As the Nazis prepared to invade Poland, they must have thought about the Polish history of sustaining its national spirit through art and literature. When Poland was partitioned in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was poets like Adam Mickiewicz and novelists like Henryk Sienkiewicz who kept Polish culture alive and inspired their downtrodden countrymen.
When the Nazis occupied Poland, they, along with the Soviets who had invaded from the east, attempted to destroy it as a country. Tens of thousands of officers, priests, and members of the intelligentsia were executed. Publishing books, journals, and newspapers was banned. Schools, universities, theatres, and cafés were closed. While insisting that Poles were “vermin,” the Nazis struggled to deny them any access to their culture.
Some “art” was allowed. In Polish Society Under German Occupation, the historian Jan Gross acknowledges that the Germans allowed Poles to see some films, but emphasized that the films they selected were chosen according to their low cultural value. Most of them were charmless sex comedies:
Sex was the common theme here—one of two subjects chosen by the Department of Propaganda in the GG as a suitable pursuit for the Polish population during leisure time. The second acceptable leisure activity was drinking.
If Poles were not dead, interned, or frightened into silence, then (the Germans thought) they could be pacified with alcohol and smut.
It didn’t work. If anything, the Germans’ savagery inspired the Poles, making art and learning not just valuable in themselves but symbolic of resistance. “We were the ones representing humanistic and humanitarian culture,” writes Stanisław Dzikowski in The Derided German, “while they were the exact opposite.”
The Polish Underground State struggled to conceal artworks and artifacts. Secretive schools and universities opened to keep the flame of forbidden knowledge alive. The underground press started to produce newspapers, journals, leaflets, books—and poetry.
The Anglosphere reveres poets who illustrate the horrors of industrial warfare. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, for example, lambasted the generals for sending men to die on the Western Front, while Michael Casey’s powerful collection Obscenities details the pointless bloodshed of the Vietnam War. These poets have been celebrated in retrospect as sobering reminders of the consequences of militarism.
Poles had none of the luxuries of choice. They were fighting as they had been fought against, and poetry was a means of explaining their predicament and inspiring their struggle. Diverse both artistically and politically, their poems nonetheless had common features. Nazi aggression, as Dzikowski suggests was perceived as the antithesis of Christian and otherwise compassionate virtues. In Władysław Broniewski’s Ballady i romanse, for example, the Nazis execute Christ along with a Jewish girl.
Other poets saw some of Christ’s suffering in the suffering of Poland. In Krzystof Kamil Baczynski’s “Prayer to the Mother of God”, the young poet asks Mary to “teach our mothers how to suffer.” Baczynski also speaks of “fighting with love”, which illuminates the truth of Stanisław Cieślak’s remark in Religiosity in Polish Literature that while Polish poets abhorred the deeds of Germans they showed remarkably little enmity towards the Germans themselves. Rudyard Kipling had demonized the relatively humanitarian “Hun” of the First World War but, in Kazimiera Iłłakowiczówna’s “Prayer for the Enemies” the Polish poet asks:
Have mercy, O Lord, on Germans…
On those who are bent before a false God.
Love of family, love of comrades, love of home, and love of God were more powerful motivations than hatred of the enemy.
Polish Jews wrote poems as well. The young Zuzanna Ginczanka wrote one of the most striking poems of the war, “Non Omnis Moriar,” in which her spirit transcends the sordid cynicism of her would-be Polish betrayer and German captors. They would rip apart her belongings, looking for valuables, but
My blood will bind these fibers with fresh down,
And thus transform these wingèd ones to angels.
Ginczanka was indeed arrested, tortured, and killed.
Most of the poets were fighting men and women. Many of them died. Poles speak of a “Generation of Columbuses”; young people who were thrust into adulthood by the conflict. These young Poles were by no means ideologically united. The most interesting literary conflict was between the future Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz and the nationalist poets grouped around the magazine Sztuka I Naród. The latter were not strangers to ideological conflict, having distinguished themselves with their attacks on the experimental, cosmopolitan “Skamander” school of poets, but earned the ire of Miłosz, who saw in them “the deadly miasma of romanticism”, which was leading men into foolhardy actions out of nationalistic fervor.
There was at least some justice to the older poet’s criticism. The young nationalists’ ideas about a Slavic empire were hubristic and presumptuous, and their rash ambitions were fatally exposed when an ill-prepared propaganda stunt led to the editor of the magazine, Wacław Bojarski, being killed. His talented young colleagues Andrzej Trzebiński and Tadeusz Gajcy soon followed him to the grave, with the latter’s final poem including the morbid line, “In Heaven there is a feast: Polish tripe.”
Yet even if their poets had prideful and ambitious excesses, Poles needed pride and they needed hope. Without these priceless assets, Poles never would have led their country through the darkness, or endured the storms of Nazism and Stalinism, and how better to embody those assets than in poetry? Zuzanna Ginczanka and Tadeusz Gajcy might have had little in common, but I think the spirit of wartime Polish poetry is illustrated by her “May 1939”:
Longing draws from on high,
the radio delivers dread:
When I go, will I fly high
or down the low road instead?
And his “To Posterity”:
I write as a gravedigger removes earth
for the motionless bodies, the palm’s despair,
and a little word will rise at times
like a cross or a wreath. If it is fated
to last—your hand will open it
and fill it with your heart.