Paper Scars: How the Warsaw Uprising Affected Polish Literature
#language & literature
small, Paper Scars:
How the Warsaw Uprising Affected Polish Literature, Scene from the TV series ‘The Columbuses’ directed by Janusz Morgenstern, 1970, pictured: Jan Englert & Jerzy Matałowski, photo: Filmoteka Narodow, kolumbowie_fn_99.jpg
Beginning on 1st August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising lasted 63 days and became one the most dramatic, terrible and rich chapters of Polish history. Unsurprisingly, from the very first days of the fighting, the topic of the uprising concerned and attracted many Polish poets and authors. Culture.pl’s Igor Belov discusses how these dramatic two months echo through the works of Polish writers and poets and what they meant for Polish literature.
In today’s world, the Warsaw Uprising has morphed into a legend, having been made into a symbol of independence and the romantic Polish character. The city’s rebels endeavoured not only to push the Nazi German occupiers out of their home, but also change the layout of political power in Europe as much as possible by defending the freedom of Poland. Intense debates about the uprising rage to this day – they are just as ubiquitous as the image of the anchor (a symbol used by the Polish Home Army) on the walls of modern Warsaw buildings.
Over the years, the literary artists who tackled the uprising and its consequences not only tried to capture the traumatic experience that was the destruction of the great city and to immortalise the brave deeds of their compatriots, but also to answer complex questions about life, death, conscience and human destiny.
‘The Columbuses’, or the Generation of the Total Apocalypse
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Poetry reacts to historical cataclysms more swiftly than prose. The uprising had already become a theme for poems and songs during the first battles, and many poets, as if they were sensitive seismographs, anticipated their lot falling to turmoil long before the catastrophe. The ranks of the rebels essentially consisted of very young people, even youths, yesterday’s schoolchildren. And among these underground fighters were poets, belonging in the front row of Polish literature, representatives of the generation that were in their 20s during the war: Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, Andrzej Trzebiński, Tadeusz Gajcy, Wacław Bojarski and Tadeusz Borowski. Even before the uprising, these men furiously prepared for armed conflict and simultaneously led extremely rigorous, almost feverish intellectual and artistic lives. It was as if they understood that the time they had was very short. Alas, their premonitions were warranted – during the occupation and particularly over the course of the uprising almost all of these brilliant young men, the hope of Polish culture, ‘were beaten with iron’, per the phrase of David Samoylov.
Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (1921 – 1944) finished school at the outset of the war. During the occupation, he did Polish studies at an underground Warsaw university. He developed into a poet rather early, but he did not stop there: his artistic growth was distinguished by its rapidity. Baczyński often collaborated with underground magazines and published a few books of poems – also from the underground. In 1943, he enlisted in the Home Army, finishing a secret school for sub-lieutenants, and served in the ‘grey scouts’ assault group – a detachment for special combat missions, mostly sabotage. Despite his asthma, youth and unimpressive physique, he first led the famous Zośka battalion, and later in July 1943 became the deputy platoon commander of the Parasol battalion.
The first day of the uprising caught Baczyński and his comrades unarmed – because of organisational confusion, they did not receive orders from command. They were cut off and were forced to fight their way through, picking up weapons as they fought. Baczyński was killed on 4th August 1944 in the very centre of Warsaw, in Theatre Square. The young wife of Baczyński, Barbara, who was the addressee of many of his poems, also participated in the uprising. At the end of August, she was fatally wounded by a piece of shrapnel to the head, according to one account, also near the Great Theatre, and she died after a few days with a collection of her husband’s poems in her hands.
In the brief time given to the poet, his lyrical poetry underwent more than one metamorphosis. Baczyński’s pre-war poems were characterised by catastrophism, but once the occupation began, he turned to the Romantic tradition of Juliusz Słowacki and Cyprian Kamil Norwid. Even so, his speech remains multifaceted and flowing, and the poems prevail with vivid metaphors and marvellous combinations of unconnected, at first glance, motifs, and also very powerful metaphysical subtext:
Remembering The Artists Of The Warsaw Uprising
And since it’s love, though not forever,
And since the pain is not too harsh
But like a bird’s cry, only somber,
And since these tears aren’t of the heart.
(. . .)
And as I stand in glassed-in rustling,
I feel the land drift into sough.
Now each beloved is departing,
And each one bears a single cross,
More yet will wash away in rain,
And others perish in the dark,
The glass before them strong as steel,
And unfelt, they’ll depart, depart.
English translations of Baczyński's work are rarely published, but Bill Johnston's collection White Magic and Other Poems did try to rectify this in 2004.
Another of the brightest writers of the poetic generation of twenty-somethings, Tadeusz Gajcy (1922 – 1944), co-founded the radical Polish literary group Sztuka i Naród (Art and Nation), which published an underground journal of the same name. These young people waged war with the enemy not only with words, but also with action. In 1943, on the day of Nicolaus Copernicus’s 400th anniversary, they decided to place a wreath on the monument to the scientist. A German patrol opened fire on them. While laying the wreath, Wacław Bojarski, author of the song of the shock battalions O, Natalia, was mortally wounded and died after a few days. Gajcy, who was covering the action with a pistol in his hands, managed to escape. In that same year, Gajcy became the editor of Sztuka i Naród after the death of the poet and previous editor Andrzej Trzebiński, who was captured in a raid and shot in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto (they say that to avoid excess noise, he and others sentenced to the firing squad had their mouths filled with plaster before being shot). Gajcy was younger than Baczyński (though only by a year, but at this age a year is a significant difference) and did not leave as rich of a legacy, but Leopold Staff and Czesław Miłosz considered Gajcy the most interesting poet of the young generation. And it is true – his poems were more than just promising. A wonderful note resounds through them, embodying aching combinations of happiness and bitterness, tragedy and hope. Many of Tadeusz Gajcy’s poems were written about love, which inevitably confronted by the harsh ‘world of fire and smoke’:
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We won’t stop until we’ve
Sailed silent through this night.
Palm to palm and cheek to cheek,
For nothingness’ lullaby.
And we’ll have worlds for company,
The ones we know from books,
Two for sure, or maybe three:
Of air, of sea, of rock.
(. . .)
And so we won’t stop sailing
Silent through the darkness,
When all’s a dream, we are a dream,
Bodiless and nameless.
But when we hear the roosters’ call
Gentle now and gray
Cheek to cheek and palm to palm
We’ll awake, awake.
Shortly before the uprising, Gajcy wrote the prophetic poem To the Successor – a strange, mystical, unspeakably beautiful and bitter text with a sort of double vision. Leaving on 1st August to fight, he gave his family his manuscripts. Thanks to this, almost all of his poetry survived. The poet died at the end of August, in the vicinity of today’s General Anders Street. He was not buried, and the exact date of his death is unknown.
Why were they called ‘the Columbuses’? The authorship of this term belongs to the writer Roman Bratny (born 1921), also a participant in the uprising. During the ‘détente’, he wrote about his generation in his novel The Columbuses: Born of the ‘20s, which was published in 1957. Despite the modest, in the opinion of many critics, literary merits of the novel, it was reprinted over twenty times in Poland, was added to school curricula, and in 1970 was adapted into film by the famous Polish director Janusz Morgenstern, who created a fairly popular five-part serial based on the novel. Bratny’s heroes had discovered a new world for themselves, a new reality, wrestling with it and settling it – this is why they were ‘Columbuses’. And though Bratny’s narrative too easily fits the pattern of gallant youthful war adventures and therefore doesn’t seem particularly deep, he was, possibly, the first Polish author to write openly about the persecution and repression that former soldiers of the Home Army had to endure during the socialist era in Poland.
However, many writers considered the name ‘Columbuses’ too pretentious and romanticised, and opined that it did not reflect how things really were. Honestly, is there a single generation that doesn’t discover anew the monstrous injustice and cruelty of this world? Some call Baczyński, Gajcy, and their contemporaries ‘the generation of the total apocalypse’, others ‘the generation of the stormy time’. Poet, critic, and literature expert Piotr Mitzner in the article The Return of the Red Shirt proposed to name the literary war generation the ‘third avant-garde’, extending this term not only to Sztuka i Naród group and Baczyński, but also to their peers who managed to survive: Tadeusz Borowski, Miron Białoszewski, Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert. The proposition is reasonable – reading these poets is sufficient to understand how revolutionary their approach to poetry was, and how much Polish literature lost as a result of the war. Indeed, Polish literary historian Stanisław Pigoń was correct when he bitterly wrote: ‘We belong to a nation, whose fate is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds.’
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Czesław Miłosz repeatedly emphasised his ambivalent attitude to the uprising. In The Captive Mind, he called this ‘voluntary sacrifice’ senseless. In the pages of Native Realm, he criticised the criminal levity of those who by their own decision brought so many young lives ‘to the altar of the motherland’. With sadness, he wrote in A Treatise on Poetry about the poets who died never being able to understand that the world would begin to live (and continues to live!) by completely different rules:
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The twenty-two-year-old poets of Warsaw
Did not want to know that something in this century
Submits to thought, not to Davids with their slings.
Over a yellow field and a ring of the dead
In combat, Madonna stood, wounded by a sword.
Trans. Miłosz & Ed Hass, from 'New and Collected Poems (1931-2001)', Ecco: New York, 2001
But in this same A Treatise on Poetry, he implicitly recognised the feeling of guilt gnawing at his heart for not participating in the uprising, for his ‘desertion’ (during the uprising, Miłosz was in the suburbs of Warsaw and did not join the rebels). And in A Ballad, one of his most beautiful and piercing poems, he talks about the mother of Tadeusz Gajcy, who witnessed the post-war Polish capital and communed with her deceased son:
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Here lies Gajcy, who will never know
The fight for Warsaw ended up in vain.
The barricade on which his body lay
Cracked hands have now dismantled piece by piece.
Winds gusted and red dust floated skyward,
Rains came down, a nightingale chirped its song.
Beneath a cloud, the bricklayers shouted
As they raised new buildings from the ground.
‘They say, my son, it is a shameful thing
That the cause you fought for was the wrong one.
I don’t know myself, let God be your judge
Since the two of us can speak no longer.’
Beneath a tree, my mother tugs her headscarf.
A dove’s wing flits and glistens in the air
Lost in thought, my mother’s gaze lifts up
To the expanse that stretches high, so high.
A little streetcar speeds toward the city,
With two young men behind in quick pursuit.
She wonders, can they make it there in time?
They’ve caught it at the stop and climbed onboard.
Trans. Sean Gasper Bye for Culture.pl
There have been many great poems written about the uprising. Jan Lechoń and Kazimierz Wierzyński, who emigrated to the United States, wrote about the tragedy of the city, erased from the face of the Earth after the suppression of the uprising, and about the heroism of the Poles. Jan Twardowski lamented the naivety of the young rebels in A Song About the Uprising. Wisława Szymborska mused about who the poet Baczyński would have become if he had survived. Zbigniew Herbert dedicated his cycle of poems About Troy to the uprising:
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They walked along ravines of former streets
as if on a red sea of cinders
and wind lifted the red dust
faithfully painted the sunset of the city
They walked along ravines of former streets
they breathed on the frozen dawn in vain
they said: long years will pass
before the first house stands here
All of these poems were very candid, regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain they were written from. But it was more difficult in the case of prose.
For the post-war communist regime in Poland, the uprising was too delicate and uncomfortable a subject, especially regarding the well-known fact that the Red Army did not help the rebels, instead watching the reduction of the capital into blackest hell from the opposite bank of the Vistula. Yet there were writers in Poland who were ready to tow the party line. Kazimierz Brandys, author of the script of the cult film How to Be Loved, dedicated two remarkable novels to the uprising, Unvanquished City (1946) and Man Does Not Die (1951), but allowed himself (fully in the spirit of then official Polish trend) to criticise the leadership of the uprising, after which the emigrant critics called him a collaborator and compared him to a concentration camp guard. And Bohdan Czeszko, who fought during the uprising in a detachment of the pro-communist People’s Army and was wounded during the horrid massacre organised by SS officers in the Wola district, came out with the thrilling 1948 novel A Generation, which directly accuses the Polish government in exile of the tragedy in Warsaw and calls the uprising a political gamble.
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The situation significantly changed during the ‘thaw’ after Stalin passed away. In 1956, the stories of Jerzy Stefan Stawiński came out. One of these stories, Canal, was soon turned into the script for Andrzej Wajda’s film of the same name. And Władysław Zambrzycki’s Kwatera Bożych Pomyleńców (The Quarters of God's Freaks) appeared in 1959. The heroes of this book, four elderly Varsovians, spend the August and September of 1944 in a room littered with old books, telling each other various stories, joking to avoid going mad from fright. It was a pioneering work for its time: Zambrzyski began speaking about the uprising in a completely different language, without martyrs or overly-emotional rhetoric. The real fracture in literature about the Warsaw tragedy, however, was still to come.
Miron Białoszewski & his ‘A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising’
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A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, a book of prose by the outstanding Polish poet Miron Białoszewski, came out in 1970 and immediately became a sensation. Readers of the memoir see the uprising through the eyes of an ordinary young city dweller, who helps build barricades, extinguish fires and carry the wounded. Yet his first priority is to survive in the terrible chaos, to find shelter, to take cover from the bombs. The poet was 22 years old during the uprising. He didn’t belong to any underground organisations, but he still ended up in the very epicentre of the fierce battles, in Warsaw’s Śródmieście district. Therefore, for him the uprising is literally a heroic battle of everyday Varsovians for survival. Heroic and doomed, the uprising was above all a tragedy of the capital’s population, as in two months of fighting in the city more than 200,000 civilians died.
Interestingly, Białoszewski first recorded his memoir on a tape recorder and then transcribed it, preserving the effect of the spoken word – broken and seemingly choked up:
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Organizing began. Block leaders. Duty tours. Shoring up cellars. Tunneling underground passageways. For nights on end. Barricades. At first people thought they could be made out of anything, such as the boards from the sawmill and the carts on Ogrodowa Street. (All of Ogrodowa—we looked out on it—was decked out in Polish flags—a strange holiday!) Meetings and conferences in the courtyards. Assignments: who, what. Possibly already a newssheet. Of the uprising. And in general the partisans. Showed up. In German castoffs—in whatever they could find: a helmet, boots, with anything at all in their hands, so long as it could shoot. We looked out onto Chłodna Street. And it was true: a front had been established. Throughout Warsaw. Right away. Or rather, several fronts. Which the first night established. And the day began to force back. This was reported in the newssheets. There were explosions. All sorts. From cannons. Bombs. Machine guns. Was it the front? The real one, the German-Russian front? It was moving from somewhere near Modlin toward Warsaw (our great hope). Nothing dreadful yet from Wola. But Chłodna Street was in trouble. It seemed to be ours. Already decked in flags, I think. But on the corner of Waliców and Chłodna there was a Wache—a guard post. There was a second Wache (the building with the columns) on the corner of Żelazna and Chłodna. “Wache” meant a building held by the Germans, and that meant shooting from above (from all six stories). Machine guns. Grenades. Every so often a single shot from the roof, from behind a chimney, someone wounded, someone killed. It was those concealed men who were shooting.
Excerpt from Madeleine G. Levine’s 2015 translation, published by NYRB
Many critics were not able to forgive Białoszewski for the ‘unheroic’ tonality of the memoir. Somehow they decided he was trying to discredit the legend of the uprising, to settle old scores with a national myth. However, readers thought otherwise, meeting A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising with great interest. Białoszewski was ground-breaking not only in poetry. His memoir is a unique and very personal testimony of survival, but it is also excellent prose, balancing between street speech and refined avant-gardism. The poet effortlessly uses a variety of techniques, reinforcing the reliability of the narration, down to the sound of the whistling of shells, meaning the book is read in one breath, and the strain you experience because of this is so strong that it seems that you may get hit by a bullet at any moment.
Anna Świrszczyńska: Building the Barricade
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Anna Świrszczyńska’s 1974 book of poems Building the Barricade, became just as much of a turning point in Polish literature as Białoszewski’s memoir. It was also written from the perspective of an eyewitness. During the uprising, the poetess, who had gained fame even before the war, was a nurse in a Warsaw hospital. Only after 30 years had passed did she decide to write about what she saw and experienced – and she did this with artistic potency. Poems such as Twenty of My Sons, I Carried Bedpans, My Lice or After the Raid show that Świrszczyńska’s naturalism is of a completely different quality – more intimate and, I would venture to suggest, human. Świrszczyńska was not afraid to write about how terrified, hurting and miserable she and those around her were. We Were Scared, one of the poems in her collection, begins like this:
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We were afraid as we built the barricade
The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber,
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving-stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards –
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.
The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.
A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really
Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
Translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, source: audiopoetry.wordpress.com
After the fall of the uprising, Świrszczyńska, like all of the remaining, surviving inhabitants of Warsaw, was forced to leave her home city. The poetess settled in Kraków, never to return to the capital again. The 1970s were the time of her highest artistic ascent: Świrszczyńska published the books Wind, I am a Woman and Suffering and Joy, which all entered the golden canon of Polish poetry forever. But the collection Building the Barricade was destined to be her highest and most piercing note.
Defeat or victory?
Arguments about the uprising, which began even before its defeat, continue to this day.
Andrzej Bobkowski, one of the essayists of the Paris-based Polish émigré magazine Kultura, wrote of these tragic, August days:
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I am afraid to utter the word 'absurd', but it itself appears whenever I think about it. Moreover, in four days the Russians have not advanced a metre. The second word, which I fear and which also constantly comes to my mind, is 'provocation'. By whom and for what reason did Warsaw rush into battle?
An example of the opposite but no less radical point of view is the book Kinderszenen by Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, a living classic of Polish poetry, which came out relatively recently. In this 2008 collection of essays, which the magazine Wprost rather emotionally called a ‘stunning, sad and disgusting book’, and also a ‘commendation to the massive bloody sacrifice of the best representatives of the nation’, Rymkiewicz writes: ‘The Warsaw Uprising was insanity, but thanks to this insanity, today we are authentic Poles.’ For Rymkiewicz, the uprising ended in victory in this sense, and not defeat, as it was the only possible exit from the situation that had befallen Poland.
In a democratic society, discussions about major historical events are a completely normal occurrence. It is important only to remember that the Warsaw Uprising was a desperate attempt by the Poles to decide the fate of their country themselves, rather than waiting for the ‘Great Powers’ to do this for them. An unsuccessful attempt, but no less heroic.
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The topic of the uprising could not be avoided by Polish songwriters, either.
In April 1987, Jacek Kaczmarski, a poet with a guitar, who had already been christened ‘the bard of Solidarity’, wrote the song Czołg (Tank). This song is unusual – it is written from the perspective of a Soviet tank, which in August 1944 stands on the east bank of the Vistula and cannot understand why the people who are driving him are not using him in the battle:
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May that wave-lapped metal tread come near
And may your fire support the barricades!
So that our fighting city will not fear
That I in stillness have her cause betrayed!
It is interesting that this song of Kaczmarski’s has the subtitle: ‘from Vysotsky’. Indeed, Kaczmarski translated into Polish, or more precisely, adapted a few of Vladimir Vysotsky’s well-known songs. Yet the famed Russian singer never had a song about a Soviet tank sitting on the bank of the Vistula.
Kaczmarski himself later at one of his concerts commented on this story:
A few years ago, Daniel Olbrychski told me that Vladimir Vysotsky wrote a piece on the Warsaw Uprising from the point of view of a Soviet tank, which sat on the eastern bank of the Vistula. (…) I had never heard this song, I wrote my own version of this story. Then it turned out that Vysotsky never had such a song, it was only an idea…
Therefore, this is not a translation, but a quite original piece. However, Vysotsky does have a poem where the uprising is mentioned.
New era, new books
After the victory of Solidarity in the parliamentary elections of 1989 and the peaceful transition of power in Poland, books that had earlier never got past the censors began being published. Fans of Andrzej Wajda are likely familiar with his film The Crowned-Eagle Ring, which was based on Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski’s novel The Horsehair Ring. Written at the beginning of the 1970s, the novel was forbidden by censors and only came out in 1991, after the death of the author. Ścibor-Rylski paints a rather dark picture of the uprising: a platoon, abandoned somewhere on the edge of the city, uses the last of their strength to hold a defence in front of terrified residents. The action of the second part of the story takes place in post-war Poland – and here it becomes clear that in the new reality, managed by the state security service, there is no place for yesterday’s rebels.
Authors of a new generation have also been writing about the uprising. Sylwia Chutnik’s debut novel Women’s Pocket Atlas is a very open and emotional, even furious tale told on behalf of degraded and abused women, having suffered much from a world dominated by men. In the book there are four chapters, four novellas about the terrible fate of women characters. The heroine of the second chapter entitled Messengers, an elderly Varsovian who was a former messenger, lives surrounded by wartime demons, unable to cope with the trauma of those years.
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Rheumatism, an injured leg, untreatable wounds. She suffered everything in 1944 while traveling through the sewers. After her mother’s death she wanted to fight. She led soldiers out of the City Center. She put together a group of twenty to thirty people and crossed kilometers with them underground. The Germans were listening carefully up above, so they had to move quietly. Sometimes gas was pumped in, or gunshots came through the manholes. Bodies fell into the ooze and stayed there.
Sometimes I see an open entrance to the underground world. My first impulse: to enter in, climb quickly down the metal ladder and narrow rungs. Wade into the slime. Feel mud and thick fluid between my toes. Smear it over my face, put lines under my eyes like war paint. Or draw on those distinctive two lines on the cheek: Our Lady of Warsaw. The protector of solitary girls moving out through the damp sewers. Exposed to wartime blizzards. To rape, to degradation in the soldiers’ ranks. To a torn dress, to underwear ripped off.
From youth literature to comics
Recent popular literature has been increasingly drawn towards the legend of the uprising.
The heroine of Jacek Bruno Poznański’s novel Magda, or Farewell to a Generation is a young Polish girl living in London, the granddaughter of a nurse who had participated in the uprising. She comes to Warsaw for a few days, meets with former freedom fighters, acquaintances of her grandmother, and reconstructs the course of these past events. She does this not out of curiosity nor an interest in history, but to resolve private existential and personal problems.
And in Monika Kowaleczko-Szumowska’s book Galop ’44 simply unbelievable things take place. Two ordinary Warsaw school kids from the present day, for some mysterious reason, unwittingly take a journey through time and arrive in a Warsaw engulfed in the uprising. Because of these circumstances, they are faced with the question: ‘What would I do if I were there?’
The Warsaw Uprising has even become a topic for detective literature. The renowned Polish author of crime novels Bartolomej Richter came out with the book The Last Day of July, the plot of which takes place at the very beginning of the uprising. One of the main characters of the book is a German soldier, the other is a member of the Warsaw Underground. The German tries to clarify the circumstances of the suicide of his fellow soldier, while the Pole investigates the mysterious death of an underground radio operator. As they deal with these storylines, the uprising flares up…
Cult author of comic books Henryk Jerzy Chmielewski, better known by his pen name Papcio Chmiel, decided to offer young readers his own view of the uprising. His comic Tytus, Romek, and A’Tomek – Warsaw Rebels of 1944 is about the adventures of the monkey Tytus and two of his friends during the uprising.
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A conservative may call such an approach blasphemy – but they would be incorrect. When popular culture begins to examine the story of the nation, it means that all of the bans and barriers to free conversation on this complex and delicate subject have finally been removed. And who knows – maybe in ten or twenty years, as a result of such impartial reflection, tomorrow’s Polish authors will write an epic novel about the uprising, along the lines of Les Misérables or War and Peace? In any case, human history has taken care to give Polish writers something to write about.
Originally written in Russian, July 2017, translated by Katherine Alberti, Dec 2017
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