Vol 2, No 4
31 January 2000
B O O K R E V I E W:
School of the Godless
ISBN 83-7006-804-9 (Polish)
Wilhelm Dichter's God's Horse (KoÅ„ Pan Boga) was one of the literary events of 1996. Dichter, associated for the whole of his life with the sciences, made his debut at the age of 60 with this autobiographical novel. The sequel - School of the Godless (SzkoÅ‚a bezboÅ¼nikÃ³w) - is, in my opinion, even more interesting, taking place at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s in Warsaw - times that I sometimes believe I remember, despite the physical impossibility of doing so.
Both books are written in the same manner with the narration being provided from the perspective of a child. A young Jewish boy consciously lives through the war and the deaths of his loved ones. His family comes from BorysÅ‚aw, changes hiding places, even living in a well for a time. After the war a radical change occurs: from being the persecuted and disdained they suddenly become the privileged. The step-father works in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the mother can shop at stores sheltered behind yellow curtains and the boy is driven to school by the official car [known as the "democracy"]. In School of the Godless we observe the boy's intellectual maturing, which allows itself to be influenced by ideology. Watching this process can be fascinating. We see how the young intellect absorbs an ideological view of the world (and later tries to overcome it) and how this knowledge helps him come to terms with his Jewishness.
During the war the boy feared children far more than adults. After the war he remains wary of his contemporaries. He is ashamed of his physical appearance and fantasises that he is "not who he is." For the best part of his childhood he did not have any friends, because he didn't play ball, didn't swim, and was a little chubby; he only read and drew pictures of people. His Jewishness stopped being a problem for his contemporaries only when he found himself in the Workers' Society's "Friends of the Children of Å»oliborz" [a district of Warsaw] school that some characterised as a "droplet of socialism." The "School of the Godless" finally allowed him to emerge from isolation, to feel like everybody else. Many people went through the "Friends of Children" schools and generally have rather fond memories. This is not due to indoctrination but rather because a significant number of exceptional pre-war teachers worked in them. Dichter writes pointedly about his Latin teacher and in an interview with Rzeczpospolita (6.6.1999) he added that she was in fact Antonin Liber's mother.
In school no one spoke about Jewish subjects, but in contrast they are discussed non-stop in the boy's home. A tight group of family and friend (all Jewish) took part in these discussions and they were divided into two sides: pro and anti-Communist. Mr. Rosenthal, an old Communist, had the greatest influence over the boy. He presents him with visions of the "mechanism of events" as in a Swiss watch, describing how events arose as a result of the movement of the cogs and wheels of history. Rosenthal exposed the boy to the advantages of universalist thinking and the necessity of dialectical upheavals. In his manner he resolved "relevant universal riddles," presumably the preoccupation of youth, and it is perhaps this that so appealed to the boy: "I thought of assimilation, class struggles, atheism and memory - of everything at once. I separated these thoughts like copper wires from an old coil, but the coil kept tangling."
We witness the internal battle that goes on within the boy. The truths are represented by those who debate while gathered around the well laden table: "Maybe emigration?" - says the step-father's brother, "they don't like us here" - adds the mother, "the river of history will rinse away anti-semitism" - soothes the step-father. "I smelled schnitzels cooking and my head was cleared of all thoughts. Others also glanced in the direction of the kitchen." Dichter's descriptions of homey-domestic scenes are very expressive, and from them emerges a keenly observed figure: the boy's mother. It is this portrait and the whole domestic sphere in this tale that demonstrates perhaps something significant for those times. (It is in this manner that I imagine the atmosphere in my grandparents' home - an engineer's family). The boy's mother seems to be a psychological type very much shaped by her times: living with a sense of isolation, clinging to the pre-war past, not comfortable in her life and time, and on the other hand doing very well in life. I found a dialogue in Dichter's work in which I see my own grandmother, the wife of an engineer:
Dichter's tale didn't only win me over because its family nostalgia. What is also striking is the keen observation of details. The whole time the boy draws little people, and the whole story is somehow sketched with this pencil, effectively conveying small things. The boy absorbs new knowledge, but it is precisely in the details that something does not quite fit for him: how is it possible that a new organism can grow from a dismembered jelly-fish? - his imagination rebels. The framework that Rosenthal introduces into the boy's head begins to sway. Many factors contribute to this: first of all literature, mainly that of the master of details, Flaubert. Minute descriptions of the streets of Paris, just as the multi-paged, detailed portraits of people, show the boy a truer world. The mandatory biography of Marchelewski in the school curriculum can't stand up to this kind of competition - it falls out of the hands of the boy who is falling asleep.
Editor's Note: This review was first published in the Polish on-line book review weekly Latarnik, supported by the publishing house Proszynski i s-ka. CER would like to thank Latarnik for granting permission to reprint this review.
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