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The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe Paperback – January 21, 2014

3.7 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A generation has passed since the overthrow (or perhaps implosion) of the Communist regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. For many in the West, the images seen on television remain vivid and joyful: hopeful Czech students speaking of a new era during their Velvet Revolution, the shocked face of Ceausescu as a supposedly programmed crowd jeers him, and, of course, Germans from both sides of the crumbling wall embracing each other. But, as this brilliant and haunting work proves, the past is neither dead nor buried, especially for those who lived through the Communist era and their descendants. Shore has utilized a wide array of sources, including her own experiences, interviews with party members and ordinary citizens, and government archives. The result is an often devastating portrait of societies struggling to come to terms with their past. Communists and former Communists are sometimes defensive and sometimes remorseful. Former dissidents take pride in their triumph, while youths wonder how their parents could have endured or even participated in such spirit-smothering totalitarianism. This is an an outstanding retrospective. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“For people familiar with Eastern Europe, Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes is, in spite of its subject matter, delicious.  A professor at Yale with much experience in Eastern Europe, she writes with great sureness of touch, weaving personal recollections with intellectual commentary, and ideas with emotions, including her own.” —Norman Davies, The New York Review of Books

[Shore] has found a way to illuminate certain Polish and Jewish ideas about the worst episodes of the twentieth century that is frank, fresh, and gripping.” —Christopher Caldwell, The New Republic

“Closely observed moments like these are little treasures, and make you wish more academics were willing to dip into their personal experiences.” —Adam Hochschild, New York Times Book Review

“[A] lapidary memoir of a two-decade encounter with the region…. Shore is a confident guide through this ‘desperately complicated’ terrain.” Wall Street Journal

“Her kaleidoscopic book of reminiscences and encounters gives an authentic feel to the difficulties that outsiders often have in making sense of this intricate history.” The Economist

"Her fine book is a very personal account of the people that she came to know in eastern Europe after the end of Soviet domination in 1989… The novelty of Shore’s approach lies in her focus on the families of Poland’s Stalinists." Financial Times

"Part-memoir, part-intellectual history, Shore’s book follows her journey into the heart of the Polish and Czech intelligentsia, exploring their reactions to and involvement in the Holocaust, the purges and the revolutions that dominate 20th century Eastern European history….poignant and thought-provoking." Sunday Times

“A surprising and even revolutionary way to write history....A Taste of Ashes is rich with incident, recollection and conversation, a memoir of the author’s long endeavor to understand in human terms the ideas and events that are the raw material of intellectual history....A masterpiece." Jewish Journal

“Brilliant and perceptive….[The Taste of Ashes] is not a conventional history, with a straight narrative, though it tells an important story about the legacy of the three utopian ideas of the 20th century – Fascism, Communism and Zionism – that transformed Europe.  It is part memoir, part reportage, a treatise on the philosophy of history, and part romance written with lyrical beauty in places….There’s an interesting and original idea on almost every page.” The Spectator

“By sharing the emotional fervor of her many, often deep personal relationships with eastern Europeans, formed during ten years of travel and research in the region, Shore gets at the agony and guilt felt by some and the sublimation resorted to by others….[She] gives depth to this searching, personalized account by weaving into her story brief but deft and unobtrusive elements of historical context.” Foreign Affairs

“[A] beautifully written, brilliantly perceptive, and often moving book….Structured like a piece of travel literature, with loosely connected chapters based around her visits, it is packed with anecdotes and humour and is extremely readable.  But the informality is deceptive, for she always brings her scholar’s eye to her experiences and encounters, using them to illuminate the big historical questions of this troubled region….I cannot think of any [histories of communist eastern Europe] that succeed so well as this in communicating the ways in which individuals responded to both communism and its legacy.  In combining subtle historical judgments with literary flair, Shore has produced a masterpiece.” BBC History Magazine

“Lively and interesting” Washington Times

“Intimate and penetrating….Particularly remarkable is the book’s unabashed honesty, rare for a work of its type.  A flowing, conversational memoir, this is not simply a survey of post-communist Eastern Europe, but the story of a young scholar’s acculturation through path-beating travel and intimate human interaction….Marci Shore has produced an excellent exploration into the essence of the modern Eastern European in an era of significant change - some have adapted, some have yet to, and some never will.” The Vienna Review

“Disturbing and enlightening, Shore’s book of many voices paints an enormously complex picture that befits its subject.” —Jweekly.com

“As this brilliant and haunting work proves, the past is neither dead nor buried, especially for those who lived through the Communist era and their descendants….An outstanding retrospective.” Booklist

“A mix of memoir, travelogue, and philosophical treatise, [The Taste of Ashes] is above all an anthropological study of a people living in a world obscured by cobwebs, more mindful of yesterday than today, where the future cannot be realized until the deaths of all those who witnessed the abyss.” Publishers Weekly

“Shore gathers reflections of her intellectual journeys through the deeply scarred, still-grieving lands of Eastern Europe from the mid-1990s to the present….A fascinating grab bag of the author’s dogged research and personal interviews.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Diving through the kaleidoscope of betrayal that exists alongside the tourist lands of Krakow and Prague, Marci Shore talked to people the rest of us are content to forget, though once, not so long ago, we hung on their every word. Excavating the strata of their guilt and complicity in the crimes of Hitler and Stalin both, we confront over and over that most fundamental 20th century question: What would you do when asked to betray your neighbor?  The answer can only consist of further questions, and, luckily for her subject, Shore is a relentless interlocutor.”
Tom Reiss, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Black Count and The Orientalist

“Marci Shore has written a one-of-a-kind book - a personal, intellectual, literary and historical tour of contemporary central Europe - with something in it for anyone who wants to understand this fascinating part of the world.” —Anne Applebaum, author of Iron Curtain and Gulag

“With deep respect for what the historian can and cannot know and what the witness can and cannot share, Marci Shore has achieved something rare: a narrative history that is also a philosophy of history.  Her subject is Eastern Europe in the aftermath of  the Holocaust and Stalinism, but her stories of people and places – tragic, ironic, carnavalesque – have a universal appeal.” —Alice Kaplan, author of Dreaming in French

The Taste of Ashes is about more than the floodwaters of history; it's the story of those who learned to swim, those who didn't, and those still adapting to an era of accelerated change. This is a brilliant, lyrical and gripping book, one woven from stories that will linger in the minds of readers for years to come.” —Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (January 21, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307888827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307888822
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #632,608 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book is a little hard to describe. The framework is the author's travels through Eastern Europe; her discussions with Eastern Europeans about their lives, their parents' lives, their grandparents' lives, their children's lives, and so forth (both there and at home in America); and her studies in the archives of Eastern Europe.

On the one hand she uses this approach to provide a window into how people lived and suffered under communism in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, she uses visits to archives or talks with long-sought subjects to launch into her theories of the relevant history.

While, in part, the book is about the Eastern European experience as a whole, it is also focused on the Jewish experience in particular. And not just after the war, but also before and during the war. It also has a focus on the Poles, but beyond that the Poles who were Jews, and those who weren't.

For example, the Warsaw Ghetto rose against the Germans in 1943, and the "Poles" watched as the Jews were killed or transported. In 1944 the rest of Warsaw rose against the Germans. Entreaties to Britain and America for help were politely rebuffed. The Red Army sat across the river and watched the Germans destroy Warsaw; then, when it was over, they marched in and took the ruins.

An important theme of the book is Shore's assessment of the common roots of Zionism and Communism. This is the subject of the middle and longest chapter of the book, and something she researches during her peregrinations through Eastern Europe. The kibbutzim and the collective arose from the same social environment in Eastern Europe, with Jews at the core of each movement. In building a new culture, the Zionists suppressed Yiddish, the language of the old world.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As the author says, "This is a deeply subjective book."

Professor Shore does not pretend to track or explain the full aftermath of totalitarianism in east Europe (as implied in the subtitle to this book). Instead it is more of a memoir of her life from her student days to the near present and the people she meets and finds of interest.

Given her interests and travels, these people tend to be Polish, Jews, European intellectuals, former communists. While this makes for often interesting reading, it is by no means a normal academic history of all the peoples of the area harmed by the USSR and its malevolent creed.

Informing on one's friends, standing by Stalin, and yet being bright and wanting a better world is the territory covered; along with the aftermath--what to do now that this secular and controlling god--communism--is dead.

Readers interested in this general subject may also enjoy the very good "Reflections of Prague" by Ivan Margolius (2006). (His mother and father are mentioned in Professor Shore's book.)
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The book reports on the numerous interactions the Author had with participants of the democratic opposition against the communist rule in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, Chech Republic and Slovakia. I found especially interesting the description of the role of Jewish communists in first establishment and then overthrow of the Communist role in Poland.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very well written book. Well written and well researched. However, as for the content, I can't remember reading a more hauntingly depressing book since, perhaps, "Angela's Ashes". It must certainly be the reality of life in Prague and Warsaw after the wall came down in November 1989. Can one ignore reality? Only if one is ignorant of the reality. And since Ms. Shore has written this book, we can no longer claim ignorance. For things to become better and the outlook and psychology of these former Soviet Bloc locales sunnier, then the author claims, the old generation who experienced the horrors of WWII Naziism and the Stalinist horror that replaced it, must die away. In a middle-book chapter wherein the author is describing a cold, gray day in Warsaw, she confesses she loves "bleak". I have to say that I do not. And, I doubt that most readers will either. While well researched and well written, this book will despress you. Perhaps we need that. After all this, I must confess the book is well worth reading. For reality's sake.
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Professor Shore's book is unique, to my knowledge, in weaving her experiences as a student of Eastern European history and languages with an accessible but impressively researched account of Eastern and Central Europe since the Great Depression. She tells of encounters and interviews with the surviving figures and their children in a riveting way that presents both a human and scholarly look at totalitarianism and its effects. Finally, I cannot imagine a more fair examination of the experience of Jews in post-war Communist Eastern Europe. I have not read anyone else able to present the suffering on all sides without diminishing the suffering of anyone.
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Format: Hardcover
The Taste of Ashes is really two books. In the first half Professor Marci Shore describes circumstances in post-communist Czechoslovakia (Czech and Slovak Republics) and Romania by sharing her professional experiences and personal relationships (the dust jacket calls it a narrative history) in those countries during the difficult transition to democracy. As might be expected, freedom brought a new set of problems and some of the most ardent anti-communist dissenters floundered after 1989. Many became disillusioned with "valueless" Western capitalism. In some quarters of Eastern Europe there are even those who desire a return to 1930s-style ultra-nationalism (in Poland it's closer to clerico-fascism).

In the second half Shore focuses almost exclusively on Poland and the journey of Polish-Jewish communists from hard-core Stalinists to embittered exiles, victims of the anti-Semitic 1968 purge. It was the children of the Jewish Stalinists who would led the 1968 anti-government student protest, paving the way for Solidarity. I'm an enthusiastic student of Polish-Jewish relations so I enjoyed Shore's tangential odyssey but other readers who are expecting a more generalized Eastern European treatment, as the title might lead one to believe, may not be quite as pleased. But three cheers to Professor Shore for calling out the Polish Catholic nationalists AKA clerico-fascists and their favorite apologist, Marek Chodakiewicz. Shore's assessment of Polish Catholic anti-Semitism is notably more critical than anything I've read from her husband, Professor Timothy Snyder.
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