may not be sheer coincidence that faminology took wing just after the OSI was commissioned in 1979. For here was a way to rehabilitate fascism- — to prove that Ukrainian collaborators were help­less victims, caught between the rock of Hitler and Stalin’s hard place. To wit, this bit of psycho-journalism from the 33 March 24 Washington Post, in a story on accused war criminal John “Ivan the Terrible” Demjanjuk: “The pivotal event in Demjanjuk’s childhood was the great famine of the early 1930s, conceived by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin as a way of destroying the independent Ukrainian peasantry … Several members of [Demjanjuk’s] family died in the catastrophe.”

Coupled with the old nationalist ca­nard of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” faminology could help justify anti-Semitism, collabo­ration, even genocide. An eye for an eye; a Nazi holocaust in return for a “Jewish famine.”

Just as the Nazis used the OUN for their own ends, so has Reagan exploited the famine, from his purple-prosed com­memoration of “this callous act” to his backing of the Mace commission. Faced with failing fascist allies around the world, from Nicaragua to South Africa, the U.S. war lobby needs to boost anti­-Communism as never before. Public en­thusiasm to fight for the contras will not come easy. But if people could be con­vinced that Communism is worse than fascism; that Stalin was an insane mon­ster, even worse than Hitler; that the seven million died in more unspeakable agony than the six million …. Well, we just might be set up for the next Gulf of Tonkin. One cannot appease an Evil Em­pire, after all.

As Conquest noted on PBS, after the starving girl’s image finally faded from the screen: “This was a true picture we saw … It instructs us about the world today.”

It turns out that the picture is far from true — that the purveyors of a famine genocide are stealing a piece of history and slicing it to order. It’s a brash bit of larceny for Conquest and company, even within the prevailing vogue of anti-Sta­linism. But if they say it loud enough and long enough, people just might listen. Lie bold enough and large enough, and — as the man once said — it just might stick. ❖

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Jerzy Kosinski’s Tainted Words

Not a single comma, not a single word is not mine — and not the mere presence of the word but the reasons why as well. This goes for manuscript, middle drafts, final draft, and every fucking galley — ­first page proofs, second and third, hardcover editions and paper-­back editions.

— Jerzy Kosinski, May 13, 1982

None of the trappings — the appearances on Johnny Carson, the adulatory profile in the Times magazine, the featured part in Reds — ­would matter if Jerzy Kosinski weren’t apparently a writer of talent. But he did astonish the world with his first novel, The Painted Bird, in 1965, and followed that triumph by winning a National Book Award for Steps in 1969. Though his fiction has been in precipitous decline since then — Pinball, the latest, is a mess — those first two novels alone would seem to guarantee Kosinski an honored place in the literary history of our time. That place is in jeopardy, however, for Kosinski’s ethics and his very role as author have been seriously challenged, and his many explanations lack the ring of truth.

There are, in the world of publishing, certain conventions. Informed readers are not surprised to discover that cabinet ministers or major league pitchers have re­ceived professional assistance in preparing their books. We assume, too, that even “literary” novelists — Updike, Barth, Tyler — are edited by the people who pub­lish their work. But no novelist with any claim to seriousness can hire people to do without acknowledgement, the sort of composition that we usually call writing. To purchase another’s words is to cheat the reader, to trash the tradition. For al­most 10 years now, Jerzy Kosinski has been treating his art as though it were just another commodity, a widgit to be as­sembled by anonymous hired hands.

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He evidently grew used to this mode of work during the late 1950s when, under the pen name of Joseph Novak, he published the first of two anti-Communist tracts in which the Central Intelligence Agency ap­parently played a clandestine role. It is perhaps this dirty little secret that ex­plains the fast shuffle of autobiographical tales making up the Kosinski myth.

Kosinski is, it should be noted, an abso­lutely spellbinding teller of tales. Whether he is providing after-dinner entertainment to the de la Rentas or charming the brains out of a reporter, he is a pleasure to be with. But in the frantic manufacture of fables, as if to cloak his hollowness, Kosinski is, if anything, too inventive. He has made it a central fact of his biography that at some point during his lonely youth­ful flight from the Germans, he was struck dumb. Yet even though he, like many children of the Holocaust, is the sole source for our knowledge of that time in his life, there is more than one story about how the trauma occurred.

Barbara Gelb in a recent New York Times Magazine profile writes that “Kosinski’s dreadful journey reached its climax when, aged 9, he was flung for pun­ishment by sadistic peasants into a pond of human ordure that closed over his head. Something in his mind clicked off and he was struck mute.” But in an interview in the current Penthouse, Kosinski says the key incident happened “in June 1942, while I was serving in a Mass as one of the altar boys. I was supposed to transfer the Bible from one side of the altar to another but fell with it … I am convinced I lost my speech from the tension before the actual fall.” Kosinski, who called the Times and had the paper run a correction of the date his mother died, let the lurid Gelb nar­rative stand unchallenged.

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The point here is not to question which (if either) version is true, but to note that Kosinski encourages the conflicting stories which surround him, that he denies the notion of truth. To some extent, this may be the almost reflexive desire of a Holocaust survivor for disguise — a habit of con­tinuous self-invention — but it may also be a sophisticated smokescreen laid down to obscure objective truths Kosinski would rather hide.

Consider, for instance, the question of precisely how Kosinski came to this coun­try in 1957. A reporter who interviewed him for Life magazine shortly after his arrival now says that “there was no mys­tery. He just came over on a student visa and decided to stay.” A few years later, he told the editor of an early novel that he’d “escaped ” from Poland by adding a zero to the check he’d won in a photography con­test and increasing his prize tenfold. The notion that he’d created fictional professors in Poland to write recommend­ations for him and thus fooled the bu­reaucracy into giving him a visa seems to have appeared for the first time six years later, in a 1974 interview with Professor Jerome Klinkowitz. The same story appeared a year later, as straightforward fic­tion in his novel Cockpit, but it is alto­gether absent from Kosinski’s first Eng­lish-language “autobiography,” a 1958 let­ter he wrote to the Ford Foundation apply­ing for a grant.

The Ford grant is itself the subject of yet another confusion. In his second inter­view with the Voice, Kosinski ridiculed the notion that he had a multiyear grant: “Nonsense,” he said, “I had a grant for a year.” The Ford Foundation’s press office reports that he had grants totaling about $8000 from 1958 through ’61, a very re­spectable stipend for a full-time graduate student. Indeed, working thorough the var­ious accounts of that period in his life, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that Kosinski was uniquely favored. According to the most thorough academic biography, Norman Lavers’s Jerzy Kosinski, pub­lished in 1981 by Twayne Press, Kosinski arrived in the United States on December 20, 1957, without having any prior contact with any U.S. institution, with only a rudi­mentary knowledge of English, and $2.80 in his pockets. A few weeks later, he was accepted as a doctoral student at Columbia; a few months more and he received a generous foundation grant; less than two years after that, he had signed a contract with Doubleday and Company for a non­fiction book about daily life in Russia. (In his final interview with us, by the way, Kosinski denounced Lavers’s book, saying he had never heard of it until it was done, and could correct it “only on the phone, never in letters.” Emily McKeigue, the book’s editor, reports that Kosinski was sent a manuscript which he corrected heavily. Not all of the changes were ac­cepted, but when he was sent a copy of the finished book, Kosinski “told us that he was fairly pleased with it.” According to McKeigue, there were “many” exchanges, but Kosinski never objected to the book’s description of his 1957 English as “rudimentary.”)

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•••

Kosinski, it appears, has a habit of say­ing anything that he thinks his listeners will find interesting, or attractive, or flattering. The net effect is that almost noth­ing he says can be relied on; everything must be checked (as the Times magazine should have done before it awarded him a nonexistent Columbia doctorate). In an interview with Eliot Fremont-Smith a few weeks ago, Kosinski was utterly plausible, even winning, as he discussed his hiring of assistants.

Yes, it happened regularly, but always with the knowledge and approval of his present publisher, and only after that publisher had set the original, Kosinski-pre­pared manuscript in type and returned the printed galleys to him for correction.

“The book doesn’t end with galleys,” Kosinski explained. Instead, that’s when revisions begin — “and I pay for it.” First galleys are worked over, then retyped into a “new manuscript,” and sometimes this process can be repeated through several successive sets of galleys. Since, he says, house editors can’t spend the effort and time necessary to satisfy his bent toward the meticulous or his urge to perfection (“Hardly anybody can spell better than I can”), he hires free lancers to collate corrections, check galleys against retyped manuscript, and watch for errors (e.g., a word used too many times, an action inadvertently repeated).

As he described the process in a later interview, the job of his assistants was mechanical. Sitting on the couch and dis­playing the two colors of pencil scrawl all over an early galley of Cockpit, Kosinski said, “This has to be now retyped, all retyped, once again. Now imagine how many things can go wrong, do you realize? For instance, let’s say I write ‘I also have also,’ … Little things like this, nobody is going to catch. This would be retyped by Kiki [von Frauenhofer, his assistant and companion] to a new manuscript, then Hackett [the assistant in question] would be given the new manuscript to make sure that all this was properly transferred.”

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Earlier in our discussion, Kosinski had insisted that Cockpit had been put to­gether without any outside assistance, but when I mentioned the name of John Hackett, he relented and allowed that Hackett had done some proofreading. He further minimized Hackett’s work by de­scribing him as “a student, who needed money … it didn’t work out … he couldn’t sit still … there were drugs.”

I was stunned. I first met John Hackett, now an English professor at the University of Texas, more than 20 years ago, when he was my best friend’s roommate at Holy Cross College, and I had believed him ab­solutely when he’d insisted that his work for Kosinski had been strictly editorial. Though there is an ethical question about a novelist secretly retaining a private editor as his own employee before showing his manuscript to a publisher, it seemed to me clearly a venial rather than a mortal sin, and I’d been expecting Kosinski to be as generous to Hackett as Hackett had been to him. The assault on his former friend’s character seemed senseless.

Perhaps, being as kind as possible, one could assign this casual calumny to ten­sion. (Kosinski, in a bit of manipulation so clumsy as to be nearly winning, had asked if he could have an observer attend our interview. Thinking it was his lawyer, who had already called the Voice, we agreed. “Good,” he said. “It is a woman examining victims of the Holocaust under situations of stress.”) But it also seems that Kosinski has a great deal invested in maintaining the image of absolute veracity, as though any chink in the armor, however small, would render him suddenly and com­pletely vulnerable

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In any case, Kosinski’s character as­sassination didn’t work. Hackett, told of the conversation, coldly remarked, “I was at that time an assistant professor of Eng­lish and Master of East College at Wesleyan. I was not the sort of person you would hire as a proofreader.

“Jerzy asked me as a friend and col­league to come down and help him because he’d had an accident and was worried about his ability to function efficiently. I came as a friend, and I am disappointed in him.” The drug use charge, he added, “was absurd.”

Despite Kosinski’s claim, Hackett did apparently work on the manuscript and not on galleys. Their joint efforts were spread over about a month during the summer of 1974; Houghton Mifflin archives show that the manuscript of Cockpit wasn’t even received at the pub­lishers until October 10.

But Hackett was just brought up to give Kosinski a chance to be gracious. Barbara Mackey is a different story. She met Kosinski in 1971, when she was a graduate student at Yale, while Kosinski was on the faculty. A friend, Rocco Landesman, who was working with Kosinski during the final revisions of Being There, introduced them, and a year later, when Mackey was in New York working for Joseph Papp’s Perform­ance and Scripts magazines, she began to help Kosinski on The Devil Tree.

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As she describes their work situation, “We were in [his] apartment on 57th Street. He would give me a sentence, talk philosophy, then come out with an idea that he wanted crystallized in a paragraph, a page, a chapter. Sometimes it was a little like taking dictation, at others, I was more like an instant editor. I prepared a first, handwritten draft that was then typed out by Kiki.

“The ideas were all his — I think he is a brilliant thinker, central in the world and in American culture — but the words were often mine. The term ‘collaborator’ isn’t right — I shouldn’t say that, anyway — it was more organizational. A collaborator would have a roughly equal input, but the intellectual notions are all his. If I had been a collaborator,” she added wryly, “the book would have been very dif­ferent — especially about women.” (I had agreed to get back to her to verify these quotes, but Mackey, now assistant director at the Denver Arts Center, suddenly stop­ped returning phone calls.)

Asked again to clarify the work pattern, to make certain that galleys were not in­volved, Mackey reiterated that her “hand­written copy was typed up overnight so that we could work on it again,” and that all the ideas were Kosinski’s. “All I did was put it into English.” (On the other hand, putting a novel “into English” is what writing is all about.)

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Mackey also worked on the early stages of Cockpit, and was eventually succeeded by Hackett. On the next book, Blind Date (1977), Faith Sale, now an editor at Put­nam, worked with Kosinski at what he calls the “proofreading” stage; we have been unable to reach the woman alleged to have been of earlier assistance. For 1979’s Passion Play, however, Kosinski retained Richard Hayes, a former professor of drama at NYU and Berkeley. Hayes, whose name Kosinksi brought up only in his final interview with us last week, says that his association with Passion Play be­gan when he “met Jerzy, in full military regalia, on the corner of 88th Street and Broadway one hot August night.”

Unlike Mackey, who worked sometimes from typescript, sometimes from conversa­tion, Hayes invariably worked from lengthy sheets of typing — “triple spaced and with wide margins, so there was room for my work.” Though he is emphatic that his work was not mere proofreading, he too rejects the “collaborator” title. “I would say instead that I combed, fileted, elevated or amplified his language — that I invested it with a certain Latinate style which was sometimes more Hayes than Kosinski” (and on which style, indeed, the Village Voice reviewer remarked when the book was first published).

As an example of a typical working exchange, Hayes (who like all of Kosinski’s assistants was paid by checks drawn on Kosinski’s corporation) says, “Often I wouldn’t see him for several hours; it would be just Kiki and I there in the living room, but I recall his once coming out with a rather exotic passage and jauntily drop­ping it down in front of me. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Poeticize this sex.’ ”

Suppose, I asked Hayes, he had not worked with Kosinski. What would Pas­sion Play have been like? After some thought, he responded, “That’s really im­possible to say; the initial manuscripts were so raw they could have led in many directions. All one can say for certain is that it would have been very, very dif­ferent.”

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•••

A number of people scattered across the geographical and age spectrums — without any discernible axe to grind — agree that they have “assisted” Kosinski. Beyond that, one of us has actually seen xeroxed sheets of reworked manuscript. Thus the question is how an author whose grip on the English language and on himself was so attenuated that he needed help putting early drafts of his novels together, ever managed to write — all by himself, and as claimed, in English — the book that stands out among all his works, The Painted Bird. Despite his frequent moving pleas that he could only have written it in English be­cause he remained inhibited by his native languages of Russian and Polish, he proba­bly wrote it in Polish.

Early in 1973, one Halina Bastianello, a translator, wrote a letter to a New York Times reporter claiming that some years earlier she had answered an ad for a Polish to English translator placed by Kosinski in the Saturday Review, and that he had wanted to hire her as the translator for The Painted Bird. (Though the Times never followed the story up, Bastianello retains a copy of her letter.) After a three­-and-half-hour interview, she wrote, Kosinski “found me ‘perfect.’ ”

“There was one hitch, unique in my experience: he was adamant about his re­fusal to give me credit for the translation, or have my name mentioned in connection with the preparation of the book. (Query: Who WAS the ghost?)”

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Pressed in an interview to confirm this story, Bastianello was adamant that the man who had interviewed her was Kosinski, that the work to be translated was in manuscript form in Polish and in no way a collection of documents or of previously printed materials, and that “be­fore I did sight translation, I asked him for a scenario of the book, and he gave me, as though he was a book reviewer, the plot of Painted Bird.” When the novel subsequently appeared in English, she read it and reports that it appeared to be substan­tially the same, though she cautions that “without that original manuscript before me, there is no way I could swear to its being identical.”

Asked, in his first interview with Fre­mont-Smith, about a time when he might have advertised for a translator, he said that after Painted Bird was published (in 1965), there were challenges to its factual veracity. In order to counteract these charges, he acquired two collections of documents by and about children of the Hitler era published in Polish. The project was dropped, he said, when Paul Brooks, one of four editors he worked with at Houghton Mifflin, said that since The Painted Bird was fiction, the defense was unnecessary.

Subsequently, however, perhaps realiz­ing that the date of an advertisement could be checked, Kosinski moved the date of his search for a translator back a year, claim­ing that it took place while he was having difficulty finding a publisher for Painted Bird. His fall-back notion of a nonfiction book about children of the Holocaust was, he says, dropped once Houghton Mifflin accepted the book in the late fall of 1964.

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All things considered, this was a pru­dent alteration. During the five-year pe­riod from 1962 to 1966, research shows that only one advertisement seeking a Polish-English translator appeared in Sat­urday Review. That ad, which reads ”TRANSLATOR WANTED, Polish to English, for full-length fiction to be translated in short time. Must be thoroughly experienced in both. Box F-9-35,” is dated March 7, 1964, more than a year before The Painted Bird was published.

In his follow-up interview with the two of us, Kosinski claimed that Fremont-Smith had asked whether Kosinski had consulted translators’ ads (an odd question, given Fremont-Smith’s knowledge of Bastianello’s letter) and said, “I don’t recall advertising certainly not for fiction.” The qualification seemed disingenuous since we had politely agreed that our conversation was solely about that slippery time when he was seeking a translator for nonfictional documents.

Kosinski’s attempts to distance himself from the ad lend credibility to Bastianello’s claim. Absent his strange response in the second interview, one might be tempted to think that her memory had grown confused over the years especially since an English manuscript of The Painted Bird was submitted to Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which declined it) less than two months after Bastianello says she met with Kosinski. This is very close to the absolute minimum time it  would take a translator to handle a work of that length. (After five different owners, two transcon­tinental moves and one bankruptcy, Sat­urday Review‘s box-holder records for that era are no longer available.)

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•••

These discoveries further complicate the murky history of Kosinski’s early American years, for now we must ask how a man who needed assistance and transla­tion through his novelistic career managed unaided to turn out two early and ex­tremely smooth books of journalistic prose in 1960 and 1962. Once again, it appears more than likely that he didn’t.

As Kosinski has told other interviewers, and as he told us last week, the “Joseph Novak” books began when a fellow student in the Columbia doctoral program read some of his papers and thought they would make a book. Since the student, Roger Shaw, was a junior editor at Doubleday, this judgment was more than cafeteria conversation, and ultimately led to a profitable contract for Kosinski. The first of the two books, The Future Is Ours, Com­rade, was promptly serialized by the Sat­urday Evening Post, condensed and trans­lated by Reader’s Digest, and sold to many foreign publishers. Eventually, it earned its author over 150,000 pre-inflation dollars.

There are, however, a couple of prob­lems with the Kosinski version of this lucky tale. First of all, Doubleday’s person­nel files for the period show no record whatsoever of any employee named Roger Shaw. Second, the Doubleday editor who did handle the book never met Kosinski. Adam Yarmolinsky, at that point Double­day’s public affairs editor, says he was told the author’s identity needed to be pro­tected and recalls that “all work on the book was handled through an in­termediary.” He professes to be unable to recall who that figure was, but at the time he told colleagues it was Frank Gibney. (Prompted, Yarmolinsky now says he suspects it might have been Gibney, but is not sure. Gibney has denied both to us and to Yarmolinsky that he was the conduit for this book).

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Gibney, a Time-Life correspondent who worked with the CIA in publishing The Penkovskiy Papers through Double­day, was one of many figures involved in what the USIA described to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967 as its “book development” program. Under this scheme, which began in 1956, at least 104 titles were published — some with direct subsidies to the author, others with purchase guarantees to the publisher — by American companies and distributed abroad by USIA. At least some of these titles were later discovered to have been chosen — and funded — by the CIA. All the books were sold through domestic book stores and book clubs as well — with, of course, no indication whatsoever of government subsidy or sponsorship.

The program was extensive — Praeger was the most notorious publisher involved; Farrar Straus the most prestigious — but Doubleday was a highly enthusiastic par­ticipant. Though many publishers drop­ped out as Vietnam heated up, Doubleday continued to participate at least through 1966, when it published Time correspon­dent Jay Mallin’s Caribbean Crisis: Subversion Fails in the Dominican Re­public. It is just barely possible — though it would require prodigies of naiveté — that neither Kosinski nor Yarmolinsky suspected that “Joseph Novak” was re­ceiving a helping hand from Uncle Sam. Yarmolinsky, carefully drawing no in­ference from the fact, points out that the manuscript “came in clean. There was virtually no editing to be done on it.” Cer­tainly, based on a comparison of Kosinski’s 1959 letters to the Ford Foundation (which he showed us, but refused to let us copy) with the text of the book he allegedly wrote at the same time reveals so vast a gulf in language and style that it appears virtually impossible for him to have written The Future Is Ours, Comrade without substantial editorial help — which, all parties agree, he did’t receive from Doubleday.

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•••

Jerzy Kosinski has a lot of questions to answer. But though he promised effusively at the end of our second interview that he would answer follow-up queries left with his service over the weekend and would even call us on Monday during a change of planes from La Guardia to Kennedy, he did neither.

The silence is not because he takes our probing lightly, however, for a number of the people we talked to over the past few days reported they’d just heard — for the first time in years — from him. He is, I think, right to be worried, for unless he can come up with some answers to the obvious questions, it appears that he has betrayed his own talent along with his craft. No one thinks less of Italo Calvino because he writes in Italian (though one praises his translator, William Weaver), and Italians presumably don’t complain that they get twice-translated Beckett. And even the compositional help, though it is obviously more problematic, would seem less of­fensive if it hadn’t been screened behind a passionate, believable — and therefore ultimately repugnant — wall of denials.

But even without Kosinski’s answers, one can construct a scenario that explains his odd behavior and his contradictory stories — and Novak is at the root of it. Not only did the book bring him considerable wealth, it brought him a wife. In 1960, Mary Weir, the millionaire widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir, wrote “Novak” a fan letter and ultimately married him. When the sequel, No Third Path, which reworked much of the same territory, failed to do as well, Kosinski turned to fiction.

With the success of The Painted Bird, and his wife’s death (and the reversion of her trust to her late husband’s estate), Kosinski was virtually “trapped” into the life of an author — which at least in its talk­show and charm-the-Times aspects, he has carried out with quite spectacular success. But though his work for human rights is unassailable, the books grow worse and worse, the tales of his derring-do more and more farfetched. Finally, without at all forgiving him his lies, one feels sorry for Kosinski.

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•••

“When I was a little girl,” says “Vavara” in No Third Path, “I wanted to learn all I could about the behavior of various animals. I remember how once a group of us kids caught a sparrow in a trap. He struggled with all his might — tiny heart thumping desperately — but I held on tight. We then painted him purple, and I must admit he actually looked much bet­ter — more proud and unusual. After the paint had dried we let him go to rejoin the flock. We thought he would be admired for his beautiful and unusual coloring, become a model to all gray sparrows in the vicinity, and they would make him their king. He rose high and was quickly surrounded by his companions. For a few minutes their chirping grew much louder and then a small object began plummeting earthward. We ran to the place where it fell. In a mud puddle lay our purple sparrow — dead. His blood mingled with the paint … The wa­ter was rapidly turning a brownish-red. He had been killed by the other sparrows, by their hate for color and their instinct of belonging to a gray flock. Then, for the first time, I understood …”

This “nonfictional” account, which eventually became the central metaphor of The Painted Bird, is compelling, but checks with the Museum of Natural His­tory, the Audubon Society, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal no variety of sparrows that would possibly behave in such a way. Besides, as a Fish and Wildlife special agent said, “If you paint a bird, it won’t fly.” ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“After Auschwitz” Looks at Six Women’s Experiences in the Wake of the Holocaust

The structure of After Auschwitz may be simple (talking heads and archival footage), but the cumulative effect of six women revealing the physical, psychological, and emotional toll taken on Holocaust survivors is a powerful testament to individual humanity emerging from inhuman horrors. Director Jon Kean chronicled these same women’s adolescence spent in Nazi concentration camps in his 2007 documentary, Swimming in Auschwitz. Kean’s enlightening follow-up starts in 1945, when the young women (ranging in age from 16 to 23) began to comprehend that the pre-war Jewish life they’d known in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Holland had been obliterated.

They have markedly different perspectives on their shared experiences, starting with liberation. Erika Jacoby recalls the fleeting exhilaration of digging under her camp’s barbed wire fence. Lili Majzner was enraged by the further desecration of mass graves being filled by SS officers. Rena Drexler expresses powerless fury when occupants of her family’s home refused to acknowledge ownership. Tremulous Linda Sherman was freed only after forced labor at a Russian hospital, and resolute Eva Beckmann went to work for a displaced persons organization.

The women describe rage and resignation, and rock-solid marriages built from bone-deep loneliness. All would settle in booming, sunny Los Angeles, but it took decades to begin reconciling the two worlds. When fashion designer Renee Firestone displays a dress with hand-painted vertical stripes in eye-popping colors, its faint echoes of the Nazi camp uniform are overpowered by her joy of creation. If the Holocaust is fading from collective memory, it’s not because survivors have failed to tell their stories. These women’s voices reverberate through the years, vividly recalling the past after long lives they scarcely could have imagined.

After Auschwitz
Directed by Jon Kean
Passion River Films
Opens April 20, AMC Empire 25

 

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

A Naive French Preteen Escapes the Nazis in “A Bag of Marbles”

There’s a chintzy silver lining tacked onto every potentially dark cloud in the cloying French World War II drama A Bag of Marbles, a pseudo-inspiring adaptation of Jewish World War II survivor Joseph Joffo’s partly fictionalized memoir.

Director Christian Duguay (The Art of War, Scanners III: The Takeover) and his four credited co-writers inadvertently trivialize the horror of the Holocaust by constantly surrounding naive French preteen Joseph (Dorian Le Clech) with well-intentioned bystanders and relatives during his two-year cross-country flight from occupying Nazi soldiers.

Viewers consequently never have to wait long before Duguay and his colleagues reassure us that we can trust even sketchy-looking supporting characters like Dr. Rosen (Christian Clavier), an unexpectedly warm Nazi collaborator. Even unshaven, leering bicyclist Raymond (Michaël Erpelding) — a mercenary tour “guide” who only helps Joseph and his older brother Maurice (Batyste Fleurial) cross into France’s southern, relatively neutral “Free Zone” in exchange for 2,000 francs (adjusting for inflation: about $450 today) — inevitably proves to be reliable.

Duguay and the gang also unconvincingly try to sand the edges off of macho authority figures like Joseph’s stern dad, Roman (Patrick Bruel). The tough-loving patriarch showers Joseph with kisses and kind words — “I’m so proud of you, baby. I’ll always be here. Always here in your heart. Always.” That comes shortly after he teaches everyone in his family the importance of hiding their Jewish identities by repeatedly slapping Joseph and yelling, “Are you Jewish?” In real life, Joseph may have made soothing lemonade out of traumatically sour lemons. But this fictionalization just adds sugar.

A Bag of Marbles
Directed by Christian Duguay
Gaumont
Opens March 23, Landmark 57

 

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