A Picaro in Hitler's Europe
by Walter Arndt

Review by
Zaneta B. Matkowska

Xlibris: 2001
196 pages

February 2004


Do not be deceived by the smallness of this book. Walter Arndt has written in true Eastern European Literary fashion — each sentence is laced with irony, truth, and depth — super food to be digested slowly and thoroughly.

A Picaro is a rascal or rogue as well as the name for someone who is well-versed in debate. Arndt mocks World War II popular history with the personal truth of experience, his own and those around him. He challenges not only our understanding of the events of World War II, but our knowledge base of the social climate. His thoroughness and intellectual gymnastics in six languages (Polish, German, English, Russian, French, and Latin) are quite breathtaking. He has distilled his personal history to a rare communication of Life's richness and absurdity.

Norwid (Walter's childhood name), weaves a charged tale of the untold history of the Polish Gentry, Intelligentsia, and Jews living in the western borderlands between Poland and Germany. He overwhelms the reader with the endlessly detailed rituals of a useless nobility and noble-"wannabes" and their trivial preoccupation with things about to become extinct — such as his grandfather's fine rice paper journal, which he informs us does not survive the War. He juxtaposes the brutality and insanity of the times with the humorous sexual preoccupations of a young man "coming of age".

Arndt does not pull his punches. He reminds that "the Nazis are to us, what the Jews are to them". He refers to Mein Kampf as Hitler's psychotic diatribe. He clarifies the language of derogatory references to the Poles, by reminding us that they were better educated, more cultured, and more informed than most people in Europe — especially their neighbors. As an old empire, once the largest in Europe extinguished by three partitions beginning in 1791, the ancient Poles had a rather low opinion of their younger western neighbors. To be Slavic and to be Polish is to belong to the people of the fields who glorify and make beautiful (or alternately are glorious). On the other hand, Niemiec, the Polish name for a German, actually means a have-nothing. Kraut (cabbage), the slang for German, is an unkind reference to someone who is empty-headed and unthinking. Schwaben, the name given to western Germans, also means roach in German. None of these words are polite or respectful references to one's neighbors.

Arndt is not kind to the British Allies either. He reminds us that it was the British who "invited" Hitler into Poland.

Ethnic mix, geopolitical worries in Poland, July 1937:

The Georgian refugees all felt a painful dilemma: the German Imperial Army had protected them from the White Armies and the Bolsheviks in 1917 and helped them emigrate to Poland. Yet in the meantime many of the younger generation of refugees had taken sides against the Axis menace ... Their Polish friends became convinced that some of the Hitler gang — one of the jumped-up Balts like Alfred Rosenberg, or Fraunhofer, or any lump out of the Brunswick stew of gutter journalists like Goebbels and Streicher and brain-dead ex-marshals like Ludendorf — were involved trying to recruit the free Caucasians. ... not only might Caucasian and Ukrainian interests once again be staked on the German card, as in 1917; but the card this time was already slimy with lies, race hatred, and blood. Even worse, the Polish elite felt that this development confirmed once more what highly placed and knowledgeable German emigrants (and ... the Polish General Staff) kept warning the western governments about:

The ex-victors of 1918 (more "ex" each year) seemed blind to the evidence of the Nazi government's heading straight for a Blitzkrieg war; ... clearly the Nazi leadership sensed in the publics of the former "great powers" an upsurge of the passionate, honorable pacifism ... There seemed to be a degree of flabbiness of will and compulsive self-delusion that even a Nazi mind, for all its insane idolization of "Germanness," and slogans of western decadence, had never dared to hope for.

Arndt's suffering as a Polish Jew and Polish intellectual is evident in his raw caustic descriptions of the times. He reminds us that war is waged by everyday people making the decision to hurt their fellow humans and voluntarily becoming puppets of governments and tyrants. He intersperses his travel diary with poetry as well as his translations from Goethe's Faust to remind us further that to perpetrate evil is a personal choice. He regales us with his whimsical great-circle journey from Turkey as a very young boy, to his adolescence in the Polish-German borderlands, his schooling in Oxford, England, his experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto during the invasion of Poland, and his return to Turkey prior to immigrating to America.

This is a book rich in truth. You may not like Arndt's manner, but if you are a true student of history, you will find this is a very valuable book.


© 2004 Zaneta B. Matkowska

Editor's note:  In April and May 1940, Lavrentiy Beria's NKVD (the Soviet secret police) carried out Joseph Stalin's official order to execute almost 22,000 Polish officers and other Polish nationals, in the Katyn Forest and other locations. Zaneta Matkowska's grandfather, a tank officer in the Polish Army in World War II, was among the victims. — RWF

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