Over the recent years, I have developed an interesting new hobby. (Well, I find it interesting.) I prowl through thrift stores in search of forgotten books by forgotten authors. And then I liberate them (usually for a dollar) and read them.
I pass quickly over certain types of books. For instance, I have never bought a 20th or 21st century work of fiction. In my humble opinion as an accomplished literary snob, the last great writer of fiction was Anthony Trollope. (I do not classify Orwell, Huxley, Waugh, or Koestler’s works as quite fiction.)
I do pick up curious books on subjects in which I have neither interest nor background. For instance, I just finished a book called Let’s Talk About Port, by J.C. Valente-Perfeito, published in Portugal in 1948. The author explains the varieties of port, sings (gushes, actually) its praises, and complains of how little his fellow citizens drink of it. He offers eloquent warnings about the modern scourge of cocktail-drinking, and effectively rebuts those medical cranks who claim that alcoholism is a bad thing. I had great fun reading it, and I may even try some of the stuff one of these days.
[UPDATE: Tried it. Never mind.]
But the real goal of my pursuit is a category of books which was invented and flourished in the dreadful 20th century: the survivor’s tale of witness to the inhuman atrocities that reached such a peak (so far) in the recent past.
Some books of witness were instant hits and remained so, despite their crushing intensity. Elie Wiesel’s Night describes Auschwitz and his father’s death there. The Diary of Anne Frank is rightly famous, though I myself have never been able to read more than a few opening pages before dissolving in tears. (I think this is because I have a daughter, and the words always come into my head in my daughter’s voice.)
In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Alexander Solzhenitsyn used a thin veil of fiction to recount a part of his experience in the prison camps of history’s most earnest experiment in “building a better world.” His later massive Gulag Archipelago removed the veil and included more detail that most readers can stand.
In the mid-range stand works which once were read and discussed, and now dot the dustbins. Whittaker Chambers’ aptly named Witness tells of a man whose soul was driven by his embrace of communism into the vicious underworld of espionage against his country. It becomes a story of redemption, as he rejects his past infatuation and attempts, at enormous personal cost, to warn his countrymen of the ugly reality facing them.
Primo Levi’s If This is a Man tells his tale of Auschwitz survival in clinical terms that reflect his scientific background.
Many a bookshelf could be filled with tales from heroic survivors from the dark side of the soul. And most of them would be unknown, unread, unstudied, and out-of-print, available only through Amazon’s used-book network, or (for the lucky treasure hunter) the bins of a Goodwill store.
Who now reads Victor Kravchenko? Peter Deriabin? Jan Valtin? Earl Weinstock?
Viktor Kravchenko’s is an interesting story. He was a Soviet engineer and factory manager, a coddled member of Stalin’s New Class. His book is filled with the chilling details that lay bare the soul-destroying communist system. During WW2 he defected to the US from a trade mission and wrote his story. When it was finally published (I Chose Freedom, 1946) he was blasted by Communists worldwide as a liar and defamer of the Soviet Union. Kravchenko responded by suing a prominent French communist leader for libel. He won, and wrote a second book, I Chose Truth (1950) about the case.
With unimpeachable credibility, Kravchenko exposed the nightmare that it was to live under the Chekists’ never-blinking eye, even for top managers who were never arrested or imprisoned. This book should be the primary text for any serious study of the reality of Soviet life under Stalin.In his second book he unmasked the puppetry whereby supposedly indigenous communist parties existed primarily to serve the demands of one man in the Kremlin.
Peter Deriabin was a KGB bureaucrat, agent, and finally a spy in Austria. He, too, enjoyed the material luxuries the Soviets lavished on the New Class. And he, too, ran for the US at the first opportunity. His book, The Secret World (1959), unveils the State Security apparatus from the agent’s side, and it dovetails with Solzhenitsyn’s victim-view. He gives fascinating insights into the power struggle after Stalin’s death, and dashes the naive hope that the system would then change.
An intriguing tale from another perspective is Jan Valtin’s Out of the Night (1940). He was a German communist organizer and spy; like Chambers, he was a true believer who thought he was empowering the working class and eradicating poverty, only to discover that he was just eradicating the Leader’s enemies and empowering a new class of party functionaries. His description of the tactics used to eliminate non-communist labor leaders is a unique eye-opener by itself.
Earl Weinstock’s case is perhaps saddest of all. A young Rumanian Jew, Weinstock only dreamed of escaping Rumania’s poverty and anti-Semitism by getting out, going anywhere. While he looked to France or Palestine, his mother had one unchanging dream: America. In 1942 Weinstock, his mother and two brothers were sent to German concentration camps, where he survived after seeing his older brother shot, and being forced to shovel in dirt on the open mass grave where he fell. After the war, Rumania went through another hell, this time under their Soviet “liberators.” Weinstock contemplated the difference between the two tyrannies.
“In Transnistria [the German camp] I was a prisoner. I was clothed in rags. I slept on the dirt and potato peels in a barrack of filth and stink. I was given little to eat and I stole food from garbage cans, for which I could have been shot. I saw and heard of murders and atrocities. But my life and my captors made it plain to me that I was a prisoner. Nobody tried to convince me in the middle of all this that I was really free. That made a difference that I could not know then but that I knew now in Iasi [his hometown in Rumania]. I had made up my mind in Transnistria that I could outlast them if they did not shoot me. It wasn’t easy, but filth and hunger and confinement were environments I could adapt to. For those who shared my lot in my barracks would share everything. Our minds were free. We could confide in each other, trust each other…But in Iasi, in 1947…what could I hope for? To whom could I talk and feel safe in so doing? …What and who was I to be? And I was not in a prison and I could not point to anyone who was my captor, but they talked to me of freedom and I was a prisoner.”
He and his aged mother escaped to America in 1949. She died within a year, and he tried to forget the past, but too many ghosts pushed him to tell his story. So he wrote a book, The Seven Years (his life from 1942 to 1949). E.P Dutton published it. It was never re-printed. Amazon lists a single used copy.
I found mine in a Goodwill bin.
Do these books matter? True, many of them had considerable success in opening Western eyes and forcing them to recognize the truth. But many people were able to dismiss all these eye witnesses and their stories as mere propaganda.
After reading Kravchenko no one could seriously doubt the real hell that was life in the Soviet Union, or the truly criminal nature of the worldwide movement that supported it. Yet millions in the West continued to believe that this hell was heaven.
Deriabin demonstrated the intense hyperparanoid terror that was essential to the system’s survival. Yet millions continued to believe that the police state was an aberration of the system, caused by one man’s suspicious nature.
Valtin makes it clear that the Nazis and Communists were history’s ugliest fraternal twins; differing mainly in the effectiveness of the former and the puppet-leadership of the latter. Yet millions continue to believe that while the Nazis were uniquely evil, the communists were well-intentioned reformers who made unfortunate “mistakes”.
And the fashionable deniers of “American exceptionalism” have to figure out a way to debunk the iron determination of Earl Weinstock’s mother, pursuing a lifelong vision of freedom under the Statue of Liberty.
The truth is always worth telling, even if it never finds an audience. And there is value in seeking out these lost truths. Otherwise, too many lives, too much heroism ends up down the Memory Hole.
If you want to read any of these books, your best bet is a university or big-city library, but keep your handkerchief ready for the layer of dust that will cover it. Another source is the Inter-Library Loan system. And, of course, Amazon. And Goodwill.
Let me know what you think of any of these writers, or any other witnesses you come across. Click the “Post a comment” button below.