The First Polka, 1975

Irma Piontek

Irma Piontek (pee-ON-tehk), the daughter of Valeska and Leo Piontek. She marries a German soldier, whom she had met a few days before, in a civil ceremony. The reception is held in the most exclusive hotel in town.

Leo Maria Piontek

Leo Maria Piontek, a photographer, husband of Valeska, and father of Irma and Josel. Spurning commercial success, he has concentrated his work on photographing old castles and other landmarks. He also produced anti-Nazi political leaflets. He dies after returning home from the reception.

Josel Piontek

Josel Piontek (YO-zehl), the fifteen-year-old brother of Irma, a member of the Hitler Youth and the Bosco Bund, a religious organization. He rents a shed to German soldiers where they can take their women. The soldiers are in the area because they are preparing for the invasion of Poland. He leaves town on a freight train on Irma’s wedding night. He believes he has killed a German army sergeant who tried to rape Ulla Ossadnik, his girlfriend.

Ulla Ossadnik

Ulla Ossadnik (EWL-lah os-SAHD-nihk), a piano student and admirer of Frédéric Chopin. On her way to the reception, she witnesses the staged attack on the Gleiwitz radio station by the Nazis. This was Hitler’s excuse for invading Poland. She later becomes a famous pianist.

Georg Montag

Georg Montag (GAY-ohrg MOHN-tahg), a Catholic-Jewish magistrate who lives in the Piontek’s garden cottage. He commits suicide after finishing his biography of Wojciech Korfanty, a Polish politician. The suicide is prompted by hearing German soldiers in his yard.

September Light, 1977

Valeska Piontek

Valeska Piontek (vah-LEHS-kah), a widow and piano teacher. Her husband had died on the same night as Irma’s wedding. She arranges the funeral, including playing Chopin on a gramophone at the cemetery. She also arranges the funeral of Georg Montag, who is buried as a Catholic.

Josel Piontek

Josel Piontek, who learns that the sergeant lived but cannot identify his assailant. He returns for his father’s funeral. During the funeral, he slips a note to Ulla expressing his love for her. Afterward, he stops a gang of boys from abusing a boy from another part of town.

Irma Piontek

Irma Piontek, who reveals to her mother after the funeral that she is pregnant, not by her husband but by Kaprzik, the local “village idiot.” Irma had seduced the man to learn what sex was like.

Anna Ossadnik

Anna Ossadnik, the mother of Ulla and husband of Franz. Despite rearing a large family, she spends most of her time reading escapist novels. She wishes her husband was something more than a locomotive engineer. She and her family attend Leo’s funeral, but they are almost late because Ulla cannot find black stockings.

Arthur Silbergleit

Arthur Silbergleit (ZIHL-behr-glit), an old Jewish/Catholic writer, a friend of Herman Hesse and Stefan Zweig, and husband of Ilse. Although he is a native of Gleiwitz, he now lives in Berlin with his younger Aryan wife. While his wife is at work, he is visited at home by two government officials who inspect their apartment and hint that they will soon be thrown out. He decides to flee Berlin and take refuge with old friends, such as Georg Montag, in Gleiwitz. He stops by the Piontek house after Leo’s funeral to ask about Georg. Valeska agrees to accompany him to Georg’s grave the next day. Finally, Silbergleit meets his old friend Kochmann, also a Jew, who introduces him to Gleiwitz’s remaining Jewish community.

Time Without Bells, 1979

Irma Piontek

Irma Piontek, who has married again and is the mother of two children. She is accused of consorting with a Russian soldier.

Valeska Piontek

Valeska Piontek, who makes a fortune in real estate speculation.

Franz Ossadnik

Franz Ossadnik, who now transports Jews to the death camps every day in his job as a locomotive engineer. He wants to quit, but Anna persuades him to continue because they have never been so prosperous.

Josel Piontek

Josel Piontek, who has been drafted into military service.

Arthur Silbergleit

Arthur Silbergleit, who has been arrested and is transported on Franz’s train to a death camp.

Earth and Fire, 1982

Valeska Piontek

Valeska Piontek, who flees with her family to Dresden to escape the advancing Russian army. They survive the firebombing of Dresden.

Josel Piontek

Josel Piontek, a soldier in the German army. While in Dresden, he is recuperating from wounds suffered in combat.

Franz Ossadnik

Franz Ossadnik, who is arrested by the Russians. He objects to being called a Fascist because he has never been to Italy.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Fruhwald, Wolfgang. “Sprache als Heimat: Zu Horst Bieneks Gleiwitzer Tetralogie,” in Arbitrium: Zeitschrift fur Rezensionen zur germanistischen Literaturwissenschaft, 1984.

Hamburger, Michael. “Dance to the Sound of Gunfire,” in The Times Literary Supplement. March 25, 1977, p. 378.

Kott, Jan. “The First Polka: Coming of War, Coming of Age,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX (April 8, 1984), p. 26.

Kruger, Michael, ed. Bienek lesen, 1980.

Piontek, Heinz. “Oberschlesische Polka,” in Das Handwerk des Lesens, 1979.

Snead, James A. “Sun Rise, Sunset, Septemberlight,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCII (February 22, 1987), p. 35.