The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours: A Memoir of the Second World War|
by Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon/Foreword by Norman Davies
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|Poles in Concentration Camps
by Marianne Apostolides
The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours tells of the years 1939 to 1945-when time itself assumed a physical shape, a menacing dimension to be negotiated one tentative step after the next. Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon was a fourteen-year-old girl when the Nazis invaded Poland. She and her family soon joined the resistance, called the Polish Home Army. All were arrested and sent to Auschwitz.
Trzcinska-Croydon immigrated to Canada in 1948, where she eventually worked as a child and adolescent psychoanalyst, not a professional writer. This career focus is evident in the text; it is Trzcinska-Croydon's understanding of human emotion, not her understanding of narrative, that makes this an important book.
Trzcinska-Croydon, known as Helena Trzcinska at the time, was born into a family of Catholic intellectuals. Her parents and siblings all participated in the resistance, committing acts of petty sabotage, liberating political prisoners from the Gestapo, transporting munitions from one Home Army cell to the next. Without over-dramatizing her experience, Trzcinska-Croydon relays moments of personal bravery. She was only a teenager when she oiled illicit guns, readying them for use in the Warsaw Uprising. She walked alone on deserted streets during curfew, drawing Polish symbols on city walls-an act of defiance that reminded a subjugated population of its proud history.
Helena and her parents, two sisters, brother, and boyfriend Jerzy, were arrested in 1943 for their participation in the resistance. After two months in a Warsaw prison, they were deported to the camps.
Trzcinska-Croydon effectively describes the ride to Auschwitz-a ride into the unknown, with little air coming through the slits between the boards of the cattle car, a bucket of excrement in the corner. As they disembarked, Helena and her family were assessed and tattooed. "The prickle of a sharp needle touched my skin. She was using a sort of fountain pen, with a very sharp needle that drew the number with many tiny pricks, and the ink flowed into the tiny holes. She was printing my number: 44787. My mother's was 44786." The connection between mother and daughter is subtly, and beautifully, conveyed.
This scene highlights the book's strength: the use of simple language to convey distress or elucidate complex emotions. Trzcinska-Croydon writes about her mother's despair at the disfigurement of her daughters: "How would we ever be able to wear sleeveless ball dresses with this terrible tattoo on our arms?" her mother wondered aloud. "She was not here yet-in her mind she was still living in the world that had not existed for us for the last four years . . . Oh, sweet Mother of three young daughters. Our debut is tonight."
Unlike Polish Jews and gypsies, Polish political prisoners were not sent to the gas chambers in the years 1943-45. Even so, half of the 150,000 political prisoners died while in the camps, often of typhus and other infectious diseases exacerbated by malnutrition. One of those who succumbed was Helena's mother. Helena did not equate her experience with that of Jewish prisoners and other victims of the Holocaust, however. She sat with a Jewish friend whose mother was being gassed and cremated, the air thick with the ashes of the dead. She recognized this horror as something far beyond her own.
As Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in early 1945, the female prisoners were sent on a three-day march west, through the snow. Helena gave up her supply of bread, too weak to carry it. She ate only sugar cubes and, on one occasion, milk squeezed straight from a cow in a barn. Reading about Helena's hunger, I felt her strength ebbing. Like thousands of others, collapsing on the side of the road, she could have died on this march. The Nazis were shooting those who fell behind.
Helena persevered. She reached the train station at Breslau, and was ultimately transported to the camp at Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated two months later. The war in Europe was over; the tallying of the dead would now begin. For the moment, though, Helena and her sisters celebrated with the British soldiers who had liberated the camp. They danced together in the forest, doing the "Hokey Pokey" just days after the fighting had ended. Their tomfoolery was testament to the renewed possibility of joy.
Trzcinska-Croydon intertwines her prose with the occasional poem. The combination could have been jarring, but the flow is nicely maintained. Each poem addresses the same scene as the prose it follows, offering a different emotional angle on the event.
Too often, however, Trzcinska-Croydon lets the poems carry the emotional weight of the story. Her prose voice is distant, cool. That voice would be appropriate in some memoirs, but not this one. Helena is a passionate young woman during the war; she is not deadened by the experience, but angered at the injustice, and determined to maintain her dignity and humanity. The flat voice is not employed as a conscious literary choice to reflect Helena's character or her psychological state during those days; it is merely flat.
In addition, Trzcinska-Croydon often neglects to establish the mood of the scene she's describing. She seems to be ticking points off a list of memories, rather than creating an atmosphere. When talking about occupied Warsaw, she mentions the long line-ups for water, the ubiquity of German posters, the Stars of David, the destroyed buildings. Still, I didn't have a sense of what Helena felt as she moved through the rubble of her city, amongst men marked with yellow stars.
The most compelling moments of the book are those dealing with Helena's love for Jerzy Masiukiewicz. Here, Trzcinska-Croydon's prose rises to the dramatic occasion. Just after the Polish invasion, when she and Jerzy both worked for the Polish Home Army, Helena led him into her room and removed her first bra, newly-purchased, from a drawer. "He looked into my eyes, and then slowly, with reverence, he lowered his face towards the two satin petals and tenderly kissed the insides of each cup, lingering and burying his lips, his face, in the future mysteries locked in the pink softness." This passage is equally lovely and devastating, since we already know that Jerzy will die before the war's end.
Helena's relationship with Jerzy serves to move the narrative forward. Jerzy helped Helena survive Auschwitz, giving her the ability to imagine something different, to project herself out of the misery. He helped maintain her life pulse; their relationship does the same for the book.
Despite the limitations of the prose, Trzcinska-Croydon has successfully written her story, telling of a little-known aspect of the Second World War and displaying her penetrating understanding of human emotion. She gained my trust both as Helena Trzcinska and as Lilka Trzcinska-Croydon. I came to care about the people whose lives are described-those individuals who were extraordinary in resisting the invaders, and ordinary in their experience of love and grief.
The book ends, appropriately, with a poem for Jerzy. When I finished it, I held the book in my lap for a while, not yet ready to engage the world outside the pages of the Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours.
Marianne Apostolides is a Toronto-based writer. Her current manuscript concerns her father's childhood in 1940s Greece.