Reflections of Jaroslaw Marek Rymkiewicz on the Warsaw Uprising

          Below you may find the selected fragments of Kinderszenen, the book by Jaroslaw Marek Rymkiewicz, published in 2008.
          Jaroslaw Marek Rymkiewicz, a writer, poet and historian of literature, the winner of Nike 2003 Literary Award, now living in Milanowek near Warsaw, was 8 at the time of the outbreak of the Uprising.
          This book cannot be missed!

          (...) The Warsaw Uprising is an unprecedented historical phenomenon and for that reason also an unprecedented methodological phenomenon, i.e. the one so unique that it cannot be compared with anything that had happened in our history in the past. The Uprising requires its own specifically dedicated methodology of historical research, and such unprecedented methodology must be developed by the historians of the insurrection.
          For the time being, as long as we have not developed such methodology, (in consequence of which the Uprising is described with the use of the same methods which are applied to describe the Battle of Tannenberg), we should adhere to the premise that there are no worse or better insurgents' accounts, the ones that present the state of play in a better or worse way, or which are closer to or farther from some truth. From a methodological point of view, all the narratives are equally good and equally truthful, as they tell the stories of those who had really seen and lived the narrated events, and therefore, tell the truth of their lives which is the truth of the Uprising.
          There are many sides to life, many appearances, many "faces", a spiritual side and a material side, a historical side and an eternal side, an esthetical side and an ethical side, a side of reality and a side of ideas. What is life becomes apparent and comprehensible in its entirety only if we look at it from all these sides and are able to see all these appearances. We know about life only as much as we manage to learn these diverse sides and to the extent we are able to recognize and describe life's different dimensions - the rest is mere illusion.
          Did the Uprising suffer a defeat ? This is the way we (people of my generation) were taught to think: that the Uprising was a horrendous disaster, monstrous calamity, a collapse of history or even the end of history or the herald of its end. Such were the teachings of the Communists, which should come as no surprise considering that such interpretation served their interests. The promulgation of the idea that the Poles had suffered a defeat from which they would never be able to rise was in line with the Communists' plans of spiritual extermination of the Polish people.
          But there was a time when everybody (or almost everybody) acknowledged that the Uprising was a great national disaster. Not only great but the greatest because nothing of the kind had ever taken place in Polish history. Thousands of corpses and the city in ruins - for no purpose at all.
          That belief (although slightly dimmed by the veil of glory that has eventually been cast on the ruins and corpses) still holds fast. But, was it really a failure? I was searching for the images of failure (which are not hard to find), and here they are, selected from among many similar ones: four passages of testimonies given in 1946 before the investigating judges delegated to participate in the sittings of the Commission for the Investigation of German Crimes.
          There are tens or hundreds of such testimonies (archived at some place), but these particular ones tell about what was happening in the neighbourhood dear to me, i.e. around the Palace of the Raczynski Family at 7 Dluga Street, and also in Kilinskiego Street, in Podwale and Waski Dunaj, when on the 2nd September Germans entered the Old Town after the retreat of the Home Army troops to the City Centre (via that famous sewer canal which led from the Krasinski Square to the corner of Warecka and Nowy Swiat Streets).
          The fragments I quote are taken from the volume published in 1962 and entitled "The Crimes of the German Occupiers Committed on Polish Civilians during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising" (comprised of many testimonials of similar nature). It is worth (...) pointing out that already in 1962 it was forbidden to make references to "Germans" who were replaced with "Hitlerian occupiers" later on abandoned as well and finally superseded by "the Nazis". It was the beginning of the German falsification of history. Many Poles had a hand in it, readily and mindlessly.
          Although I was a child at that time, I can bear witness to this fact as I can remember vividly that during and after the war nobody used the word "Nazis", nothing of the sort, no one heard of such word. There were only Germans. If the said testimonials had been released at the time they had been recorded i.e. in 1946 or 1947, the book would have been entitled "German Crimes against Polish Civilians during the Warsaw Uprising". I might appear anachronistic but this title seems to me more precise and closer to the truth. (...)
          The Warsaw Uprising was the most significant event in the history of the Polish people. No event of bigger gravity happened in our entire history (and probably will never take place). Also, that greatest event has produced great lessons to learn. It will take many decades and centuries to come before these lessons are examined, thought over and well comprehended. (...)
          It seems that we have forgiven the Germans too quickly and too easily. There are things in history which you do not forgive, never, as there is no reason for forgiveness. The senior Church figures and the Prime Ministers of the successive Polish governments should not forget that in order to forgive it is necessary to be mandated, not by God, because God has nothing to do with it, but by the Poles. But such mandate has not been given and will never be given. Imagine God being present there in Waski Dunaj at that time.
          But we are supposed to talk about something else: was it a failure? The images from Podwale, from Kilinskiego Street, from Waski Dunaj tell us that, indeed, it was a failure, a catastrophe, the ominous harbinger of doom. The gloomy sign that the Poles would not rise again from such a fall, that the Polish nation would not regenerate and that there would not be enough Poles to reinstate the Polish state. The disaster incomparable to any other, the greatest of all we have ever experienced. It was the way the Uprising was seen later. Also later appeared commentaries that not only the Germans were responsible but also those who made the decision to start the Uprising.
          But half a century has passed and it has turned out that the horrible warning that occurred in Waski Dunaj and was supposed to harbinger our fate has not come true. That prophecy has turned out to be a mistake. Why? Simply because the Uprising was a success. The evidence for that success, well visible and sufficiently complete, is within arm's reach and everywhere around us. And all of us, who live in this land here and now, bear witness to that successful outcome. The evidence is sovereign Poland. The Home Army Supreme Command and the Government Delegate's Office at Home (trans: the representatives of the London-based Polish government in exile) made the decision to start the Uprising for that very reason, in order to achieve exactly this result, no other. Exactly this. When passing the orders to start the fight, the then decision-makers meant to achieve this very goal as there was and could be no other aim to accomplish.
          Anyone who thinks otherwise that the Uprising ended in a defeat because it capitulated, because on the night of October 2 to October 3 the delegates of the Supreme Command and General von dem Bach signed in Ozarow the agreement to cease war fighting, is fragmenting history (into segments of a few weeks, months, years) and expresses a belief that these fragments have nothing in common and are unrelated.
          It must be said that after the Uprising such a view was widespread: that the end of that small fragment of history was the end of everything.
          Even poets thought so, though one may expect something different from poets, say (in line with great traditions of Polish poetry) some prophecies of the nearest or farther future. Kazimierz Wierzynski, when describing Warsaw (or maybe the entire Poland), wrote after the capitulation of the Uprising: "Now ruins only and failure".
          But history cannot be broken into small unrelated pieces. Such fragmentation is completely unjustified and nonsensical. Because it is impossible to detach an event (no matter how big or small, how important or unimportant) from the events that occurred earlier or later. It is impossible to identify the moment when it started and when it ended and draw a simple linking line between the reasons for its occurrence and its beginning, and between its consequences and its end.
          History develops in a different way. Historical events are interconnected in a more complicated fashion, do not necessarily follow an exact chronological order and are not certain to result from the preceding events or condition the occurrence of the events to ensue. A certain event, something which happened before, may bring about an immediate effect (it usually happens that events have immediate outcomes), but it may as well give birth to a result which will surface in a few or a dozen years to come. An event, something which is taking place just now (before our very eyes, within our reach, during our lifetime, at the moment) may be triggered by an immediate cause (and it usually does have a direct cause) but it may as well have an underlying, a deeply rooted and more distant reason, originating months, years or even decades in the past.
          Looking at history as a string of chronological events which by virtue of being harmoniously ordered constitute a sufficiently explicable and coherent whole (thanks to this very chronology and harmony), we see, in actual fact, not so much a picture of the whole but of isolated facts which by following one another earn their places in history books but which cannot be justified - nor can their interrelationships be explained or comprehended.
          The Warsaw Uprising had its direct horrible aftermath but also brought about some glorious outcomes which became evident not immediately but after a while. One such outcome and the most important one is the independence of the Polish people. And we may be sure that the legends of the Uprising, the blood that had been shed at that time, the sacrifices made, and all the suffering and glory of the time will continue to influence our fate and bring fruit in our history as a nation.
          It leads to a further conclusion that the events of the Insurrection will spark off many more events, even such which we are now unable to imagine - the inconceivable events which will surprise us all if we live to see them. If we agree that the Warsaw Uprising was the greatest event in Polish history, the most significant episode that had ever happened to us and which for ever became a part of the Polish fate, a national destiny, shared by all the generations of Poles, past and future, as part of their fate, it would be a complete nonsense to decide that the Uprising had ended in the first week of October 1944 or a few months later when the entire country was under Soviet occupation.
          The same holds true of the Baptism of Poland - the event of a similar magnitude that brought very important results and still remains a trigger for many other events taking place in Poland. It mysteriously keeps renewing itself or is renewed by us irrespective of whether someone likes it or not, because our individual likes, beliefs and convictions matter little or not at all in this respect.
          Only that who was unable to learn any lessons from Polish history, who did not understand it at all, who could not unravel its mysterious and deeply hidden sense (or that who denied to believe it ever existed), could write that "the battle of Warsaw was in vain". That person wrote such a sentence a dozen or so years after the Uprising when it was already well evident that the Insurrection with all its legends attached would be a decisive force shaping the fate of the Polish nation.
          The Warsaw Uprising, for many reasons, including those of propaganda, was frequently described as a huge outbreak of madness. This practice was used to the greatest extent by the Communists, although one should not bother about their enunciations because it is well known for what purpose they were doing it and on whose orders. The Communists were keen to show to the world that the Poles needed to be well taken care of (meaning that they needed to be put into safety jackets). Nothing more can be said about it and the subject is not worth any further discussion.
          There were also historians who, although shared no common ground with Communists or were even regarded as the enemies of Communism, looked at the Uprising with the same eyes, i.e. they saw in it only the horrendous deed perpetrated by madmen. Of many such opinions, formulated by the people who were not corrupted by the Russians or by the Germans, but who were writing in line with their own convictions, the most interesting case is the chapter devoted to the political developments of the Uprising in volume 3 of the monumental work The Contemporary Political History of Poland by Wladyslaw Pobog-Malinowski.
          Pobog-Malinowski was an emigre writer. The huge third volume of his Contemporary History, numbering almost 1000 pages, was published under his own imprint and thanks to the sale of the book by subscription to the London readership in 1960, so, unlike the domestic historians (subjected to severe Communists censorship), he did not have to take into account the opinions of others or fear any repercussions, and could write what he thought.
          I do not want to proceed with an evaluation of this admirable work by the historian whose achievements are obvious. The consecutive volumes of The Contemporary History, spirited into the conquered country, played an important role in teaching the Poles their 20th century history, given the fact that on the spot, in Poland, there was no intention on the part of the Communists to disseminate historical information, at least in compliance with the facts. My London copy of the third volume of History has been standing on a shelf at my home for over 40 years, very worn-out and dog-eared from too frequent reading. I will only say cautiously that Pobog-Malinowski was a loyal soldier of Marshal Pilsudski which means that having firm and clearly defined political views he would sometimes arrange the historical facts in an order which would fit into his political thesis.
          As far as the Uprising is concerned, Pobog (as the title suggests) was exploring its political reasons and consequences above any other, while purely military or combat actions, causes and consequences which can be branded as "spiritual" as well as the fates of the people and places were of lesser interest to him.
          All those who had anything to do with the Uprising, those who started as well as those who participated in it, Pobog considered to be insane. It is not quite clear (and will probably never be established) what he really meant by "insane". Whether he used it metaphorically (to be a kind of metaphorical curse word), or whether he really regarded both generals, Gen. Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski and Gen. Tadeusz Pelczynski, pseudonym "Grzegorz", to be out of their minds.
          It sems to me (but I would not be able to prove it) that the words "madman" and "madness" which can be found repeatedly throughout the book were used by Pobog in both meanings. In part, he thought that Bor, Pelczynski and Chrusciel were mad, had mental disorders and were maniacs obsessed with a crazy idea, and, in part, he used these terms as possibly unpleasant and severe insults.
          The insulting terms were intended for a distinct but sufficiently obvious reason: Pobog-Malinowski had thought that the Uprising was "the greatest disaster in the history of Poland". This is the opinion which cannot be ignored nor questioned. Neither the massacres during the Bar Confederation (including the slaughter in Human) or the massacre of Praga, the last episode of the 1794 Insurrection, or the repressions of Poles following the 1830 November Uprising, nor, finally, the repressions against the insurgents after the end of the January Uprising of 1863 had not been as great calamities as Warsaw Uprising was, and can by no means be compared to it.
          A similar thing can be said about big battles from the past, lost by the Poles. Neither the Battle of Legnica lost to Tatars, or the battle of Cecora lost to the Turks nor the Russian victory over Poles at Maciejowice defy any comparison to the battle of Warsaw, including collateral damage and other consequences, although those battles are now classified as great national misfortunes.
          Describing Warsaw Uprising as our greatest historical disaster, Pobog-Malinowski made his assessment too simplistic by categorising all the participants as insane. He failed to notice, though, that the Uprising, being the greatest national disaster, was also the greatest national historical event.
          And when we see it from such perspective, the sense of the word "disaster" will somehow change. The powerful blows struck by the Home Army battalions, the blows dealt by battalions "Zoska", "Chrobry" and "Lukasinski" hit the Germans really hard and demonstrated who the Poles are and what they are capable of without tanks, cannons, armoured trains and aircraft. The effects of that demonstration will remain in our national mind and national history. It would be good if also the Germans kept that in mind for the whole eternity.
          I wrote that the "insane label" used by the author of the Contemporary History embraced all the participants of the Uprising, the commanders and soldiers alike, although, according to Pobog, there was a great difference between the first and the second group. While he thought that the commanders were crazy villains, he regarded the soldiers as crazy heroes. He thought that the soldiers were crazy because they were giving away their lives without any sense nor purpose - in a crazy way. "It was happening" - we can read in a passage describing the first day of the Uprising - "in the broad daylight, often in the open space, therefore the murderous fire from German guns was striking down those heroic madmen, who were raked and pinned down by enemy fire to the extent that they could not move neither forward nor backward".
          The author of Contemporary History focused not so much on the crazy soldiers, who undoubtedly were acting on the orders of their commanders, but first and foremost on those officers, crazy villains, who initiated the Uprising on the spur of madness, and then when it broke out were directing it in a mad way, as well as on those politicians who not only failed to stop the insane officers but who prompted them into madness, and finally turned mad themselves.
          The whole chapter of Contemporary History dealing with the Uprising is, in actuality, an attempt to describe (not to understand) the activities of a dozen or so madmen. The Uprising, Pobog asserts, was provoked by the "blind drive for fighting" demonstrated by the top commanders of the Home Army (these words apply to Tadeusz Pelczynski and Antoni Chrusciel) who, after their decisions had led to disaster, turned out to be miserable cowards.
          In commenting the later accounts of the officers of the Home Army Headquarters, Pobog wrote: "the burden of responsibility for the insane decision to start the fight is so terribly huge that it not only leads to the attempts to escape the responsibility [...], but also to the attempts to renounce any connection with that decision".
          Because the Uprising turned out to be a terrible disaster that could have been easily avoided, the commanders of the Home Army and the people who "by accident of one sort or another" found themselves "at the helm of both the government in London and of the underground movement at home", should be, asserts the author of Contemporary History, severely punished. "They deserve capital punishment by firing squad", he wrote.
          They were supposed to be punished for the fact that "regardless of being unable to comprehend the situation and the sense of the approaching events, they were big-headed and ambitious enough to undertake the burden of such a decision".
          Pobog listed the names of the madmen who made the decision to start the Uprising and who should be executed by shooting. "The Warsaw Uprising broke out because such was the decision of Mikolajczyk, Kwapinski, Bor-Komorowski, Pelczynski, Jankowski".
          And certainly, at this point a question arises weather only the high ranking officers in Warsaw together with the London ministers, i.e. only those who took that fatal (according to Pobog) decision were the only madmen who wanted to take up arms against the Germans, or maybe all Poles?
          If we accept the idea that the initiation of the Uprising was brought about by someone's insanity, it would be justified to assert that the whole society went mad as well. The Poles - and such conclusion cannot be dismissed as unjustified - may have gone mad, may have become insane, may have lost the sense of reality as a result of German executions, torture, expulsions, and other atrocities.
          There was an atmosphere of amok during the Uprising when it had gained its momentum and had been in the full swing. The amok was visible even in the way the best and most disciplined Kedyw (special task) troops were conducted their military operations. According to Pobog, the state of insanity came down upon the decision-makers who then enforced that madness on all the others. "Blind drive for fighting" gripped the Home Army commanders while the society followed or wanted to follow the dictates of "common sense", - we read in Contemporary History - "the society was wiser, more prudent and cautious than its clandestine leaders".
          Pobog (in line with his political sympathies) maintained that the Uprising would have surely not broken out if the final decision in the matter had been made by someone else, some other commanders or politicians. "Marshal Pilsudski's acolytes spoke specially forcefully, proving that any insurgent military action is nothing more than madness, and all the more insane making the red rope that will later be tied on the Polish neck".
          Also, according to Pobog, the then Commander-In-Chief, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, would have never allowed, if he had the possibility, the Uprising to start: "categorically disapproving of initiating the Uprising in the then existing circumstances, he could not prohibit from happening [...] what the government demanded of the Underground Army".
          As it appears, we have to do with a serious question, a serious issue of historical and philosophical nature, namely weather history plays havoc when a few individuals who decide about its course turn mad, or when the whole societies become crazy? But we are not going to deal this problem at this point, nor the author of Contemporary History was interested in such digressions either, it was not his business.
          What shall we do with the concept of Pobog-Malinowski? How to approach it? Even if we agree that the Uprising was started by madmen, and its course shows that it had eventually and essentially exploded into a spree of madness, when reading Contemporary History we will see that the physician-like diagnosis of the author was superficial, incomplete and fragmentary because it was a one-sided view of history, a presentation of only one of its many faces. For that single reason Pobog's assessment is not so much unjust but rather insufficient.
          Pobog-Malinowski (it was a serious mistake on the part of that historian) approached the Uprising from a single, his own, i.e. Polish point of view, from the point of view of Polish post-war interests and post-war future, the way he had pictured those interests and the future given the Uprising had not happened.
          He failed, though, to look at it from the other, equally important, perspective, i.e. from the point of view of the Germans. This is the duty of any historian writing about the Uprising events if he or she aims to discover its mysteries and gain an insight.
          The sense and the future meaning of the Uprising may be understood only in this way, when one looks at it from both Polish and German perspectives. By brushing aside the latter or by pretending or assuming that it was no object, Pobog, when accusing the Poles of being mad, omitted something very important and very obvious, which cannot be missed when one is examining or having only a superficial contact with the German history of war. It cannot be overlooked because it will immediately surface and become apparent. The blindness of Pobog-Malinowski in this respect is completely incomprehensible to me, I cannot explain it nor see any reasons for it.
          The author of Contemporary History failed to perceive that the madness of the Poles who decided to start their crazy Uprising was the response to the insanity they had been facing and which they had to cope with. It was something extremely difficult to cope with, something no other nation would have been probably able to handle. That madness which the Poles opposed may be called the insanity of war or the insanity of the German war. But if we called it simply the insanity of war we would slightly generalize that phenomenon which in its German context took concrete shape. We saw it with our own eyes, and those who saw it, will never forget.
          So, the madness of the Poles was a response to the madness of the Germans, the madness of killing and murdering into which, for reasons beyond comprehension, the German killers fell. It was incomprehensible, inexplicable, mysterious and insane. And it remains so despite the decades that have passed since that time.
          "Hitler" - Pobog-Malinowski wrote - "on hearing the news about the outbreak of the Uprising flew into a rage. [...] There is no doubt that Warsaw fell prey to the German fury which had been sparked off by unreasonable and fatal decision to start the Uprising".
          It was exactly vice versa; the fury and rage of the Germans and their leader, Hitler, had been well known to the Poles for the 5 years of the occupation. German wanton murders, their furious violence, and mad ruthlessness aroused fury on the part of the Poles.
          Even if we accept that our collective national lunacy (which did make itself be felt in the past) is a deeply-hidden and lasting trait of our character, something inherently ingrained, embedded in the deepest layers of our history and our national mindset, and which straight from there, from the Slavic depths comes from time to time to the surface like a thick cloud of Slavic or pre-Slavic mist, enveloping us and making us behave like madmen, what happened back in 1944 was only a feedback, nothing more. If we approach the Uprising in this way, we will have to admit that it was the only possible and unavoidable feedback.
          It was necessary to do away with German killings, with its nonsense, and demonstrate to the Germans that their madness had finally run up against something which they would have to take into account for ages to come if they want to be our neighbours.
          The Poles had to respond to the German mad killings with their own madness if they wanted to survive on the globe.

Selected and abridged by Maciej Janaszek-Seydlitz

Translated by Anna Halicka

Copyright © 2011 SPPW1944. All rights reserved.