jueves, 3 de julio de 2008

Ashes To The Vistula by Bill Copeland

“The insanity of war has robbed me of everything I knew and loved.” These are the words of Filip Stitchko, a Pole, a concentration camp kapo, an overseer, a policeman in Auschwitz. And, by the time the reader has reached the end of Filip’s story in Ashes To The Vistula by Bill Copeland, those words emerge with poignancy, irony and inescapable truth intermingled.

Ashes To The Vistula, at first sight, is a wartime memoir of an innocent victim. But, in war, who is not innocent? And who is not a victim? Equally, who is innocent? As a result of mere circumstance Filip finds himself appointed to a position of responsibility within the concentration camp. He happened to be in a certain place when the Second World War broke out. Filip was in Poland, a country that was squeezed by a partially-shared conspiracy in 1939. Whilst fascists moved east, professed socialists moved west and the state that was created to keep the eagle from the bear imploded. An elder brother, an officer, probably travelled, defeated, to Katyn where history disputed precisely whose guns, whose motives perpetrated a slaughter of Polish officers. Those left behind at the time, such as Filip and the younger Jakub knew nothing of the elder brother’s fate.

This is one of the strengths of Bill Copeland’s book. It has an immediacy, a present that it is uncomplicated by received hindsight. On many issues, Bill Copeland leaves the jury out, enabling the reader to empathise with the dilemmas that confronted wartime and immediate post-war experience. This is the book’s subtlety. Though it is primarily plot led, the plot is genuinely surprising, ultimately engaging and, in a few late chapters, both confronts and rounds off several themes that the reader has registered throughout the narrative.

Central to the book’s purpose is the relationship of dependence, ultimately inter-dependence between Filip, the privileged concentration camp policeman, and Jakub, a Jewish-named gentile, a slow-witted permanent child whose safety has been entrusted to the older Filip. Through the prosecution of his duty, Filip is revealed to be not only a protector, not only a survivor, but also ultimately a compassionate companion and overseer, despite the fact that both circumstance and insanity conspire against both young men. Filip is no saint, make no mistake, but there is an underlying reason for his excesses.

Ashes To The Vistula in essence is an anti-war book. In it the reader is presented with thousands of people who suffer the consequences of conflict. None of them have been protagonists, none of them have sought gain or power, except, of course, over their peers once they have been pitted against them as their competitors and antagonists.

This is where we find the book’s tragedy. That war kills, that war kills innocents, that war creates potential for corruption and duplicity, all these are givens. But war also creates insanity, an insanity that affects all involved, where the need to punish someone, anyone, for one’s own arbitrary suffering might override rationality, evidence or even experience. And perhaps, given that insanity, the need to expunge the inexplicable is greater than the need to seek explanation, since, when threatened, we all react before we think.

Ashes To The Vistula by Bill Copeland is an unusual and moving study of one aspect of World War Two. It has an immediacy and a clarity that bring the history of its setting completely to life.

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Ashes To The Vistula

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