Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2015:1
Review Section: Non Fiction
A first reaction to Åka skridskor i Warszawa might well be irritation: why the staccato language, faux-naïve tone and confusing use of the present tense? But enlightenment comes quickly: this story matters. It is funny, moving and frightening by turns. The stylistic eccentricities reflect the thought processes of the protagonist, as a child or a teenage girl or a grown woman who tells us about her life and her attempts to understand what happened to her.
Emilia grows up in a Warsaw that has just recovered from the devastation of World War II. She is a nice, clever girl who, with her older sister, enjoys the comforts of a well-heeled home funded by her father’s work as a lawyer (returning Jewish property to its owners) and her mother’s reckless ingenuity in working the dodgy ‘system’ created under the post-war communist regime. By 1967, the first signs of Soviet anti-Zionist zeal are manifest in Poland and, under Gomułka, anti-Semitism gradually becomes an overt policy. It infects the ‘March events’ of 1968, year of Europe-wide student rebellions, and is fuelled by resentment against Poland’s flagging economy. One consequence is the emigration of well over 10,000 Polish Jews between 1968 and 1972.
Emilia and her sister join the exodus and end up in Sweden. Their mother is too ill to travel and their father, his right to practise law abrogated, kills himself. He had barely escaped the death camps and could not endure the new wave of persecution. Children are not exempt from the taint: Emilia reflects on how abruptly her life changes, from having best friends to having none, from getting Excellent! to Fail: ‘Take the Polish teacher. She who used to praise me. Praise my essays. Made me read them aloud to the class. Who one day changes her mind. Doesn’t like my essays. Who since that day fails every single one.’
Degenius’s unsentimental, lucid and gently nostalgic narrative tells us of her Warsaw childhood and her anger at the grotesque unfairness of it all – anger that doesn’t so much drive the story-telling as seep into it through the gaps between the words. After forty or so years in Sweden, she can no longer resist the lure of the past and begins a tragi-comical search for somebody or something in Poland that she can return to. The passages of adult narration grow angrier as the struggle to extract sense from the current bureaucracy progresses. When Emilia finally ‘comes home’, little of what she remembers still stands in the new Euro-Poland. What was that past of hers – a dream?