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Horst Bienek: Gleiwitz Tetralogy

Erzählen Sie mir nicht von den Helden und Opfern. Erzählen Sie mir von den einfachen Menschen und von dem gewaltigen Leben, wie es ist.” (Don’t talk to me about heroes and sacrifices. Talk to me about simple people and about a life of power, such as it is.)
Witold Gombrowicz, quoted at beginning of Zeit ohne Glocken.

“Alle reden vom Krieg, aber ausser das wir darüber in den Zeitungen lesen und auf die Verdunklung achten müssen und immer mehr Leute aus dem Reich zu uns kommen, weil sie dort bombardeirt werden und hier nicht, merken wir doch gar nicht, dass es Krieg est…” (Everyone talks about war but, except for what we read in the papers and that we have to worry about the black-out and that more people are coming to us from Germany because they are being bombed out there and we aren’t, we hardly notice that there is a war.) (from Zeit ohne Glocken)

These two quotes give an idea of what Bienek’s tetralogy is about. He is concerned about the ordinary people and how they try to live through the war and how it affects them. For most of them, they try to make do, get by. Most of them, of course, cannot. For others, particularly the young men, as in the second quote, they want the excitement. For most it is not about excitement but about getting by and about dealing with inconveniences.

The main story is about Valeska Piontek (Bienek’s mother’s maiden name) and her family and friends. We follow them on three specific days – 31 August, 1939, 4 September 1939 and Good Friday, 1943 and then during February 1945. Valeska’s husband dies at the end of the first novel, which, of course, is the day before the Second World War starts. Two of the boys overhear the fake transmission about the Polish invasion. As well as following the stories of the Piontek family and friends and other people in the villages, the novels also follow the story of the Jews of the town who are first placed in a special hostel and then, in Zeit ohne Glocken, transported to Birkenau, where they are executed.

Zeit ohne Glocken is perhaps the key novel. The main story concerns the removal of the church bells, which are to be melted down for armaments. For many of the characters – and this point is made forcefully – the removal of the bells, particularly as it takes place on Good Friday, symbolises the end of religion and religious values. Despite the quote from one of the young men given above, the war is starting to be driven home. Not only are the church bells being removed but now virtually everybody knows someone who has been killed in the war and more and more families are having to give up their young men. Valeska loses her servant, who is arrested for having an affair with a Russian forced labour worker. The Jews, of course, have long been aware of the effects of the war, having, even in the first book, tried to make arrangements to get out. The poet, Arthur Silbergleit, has even got Hermann Hesse to sponsor him in his attempt to get to Switzerland but is too late. By the time of Zeit ohne Glocken, the Jews are to be finally wiped out, as they are shipped off to Birkenau and exterminated. We follow Silbergleit in his final journey, as he is shipped with a group of Dutch Jews and as he makes friends with a Jewish lady from Hilversum, who had owned a hotel before the war. Bienek gives a very moving and poignant description of the final hours of Silbergleit and his companions who, till the last moment, are unaware of what is to happen to them.

But for the rest of the characters, they try to carry on. Valeska faces the trials and tribulations of any widow, left with a son to bring up, a married daughter with whom she often disagrees and a bachelor brother who, in her opinion, is making an unsuitable marriage. The final novel, Erde und Feuer (Earth and Fire), is perhaps the most unsatisfactory as it wanders well away from Gleiwitz and becomes predictable as we follow several groups who converge on Dresden, feeling sure that the English will not damage that city, with its beautiful art and only limited military importance. We, of course, know that that is not the case and the inevitable apocalypse is the climax of the novel and series. The lament by the poet for Dresden – even the British and Americans must feel it he naively surmises – completes what must be one of the best World War II novels.

Publishing history

Die erste Polka (The First Polka)
First published 1975 by Carl Hanser
First published in English in 1975 by Gollancz
Translated by Ralph R Read

Septemberlicht (September Light)
First published 1977 by Carl Hanser
Translated by Ralph R Read
First published in English in 1987 by Atheneum

Zeit ohne Glocken (Time Without Bells)
First published 1979 by Carl Hanser
First published in English in 1988 Atheneum
Translated by Ralph R Read

Erde und Feuer (Earth and Fire)
First published 1982 by Carl Hanser
First published in English in 1998 by Atheneum
Translated by Ralph Manheim