Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński – a catastrophist full of faith

August 1965, the Sopot Festival. Singing with a strong, expressive voice, Ewa Demarczyk made the poem “Niebo złote Ci otworzę” [“I’ll open for you a golden sky”] by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński a symbol of the fate of the entire generation experiencing the cruelty of war. However, few people realize that this text also has another layer of meaning, related to the poet’s Jewish background.

Just remove it from my eyesth
is painful shard – the shadows
which keeps tumbling these white skulls
through burning, blood-filled meadows…

Before “The rivers of fire stopped / congealed by the scarlet floe”

Thirty years earlier. 1935, Stefan Batory secondary school in Warsaw. Math teacher, prof. Jumborski, is getting impatient. When called to the blackboard, the student trembles, stammers, and the teacher cannot get as much as a single right answer out of him. The whole situation becomes an anguish for both of them. This must finally be stopped, but before the teacher can react, someone intones from the end of the room: “Jeee, jeee, jeee”, and almost the whole class takes it up. Professor Jumborski turn pale, springs to his feet, and rushes out of the classroom to bring the principal to the unruly students. He is a Jew and he interprets the noises made by the class explicitly. He recognises the students’ behaviour as an attack on himself. After he leaves, a regular scuffle ensues in which those who made the noises clash with those who did not join the “chorus.” In a class of over thirty students, there are only a few in the latter group – among them is Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński.

The story of the school brawl, recounted by Konstanty Jeleński, a classmate of Baczyński, who later became a well-known columnist and literary critic associated with the Parisian ‘Kultura’ magazine, says a lot about how the young poet, raised in a patriotic and religious (Roman Catholic) spirit, approached the issue of using ethnicity as an insult. Anti-Semitism in any form was unacceptable to him.

He learned this approach at home. He was born on 22 January 1921 in Warsaw. His father, Stanislaw Baczyński, was a writer, publicist, literary critic, and intelligence officer of the Polish Army. His mother, Stefania, a teacher and textbook author, came from an assimilated Jewish intellectual Zieleńczyk familys (her brother, dr Adam Zieleńczyk, was a philosopher and educator). The Baczyński family was ascribed to the Sas coat of arms, although in the case of Stanisław, as described by the émigré columnist Józef Lewandowski (“Aneks” 1979), there are some suggestions that he may also have been of Jewish origin and could have formerly borne the surname Bittner. Krzysztof considered himself a Pole and did not attach any special importance to the ethnic origin of his ancestors.

Despite his mother’s strong religious beliefs, Krzysztof became involved with leftist circles as early as in secondary school and joined the socialist “Spartakus” organisation. However, just before the outbreak of the war, he left because the organisation was evolving to the extreme left, and their flirtation with communism was unacceptable to Baczyński. His understanding of and sympathy for the social demands of the left-wing circles stemmed from the tradition of the Piłsudski’s left on the one hand, and, on the other, from his Catholic values, which were different from his mother’s devotional faith. A deeper, more reflective understanding of his relationship with God, which escaped the confessional patterns of his time, condemned him to solitude in this sphere.

“Into dust they began to crush your body whole, / to rip God from your living soul”

Baczyński began writing poetry as early as the late 1930s, although his poetic maturation took place during the occupation, when  successive volumes of his works have been printed since 1940. The war, of course, also brought new themes to the poet’s work. While Jewish identity had not previously been an important point of reference for Baczyński, it began to strongly influence his life during the occupation.

In the autumn of 1940, a Ghetto was established in Warsaw. According to the order of the German occupier, all persons of Jewish origin should have moved to the Ghetto. However, the Baczyński and Zieleńczyk families decided to stay in the non-Jewish part of the town. This decision involved a huge amount of risk. In case of exposure, they risked immediate execution. For Krzysztof, an additional problem was that many of his friends were locked up in the ghetto. Although there are no direct, verbatim references to Jewish issues in the poet’s work, they are still strongly present. In April 1943, in response to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Krzysztof writes the poem Byłeś jak wielkie stare drzewo… [You Were Like a Big Old Tree…], in which Jewish identity and awareness of heritage are palpable. On his roots, he will write: “You were like a big old tree, / my dear nation bold like an oak.” The poet becomes, as it were, part of the destroyed common body of the nation:

Into dust they began to crush your body whole,
to rip God from your living soul.
There you stood, naked and forlorn,
Like a dead cloud behind bars,
Half-alive and half pain-torn,
Covered in fire, whiplash and scars.

However, Baczyński does not lose hope for the ultimate victory of those persecuted, describing them in language drawn from Christian symbolism:

And you will rise, like the Lord, from the grave
Breathing with hurricane might,
the arms of the Earth will open
before you. Fight, my people, To arms!

Baczyński’s best-known poem, later sung by Ewa Demarczyk, although commonly associated with the hecatomb of the Warsaw Uprising, was written – which we are usually not aware of – in June 1943. Therefore, it simply cannot be a reference to events that took place more than a year later. However, it includes reminiscences of the fights taking place during the uprising in the ghetto:

Just undo this time of woe,
cover graves with a river’s cloak
,shake the battle dust from my hair,
this black dust
of wrathful years,

The arrest of the Zieleńczyk family must have been a shock and a personal trauma for Krzysztof – his uncle, the uncle’s wife and two daughters fell into the hands of the Germans on 21 July 1943. A day later, on 22 July, the poem “Pokolenie” [Generation] was written:

We learned our lesson. There is no mercy.
At night, we dream about the brother who died,
whose eyes were gouged out alive,
whose bones were broken with a bat;

We learned our lesson. There is no conscience.
Living in fear, in pits everyone hides
in terror, we carve our dark loves,
our own statues – evil troglodytes

We learned our lesson. There is no love.
How can we still escape into darkness
from the sail of nostrils sniffing us out
from the swelled net of bats and hands.

References to hiding in “pits” and “sniffing nostrils” make the connotations of certain themes in this poem all too clear. The entire four-member Zieleńczyk family was shot on 27 August 1943.

“My fingers – each a black barrel, / that can kill”

In 1943, Baczyński joined the Scout Assault Groups. As the historian of Polish literature, Stanisław Pigoń, said: “Well, we belong to a nation whose fate is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds”. Many of Krzysztof’s friends and acquaintances opposed his decision because he was in poor health. However, he was eager to take action, which also met with the reluctance of his superiors, who were afraid to risk the life of the already well-known poet. He was first assigned to the “Zośka” battalion, but when his commanding officer wanted to remove him from direct action, Baczyński moved to the “Parasol” battalion, where he became a deputy platoon commander.

During this time, the theme of combat and soldierly ethos appeared in Krzysztof’s work. The poet recognised the complexity and often tragedy of the situation of the combatants and the consequences of the choices they made. An excellent example of this reflection is the Elegy on a Polish boy, written in 1944, with its famous stanza, repeated many times in various studies:

And you left, my bright son, with a black gun into the night,
and felt the evil prickling in the sound of the passing minutes.
Before you fell, you blessed the earth with a cross drawn with your hand.
Was it a bullet that killed you, son, or was it your broken heart?

Baczyński was caught in the outbreak of the uprising in Warsaw near Teatralny Square. He did not manage to get through to his battalion, so he joined the unit of Second Lieutenant Lesław Kossowski “Leszek” which was fighting in that area. He died on 4 August 1944 in the Blank Palace, shot by a German sniper. Barbara Drapczyńska, his wife, died of wounds on 1 September 1944. Today, they rest together in the Powązki Cemetery. A fragment of Krzysztof’s poem, Cień z obozu [A Shadow from the Camp], was engraved on a black plaque. And as is often the case in his poetry, from beneath the bleak, catastrophic picture of the world suddenly emerges a manifesto of deep faith:

For there is no tearing, though words are torn,
for there is no forgetting, though life will forget us,
from the buzzing circles of the sky, I swim into you and you
to me.

dr Jacek Konik, Scientific and Research Department of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum