I have been reading The Golden Apple of Samarkand by Lala Wilbraham, a wonderful new book which has evaded the reviewers, perhaps because it is about the Polish aristocracy, a most unfashionable subject. Ostensibly, it tells the story of Lala’s family, the Tyszkiewicz, Catholic Poles from Lithuania, before and over the course of the 20th century, but in many ways it is about every family living in Central Europe and Eastern Europe at the time.
The book interests me personally because my own family, Poles from Galicia, now Ukraine, lived through the same kind of hell as the Tyszkiewicz at the hands of the Russians and the Germans. Dead babies thrown from Siberia-bound trains; the 80-year-old woman clutching the photograph of her son who died aged 19 in Auschwitz; the alcoholic cousin, who did survive Siberia, but who can’t seem to get on in life – we all have the same stories, the same characters, the same reality.
It almost feels like an indulgence reading this stuff, and I find myself feeling desperate for my British friends and family to read it too, to understand what these people lived through – to understand the backdrop to my mother’s childhood, the pain that lives on in the children and grandchildren of those who were persecuted. It is a yearning that I believe all Poles have, a yearning to be listened to and understood. But why would you listen, when what you are hearing is so unimaginably terrible it doesn’t bear thinking about?
It reminds me of an episode in another book published last year, The Volunteer, by Jack Fairweather, about Witold Pilecki, the Pole who got himself arrested and locked up in Auschwitz so that he could gather intelligence which he then sent to the Polish government in exile in London, which was passed on to the British and American governments. His horrific reports of gas chambers were completely ignored by the authorities with one man in the foreign office observing, “Poles are being very irritating over this.”
And perhaps it is irritating to be informed or reminded of the atrocities our fellow man is capable of. There certainly seems to be a tendency among the British, where life has been comparatively cushy for most, to write off the really terrible news, the nasty facts, as “conspiracy theories” because they do not align with the comfortable narrative. But crazy things really do happen.
Back to The Golden Apple of Samarkand, which is not remotely irritating, but is really a tale of the power and triumph of faith in the face of supreme evil and adversity. “It is a story of clinging to one’s moral compass in spite of the ever-shifting loyalties imposed by history and geography, of willing oneself to be a Phoenix and not losing one’s core,” writes the author.
Thoroughly researched over a period of 30 years, this memoir is about a family which, before the outbreak of the First World War, used its power and influence to build churches, hospitals and fire stations for the local community. When the war broke out, they gave up their home for wounded soldiers, and eventually fled for their lives with the last of the Romanovs, the lucky ones who managed to escape on HMS Marlborough from Yalta in 1919.
During the Second World War, the author’s grandfather was killed by the Russians, and her father, aunt and grandmother sent to work camps in Siberia which they miraculously survived, eventually settling in Brazil via Argentina, where Lala Wilbraham was born.
What makes the book so readable is the wit and humanity of the author and her characters. It is gripping, moving and often hilarious in its descriptions of human relationships and the human condition – from the little girl desperate for her errant mother’s fragrant embrace to the sister-in-law with a mania for hygiene, to the divorcee longing for her children to grow up so she can move to England and become a Benedictine nun at Stanbrook Abbey, which the author’s mother eventually does.
We all know that millions of people, including millions of Christians, are being persecuted across the world and, in a more subtle way, on our own doorsteps every single day for no justifiable reason.
I think it is important to read books like Lala’s from time to time to allow ourselves to really contemplate the terrible facts so that we remain vigilant to the horrors that man is capable of, but also to remind ourselves of the power of faith and humour in the most desperate of times.
This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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