Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski

Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski
Translated by D. J. Welsh
Foreword by Barbara Niemczyk, Introduction by Heinrich Böll
Northwestern University Press, 239 pages
ISBN: 0-8101-0856-9

From you, as burning chips of resin,
Fiery fragments circle far and near:
Ablaze, you don’t know if you are to be free,
Or if all is yours will disappear.

Will only ashes and confusion remain,
Leading into the abyss?—or will there be
In the depths of the ash a star-like diamond,
The dawning of eternal victory!

—Epigraph to Ashes and Diamonds, from Cyprian Norwid, “Prolog,” Tragedia fantastyczna

Reading Ashes and Diamonds and The Faithful River at the same time proved to be quite a coincidence because a similar question lies at the heart of both novels: “What was the fighting for?” Żeromski has a clear picture of the Polish soul, though not without some shades of grey. Andrzejewski’s outlook, on the other hand, contains more ambiguity. One thing to keep in mind with Andrzejewski is the censorship he had to deal with—how much is to be read between the lines? The question becomes more complicated when looking at the screenplay he wrote over a decade later since he was able to explore some themes in more detail. At the same time, though, he had to pare content (I’ll look at the movie in a separate post). Andrzejewski also came in for criticism from both sides for factual integrity. Worth mentioning in this context are the letters/essays Czeslaw Miłosz wrote to Andrzejewski compiled in Legends of Modernity. For a more detailed (and linear) plotline of the novel, see the Wikipedia entry.

Ashes and Diamonds explores two general subjects. The first topic presents the chaos in Poland at the end of World War II (May 1945 for the European theater). Andrzejewski shows this in several ways: relocation of families, martial law in effect, return (or not) of family members from concentration camps, and new political realities. The last point includes the expectation of the Soviets taking control of Poland once the peace is signed, although they already exert significant power in the void left after the Germans retreated. Not everyone is happy about the situation and the former Home Army Resistance takes active measures against Soviet leaders. (Heinrich Böll's introduction raises several additional considerations to remember in looking at the Polish resistance to Soviet influence.) Michael Chelmicki, active in the underground army, has volunteered to assassinate the province secretary of the Communist Party (Szczuka).

This violence raises questions, both on the morality and the effectiveness of such an act. Colonel Staniewicz of the Home Army answers a question from his lieutenant on why Szczuka must be killed:

“In today’s set-up we Poles are divided into two categories: those who have betrayed the freedom of Poland and those who do not wish to do so. The first want to submit to Russia, we do not. They want Communism, we do not. They want to destroy us, we must destroy them. … And what were you fighting for? Wasn’t it for the freedom of Poland? But did you imagine a Poland ruled by blind agents carrying out orders from the Kremlin and established by Russian bayonets? What about your colleagues, your contemporaries? How many of them died? What for? … [W]hen it’s a question of ideas which bring us enslavement and death, then our reply can only be death. The usual laws of battle. History will be the final judge as to who was right.”
(pages 49-50)

This provides some of the troubling nature of the novel, both in content and intent, since the colonel for the Home Army is being presented as another ideologue like Szczuka (and include the Communist secretary of the district, Podgorski, in that camp), willing to justify any act as long as it is for their higher cause. That lieutenant, Andrew Kossecki, muses on the futility of both the assassination and the war in general. Not convinced by the colonel’s argument, he looks at history’s judgment of the just-finished war and the principles on which it was reportedly based.

Nothing was left of the enthusiasm of the past. Nothing left of that zeal, or of the desires and hopes either. The world of the victorious had again been divided into victors and vanquished. What had the dead died for, anyway? The war was dying, and no hope was dawning to justify the countless sacrifices, sufferings, injustices, violence, and the ruins which were left today. He remembered what the colonel had said an hour earlier about solidarity but he felt that it wasn’t this but something quite different which concerned him. Thousands of people had been summoned to the battle in the name of the loftiest values and with great phrases: some had died for them, others had managed to save themselves, and one again life was mocking the tremendous words, humanity and justice, freedom and brotherhood. Only a huge muck-heap was left of the great and noble aims.
(pages 94-5)

The gap between the ideal language based on principles with the reality of the war and its consequences becomes concrete with the Polish youth raised in this atmosphere, probably the most disturbing part of this topic. These youth speak of freedom and justice but they steal and kill for its own sake (prefiguring the old ultra-violence), few showing little or no remorse for their actions. Chelmicki, the young soldier who volunteered to assassinate Szczuka, provides a forceful contrast to these youths, especially since he strongly resembles them at the start of the novel. Like Andrew Kossecki he questions the need for the assassination, his doubt made more intense because his initial attempt resulted in the death of two innocent Poles. His blossoming love for a local girl compounds his hesitance—he plans to leave the resistance so he can live a normal life, but only after he obeys his superiors on this last act. This submission to higher authorities without taking into account the morality or hopelessness of the act falls into one of the many grey areas of combat, compounded by the fact that the war on this front was officially over.

Which leads to the second topic, just as complex as the first one: how should a man be judged for his actions during crisis situations such as war or confinement? This topic applies to several characters, the central one being Antony Kossecki, a local judge just returned from a German concentration camp. In the camp Kossecki rose to the level of orderly, assisting in the torment and torture of other prisoners. The following conversation presents part of the rationalization Kossecki uses to defend himself (although the irony here is that Podgorski at this point does not know of Kossecki’s collaboration with the Nazis):

Antony Kossecki: “In the camps everything happened, almost every kind of daily situation, every feeling, every passion, and all unbelievably intensified and concentrated…whatever happened there took place only one step away from death. The only thing which gripped and vitalized people was a primitive longing to survive. Anyone who lost the will to live, died. Other people died too, but it was primarily these.”

Podgorski sat down on the edge of the desk. “I see what you’re getting at. The will to live at any price even at the expense of other people?”

“Yes, in any primitive struggle. The terror inherent in the camp system depended on this. To break people down, trample on them, deprive them of dignity, of human feelings, and to bring out the worst instincts in them.”

“But they didn’t all vie way to these instincts.”

“I know. But there were enough who did sooner or later, to make us think. It’s a difficult problem. There’s a limit to human endurance which is not the same for everyone. But here too there’s a lower boundary-line, as you said. Below it, a man will do anything in order to live. I’ve seen people whose desire to save themselves became more violent the deeper they sank into degradation: the two things went together. Should we condemn them out of hand for that? Can we really condemn men because they could not resist the pressures of cruelty and degradation? As there’s a limit to a man’s physical endurance, so there’s a limit to his moral endurance.”
(pages 82-3, ellipsis in original)

To what extent, during peacetime, should actions taken during the war be judged? Are there different levels of what's acceptable? Do standards differ for enlisted men and officers? Given the USSR's clear imperial aims when looking at Poland, does that change how the resistance should be judged? All these questions (and more) fall under this second topic.

There is a scene that ties together both themes nicely. At the local hotel a performer sings a song sympathetic to “the partisans” that moves the crowd, made up of collaborators and rebels (and those that thought they remained neutral):

The song, carried on the little childish voice, had pushed back time, had opened up the past now tragically lost in fear and platitudes, in lies and stupidity, in the fumes of alcohol, in easy love and easy money, in cloudy illusions and vain, blind griefs, in all this confused life which was leading to what? Remembrance seized them all. The shadows of the voices of the dead, of houses that no longer existed. The shadows of landscapes, or of their own fates. But no joy had emerged from those years. Life was continuing. But what did it carry with it? Loss or hope? (page 153)

Or as the title implies, what will they find in the remains of the fire—ashes or diamonds?

Update: I've added a post on the movie adaptation of the novel.

Update: For a different evaluation of Ashes and Diamonds, see the 1994 interview with Zbigniew Herbert: "These old professional elites are still in place. Even after the demise of communism, they retain their place in the pecking order. Jerzy Andrzejewski is still regarded as the most important post-World War II Polish novelist, even though he is mediocre in my view, and his Ashes and Diamonds is a scoundrelly book."

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