on 26 April 2016
I finally got around to reading the full book version of what began as a play which won a Fringe First at a recent Edinburgh Festival. Matthew Zajac, the author, was its only actor (with a musician) and its director with Dogstar Theatre Company and no, I didn't see it, though I have watched a tantalisingly brief clip from a videoed performance on YouTube. The book also deserves some kind of award, perhaps one for casting a light on Poland before and after its period of Stalin-imposed communism, or perhaps for showing the readers just how immensely tangled the politics of Galicia is and was. An analogy could be made between Galicia and a part of the world where tectonic plates meet, bringing upheaval, death and destruction, and there was plenty of all that in the twentieth century. The area's overseers included the Poles, the Russian Empire (Tsarist and Soviet), the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis and sometimes even the people who lived there - and who live there still - Ukrainians who were - and are, not surprisingly - of various faiths, loyalties and languages. This book contains plenty of musing on the politics and history of the past, but it is a long, long way from being a diatribe or a dry, dispassionate analysis: it is the opposite. The author was brought up in Aberdeen with a Scottish mother and a Polish father. His viewpoint is very personal. He writes about his emotional voyages of discovery, in an intelligent but unadorned style, usually as if he is speaking to us in an intimate space, like a small theatre, and the tone is that of someone who had to get something out of his system and wants to tell us about it.
His father Mateusz (Polish version of Matthew) told his son and others that he had arrived in Britain after the Second World War after being associated with the Free Polish Army, the ones who managed to make it to Britain, the heroic allies who flew Spitfires and reached the top of Monte Cassino, the monastery in Italy where many, Polish and non-Polish, met their deaths. His son did not question his account too closely for years, but at one stage recorded his father's reminiscences - about life in Poland, the war and his early experiences in Scotland. The transcriptions are in the book, and it is easy to hear his Scots-inflected voice. The typed-up versions date from four years after his death, and Matthew was starting to think that some things did not add up - he remembers that his mother was agitated when he was recording. He also remembers the trips by car to visit relatives in Poland in the sixties, when the country was slowly unfreezing from the Stalinist period, when he became acquainted with simple country food, witnessed farm life, and watched as his father engaged in vodka-driven sessions talking about friends lost in the war in conversations he did not understand. It was a real long-drawn-out pain to cross a border, life was spartan, the authorities very repressive, with a wtyczka (plug-in = informant) in most meetings and an odd monetary system in which American dollars had a kind of luxury cachet. I recognised plenty of aspects, having visited Poland (wife is Polish) many times myself, beginning in the eighties. After the end of communism in the country, Matthew visited again, to check the accounts in the tapes and other things not previously questioned. He found much more than he had expected, discovering many disparities in his father's versions of what had happened after 1939 and uncovering many forgotten and half-forgotten stretches of history in and close to Galicia - or rather in the present-day Ukraine, the product of post-war border re-drawings, easier to travel to nowadays, just a short flight away from Warsaw airport. His most significant discovery was of a previously unknown branch of his family, including a sister, all of whom had not been mentioned before.
He found that his father had worn military uniforms which he had not cared to mention because of the "never look back" attitude he had adopted in Scotland, relatively tolerant and democratic Scotland, where people are not so often murdered for their beliefs and affiliations, the uniforms of not only the Red Army but also the German Army. Confusing? Embarrassing? Hard to explain? His son makes the attempt: in many situations in the early forties it could have been, as the mafia might put it, an offer that was impossible to refuse. For example, huge numbers of Soviet (that includes Ukrainian) prisoners of war were just fenced off in camps where they were not fed, left to starve to death. Those who agreed to wear the uniform got a meal. On the other hand, some Ukrainians joined the Nazis (for example the Galician SS) willingly, thinking it might lead to national independence and freedom from Russian domination. The author looks at the background - a place where villages were often divided between Polish and Ukrainian speakers, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, extremist, easy-going and so on. He is shocked and as diplomatic as possible when he encounters deeply-seated anti-semitism at a theatre festival in present-day Ukraine, and he is overwhelmed by the final emotional reunions.
There is a useful glossary of Polish and Ukrainian terms and place names at the back of the book. The native village of Mateusz is known in Polish as Gnilowody near the town of Podhajce in the Tarnopol region, and in Ukrainian (using Roman alphabet) as Hnilowody near the town of Pidhaitsi in the Ternopil region. So similar! So many things in common!