A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, by Miron Białoszewski, trans Madeline Levine, New York Review Books Classics, 256 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1590176658
Every year on August 1st at 5pm, Warsaw comes to a standstill. People stop whatever they’re doing and rise from cafe seats, stop in the middle of the pavement or pull over and leave their cars. For the next minute, church bells toll and a deafening siren rings out over the city. The minute’s commemoration is an extremely moving one, even for non-Warsovians, as millions of minds collectively turn to the short period during World War II when Europe’s largest resistance force fought for control of their collapsing capital city. The ensuing battle lasted more than sixty-three days, at the end of which 225,000 people were dead and most of Warsaw lay in ruins.
MIRON Białoszewski was seventeen when the Nazis invaded Poland on the September 1st, 1939. He spent the years of occupation taking clandestine courses in linguistics at the University of Warsaw – which, like many other state institutions, continued to function underground – and began to write plays and poetry. When the rising began, he was twenty-two.
The opening line of A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising – written over twenty years after the event, first published in Poland in 1970, translated into English by Madeline Levine in 1977 and now republished by NRYB with some previously censored material included – recalls the fateful day in typically unassuming style: “Tuesday, August 1, 1944, was overcast, wet, not too warm.” The budding author, then living with his mother, had left the apartment to meet friends at the secret university. On his way, he encountered a “commotion” and heard reports of tanks on the move, Polish volunteers on horseback. He arrived at his destination:
At that moment the Soviet front could be heard distinctly, explosions and simultaneously the planes dropping their bombs on the German districts. So we went into Irena’s. It was before five. We’re talking, suddenly there’s shooting. Then, it seems, heavier weapons. We can hear cannons. And all sorts of weapons. Finally a shout, ‘Hurrah …’
‘The uprising,’ we told each other immediately like everyone else in Warsaw.
The paragraph’s plainspoken style, short declarative sentences and sudden slide into urgent present tense are characteristic of the Memoir’s method. The recollection also highlights the extent to which the outbreak of fighting was the manifestation of a conflict that many assumed would inevitably take place sooner or later. Everyone – the Germans, the local population and certainly the Polish partisans themselves – was awaiting the moment of armed insurrection.
By the end of July, Warsaw was approaching its fifth year under German occupation. During this time a strong shadow state had developed, complete with clandestine judicial system, along with a Home Army (referred to in Polish as the Armia Krajowa or AK) loyal to the government in exile in London. An uprising against German occupation had been on the cards for some time: as Norman Davies explains in his mammoth account of the struggle, Rising ’44, it had been discussed from the day of surrender in 1939. Young men had come of age in a city under Nazi control and had been training for the day when this control would weaken sufficiently for an uprising to succeed.
As August approached, this day was deemed by a critical mass of the Home Army command to have arrived. The Allies had been making continuous advances towards Berlin while the Russian army, having destroyed the German Central Army Group in the East, had arrived on the banks of the Vistula. French resistance had begun in earnest and Paris was just weeks away from liberation. Russian artillery fire (as Białoszewski and others have testified) could be clearly heard through the city, and the exiled government decided the time was right for the Home Army to attempt to take control of the city and strengthen its position in advance of the arrival of the Soviets, who had already installed their own puppet government in Lublin.
What resulted was a military and political disaster as poorly equipped partisans engaged in a long and brutal guerrilla war against a ruthless and heavily armed enemy. The decision to begin hostilities was taken at short notice in an atmosphere of confusion (Davies refers to “grave gaps in intelligence”): the starting of attacks at 5pm would seem in hindsight like the first of many strategic errors, as partisans who had been trained for dawn attacks rushed to assemble in daylight, losing a crucial element of surprise. Far more costly in the longer term was the miscalculation as to the behaviour of Poland’s allies. Britain and the US acted hesitantly, afraid of upsetting their alliance with Russia, whose own stance was to play a more crucial role. The Home Army commanders had heeded calls by Radio Moscow to fight alongside the Allied armies and were operating under the optimistic assumption that the uprising would soon be joined by Soviet forces flooding into the city. This turned out not to be the case. The Red Army was at first delayed by unexpected German counterattacks; then, apparently under Stalin’s orders, it waited on the banks of the Vistula as the tide of fighting turned decisively against the Home Army.
Historians have long debated the strategic and moral merits of the conflict. In Poland, opinion has tended to be polarised between the Romantic approach, which advocates armed combat in the face of tyranny, and the Positivist or pragmatic position, which considers such action to be too costly and proposes creating alternative social systems within a repressive state structure. These two approaches, it should be said, predate the 1944 uprising, having developed in response to three previous rebellions in Russian-controlled Warsaw during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Was the uprising, as the pragmatists hold, a reckless and doomed attempt, a strategic misfire that condemned vast numbers to a brutal death? The enormous number of fatalities (roughly ten thousand civilians, for example, were massacred by German soldiers in the Wola district in the days following the outbreak of fighting), as well as the near total destruction of the city by the war’s end, would certainly support the accusation. In his memoir Native Realm (reviewed here previously by Enda O’Doherty) future Nobel-winning poet Czesław Miłosz described it as “a blameworthy, lightheaded enterprise” resulting from a collective nationalistic delusion, although Miłosz’s own intense “allergy” to nationalism surely colours this retrospective view. The conflict was devastatingly counter-productive in a political sense, since after the war Stalin no longer had a well-organised Resistance movement to deal with: as Davies writes, “the cream of Poland’s patriotic and democratic youth, who in normal circumstances would have taken over at the end of the war, were eliminated”. Davies, whose account emphasises the equivocation and moral cowardice of the US and Britain, has himself been accused of leaning too heavily towards the Romantic position and being too quick to exonerate the AK commanders.
Defenders of the rebellion point to the fact that the city was (as suggested by Białoszewski’s recollection) primed for action: thousands were ready and willing to fight and might have done so in any event. The position of the occupying Germans was undoubtedly weakening (Miłosz also remembers that in the city, “no one was afraid of them anymore”), and Davies observes that it was the practice of the German armies to destroy cities upon retreat. First-hand evidence for this fact exists today in Warsaw: this summer, on a visit to the city, our friend Magdalena (who works in the building) showed my wife and I around the Old Town’s Royal Castle, pointing to long, cigar-shaped holes that had been drilled into the walls. These had been created by German forces shortly after the invasion in 1939 in preparation for the city’s eventual destruction: they were to have been filled with dynamite and detonated in the event of a future retreat. Hitler’s armies were not known for their clemency to civilians or their respect for the cities they ransacked, and it is hard to imagine that widespread suffering would not have been visited on the city in any event.
I will set these longstanding historical questions aside for now, since my interest in Polish history is only an amateur one and the aim here is to consider Białoszewski’s text as a literary as much as a historical document. In any case, one of the defining features of his Memoir is its deliberate evasion of such historical questions.
BIAŁOSZEWSKI remained in Warsaw as a non-combatant for the entirety of the uprising’s sixty-three days. A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising touches on many contentious historical points: the military miscalculations of the Home Army, the sometimes strained relations between partisans and civilians as defeat approached and the attitude of the city’s inhabitants to its remaining Jewish population (most of whom had already been annihilated in the Ghetto Uprising of 1943). However, it tends to treat these glancingly, as part of a total experience that is evoked in all of its attendant confusion, pain and exhilaration.
The book begins, in fact, with an evocation of the excitement and drama of an immense experience that happened when the author was just twenty-two. Białoszewski tells us on the first page that the occupation brought with it a curiously heightened atmosphere: “the times [were] naïve, primitive, rather carefree, romantic, conspiratorial, wartime”. Miłosz, for his part, described his days in wartime Warsaw as similarly exciting ones, during which he translated Shakespeare, attended clandestine literary gatherings and published his own poetry through the underground press. The streets he moved through were a blend of the threatening and the exotic, and he recalls travelling through Warsaw in sunshine, feeling “as if I were melting into a fascinating city-jungle with its waves of panic and intermittent bursts of gunfire”. Białoszewski presents a similarly vivid depiction of life in a war zone, often juxtaposing everyday details of normal city life (here, the blue summer skies) with a sensory evocation of disaster:
Should someone wish to picture to himself the three destructions of Warsaw – September 1939, the uprising in the ghetto from April 19 to about May 20, and the 1944 Warsaw Uprising – all of them happened precisely under such suns, heat, burning, planes. Heat, the sunshine, and a blue sky mingled with fires, smoke, explosions, sifting plaster, all of which added (and this is hard to believe although it is true) something exotic. Or rather, an extra whirling in one’s brain.
Białoszewski’s project is to recapture the sensations of lived experience, and he is more interested in portraying this “whirling in the brain” than in arranging a smooth chronicle of events. During the most dramatic moments of his testimony we see language almost breaking apart under stress, as in this jagged, ellipsis-filled description of waiting out a bombing raid:
But how those walls moved … once, I’m watching them – and it seems they’re moving a meter back and forth. … and back … and forth … are we breaking into pieces? … No-o … they’re swinging … a little less, less and less, and they settle down … as they were before. I rubbed my eyes in amazement.
What we have, then, is a deliberately fragmented narrative method, an idiosyncratic monologue presented with the aim of portraying a deeper kind of psychological realism. Throughout the work the narrator often shifts abruptly to a different train of thought (assuring the reader that “there’ll be more about that later on”), abandons a particularly painful recollection (“let’s drop it”) and second-guesses his recollection of facts, sometimes moving between memories in a way that gathers multiple layers of time in a single incident.
All of this gives the Memoir a disjointed feel that demands some initial patience from the reader. The book is not structured around a cast of memorable characters as a more conventional memoir might be, and this adds to the sense of confusion as the reader becomes accustomed to the style: the young author moves often from group to group, place to place, running between friends and family (again, this is presented as simple realism: “But that’s how it was. People lost each other as suddenly as they found each other … that was common”). In her introduction, Levine points out the extraordinarily high frequency of the word latać (meaning literally “to fly” but generally used colloquially to indicate running and rushing) to refer to people’s movements around the city. One effect of this repetition is, as she observes, to provide a “verbal expression of the chaos in Warsaw”.
The cityscape through which the young author was moving in 1944 was slowly disintegrating around him, and the narrator’s obsessive attempts to reconstruct the topography of an earlier Warsaw convey much of the emotional devastation as he lovingly describes the contours of long-destroyed churches and statues. The NYRB edition provides a map of central Warsaw marked with the places in which Białoszewski took refuge, which became more essential the further I read: he obsessively details his movements from place to place, noting the shifting borders of the battle zone, the locations of his friends, and the continuous flow of refugees from one street or another.
Levine also observes the liberal use of chyba, a flexible word which translates variously as “perhaps”, “it seems” or “I think” and whose repetition adds to the subjective nature of the telling. The form of the Memoir mimics the difficulty and the unreliability of memory: the author refers at one point to the “psychic compartments and distances” created by the conflict, and the narrative method aims at being true to this ongoing trauma. The reader is warned not to be surprised if “I suddenly remember something. That’s how it is. And I make no corrections because I want my struggling with memory … to be apparent”. Białoszewski is haunted by one particular anecdote of a family whose lock got stuck, preventing them from fleeing from their upstairs apartment to the shelter of the basement; all of them died, and the memory recurs in his monologue at several troubled moments.
Not far into the narrative, the author turns to address the reader directly, offering a long explanation of his technique:
All of this is like one prolonged illusion. An awfully trite tale. But only this suits me. For what was felt then. Because you didn’t have to be a poet to have things multiplying in your head. If I write very little about my impressions. And everything in ordinary language … It is only because it can’t be done any other way. After all, that is how we experienced things. And, generally speaking, that is the only device, not an artificially constructed one but the only completely natural device. To convey all of this. For twenty years I could not write about this. Although I wanted to very much. I talked. About the uprising. To so many people. All sorts of people. So many times. And all along I was thinking that I must describe the uprising, somehow or other describe it. And I didn’t even know that those twenty years of talking – I have been talking about it for twenty years – because it is the greatest experience of my life, a closed experience – precisely this talking is the only device suited to describe the uprising.
The quote shows Białoszewski’s use of an everyday and often deliberately unliterary vocabulary as well as the incessant orality of a text derived from continuous retellings. In an illuminating recent English-language study of Białoszewski’s work, The Kingdom of Insignificance (2013), Joanna Niżyńska traces the way this orality provides “a re-enactment of traumatic testimony”, conveying the “sensory disorientation” of hurried wartime experience while simultaneously displaying the mind’s struggle to grasp painful and horrific events. One way of conveying this struggle is a novelistic focus on small details: the narrator is often fuzzy on dates and the precise sequence of major events but vividly recalls everyday problems like the need to keep picking up the small family stove, which would fall over every time mortars hit their area, and the difficulty of preventing bits of dust and plaster from falling into his soup.
THE Memoir is in fact a deceptively “unliterary” work. Despite the deliberate rawness of style, this is a text obsessed with literary creation, written two decades later by a poet remembering his younger self. During the conflict the young author reads poems to his friends, and we see him rejoice when he discovers some blank paper upon which he can write. The narrator claims to have made “no revisions” to his account but elsewhere he refers to a “first draft”, suggesting a higher degree of artifice. In a later interview, Białoszewski suggested that the narrative’s form was a highly constructed literary device calculated to achieve a “spoken” quality: he claimed that the book “was first written in longhand and then I taped it so that someone else could type it. So, the entire Memoir went through the ear.”
Białoszewski relates that on his travels through the city he collected the “loose, swirling pages of Titchener’s Psychology from a demolished bookstore. The bullets were whizzing around my left ear, my right ear, and I bent down seventeen times, because that is how many double pages I collected. To read in the cellar.” This obsessive collecting and counting of objects in the face of death is one of several moments that draw attention to the displaced trauma of wartime stress; it also betrays the writer’s instinct to preserve the book and hoard some reading for later (Miłosz also describes leaving his house on the first day of fighting with an edition of TS Eliot’s collected poems in his pocket, recalling that he never let go of this).
The book mentioned here also seems like a pointed intertextual clue. In several turn-of-the-century works, British psychologist Edward Titchener developed a method of introspective analysis as a means of determining the different components of consciousness. Białoszewski takes a similar approach, focusing almost forensically on the experiential aspect of war, its sensations and his own mental experience. His focus turns continually towards the reactions of the mind under stress, resulting in dispassionate and often darkly humorous reflections on human behaviour. The word “instinct” recurs several times: for instance, in the observation that he, along with everyone else in the Warsaw cellars, would automatically stand up during a bombing raid. Białoszewski recalls a moment when he and his friend were running along the barricades under threat of gunfire and explosions, noting that they both raised their collars in a defensive reflex: “what kind of stupid instinct?”
He also lucidly describes the fidgety sense of collective panic in a population who didn’t know where the next bomb would fall, and the “herd instinct” that caused everyone to change places compulsively as they endlessly sought a better place to hide: “Because anywhere else was better. And even if it occurred to someone that it was the same everywhere, that didn’t help at all.” The dread and confused terror of civilian experience are most vividly present in the observation that even when they considered giving themselves up, the chaotic situation made this idea implausible: “Surrender with what? To whom? How? Which way? When?”
AS THE uprising progressed, the sewers beneath Warsaw became an essential avenue for communication and escape for both partisans and civilians. Białoszewski describes the tactics of the German soldiers to combat this, noting how they would place barbed wire over the sewer exits and hang grenades upon the wire; then, in a surprising parenthesis, he admits “this I now know from films”. The reference is to the first cinematic depiction of the uprising, the intense and gloomy Kanał (1956), an early film by the great director Andrzej Wajda that follows a group of war-ravaged partisans as they retreat through the sewers. It is another reminder that Białoszewski was writing about something that had happened more than two decades previously, during which time political agendas, artistic sensibilities and collective memory had all been hard at work on the event.
The conflict, in fact, was continuously mediated, interpreted and contested by different groups from the very beginning. During the fighting the communists of the Lublin government were issuing denunciations and misinformation, while the Home Army published its own newssheets; in Britain, meanwhile, George Orwell was publicly castigating his colleagues in the press for turning a blind eye to the conflict. After the war the communist regime conducted show trials, executing and imprisoning many of the partisans and publicly vilifying the AK commanders. As a consequence, attitudes towards the uprising were strongly polarised, with official disapproval of a failed and reckless endeavour coexisting with a nationalist folk memory of heroic struggle. Wajda had to downplay any anti-Soviet criticism within Kanał due to the threat of censorship, while the reaction of audiences to the film was sometimes hostile. The director later recalled that “the viewers were mostly the uprising participants or their families, who had lost their loved ones in Warsaw. This film could not satisfy them. They had licked their wounds, mourned their dead, and now they wanted to see their moral and spiritual victory, and not death in the sewers.”
The new edition of the Memoir, based on a revised 2014 Polish edition, shows traces of these tensions in the form of passages that were removed from the 1970 publication, apparently through either external or self-censorship. Several of these are comments and vignettes relating to, in Levine’s words, “the fraught topic of the position of Jews” during a time when the government was instigating a new wave of political persecution and exclusion. The most notable moment is surely the shocking scene in which Białoszewski recalls a group of “hooligans” applauding a German soldier as he shoots at Jews who are fighting in the Ghetto; he sarcastically describes the actions of this “hero” with his “little crowd of well-wishers” before the memory becomes too painful: “let’s drop it.” (The perennially controversial question of anti-Semitism in Poland has been the subject of several books, some of which were discussed here in a recent blog post.)
Białoszewski obliquely acknowledges the uprising’s contested legacy, gesturing towards the politically charged environment and defending his decision to stay at a remove from it:
I’m playing the sage unnecessarily. Long ago others created history out of this, made deductions from it and proclaimed them. And the thing is known. Yes, I’m speaking for myself – a layman. And for others. Also laymen. To the extent that we can speak because we were there. Laymen and non-laymen. All condemned together to a single history.
This carefully crafted naivete from the point of view of a civilian witness undoubtedly helped to make the Memoir such a controversial and successful book upon its publication in 1970, and Białoszewski’s name – previously known only in avant garde poetry circles – began to come to national attention. According to Niżyńska, the fragmented, deliberately antiheroic picture presented in the Memoir “touched a nerve in the mythical order of the uprising”. She describes a vitriolic review by an ex-combatant who pointedly used the diminutive Mironek (“Little Miron”) and characterised Białoszewski as an “overgrown baby” whose account of his experience was an essentially infantile and cowardly one. This vision of the war – panicked citizens rushing to and fro, scavenging for food, ready to surrender – did not sit well with the idea of a noble city unified in heroic struggle. The Memoir, the critic accused, distorted the tragedy of the uprising by reducing people to “their digestive functions”.
Digestive functions are in fact a recurring feature of the book, being one of the primary means by which Białoszewski brings the reader’s attention away from abstraction and back to the civilians’ daily struggle. Again, the focus on bodily experience feels novelistic, and the reader might recall similar moments in classic works of anti-war fiction – the American POWs struggling with diarrhoea in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, for example. David McKechnie’s drb essay on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 quoted a historical account of WWII soldiers for whom chronic dysentery was such an everyday reality that they often found themselves in the surreal situation of reporting to their superiors while the bowels of both soldier and officer were moving uncontrollably.
Some of the most hallucinatory and memorable images of the Memoir run in a similar vein. Białoszewski describes scenes of camaraderie and community in the cellar latrines, which were always occupied and whose doors were long since broken. We get one memory of him “squatting in his stall” while an “elderly woman in a white coat” does the same: “The whole time we chatted with each other in a neighbourly way.” Another memory serves as a vivid illustration of mundane wartime horror: when he and his family were afflicted with an attack of diarrhoea that lasted through several bombing raids, they were obliged to run down four flights of stairs through a courtyard newly filled with corpses in order to reach the stalls.
On another occasion, he and a friend chance upon a public facility where they notice a celebrated poet in an unflattering pose:
At the end, in the vicinity of a low wall that has been broken through to the next property – a latrine. Public. One of many. Perches. Made of poles, sticks. Extremely long. Over long trenches. For those piles. And on them? Like chickens. In trousers. Dropped. Dangling. Various people. And among them was Wojciech Bąk.
A word about the translation. In Polish, the word kupa translates literally as “a pile”; however, the colloquial usage is simply, “shit”. The latter option should obviously have been chosen here instead of “piles” – we’re in a latrine, after all. The same word is translated elsewhere as “feces”, which seems overly formal.
This is not the only instance in which the tone of the Memoir is subtly changed in translation, and the prose often suffers from a certain rigidity resulting from the more academic or “proper” word being chosen instead of the colloquial one. The original is enlivened by regular wordplay, with the author creating his own neologisms and compound words and turning nouns into adjectives to create an idiosyncratic linguistic register. For example, a basement is described as smelling of niewykonczenie, which might translate as “unfinishedness”; in the English, this becomes “raw bricks”. Białoszewski’s quirky style and his intent to speak as a “layman” are not being fully served here, and the reader often vaguely senses that the prose is being squeezed into uncomfortably stiff clothes.
Elsewhere, there are more serious lapses as the translation fails to tune in to everyday Polish usage. The author describes the communal cellars in which people sheltered, writing that passageways were filled with kuchniami-kozami-sukami. These are colloquial names for types of stoves, some of which were named after animals; Białoszewski is, in his playful style, running together three of these in a short linguistic burst. Levine translates this literally as “goats, dogs, stoves”, giving the misleading impression that there were farmyard animals wandering around the Warsaw cellars at a time when (as we’ve learned in the previous pages) food was already becoming scarce.
In addition, later in the book, Białoszewski laments the depletion of the Home Army’s meagre defences: “There weren’t all that many weapons, either. Anyway, what kind of weapons were they? Laughter in the hall.” The alert reader will pause at this last phrase, puzzled as to what exactly is being expressed. The phrase śmiech na sali, in fact, is a colloquial Polish expression simply meaning “laughable”: the literal translation of the phrase to “laughter in the hall” results in an English sentence that is confusing and meaningless. A translator has the job (in this case, a particularly difficult one) of attempting to balance the literal meaning of the author’s words with their poetic effects; there are times, though, when Levine’s translation fails to adequately convey either.
WHILE in Warsaw last August we also paid a visit to the Uprising Museum, which spans several storeys and contains a vast amount of archival deposits from the conflict – guns, uniforms and medals – and interactive material such as photos, replicas of newssheets and posters, and video footage. The museum opened in time for the sixtieth anniversary of the uprising in 2004 and appears to have been designed on the principle that more is more, with the amount of evidence presented quickly becoming overwhelming (particularly during a peak-time holiday visit). On the lower floor we joined a lengthy queue to watch a short 3D film, while nearby a huge replica of an Allied plane dominated the floor. The ever-present soundtrack of sirens and explosions, along with the presence of a significant number of excited children, made thoughtful consideration of the historical material a bit difficult.
Wandering off from the main room towards the end of the exhibition, I found myself in a small gallery filled with glossy colour photos of soldiers in training. It took me a few moments to understand what I was looking at. The room, it turned out, was devoted to the activities of GROM, Poland’s elite counter-terrorism unit. This entity is apparently modelled closely on the US Navy SEALs and has been deployed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photos were accompanied by laudatory texts describing the abilities, expertise and cutting-edge technologies employed by the fighters. The intrusion of modern military reality was a jolt: I couldn’t help thinking that after a long journey through an exhibition extolling the patriotic bravery of the Home Army, this slick advertisement for the Special Forces would encourage those excited kids to connect a few ideological dots. It seemed odd that a war museum would end with an apparent celebration of military conflict rather than a warning against it. As we were leaving, we passed a long and orderly line of US soldiers in battle fatigues, most of whom looked vaguely confused by the dark and crowded exhibition space they were entering. They were there, we surmised, to march in the coming weekend’s parade to celebrate Armed Forces Day.
The presence of the modern soldiers (both real and pictured) was an unsubtle reminder of the political agenda in operation here. The museum is the pet project of Jarosław and (the late) Lech Kaczyński, the leaders and figureheads of Poland’s intensely divisive Law and Justice (PiS) party. The patriotism of the twins’ parents, both of whom fought in the Home Army, presumably helped to shape a belief system that has defined the overtly nationalistic agenda of the Polish right in recent years. The party was founded in 2001 and feeds off a toxic combination of blinkered, flag-waving tribalism (the “wounded nationalism” Miłosz diagnosed as a particularly baleful influence on the Polish politics of his own time) and a narrowly conservative brand of Catholicism. (This latter element, incidentally, includes a nasty strain of homophobia that would not have been agreeable to the gay Białoszewski.) The combination brought rapid electoral success, and it has been a powerful political presence ever since.
Lech Kaczyński died in the Smolensk plane crash of 2010, but Jarosław has recently begun to emerge from the shadows. The PiS recently recaptured both the presidency and a parliamentary majority due to a combination of factors, including frustration at economic inequality, suspicions about corruption within the previous government and the perceived threat from an increasingly aggressive Russia. Within twenty-four hours of the Paris attacks, PiS officials announced that Poland would not keep promises to take in refugees; within a week of taking office, they were intimidating media critics and threatening to ban the production of a “pornographic” play by a leading theatre company. During the time of writing, there have been huge protests in Poland’s major cities against new judicial legislation perceived to represent a threat to the country’s constitution.
The official view of the uprising now seems to have swung strongly towards the Romantic one. The museum is obviously intended to interpret the conflict’s legacy in a way that redresses the balance of the Soviet years, making up for years of communist state propaganda and repression (no monument to the uprising was erected in Warsaw until 1989, for example). The biggest Polish box office hit of 2014 was Warsaw ’44, a strange, hyperactive blockbuster that seems undecided as to whether it wanted to be a sentimental weepie, a gothic horror, a computer game or a music video. One minute, spectacular explosions send body parts flying in a horrific vista of gore; the next, attractive young Home Army fighters kiss in slow motion while bullets fly and techno music throbs. The men manage to remain clean-shaven throughout, while the women have a level of access to hair products and new outfits that seems mysterious in the context of a two-month military siege. Needless to say, nobody gets diarrhoea.
Against this kind of glossy and aestheticised representation of history, the messy intimacy and thoughtful ambiguity of a work like the Memoir seems even more important. Białoszewski, an individualist who maintained a lifelong distance from overt political positions, never fitted comfortably within the Polish social environment of the communist years, and he would find little sympathy in the rigid and fearful world view of Law and Justice. Niżyńska writes that the Memoir’s unconventional style “engages the reader in the theatre of traumatic memory” and the description conveys something of the genre-defying, performative nature of the work. Instead of defining and solidifying what we know, Białoszewski attempts to quietly and consistently subvert it: this is a writing that forces the reader to engage not only with the complexity of painful and calamitous events, but also with our own endlessly changing, always incomplete efforts to understand them.
Białoszewski, Miron. Pamiętnik z powstania warszawskiego. Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 2014. (Thanks to Asia Groenland for assistance with translation.)
Davies, Norman. Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw. Macmillan, 2003.
Miłosz, Czesław. Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition. King Penguin, 1988. Trans. Catherine S Leach.
Niżyńska, Joanna. The Kingdom of Insignificance: Miron Białoszewski and the Quotidian, the Queer, and the Traumatic. Northwestern University Press, 2013.
Tim Groenland studies at Trinity College, Dublin. He is currently completing a PhD, funded by the Irish Research Council, on authorship and editing in the works of Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace.