‘You’ve seen Warsaw. You know, as I know, that nothing more can be done. We have nothing left, neither light nor water nor food nor medicine nor ammunition. Not even clean air. But although we shall have to capitulate, the battle will go on.’
My chosen #1944book for Crimes of the Century is this WWII novel by Helen MacInnes, ‘the queen of spy writers’, which was set in the very recent and very painful past.
An English girl named Sheila Matthews finds herself stranded in Poland during the 1939 Nazi invasion and the Siege of Warsaw. Her family connections with the Polish resistance of the last War, her linguistic skills, and a badly-timed illness position her for a minor role in the newly-formed underground movement when it becomes clear that the defence of Poland has failed. However, a too-close-for-comfort encounter with the Gestapo leads Sheila (after a few dangerous misunderstandings) to a gruelling and filthy journey across the devastated Polish countryside towards a rendez-vous with the remnants of the Polish Army in an enormous forest.
I know how you feel. I came here the same way, not quite believing. Guerrilla army? A storybook adventure… something out of the Middle Ages… fantastic. Perhaps we are all these things, but we are also the only army left to a conquered country.
This is an ambitious book with quite a grand sweep – more than 600 pages. The Siege of Warsaw is described in heart-breaking detail. The Poles fight to the very last bullet but are unable to stand up to bombing, shelling, fire, starvation and tanks. The city falls bridge by bridge and street by street. Sheila holes up with some other ‘neutrals’ in a small apartment as the city falls apart, sustaining serious burns in an orphanage fire, and losing her close friend Barbara Aleksander.
The terrible suffering of Poland is humanised by the Aleksander family, Sheila’s hosts at the start of the book.
Barbara was a younger, more enthusiastic Madame Aleksander. Teresa was a miniature Barbara. Even Aunt Marta had the same wide-set blue eyes, broad brow, straight eyebrows, short nose, round chin. So had Andrew, the second oldest son, who lived in Warsaw. So had Uncle Edward. Only Stefan and Stanislaw, the eldest son, were different.
The Aleksanders crop up throughout the story in vignettes of desperation and courage.
The rapid transformation of Poland from a bucolic old-world nation still recovering its confidence after centuries of subjugation, to a beleaguered victim of total war, makes for a harrowing but compulsive story. Poles are robbed, starved, transported, betrayed by their Polish-German neighbours, and summarily shot in reprisal for any anti-Nazi activity. There are hints at the bigger picture of Nazi cruelty with mentions of Dachau. And yet they still find time for courage, humour… and love. The book’s final part describes Sheila’s reunion with Adam Wisniewski, a young cavalry officer who caught her eye in the opening chapter, and finds them with some hard choices to make.
If I have a criticism about While Still We Live, it’s that Sheila is a bit of a passenger. Towards the end of the book she proves she has some agency, and also that she is capable of stubbornly following her own agenda, which isn’t necessarily shared by anyone else. But for most of the story she is being told what to do and where to go by various father figures, and at the end there is a definite sense that chaps belong in charge. And yet she is intelligent, courageous, and has a facility for espionage. I’m sure she could have done a lot more on her own account.
However, this is definitely a book worth reading.
While Still We Live
First published 1944
This edition: Titan Books, 2013
676 pages in print
A Woman Reading: it was rather unheard of for a woman to write novels about men saving the world, fighting bad guys and getting (sometimes) the girl (Who may or may not be on the right side.) at the end. This was an era when it was perfectly fine, dare I say natural if women did not keep up with current events or know exactly why the world was about to explode into its second global conflict. But there was MacInnes in the literary thick of it all, brilliantly writing about the politics of the day in the most au courant of ways.
Sarah Weinman in the NYT: The most addicting quality of MacInnes’s novels is her utter lack of sentimentality. She was entirely without illusions about human nature. Her characters choose mates as much for love as for practicality; they are full of ambivalence and wary of ideology. To them, Communism, religion, nationalism are invitations to moral corruption and violence.