Interesting book draws some unusual conclusions
We Americans are noted for our ignorance of world geography.
Few of us, I imagine, could distinguish Iraq from Iran on a map of the Middle East. Few of us could inform some inquisitive soul of the terrain of Afghanistan, though we have now spent years fighting wars there. Most of us, one would hope, could locate Mexico on a map, but what about Ecuador or Bolivia?
This is unfortunate —and I include myself among the unfortunate — for geography shapes the destiny of nations. Two thousand years ago, the Helvetians, a people in what is today Switzerland, feeling hemmed in by mountains and lakes, tried to migrate into Gaul, ran afoul of Julius Caesar, and so started the wars that brought what are now France, England, and Belgium France into the Roman sphere for four centuries, changing the history of that region forever.
The state slogan of West Virginia — “Montani semper liberi,” which is Latin for “Mountaineers are always free” — explains the history of places like Switzerland and Afghanistan. The great rivers of the world, providing both agricultural irrigation and ease of transportation, gave rise to thriving cities and in some cases, enormous kingdoms.
In her novel The Leaves Are Falling (Ignatius Press, 314 pages, 2014), English author and scholar Lucy Beckett takes us on a grim tour of geopolitical dangers — in this case, those of the Eastern Europeans who were caught between the monstrous war machines of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Using some of the characters from her previous novel, Postcards From The Volcano, a tale of Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, Beckett shows us the agony and suffering of those in Poland and Western Russia when caught between the armies of fascism and communism.
Beckett tells two stories in The Leaves Are Falling. In the first story, we meet Joseph Halpern, a Jewish boy whose family is destroyed by war and tyranny. After escaping near capture and certain death, Halpern joins a Jewish resistance movement, fighting both Nazis and Russians. Eventually, he survives the war and finds himself an emigrant to England. Here he works first on an English farm as a trainer and caretaker of horses, with some of his fellow workers being Nazi prisoners of war. After the war, he loses that position, but finds work in a second-hand bookstore in London specializing in music and German texts.
The second part of the novel follows Joseph’s father, the physician Jacob Halperin. He is in Poland’s military reserves and a prisoner of the Russians following the division of Poland between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Because of his profession, he is labeled by the Soviets as a “Polish lord,” in company with other army officers, university professors, prominent attorneys, and some Catholic priests.
Here Beckett shows us what it meant to be in such a camp: the continual brainwashing, the torture, the out-of-hand executions, the horrific living conditions. After much suffering, Halperin and his comrades are promised their freedom and loaded onto a train. But that journey ends not with home and family, but in Katyn Forest, where the Soviets murdered thousands of Polish leaders and then tried, with some success for many years, to blame their atrocities on Hitler and his Nazis.
At the end of The Falling Of Leaves, Beckett reunites us with Joseph Halpern. He is an old man, slowly dying but still cognizant of all he has witnessed. Here, through Joseph Halpern, Beckett issues a series of warnings regarding the condition of our world today. Halpern declares the European Union “complicated but also good.” Those in England who oppose it are “fascist.” Putin of Russia has tried to erase history by declaring hundreds of thousands of war dead “Russians” rather than Jews, Belorussians, or Ukrainians. American wars of the last 20 years are “stupid and cruel.”
Most interesting, however, is Beckett’s take on Israel, again delivered by the Jewish Halpern. He calls Israel “a nightmare,” “a colonizing monster of the nineteenth century,” and labels its people bullies. Halpern then states:
“America, the great, the wonderful, the so-called land of the free, is the example here, is it not? You take the best and the worst of Europeans. You put them in a new-found land. You pretend that it is empty land. And what happens? The worst, in the name of the best, shoot and kill, and say they are bringing civilization. In the desert of the South Hebron now Jews with guns drive away the old Arab people of the desert as if the Arabs are Red Indians in a cowboy film. Hitler loved cowboy films, you know. He would chase the Slavs, the Jews, from his Wild East.”
Here some readers might step back and wonder about Joseph Halpern’s conclusions, which are also the conclusions of the novel. Somehow, to lump America, Israel, and the Nazi Germans together makes a mess of history. Yes, each country has a tortured history, and yes, each country intimidated and killed others, but to equate them this way is a perversion of both history and common sense.