The Novels

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The first three books of the Silesian tetralogy narrate the fate of the border city of Gleiwitz (Gliwice) and its inhabitants on three single days before and during World War II: August 31, 1939, the night before the outbreak of the war in The First Polka; September 4, 1939, in September Light; and Good Friday, 1943, in Zeit ohne Glocken. The last novel, Erde und Feuer, concludes the tetralogy with events surrounding the end of the war and the westward flight of many of the city’s inhabitants. The omniscient narrator chronologically recounts the events of the family of the matriarch Valeska Piontek and her family—and to a lesser extent their acquaintances.

The First Polka revolves around the wedding of Irma Piontek and a soldier in the Third Reich, whom she met just days before. While the couple is married by the judge and not by the archpriest Pattas (a fact that troubles the devout Catholic Valeska immensely), the guests gather for the wedding celebration in the most exclusive hotel in town. On their way to the hotel, the two teenagers Ulla Ossadnik and Andreas, Valeska’s nephew, witness a strange civilian attack on the radio station in Gleiwitz. Several men get out of limousines and carry what looks like a body into the station. As it turns out, this incident, staged by the Nazis themselves, was then interpreted as an attack on the radio transmitter by Polish Nationalists and was used as grounds for the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany.

Uneasy about the events they have just witnessed but unaware of the immense political ramifications, the youngsters resume their trip to the hotel, where the wedding celebration has reached its climax. The dancing of the polka is taken as an expression of the ethnic qualities of the people in this border region. For the teenagers, this dance signifies a rite of passage in more than one sense. It is a culmination of their budding erotic feelings, and it opens the door to adulthood for them. (It is the first time they have danced the polka.) On a more somber note, it is also the last day of peace, the last day of innocence for them. In a few hours, the war will prematurely turn them into adults.

After much drinking and dancing, the fateful night ends with the bride’s brother, Josel Piontek, having to leave town. He is under the impression that he killed a German soldier who tried to rape Ulla, his childhood sweetheart, on their way home. The novel closes with Valeska’s return from the hotel to her bedridden husband, Leo Maria Piontek. Outwardly, he is suffering from asthma, but inwardly he is ailing from a general lack of will to live with a domineering wife who smothers her family with her love. As Valeska is describing the private events of the wedding, Leo Maria tells her about the public aspects of the night, the strange interruption of the radio program, followed by agitated Polish voices and then by silence.

The second novel, September Light, begins with the funeral of Leo Maria...

(The entire section is 1237 words.)