The First Polka

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Lost provinces are the true literary provinces, so the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth once claimed. This dictum has certainly proved prophetic of much of Germany’s literature after 1945. The provinces which the German nation lost as a result of World War II have continued to provide an amazingly fertile ground for the German literary imagination. Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1961; Die Blechtrommel, 1959) is only the most famous example of a whole generation’s obsessive look homeward. What Grass in his novel did for his native Danzig (now Gdansk), such noted German authors as Johannes Bobrowski, Siegfried Lenz, and Christa Wolf have undertaken for their German roots in Lithuania, East Prussia, and the now Polish part of the province of Brandenburg.

To this remarkable array of historical farewells and literary reclamations must now be added Horst Bienek’s tetralogy on the Upper Silesian city of Gleiwitz (now Gliwice). The First Polka (published in Germany in 1975 as Die erste Polka), the first novel of this “Gleiwitz Suite,” has recently become available in a revised translation by Ralph R. Read; translations of the other three novels in the tetralogy, Septemberlicht (1977), Zeit ohne Glocken (1979), and Erde und Feuer (1982), have been announced as forthcoming.

Although a family plot clearly dominates the action of The First Polka, Bienek has emphatically declared that not the decline of a family, but the decline of a provincial culture, stands at the center of his intentions. It is, therefore, against the historical background of Upper Silesia—a region which Bienek almost proudly proclaims the strangest and craziest province of old Germany—that the fortunes of the Piontek family receive their larger significance.

Upper Silesia seems to have been condemned to serve as one of history’s perennial bones of contention. Colonized by Germans but governed by nobles of Polish descent, it was fought over by Czechs and Poles, by Catholics and Protestants, by Prussians and Austrians. It was Prussia that prevailed for a time, turning this province with its rich deposits of coal and ore into an industrial center second in Germany only to the Ruhr district. After the German defeat in World War I, however, Poland renewed its claim to the area. In 1921, Germany was forced to give up two-thirds of Upper Silesia’s industrial region while permitted, however, to keep the larger share of the province as a whole. With an internationally supervised settlement in place, relations between Silesians on both sides of the border developed surprisingly smoothly until, under Adolf Hitler, national hatred was stirred up again. This process culminated on the evening of August 31, 1939, when SS troops, posing as Polish insurgents, stormed the radio station in Gleiwitz in order to give Hitler a justification for his invasion of Poland, which he had planned for the next morning.

Gleiwitz, Bienek’s home for the first sixteen years of his life, was one of the industrial strongholds that had remained in German hands after 1922. By 1939, six years of Hitler’s propaganda had instilled in the people a greater sense of German identity and pride. Nevertheless, even then much of their nationalism was tinged with a goodly portion of sheer opportunism and rarely reflected a close adherence to the official ideology of racial superiority. Too close were the ties with Silesians across the border. After all, with them, the people of Gleiwitz shared what counted most: their devoted, often superstitious Catholicism, their unflinching willingness to submit to hard work, their predilection for schnapps, their inarticulate, guilt-ridden sexuality. There even existed the strange hybrid of a common language, Water Polish, as it was called, a curious mixture of German and Polish words and grammatical structures. On both sides of the border, people shared an awareness of a common history which had seen them exploited by all of their neighbors, who invariably coveted the land while despising its inhabitants.

The political and cultural ambiguities of Upper Silesia were perhaps never as obvious as they were during the fifteen years that followed World War I, a time in which neither Germany nor Poland was strong enough to dominate the region. Bienek introduces this period into his novel rather ingeniously. In the late 1930’s, when political forces on both sides demanded narrow national choices from the mixed population, the Catholic half Jew Georg Montag attempts to reach a sense of personal identity by probing the national choice of Upper Silesia’s dominant political figure of the 1920’s: The fictitious Montag sets out to write a biography of the historical Wojciech (Adalbert) Korfanty.

Elected to the Prussian Diet in 1903, Korfanty forsook his political career in Germany and became the most effective spokesman of the Polish cause in Upper Silesia. Montag wonders what might have induced Korfanty to choose one nationality over the other. After several years of research into Korfanty’s life, it suddenly dawns on him that in Upper Silesia, the choice of a national identity inevitably bears the arbitrariness of an existential decision. From time to time, history seems to demand such arbitrary, uncharacteristic choices from the Upper Silesian. Unfortunately, such choices have always proved to be self-defeating for the inhabitants of the region. Korfanty, once hailed as Poland’s beloved son, soon found himself imprisoned and exiled by his chosen nation. Suspected by all, he was finally allowed to die in a hospital in Warsaw barely two weeks before the outbreak of the war.

Montag, as he works and reworks the jigsaw puzzle of Korfanty’s life, also succumbs in...

(The entire section is 2359 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Kirkus Reviews. LII, January 1, 1984, p. 2.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, April 26, 1984, p. 7.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 8, 1984, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, January 27, 1984, p. 65.

San Francisco Chronicle. March 11, 1984, p. 4.

Times Literary Supplement. March 25, 1977, p. 378.