Of lost countries, families, and causes
Between Two Worlds: The Life of a Young Pole in Russia 1939-46, by K.S. Karol. Translated from the French by Eamonn McArdle. New York: Henry Holt/A New Republic Book. 311 pp. $19.95. Discussing with a sympathetic official his mysterious banishment to a Soviet gulag, K.S. Karol received the following advice: ``Since ... you are neither from here nor there, you would perhaps do better not to make too much of a protest.'' Insofar as Karol was released after a little more than a year and the incident neatly expunged from the written records, this advice may have been quite sensible. The irony implicit in it, however, reflects in miniature one of the central ironies of our century: the plight of the displaced person.
Karol, born in Poland in 1924, became part of a group of patriotic schoolboys determined to defend Poland from the Nazi invaders. With the collapse of Poland's defenses, he sought refuge in the Soviet Union, from which his parents had emigrated after the Bolshevik revolution. Lacking a passport, he was swept up in a mass deportation to western Siberia in 1939. ``Why are you insisting on throwing him overboard from society?'' demands a fellow refugee, who, having a passport, is spared deportation.
Karol, who has already lost an eye during the German invasion, is remarkably resourceful. He escapes from western Siberia, first to Moscow, thence to Rostov-on-the-Don, where his father's sister lives and where he soon blends in. Questions of nationality keep arising, along with questions of political, social, and personal loyalty. He joins the Red Army, is sent to the Caucasus, undergoes a second, unexplained imprisonment in a Volga gulag, is reunited with his friends, but decides, in the end, to return to Poland.
Mr. Karol, currently an editor of Le Nouvel Observateur in Paris, recounts his adventures with a jaunty, almost picaresque air, rather in the mode of Dumas, p`ere. Indeed, young Karol and his Cossack friends see themselves as ``musketeers,'' and in prison, Karol manages to regale fellow inmates by improvising stories based on the plot of ``The Count of Monte Cristo.'' Yet, blending in with these elements of 19th century romance is a story of our century: of a young man placed in the crucible of a country invaded from both sides who is faced with a decision he cannot avoid making between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia.
While some members of Karol's family (most notably his mother) have been completely disillusioned by the course of communism taken in the Soviet Union, other family members contend that the communists, despite their faults, are preferable to the Nazis. The latter becomes young Karol's working hypothesis (fittingly, his personal hero seems to have been Winston Churchill). Nor do his subsequent experiences in the Soviet Union alter his perception of an important difference between the two evils of Nazism and communism, even though these experiences include two deportations to the Gulag, many encounters with Soviet anti-Semitism (although raised an atheist, Karol is ethnically Jewish), and the slowly dawning knowledge of Stalin's genocidal deportations of millions of ``suspect'' (non-Russian) nationalities, Moslem, Central Asian, Volga German.
But Karol's experiences are still more than enough to make him unwilling to remain in the Soviet Union, despite the many friends he has made during his stay, the camaraderie of men and the generosity and charm of the women. Displacement, as we discover, not only means having no firm ground on which to stand, but also involves the mental turmoil of not knowing where to take one's stand in a century of lost countries, lost families, lost ideologies, and lost causes.