Ideological Formations of Witnessing The Holocaust in Wartime Diaries of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Maria Dąbrowska Introduction

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III “The Poor Poles Look at the [burning] Ghetto”

This paraphrase of the title of Czesław Miłosz’s celebrated poem written during the Ghetto Uprising28 prompts the question: What did Dąbrowska and Iwaszkiewicz see while looking at the liquidation of the Ghetto?

In April 1943, Iwaszkiewicz wrote in his Notes, “There perish artists such as Roman Kramsztyk, such close lifelong friends like Olek Landau, parents of friends such as Pawełek Hertz, Józik Rajnfeld – and we can do nothing. We are helpless, as we look the dark smoke that arises from their houses and their bodies. This is very difficult to understand and to live through. We cannot even try to understand, but we need to live through it.”29 Despite these protestations of helplessness, however, Jarosław and Anna Iwaszkiewicz were actively engaged in rescuing Jews during the occupation.30 The couple also extended hospitality and monetary assistance to Polish friends and fellow-writers. They gave shelter to hundreds of destitute fugitives in their Stawisko estate after the Warsaw uprising in 1944.31

Iwaszkiewicz’s altruistic behavior toward the victims of the occupation, both Jews and non-Jews, reflected his ideological grounding in the humanistic tradition of the Enlightenment. Iwaszkiewicz’s eulogy of his Jewish friends in the burning Ghetto demonstrated the depth of his humanistic ethics. The naming of the victims re-individualized them, and therefore counteracted the German politics of the dehumanization of the Jews. His emphasis on his emotional closeness to his “lifelong” Jewish friends defiantly transcended the exclusion of the Jews enclosed in the Ghetto from humanity. The identification of the victims as great artistic talents reflected an insistence on the value of culture in a world that had regressed to barbarism. Iwaszkiewicz’s overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair communicated a degree of identification with the victims, so powerful that it compelled him to see, in his imagination, the burning bodies behind the smoke.

Dąbrowska felt no similar inclination to see the tragedy of the Ghetto. Remarkably, she mentioned the Uprising and eventual liquidation of the Ghetto in her diary in only five sentences. On April 22, 1943: “We saw billows of smoke above the Ghetto where the fighting apparently still continues”; on April 26: “In general it is beautiful weather – sun and spring – and outside the window still present the huge cloud of smoke from the Ghetto. Half of Warsaw is burning;” on April 27: “Out of the window the cloud of smoke is still visible – horrible, fearful thoughts overpower the mind;” and on May 12: “Continuous explosions – as if always continuing mise en scène of her (Stefa Blumenfeldowa’s) death.”32

As the first three sentences show, Dąbrowska watched the situation from inside her flat, and more precisely from behind the window, a perspective which partly blocked the view and protected her against the smell of the burning Ghetto. Even though she must have known a number of individuals dying in the Ghetto, she mentioned none. In the fourth sentence, however, the consciousness of the tragedy starts to prove overwhelming and irrepressible. Finally, in the last sentence, we see her emotional surrender to the seemingly interminable horror. The Ghetto became an imaginary theater that enacted the death her lover, Stefa Blumenfeldowa, a Jewish woman who was murdered in the Lwów Ghetto.33 Despite Dąbrowska’s deliberate reticence about the Warsaw Ghetto, she could not dissociate the tragedy of the Jews burning there from her own personal tragedy.

Indeed, upon the news of Blumenfeldowa’s death, Dąbrowska experienced a sense of despair and sorrow that placed the Jewish tragedy in the universal humanistic context. On June 27, 1943, Dąbrowska wrote in her diary, “I have stopped making notes because of the nervous depression that has been tormenting me… As a matter of fact, it has been only since May 12th [the day she learned the specifics about Stanisława Blumenfeldowa’s ‘horrific death’] that I got scared – scared of the sea of evil released by people and [scared] of [my] loss of faith in human beings. This faith was not reasoned out, nor was it ‘dialectical,’ as the socialists would have it; rather, it constituted the emotional substance of my nature.”34

The sorrow over the loss of her lover overcame Dąbrowska’s ideological convictions and ethnic resentments. The dehumanizing death of Blumenfeldowa confronted Dąbrowska with the ultimate impotence of humanistic values to stop the barbaric rule of terror. For a moment the extermination of the Jews, forcibly brought home to Dąbrowska by the death of her lover, erased her faith in human morality and made her understand the universal signification of the Jewish genocide as collapse of all humanistic ethics. But only for a moment, because Dąbrowska’s ideological shift from nationalist particularism to humanistic universality was short-lived.

On June 4, 1944, Dąbrowska made the following observation in her diary: “This is the strange secret of this occupation – the destitution has not increased – on the contrary, not only has affluence risen, but it seems to be spreading into wider spheres of society – From the stories of the teachers I conclude that today, despite everything, no fewer but rather more people are getting education than in the time of independence. Simply, those who did not have the means to educate their children – find them today. Many people attribute it to the disappearance of the Jews – and though it is terrible (because of the inhuman way in which they have disappeared) to admit it – I suppose they are right. Despite the concerns – how could Poland manage without Jews – I think that without them, it would have blossomed like a flower.”35

Dąbrowska’s mispresentation of the historical and economic situation in Warsaw is incredible: the city was a couple of months away from the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) and lived under exacerbating German terror. The Soviet army’s advancement westward was heralded by frequent air raids. Warsaw residents lived in poverty, earning only a fraction of what they needed to survive, while food rationing kept them on the verge of starvation.36 Secondary schools and universities were closed. Libraries and archives were destroyed, cultural activities were forbidden. The Polish intelligentsia was decimated.37 Dąbrowska’s national ideology helps explain this blatantly inaccurate representation of the reality of Warsaw at the time. Her description of the Polish progress in Judenfrei Warsaw resounds with the triumph of fulfilled expectations. The “blossoming” of Warsaw sans Jews reaffirmed the extraordinary potential of Polish society. Warsaw’s capacity for coping with the situation in the midst of general international disintegration confirmed Dąbrowska’s lifelong belief in Polish messianic destiny. In the absence of the Jews, the Poles could show success in the areas of education and economy. It followed then that the Jews, who were considered to have been in control of these two aspects of Polish life, had hindered all along the ascent of the Polish people to their rightful stature of excellence among the nations. Nonetheless, in her enthusiastic praise for Polish unsurpassed virtues, Dąbrowska omitted to mention that the occupation and the Jewish genocide brought forth the prevalent demoralization of the Warsaw population. The enormous extent of moral deterioration in Warsaw was manifest not only in unrestrained hunting and blackmailing the hiding Jews, but also in increasingly rampant crime rate among the Poles.38

Iwaszkiewicz observed the deteriorating situation with dismay, and condemned the exploitation and persecutions of Jews-in-hiding and the growing violence among his fellow Poles. Not surprisingly, given his ideas about the uselessness of heroism and the futility of wars, he condemned the Zeitgeist of unwarranted belligerence. He lamented that young poets who used to read to him their poetry now threatened to kill him on an unfounded suspicion of collaboration: “I don’t understand it. They had guns, so they needed to shoot… it did not matter whom, the main thing was to shoot somebody.”39

Iwaszkiewicz suffered no less distress at the inhumanity of his compatriots toward the perishing Jews. He noted the infamous celebrations of Easter in face of the burning Ghetto: “On the Krasińskich Circus, a merry-go-round, swings, roller coaster have been placed and a loud barrel-organ is blaring. And two steps from there, behind the ghetto walls, sounds of the battle can be heard, and the smoke of the burning houses spreads into the streets.” Iwaszkiewicz gathered these facts from Anna, who had ventured into Warsaw in search of a hiding place for some Jewish acquaintances. He recorded that she returned empty-handed and emotionally shattered by the fact that in the city life was going on as usual while horrific atrocities were happening in the Ghetto.40 In this reality of moral disintegration, the disappearance of Iwaszkiewicz’s Jewish friends signified a palpable loss of like-minded individuals who shared his humanistic values and his love for art. On Picador’s Twenty-Fifth anniversary on November 29, 1943, he remembered the Skamandrites, such as Tuwim, Słonimski, Wierzyński and Lechoń who fled abroad, and nostalgically recalls, “How many things have always divided us and still do – and yet, how many [more] things do still connect us? We have been linked by this remote day…remote but memorable, alive, still coursing with the blood in our veins.” 41 In this striking metaphor of blood and veins, Iwaszkiewicz presents his pre-war friendships as lifelines, integral and indispensable to his existence.

Dąbrowska’s and Iwaszkiewicz’s responses to the Holocaust in their diaries present remarkably disparate responses to the Jewish genocide. Whereas these Polish writers looked at the same unfolding situation of horrific mass murder, they recorded very different ways of seeing. As this essay attempted to show, their ways of seeing Jewish suffering were informed by their ideological perceptions of the world shaped by historical events which were by no means connected with the “Jewish question.” The Polish history of Partitions engendered dialectical historiographical trends of national romantic mythology and of national pragmatism. These trends informed the writers’ understanding of humanistic values, such as equality, tolerance, and justice, and perhaps more significantly, the definition of the individual’s place in society. Dąbrowska promulgated the idea of national particularism, whereby humanistic values were conceived of within the ethnically monolithic collective of the nation-state. Iwaszkiewicz, in contrast, adopted a cosmopolitan-universal approach, whereby the individual’s social rights and ethical obligations transcended national borderlines.

The “question” of the Jewish minority in the interwar period demonstrated the extent to which these social perspectives on the status of the individual affected the writers’ perceptions of Poland. Dąbrowska’s patriotic-nationalistic ideology shaped her perception of the Jews as ethnically foreign and therefore damaging to the destiny of the collective. Her adherence to the romantic myth of Poland’s special mission to the nations engendered a sense of competition with the Jews, and her resulting attitude of resentment precluded any consideration of the Jews as equal contributors to the nation’s welfare. In contrast, the prominent roles of Polish Jews in the artistic community of Warsaw consolidated the universality of Iwaszkiewicz’s cosmopolitan perception of the individual. This impartial attitude allowed him not only to create friendships with Jews, but also to perceive them as equal contributors to Polish culture.

The Holocaust was an unprecedented event in human history. Dąbrowska and Iwaszkiewicz found themselves in close proximity to the unimaginable horror of persecutions, deportations, and burning of the Jews. However, the concrete presence of the genocide, its sights and smells which invaded the “Aryan side” of Warsaw, did not alter the ideological attitudes of the writers. They continued the see the Ghetto and its victimized Jews through ideological lenses that were formed by the distant memories and myths which emerged from the history of the Polish Partitions. Iwaszkiewicz, whose belief in the humanistic values of art was shaped during his military service in the First World War, reaffirmed his faith in universal humanistic values even in view of the inhumanity of the Jewish genocide. Dąbrowska, who recognized Polish “chosenness” in the patriotism of the Polish peasants during World War I, continued to cultivate her competitive attitude toward the Jews even at the time of their extermination.

After the war, Dąbrowska and Iwaszkiewicz continued to see the world through these same ideological lenses. On April 19, 1948, the date of the unveiling of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, Dąbrowska wrote, “I have nothing against Jewish heroes. But Warsaw still doesn’t have a monument for its own insurgents, nor for the children who fought in the [Warsaw] uprising.”42 Following the Jewish genocide, Dąbrowska now directed her competitive resentment toward the Jewish dead. But despite Iwaszkiewicz’s recent experience of human barbarism, he remained insistent on his humanistic faith. In his introduction to Notes entitled “Objaśnienie” [Clarification], which he wrote 1945, when preparing his diary for publication, Iwaszkiewicz remembered the war years, “Poetry readings and concert attendance – and often a chat over vodka – signified not only escapism, but also a search for the better, substantive aspects of the human being, a search which would end more often than not in complete disillusion. Even if only for a moment it could be possible to discern in these notes a measure of humaneness in this time of inhumanity, the goal of this publication would be fulfilled.”43

 Tadeusz Drewnowski, Rzecz russowska: o pisarstwie Marii Dąbrowskiej [The Matter from Russow: About the Writing of Maria Dąbrowska] (Kraków, 1981.), 42-89, passim.

2 Marek Radziwon, Iwaszkiewicz: Pisarz po katastrofie [Iwaszkiewicz: A Writer after the Catastrophe] (Warszawa: Fortuna, 2010), 13-51, passim.

3 „W połowie września p. Kosmowska zwróciła się do mnie czy nie pojechałabym.. na ustawienie wzdłuż drogi rodzaju poczty... która przewoziłaby dla redakcji... gazety, pisma, odezwy i wiadomości, dotyczące działalności politycznej i wojennej of Józef Piłsudski... Znalazłam się w ogromnej... wyrwie pomiędzy dwoma czyhającymi wojskami. Ale nawet stojąc w pożodze, niby w znamionach mającej polać się krwią, ziemia była samą cichością i słodyczą. Takim samym spokojem oddychali i ludzie. .Mimo to każdy okazywał się wbrew pozorom najzupełniej gotowy do podjęcia niespodziewanego zadania... W Glinniku... próbowała odmienić życie młodzież, która wyszła z rolniczych szkół ludowych. Panował... egzaltowany chłopski romantyzm, jeśli można rzec, pozytywistyczny... Sprawę poczty przyjęto nie tylko z gotowością, ale z nabożeństwem wyznawców... dotarłam do Krakowa, skąd wkrótce spowodowano wysyłkę pierwszego transportu druków legionowych... Mimo takiego ułatwienia, wobec zmian, jakie wkrótce nastąpiły... byłam pewna, że cały zachód... był nadaremny. ”Pisma Rozproszone [Dispersed Writings], ed. Ewa Korzeniewska (Wydawnicto Literackie: Kraków, 1964), 186, 189-190, 191. The story, „Wspomnienia” [Reminiscences] was first published in 1927.

4 [W 1918] zdecydowałem się wraz z Kozłowskim na wstąpienie do III Korpusu Polskiego, którego kadry formawały się podówczas w Winnincy... Sutyski leżały nad Bohem w cudownej podolskiej okolicy. Moment, kiedy... ujrzałem blask zachodu odbity w wodach Bohu... stał się ważnym przeżyciem. Wrażenie, jakiego wówczas doznałem, da się porównać jedynie z opisem „Les clochers de Martin-ville” w I tomie Prousta. Genialny francuski pisarz potrafił odtworzyć zupełnie nie uchwytny moment rodzenia się śwadomości artystycznej, rodzenia się z kontemplacji przedmiotów... których prawdziwa treść pozostaje ukryta poza zmysłowym obrazem. Jeszcze jedno ‘odkrycie’... nastąpiło... w Sutyskach... było [to] poznania Króla-Ducha, poematu, który stał się podówczas i pozostał na dłuższy czas czymś najbliższym mi w literaturze romantycznej... Siadywaliśmy... godzinami z... książką Słowackiego i studiowaliśmy od deski do deski ciemny, zawiły, ale jakże poetycki poemat... [W Tywrowie] nasz oddziałek został otoczony przez oddziały chłopskie i... musieliśmy się wycofać. W Gniewaniu byliśmy także otoczeni ze wszystkich stron i dopiero pomoc austriacka... uchroniła nas przed smutnym końcem. Ułani, którzy próbowali przedostać się... no północ... zostali wyłapani i zginęli w strasznych męczarniach. Pobyt nasz w Uładówce stał się zupełnie bezcelowy... toteż pisałem wtedy dużo wierszy... Pozwalano nam wówczas na ucieczki... porzuciliśmy to parotygodniowe wojowanie, powracając do Kijowa.” Książka moich wsponień [The Book of My Recollections] (Wydawnictwo Literackie: Kraków, 1957), 178, 179, 180. The Book of My Recollections was written in 1941-3.

5 For the romantic tradition, see for instance, Maria Janion and Maria Żmigrocka, Romantyzm i historia [Romanticism and History] (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy: Warszawa, 1978). For an analysis of the Kraków and the Warsaw Schools of Polish historiography, see Marian H. Serejski, Naród a Państwo w polskiej myśli historycznej [Nation and State in Polish Historical Thought] (Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1973), especially, 177-307. See also, Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: The Past in the Poland’s Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), especially 175-208.

6 Iwaszkiewicz recalled, „Stosunek mój do służby wojskowej nie był podówczas bynajmniej tragiczny. Mimo wszystko rozstrzygałem go swyczajnym ,nie chce mi się w tej chwili’ i nie miałem na ten temat żadnych konfliktów z sumieniem, aczkolwiek wielokrotnie czyniono mi wówczas z tego zarzut.” [My relation to my military service was by no means tragic. Despite everything, I used to resolve it by saying simply ‘I do not feel like it at this moment’ and I did not have any qualms about it, despite the fact that I was reproached for it very often.” (The Book of My Recollections, 189).

7 „Cieniu sandomierskiej katedry... powstawały moje najlepsze rzeczy. Powstawały rzeczy, które mnie z pisarza przemieniały w człowieka...” „wdzięczność dla ziemi, która otoczyła mnie taką krasą, wdzięczność dla ludzi, którzy mnie lubili, kochali lub nienawidzili – ale z których każdy wzbogacił choć o jedną cząstkę moje wrastające człowieczeństwo.” 381, 382.

8 „Żyjemy w baśni, w najprzecudniejszej baśni. Zdaje mi się, że nie jesteśmy dość wielcy, aby czuć się dostatecznie szczęśliwi. Nie jesteśmy dość dobrzy, aby być godni. O, bądźmy wielcy i dobrzy.” (BN/ML CD nr 8, Tom II, 11.XI.1917 – 31.XII.1927)

9 „Dnia 14 października 1918 roku o godzinie 10 wieczorem dość dziwne stworzenie wylądowało na Dzorcu Wiedeńskim w Warszawie... Rozpoczynałem nowe życie w odmiennej atmosferze... Stanąłem na bruku Warszawy – wraz z moim kufrem książek – mając głębokie przekonanie, że zacznę tutaj dość łatwe życie literackie... chociaż pewny swego, poprostu nie wiedziałem.. jak zrobić pierwszy krok... Starałem się usilnie dowiedzieć, co się – właściwie mówiąc – dzieje w literaturze.” The Book of My Recollections. 184. 185, 186.

10 Upon his arrival in Warsaw, Iwaszkiewicz recalls “nieprawdopodobne wiadomości” [incredible news] and “radosne tłumy” [joyous crowds] in the streets. (The Book of My Recollections, 190, 191).

11 See the chapter, „Portret Artysty w Młodości” [The Portrait of an Artist in His Youth] in The Book of My Recollections, 184-208.

12 Her great fame as a writer was due to her talent of representing rural Poland, and her masterpiece Night and Days (1932-1934) has become a landmark of Polish national literature.

13 The Polish Minority Treaty, signed in 1919 at the Versailles Peace conference, promised to protect the rights of all minorities in the Polish state. The Constitution of the Polish Republic of March 17, 1921, reconfirmed the spirit of the treaty, promising freedom of conscience and religious denomination to all Polish citizens as well as equal right regardless of their religious denomination.

14 Fanatical anti-Semitism cultivated by the popularly called Endecja (first the People’s National Union, then in the 1920, the National Party) was spreading propaganda about a Jewish conspiracy to take over Poland and urged the solution of the “Jewish question.”See Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 12-16.

15 I am referring to Andrzej Walicki’s distinction between “political” pluralistic nationalism, the product of Western Enlightenment, which promoted a humanitarian and progressive democratic sovereignty of the people, and the “cultural” linguistic nationalism which promoted “a closed and monolithic society with authoritarian government.” The Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Nationhood: Polish Political Thought from Noble Republicanism to Tadeusz Kościuszko, trans. Emma Harris (Notre Dam, 1989), 2, 5.

16 Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead, 16-17.

17 For the discussion of Polish anti-Semitism in the interwar period, see, for instance, Yisrael Gutman, “Polish Antisemitism between the Wars: An Overview,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, eds. Yisrael Gutman, Ezra Mendelsohn, Jehuda Reinharz, and Chone Shmeruk (Hanover, 1989), 97-109, Emanuel Melzer, “Antisemitism in the Last Years of the Second Republic,” in The Jews of Poland between Two World Wars, 126-141, and Szymon Rudnicki, Równi, ale niezupełnie [Equal but Not Entirely] (Warszawa: Biblioteka Midrasza, 2008), 61-78 (“Antisemitism”) and 78-104 (“Towarzystwo Rozwoju Handlu, Przemysłu i Rzemiosł” [“The Society for the Development of Trade, Industry and Handicrafts”]).

18 Dziennik Popularny, 24 November 1936, nr.43, p.3.

19 For an extensive historical survey of the campaign against Jewish students, see „Od numerous clausus do numerous nullus” [“From Numerus Clausus to Numerus Nullus”] in Rudnicki, Equal, but Not Entirely, 135-156.

20 Tadeusz Drewnowski, Wyprowadzka z czyśćca:Burzliwe życie pośmiertne Marii Dąbrowskiej [Moving out of the Limbo: The Stormy Posthumous Life of Maria Dąbrowska] (Warszawa, 2006) 6: „Słonimski głosił, ‘że nikt od czasu Stefana Żeromskiego nie miał takiego autorytetu moralnego.’” [“Słonimski kept declaring that nobody since Stefan Żeromski had such moral authority”]. It is important to note here that Słonimski was of Jewish origin.

21 “Her words,” claims Rudnicki, “[which] reflected the opinions and the position of the best part of the Polish intelligentsia, gave moral support to the beaten [Jewish students]. „Jej słowa, odbicie poglądów i postawy najlepszej części polskiej inteligencji, podtrzymywał na duchu bitych” (Rudnicki, p. 150). See also Zdzisław Libera, Maria Dąbrowska (Warszawa, 1975), 76-77.

22 „Cały dzień przerabiam artykuł o ekscesach antyżydowskich. Poco go napisałam – nie wiem. To nie moje ,dzieło.’ Wiecznie coś obcego kusi.” (BN/ML CD nr 8, Tom IV, 26.IX.1934 – 31.XII.1936)

23 „Znieważono majestat najwyższej wartości, którą naród wpisuje się do cywilizacji świata, majestat wielkiej, wynalazczej nauki. Takimi czynami… usiłuje się zepchnąć Polskę na poziom ciemnych plemion, które dla jasnych duchów, niosących światło, mają w pierwotnych duszach zwierzęcą nienawiść…”( BN/ML CD nr 8, Tom IV, 26.IX.1934 – 31.XII.1936)

24 „Winne jest szkolnictwo, które wypuszcza młodzież do wyższych zakładów, nieprzygotowanych moralnie i umysłowo, niezdolną w studiach stawić czoła studendom Żydom.”

25 „Są to zbrodnie nie wobec Żydów, ale wobec własnego narodu spełniane.”
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