Here’s a couple of quick reviews, part of a sparsely-populated ongoing series of reviews of self-published books.
Both books under review are short memoirs of the Second World War, published in the last few years. I recommend them for very different reasons. And although each has its faults and they both clearly would have benefitted from the attentions of professional editors, to me they embody everything that’s cool about self-publishing (about which more below).
Whales of WWII, by Robert Jagers, tells of the author’s experiences as signalman on LST 351, a “Landing Ship, Tank”, during the Second World War. Starting with his enlistment at age 19 in 1942, the book takes us through boot camp, crossing the Atlantic in a slow convoy harried by German submarines, to the invasions of Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Normandy, to London during the buzz-bombs and V2 rocket attacks, until demobilization in the States.
Krystyna, A Chronicle of Life and War, by Krystyna Maria Sokolowska Post, tells the story of the author’s growing up in Poland during the pre-war years in a complicated but in many ways charming family, her coming of age on the eve of the German invasion, and what happened to her when the Nazis came. It’s an astonishing tale, well told, full of innocence, villainy, tragedy, courage, evil, fate, and, ultimately, triumph, about how a young girl whose head was filled with little more than thoughts of boys, boys, boys and American movie stars became transformed, over six harrowing years, into a soldier of the resistance–adept dressing at wounds in a field hospital during the (1944) battle of Warsaw or keeping an eye out for a pregnant comrade-in-arms in a POW camp– until her ultimate liberation by, you guessed it, a handsome American GI.
I was given a copy of Krystyna by Kris Post, daughter of the author and friend of my brother Paul and his wife Jennifer, in Colorado Springs last autumn. I’m a collector of self-published books, and Kris asked me if I would like her mother’s book for my collection. I accepted it, not expecting much. How could I have known that it would contain enough drama for an eight-hundred page Russian novel, or that the author would be such a gifted writer?
This book is not a masterpiece. It does have its weaknesses; a nit-picker might dwell on its uneven tone and voice; its dropped threads, heavy-handed foreshadowing, and so forth. It is not always a beautifully written book. But let me say it plainly: Krystyna is an astounding book, profound and surprising. It merits rereading and contemplation. This is a book to be cherished and pondered, not nitpicked. My only real complaint is that it has no ISBN number and scant publishing information, which means that it is invisible to bookstores and libraries, which is a true shame. I do hope that there’s a copy of it in the archives of the Holocaust Museum and in other places sacred to the memories of those horrible times. (There is a copyright notice printed in the book, but no other publication notes. The copy I have has the Author’s home address and phone number hand-written on the title page.)
Krystyna Post is a gifted storyteller. After an introductory map and author’s note, her story begins:
I was born in Warsaw on the night of March 16, 1921, and my mother awoke the next day to the sound of bells proclaiming a new constitution for Poland. My father was was a member of the Polish legislature and he and his colleagues had finally ironed out a constitution for our land.
Thus her birth symbolizes the hope for a free, prosperous Poland, and her father was one of its champions.
Her father perished in Auschwitz, one of its first victims. Unlike those who would follow him, condemned by their birth, he, a Pole, was condemned by his naivete and compassion. Krystyna’s sister, who found her way to the resistance years before Krystyna did, survived more than three years in Birkenau (her number: 44148). The destruction of their father’s dreams for a free, democratic Poland coincided with his literal destruction, and the Poland that survived the war was, like the Sokolowska family, shattered and diminished.
But the war doesn’t even begin until nearly halfway through this 123 page book. It takes a while to get there. The first forty-eight pages of the book concern Krystyna’s childhood: her improvident dreamer of a father, proud of his noble (but not aristocratic, she points out) heritage; her haughty mother who refused to let her daughters do housework even when there was no money to hire a maid, her intense sister, her aunts, uncles, grandparents, tutors, nannies, housekeepers, teachers and friends– they all populate a reasonably happy childhood, not without its strains and confusion as her parents move repeatedly, their fortunes always seeming to decline. But Krystyna blossoms in her early teenage years, even as her family struggles to stay together. She excels at Latin and French, learns to dance the jitterbug, spends her summer at a Girl Scout camp, meets and develops a monster crush an Air Force cadet five years older than she. Her parents’ financial and marital woes are small concern to her, as are the rumors of impending war: she is in her teenage glory–as you can see from the half-dozen photos of her which miraculously survived that period.
I tells ya, set the clock back fifty years and change language from Polish to Russian, and this stuff is right out of Tolstoy.
On page 26 we meet the significant person of Irena:
My father took me to the school assembly on the first day of classes in that fall of 1933. We noticed another father-daughter pair, a distinguished-looking graying gentleman and a short-haired girl with gorgeous freckles and a prominent nose. Her name was Irena Krongold and she became my best friend. . .
Irena is Jewish. But a complicated kind of Jewish:
Her mother was in a mental institution for what was then called incurable melancholia. She had been there for some time after the death of a son. Irena’s father had turned from Judaism to Catholicism while comforted in his depression by a priest. I’m sorry to say the conversion didn’t really take. My friend was always like a fish out of water, an outsider in the Gentile world as well as an outcast in her family’s religious Jewish environment.
Irena and Krystyna are the best students in their school, the best singers. They become great readers and consumers of popular culture, especially from the USA. They graduate from Gymnazium and go on to Lyceum together. But they notice that things are changing. Anti-Semitism is creeping into places where they had never noticed it before. Then the war comes. In a gross miscalculation, Krystyna’s father moves the family to Warsaw just ahead of the Germans, because the town in which they’re living is home to an army base and he fears bombardment. Irena goes to Warsaw too. Thus begins a spiral downwards. Things go from bad to worse. . . then to worse to worse to worse, as the barbarity of the Nazis shocks the Poles’ notions of basic decency again and again.
Kyrstyna grows up quickly. At age 18, during the first conquest of Warsaw, she gets some minimal training and begins working at a local hospital:
My first patient to watch overnight was an elderly woman with her abdomen ripped by shrapnel. The smell, the sight, the sounds of her moaning stayed with me for a long time [. . .] She died before sunrise.
Her Air Force cadet beau has escaped to England, she learns, though not all of his classmates were so lucky. At the hospital she meets and falls hard for a charming and talented doctor twelve years older than she is. He turns out, alas, to be con artist and compulsive gambler–things she finds out too late, after impulsively eloping. Before her twentieth birthday she’s married with a young child, living in an unheated ski chalet in the mountains as her husband hits the resorts to run up gambling debts and a string of girlfriends. Abandoned, she goes back to her mother in the city just as things get really bad, in 1942 and 43. With her young son in the care of her mother, she gets work waiting tables.
I don’t want to summarize the whole book, but let me here relate two profoundly moving tales of the deaths of two people she loved deeply.
[Kyrstyna’s father] was coming back from Warsaw on a train and was met at the station by another neighbor with the warning: “Don’t go to the Malinowski’s apartment– Gestapo is there.” My father’s answer, we were later told was, “There must be some mistake; they don’t speak German and I do. I must go in and help.”
So, thinking that he could reason with Nazis and clear up a misunderstanding, he wound up instead in Auschwitz where he died some months later, just shy of his 50th birthday, subsequent to a kick to the head when he was prostrate with typhoid. His prisoner number was “only” 1044. “[H]e died before the entire death machine was put into operation.”
Upon hearing of her father’s death Krystyna goes to her mother’s home:
We got home and walked into the kitchen to embrace our mother. Our good neighbor from upstairs had an enormous pot on the stove full of black dye.
Her clothes were being dyed for the traditional 13 months of mourning, she explains. And indeed, of all the blurry snapshots in the book, including the one on the back cover of the author helping a wounded soldier under fire during the Uprising, the most moving photo in the book is the snapshot of the fetching young woman dressed in black walking down a Warsaw street with two young friends, a man and a woman. They’re smiling, but there seems to be dread on their faces too.
Eventually her sister Hanka would also be taken by the Gestapo, at age 18, and sent to a concentration camp. She survived; barely. Meanwhile Irena, Krystyna’s childhood friend, is in Warsaw with her boyfriend Fred, who passes for a Pole. Irena and Krys are still each other’s best friends. Fred and Irena get married; they find a “safe house” and try to wait out the war (by then virtually all Jews had been herded into ghettos or death camps). But although Irena and Fred have someplace to stay, they are blackmailed by their landlady who constantly threatens to betray them. A policeman informs Irena that the Gestapo have been notified; soon they will come for her. Irena knows that this might spell the end for the landlady as well as for herself and her husband: the penalty for harboring a Jew is death. So Irena takes the only way she can see out. Seven O’Clock one morning, Fred brings Krys the news:
The news was too horrible to believe–Irena was dead. She had taken cyanide [. . .] and gone out into a potato field to die. Hard to believe, but her noble soul did not want to endanger her tormentors.
Irena’s husband survived the war and later remarried. We don’t learn what became of the landlady.
The horrible and yet utterly compelling thing about Krystyna is that these vignettes of tragedy and suffering appear on page after page.
This book reminds one of Art Speigleman’s Maus, not simply because of its setting amid the unrelenting horror of Nazi-occupied Poland, but also because of the stoicism, the matter-of-fact-ness of its narrator. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
Like Maus, this book has dozens of harrowing stories but also a happy ending, of sorts (actually much happier ending than that other book’s). But Krystyna is not a “feel-good” book by any stretch. I’m very glad that I read it, but I cannot say that I feel good about it.
The author does not glory in these tales. You get the sense that she is telling them reluctanly, out of a sense of obligation, a bearing of witness. During the Nazi times everything was perverted, and Krystyna takes no pleasure in remembering those days.
One occasion which promised joy–a wedding– turned to abject horror when the priest, ashen-faced, tells the assembly that the marriage will not be performed; everyone must leave the church:
I beheld a sight I’ll never forget: a cordon of German soldiers with machine guns surrounded the church, three trucks waiting, everyone loaded on them by force, and the people in adjoining streets standing in horrified silence.
Evidently the groom really was a key member of the resistance, as were his groomsmen, and nearly everyone at the wedding, male and female, was sent to the camps. Krys escaped that encounter with luck and a clever fib. She did what she needed to do to stay alive. Later she says,
So, if by now you have concluded that I was not an Underground heroine, you are right. My father was dead; my sister was in a concentration camp. I had no help from my ex-husband but a family to feed [. . .]Mostly I was in waiting for when the need arose.
It wasn’t long until the need did arise; and when it did, she did not fail. Now she has given us this poetic little gem of a book. She’s a hero to me, that’s for sure. Even her post-war efforts to get her marriage annulled (on top of everything else, her husband was a bigamist; lucky for her!) and to get a visa for her and her son are filled with edge-of-your-seat tension and conspicuous bravery. What a story.
Because there’s no publication information printed in the book, I’m reluctant to give out the address or phone number of this 86 year old author. But how about this: if you would like a copy, write to mail in care of wetmachine, and I’ll enquire how to get one for you.
Jager’s book, Whales of WWII, is the book that Radar O’Reilly (of the TV show M*A*S*H) would have written if he had been on an LST in the Second World War instead of in a M*A*S*H during the Korean War. (An LST is a boat that can hold two dozen tanks and a few dozen trucks, plus their personnel. It’s designed to beach itself at low tide, unload its cargo, and retreat at high tide. LSTs have been likened to the whale who disgorged Jonah on the beach, hence the title of the book. Navy men say that LST stands for “long slow target”.)
According to Joseph Campbell, the classic hero’s tale concerns a young man who goes off on some dangerous quest and comes back older, sadder, wiser, transformed by all he has seen and done. By that criterion, Whales of WWII is a hero’s tale waiting to happen. Jagers comes across as a true innocent, almost a Forrest Gump, who changes little from the day he goes into the Navy until the day he comes out, despite a remarkable bunch of adventures that you would think would transform anybody. From a dangerous sea crossing to an appendectomy in a British field hospital in the Sahara, to a Pynchonic quest to find his ship after his surgery, to participation in all the major amphibious assaults of the European theatre, to getting blown across the room by a blast from a V2 rocket in London, Jagers saw, first hand, as much war as any sane person would ever hope to see. It didn’t seem to affect him much.
Through it all Jagers does what he’s told, respects authority, studies hard, performs bravely, keeps his nose clean.
A true “goody two shoes”, Jagers writes in several places about efforts of his shipmates to get him drunk; they failed. On those rare occasions when the ship’s company were granted shore liberty, while other sailors ran off to get drunk and get laid, Jagers went off, evidently alone, to look for the nearest Chinese restaurant, or, more often, the nearest Catholic church. On leave between battles, he tells us, he served as an altar boy in Italy and England. In England he found a convent of nuns who provided pleasant company, they in turn introduced him to a monastery where the monks instructed him in beekeeping. The young sailor of these pages appears to be that rarest of things, a man you CAN keep down on the farm, after he’s seen Paree.
Ironies abound. Jagers got a Purple Heart from a bit of flying shrapnel when a lone bomber attacked his squadron in North Africa — but came away without a scratch from some of the bloodiest assaults in Navy history.
The book, 180 pages, of which 20 pages are notes and about 10 are maps, illustrations and photos, has no chapters; rather it’s organized, roughly chronologically, as a series of short stories interspersed with naval or military lore and WWII history. My biggest complaint about the book is that it’s written at the level of a grade schooler; it would be appropriate reading for a fifth grader. The prose is amateurish. Simple declarative sentences follow each other: “I did this. I saw that. I did something else.”
You can get used to that monotonic delivery; it’s almost like Hemmingway or James Elroy! What’s more disconcerting is that everything told in the book has the same emotional weight. Jagers, who after the war became a career chemical engineer, has great powers of observation about mechanical things. But evidently he has essentially no ability to read people, and no displayed capacity for reflection or introspection. Deep questions about the war are not so much unanswered as unasked, and I was dismayed that he apparently went through several years on a very tiny vessel through astoundingly dangerous and exciting times without making a single friend. Or rather I should say, if he made a friend, he doesn’t mention him in the book. He comes across as an oddly cold fellow.
Commonplace facts about the war that any reasonably informed adult might be expected to know are interleaved with truly compelling stories that are unique to this book. One such story tells how the captain of LST 351, on the night of the invasion of Sicily, their first assault, was drunk. (As signalman, Jagers was in a position to observe this first hand.) Ignoring direct orders to “heave to” four miles offshore, the captain (who was from the Merchant Marine, not the Navy) steamed up virtually to the beach and dropped anchor. When dawn came they found themselves alone, and in the sights of German 88s. Shells began to fall closer and closer as the Germans found their range. Finding the anchor winch broken, the sailors had to cut the anchor chain with an acetylene torch before they could get out of danger. Who could make up a great story like that? It’s gold! But Jagers nearly makes it dull, and he burries it between sections that could have been lifted from a grade-school history of the war. I don’t want to sound mean, but it does take a certain talent to make that story–about a drunken captain from the Merchant Marine nearly getting a landing ship blown to smithereens to kick off the first amphibious landing in Europe–almost boring. Jagers has that talent.
Nevertheless Whales of WWII is a great book simply by virtue of the abundance of vignettes like the one above and the amount of actual lived history contained in its pages. The writing is, to be blunt, childish, as are the illustrations. But what a tale! Holy Cow! If you’re a fan of Gravity’s Rainbow, or Catch 22 you’ve got to pick this up for the sheer abundance of war absurdities that Jagers reports. Pynchon and Heller would be envious.
Lest it seem that I’m dismissive of Jagers’s service, let me make clear how much I admire and respect what he and so many others did. In the same matter-of-fact way that he describes everything else in the book, Jagers tells how, on DDay, with its decks full nearly to overflowing with angry, hard to manage German prisoners, LST-351 was ordered to take on several hundred severely wounded American GI’s for the return trip to England. After several hours on guard duty, during which he was one of 3 sailors ordered to keep 350 prisoners under control–and that after more than a day with no sleep during which he took part in the freekin’ invasion of Normandy, for the love of God– he spent the next 15 hours administering morphine and changing bandages for severely wounded American soldiers. We are talking about superhuman endurance, strength, bravery, and decency, which Jagers clearly has in abundance, and for which he was one of five sailors to receive the Admiral’s Commendation for his performance of duties at DDay, one of Jager’s five medals. So no, I’m not making fun of this guy. I just wish he had had a ghostwriter, or at least a gifted editor to work with. His wonderful memoir deserves at least that much.
Whales of WWII
Robert B. Jagers
35509 Heritage Lane
Farmington, MI 48335
I bought this book for $15 at the LST 325 Memorial (a restored LST) in Evansville, Indiana one excruciatingly hot day last July. I was honored to go there with my mother-in-law Jo Burton, who, along with her late husband Gene Burton, worked at the Evansville Shipyards during the war, building hundreds of these crazy, astonishing, incredible workhorse warships. If you’re ever near Evansville, I highly recommend taking a few hours for a guided tour of the vessel. The (volunteer, vet) tour guide we had was friendly and knowledgeable. Try not to go when it’s so dang hot out. Sure, the sailors had it worse during the war, but roaming the bowels of that ship when it was 100F outside was hell enough!
Thank you, Krystyna! Thank you, Signalman Jagers!
It’s perhaps a trite commonplace, but it’s nevertheless true, that it was Robert, Krystyna and millions of ordinary, extraordinary folks like them who defeated the Nazis and saved the world for you and me. For that, and for taking to time and trouble, in the twilight of their lives when they have well earned their rest, to write these wonderful memoirs, we are doubly in their debt.