I just finished reading this book. I became quite emotional at times.
Probably the notion of a daughter discovering her fathers past came close to
I would recommend this book
Joe's War: My Father Decoded by Annette Kobak, Knopf, 2004, 444 pages, 20
photos, 2 maps.
The only facts Annette Kobak knew about her father as she was growing up in
London were that he had been a soldier with the Polish army in World War II
and had ended up in London where he met and married the author's English
mother. Joe Kobak never talked about his life before or during the war. He
was moody and taciturn, sleeping with a hammer under his pillow. As the
author reached middle age she felt a need to "decode" her father's life and
thus come to a better understanding of her own. The result is this unusual
book - part memoir, part Joe's first-person narrative, part history, part
travel adventure story.
The absorbing first chapter gives us a portrait of the family's life in grim
post-war London. Joe worked as a civil servant and got a physics diploma
through correspondence courses. He became a British citizen. Through it all
the "iron curtain" of his silence remained in place. In 1971 the author's
parents emigrated to Australia and it is on her visits there that Annette
was finally successful in getting her father to talk about his past. She
found out that Joe was born of Polish parents in Czechoslovakia and always
felt that he had two homelands. The family moved when he was thirteen across
the border to the Polish village of Baligr�d in the Carpathians. When war
broke out he was a student in Lw�w. On November 1, 1939 Lw�w, as part of
western Ukraine, was "incorporated" into the USSR. Arbitrarily arrested by
the Russians, Joe escaped and made his perilous journey home to Nazi
occupied Baligr�d. He was an expert skier and helped to take some refugees
across the border to Slovakia. The Gestapo put a death warrant out for him
and Joe escaped on skis to Slovakia, then on to France where he fought with
the Polish forces. He was evacuated to Britain when France fell. For the
last four years of the war Kobak was assigned to a unit with a top-secret
duty to listen to and decode Russian signals. He lived in fear of possible
Soviet reprisals against him and his family until the dissolution of the
Soviet Union. Thus protective silence became entrenched in his nature.
Through Joe Kobak's wartime odyssey his daughter examines the history of
Poland and Czechoslovakia in World War II and the many betrayals endured by
these countries at the hands of the Allies. The author is a writer, not a
historian - but the book is well researched and documented. Joe's narrative
and the history chapters are interspersed with Kobak's commentary as she
retraced some of Joe's wartime travels in 2001.
There are extensive chapters about Czechoslovakia's prewar history and its
heroes, Masaryk and Benes. Kobak's writing is perceptive and her
observations enliven the historical texts. The recounting in some detail of
the sellout of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938 reads almost like a
thriller, as she describes how Hitler "drew circles" around Chamberlain and
easily outmaneuvered him.
Kobak writes about the Nazi Blitzkrieg against Poland in September 1939 and
covers the major events of the war and postwar periods. The chapter on
General W�adys�aw Anders is particularly effective, describing the formation
and exploits of the Polish Second Corps, including the Battle of Monte
Casino in 1944. The author quotes extensively from Anders's diaries and
memoirs so one glimpses the personality behind the myth.
In 2001 Kobak traveled by train and by foot from Lw�w to Baligr�d, retracing
the journey her father had taken in 1939. She provides a vivid description
of this harrowing trip during the course of which she discovered some traces
of the genocidal war fought between Ukrainian and Polish partisans in 1944.
Kobak discusses the roots of the enmity between Poland and the Ukraine.
At the end of her "odyssey" into Joe's past, Annette Kobak comes to
understand the Czech and Polish experience of the war. The result is an
often engrossing, informative work. The extensive historical accounts will
satisfy some readers while others might wish for more of Joe's personal
story. Kobak's broad focus, nevertheless, will attract many readers.
Fellow at Kingston University, 2005-08
Annette Kobak is a writer and broadcaster. She recently read her book Joe's
War: My Father Decoded as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4. Described as a
'super-eclectic mix of memoir, biography, history and travelogue', and
widely reviewed in Britain and America, it tracks her young Czechoslovak
father's journey out of war-torn Europe in 1940, and her journey towards
Her previous book was a biography of the traveller Isabelle Eberhardt, who
crowned her dramatic career by drowning in the desert. Bill Bryson called
Isabelle 'A wonderful book - instantly absorbing and beautifully written',
and it was made into a film for BBC 2's series 'Great Journeys'. Annette
also translated Eberhardt's novel Vagabond from the French.
Annette's work for BBC Radio 4 includes presenting six series of interviews
with travel writers, 'The Art of Travel'. She has reviewed travel books and
fiction for broadsheets including the New York Times Book Review and the
TLS, and has been a judge for the Society of Authors Travel Award. She has
MA degrees from Cambridge in modern languages and from the University of
East Anglia in creative writing.
She lives in Bermondsey, and is currently writing a book about Madame de
Sta�l, commissioned by Knopf and Virago.
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