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Sixteen-year-old Richard Pipes escaped from Nazi-occupied Warsaw with his family in October 1939. Their flight took them to the United States by way of Italy, and Pipes went on to earn a college degree, join the U.S. Air Corps, serve as professor of Russian history at Harvard for nearly forty years, and become adviser to President Reagan on Soviet and Eastern European affairs. In this engrossing book, the eminent historian remembers the events of his own remarkable life as well as the unfolding of some of the ...
Sixteen-year-old Richard Pipes escaped from Nazi-occupied Warsaw with his family in October 1939. Their flight took them to the United States by way of Italy, and Pipes went on to earn a college degree, join the U.S. Air Corps, serve as professor of Russian history at Harvard for nearly forty years, and become adviser to President Reagan on Soviet and Eastern European affairs. In this engrossing book, the eminent historian remembers the events of his own remarkable life as well as the unfolding of some of the twentieth century’s most extraordinary political events.
From his youthful memories of bombs falling on Warsaw to his recollections of the conflicts inside the Reagan administration over American policies toward the USSR, Pipes offers penetrating observations as well as fascinating portraits of such cultural and political figures as Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Reagan, and Alexander Haig. Perhaps most interesting of all, Pipes depicts his evolution as a historian and his understanding of how history is witnessed and how it is recorded.
On Thursday, August, the Polish-Jewish daily Nasz Przeglad (Our Review), which we read regularly, carried on the front page the startling news that the two archenemies, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, had signed a nonaggression treaty. The previous month, I had had my sixteenth birthday and had recently returned from a three-week course at a military preparatory camp (the Polish equivalent of ROTC) required of gymnasium students in their penultimate year. In the normal course of events I would have gone back to school in a few days for the final year of my studies. But it was not to be.
Father concluded that the news spelled war and decided that we would move from our apartment because the house in which we lived, being located next to Warsaw's central railroad terminal, was a likely target of aerial bombardment. We moved to Konstancin, a resort town south of Warsaw, where we rented a large room in a villa and awaited further developments. The authorities ordered the city to maintain a blackout. I recall in the evening a discussion by candlelight between father and one of my uncles aboutwhether there would be war: uncle was of the opinion that all depended on Mussolini, which proved quite wrong since in fact Hitler's war machine, with Stalin's blessing, was already deployed north, west, and southwest of Poland, poised to attack.
The city government instructed residents living in the suburbs to dig trenches as protection from bombs. I tackled the task with great energy until the lady who owned the villa demanded I stop because I was damaging her flower beds.
At 6:30 in the morning on Friday, September 1, I was awakened by a sequence of booming sounds coming from a distance. My first thought was that I was hearing thunder. I dressed and ran out, but the weather was clear. High above I saw a formation of silvery planes heading for Warsaw: a solitary biplane-it looked as if it were constructed of wood-rose steeply to meet them. The sounds I heard were not thunder but bombs being dropped at the Warsaw airport, which quickly smashed what small air force the Poles had managed to assemble.
Despite the great disparity in military forces, the position of Poland was not entirely hopeless. For one, Poland had guarantees from both England and France that should Germany attack, they would declare war on her. The French furthermore promised the Poles that they would promptly counterattack on the Western Front so as to pin down German forces. Second, the Poles counted on Soviety neutrality which would enable their forces to regroup and make a stand in the eastern half of the country where the Wehrmacht would not be able to outflank them. They did not realize that the French would not keep their word and that the Russians had a secret clause in their nonaggression treaty with Berlin which awarded them the eastern half of Poland.
Before the morning was much advanced, we learned from the radio that Poland and Germany were at war and that enemy troops had crossed the frontier at multiple points.
My attitude toward the war was a blend of hope and fatalism. As a Pole and a Jew I despised the Nazis and expected that with the help of the Allies we would win. This fatalism stemmed from the belief, common to youths and those adults who never quite grow up, that whatever happens is bound to happen. In practice, it meant that one lived from day to day and hoped for the best. The attitude of fatalism was summarized in my favorite saying of Seneca's: Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt-"The fates guide the willing and drag the unwilling."
In the evening of this first day of what became World War II, father sat me down on a bench in the park that surrounded the villa and told me that if anything were to happen to him and mother, I should make my way to Stockholm and there contact a Mr. Ollson at the Skanska Banken, where he had an account. As I was to learn many years later, the money, in the form of a check, had been smuggled out, concealed in a typewriter, in by a close friend: it was initially deposited in London and then transferred to Stockholm. It was the first time ever that father addressed me as an adult. The money-a modest $3,348-was to save our lives.
The war, of course, came as no surprise: we had long anticipated it and contemplated leaving Poland. Following the Allies' capitulation at Munich in October 1938 I thought a general European war inevitable. But there were immense difficulties with obtaining visas. My parents applied for tourist visas to visit New York's World Fair, which the American consulate agreed to issue them provided they left me behind. It was arranged, therefore, through an uncle of mine who lived in Palestine and had good connections with the British mandate authorities, that I would join him, which is what I preferred in any event. I subsequently learned that had Hitler attacked Poland six days later, we would have been gone because my parents had received on August tourist visas to the United States, while I had the necessary papers for Palestine.
The day after war broke out I volunteered to help direct the traffic in Konstancin. My instructions were to wave cars off the road at the sound of the air alarm sirens. I did this dutifully for several days but then realized the futility of it since the cars, some loaded with officers in uniform and their families, ignored my signals as they sped south and east to get out of the country.
European civilians in the late s had been repeatedly warned of the dangers of chemical warfare from the air. I happened to own a gas mask which I had brought from the ROTC camp, but it had no filter, which rendered it useless. A Jewish girl I had met in Konstancin told me that she had such a filter and offered to give it to me if I came to her villa. I turned up in the evening and knocked on the door of the darkened frame house. When it opened I saw a roomful of young people dancing sensuously to phonograph music. The girl had no idea what I wanted and, dismissing me, returned to her partner.
The war was barely six days old when we heard stunning rumors that the Germans were drawing near: I recorded this in the diary I began to keep. In fact (although this was not known to us at the time), the Polish government already on September 4-5 had carried out a partial evacuation of its personnel from Warsaw: the following night (September 6-7) the commander in chief of the Polish armed forces, Marshal Rydz Smigly, secretly abandoned the capital. Father secured a car and we headed back to Warsaw. En route we were stopped by a picket, but after father showed his documents, including papers proving him a War World I veteran of the Polish Legions, we were allowed to proceed. In the city the situation was very tense. The Germans were dropping leaflets from the air urging surrender. I tried to pick one up but a passerby warned me that they were "poisoned." The radio kept our spirits up with appeals from the city president, Stefan Starzynski (subsequently interned and four years later executed in Dachau), and round-the-clock broadcasts of Chopin's "Military" Polonaise (no. 3). Into the city straggled on foot, on horse, and by cart the remnants of the defeated Polish army-some wounded, all ragged and despondent.
On September 8, the Germans began the assault on Warsaw but they ran into stiff resistance. I saw long lines of civilian men, presumably reservists, responding to a government appeal, carrying small bags, marching out of the city eastward where they were to be inducted into the armed services. My parents discussed leaving Warsaw: we had a car at our disposal, and father wanted us to flee to Lublin, some one hundred miles southeast of Warsaw because the government was evacuating to that city. The idea came from the Polish foreign minister, Joseph Beck, whom father knew and who urged him to follow the government. Mother firmly refused, convinced that the proposal was inspired by the belief that father had money; as soon as it ran out, we would be abandoned. I heard a furious shouting argument in the bedroom on this subject. Fortunately, mother prevailed.
By mid-September, Warsaw was encircled and we were trapped. We left our lodgings for the second time, moving in with friends who lived in a solid apartment house away from city center. Parents settled with them while I was put up in a small room on the top floor, the residence of a Jewish scholar. He had a sizeable library, and I borrowed a history of Byzantium, part of Wilhelm Oncken's multivolume World History series, which he asked me please to return in the same shape in which I had found it. I also had some books of my own. As bombs were raining on the city, mother time and again came up to ask me to take refuge in the cellar, but I refused until the bombardment got too fierce. After Warsaw had surrendered, I found that a huge artillery shell had ripped through the ceiling of my room and crashed through the wall a foot over my bed, settling without exploding on the landing.
Beginning with the night of September 22, after the diplomatic corps had been evacuated, Warsaw was subjected to round-the-clock bombardment: by day Stuka bombers circled over the defenseless city, diving with a screeching noise and dropping explosives on civilian targets; at night we came under artillery fire. The bombardment was indiscriminate, except on September , the day of Yom Kippur, when the German fliers amused themselves by concentrating on Warsaw's Jewish quarter.
Among my papers, I have found a diary written eight months after these events, and I can do no better than to quote from it:
Around the 23rd the radio [transmitter] fell silent, having been destroyed by bombs. The next day we had no water (gas had been lacking for some time). We slept fully dressed with all our things on hand, ready to run. I slept alone on the sixth floor reading Nietzsche's Will to Power and the poetry of [Leopold] Staff or writing notes for my essay on Giotto. Artillery reverberated throughout the 24th, day and night, and on the 25th in the morning we were awakened by the sound of bombs. There were no longer any antiaircraft defenses or [Polish] planes, only here and there a machine gun resounded. There began day-long bombardment by 450 planes, which exceeded anything seen in the annals of history. Bomb after bomb fell on the defenseless city like a rainstorm. Houses collapsed, burying thousands of people or else spreading fire along the streets. Mobs of nearly crazed people, carrying children and bundles, ran along the streets that were covered with rubble. German pilots, the worst beasts in the world, deliberately flew low to rake [the streets] with machine-gun fire. By evening, Warsaw was in flames resembling Dante's Inferno. From one end of the city to the other all one could see were the glows of fire reddening the sky. Then German artillery went to work, blanketing the city with a hail of shells.... Our [temporary] home miraculously escaped being hit and bore the traces of "only" two artillery shells.
But we were not to be spared anything. Around a.m. we were awakened by a loud explosion-a shell had struck the floor below, killing a woman. We jumped up and ran down the darkened stairwell crowded with people. Screams, desperate calls, and moans mingled with the harsh echoes of detonating shells. Our house began to burn. We fled to the courtyard, I with a briefcase containing my most precious writings and books, carrying in my arms our trembling dog. The instant I crossed the courtyard, a shrapnel exploded nearby, but it caused no harm. We took refuge in the cellar, but at 5 a.m. we had to abandon it because it was no longer safe-one of the stairwells was on fire.
We ran into town. On Sienkiewicz Street we found refuge in an immense but very dirty and crowded basement. Artillery was pounding without letup. At 7 in the evening this building began to burn. We ran out into the street again, this time on Marszalkowska Street, where we settled down on a narrow stairwell.... The second night came around. Artillery kept on pounding-the entire city stood in flames. I shall never forget the sight that met our eyes on the corner of Marszalkowska and Zielna: horses freely roaming on the streets or else sprawled dead on the pavement, lit up by the glow of houses burning like boxes; people running from house to house in search of secure shelter. During the night the artillery fire subsided somewhat, and so, resting my head on the knees of a waitress, I fell asleep. I was hungry: we barely saved our dog by giving it sugar and some miraculously obtained water. Suddenly the door opened and four badly wounded soldiers were brought in. They were bandaged by the light of candles, without water and medicines. Women began to faint and lose their reason; children cried. I too was near collapse. Finally I calmed down and listened indifferently to arguments whether, for example, to put out the candles or not, etc. Crowds of people stormed our door trying to enter. Artillery fire weakened appreciably. It became quieter.... Warsaw, and Poland along with it, has lived through its last day.
I may add something that I did not record in my diary, namely, that as we were running along the burning streets, mother ran alongside holding a pillow over my head to protect me from falling debris.
In the cellars, the wildest rumors circulated. I noted them in my pocket diary: the Poles were repulsing German attacks and recapturing cities; the French had broken through the Siegfried Line; and the British had landed in East Prussia. One of the irregular news sheets that appeared during these days under the chipper title Dzien dobry! (Good Day!) announced in its headlines: "Siegfried Line broken. French enter the Rhineland. Polish bombers raid Berlin," all of which was pure fiction. Finally the truth dawned: on September 17 the Soviet army had crossed into Poland and occupied her eastern provinces. In my diary I noted under Sunday, September 24: "Warsaw defends itself. The Soviets have occupied BorysTMaw, Drohobycz, Wilno, Grodno. On the Western Front-silence. Poland is lost. For how long?"
On the twenty-sixth, the Polish authorities and the German military opened negotiations. Warsaw capitulated the next day. The terms agreed upon provided for forty-two hours of armistice. At 2 p.m. of the twentyseventh the guns fell silent and the planes disappeared from the sky: between them, they had destroyed one in eight of the city's buildings. An eerie silence ensued. On September , the Germans entered the city. I happened to run into their vanguard unit, a convertible military car which stopped at the corner of MarszaTMkowska and Aleje Jerozolimskie, the heart of Warsaw. A young officer sitting next to the chauffeur got up and photographed the crowd that had surrounded the car: I glared at him with hatred.
During the two-day armistice we returned to our apartment, which except for some broken windows had escaped damage. The houses on both sides of ours and across the street, however, lay in ruins. Coco, our year-old cocker spaniel, who had accompanied us on our wanderings, went mad with joy, running wildly around the dining room and jumping on and off the sofa. She must have thought that our tribulations were over.
There exists a great deal of misinformation about the Polish campaign of : the Poles are ridiculed for trying to stop German tanks with cavalry and depicted as collapsing after offering token resistance. In fact, they fought very bravely and effectively. Declassified German archives reveal that they inflicted heavy casualties on the Wehrmacht in the four weeks of war: , dead and , seriously wounded. These were the heaviest losses it would suffer until the battles of Stalingrad and the siege of Leningrad two years later-two years during which the Germans conquered virtually all Europe.
Excerpted from VIXI by RICHARD PIPES Copyright © 2003 by Richard Pipes. Excerpted by permission.
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|List of Illustrations||ix|
|1||Poland, Italy, America||1|
|Intellectual and Artistic Stirrings||21|
|The Holocaust Strikes Home||54|
|Expanding Intellectual Horizons: Isaiah Berlin||63|
|Early Scholarship and Teaching||71|
|Face to Face with Russia||83|
|Edmund Wilson and George Kennan||100|
|Russia under the Old Regime||112|
|Amalrik and Shcharansky||120|
|Joining the NSC||144|
|The Department of State and the Allies||142|
|The Polish Crisis||168|
|Honoring Soviet Dissidents||184|
|The Final Months||202|
|Reflections on Government Service||208|
|4||Back at Harvard||212|
|Survival Is Not Enough||212|
|A History of the Russian Revolution||216|
|The Soviet Union Opens Up: Sakharov||225|
|The Soviet Union Betrays the Sovietologists||231|
|In Liberated Russia||234|
|Reception of The Russian Revolution||241|
|The Problem of Property||245|
Posted January 17, 2004
I picked Vixi up on something of a whim, and found it utterly fascinating. Pipes' account of his childhood and escape from Nazi-occupied Poland, observations on the quirks of Americans and American culture, insights on the life of academics and the historian's crafts, and descriptions of life in Washington DC were all exceptionally interesting. Needless to say, his experiences studying, traveling, and interacting with Russia and Russians are of special interest. The book is written in a most engaging, even personable style, but Pipes never pulls his punches or shies from telling you what he thinks. This sort of forthrightness in academic is refreshing, even when one disagrees with what is being asserted. Highly recommended.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.