A wise guy in both senses of the phrase, the late Ernst Pawel admits in this memoir of his first 30 years that “even as a very small child . . . most grown-ups struck me as dim-witted, crude and devoid of imagination, an opinion I [later] saw no reason to change.”
Pawel is known for his biographies of Franz Kafka (“The Nightmare of Reason”) and of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl (“The Labyrinth of Exile”). He wrote “Life in Dark Ages” while undergoing treatment for the lung cancer that killed him in 1994. His story skirts the twin abysses of the Holocaust and of Yugoslavia’s fratricidal slaughter during World War II.
Still, Pawel never quite stopped being the bright, irreverent 14-year-old who arrived in Belgrade in 1934 with his parents, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.
Even near death, he retained his combativeness and his sense of humor.
He peppers his account with blasts at “twerps,” “morons” and “goons” he has known, at the latter-day “Holocaust industry” and at “thought police” both Marxist and religious, only rarely backtracking to apologize.
Partly this is temperament: Pawel was the sort who would rather mock than weep, rather be shrewd and incisive than strain after profundity. Partly it’s a modest refusal to play on our sympathy: “Dumb luck,” after all, kept his family out of the cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
In Belgrade, Pawel went to school, worked in a bookstore and joined clandestine Communist and Zionist youth groups. Some of the most vivid portraits in “Life in Dark Ages” are of teen-agers who braved police torture, dreamed of kibbutz life in Palestine and volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Few survived the later bloodletting among Nazis, anti-communist Chetniks and Tito’s Partisans.
Pawel’s main contribution to the underground was faintly comic: translating Marx’s “Das Kapital” and a Wilhelm Reich sex manual from German into Serbo-Croat. He never had his “courage put to the test” in the dungeons of Yugoslavia’s Red Squads.
The same luck, and family connections, brought him and his parents to the United States in 1938.
Pawel liked America from the first. Its public libraries were full of books “whose possession back in Belgrade would have meant jail or worse.” Political debate was civil. (“In Berlin or Belgrade you didn’t argue with your enemies; you hit them.”) The U.S. Army treated it as a joke when Pawel, who had never driven a motor vehicle before, backed a truck clean through a supply shed at a base in Georgia. “My kind of army,” he concludes, “my kind of country.”
The second half of the book feels hurried. Pawel was running out of time; understandably, he preferred to sum up the lessons of his life--often in pungent aphorisms-- rather than linger over the details.
But he leaves out almost everything about his courtship and marriage in 1942 in favor of sketches of eccentric employers and wartime acquaintances--an error he surely wouldn’t have made in a biography of somebody else.
A final chapter written by Pawel’s daughter Miriam tries to correct this imbalance.
She describes him not only as a writer and translator fluent in six languages but as a devoted husband and father, political gadfly, suburbanite and jogger.
In 1944, stationed in Italy as a liaison between U.S. Army intelligence and the Partisans, Pawel met some of his old Belgrade comrades.
Assessing Tito’s planned takeover, one predicted:
“If the Communists turn soft, if . . . they not only proclaim democracy but practice it, there will be no Yugoslavia. The Chetniks and the Ustashe and the Muslims and the Albanians, not to mention hundreds of those roving gangs of bandits . . . will be back killing them and each other.
“In that case, maybe there ought to be no Yugoslavia.
“He shrugged. ‘They’ll still find ways of killing each other.’
“Lately I have often thought of that conversation, held . . . half a century ago.”
The Dark Ages, in other words, weren’t over.