I used to walk these streets to my school and back. I wouldn’t pay much attention to my surroundings, dwelling instead on the upcoming assignment that I still had to write. There was no time to waste. I can only remember the uneven pavement from my daily walks through the city. Yet Warsaw is oversaturated with history; under its modern disguise lays its darker side which does not let itself be forgotten. Even by someone as uninterested as my teenage self.
Sometimes I liked to entertain myself by finding alternative routes to school. I did it only too prolong the moment of getting to class. I would wander with earphones on since I cared for the sounds of the city even less than I did for the looks of it. With my eyes glued to the ground, thinking of nothing important I found myself stepping on a sign engraved in a simple cursive in the pavement:
I looked up, almost expecting to see the wall right in front of me. Instead, I saw a bus stopping by to pick up passengers and people running across the street to get work. I must have accidentally pulled out one of the earphones because all of a sudden I could hear cars beeping and a group of children laughing as they passed me by. No one seemed to notice the sign next to my feet although it was running exactly where the wall used to stand, separating the area of the past ghetto from the rest of the city.
There are even more signs of the past all around Warsaw, much more subtle than borders of ghetto engraved in the pavement. Only if you care enough to pay attention you begin to notice the original symbols of Polish resistance painted on the few buildings that miraculously survived the war. The post office known from photographs taken during the uprising remains intact, tucked in between skyscrapers build in recent years. The former SS post is now in the basements of the Ministry of Education and the prison complex active during the occupation keeps standing in the center of the city, with the prisoners’ belongings still scattered across the cells. Everything’s left intact because history is not something to be played around with, as I heard from the majority of adults in my life: “There is no one with the right to question history.” What happened in the past is considered a sacred fact with no room for discussion.
In an attempt to make peace with the ever-present history of the place I was born into, I decided to dive deeper; it seemed too easy to simply ignore the signs and landmarks that in one moment became so obvious to my eyes. I wasn’t the first to become obsessed with Warsaw’s complex layers of history and it didn’t take me long to come across the bards of the city who during the occupation took it upon themselves to document the fate of the capital. They might have had the future generations of citizens in mind, or they could have done just for their own sake, treating art as a way to deal with the violence that fell upon their city. Baczyński, Gajcy, Szczepański – the most famous trio of poets of the occupied Warsaw. I personally named Baczyński as my favorite poet of that time; he died in 1944 when he was only 23 years old and since he spent his entire life in Warsaw, his poetry reflected the state of the city; his first poems were full of appreciation of nature and youth, but later became elegies for the capital of Poland.
The sign of the ghetto made me turn to history and Baczyński’s poem, written a few months before the ghetto uprising, made me fall in love with the poetry of the city. There is no beauty in war but there’s so much beauty to be found in the pieces written in the country torn by war. I have and will never experience the same Warsaw as the poet did but there remains something deeply familiar about his poems with the way in which the city holds onto its past and makes its citizens afraid to even touch the landmarks of the war.
I’m nowhere near understanding the full spectrum of events that happened in the streets of my city, especially with the country being so one-sided about our history. Yet the poems offer me a glimpse into what it actually was like to be in Warsaw during the war without the unnecessary politics that nowadays cloud any discussion around the past. The three poets of the capital were writing what they were experiencing and through their words, I’m beginning to understand my city with all the darkness hiding beneath its modern outfit.
Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński – Warszawa
Bryła ciemna, gdzie dymy bure,
poczerniałe twarze pokoleń,
niedotknięte miłości chmury,
przeorane cierpienia role.
Miasto groźne jak obryw trumny.
Czasem głuchym jak burz maczugą
zawalone w przepaść i dumne
jak lew czarny, co kona długo.
Wparło łapy ludzkich rojowisk
w głuchych ulic rowy wygasłe,
warcząc czeka i węszy groby
w nocach krwawych i gromach jasnych.
Jeszcze przez nie najeźdźców lawa
jak dym się duszny przewlecze,
zetnie głowy, posieje trawy
na miłości, krzywdzie człowieczej.
Jeszcze z wieku w wiek tak się spieni
krew z ciemnością, a ciemność z brukiem,
że odrośnie jak grom od ziemi
i rozewrze niebiosa z hukiem.
Bryła ciemna, miasto pożarne,
jak lew stary, co kona długo,
posąg rozwiany w dymy czarne,
roztrzaskany czasów maczugą.
I znów ująć dłuto i rydel,
ciąć w przestrzeni i w ziemi szukać,
wznosić wieki i pnącze żywe
na pilastrach, formach i łukach.
I w sztandary dąć, i bić w kamień,
aż się lew spod dłoni wykuje,
aż wykrzesze znużone ramię
taki głaz, co jak serce czuje.
Dark mass, gray fumes,
blackened faces of generations,
unreachable clouds of love,
land plowed with anguish.
City dangerous as a coffin.
Collapsed into the gulf
of dull time, and proud like
a black lion, slowly dying.
Pushed the swarm of human bodies
into the withered trenches of streets,
growling, waiting, snuffing on the graves
in bloody nights and storms of light.
The lava of invaders will still
flood it, stifling as smoke,
chop down heads, plant grass
on the ground of love and suffering.
Blood will still boil for centuries
into darkness, and darkness into concrete,
until this blood will grow back as a thunder
and rip the heavens open with a roar.
Dark mass, city of fires,
slowly dying, like an old lion,
a statue evaporated into black smoke,
shattered by the mace of time.
Let us pick up chisel and shovel,
cut the tract and look in the ground,
living vines of centuries rise
on pilasters, forms and arches.
Let us wave your flag and strike the stone,
until the lion takes form under your hand,
until your hand reaches the stone
that beats like a living heart.