Death and Survival in WWII: A Writers' Perspective
75 years ago Polish writer and painter Witkacy committed suicide upon hearing the news of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Far from being a tragic exception, he heralds a long series of shattered lives whose literary talent might have bloomed had it not been bloodily trampled
Gombrowicz, Schulz, and Witkacy are generally considered the three most important Polish writers of the interwar period. Of these three only one survived World War 2. Their very different fates epitomize that of millions of people who died during World War 2, which in Poland and the neighbouring areas took the most tragic and brutal shape. It is this very area, stretching between Germany and Russia, that has been recently referred to by American historian Timothy Snyder as the Blood Lands.
Snyder emphasizes that this area, incorporating Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States, saw the biggest casualties in WW2. During WW2, it was also here that the degree of violence inflicted on civil population by the occupier was the greatest in all of Europe, reaching unprecedented levels.
Of all the countries of the area, Poland suffered the biggest losses relatively to its population. In fact the percentage of casualties among Polish society (which at the time also included Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Czechs, and Germans) is the greatest compared to any other European countries.
According to the Polish Institute of the National Remembrance IPN, casualties in Poland under German occupation in the years 1939-1945 are estimated at around 2.7 million. Another 2.7-2.9 million of Polish Jews were killed by the Germans (around 1.86 million in death camps). Estimates of Polish casualties in Russia vary between 150 thousand and 500 thousand Poles. An additional 1.8 million were subject to harsh repressive measures.
In 1939-1945, in the so-called Blood Lands, people died for different reasons - the Holocaust, extermination camps, mass executions, with retaliatory actions making up only part of the tally. Civilians as well as soldiers died of hunger in the aftermath of mass displacements and deportations.
No one could then escape the devastation of war, writers least of all. Skip to the List of Casualties in the field of Literature
Witkacy, Schulz, Gombrowicz
Admired by both Witkacy and Gombrowicz, with whom he was friends, Bruno Schulz was the author of two volumes of short stories which revolutionized Polish literature. Mixing fantasy and realism and Jewish Orthodox tradition and European modernism, these books stand out even today, often compared to Kafka among others. In the autumn of 1941, Schulz along with so many other Polish Jews, found himself imprisoned in one of the numerous ghettos established by the Germans in occupied territories. In his case it was in Drohobych, a small town in Galicia where he was born and where he spent most of his life. His death by the hand of the Nazi officer in November 1942 was one amongst many millions, but nevertheless remembered as one of the most absurd and tragic. Schulz left behind him paintings in the Landau villa (found some 70 years later) and not much more. We know from his letters that he was working on a novel called the Messiah, which by all means would have been his Opus Magnum, but which has now been irretrievably lost without traces.
The luckiest of them was Witold Gombrowicz. In 1939 Gombrowicz, who was of a background similar to Witkacy (Polish landowning nobility) and youngest of the three, had already authored one strange novel, Ferdydurke, one volume of short stories and one play. On July 29, 1939, he was fortunate enough to board a ship bound for Argentina. When a couple days after his arrival to Buenos Aires WW2 broke out, Gombrowicz reasonably decided not to return. He remained in Argentina until 1963.
These lives, although well known and to some extent symbolical, are obviously not representative of the whole wartime destruction Poland. The following list of writers and the circumstances of their death during World War 2 helps shed light on the tragic losses suffered by Polish literature.
- Józef Czechowicz - one of the earliest casualties among writers. This extremely talented vanguard poet died on September 9, 1939 in the bombardment of Lublin, his home town where he had fled from Warsaw after the outbreak of the war. Later on, his death became somewhat famous, as it was rumoured that Czechowicz had envisioned its circumstances in one of his early poems.
- Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) - commited suicide on September 18, 1939, one day after the Soviet invasion of Poland.
- Władysław Sebyła – a poet and member of the Kwadryga poetic group, he died on April 11, 1940 in Kharkhiv in the mass executions known today as the Katyń Massacre. The massacre was commited by the Soviets and targeted against the Polish elites. It is estimated that around 22 thousand Polish soldiers (most of them officers) were killed in Katyń. Learn more on Wikipedia
- Stanisław Piasecki - Polish right-wing journalist and Nationalist activist. Arrested by the Gestapo. He was executed in Palmiry (near Warsaw) on June 12 1941. Between December 1939 and July 1941 tthe SS and the German Police killed some 1700 Polish civilians in the Palmiry forest. See more on Wikipedia
- Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński - the most accomplished and prolific Polish translator (Stendhal, Balzac, Proust) and a brilliant critic, was killed by the Germans in a mass execution on July 4, 1941 in Lviv. Boy was executed along with 25 other Polish academics and their families - the murder is generally referred to as the Massacre of Lviv Professors. See more
- Hershele Danielevich - yiddish poet and ethnographer, originally from Łódź, he died of hunger in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941.
- Ostap Ortwin (b. Oskar Katzenellenbogen) - a brilliant critic of Modernist literature and an ardent Polish patriot, Ortwin openly defied the Soviet authorities in Lviv, when the Germans enterd Lviv he boldly rejected wearing the Star of David, he was murdered by the Gestapo officer in the spring of 1942 .
- Debora Vogel - a close friend of Bruno Schulz (the early version of The Crocodile Street is to be found in Schulz's letters to Vogel), Vogel was writing in both Yiddish and Polish. She was murdered in the Lviv ghetto along with her son and husband in August 1942 during the liquidation of the ghetto.
- Janusz Korczak - Polish writer and pedagogue of Jewish descent murdered along with the children of his orphanage in Treblinka, as part of the Grossaktion in Warsaw, probably on August 5 or 6 1942. Grossaktion Warschau on Wikipedia
- Bruno Schulz, murdered in Drohobych on November 1942.
- Władysław Szlengel - Polish poet of Jewish descent, died on May 8, 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Ghetto Uprising, of which he was the most unrelenting bard.
- Zygmunt Rumel - Polish poet and the officer of the Home Army, he was killed on July 10 1943 in Wołyń - one of the victims of the 1943 massacre of the Polish population in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia committed by the UPA forces. Learn more about the Volhynia massacre
- Jerzy Kamil Weintraub - Polish poet of Jewish descent, he died in Warsaw on September 10, 1943, after many months spent in hiding. The reason of his death was a blood infection after cutting himself shaving which could not be treated in such apocalyptic social conditions.
- Andrzej Trzebiński - Polish poet born in 1922, active in the Polish resistance movement, editor-in-chief of the Art and Nation magazine, executed in Warsaw on November 12, 1943.
- Edward Szymański – born in 1907, Socialist poet and translator of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. Arrested by the Gestapo, he spent 3 months in the Pawiak prison before being transported to Auschwitz where he died on December 15 1943.
- Zuzanna Ginczanka - originally Zuzanna Gincburg, one of the most talented and independent Polish poets of the 20th century, whose feminist poetry has only recently been properly acknowledged. Born in Rovne (present-day Ukraine), she died in Kraków during the autumn of 1944, killed by the Gestapo after over two years spent in hiding.
- Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński - born in 1921, Polish poet, he died on August 4 1944, shot by a German sniper in the Warsaw Uprising.
- Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski - Polish writer, prominent figure of the interwar literary life, he died on August 6, 1944, hit by a shell during the Warsaw Uprising.
- Tadeusz Gajcy - a poet and soldier of the Home Army, born in 1922, he died on August 16 1944 in the Warsaw Uprising, along with his friend and fellow poet Zdzisław Stroiński.
- Lucjan Szenwald - Polish poet and Communist activist, the soldier of the Red Army, Szenwald died in a car accident while inspecting the army at Kurowo, not far from Lublin, on August 22, 1944
- Karol Irzykowski - a brilliant critic and an author of experimetal novel Pałuba (1903), Irzykowski was wounded during the Warsaw Uprising, he died of blood infection in Żyrardów on August 2, 1944.
Surviving often required above average stamina and skills combined with an extended network of acquaintances and extraordinary luck. And since Poland and other areas caught between Hitler and Stalin were obviously among the most dangerous places on earth, the best way to survive was emigration.
When on September 17 1939 Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union, the Polish government was evacuated via Romania to Western Europe. Some of the writers, especially those linked to the interwar establishment, followed their lead. Celebrated poets like Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski, Kazimierz Wierzyński, Jan Lechoń were able to reach France, where they could feel safe for a while. This changed in the summer of 1940 when France capitulated. Facing great personal danger (Tuwim, Słonimski, Wierzyński had all similar background, coming from well assimilated Polish-Jewish families ), Tuwim and Lechoń left for Rio de Janeiro (Brasil), where they were joined by Wierzyński. Eventually they all moved to New York where they spent the rest of the War.
Others like Mieczysław Grydzewski and satirist Marian Hemar - who like Melchior Wańkowicz joined the Polish Anders Army and came all the way from Middle East - ended up in London, England. This was also far enough from the continental evils of the Holocaust.
Of course, one could also go East. This was a gamble: either a life-saving move or a stumbling into an even more unsavory fate. Gustaw Herling-Grudziński spent the War in a Soviet gulag. For others, like Józef Hen, escaping German devastation by heading to the Soviet Union was a natural decision considering his Jewish roots.
Surviving in occupied Poland proved much harder, but obviously not impossible. Miłosz or Iwaszkiewicz spent the war in Poland but generally didn't get involved in underground resistance. For others, like Tadeusz Różewicz who joined the guerilla Home Army at 21, or Tadeusz Borowski who was forced into slave labour in Auschwitz and Dachau, the war experience became a trauma which shaped their later work.
Both were accused of nihilism and both mastered laconism in their artistic work. Borowski commited suicide in 1951 after writing a book of short stories, which is considered among the best representation of the Holocaust in world literature. Różewicz went on to live a long life, writing poems, plays and short stories, he died in 2014. They both in their own way remained dedicated to what they had experienced during World War 2.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 18.09.2014