A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising
by Miron Białoszewski
translated by Madeline G. Levine
New York Review Books, 2014
What was it like to live through the Warsaw Uprising? Most accounts of that watershed event in twentieth-century Polish history focus on the experience of members of the Home Army, the over 40,000 insurgents who fought to liberate Warsaw from Nazi occupation from August 1, 1944, until their surrender in the early days of October. The story of this biggest urban battle of World War II fought in a national capital is most often presented in a heroic yet quixotic vein: valiant Poles, many of them mere youths, battled the Nazis against all odds (the planned uprising expected to last days, not months) in the various districts of left-bank Warsaw, while the Soviet army waited on the other side of the Vistula River. The Warsaw uprising is placed into the patriotic Polish historical narrative, dating from the time of the partitions, of flawed, failed yet at the same time somehow “necessary” national insurrections, the memory of which would keep Poland in the heart and minds of the next generations of Poles. Each ensuing uprising nonetheless cost the Poles much. While 18,000 insurgents perished in the August rising of 1944, the “collateral damage” was horrendous: the death of some 150,000 civilians and the destruction of the Polish capital, which the Nazis systematically bombed into smithereens. Despite these calamitous losses, the over 900,000 noncombatant Polish civilians in Warsaw on August 1, 1944 — 720,000 on the west bank of the Vistula, another 200,000 on the right bank — generally receive sparse, if any, mention in historical accounts, perhaps not to undermine the romantic legend of unrelenting Polish support for the insurgency.
Miron Białoszewski’s Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising is not your typical account of the Warsaw Uprising — an understatement, if there ever was one. Idiosyncratic and innovative in both style and content, it challenges traditional treatments of the subject. At the same time it truly brings alive what regular Warsaw residents experienced during those sixty-two days of the uprising and immediately afterwards. The author, who was to become a famously unconventional poet, tells us his intensely personal story, that of a twenty-two-year-old civilian caught in the maelstrom. Written some twenty years after the fact (that is, in the late 1960s), the memoir was originally published in the 1970s in both the (censored) Polish original and the corresponding English translation. It made a stir at that time, eliciting criticism as well as praise. In 2013, what may be thought of as the definitive version of the memoir appeared in Poland: the editor, Dr. Adam Poprawa, restored cuts made to the work by the censor and included changes made by Białoszewski in later editions as well as in a radio broadcast. The English translator of the original edition, Madeline G. Levine, has since re-translated the work. It is her thoughtful, essentially reworked English rendition that is being reviewed here.
The atypical nature of Białoszewski’s account begins with its fresh perspective. The author is unflinchingly honest — and indeed, that is what he promises: “I shall be frank recollecting my distant self in small facts, perhaps excessively precise, but there will be only the truth” The above-mentioned facts — minutiae — are for the most part not those of the historian, concerned with the overall picture of an historic event. Instead, Białoszewski takes the reader into his personal world, the world of the everyday — an everyday that has been turned upside down by the uprising (as if it had not been bad enough already during the preceding five years of the war). This everyday is a land in which civilians — certainly the author — have essentially one thing on their minds: self-preservation. Pinned in place by the fighting wherever they happened to be at its outbreak, they preoccupy themselves with “immediate needs” in the relentless heat and humidity of that late summer/early fall, made all the more oppressive by the waves of bombing that force them to take shelter in Warsaw’s basements. Yet there they remain vulnerable: witness the litany prayed in the crowded, dark basements (a fragment of which Białoszewski cites), where the community of civilians asks God to save them from being burned or buried alive. The relentless bombing compelled survivors to keep relocating, the author himself moving a number of times. (To help the reader keep track, this translation of the memoir has two helpful, well-labeled maps, including one of the sections of Warsaw where the author sheltered during the uprising; this will give anyone not familiar with the city’s geography a sense of the space, as well as a real sense of how claustrophobic Warsaw became during the uprising, with Starówka/Old Town — in Białoszewski’s formulation — seemingly as far from nearby Śródmieście as Warsaw from Paris after the war.)
An avant-garde poet known for his creative use of language, Białoszewski also toys with the genre of memoir. One can detect two voices in the book. The first is that of the twenty-something-year-old Miron, living a life which the full recognition of the horror of what he is experiencing has not yet penetrated. This Miron relates the seemingly superficial minutiae of everyday life with a naive candor, even providing alimentary, digestive and scatological details — something that scandalizes those readers who cannot envision the uprising except in exalted terms. The second voice is that of the more reflective poet-author, some twenty years later, who has been talking his way through the uprising, “the greatest experience of [his] life,” ever since. And how both Mirons talk: the speech is staccato, colloquial, often ungrammatical (something that is harder to render in English, although Levine, a consummate translator, does her best) — as if summoning up those thoughts and small facts took special effort:
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. As if nothing happened. Or if I hardly ever look inside myself, or seemingly from the outside. It is only because it can’t be done any other way. After all, that is how we experienced things.
Białoszewski presents the painful progression of the uprising as experienced by all the senses. Readers feel the initial fervor accompanying the building of barricades, followed by the sullen or stunned sitting (or pacing) in the darkness of the basements under bombed buildings. Miron conveys the taste and feel of the uprising in sentences such as “That reality — wretched — it’s smoky — you have to keep your eyes hidden inside your collar — or cover them with your hand — dust, rubble, it’s gray, red, dry, and burning in your nose, in your teeth, and on your tongue, breathing it in, the heat, everything stings, sweating… ” In the crammed basements one hears both extemporary litanies chanted and cowering citizens counting aloud, as the nicknamed “wardrobes” and/or “cows” bellow a certain number of times before they discharge their bombs above ground. In addition to the sense of space, time spent underground becomes distorted:
It seemed as if we already had entire years of this behind us, and what was there ahead of us? There never had been, nor would there ever be, anything else, only the uprising. Which it was impossible to endure much longer. Each day it was impossible to endure it much longer. Then each night. Then every two hours. Then every fifteen minutes. Yes. People kept track of time incessantly.
Horrific as it was, Białoszewski’s uprising — and we get only his point of view — was not one of heroism and self-abnegation. He self-deprecatingly calls himself “lazy” at one point, a “parasite” at another — that is, before he made his first (dangerous) run upstairs from the basement into the bombed upper storey to scrounge up some flour. Despite the wartime’s dietary paucity, the practically starving young Miron was known to eat himself sick upon reaching an area of the city yet untouched by the bombing — in this way experiencing a “delusion [of happiness] through physical well-being”. Even actions of his that could be considered laudatory are related in a matter-of-fact, minimalist way. Take his experience in the legendary sewers, the network of which served as communication routes for the Home Army during the uprising: Miron had been asked to carry a severely wounded insurgent through to Śródmieście when the partisans were evacuating Starówka in early September. Not incidentally, this deed benefited the author (and several friends) as well, as they were able to escape what we now know was the fate of the civilians and injured insurgents who remained behind: certain death or deportation to concentration camps. However, the bombing and destruction would soon follow Miron to Śródmieście and force him underground once again.
There is nothing redeeming in Białoszewski’s harrowing account of the Warsaw Uprising, this “hideously long story of communal life against the background of the possibility of death”. The closest the author comes to an assessment of the events — the conditions that led to the uprising — was the statement “it was all simply a wound-up machine, set racing into unconsciousness”. The end of the uprising was met with relief, even joy: it was, as Białoszewski freely admitted, “a holiday”. While the end brought “peace,” “everything” was nonetheless “over”: two hundred thousand people lay under the ruins of a ruined city. It was truly the end of Warsaw as it had been.
In addition to providing some additional, strikingly vivid, images and even more ungrammaticality, the new, revised edition of the memoir treats some topics that must have met with the censor’s disapproval in 1970. These include some unfavorable mentions of the Soviets and communists as well as a rare humanizing of the Germans in the Wehrmacht, already after the surrender (“We could see that Germans, too, are people”.) But they also include Jewish themes, which after the communists’ expulsions of most of the rest of Poland’s Jews in 1968 (at the time the memoirs were being written) were surely a touchy subject. Some new sections concern what might be termed insensitive Polish reactions (for example, of “hooligans”) to the fate of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Białoszewski writes of his own Jewish friendships, which do receive mention in the 1970 original but are amplified in the new edition, quite casually if tellingly. A reference to the fate of the Jews might even have been one of the last things the reader was supposed to take away from the book: for a radio taping Białoszewski had added a sentence to the final paragraph mentioning a Jewish family friend who after the insurrection was preparing to leave for abroad. While the Polish editor chose to omit that sentence from the revised 2013 edition, Madeline Levine, who has followed the new Polish version exactly, laudably included it as part of an optional ending in her introduction to the memoir, which is also worth reading for a better sense of the literary and linguistic aspects of this groundbreaking work.
Białoszewski’s memoir in its augmented edition — whether in the Polish original or the English rendition — is even more powerful and gripping than the original. Madeline Levine is to be commended for her sensitive, expert translation, which interestingly retains some of the original Polish (witness the lack of translation of the honorific titles “Pan” and “Pani” [“Mr.” and “Mrs.”]). The memoir deserves to be read by a new generation of Poles and non-Poles. It will continue to irk those for whom the Warsaw Uprising is a bronzed monument of endless heroism and self-sacrifice, a patriotic yet monolithic myth that cannot countenance that the vast majority of Varsovians — the civilians — might have experienced the event differently. For those with open minds, the memoir will enlighten in ways that a historian’s prose rarely can — this spoken as a historian with tremendous admiration for the work.