Death & Survival in WWII: A Polish Writer's Perspective
#language & literature
small, Death and Survival in WWII:
A Polish Writer's Perspective, ‘Fantasy – Fairy Tale’ by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), 1922, photo: National Museum in Warsaw, mpw1122_1._jpg.jpg
Seventy-five years ago, the Polish writer and painter Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz committed suicide, shortly after 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 Witkiewicz, or Witkacy, are generally considered the three most important Polish writers of the Interwar period. Of these three, only one survived World War II. Their very different fates epitomise that of millions of people who died during the conflict, which in Poland and the neighbouring areas took its most brutal and tragic shape. It is this very area, stretching between Germany and Russia, that has been recently referred to by American historian Timothy Snyder as the ‘Bloodlands’.
6 Touching Testimonies from World War II Survivors
In his 2010 book Bloodlands, Snyder emphasises that this area, incorporating Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States, saw the biggest casualties in World War II. In this area, 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 in the area, Poland suffered the biggest losses relative to its population. In fact, the percentage of casualties amongst Polish society (which at the time also included Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Czechs and Germans) was the greatest compared to any other European country.
Poland Didn't Always Speak Polish: The Lost Linguistic Diversity of Europe
According to the Polish Institute of the National Remembrance (IPN), the casualties in Poland under Nazi German occupation from the years 1939 to 1945 are estimated at around 2.7 million. Another 2.7 to 2.9 million of Polish Jews were killed by the Nazi Germans (around 1.86 million in death camps). Estimates of Polish casualties in Russia vary between 150,000 and 500,000 Poles. An additional 1.8 million were subject to harsh repressive measures.
Between 1939 and 1945, in the so-called Blood Lands, people died for different reasons – the Holocaust, extermination camps and 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 the war – writers least of all.
Witkacy, Schulz, Gombrowicz
Witkacy – the surrealist painter, photographer, author of apocalyptic plays and novels, brilliant philosopher and arguably the most colorful figure of the Interwar period – had been living in fear of the Soviet Union for quite some time when news of the Soviet invasion were aired on the radio on 17th September 1939. Poland, which at the time had been waging a solitary war against Hitler for almost 3 week, was dealt the final blow.
The next day, 54-year-old Witkacy commited suicide in a small village Jeziory (present-day Velyki Ozera, in Ukraine). This decision may have in part been rooted in the deep resentment Witkacy felt towards Soviet totalitarianism – a sentiment which probably dated back to his experience of the Russian Revolution of 1917, part of which he spent in Petersburg. Witkacy had foreseen the impeding doomsday of the Western civilization. He felt that totalitarianism would kill individuality along with its most precious byproducts, like art, religion and metaphysics, which he felt lay at the heart of human existence.
An Alternative Biography of Witkacy
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, and often raise comparisons to Franz Kafka, amongst 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 Nazi Germans in the occupied territories. In his case, it was in Drohobych, the small town in Galicia where he was born and where he spent most of his life.
Schulz’s death at the hand of a Nazi officer in November 1942 was one amongst many millions but is 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 magnum opus – but which has now been irretrievably lost without traces.
Bruno Schulz: The Immortal Artist
The (relatively) luckiest of these writers was Witold Gombrowicz, the youngest of the three. In 1939, Gombrowicz, who was of a background similar to Witkacy (Polish landowning nobility), had already authored one strange novel, Ferdydurke, as well as one volume of short stories anda play. On 29th July 1939, he was fortunate enough to board a ship bound for Argentina. When a couple days after his arrival to Buenos Aires, World War II 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 II helps shed light on the tragic losses suffered in the realm of Polish literature.
- Józef Czechowicz – one of the earliest casualties among writers. This extremely talented vanguard poet died on 9th September 1939 in the bombardment of Lublin, his hometown, to 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.
- Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz - one of the most popular writers of the Interwar period, the author of such novels as The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, was killed on 20th September 1939, most likely by a Soviet soldier, outside of the town of Kuty (present-day Ukraine).
- Władysław Sebyła – a poet and member of the Kwadryga poets’ group, he died on 11th April 1940 in Kharkhiv in the mass executions known today as the Katyń Massacre. The massacre was commited by the Soviets and targeted the Polish elites. It is estimated that around 22,000 Polish soldiers (most of them officers) were killed in Katyń.
- Stanisław Piasecki – Polish right-wing journalist and nationalist activist. Arrested by the Gestapo. He was executed in Palmiry (near Warsaw) on 12th June 1941. Between December 1939 and July 1941, the SS and the German Police killed some 1,700 Polish civilians in the Palmiry forest.
- Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński – the most accomplished and prolific Polish translator (Stendhal, Balzac, Proust) and a brilliant critic, was killed by the Nazi 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.
- Hershele Danielevich – a 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 a Gestapo officer in the spring of 1942.
- Debora Vogel – a close friend of Bruno Schulz (the early version of The Street of Crocodiles can be found in Schulz's letters to her), Vogel wrote 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 – a Polish writer and pedagogue of Jewish descent, he was murdered along with the children of his orphanage in Treblinka as part of the Grossaktion in Warsaw, probably on 5th or 6th August 1942.
- Władysław Szlengel – a Polish poet of Jewish descent, he died on 8th May 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Ghetto Uprising, of which he was the most unrelenting bard.
- Zygmunt Rumel – a Polish poet and the officer of the Home Army, he was killed on 10th July 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.
- Jerzy Kamil Weintraub – a Polish poet of Jewish descent, he died in Warsaw on 10th September 1943 after many months spent in hiding. The reason for his death was a blood infection after cutting himself shaving, which could not be treated in such apocalyptic social conditions.
- Andrzej Trzebiński – a Polish poet born in 1922, he was active in the Polish resistance movement and served as editor-in-chief of Sztuka i Naród (Art and Nation) magazine. He was executed in Warsaw on 12th November 1943.
- Edward Szymański – born in 1907, he was a Socialist poet who translated Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. Arrested by the Gestapo, he spent three months in the Pawiak prison before being transported to Auschwitz, where he died on 15th December 1943.
- Zuzanna Ginczanka – originally Zuzanna Gincburg, she one of the most talented and independent Polish poets of the 20th century, whose feminist poetry has only recently been properly acknowledged. Born in Kiev, she died in Kraków in 1944, killed by the Gestapo after more than two years spent in hiding.
- Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński – born in 1921, a Polish poet; he died on 4th August 4 1944, shot by a German sniper in the Warsaw Uprising.
- Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski – a Polish writer and prominent figure of Interwar literary life, he died on 6th August 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 16th August 1944 in the Warsaw Uprising, along with his friend and fellow poet Zdzisław Stroiński.
- Lucjan Szenwald – a Polish poet and Communist activist, as well as a soldier of the Red Army, Szenwald died in a car accident while inspecting the army at Kurowo, not far from Lublin, on 22nd August 1944.
- Karol Irzykowski – a brilliant critic and an author of the experimetal novel Pałuba (1903), Irzykowski was wounded during the Warsaw Uprising; he died of a blood infection in Żyrardów on 2nd August 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 amongst the most dangerous places on earth, the best way to survive was emigration.
The Return of Polish Émigré Literature
When Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union on 17th September 1939, 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 and 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 backgrounds, coming from well-assimilated Polish Jewish families), Tuwim and Lechoń left for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they were joined by Wierzyński. Eventually, they all moved to New York, where they spent the rest of the wartime years.
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.
When Polish Was King: The Global History (& Geography) of the Polish Language Outside of Poland
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 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 age 21) or Tadeusz Borowski (who was forced into slave labour in Auschwitz and Dachau), the trauma of their war experiences would shape 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 amongst the most significant representations of the Holocaust in world literature. Różewicz went on to live a long life, writing poems, plays and short stories; he died in 2014. Both writers, in their own ways, remained dedicated to what they had experienced during World War II.
Moved Away, Then Faded Away: Polish Interwar Artists after WWII
stanisław ignacy witkiewicz
world war 2
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 18 Sep 2014