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The Taste of Ashes
Apr 18 2013

Marci Shore, Yale University

Oskar has just killed himself. After waiting a quarter century, he returned to Prague only to find it was no longer his home. With his memorial service, Yale historian and prize-winning author Marci Shore leads us gently into the post-totalitarian world. In Warsaw middle-aged secretaries drink tea and play “Dancing Queen” at the war crimes archive, where young researchers read about babies tossed into fires. The daughter of a notorious Stalinist remembers the Stalinist years, her childhood, as the time of the brightest colors, the time when she belonged to the avant-garde of the world. At a Passover seder in Vilnius, an aging vocalist wearing gold lamé sings in Yiddish, before the band begins to play Red Army battle songs to a disco beat.

The Taste of Ashes extends from Berlin to Moscow, moving from Vienna in Europe’s west through Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw and Bucharest to Vilnius and Kiev in the post-communist east. Marci Shore, an American, builds her history around people she came to know over the course of the two decades since communism’s fall: her colleagues and friends, Jews and non-Jews, the once-communists and once-dissidents, the accusers and the accused, the interrogators and the interrogated, Zionists and Stalinists and their children and grandchildren. We meet a professor of literature who as a nine year-old child played chess with the extortionist who had come to deliver him to the Gestapo, and an elderly Trotskyite, whose deformed finger is a memento of seventeen years in the Soviet gulag. In a Bohemian village, parents who had denounced their teenage dissident daughter to the communist secret police plead for understanding. For all of these people, the post-communist moment has not closed but rather has summoned the past: revolution in 1968, Stalinism, the Second World War, the Holocaust. The collapse of communism opened the archives, illuminating the tragedy of twentieth-century Eastern Europe: there were moments in which no decisions were innocent, in which all possible choices caused suffering.

As the author reads pages in the lives of others, she reveals the intertwining of the personal and the political, of love and cruelty, of intimacy and betrayal. The result is a lyrical, touching, and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of how history moves and what history means.

Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University. She is the translator of Michał Głowiński's The Black Seasons and the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation's Life and Death in Marxism, 1918-1968 (Yale University Press, 2006) and The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe (Crown, 2013.) Currently she is at work on a book project titled “Phenomenological Encounters: Scenes from Central Europe,” an examination of the history of phenomenology and existentialism in East-Central Europe.
The Taste of Ashes Audio