Louis Begley's novel, Wartime Lies, is set during the German invasion of Poland in World War II. After the Nazis take over their town and send them to a ghetto, Maciek-a young Jewish boy-and his family must to take on new identities in order to survive the German occupation. The family is forced to separate and only Maciek and his aunt Tania are left together, posing as a widowed mother and her son while they travel through Poland looking for refuge.
I don't tend to dwell much on my ethnic background. I'm an American. I was born in America, as were my parents and my parent's parents. Still, if you ask me what nationalities I am, I'll tell you. I'm half Polish, with the other half being mostly Irish, with some English, and Welsh. I don't look stereotypically Polish or Irish, and both my families come from Christian backgrounds, so I don't look Jewish. I've never been to any of these countries, I don't speak their languages, and I'm not particularly well versed in their histories. I'm just your average American, with a very Polish last name, Zakrzewski. My family simplified the pronunciation to "Za-crew-ski," though it sounds quite different in Polish. I'd like to know more about my family's background and what brought both branches here to America. I could ask my Grandmothers and I know they'd tell me, but it just isn't something that we seem to talk about in my family. Out of the two countries, I probably know the least about Poland. If my last named started with "Mc" or "Mac" maybe I wouldn't care as much, but since I'll always be identified first as Polish, I have some deep, unfulfilled interest in this nation.
It's not everyday I read about Poland. I've learned about World War II, and the atrocities of the Holocaust. I know about Germany's invasion of Poland and of Auschwitz, but it's all textbook knowledge and documentaries from the Discovery Channel. Most of the information I know is cold and sterile. As someone who wasn't born until 1981, the closest thing I can get to a first hand experience is usually from a survivor of a concentration camp. Rarely does myself-or anyone for that matter-get a fist hand look at what it was to live during these times, outside the nazi camps and Jewish ghettos. Bagley does a fine job in showing us what it meant to be a Jew in Poland during World War II from a perspective greatly different from those poor souls who ended up in Hitler's death camps.
Like Dante's pseudo-self in his Divine Comedy, Maciek-the hero of Bagley's tale-wanders around his own hell with his aunt Tania as a protector and guide. Just like Dante, Maciek is immune to the actual terrors of the German invasion, due to his forged documents stating he is of Aryan decent, and must travel through his ravished homeland as an outsider observing the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Since Maciek is only one person, the purpose of his journey isn't to change his homeland. His task is to inform the rest of his country, and the world, of what actually occurred in Poland, so that it can hopefully never happen again. He is merely a tool used to relate these horrors.
As I've already said, I know very little about Poland and its people. Most of what I do know centers around the county's tendency to be conquered by other nations, but probably the most widely known chapter in Poland's history occurred during the Nazi Holocaust. Bagley's novel is the first time I've every encountered these events related from an objective view. This book has given me a better understanding of what actually transpired during the German occupation then any other source I've ever encountered. Wartime Lies not only gives us a chronological history of events, but also an emotional history of a person who lived through them. This marriage of history and personal exploration paints a more vivid picture then any textbook or documentary could.
Even after the war, Maciek and the remains of his family still lived under false pretenses, fearing what still might occur if their Jewish heritage were discovered. While I have no fear of others knowing I'm Polish, in some ways I understand the feeling of not being true to ones background. While I don't attempt to hide my ethnic background, I make no strides in exposing it either. If anything, Bagley has not only kindled in me a desire to learn more about my own family and nationality, but his book has also given me a new perspective on events that I thought I knew all to well.