Miron Białoszewski: A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising

December 13, 2020

     I’ve read a number of historical accounts of the Warsaw uprising of 1944, notably the excellent account by Norman Davies in Rising ‘44. This memoir is a completely different thing. Historical accounts enjoy the benefits of hindsight and can make judgements broad in scope; they can give a full and complete overview of what the situation was at any particular point. Białoszewski’s memoir was originally written a number of years after the events in which he took part, and not published (in a slightly censored version) until 1970, yet it has an astonishing sense of immediacy which can be breathtaking.

Warsaw was already a pretty chaotic place after nearly five years of war and German occupation, and the previous year there had already been another brave but futile rising in the Jewish Ghetto, brutally suppressed by the Nazis, who then razed it to the ground. And the Soviet army was approaching the city from the east, although it decided to sit and await the outcome of the rising, and the consequent weakening of the Home Army…one of the most cynical of Stalin’s many vile calculations.

Białoszewski’s account shows us the camaraderie and self-help, among the ordinary citizens themselves and between them and the fighting partisans: here is ordinary humanity, sharing deaths and cruelties which are sprinkled through the account in a completely matter-of-fact way, which is alarming to those who have never experienced such random existence.

The narrator frequently to admits a sense of total confusion; details of time and place are often vague, descriptions impressionistic, laconic even. There is never a clear picture of the overall situation or state of play, for how could there be for someone in the middle of it all, and deprived of any certainties other than death? The feeling is one of suspended animation and it’s deeply disturbing.

As the rising progresses – Warsaw, or parts of it held out for 63 days in total, against the might of the Wehrmacht – Białoszewski and his family and companions move about the city, seeking new, safer havens temporarily, undertaking dangerous journeys through the city which he describes as existing on three levels: the gradually-demolished buildings on the surface, an immense network of interconnected cellars, and beneath these, complex routes through the city sewers…

We share people’s fears, panics and frequent calculations about potential safety in particular streets and buildings, under shellfire and bombing from German planes. We see them living underground from day-to-day, sometimes without food, sometimes with plenty of it, like insects constantly on the move.

Stylistically the writing is very interesting, and the translator – who has done a marvellous job – tells us how difficult her task was. Sentences are frequently very short, often verb-less and so non-sentences, creating a disjointed pace, and vivid impression of the universal chaos and violence surrounding everyone, and just dropping the reader in the middle of it all. Time isn’t linear – Białoszewski flits back and forth, and often drops back to the autumn of 1939 when the war began, to draw out connections and parallels, as well as to remind us just how long this hell has been going on for.

Not an easy read, by any stretch, but a strangely gripping and fascinating one, once you wade in and go with the flow, which is all anyone there in 1944 could do, anyway…

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