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Book Review

Memoir Explores One Man's Flight From Anti-Semitism

June 10, 2002|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IN LANDS NOT MY OWN

A Wartime Journey

By Reuben Ainsztein

Random House

272 pages; $24.95

*

"In Lands Not My Own" is the story of a man who felt himself to be a foreigner, even in the land where he was born. Reuben Ainsztein came into the world in 1917 in the Lithuanian city now called Vilnius. In the years after World War I, when Ainsztein was growing up there, the city was part of Poland and called Wilno.

As a Jewish child attending a Polish school, young Reuben at first had no difficulty harmonizing both traditions: "[T]he history of Poland appeared to me to have a moral sense, to have been the story of ... a constant fight against oppression, slavery and injustice. Yes, it seemed to me that Poland really was my country and the Poles really were my brothers; that no people in the world could better understand our misfortunes or sympathize with them more deeply. But very soon I learned how different reality was."

His young Christian contemporaries thought nothing of attacking Jews without provocation. Their parents only laughed at their antics. Nor was such behavior confined to the lower classes: "[A]s I grew up I saw university students attacking Jewish women and old men with heavy sticks." The boy sought role models elsewhere. At one point, Marxism seemed to hold all the answers. But just as the behavior of Poles gave the lie to the idealistic state mythology they mouthed, a Marxist whom he met seemed as fervid in her beliefs as any religious fanatic.

Ainsztein instead took as his role model that sterling figure straight off the pages of his favorite books: the Englishman. Nor did it hurt that the Polish-born Joseph Conrad had not only admired the English above every other group, but had also managed to transform himself into one of England's greatest modern novelists.

By 1936, Ainsztein, who hoped to become a doctor, had earned his secondary school diploma. But Polish anti-Semitism was on the rise, making it impossible for him to attend a university there. Instead, he went to study in Brussels. Acutely aware of the menace of Hitler, and still dreaming of following in Conrad's Anglophile footsteps, Ainsztein decided in 1937 to try to join the British armed forces. After repeated efforts, he was finally granted permission in February 1940 to join the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

But getting to England, once the Germans were occupying much of Europe, was another story, and it is this vividly remembered tale of his adventures that forms the bulk of this riveting memoir. Ainsztein's desperate efforts to flee Europe for England took him into a dangerously defeatist France and, from there, across the Pyrenees alone and on foot into Spain, where he was interned for over a year in a prison camp.

After his release, he finally made his way to England, where he became a gunner on the crew of an RAF bomber.

The final third of the book, dealing with his experiences in the RA, is as compelling as the story that leads up to it.

Moments of high drama--such as his journey across the Pyrenees--are rendered with clarity and immediacy: "My solitary figure coming down the mountain pass might have aroused ... suspicions, so I had to keep to wooded parts of the mountain, force my way among snow-laden saplings, wade through drifts, slide down uncovered soil, and travel quickly. The sun was setting, and I was still nowhere near the border. I soon learned that geography was not on my side. As the ranges were running from east to west and I was making south, I was doomed to climb and descend, and climb and descend again.... "

Fascinating in a different way are his accounts of the people and countries he encounters, and his reflections on their various national characters: Despite a history that includes the Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews, the Spaniards he meets do not strike him as exceptionally anti-Semitic.

His fellow Poles, however, seem to shrug off Hitler's racism (even when it is applied against them as being "inferior" Slavs) and applaud when told about Hitler's murder of the Jews.

When at last he boards a British destroyer for Gibraltar, he is "struck by the absence of all shouting or barking of orders and by the grinning faces of the men. To be among naval or military people who issued commands in conversational tones was an uncanny experience to all of us brought up in Poland and acquainted with a German kind of discipline. We immediately felt that there was something about the way these people ran their naval affairs that made them different from all other nations we had known. Their self-assured behavior impressed even the most stupid and arrogant among my companions."

Ainsztein, who died in 1981, worked as a researcher for the BBC and Reuters. He also wrote two well-regarded historical studies, "The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt" and "Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe."

The manuscript of this memoir, apparently written sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, was found in an attic by one of his relatives in 2000. It has all the sharpness of experience still fresh in the author's memory and almost none of the self-consciousness and guardedness that can come from writing with publication in mind.

One cannot know what audience, if any, Ainsztein envisioned when he sat down to put his story into words. But the result is a book that will provide a wide range of readers with a sense of what it was like to live through those years of danger, despair, struggle and hope.

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