Louis Begley’s novel uses the device of an older man looking back on his childhood to tell a harrowing and resonant story. The older man, who does not provide his name, is a student of the classics, a man who looks to Vergil and Dante Alighieri for ways of dealing with his situation. He tells his own story almost unwillingly, but in the knowledge that it may be the only means he has of accepting his boyhood experience.
As a boy younger than ten, Maciek is coddled by his family. His father is a respected physician in their small Polish city; Maciek’s grandfather is a wealthy landowner who dotes on the boy and provides all kinds of amusement for him; his aunt Tania, although busy with her own life, in some ways takes the place of his dead mother, her sister. The family’s life is warm and full. Maciek’s precocious sexual investigations are accepted and even encouraged by the family’s maid, who provides the warmth Maciek does not always get from Tania. The opening section describes a kind of paradise.
All this changes when the Germans invade Poland in September, 1939, setting off World War II. The father joins the army and disappears when the Nazi war machine destroys the Polish forces in a few days. The occupying forces begin to conduct periodic roundups of Jews, and the remaining members of the family are saved from deportation only because Tania has gone to work for the Germans and proved herself to be an efficient worker. More important, she enters a liaison with Reinhard, a German civilian with some influence; he manages to keep the family safe from deportation for a time.
Eventually, however, it becomes clear that all Jews in the small city will be shot, deported, or herded into a ghetto, and Reinhard arranges for them to move to the larger city of Lwów, where they begin to pass as Gentiles. Their lives of deception have begun, and the family begins to fragment, living in separate places. Eventually, they are betrayed. Reinhard shoots the grandmother and himself to prevent their inevitable torture and murder. The grandfather, Tania, and Maciek manage to make their way to Warsaw, using forged papers. The grandfather finds a fairly secure place to live, but Tania and Maciek begin a nomadic life, living in a rooming house for a few weeks and then moving on when they think other roomers are becoming suspicious.
During this time, Maciek and his aunt grow very close. Unable to trust anyone, they can form no friendships, and for safety’s sake they do not see the grandfather often. They can confide only in each other. They must also rely on each other almost totally, since if either of them is caught in a lie or suspected of being Jewish, they will both be killed or sent to a concentration camp. They spend hours at night rehearsing their stories and preparing for any emergencies that may occur. Tania is a hard taskmaster, and Maciek resents the necessity for lying, even as he becomes wise and clever beyond his years.
They live in constant fear of disclosure: Other Jews may recognize them and blackmail them; Gentiles may suspect them and be tempted to turn them in for a possible reward; German patrols may demand to see their papers and discover that they are forgeries. Exchanging jewelry for money, which they must do to survive, is fraught with danger; the fence may turn out to be an informer who will take the jewels from Tania and turn her in to the Gestapo. To hide his identity, Maciek goes so far as to pretend that he is Catholic. At one of the rooming houses, they must sustain their false identities by joining the other roomers on the roof at night to watch the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto by the Germans.
There is some relief when they are befriended by one landlady, Pani Dumont, a Belgian who is the widow of a Polish engineer. She looks after them and arranges for Maciek to be tutored in French by a teacher friend of hers and to be given moral instruction by another roomer. Eventually, however, fear of detection drives them from this haven. Somehow, moving frequently, they manage to survive undetected until 1944. The tide of the war turns, and the Russian army invades Poland from the east. Everyone believes that the liberation of Warsaw is near, and the Polish partisans stage an uprising to drive the Germans out. The Russian advance inexplicably halts, however, and the Nazis bombard the city to put down the uprising and punish the Poles. Street fighting between the partisans and the Germans makes danger ever-present for the inhabitants. On a couple of occasions, Maciek and Tania are caught in the fighting and almost killed.
Finally, they are rounded up with other Poles and sent to the railroad station, where they are destined to be put on...
(The entire section is 1933 words.)