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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History as remembered, March 22, 2006
This review is from: My Century (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Aleksander Wat created this exceptional memoir solely by talking to Czeslaw Milosz during one year in Berkeley in the sixties. The memories of Wat (at that time already ill and very depressed) together with questions put to him by Milosz, a Nobel Prize winning poet and novelist, formed a unique book (in Poland circulated illegally for a long time and extremely popular).

Both Wat and Milosz went through the communist system and opposed it at the end, but Milosz early on chose emigration, leaving Poland initially for France and then for the US, while Wat, initially believing in The Party and the power of the working class, suffered the full impact of the machine. He tells the story of his enthusiastic youth, describes his fellow poets and writers, then moves on to his arrest and moving through Soviet prisons, without a trial for a long time, recalling other inmates and their stories, the methods for survival, the thoughts and torments. Then, finally moved to the work camp, he depicts in acute detail the life of the families and their struggle for sanity.

The New York Review of Books edition contains also the memoir of Ola (Paulina) Wat, Aleksander's wife, who supported him throughout his ordeal.

Although there are many books of experiences of the communist camps and especially the tortures of the intellectuals, who were torn between the idea of communism and its soon obvious wrong, every witness has eyes of their own and Wat, with his Jewish background and the soul of a Polish artist, makes his own, original statement.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Keeping the Memory Green, January 28, 2004
Buce (Palookaville) - See all my reviews
This review is from: My Century (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Andre Malraux wrote that only three books -- Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote and The Idiot--retained their truth for those who had seen prisons and concentration camps (see: Les Noys de l'Altenburg (Paris 1948)). It's an odd remark--what did he mean, "seen"? Suffered in? Or watched newsreel footage on the History Channel? One cannot escape the conviction that Malraux is trying to hype the aroma of glamour around his own life.
But this is a distraction. The question is: I wonder what he thinks of the extraordinary array of "witness literature" from Europe beginning, perhaps, with Dostoevsky's "House of the Dead" and ending (one may hope?) with Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago."
In this chorus, Aleksander Wat's "My Century" stands as a luminous example. Wat was a Pole: Jewish by background but at last a convert to Christianity. He was a poet and a "literary person" before and after World War II. Along the way, he spent time in 13 (or was it 14?) different prisons, all simply for being who he was."
His "memoir" is not precisely something he "wrote." Wat spent the year 1964-5 in Berkeley. There he fell in with Czeslaw Milosz, a great poet in his own right. Largely with the encouragement of Milosz, he "dictated" his story in a series of interviews which have been somewhat recast for this book. It's just as harrowing as you would expect it to be it has its uplifting side, driven by Wat's amazing inner resouurces: one thing about a good education, it gives you stuff to think about in Prison. And even at the worst, his sense of humor does not fail him. He recounts the story of the citizens of Bukhara, who surrendered to Ghengis Khan--only to have Ghengis Khan order their massacre. As Ghengis Khan explained to the elders:
"You must have sinned greatly against God if he sent Ghengis Khan down on you!"
Aside from Wat's own story, the NYRB edition includes an astonishing narrative by his wife, recounting a particularly dreadful chapter in her own prison years.
There is a promising-looking biography by Tomas Venclova, but I haven't read it. Wat died in 1967, I believe (though I can't seem to pin this down) a suicide.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Explanation of the Politcal Division in 20th Century Poland and Russia, November 15, 2007
This review is from: My Century (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
Though it is only one man's view, the book provides a good explanation for why communism never took off in popularity in Poland like it did in Russia. An interesting account of the political currents in independent Poland between the world wars. Also an interesting account of life in the gulags and the places people scattered to, like Khazikstan, when World War II broke out. There must be countless stories like this one, that will never be heard about. I also very much liked Milosz's Legends of Modernity, and Wat's experience truly augmented that read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book of Many Heroes Destroyed by Stalinism, January 28, 2013
This review is from: My Century (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
My Century is a memoir based on lengthy warts-and-all tape-recorded conversations between Aleksander Wat and Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Poet, in Berkeley and Paris in 1964-1965 towards the end of Wat's life.

Wat was the founder of the communist leaning "Literary Journal" in Poland at the end of the 1920s. As Milosz says in his foreword, "there are many heroes in this book" and while talking about his own experiences Wat pays tribute to them all. Wat began life in a genteel assimilated, intellectual environment in Warsaw,the descendant of an old and distinguised Jewish family. In "My Century" he describes how many of his intellectual friends from Warsaw were ground down and destroyed by Stalinism. He tells the story of how the Polish communist party was eliminated, and why, and how he himself became an anti-communist and converted to Christianity, after a night in prison in which he was convinced he had seen the devil. The book contains some memorable, terrible descriptions of wartime prisons: Zamarstynow in Lwow, the Lubyanka in Moscow, Saratov... He also recounts his many meetings; with the "Old Communists" who had helped bring Lenin to power and who had fallen victim to the great purge in 1937; and the "Urks", the common criminals who could make life hell for the intellectuals and political prisoners. Wat never goes in for anti-Russian sentiment and in fact mentions the acts of kindness he received from ordinary Russian guards and even NKVD interrogators.

Wat, unfortunately, did not have the time to finish telling the story of his life to Milosz. The final chapter in the book is written by Wat's wife, Ola. In it she describes how Wat was befriended, and most probably saved, by an "Urk" into whose cell he was thrown when he was leading Polish (mostly exiled Polish-Jewish) resistance against the NKVD "passportization" campaign, in Kazakhstan in 1943, during which the aim was to force Poles to switch to Soviet Russian citizenship.

The last paragraph of Aleksander Wat's section of the book ends, "If it hadn't been for the kindness, the warmth that those people, those Orthodox Jews (in Kazakhstan), showed to me, a "meches", a converted Jew.... They didn't know whether I had been baptized or not. I never talked about it. But I wore a cross. Later on, when we were in revolt (against accepting Soviet passports) and were under arrest together, it was so hot that I took off my shirt. And yet I was the leader of those pious Jews in prison, me, a Jew with a cross around my neck."

In the years immediately after WWII, Wat's poetry became very influential among the younger Poles.

I place the book right up there, with Grossman's Life and Fate.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Endek Nonhostility. Communist-Related Personages. Unfounded Anti-Semitism in Anders Army. Kielce Pogrom Staged, June 11, 2013
This review is from: My Century (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
The author, a Communist, had a large number of opinions of various prominent individuals and nationalities. Since the reader is likely to be unfamiliar with many of the personages mentioned, a biographical glossary is provided in the back of the book.

Aleksander Wat was a nonobservant Jew. Wat's father had been a Hasid and Cabalist [Kabbalist]. However, the father not inculcate this in his children. Wat's siblings were atheists, and that created the environment in which Aleksander grew up in. (p. 95, 153, 293). Otherwise, the 1920's-era children of religious Jews, as young as five or six, "begin memorizing whole pages not of the Bible but of the Talmud with all its casuistry." (p. 68).

Interestingly, Wat, a Jew, did not experience unilateral hostility from Endeks. Far from it. In describing his life in Poland in the 1930's, Wat reported that, (quote) And so personally I never felt any anti-Semitism on my own hide--but what does that prove? I had good relations with a great many NDs [National Democrats, or Endeks], old NDs. A few of them looked askance at me, but those were rather the young ones. (unquote)(p. 90).

Wat gives many details on his experiences while a deportee in the Soviet Union during WWII. He realizes that the Soviet authorities had balked at allowing Jews to join Anders' Army. (p. 340). He also notes that the post-"amnesty" disparate treatment, by some Poles against Jews, did not necessarily owe to anti-Semitism. He describes his investigation of a Polish delegate, who allegedly had made anti-Semitic remarks, as follows, (quote) And the delegate said, `Yes, I did give the Jews less than the Poles, but not because they're Jews'...He gave the Jews less, sometimes considerably less, because the Jews had come there mainly from settlements, and they were in quite bearable condition. Some even had some capital. This was confirmed. The Polish families, however, were mostly people who'd been in the camps or the widows of men who'd died in the camps...My conclusion was that the accusations of abuses and discrimination against Jews had not proved true. (unquote)(p. 342).

In an interview with Czeslaw Milosz, Aleksander Wat shared his suspicion that the Kielce Pogrom had been a Soviet provocation. Wat commented, (quote) He [Spychaj] was in charge of Kielce in 1946 when the pogrom took place there...On the basis of what I've heard from many quarters, the pogrom was launched--launched isn't the word, more like provoked--by the Kielce security forces (there wasn't a policeman in sight that day). Spychaj was in charge of these forces. It should be remembered that Spychaj had an older brother in the NKVD who hadn't returned to Poland. This is all conjecture of course but the instructions must have come from the Soviets. In other words, the younger Spychaj was acting on orders...Spychaj was supposed to stand trial but was transferred instead. And sometime in 1956 or 1956 when Poland started letting the first Jews to emigrate to Israel, that same Spychaj was in charge of the security department that issued visas to the Jews. As an expert in such matters. (unquote)(p. xxviii).

Aleksander Wat came to see Communism and Nazism as having many similar gestalts. (p. 83). He also noted the irony of Communism relying on many of the same scapegoats (e. g, "enemies of the people") once used against Jews. (p. 201).
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My Century (New York Review Books Classics)
My Century (New York Review Books Classics) by Aleksander Wat (Paperback - December 31, 2003)
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