Slavonic item of the month : September 2014

Front cover of Al'bum politv'iaznia by Paladii Osynka (CCC.62.121).

Front cover of Al’bum politv’iaznia by Paladii Osynka (CCC.62.121).

The University Library is currently running a small exhibition of Ukrainian diaspora material from the Peter Yakimiuk Collection in the main entrance hall.  The September item of the month is also from this collection – a book of drawings and wry caricatures of the horrors of Auschwitz seen through the eyes of a Ukrainian political prisoner.

Petro Balei was a Ukrainian writer and nationalist who emigrated to North America after World War II, a very common background among authors whose work is represented in the Yakimiuk Collection.  The majority of books by such authors in the collection usually cover Ukrainian history and politics, including personal narratives of active engagement in fighting during the war.  Balei’s work, however, is rather different – under the pseudonym Paladii Osynka, he produced a book of caricatures of life in Auschwitz, where he spent several years as a political prisoner. 

Al’bum politv’iaznia (Album of a political prisoner; CCC.62.121) contains 15 cartoonish drawings in coloured pencil depicting life (and death) in the most notorious of Nazi concentration camps.  Each drawing is accompanied by a caption in Ukrainian and English (the latter translated, often rather idiosyncratically).  Some scenes are purely horrible, such as one showing selection for the gas chamber, but often the picture and/or caption demonstrate a certain wry humour.  One drawing, for example, shows two men with deeply unpleasant smiles on their faces.  The caption explains that these are examples of the camp’s ‘aristocracy’ – a blokovyi (block leader) and a heavily tattooed kapo (the standard word used to stand for these notorious prisoner functionary positions in the death camp system). 

While this kind of book is rare in the Yakimiuk Collection, it complements very neatly another of the Library’s recently donated collections.  The ground-breaking Chadwyck-Healey Liberation Collection contains works published from the Liberation of Paris to the end of 1946 dealing with the French experience of the war, including a great deal of pictorial material and also books by concentration camp survivors.  This collection is the subject of the main current Library exhibition: ‘Literature of the Liberation: the French experience in print 1944-1946’.  Both this and the Yakimiuk exhibition (‘Ukraine Abroad: the Yakimiuk Collection’) are free to readers and the public alike, and both end on Saturday 11 October 2014. 

The Library of Congress Name Authority File, which aims to give every published author a standardised and unique bibliographic identity, currently has Balei and Osynka listed as entirely unrelated individuals.  The book provides only a faint clue of a link in the appearance of the initials ‘PB’ in Cyrillic in the corner of each internal drawing, but several websites make the connection explicitly.  Petro Balei (1912-2003) was imprisoned in two concentration camps: first in the 1930s, under the Poles, in the Bereza Kartuska camp, and later for several years in Auschwitz under the Nazis.  These two incarcerations suggest strongly that he was a prominent, or certainly committed, Ukrainian nationalist.  Many online biographies (here, for example, and here) only, however, list the periods of his imprisonment and not the reasons for it.  Via a Displaced Persons Camp, Balei eventually moved to America where he worked in agriculture.  This book is the only one for which he used the pseudonym Osynka.  Changes have been submitted to Library of Congress for application to the Balei and Osynka authorities; once these changes have been incorporated, the two will make clear reference to each other. 

The book’s introduction makes clear that its publication is aimed to counteract criticism of Ukrainian participation in the war.  The English introduction begins ‘There is no doubt that in World War II the Ukrainian nation took part in common with other freedom-loving peoples.  Nevertheless, this day, the Ukrainian war efforts have not been justly valued by anybody.’  Intense bitterness about this part of the war continues, tragically, to this day.  The introduction emphasises the Ukrainian fight against the Nazis (including mention both of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army and of Ukrainians in the Soviet Red Army) and also refers to the huge Ukrainian losses in Nazi concentration camps. 

The book’s first caption starts ‘Arbeit macht frei – work makes you free.  What irony.  It frees you only from life.’ 

The Slavonic item of the month feature aims to celebrate, through examination of particular pieces, the diversity and riches of Cambridge University Library’s Slavonic collections.  It has been running since April 2013.  Items featured in previous months can be found here on the Slavonic webpages.

Mel Bach

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