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Nationalism’s Heretic

Polish writer Miron Białoszewski poked holes in nationalist myths with idiosyncratic prose.

Miron Białoszewski in 1961. Slovak Kordian / Warsaw Museum of Modern Art

Today, bestselling Yale historian Timothy Snyder is headlining a Brooklyn launch event for the new translation of Miron Białoszewski’s A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising. How Snyder, a leading New Cold Warrior, will fit it into his generic East European nationalism is unknown, although he’ll undoubtedly come up with something clever.

But Białoszewski’s Memoir is one of those square pegs for which every preconceived schema is a round hole. The book’s own preface described it as “distinctly annoying” when it came out in 1970, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s disjointed, repetitious, and downright boring for long stretches at a time. Białoszewski had a thing for sentence fragments as well as a determination to describe events exactly as he remembered them no matter how jumbled and confused.

Here he is, for example, on the subject of the Luftwaffe:

All of a sudden — bombers. Already they’re hovering over the rooftops, raining down bombs. Now they’re gone. Now they’re back. Farther away. Closer. Now they’re flying into Baroque Street. We are, too. They’re flying blindly. We are, too. We is I. And someone else. Like me. We. Two of us. Here. Only. Neither here nor there. Because now. They’re here! We run. Into some kind of two-story what (?) . . . empty, it flies, we fly (along?) the downstairs, rooms (?), by way of something (?), halls (?), it’s already changing, howling, clanging, we’re flying. . . .

Arguably, all those blasted-apart sentences tell us something about what it’s like to be blasted by German bombers. But the sheer randomness of the memory flow is exhausting. One moment it’s August 1944 with the rebellion in full tilt, in another it’s September 1939 just as the war is getting underway.

At one point, Białoszewski remembers a tram driver and his girlfriend he encountered in an underground bunker: “Somehow they were also near the door, the unfinished door to the stairwell, but also somehow near the pillar, although a moment ago it seemed to me they were near the wall.”

Then he forgets about them for a dozen pages or so before circling back: “But let us return to the tram driver’s girlfriend. She waited for him till evening. He didn’t return. She didn’t sleep that night. She cried. He didn’t return in the morning. We consoled her. I think we stopped consoling her several hours later.” After another digression, he describes the ensuing search: “we first checked the hospital on the corner of Rybaki and Boleść. In the Gunpowder Depot. There was a hospital there on the ground floor. The tram driver wasn’t there.”

Other writers revise and edit, but not Białoszewski. But for those with the patience to stick with A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, the book is not without its rewards. It caused a scandal when it came out in Poland not only because of its prose style, but because of its bracing opposition to certain political orthodoxies that are even more noxious today than they were four or five decades ago.

The most obvious is nationalism. A Memoir deals with one of the most sacred events in Polish history, one that with the Kościuszko Uprising in 1794, the November Uprising in 1830, and the January Uprising in 1863, forms a sacred quartet about Poland’s long and tragic struggle for freedom and independence.

In fact, the 1944 revolt is seen as doubly tragic since not only did the Nazis succeed in crushing it after sixty-three days of bitter fighting — leveling much of the city in the process — but they did so with the tacit support of the Red Army, which, legend has it, halted its advance on the far side of the Vistula River so that the Germans could proceed with the job of decapitating the Polish resistance. When the Soviets finally entered Warsaw the following January, they found a nation that had been crushed underfoot and therefore had no difficulty replacing one dictatorship with another that proved even more durable.

Such is the myth, yet little of it is true. Historians have thoroughly debunked the charge that the Soviets deliberately delayed their advance so that the Nazis could get on with the dirty work. The American historian Stephen G. Fritz observes that “the Russians almost certainly meant to take Warsaw on the run as their forces swept north and west along the Vistula,” but that a devastating counterattack left their armored forces in tatters, with two-thirds of their tanks and assault guns destroyed.

US Army historian David M. Glantz agrees, pointing out that while elements of the Soviet-sponsored First Polish Army eventually succeeded in crossing the Vistula, they made little headway and had to be “evacuated back across the river ten days later.” Even Snyder, whose anti-Soviet credentials are beyond question, says “there is no reason to believe that Stalin deliberately halted military operations at Warsaw.”

So the myth of Soviet-Nazi collusion is untrue. The same goes for 1944 as a straightforward struggle for freedom and democracy. Obviously, thousands of Poles, Białoszewski among them, were overjoyed to be rid of the Nazis if only for the few days it took them to organize their counter-attack.

But the real story is more complex. Ordered by the Polish government-in-exile in London, the uprising was an attempt to secure Poland’s independence against both Russia and Germany as well as to restore the pre-1939 boundaries that had brought millions of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, and Germans under a Polish dictatorship.

It was likewise an attempt to restore the status quo ante with regard to the Jews. Pre-war Polish antisemitism was by some measures even worse than that of Germany, and while Władysław Sikorski, the government-in-exile’s liberal prime minister, promised that conditions would change once the war was over, even he believed in mass expulsion, the goal of Poland’s pre-war “colonels’ government,” as the ultimate solution. “[I]t is quite impossible . . . for Poland to continue to maintain 3.5 million Jews after the war,” he told Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, in January 1942. “Room must be found for them elsewhere.”

Room was indeed found elsewhere — in the crematoria. The government’s supporters in the underground Home Army (AK) were even worse. An ethno-religious force that required recruits to swear allegiance to “Almighty God and the Holy Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland,” the AK barred Jews from membership and believed deeply in the idea of Żydokomuna, the notion that Judaism and communism were one and the same.

Consequently, as relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated, the AK turned increasingly murderous. Along with its allies in the fascist National Armed Forces (NSZ), it declared war on Jewish partisans and hunted down refugees fleeing from the ghettoes and concentration camps. Under pressure from London, it grudgingly turned over a small number of arms to the rebels of the Warsaw ghetto even though its weapons supplies were ample. But its units killed dozens of Jews during the 1944 uprising and continued killing them after, as many as three thousand in all, as part of a desperate rearguard action against encroaching Soviet power.

The AK in general, and the 1944 uprising in particular, were thus more fraught than nationalists wanted the world to believe, which is why Białoszewski’s memoir caused such a stir a quarter of a century later. His approach was distinctly unheroic, both with regard to the uprising and existence in general. He wasn’t left-wing or right-wing so much as no wing, an apathist and agoraphobe with no particular political loyalties but with a powerful imagination. His description in a later volume of a trip to the United States is telling:

They asked about my impressions of America. I tell them what I can. And about the idea of traveling in general. Then about the years I spent in bed in a dark room, the meditations, weird states, visions, writings, the not leaving the house. And I say that this too was like traveling, only better.

The last two words are key. As interesting as the world might be, the dream state that he entered into in the privacy of his own room was superior — more vivid and intense. As a poet, Białoszewski was distinguished by his humble subject matter, a plain style based on “demythologizing” and “demetaphorizing,” as he put it, and an offbeat sense of humor.

A poem he published in 1965 declared in its entirety:

long, long ago on Spokojna

the toilet got clogged

they called in an expert, he took a look

and declared:

— too much paper! too little water!

too much paper! too little water!

— so what should we do?

— less paper! more water!

less paper! more water!

This was satire of some sort, but of what — experts, party bosses, or just know-it-alls? Another poem was an ode to a kitchen appliance:

I have a stove

like a triumphal arch!

 

They are taking away my stove

like a triumphal arch!!

 

Give me back my stove

like a triumphal arch!!!

They took it away.

All that’s left

is a gray

gaping

hole

a gray gaping hole.

 

And that’s enough for me:

gray gaping hole

gray-gaping-hole

gray-gap-ing-hole

graygapinghole.

In a country in which writers were supposed to uphold the moral conscience, Białoszewski was the opposite, a champion of insignificance who “contests and ironizes the notion of the ‘Eastern European’ writer as a moral legislator,” to quote the critic Krzysztof Ziarek.

Białoszewski was also gay, which undoubtedly had something to do with his agoraphobia. Working as a journalist after the war, he found himself jobless and destitute as of 1951 due to what a friend described as a “politically incorrect profile” and “supposedly his homosexual tendencies.” Penniless, he spent much of the decade in his tiny two-room apartment in central Warsaw, subsisting on strong tea and a stimulant and appetite suppressant known as psycherine.

A gay man without money, prospects, or apparent politics would seem to be the last person to engage in a public controversy over the 1944 uprising. But Białoszewski turned out to have much to say. When the moment came, he filled page after page with details about life amid the rubble — about what it was like to pick dust and debris out of one’s soup, to visit a barber, to attend a Chopin concert with guns and bombs going off all around, or to use a latrine.

The last looms particularly large in Białoszewski’s account, as it no doubt did in real life:

The latrine was always occupied. So one waited one’s turn. And jabbered away. It didn’t matter at all that there were only hinges and no doors. No one paid any attention to anyone else. Nor was anyone embarrassed. There was also no impatience, because who had somewhere to rush off to. We chatted. With the people close by. Who were waiting. Who were pooping. Who were finished. Who still had to. Who were there for the company.

When Białoszewski asks a friend if he can read him a poem he’s been working on, the friend replies:

“Good. You know what, let’s go to the third room to take a dump and you’ll read it to me.”

“But you know. . .” I wavered.

“What’s the matter?”

“No, not while we’re shitting.”

“Why?”

“Just because; you go and when you come back we’ll go behind the pillar and I’ll read it to you.

“Fine.”

And I read it to him behind the pillar.

Białoszewski is not a coward. He carries a wounded man to safety through the sewers and engages in other acts of bravery as well. But otherwise his answer to what he did during the uprising is the same as Talleyrand’s to what he did during the French Revolution: “I survived.” He does little or nothing to help out the resistance and at no point picks up a gun and engages in combat. During a lull, he and a friend discuss joining up, but decide that “it really doesn’t make any difference.”

While others fight, he keeps his head low. Like everyone else around him, he views the revolt less as valiant and courageous than as some inexplicable calamity that has descended upon the people of Warsaw, like fire and brimstone or a flood. When at last the AK surrenders, he and his fellow Varsavians rejoice:

It was believed that nothing dreadful awaited us; the people wanted to believe in that, because they’d had their fill of the uprising and of war in general and of hatred and killing and dying. Suddenly — everyone — wanted — to — live! To live! To walk! To go outside! To look around! At the sunlight. Normally.

Białoszewski also writes about the Jews. Following the 1939 Nazi invasion, half a million people, the largest concentration of Jews in Europe, found themselves sealed off and starving behind newly erected brick walls. Białoszewski dwells on the events of April 1943, when a dwindling number of survivors launched their doomed revolt. A few hooligans cheer on the Germans while the rest of the population looks on unperturbed as the ghetto goes up in flames:

But there was a carnival on Krasiński Square. Carousels. Chair-o-planes. The Germans got it going with great gusto. Well, some members of our little public were whirling around on those swings and wheels — fifty, sixty, a hundred times in a row. In the thick smoke. Blowing in. And blowing in. From Bonitraterska. And from Nowoipki. From Dzielna. Śwętojerska. Przejazd. The uprising in the ghetto went on and on. The first swallows. I noticed them in May that year, in the smoke, and I heard their twittering. Around the tenth, I remember. That was already two days after the collective suicide of the Jewish general staff. In a bunker on Miła. The Germans discovered them.

As for those chair-o-planes, I heard that there were people who specially swung on them in order to watch what was happening in the ghetto.

Now we were the ones who were cut off.

All of which was in accord with postwar Communist propaganda, which celebrated the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto uprising — who were in fact pro-Soviet — and denigrated the Home Army as “a stinking reactionary dwarf,” to quote one historian.

Early on in his narrative, Białoszewski reveals that his family hid a Jew for much of the war, a woman he nicknames Babu Stefa after a character in a Rabindranath Tagore novel. Stefa is brave and resourceful and carefully conceals herself behind a curtain whenever a stranger calls. But she can’t escape the concierge, who tells them: “That lady who’s your boarder, well, when she walks across the yard she twists her head like this and walks sort of sideways; oy, you can tell from a mile away that she’s a Jewess.” So Stefa has to find a hiding place elsewhere.

Poles cheering on the Germans and turning on their fellow citizens — this is not what Polish nationalists wanted to hear in 1970, including those nationalists who had found their way into the Communist Party. Neither was antisemitism, considering the vicious anti-Jewish purge that the party’s nationalist wing had just finished conducting. The purge sent some 13,000 Polish Jews, some of the Communist regime’s most stalwart defenders, fleeing to France, Sweden, and the US, a neo-exodus that left the rest of the party shaken and demoralized.

So attacks on Polish antisemitism and self-regard in general were not to be taken lightly even if they came from someone as marginal as Białoszewski.

Following publication of A Memoir, an outraged critic worked himself into a lather denouncing “little Miron” as an “overgrown baby” interested only in “digestive functions.” That “the author represents himself as more stupid than he really is,” he went on, “is his own business. But that he does the same to the Warsaw population, which, even though it participated only passively in the Uprising, was emotionally fully engaged supporting it, fluctuating from despair to hope, this, to put it delicately, is far from truth.”

The people of Warsaw were passive yet somehow emotionally engaged, and anyone who said otherwise had to be driven from the fold.

Białoszewski died of a heart attack in 1983 just shy of his sixty-first birthday. He remained detached and introverted to the end, although his reputation by this point was beginning to grow. But what would he have made of the sensational events that transformed Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe just half a dozen years later?

The answer is that, he would have been overjoyed. Notwithstanding his otherworldliness, even he would have noticed that the events of 1989 worked out exactly as dissidents like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń said they would. Once freed of the Soviet yoke, Poles settled down to enjoy the fruits of a dynamic free-market economy, generous Scandinavian-style welfare benefits, and a political system notable for its high democratic standards and lack of corruption. In the area of gay rights, it has been a pacesetter . . .

Whoops. This is history as it was supposed to be. In reality, Poland’s experience, like that of the rest of the region, has been rocky in the extreme. Income growth has been strong, in part because it was smart enough to steer clear of the euro and was therefore cushion itself against the effects of the 2008 crash by devaluing the złoty. But unemployment has been strong too, going from near zero in the 1980s to 20.3 percent in 2003, forcing some two million young people to seek work abroad with little prospect of ever returning back home.

Prejudice also remains high, with some 28 percent of Poles confessing to negative feelings about Jews according to a Pew survey, 63 percent believing that Jews control media and international banking, and more than 60 percent of high school students confessing that they would be unhappy to discover that their boyfriend or girlfriend was a Jew.

With 56 percent viewing Muslims unfavorably, Islamophobia is likewise shooting through the roof. Indeed, the two bigotries are combined in the person of Andrzej Duda, the newly elected president, who complains that reports about anti-Jewish violence during the war are an “attempt to destroy Poland’s good name” and initially agreed during the recent immigration crisis to take no more than two thousand refugees provided they were all Christian.

On October 25, Duda’s party, Law and Justice, swept the parliamentary elections by, among other things, running on program of right-wing Euroskepticism, anti-immigration, and opposition to same-sex marriage, gay adoption, and trans rights.

So what would Białoszewski’s response have been? Politically, he was a complicated character, his all-sided wariness causing him to keep his distance not only from the nationalist right but, as a few stray comments in A Memoir would suggest, from the Communists, the people who forced him out of a job in 1951.

He refused to take part in the 1980–81 Solidarity protests for reasons he never bothered to make clear, although the movement’s close orientation to the Catholic Church may have had something to do with it. (Solidarnosc, Ronald Reagan’s favorite labor union, was a direct progenitor of Law and Justice.)

So perhaps he would have seen Poland’s post-1989 embrace of xenophobia and homophobia as another example of plus ça change, in which case he might have returned to his bed, pulled the covers back over his head, and retreated into the world of his imagination. But maybe, just maybe, he would dashed off a few lines of criticism, sly yet cutting, to show that someone was still saying “no” to the nationalist tide.