An adolescence spent running all over Europe

Note: This is edited down from a 1,774-word book review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004–06.

This memoir by Maia Wojciechowska is the story of how she, her mother, and her two brothers spent the first half of WWII going from country to country, while her father was with the Army as a pilot and waiting for the safest moment to join them. Several scenes inspired things in my books, like their escape on the train on the first day of the invasion of Poland, and when they’re smuggled over a border in potato sacks in a truck.

On 1 September 1939, Maia hears and sees planes flying overhead, and thinks one of them may be her father. She’s happily running along with her new Doberman puppy and is heartbroken when her dog is suddenly felled by a bomb. This makes her very angry at the Nazis, a hatred which lasts the entire rest of the war.

Maia’s mother decides to leave for France (where her husband has already left for) with her three children—Zbyszek (Zbigniew), Maia, and obnoxious little Krzys (Kryzsztof). But the train, one of the last few allowed to leave Poland, is constantly being stopped because of the incessant bombs. Outside, large groups of people are fleeing on foot. Zbyszek and Maia laugh about how much the train will stink if it’s hit by a bomb, since the last thing a person does before dying is defecate.

Eventually, they have to get out and start walking too, since the tracks are destroyed by bombs. During one air raid, Maia gets in a lot of trouble because she stands right out in the open as a plane drops bullets and smaller bombs, and keeps flying right over her as she stands there calmly. After this, they board another train which also eventually gets stopped because of more bombed-out tracks, but when they reach Łódż on foot, they’re able to board a train that takes them to France, where they previously lived for a year.

They live in several places in France, both before and during the Nazi occupation. For awhile, the children play war with their new friends, also refugees from Poland, including twin boys. They have stockpiles of weapons, which they found abandoned by the French army, and pretend to die from being shot at, after they spend the more important parts of their meetings discussing how they’re going to exact revenge on Germany and France and how they’re going to save Poland. The twins like to pretend to die in one another’s arms.

When all the other Polish families are evacuated, Maia and Zbyszek sneak a machine gun and ammunition into their apartment to shoot the oncoming Germans and the traitorous French who are hugging them and giving them flowers, but their mother sees the gun and wrestles it away from them. Maia also gets into trouble at school, once when she beats a boy who tried to lift her dress and another time when she pretends to not understand French, till she gets the principal as her teacher, who knows from her mother that Maia knows and understands French quite well.

Maia barely goes to school at all, since she’s constantly playing hooky, staying home with colds, or being punished by being made to stand behind the blackboard or outside because she won’t talk. Several schools throw her out because she’s absent so much, and because she refuses to participate. Maia and Zbyszek swore an oath to never speak to a French person for the duration of the war, nor to speak French, and they’re keeping to it. Maia only breaks it when their mother is briefly arrested after they arrive in Vichy France, and she asks how long she’ll be in there.

During the time in France, they also live in the same hotel as a mysterious and somewhat creepy older woman, who tries to seduce the confused Zbyszek.

Maia has her share of unthinking moments too, like when they’re going to Spain and she’s entrusted with a hatbox containing a teddybear stuffed with money and jewels, totalling more than $4,000. The money and jewels are from fellow Poles in Lisbon, who want to send packages to their relatives back home. Everything is going according to plan, until she loses sight of her family at a train station and gets on the wrong train. It’s going to Madrid too, but won’t arrive at the same time, as Zbyszek tells her as he runs alongside the departing train. Maia begins talking to a man sitting next to her during the ride, and when she gets off and rejoins her family, her mother is angry and horrified that Maia somehow let him make off with the teddybear without her realising it. He opened the window so she could exit faster, and when she turned around to introduce this handsome stranger to them, he was gone.

Eventually, the family are leave France for Portugal. However, this is only temporary, and they soon fly to London. The father joins them at this point, and it’s hard getting used to him being back in their lives and to living in a strange new place, with new schools, new people, and a new language. Maia proudly tells anyone who tries to speak to her that she’s Polish and doesn’t wish to learn English. The moment she left France, Maia went back to speaking French. There’s no more reason to keep the pact outside of France, and she’s not speaking French to actual French citizens. However, she still doesn’t want to speak English, and settles on a Catholic boarding school where everything is taught in French.

On the ship to America, which takes off in November 1942 after a lengthy delay, Maia gets the idea to commit suicide romantically, since she’s in the midst of unrequited love, and decides she’ll die by the cold winds. She desperately loves a handsome young soldier, and the night before they’re to reach America, where her father has been assigned a post in Washington at the Polish Embassy, she goes on deck and ties herself to a post with her scarf. She would’ve taken her clothes off to be even more romantic, but she doesn’t like her body.

Zbyszek comes upon her standing on deck at dawn, having read her suicide note, and laughs at her plan. “Are you going to freeze your ass off?” Maia abandons the freezing to death suicide after he laughs at her and volunteers some information which deeply shocks her, and she goes back down to her private cabin. It’s coming up on five in the morning, when they’re due to dock, but she doesn’t want to be among all the other people coming up to see New York as they slowly come in for their landing. Just like everything else she’s done over the past three years, and her entire life before that, she wants to be different.

I really love Maia because she’s her own person and a tomboy, not a docile girly-girl who stays out of trouble. Like many tomboys through the ages, Maia wishes she were a boy, because of the freedom and increased opportunities available to boys. She doesn’t get along well with her mother either, which I also relate to.

The Executed Renaissance (Розстріляне відродження)

My IWSG post is here.

Khrushelnytskyy family, early 1930s. Six of the people in this photo were murdered by Stalin’s thugs.

The Executed Renaissance is a term coined by Polish publicist Jerzy Giedroyc in a 13 August 1958 letter to Ukrainian literary critic and essayist Yuriy Andriyanovych Lavrinenko. In the letter, Mr. Giedroyc proposed this as the title for an anthology of Ukrainian literature of 1917–33.

“On the title. Maybe it would be good to give as a general name: Executed Renaissance. Anthology 1917–1933, etc. The title would sound spectacular then. On the other hand, the modest name Anthology can only facilitate penetration behind the Iron Curtain. What do you think?”

Jerzy Giedroyc, 1906–2000

The title was accepted, and the anthology was published in Paris in 1959, in the magazine Kultura, which Mr. Giedroyc had founded and was editor-in-chief of. Many Ukrainian emigrants had been published in this magazine, and it was instrumental in helping to reconcile Poles and Ukrainians.

Mr. Giedroyc sent review copies to the Writers’ Union in Kyiv and Ukrainian Soviet magazines at the editors’ expense, and took every chance he got to send it behind the Iron Curtain, both legal and illegal.

Since then, the term Executed Renaissance has expanded to refer to the great flowering of literary, cultural, artistic, musical, theatrical, philosophical, cinematic, intellectual, and spiritual life in Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s after so many centuries of being under foreign heels and unable to express their native culture and use their own language. Many of these people were murdered during the Great Terror of the 1930s.

A good percentage of the Executed Renaissance weren’t from wealthy or upper-middle-class families, and so hadn’t had the luxury of a good education, or even any education at all. They had to learn about great art, literature, music, and other culture on their own initiatives, in between working on farms and in factories, serving in the military, and just trying to survive war and famine.

Their subsequent creations were all the more amazing because they were self-taught.

Literary association Lanka, 1924. Three of the people in this photo were murdered by Stalin’s goons.

For the very first time, a generation of intellectuals, writers, artists, and musicians came from the real world. They knew what it was like to work for a living, struggle for everything they got, and live without luxuries. When they wrote about peasants and the working-class, they based it on personal experience instead of romantic ideals and secondhand information. These weren’t pampered rich kids and champagne Socialists.

Many of their creative works prominently featured rebellion, independent thought, existentialism, and expressionism.

Members of VAPLITE, Free Academy of Proletarian Literature, 1926. Six of the people in this photo were murdered by Stalin’s goons; another committed suicide, physically and mentally broken by the Holodomor and the start of political repression

When Stalin took full power and eliminated all competition, a wave of terror started, and Ukrainian culture and language were once again repressed. Those who were lucky escaped the USSR, while others felt forced into unhappy silence or writing propaganda. Some chose suicide. Most of the rest were arrested on false charges, tortured, and shot or sent to the GULAG.

A great deal of literature now circulated through samizdat (clandestine, underground publication and distribution) and tamizdat (publication abroad after being smuggled out). Some works were forever lost.

Union of Peasant Writers, 1924. At least four of the people in this photo were murdered by Stalin’s thugs, and another died in the GULAG.

Most Great Terror victims were posthumously rehabilitated after Stalin’s death, and some managed to survive the GULAG. However, that didn’t undo the massive cultural loss. Untold numbers of a bright, talented generation with so much creative and intellectual potential were murdered. Some scholars estimate 30,000 Ukrainians were in the Executed Renaissance.

Just a few of the fallen:

Mykola Hurovych Kulish (6/18 December 1892–3 November 1937), playwright, teacher, WWI and Russian Civil War veteran

Mykhaylo Vasylovych Semenko (19/31 December 1892–24 October 1937), Futurist poet

Mykhaylo Boychuk (30 October 1882–13 July 1937), painter, founder and leader of the Boychuk school of art

Irchan Myroslav (né Andriy Dmytrovych Babyuk) (14 July 1897–3 November 1937), poet, novelist, playwright

Lyudmyla Mykhaylivna Starytska-Chernyakhivska (17 August 1868–1941), poet, playwright, novelist, died en route to a Kazakh GULAG at age 73. Her sister Oksana died in the GULAG in 1942, in her late sixties.

Ivan Vasylovych Lypkivskyy (14 August 1892–13 July 1937), painter

Valerian L’vovich Polishchuk (19 September/1 October 1897–3 November 1937), poet, novelist, literary critic

May all their memories be for an eternal blessing.

From gutter to glitter and back again

Released 9 January 1931, Little Caesar was the first of the classic gangster films made famous and popular by Warner Brothers. While there certainly had been more than a few prior films featuring gangsters, it was only in 1931 that the modern gangster film as we know it took shape. Now, for the first time, real violence was depicted onscreen, and gangsters were protagonists instead of antagonists or side characters who had to be brought down.

Depression audiences keenly related to these anti-heroes who weren’t born with silver spoons in their mouths and had to work hard for everything they got (even if most people in the audience didn’t climb out of the working-class world through crime!). In the blink of an eye, gangster anti-heroes also lost everything they were so proud of and worked so long and hard to achieve.

And since the über-restrictive Hays Code only came into play in 1933, these earliest gangster films were at liberty to show a great deal of violence and gritty realities.

Little Caesar was based on a crime novel of the same name, written by American novelist W.R. Burnett in 1929. This was his very first novel, and was such a runaway success he was invited to Hollywood as a screenwriter. Most of his books were converted into screenplays, and feature characters who are above all else deeply human, regardless of their walk of life. Hardened gangsters and criminals can show a softer side or even attempt to give up their wicked ways, while cops, judges, and guardians of so-called virtue can be evil, cruel, and two-faced.

And of course, Little Caesar also launched the film career of my second-favorite male actor of the sound era, Edward G. Robinson. Though he began appearing in films in 1916, it was only in 1929 that he began doing it regularly. (He began his acting career in the Yiddish Theatre District of New York in 1913, and débuted on Broadway in 1915.) Sadly, due to the institutionalized antisemitism of the era, he had to use a Gentile-sounding stage name in lieu of his birth name, Emanuel Goldenberg.

Astonishingly, Clark Gable was seriously considered for either the lead role or the second-leading role. While he certainly played his share of tough guys, I can’t see him as Rico at all! Edward G. Robinson was the absolute perfect choice for the title character. Seeing anyone else attempting that role would just feel wrong, similar to how The Wizard of Oz would be a completely different film had Shirley Temple been Dorothy.

Because Edward G. Robinson had already played several gangster characters, both onstage and in films, and since he’d proved his chops in a number of films throughout 1930, Warner Brothers asked him to take the lead role. After Little Caesar shot him to superstardom, he signed a longterm contract with the studio.

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Rico) and his buddy Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) hold up a gas station at night and promptly beat it to a diner, where they read in the newspaper about Diamond Pete Montana, a big shot in the underworld. Hearing about Pete’s success makes Rico burn with jealousy and resentment, so much so he decides to move to a bigger town and start making waves for himself. Joe meanwhile wants to return to his dancing career, and only sees crime as a temporary quick fix for money.

Towards that end, they relocate east to Chicago and start working at the Palermo nightclub, which is but a front for mob activities. Though Joe joins the gang along with Rico, he spends more time working as a dancer and predictably falls in instalove with his partner Olga (Glenda Farrell).

Olga feels the gun in his pocket while they’re kissing, and isn’t exactly pleased about it. Joe asks her to pretend she didn’t see it, and tells her not to worry, that it’s just a little good luck charm. He’s very hesitant to leave his life of crime for Olga, as much as he likes her, since no one gets away with desertion and betrayal.

Out of fear of what the gang might do to him otherwise, Joe agrees to take part in a holdup at the Bronze Peacock club during a New Year’s Eve party. He’s very shaken up when he returns to Olga’s room and confesses what happened. However, he insists he didn’t do the shooting, and reiterates that it’s impossible to leave his gang.

Rico demands a much bigger cut than boss Sam Vettori promised him, and is soon raking in riches beyond his wildest dreams. He’s particularly delighted to be honored at a swanky dinner, at which he receives a fancy pocketwatch (stolen from a shop last night). One of the people honoring him is Diamond Pete Montana, who’s now lower in the pecking order than Rico.

Absent from this banquet is Joe, who hasn’t come around in a long time.

Joe overhears a rival gang planning a hit on Rico, and phones his gang to warn them. They’re unable to find Rico until after he’s been shot, but the bullet only grazes his arm. Rico is touched to learn about how Joe tried to save him.

Rico’s next move is to take over his gang’s entire territory and convince rival boss Arnold Lorch to leave town alive before he leaves it in a pine box. His power, prestige, and wealth continue increasing. Before long, he controls the entire North Side and is living in a grand mansion.

Rico invites Joe to his new digs and asks him to be second-in-command of the North Side. It’s too big for Rico to control all by himself. Joe immediately refuses, which earns Rico’s wrath. If Joe doesn’t give up Olga and return to the gang, there will be terrible consequences.

Joe slips out while Rico is on the phone, and rushes to warn Olga. The situation becomes even worse when Olga calls the cops instead of discreetly leaving town together like Joe begged her to do.

Now the stage is set for one final showdown between Rico, Joe, Rico’s gang, and the law.

A Vampyric femme fatale stalks London

Released 11 May 1936, Dracula’s Daughter was the last of Universal’s classic horror films until the franchise restarted in 1939. It was very loosely based upon Bram Stoker’s 1897 short story “Dracula’s Guest,” originally intended as the first chapter of Dracula. Some scholars also believe it was loosely based upon Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic novella Carmilla.

Béla Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Jane Wyatt, Colin Clive, and Cesar Romero were slated to star in this film, but the only one who ended up appearing in any capacity was Lugosi, in the form of a wax dummy seen near the beginning. Of the Dracula cast, the only one to reappear was Edward Van Sloan as Prof. Von Helsing (yes, his name was changed from Van Helsing).

Prof. Von Helsing is arrested for the murder of Count Dracula, which he admits he did and passionately defends. At Scotland Yard, he further explains his reasoning, and adds that since Dracula has been dead for over 500 years, it’s not real murder. He also decides to enlist the services of psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) instead of getting a lawyer. Jeffrey was one of his best students, and Von Helsing feels a kinship with him.

There was another body discovered near Dracula’s, a murder Von Helsing says was committed by Dracula. Both of these bodies are moved to the police station for overnight watch, but one of the cops is called away on official business. The remaining officer is hypnotized by the ring of a femme fatale (Gloria Holden). The next day, he’s found dead and in a trance.

The strange woman, meanwhile, made off with Dracula’s corpse and ritualistically burnt it in the woods, throwing salt on the fire. She’s desperate to be cured of Vampyrism, an unusual theme we also find in the dreadful House of Dracula. Since when do Vampyres feel unhappy or conflicted about their integral nature?!

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if she immediately got her wish. Sandor (Irving Pichel), a servant who assisted her in the corpse theft, tells her Death is in her eyes, and that she shouldn’t try to resist who she was created to be. She soon succumbs to temptation and goes on the hunt for fresh victims.

Dracula’s daughter introduces herself to society as Countess Marya Zaleska. Jeffrey attends one of her parties, and is quite taken with her. His fiancée and secretary Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill), however, isn’t very happy to see the obvious mutual attraction, and begins scheming to try to nip this affair in the bud.

Jeffrey pays no heed to Janet’s objections, and goes to meet the Countess at her home at night. She claims she needs his expert psychological help for a terrible influence being exerted over her from beyond the grave.

While in the house, Jeffrey notices in surprise that there are no mirrors. He’s used to ladies having mirrors all over, and makes a joke about Vampyres not seeing their own reflection. Jeffrey also tells her about how people with addictions can overcome them by being close to the source of their weakness and summoning up the willpower to ignore it. We must confront our demons and become masters of ourselves.

Towards that end, the Countess dispatches Sandor to find a would-be victim. He spots a young woman, Lili (Nan Gray), about to take her own life by jumping into the river, and tells her to come with him for some money, a warm house, and food. At first, Lili thinks he wants to take her into white slavery, but Sandor convinces her this is on the level, that his mistress wants a model to paint.

The scene that follows is famous for its quite overt lesbian overtones, so much so it was among the films featured in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. While it’s shocking this slipped past the strict Hays Code, it also portrays the Countess’s lesbian desires as predatory and perverse, and Lili as a sweet little victim who bravely resists. Sadly, this was par for the course in mainstream films with gay or lesbian characters or overtones for decades.

The Countess hypnotizes Lili with her ring and sucks blood from her neck. Lili ends up in hospital, unable to remember anything about the attack. To try to get to the bottom of this, Jeffrey puts her into a trance and takes her back to the night of the incident. Lili gives enough testimony for him to figure out the Countess did it.

Then the Countess hypnotizes Janet, absconding with her to Transylvania. There are more lesbian overtones in a scene of Janet lying dazed on a bed as the Countess hovers over her, described as “the longest kiss never filmed.”

By now, Jeffrey’s skepticism at Von Helsing’s claims has completely melted away, and he believes Vampyres do indeed exist. Towards that end, he sets out for Transylvania to confront the Countess and bring an end to her reign of terror.

An invisible menace from the mists of time

Released 20 January 1936, The Invisible Ray was the third of the eight films Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi made together. Initially, their next teaming had been planned as Bluebeard, but the script wasn’t ready in time. The powers that be put Bluebeard on the back burner and instead found a different film.

Director Stuart Walker didn’t like John Colton’s script for The Invisible Ray, and asked for a three-day break to fix it. When Universal refused, Mr. Walker left, and was replaced by Lambert Hillyer.

The initial budget was $166,875, considered fairly lavish for a B-movie. The production went over by $68,000, as well as going over schedule (17 September–25 October 1935). According to Stuart, “The director who did the picture started nine or ten days after I was ordered to start and finished 25 or more days after I was ordered to finish.”

Dr. Janos Rukh, like many mad scientists in the tradition before him, is widely seen as a crank whose obsessive research and unusual theories are an embarrassment and ridiculous vanity project. However, he’s bound and determined to prove his work is on the level and that he’s on the verge of the next great scientific breakthrough.

Towards that end, he convinces two such naysayers, Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi) and Sir Dr. Francis Stevens (Walter Kingsford), to come to his home for a demonstration of a fascinating new telescope. Francis also brings his wife, Lady Arabella Stevens (Beulah Bondi), and his nephew Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton).

Predictably, Dr. Rukh’s much-younger and very pretty wife of three years, Diana (Frances Drake), has an immediate and mutual attraction to Ronald. Diana’s father was Dr. Rukh’s assistant, and when he passed away, she dutifully married Dr. Rukh. However, she’s never felt romantic love for him.

When everyone is seated, Dr. Rukh gives a marvellous demonstration of a new telescope, along with narration. The telescope not only gives a great planetarium show, it also projects images from millions of years ago. One of these images is a meteorite striking somewhere in Africa.

Drs. Benet and Stevens are so impressed by this magical telescope, they abandon their former hardened skepticism and agree to accompany Dr. Rukh on an expedition to find the impact site and harvest the material in this ancient meteorite.

The African quest takes far longer than expected, and nothing has been found. Though the others are starting to have second thoughts and planning to return to England soon, Dr. Rukh insists on staying just a bit longer. He feels he’s on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering the impact site, and with it incredible scientific secrets.

Find it he does, with the help of a bunch of natives. As per the unfortunate standards of most films of this era, they’re depicted as easily-spooked and having really cartoonish reactions to their fear.

Though Dr. Rukh is delighted to discover not only the impact site but the actual meteorite itself, his excitement is short-lived. When the meteorite is exposed to daylight again, it explodes and sends out dangerous radiation which sickens him quite badly. Dr. Rukh now glows in the dark, and his touch is deadly.

Dr. Benet compassionately creates an antidote which Dr. Rukh must take at the same time every day. If he doesn’t inject himself religiously, he’ll go back to his fully radioactive state. However, the newly-discovered element Radium X may have permanently altered his brain, and eventual madness may descend. The antidote also isn’t a cure, just a means of keeping the worst effects under control.

After Dr. Rukh returns to base camp, Dr. Benet tells him of the secret romance between Diana and Ronald. Knowing full well Diana never loved him, Dr. Rukh fakes his own death shortly after coming to Paris. He finds a man who very much resembles him, murders him, and makes him look like he died of radiation poisoning.

Dr. Benet returns to Europe with a piece of the meteorite and uses its powers for good. His procedure for curing blindness is embraced as a miracle. He also cures other ailments with a modified form of Radium X.

Though Dr. Rukh also uses Radium X to cure his mother’s blindness, his altruism doesn’t last for long. He presently sets his mind firmly upon revenge, and takes up residence in a boardinghouse across the street from a church with six statues. Each figure represents to him one member of the African expedition, and thus the people he believes ruined his life by getting rich and famous off of his discovery and hard work.

And thus begins a reign of terror from a mysterious invisible force.

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