My pre-Poland reading list (so far)

We are going to Poland!

Our big family news this fall is that Claire earned a coveted spot on Team Canada Dance! She will be competing at the World Championships in Ballet, Modern and Jazz in Poland in December. Paul and I both jumped at the chance to accompany her. There is no way we are going to miss seeing our girl on the world stage!

The competition itself will be held at a conference center outside a small town southwest of Warsaw named Rawa Mazowiecka. We don’t know yet where we are staying (at a nearby small town or in Warsaw, commuting each day) but regardless, we know that sightseeing opportunities are likely nil until AFTER the competition. Basically, for six days straight, we are going to be watching dance from morning till night! I’ll definitely need to stock Paul’s Kindle up for the trip in case he needs a little break from all that dancing 🙂

After the competition, we will have three days to ourselves in Poland. I wish it were more, but that was the only option (without forfeiting our already-paid-for flight home). With such a short amount of time, we’re going to focus on Krakow for most of our time, with part of just one day in Warsaw. Paul and I would both like to go to Auschwitz but due to limited time and the company of our 11 1/2 year old, we won’t be making the trip there. (There is a chance Paul may go on his own during one of the days of competition; I’d love to go too but I don’t want to miss any of Claire’s routines.)

Whenever I travel, I love to pore over travel guides well in advance, learning about the history of the location and its major sights, and trying to get a handle on its topography. Just as much, I love to find absorbing fiction and non-fiction to help immerse myself in the country and the part of its history that intrigues me. With Poland, there is no shortage of reading material for me to savour on my Kindle. World War II in particular is the historical timeline that interests me the most so that’s what I’ve focused on first.

What I’ve read so far

The Pianistby Wladyslaw Szpilman

This memoir was utterly heartwrenching to read, in part because of Mr. Szpilman’s unflinching candor in describing all that he and others endured while in hiding in Warsaw during the war. He wrote this account very shortly after the war ended, which no doubt aided his ability to recall the events so vividly but also, I suspect, his ability to tell some of the more horrific details in an explicit and almost matter-of-fact manner, (so numbly accustomed might he have become to the widespread suffering?).

From a historical perspective, The Pianist was a fascinating read, as it is a first-hand account of living through an unfathomably painful time in the history of Warsaw and its citizens. I don’t think I ever saw this movie. I’ll be sure to see it soon.

Schindler’s Listby Thomas Keneally

This was another piece of non-fiction that I couldn’t put down. I only vaguely knew the story of Oskar Schindler; somehow I had missed seeing the movie in the early 90s, and now I definitely need to see it. Schindler was a German industrialist who owned an enamelware factory in Krakow and used it as a means of keeping many Jews from harsh labour camps and ultimately, extermination camps. That’s a massive oversimplification on my part, as this is the story of a profoundly courageous man who saved more Jews from annihilation than any other individual during World War II. Supported by many written testimonies from the people he saved, he was recognized as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” – a particular honour for non-Jews, by Yad Vashem in Israel.

The Dollmaker of Krakowby R.M. Romero

This is a children’s book I purchased for Claire but I wanted to read it first. I just finished it the other day; Claire hasn’t started it yet or I’d ask her to offer her thoughts on the book instead of mine.

Beautifully written, this book reads like historical fiction fused with a fairy tale. It tells the story of a doll and the humans she comes to love in Krakow during the war. It is not without tragedy but it is not overly explicit.

The Kommandant’s Girlby Pam Jenoff

Also set in Krakow, this fictional story introduces us to a Jewish girl who obtains the necessary false identity papers to pass as an Aryan, and ends up working for the Nazis while aiding in the Resistance at the same time. Decently written and seemingly well-researched, this novel was a good read and somewhat lighter than the first two books I noted above, if only because its heroine is fictional. The dangerous but often life-saving scenario of Jewish people trying to pass as Aryan, however, is real, and this book is a good introduction to the concept.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story (Movie Tie-in) (Movie Tie-in Editions)by Diane Ackerman

Back to non-fiction, The Zookeeper’s Wife was more along the lines of Schindler’s List but not as well-written in my opinion. I found it disjointed in places as the author would often alternate in style between being a storyteller, a biographer, and a historian (and even an entomologist at times – a little too much detail about the bugs!). Somehow, the writing just came across to me as awkward. Nevertheless, the incredible story of the Zookeeper’s family emerged and kept my attention, as I learned how the family assisted the escape of several Jews from the soon-to-be evacuated ghetto, and sheltered so many others in and around their villa at the Warsaw Zoo. Particularly poignant were the wife’s worries and observations about how her young son was coping in the face of such danger and acts of violence.

Normally I’m a firm believer that the book is better than the movie, but I have a feeling I may like the recent movie by the same name more. I’m going to look it up soon.

What I’ll read next

I still plan to read A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising (New York Review Books Classics)by Miron Bialoszewski, which I understand is an unparalleled description of those 63 days of rebellion.

I also want to read about Irene Sendler, a woman whose brave actions were briefly described in the Zookeeper’s Wife. I’ll start with a children’s book, Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children During the Holocaustby Jennifer Roy, and then I may read a biography called Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghettoby Tilar J. Mazzeo.

Getting back to fiction (which is normally my favourite), I’m excited to read A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially Trueby Brigid Pasulka. From the description and reviews on Amazon, it sounds like a beautiful and magical book.

After that, I think I’ll take a break from World War II to focus on some much-lauded fiction of Polish authors. (I intend to focus only on fiction set in Poland, though.) I know for sure that I’ll start with The Doll (New York Review Books Classics)by Boleslaw Prus. Beyond that, I’m not sure what I’ll be reading. I’ve found several titles online that intrigue me, but I need to research them a bit more before I commit to them!

Stay tuned for more about our trip!

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