Rachel Feldhay Brenner
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ideological Formations of Witnessing
The Holocaust in Wartime Diaries
of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Maria Dąbrowska
The Polish writers Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) and Maria Dąbrowska (1889-1965) spent the years of brutal German occupation in Warsaw. Both witnessed the establishment of the Ghetto, the 1942 deportations, and the 1943 Uprising, as well as the attempts of the Jewish fugitives to hide on the “Aryan side” of the city. Yet their war diaries reveal contrasting attitudes toward the destruction of the Jews. Whereas Dąbrowska projected indifference by practically ignoring the evolving genocide, Iwaszkiewicz expressed dismay and compassion. Iwaszkiewicz and his wife Anna engaged in rescuing Jews while Dąbrowska showed no sympathy for the Jewish plight.
Such polarized responses to the Holocaust of individuals who were contemporaries, fellow-writers, and prominent members of the intellectual elite of Warsaw raise questions about the nature of witnessing and responding to atrocities. This essay posits that the differences in these writers’ attitudes toward the genocide of the Polish Jews were indelibly tied to the ideological systems that shaped their self-identities. The writers’ worldviews, formed by their family backgrounds, personal histories, education, and historical circumstances, determined their positions on the political and ethical character of the Polish nation-state. Dąbrowska’s deep belief in Poland’s national particularity and Iwaszkiewicz’s profound trust in the European tradition of the Enlightenment and its values of universal humanism help explain their contrasting opinions about Polish Jews in the interwar period and during the Holocaust.
The first part of this essay begins with a brief biographical exploration of the writers’ origins, their childhood and youth, followed by an in-depth examination of the writers’ recollections of the pivotal event of World War I, and, more specifically, of their participation in the struggle for Polish independence during this war. In their reminiscences, both writers considered their service to the Polish cause as the foundation of their social consciousness. The war experience established Dąbrowska’s lifelong patriotic loyalty to the Polish people; it shaped Iwaszkiewicz’s self-consciousness as a writer and his affinity to the cosmopolitan world of art.
The second part of this essay focuses on the writers’ diverging interwar attitudes toward the Polish Jewish minority. I will examine the extent to which these attitudes arose from the ideological beliefs which crystallized in their World War I experiences. Dąbrowska’s wartime service consolidated her patriotic ideology of the exceptionality of the Polish nation; thus, her perception of the Jewish presence as a hindrance to the actualization of the nation’s destiny accounted for her negative feelings about the Jews. In contrast, Iwaszkiewicz’s war experience defined his adherence to the world of art and exposed him to its humanistic universality; thus, his collaboration with Jewish fellow-artists created friendships which toned down and eventually eliminated his sense of the ethnic singularity of the Jews.
The third part of this essay focuses on the writers’ discrepant responses to the Jewish genocide. This discussion will show that their ethics of witnessing the destruction of the Jews flowed from their formative ideological convictions. These ideological beliefs nonetheless proved resilient in the dramatically altered, unprecedented conditions of the genocide. As we shall see, there is a strong correlation between each writer’s self-consciousness as a member of society and his or her ethical and emotional responses to the Jewish victims of the Final Solution.
I. Ideological formations
Childhood and early youth in the shadow of history
In the interwar and postwar periods, both Dąbrowska and Iwaszkiewicz enjoyed the status of prominent members of the Polish literary elite; they were also socially engaged and well known in the public and political arena. Their origins, however, were rather inconspicuous. Both were born to impoverished but intellectually inclined families in small, provincial towns: Dąbrowska in Russów, near Kalisz, and Iwaszkiewicz in Kalnik, near Kijów, Ukraine. Their fathers fought in the 1863 Polish insurrection. The impact of the 1863 defeat became an integral part of their family histories and an important factor in the development of both writers’ national orientations. The traumatic historical event affected the stories of their childhoods and early youths and contributed to their ideological credos.
Dąbrowska’s parents, Polish patriots who supported the Polish boycott of Russian education, sent Maria to a Polish girls’ high school in Warsaw. There, young Maria witnessed the failed revolution of 1905, and her teachers, all ardent Polish patriots, introduced her to the theories of socialism and Marxism. She left Warsaw to study natural and biological sciences in Belgium and Switzerland, where she joined the socialist circles of Polish émigrés and eventually married Marian Dąbrowski, a fiery Polish revolutionary. Dąbrowski was the founder of the Brussels Filaret association, named after Joachim Lelewel, the legendary leader of the 1831 insurrection. The Filarets were a clandestine movement focused on revolutionary struggle for Polish independence. Dąbrowska collaborated with her husband and shared his patriotism. During her stay abroad, she was also influenced by the philosopher, Edward Abramowski, and especially by his vision of humanistic socialism, which he believed should be actualized as a cooperative system. Upon her return to Poland in 1911, Dąbrowska became an activist in the movement for peasant reforms. While passionately supportive of the struggle for Polish sovereignty, she was also engaged in developing cooperative agriculture.1
The 1863 insurrection had a dialectically different impact on Iwaszkiewicz and his national disposition. His father’s and uncles’ decision to join the uprising bore grave, deeply detrimental consequences for the family. While Jarosław’s uncles were banished or incarcerated in Russian prisons, his father was barred from his university studies. Consequently, he made a modest living as an accountant, a fact that set the Iwaszkiewicz family apart from its much better off relatives. Jarosław’s father could not provide for his son’s education. Young Iwaszkiewicz had to finance his schooling by tutoring the sons of rich gentry, an occupation he very much disliked and found humiliating. In terms of his intellectual development, the multi-ethnic, tolerant atmosphere in Kalnik and the Russian school that he attended exposed him to Ukrainian, Russian, Polish, and German art and literature, as well as to the languages of these cultures. His discovery and assimilation of Western civilization and its culture continued more intensely in high school in Kijów. Iwaszkiewicz’s studies and cultural explorations shaped his lifelong intellectual passion, taste for aesthetics, and literary ambitions. Of particular importance to Iwaszkiewicz in this formative period was his older cousin, later the famous composer Karol Szymanowski, who encouraged his literary and theatrical debuts.2
Recollections of the war experience
The early circumstances of Dąbrowska’s and Iwaszkiewicz’s lives played an important role in forming their future Weltanschauungen. However, as their recollections show, their social consciousness solidified at the time of their participation in the struggle for Polish independence in World War I. Dąbrowska, writing in 1927, and Iwaszkiewicz, writing in 1941-43, both recognized the centrality of their war experiences in the development of their identities and ideologies.
In mid-September 1914, Mrs Kosmowska asked me if I would be willing to go to the countryside to establish a post track, which would deliver the newspapers, documents, fliers, and news regarding the political and military activities of Józef Piłsudski to the [Warsaw] editorial office… I found myself in an enormous area…between two armies prying upon each other. The incredible scarlet of the sun inundated everything…at dawn and at dusk. Even as it basked in this conflagration, a sign of the forthcoming bloodshed, the land was calm and sweet. The people breathed as calmly. Yet, despite appearances, everybody…was ready to join… In Glinnek I found young people who graduated from agricultural schools and who wished to make a change. There was a sense of exalted, one may say, positivist, peasant romanticism. The youth embraced the task with the piety of believers… I arrived in Kraków, from where the first shipment of the [Piłsudski’s] legionary materials was sent promptly…
[In 1918], I decided together with Kozłowski to join the third Polish Corpus, which was being formed in Winnica. There we met many friends and peers…who were preparing to become the future officers in the Polish army… We moved to Sutyski on the Boh, in the magical Podolski countryside. The moment I saw the reflection of the sunset in the waters of Boh…was very significant to me. The impression was comparable only to the description of “Les clochers de Martin-ville” in Proust’s first volume. The French genius writer was able to recreate the elusive moment of the birth of artistic consciousness, emerging from contemplation of objects…whose true content remained hidden behind their sensual forms. In Sutyski…I had yet another “revelation.” I became familiar with the poem Król-Duch, [King-Spirit] and it remained for a long time the closest to me out of all romantic literature… We would sit for hours with Słowacki’s book studying from cover to cover this dark, complex, but wonderfully poetic work… In Gniewanie, we were surrounded [by the peasant divisions] and were saved from a sad end by the Austrians. Our stay in Uładówka was completely pointless…so I wrote many poems then. Escapes were permitted… We abandoned our several weeks-long war games, and returned to Kijów.
Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz 4
The juxtaposition of these recollections brings out important similiarities as well as differences. Both future writers were contemporaries who volunteered to serve the cause of Polish independence. Both appreciated the beauty of Polish countryside and expressed their deep affinity with the land. Both considered their encounters with the land as foundational to their sense of self and the world. At the same time, their experiences of these events produced disparate Weltanschauungen.
As Dąbrowska recalled years later, her time in the countryside produced a consciousness of belonging to the Polish land and its Polish inhabitants. The “burning” landscape, which in hindsight signaled the imminent bloodshed of the war, did not affect the “sweetness” and “calmness” of the countryside, which reflected the gentleness and dignity of its inhabitants. The harmonious breathing of the land and its inhabitants made them naturally inseparable. The organic oneness of the Polish countryside and its Polish peasant population remained unbroken; the peasants stayed on their land even though surrounded by armies ready to attack each other. The peasants’ unwavering belief in the national cause and their unhesitant agreement to join the struggle showed their unabated patriotism. The patriotic steadfastness and determination of the peasants made Dąbrowska aware of her own ineluctable and unbreakable affiliation with the Polish countryside and its people.
Iwaszkiewicz also gained self-knowledged in the countryside. His insight, however, did not involve self-identification with the social environment, but rather self-identity as a writer. In his recollections, Iwaszkiewicz identified his reaction to the landscape as the birth of his artistic calling. The view of the river Boh in sunset was magical not only because of its beauty, but also because, as the association with Proust indicated, it possessed the magic of literary inspiration. Like Proust’s art, the landscape left its imprint on Iwaszkiewicz’s artistic self.
The ways they experienced the countryside shaped both writers’ social identities. For Dąbrowska, it sealed her identification with the Polish rural collective and contributed to her growing sense of appreciation of the peasant collective, who selflessly and willingly joined her work for Poland’s independence. For Iwaszkiewicz, the “revelation” on the Boh affirmed his identification as an individual who sees reality from the singular point of view of an artist. Indeed, the scarcity of references to his fellow-soldiers implies his lack of interest in their patriotic aspirations to become Polish officers in the future state. His passion for art took control of him even in life-threatening situations. While the war raged – his unit was surrounded and had to be saved by the Austrian army – Iwaszkiewicz was writing poetry.
Whereas Iwaszkiewicz was preoccupied with his own literary endeavors, Dąbrowska immersed herself in the life of the rural communities she was passing through on her mission. She associated the patriotic idealism of the peasants with religious faith; the spirit of the educated peasant youth invoked the “exalted piety of believers.” Yet Dąbrowska’s later recollection of the peasants and their patriotism was more significant than just an idealization of the past. Her use of the phrase “peasant romanticism” is a reference to the Polish patriotic-heroic tradition propagated by poets such as Mickiewicz and Słowacki in the wake of the failed 1831 insurrection against the Russian rule. It portrayed the suffering Polish people as “the Christ of Nations,” and encouraged a heroic, even if hopeless, struggle for independence. In contrast, Dąbrowska’s modifier “positivist” evokes a political approach to economic and cultural progress intended to integrate independent Poland into the Western world. Thus, Dąbrowska’s choice of words to characterize the peasants signals her ideological adherence to the “optimistic” Warsaw School of historiography, which emerged in the final decades of the 19th century.
This historiographical trend was conceived as a dialectical reaction to the “pessimistic” Kraków School of historiography which emerged in the wake of the failed 1863 insurrection. The Kraków School placed the blame for this national calamity on the Poles’ disastrous lack of political judgment and urged a pragmatic approach to prosperity, progress, and stability, even at the cost of political independence. It is important to note that since the Kraków School refuted the ideals of Polish uniqueness among nations, it was more tolerant of minorities, whom it perceived as potential contributors to Polish welfare. In contrast, the Warsaw historians, who promulgated the positivist-progressive view of the future nation-state, sought to maintain the romantic legacy of Polish heroic struggle for independence.5
The centrality of the failed 1863 insurrection in both optimistic and pessimistic views of Polish history is notable. We have already seen how the memory and continuing repercussions of the Polish uprising affected Dąbrowska’s and Iwaszkiewicz’s formative years, and how their very different reactions to the uprising – national pride versus humiliation and impoverishment – reverberate in their subsequent conceptualization of their First World War experiences. Dąbrowska’s 1927 re-vision of the 1914 countryside evinces her continuing romantic faith in the uniqueness of the Polish nation. In contrast, Iwaszkiewicz’s recollections of his World War I military service, which he wrote in the time of the Second World War, reflect his view of the war as a series of futile, yet dangerous incidents, certainly not worth the risk of life or injury. His rational and practical mindset echoed the Kraków School.
Not only did Iwaszkiewicz display a balanced, non-sentimental approach to military matters, but his attitude toward literature was also marked by a reasoned appreciation of the aesthetic. We have seen his concise praise of Proust’s trailblazing genius as showing the essence of art. His admiration for Słowacki’s romantic masterpiece, Król-Duch [King Spirit], was similarly based on a study of the text and its poetics. But while he was inspired by the literary greatness of Słowacki’s poem, he certainly had no desire to heed its romantic-patriotic message of heroic martyrdom for Poland. Upon his realization of the uselessness of his military service, Iwaszkiewicz abandoned his unit. 6 His desertion clearly communicated his rejection of romantic heroism.
Iwaszkiewicz’s search for literary excellence opened him to the universality of humanism. His praise for both Proust, the French Jewish writer, and Słowacki, the Polish poet par excellence, revealed his unbiased position toward artists as individuals who shared a passion and a talent for art. Indeed, The Book of Recollections, concludes with Iwaszkiewicz’s affirmation of the indelible connection between art, humanism, and the Polish landscape: “In the shadow of Sandomierz Cathedral [watching the landscape]…I did my best pieces of writing, which were transforming me from a writer into a human being.” He ends the recollections with an expression of “gratitude for the earth, which surrounded me with such beauty, gratitude for people who liked me, loved me, or hated me – but who, each of them, enriched even by a single particle my growing humane self.”7
Iwaszkiewicz’s mention of the landscape he viewed in the shadow of the Cathedral as his place of inspiration invokes his recollection of the river Boh and the epiphany of his artistic calling. The formative role of the countryside, which shaped Iwaszkiewicz’s art and his humanism, corresponds to the role that Dąbrowska’s journey in the countryside played in formation of her patriotic-national ideological view. As we shall now see, these differing Weltanschauungen strongly affected the writers’ attitudes toward the Polish Jewish minority in the interwar period of Polish independence.
II. Co-existence with Jews in independent Poland
On October 13, 1918, Dąbrowska noted in her diary, “We live in a fairy tale, the most wonderful tale. I have the feeling we are not grand enough to feel as happy as we should. We are not good enough to be worthy. O, let us be grand and good.”8
“On November 14, 1918,” Iwaszkiewicz recalled, “a somewhat strange creature landed in the Warsaw Vienna Train Station… I was starting a new life in a new atmosphere… I was standing on the Warsaw pavement with my huge valise of books having the deepest conviction that here I will start a relatively easy literary life… Though I knew what I wanted…I did not know how to proceed… I was making great efforts to find out what was happening in literature.”9
The expectations of the two writers at the time of the birth of the Polish nation-state reflect the orientations they formed during the war. Dąbrowska was expressing her ambition for Poland to fulfill its messianic-romantic destiny. The collective “we” indicated her identification with the Polish nation, which had finally been given a miraculous opportunity to live up to its true greatness. Iwaszkiewicz, on the other hand, planned to fulfill his own destiny as a writer. While he mentioned the enthusiastic crowds in the streets in passing,10 he did not join them. Rather, he was preoccupied with searching for ways to enter the literary world of Warsaw, the cultural center of the country. Did Dąbrowska’s and Iwaszkiewicz’s respective ambitions come to pass?
Iwaszkiewicz achieved his artistic and social goals. A prolific writer, poet, playwright, and translator, he gained recognition not only in Poland, but also in Europe. His diplomatic service in Copenhagen and Brussels in the 1930s enhanced his public stature and contributed to his renown in the intellectual circles in Europe. His success was indelibly tied to his initial cooperation with Polish Jewish artists, which developed into lifelong friendships. Upon his arrival in Warsaw, Iwaszkiewicz met the poets of Jewish origins, Julian Tuwim, AntoniSłonimski and Kazimierz Wierzyński as well as the Polish poet Jan Lechoń with whom, under the leadership of the Jewish editor, Jakub Grycendler (later Mieczysław Grydzewski), he participated in the establishment of Skamander, the famous avant-garde literary group. The group held public readings of poetry, which took place in a café named “Pod Picadorem.” Iwaszkiewicz’s long, prolific literary career was launched.11
Dąbrowska also became a celebrated writer, considered the quintessential Polish national novelist.12 However, as an astute social critic, she was aware that her ambitions for her fellow-Poles did not materialize and she continually deplored the Polish people’s failure to actualize its potential. Over the years of independence, she watched how the wartime idealistic image of the educated, romantic and positivist peasant youth unraveled. The new nation-state was not capable of matching the Western world either economically or culturally. While the Minorities Treaty promised rights to civil minorities,13 the treaty was not implemented. As Dąbrowska saw it, the growing anti-Semitic propaganda was a conspicuous sign of Polish backwardness.14 Racist demagoguery, discrimination, and violent persecutions of the Jews contradicted the humanist values of fraternity, progress, and religious tolerance, thus diminishing the moral standing of Poland vis-à-vis the Western world.15
As her diaries show, Dąbrowska’s bitterness about Polish inadequacy produced an ambivalent attitude of resentment toward Polish Jews. On the one hand, she was aware of the superior economic, intellectual, and cultural achievements of the Jews, which made them the spearhead of Poland's progress into Western civilization.16 On the other hand, she knew that the discriminatory treatment of the Jewish minority reflected badly on Poland.17 Therefore, paradoxically, as achievers and as victims, the Jews attested to the backwardness of the ethnic Polish population. In this sense, Dąbrowska saw the relations of Jews and Poles as a constant competition, which the latter were constantly losing. Set off by Jewish accomplishments, Polish inadequacy called into question the special mission that Dąbrowska, following the great romantic poets, envisioned for the Polish people.
The perception of the Jews as a competitive element placed Dąbrowska in a moral conundrum. As a public figure – a famous writer and an activist of socialist persuasion – she was expected to condemn the anti-Semitic treatment of the Jews; as a Polish patriot and a strong believer in Poland’s great destiny, she could not help resenting the Jews who, as she saw it, were hindering this destiny. Dąbrowska’s diaristic observations attested to her ambivalence. A case in point is her 1936 article „Doroczny wstyd” [“Annual Shame”],18 in which she condemned the anti-Semitic campaign which called for exclusion of Jewish students from the universities.19 The left wing considered the article an exceptionally courageous act, and Dąbrowska gained a reputation as a “moral authority”20 which continued in the postwar era. 21
Dąbrowska’s diary, however, revealed her moral confusion. Her unwillingness to commit herself to the Jewish cause emerged in the comment, “The whole day I have been revising the article about the anti-Jewish incidents. Why have I written it – I don’t know. This is not my ‘thing.’ [But] Anything foreign is always tempting.” (November 4, 1936).22 Note that her lack of enthusiasm to write the article is coupled with a disingenious self-justification for having undertaken writing on the “foreign” theme, namely, the defense of Jews. Indeed, a close reading of the article reveals that Dąbrowska was not particularly troubled by the hostility and the violence committed by her fellow-Poles against innocent Jewish victims. Rather, the article expressed worry that the anti-Semitic incidents were making Poland appear to be a backward country rather than a progressive, enlightened one: “The majesty of the most important value through which the nation writes itself into world civilization, the majesty of great innovative studies has been affronted. These deeds are attempts to drive Poland back to the level of the dark tribes which harbor in their primitive souls an animalistic hatred for the bright spirits who carry the light.”23
The solution, as she saw it, lay in successful competition with the Jews, especially in area of education. “The educational establishment is to blame,” she claimed in the article, “for letting the youth enter the institutions of higher education unprepared mentally and morally, hence unable to match up to the Jewish students.”24 Thus Dąbrowska neither expressed sympathy for the Jewish victims, nor did she demand improved relations between Polish and Jewish students; instead, she rebuked the Poles for their lack of incentive to compete against the Jews. Dąbrowska’s 21 March 1937 comment, “These [persecutions of Jewish students at universities] are crimes committed not against the Jews, but against one’s own nation,”25 once again indicates her concern for Poland as a nation rather than for crimes committed by her fellow-Poles against Polish citizens of Jewish origins.
Iwaszkiewicz was not immune to anti-Jewish bias either. His letters to his wife Anna in the 1920s were replete with condescending and often quite derogatory observations about Jewish friends and acquaintances. Iwaszkiewicz constantly referred to the Jews as “impossible” and “ubiquitous,” and humorously yet sarcastically complained, “it is sad to be the only (Christian) among Jews” [c’est triste d’être seul parmi les juifs]. At the same time, his ethnic biases never affected his wholehearted praise of his Jewish friends’ artistic achievements. His impartial appreciation of art continued to guide him. For example, he writes to Anna how much he adored Arthur Rubinstein’s music and how much he appreciated the Jewish pianist’s love for Poland. In another letter, following the usual disparaging comments, such as “everywhere Jews, only Jews,” he mentions a newly published “magical” poem by Tuwim and comments that, “it’s been long since I liked anything [any poem by anybody] as much.”26
Iwaszkiewicz’s mixed attitudes can be attributed to the incongruity of humanistic values and anti-Semitism in interwar Poland. Derogatory pronouncements regarding Jews entered the contemporary modus vivendi. Thus, while the pervasive anti-Semitic climate allowed Iwaszkiewicz to indulge in disrespectful remarks about Jews, his enlightened worldview enabled him to transcend the issue of ethnic origins in artistic matters and in his choice of lifelong friends.
On August 12, 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, he wrote, “A few days ago, by chance, I met Tuwim in Zakopane. The girls [Iwaszkiewicz’s daughters], who had not met him, were enchanted… Undoubtedly, he possesses radiant, most striking characteristics of greatness…the greatness of generosity of spirit, goodness, nobility, and purity… He is a man for whom there exists only one thing: poetry… This is the source of his naïveté, neuroticism, and bitterness over the [anti-Semitic] harassments. But in truth, he is haunted; at every step, he suffers the most incredible slights… But all this will pass…and what will remain is a memory of an exceptionally transparent human being.”27 This private and therefore undoubtedly sincere observation demonstrates Iwaszkiewicz’s capacity for a truly humanistic perception of the other as an individual and equal, regardless of ethnic and religious differences. His praise of Tuwim’s extraordinary excellence as a human being, which he attributed to the poet’s passion for art, contained no trace of resentment, cynicism, or mockery regarding his Jewish origins. At the same time, Iwaszkiewicz’s characterization of Tuwim’s social situation showed deep and sensitive appreciation of Tuwim’s humiliation as a Jew. Unlike Dąbrowska in her famous article about the persecutions of Jewish students, Iwaszkiewicz deplored the suffering of the wronged Jewish individual. While Dąbrowska’s rival sentiments toward the Jews was a product of her nationalistic creed, Iwaszkiewicz displayed his unconditional faith in humanism by predicting that Tuwim’s reputation for his exceptional humanistic qualities would outlast the derogatory characteristics attributed to him by the Polish anti-Semites.
Dąbrowska’s perception of the Polish nation as a monolithic ethnic group with a special destiny resulted in her lack of sensitivity to the suffering of the persecuted Jews. In contrast, Iwaszkiewicz’s inherent belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings spurred on his sense of indignity at the suffering inflicted on Jewish individuals. As we shall now see, these differing perspectives foreshadowed the writers’ responses to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.