The first English translation of renowned Polish novelist Chwin is a portrait of the bitter history of Danzig, the German city in Poland that suffered as much from the peace of 1945 as from the war that preceded it.
Although primarily known in the US today for the Solidarity strikes in its shipyards in the early 1980s that eventually brought down the Communist regime in Poland, Gdansk (formerly Danzig) was a focal point in WWII. A German enclave in the midst of Poland, Danzig was Hitler’s pretext for invasion in 1939—and the city consequently became the site of bitter retribution when nearly all its German nationals were killed or deported in 1945. The author (who lives there today) begins his account in 1945, as the Red Army approaches from the east and most of the citizens scramble to flee for points west. One of these is Professor Hanemann, an anatomy instructor from a distinguished Prussian family that settled in Danzig many generations before. Still grieving over the death of his lover (who drowned when an excursion boat sank in a freak accident), Hanemann can’t bring himself to leave Danzig, and so remains behind to become a kind of stranger in his own house. The narrator is a young man named Piotr whose parents moved to Danzig from Warsaw and took up residence in an apartment just below Hanemann’s. As a boy, Piotr takes German lessons from Hanemann, who is now regarded with great suspicion by the Communist authorities. In Piotr’s eyes, Hanemann becomes a figure from a ghostly, tragic past—just as his parents’ maid Hanka (a suicidal Ukrainian refugee) seems to embody the sorrows of the new order. Eventually, circumstances force both Hanemann and Hanka to make new lives for themselves.
Although Americans may find the historical terrain quite foreign, Chwin’s is a masterful and important work that brilliantly highlights the power of fate and the true anguish it can cause.