By the Moon and the Stars
Random Century, $24.95
Bridget Williams Books, $29.95
When there is nothing left, what stops people huddling in a corner, not doing the things necessary for survival? Where does the courage to survive unbearable losses come from? How would you react if, like the 15- year-old girl in Eva Hayman’s By the Moon and the Stars, you had to leave your family and go with your little sister to a strange country, never to see your parents again? How would you have behaved if, like the eight-year-old girl in Halina Ogonowska-Coates’ Krystyna’s Story, you lost your home, your father, then your sister, your niece, your brother, your aunt and finally your mother died in your arms?
I began these books about the experiences of two former refugees – the first Czech-Jewish, the second Polish-Catholic – both of whom later settled in New Zealand, with considerable trepidation. My anxieties were well-founded, for reading them aroused such strong feelings that I had to force myself to put the books down at times to distance myself from the grief and the pain. My background is Hungarian-Jewish (members of my family were killed by the Nazis during the Second World War) and I was brought up with accounts of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust. I also grew up with stories of Polish indifference to the fate of Jews and sometimes of their complicity in that fate. But suffering has no ethnic label. There is no ‘Jewish’ suffering or ‘Polish’ suffering, only suffering.
While thinking about By the Moon and the Stars and Krystyna’s Story, I began to read Margaret Drabble’s latest novel, The Gates of Ivory, which is in part about the calamities that have taken place in Cambodia in recent years. ‘Genocide and the Numbers Game’ is a preoccupation of one of the protagonists in that book, the writer Stephen Cox. Of 20th century deaths, Stephen records this:
Some 20 million in labour camps in the Soviet Union, 2 million in Vietnam and between 1 and 3 million in Cambodia. In China, during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution it is estimated that between 20 and 80 million died …
Between 20 and 80 million? I mean are you serious? Do you call this language? What kind of history, what kind of mathematics is this, what has happened to those spare tens of millions? Unnumbered, unburied, will they haunt the earth forever … do they not jostle us, do they not stifle us, are we not kept awake at nights by their squeaks and gibbering batlike cries?
The answer to Drabble’s question is ‘probably not, bombarded daily as we are by massacre, rape, starvation, genocide on a grand scale. If we are disturbed by suffering at all, it is stories of individual anguish that still have the power to move us. It is the exceptional merit of Eva Hayman and Halina Ogonowska-Coates that they do this simply, effectively and without overstatement.
In By the Moon and the Stars, Hayman tells her own story and that of her family, based on diaries and letters she wrote and received after she fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia for England in 1939. In Krystyna’s Story Ogonowska-Coates, who is the daughter of one of the Polish children who was deported to the Soviet Union and found refuge in New Zealand in 1944, writes composite biography based in part on her mother’s story and in part on her interviews with other Polish refugees.
Both books begin with an idealised, rather sentimental picture of happy childhood surrounded by loving family, rooted in a beloved native land. For both Eva and Krystyna exile, the loss of loved ones and the need to adjust to strangers and to a new country follow. Krystyna experiences deportation and starvation herself, and she is there to witness her family’s suffering and to see them die one by one. Prominent in the book are details about food – its abundance in Poland before the family’s deportation and later also in New Zealand – in contrast with its scarcity or non-existence during transportation and in the Soviet Union. Eva’s burden is to be safe, yet helpless; to be compelled to follow from a distance, with guilt and with anguish, the fate of her doomed family left behind in Czechoslovakia. Her parents and other relatives are deported and eventually die in concentration camps.
It is hope that keeps people going during extreme hardship. When people lose hope they die. Later, when they are safe, in order to get on with the business of living, the painful memories have to be buried. As Ogonowska-Coates writes: to survive people have to ‘close off the places in their mind where there is sadness and hunger, screaming and crying’. Or, as Hayman puts it: ways have to be found through work and study to ‘ease the heaviness’ and efforts have to be made to prevent the past ‘overpowering the present’.
Eva and Krystyna, as indeed refugees whatever their background and particular circumstances, have much in common – having to survive overwhelming losses, having to be forever grateful to the kind and not so kind strangers who help them – but there are also crucial differences in the experiences. One striking one is this. Both girls have a strong love for their native land. When the war is over, Polishness remains a comfort for Krystyna and basic to her sense of self. Being Polish is complicated only by the need to integrate that identity with also being a New Zealander. At no stage does Krystyna face the rejection of her fellow Poles. Eva’s patriotism, her feeling that Czech people are
her people, is just as strong as Krystyna’s Polishness. Her Jewish background has always seemed to Eva to be far less important than her Czech identity. Yet Eva’s feeling of belonging to the Czech nation is seriously undermined when she returns to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. She finds that ‘she belongs and yet she does not belong’. Anti-Semitism ‘hangs in the air’. One day, she hears a neighbour shout: ‘It is a pity that all the Jews did not perish in concentration camps’.
By the Moon and the Stars and Krystyna’s Story must have been painful books to write. They are indeed harrowing to read. Perhaps such books enlarge our understanding of the response of ordinary people to the brutality of war and to the horror of persecution. Perhaps they tell us something that we did not know before about cruelty, courage, resistance. But even if they do not, while such anguish and suffering exist, the least we lucky ones can do is read what the survivors have to say with attention and without squeamishness.
Ann Beaglehole is Claude McCarthy Fellow at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University. Her first two books were about Jewish refugees in New Zealand, and she is currently writing an account of Jews in this country.