The War Generation

By Marta Gramatayka (CUHK)
Published on March 13th, 2021

Literature has always been a tool for telling stories of nations, communities and individuals. It has served as a political and social commentary. Literature had become particularly powerful and important during the second world war, when it was not only a commentary, but also an attempt to explain the unexplainable. This is the story of underground poets from Poland in the fight against Nazi terror.

The First World War has changed everything. It has caused deaths of millions around the world and introduced lethal weapons never known before in the history of mankind. There was famine and poverty that Europe hadn’t experienced, death waiting at every corner and creeping into the night, oppression and terror controlling every aspect of human’s lives for years… In 1918, it all came to an end. Many European countries, including Poland, regained their independence and held the first post-war democratic elections. It seemed that Europe had entered a new period of history, finally rising up from the tragic past. It is not surprising that the elderly, who have lived through the brutal war, put enormous hope into the young generation born around the 1920s, baptizing them as the lucky ones and the first to live in a free, independent country. In Poland, this generation was considered especially fortunate, as the country had been facing centuries of foreign oppression long before the outbreak of the First World War. Everyone believed that now, after Germany signed the armistice ending the bloody battle, the country will grow in prosperity and the people will finally find peace and happiness.

However, in only 20 years, when the youth of the 1920s were taking their first steps into adulthood, Poland was invaded by Hitler and another world war had begun.

Everyone should be familiar with the rest of the story - battles, bombings, political tensions, machine guns, Nazis and concentration camps. But besides the staggering amounts of military and civilian deaths, many teenagers and young adults survived: underground fighters, poets of resistance who had to bear in mind the responsibility of restoring the nation when they couldn't even escape the horrors of war in front of their eyes. They were known as the Generation of Columbuses, after a book based on war memoirs, or the Generation of 1920s, they were the lost hope of the war. And this is an introduction to their story.

It is impossible to talk about Polish Second World War literature without highlighting a young poet, Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. One of the most prominent poets of that era, he died in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 as a 23-year old man serving in the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army). Before his death, he was able to produce multiple poems, inspired mostly by the daily war realities. If we examine his pre-war writings leading to his death in 1944, we will realize how wars can tremendously influence humans and hamper its moral judgements. His poems were not just about feelings, but also deep despair which was felt all around Warsaw and other cities at war. “City of menace, like a coffin lid, thrown down an abyss as if, by a tempest's blow – yet proud as a black lion who takes long to die” he writes, supporting the cause of the Warsaw Uprising despite overwhelming nihilism.

Yet, Baczynski was so much more than just a writer - despite his poor health, he was a journalist for the Warsaw Underground Press, as well as a devoted student of Polish Language and Literature at the underground University of Warsaw. Since it was illegal to speak or teach Polish due to German censorship, universities and schools had to find other ways to cultivate the culture. Oftentimes, professors lectured small groups of students at private homes, trying to evade attention from Nazi occupation forces. They discussed literature, philosophy and history, risking their lives, as they cultivated the Polish culture and language, which was then illegal. Baczynski’s writing talent did not go unnoticed - he received a scholarship from the conspiratorial literary funds for promoting the values of the Home Army and distributing revolutionary newspapers of which he was a writer and an editor. While studying at the University, he got to know his future wife, Barbara Drapczynska, who was also a student of Polish Language. They got secretly married during the war. Barbara was shot a month after Baczynski, during another one of the uprisings.

Baczynski had written many well-known poems, but some of the most often quoted ones include “The Elegy for a Polish Boy”, which tells a story of a mom, whose son left his family to fight in the Second World War. “Before you fell, you hailed the earth with your hand, did it soften your fall, my sweet child, or did the heart burst?” He compares a cracking human heart to a bullet which pierces through the body - and this metaphor describes perfectly the situation of the younger generation. Their hearts were breaking from the staggering amounts of loss and pain. He himself had to become a soldier and leave his family to go fight with the oppressor.

Another common topic visible in other Baczynski’s poems is the disappointment in the world and a tragedy of his own generation. To explain how deeply he recognizes damages caused by war, he wrote a poem titled “The generation”. “We have learned our lesson” he says in the poem, pointing out that things like mercy, love or conscience do not longer exist. The tragedy was further explored when Baczynski wrote about how young people try to forget about all of the things they’ve experienced during the war, but it is impossible if they still need to “stand on tanks and trucks” and fight, as the war is not over. “We look for the heart, take hold of it, strain our ears: the pain will be extinguished, but stone-yes, a rock-will still remain.” and even if they manage to understand their emotions and find another human-another heart- they will never be able to fully recall the human emotions.

Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was not merely a city but a symbol for resistance. The Warsaw Uprising, a Polish uprising against the Nazis, was an embodiment of the war crimes. Destroyed completely during the war by the Nazis and then rebuilt by its own citizens, it was an important element of the war-related poems. Millions of people were killed during the Warsaw Uprising and during the war and the poets sympathized with them, taking up the role of self-proclaimed chroniclers.

In a “Report from the besieged city”, another famous author, Zbigniew Herbert, told a story about the men who survived the fall of Warsaw. “Cemeteries grow larger the number of defenders is smaller yet the defence continues. It will continue to the end. And if the City falls but a single man escapes, he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile, he will be the City”. He tells the story of Warsaw and how the uprising is gradually losing the insurgents in the death of the war, yet he believes that this is just the beginning of the story. He believes that the memory of Warsaw and the dream of setting free from the German oppressors will exist in people’s hearts, and eventually it will be achieved.

He couldnt publish this poem in any of the public magazines due to the Nazi censorship and even though his poems were popular in the underground literary societies, the majority of his writings became known to the general public after the war, starting from 1956. Washington Post once commented, that “Herbert’s poetry is preoccupied with the nightmares of recent history … it is not public speech. Subdued and casual, his poems shun both hysteria and apocalyptic intensity.”

The beginning of the war not only began a political conflict, but also marked the beginning of annihilation of the Polish people. Those who didn't die were, paradoxically, the unlucky ones, scarred with a wound which would never heal and deprive its morality. Baczynski, along with other poets such as Tadeusz Różewicz, often mentioned how numb they felt in the face of the disasters they’ve lived through. Some of the most touching lines come from a poem “Survivor”, where the 24-years-old man describes the altered perception of virtue, morality and a twisted sense of what is good or bad, as the war had managed to destroy his worldview on these things: “I’m searching for a teacher and a master. Let him give me back my sight, hearing and speech, let him name objects and concepts again, let him separate the light from the dark. I’m twenty-four. Led to slaughter. I survived.” After reading the whole poem in hindsight, we may ask “what was it all for?”. Was it worth fighting and trying to survive if all that is left are broken memories and unspoken terrors constantly crumbling in one’s mind? How do survivors cope with what they’ve seen and experienced? In the poem, Rozewicz explains that it is impossible to do it by himself. He says that he needs a teacher, a master, someone with a clear perspective, who will be able to reteach him the human behaviors and feelings that he’d lost. Rozewicz was one of the writers who first touched upon the aesthetic, moral and philosophical bankruptcy of the war generation.

Rozewicz, Herbert and Baczynski are just three out of numerous examples of the young people who had to live in uncertain times and bear with the everyday terror. There is much more to say about the poetry and literature of this period, as it’s unique circumstances produced some of the most sensitive but important literary works, which serve as an important reminder to not to repeat the past and to understand the enormous consequences of conflicts - not in the context of armies, power plays and politicians, but from a perspective of regular citizens who had no choice but to cope with the world that was given to them. The rebels and writers of the underground resistance were not only an important force in the Warsaw Uprising, but they had claimed a much bigger responsibility - to record, write down and comment on what seemed unexplainable. Despite losing faith in a bright future, the literature serves as a haunting tale of what they’d gone through. They could not stay silent in the face of foreign oppression and they used their voice efficiently - even now their poems and insights into human nature still move people’s hearts and serve as a warning about the terrors which shouldn’t have ever taken place.

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