Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński - Bard from the Ravaged Ruins

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2021 was declared the Year of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński in a resolution by the Parliament (Sejm) of the Republic of Poland.

By dying for his country, he did her a great injustice…
-- Anna Świrszczyńska

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (Source: Facebook)

In August of 1944, on the fourth day of the Warsaw Uprising, a German bullet pierced the forehead of one of the soldiers fighting in the Theatre Square. The dead insurgent was 23 years old. History would have probably erased this death from our memory, as it was done in the case of thousands of unknown defenders of Warsaw. This one name would not have upset the enormous balance of human losses, bad it not belonged to a soldier who was one of the most outstanding poets of the, war' s younger generation, in whom his contemporaries saw Słowacki’s successor…

This was not the first time that a poet followed the voice of his poetry. In earlier Polish history, in a similar setting, an insurgent of the January Uprising of 1863, Mieczysław Romanowski, died from a Russian bullet. Both poets Romanowski as well as Baczyński could have avoided the fighting. The former joined an insurrectionist band of his own freewill. He fought in Borelowski’s unit, taking part in several battles as the adjutant. When he died in April 1863, he was 29 years old. It would be appropriate to recall here another insurgent of 1830, poet and journalist Seweryn Goszczyński. Twenty-eight years old at the onset of the uprising, he considered his writing a part of his soldier’s duty, while taking an active part in the fighting. He paid for this with lengthy exile. This same road was followed by Baczyński’s generation. History repeated itself: those, who survived, but did not want to accept post-war reality in Poland, chose emigration, just as the insurgents of l830 and 1863 had done before them.

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński was born in free and independent Poland. His generation did not remember the invader. He did not see the war’s end. He gave his life for his native city. But the works which survived the ravage of war, despite the passing of over 30 years, have not lost their meaning. It is significant that the poems of Baczyński are read not only by those who remember Hitler’s atrocities; they are also ardently read by youth, born after the war and aware of the reality of that era only from accounts of their elders.

The image of Baczyński the poet is often dimmed by the legend of the soldier-insurgent, who, to take part in the fighting, transferred to another batallion in this way circumventing orders of his commander who wanted to spare him. Quite by accident, in New York, I met a lady who was a friend of the poet during the Occupation. They were together for a while; then fate carried them their separate ways. She didn’t want to talk about the Uprising. It was, according to her, a nightmare which should be forgotten. She didn’t read any literature about this time. “I can’t. Those, who were there, remember that time only in a quieted voice.”

She did, however, have a photograph and an old, damaged piece of paper. “The last time we met quite by accident,” she told me. “I was amazed at what bah happened to him in such a short time. He had changed greatly; and bad become unusually serious. His features were sharper, butthen we alI went hungry. During this meeting we drank tea and then Krzyś wrote this poem on the spur of the moment.”

I was lucky to be able to read Baczyński’s short work, which up to now has not been included in any anthology pub1ished in Poland. I remember “lonely stars drifting across the celestial stage”, “ebony clouds woven in to the heavenly shroud”, and the promise of the sun, which would shine equally bright for everyone. The photograph had a humorous inscription. I later compared the writing with copies of manuscripts handwritten by the poet. There could be no doubt that the poem, as well as the inscription on the photograph, were written by the hand of Krzysztof Kamil.

Same years later, in the northern United States, I met the poet Zbigniew Chałko. He, too, along with his brother and sister, took part in the Uprising. He is an emigrant. Chałko has authored same very excellent poetry, comprising a tome entitled “Sycamore Sky” (Jaworowe Niebo), as well as countless works published in “Wiadomości” (News). I spoke with him mainly about the Uprising. Zbigniew Chałko, last defender of the Warsaw Cathedral, said something which was far removed from any pathos, but inscribed itself deep in my memory. “We were terribly afraid, but we had to go.” Simple words, yet how convincing. They had resounded earlier in the poems of Baczyński:

Love of steel ―yes― it exploded, faded, rubbed itself out, there
Remained an obtuse compulsion, which penetrates the fist like a nail.
To forget now, grow numb, so poison oneself with silence
Lest the nestling of fire die in my hand.
They have gone. Night after night. Again a cry for death
And then, silence and the ring of a pillar of snow.
But the stupid body is as stubborn as a heavy stump,
Though in the morn―someone will trip over my smoking grave.

That same faith in the responsibility that one “had to go” and the “love of steel”, “obtuse compulsion”, how clearly they mirror the views of that tragic generation. The works of Baczyński, especially the later ones, contain elements of a journalistic, even propaganda theme; they speak of country, responsibility, and battle – foreign relics of many Poles around the world today.

Chałko and I looked at a copy of the photograph, which Baczyński had given his girlfriend. “Yes, that’s him. He had wavy hair and looked a bit etherial.” Krzysztof, according to contemporary accounts, was a boy of slight build, suffering from heart disease and asthma. During the occupation, he was often hungry. But this was the time when his creativity blossomed. While his wife Basia studied at the Clandestine University, Krzysztof attended Officer Cadet classes and went through complete military training. During this time “in the years 1939-1944,” affirms Kazimierz Wyka, “Baczyński wrote over 500 poetic works, including several extensive poems, about twenty short stories and prosaic episodes; a poetic drama.” This is an impressive literary accomplishment, considering the time when it was created. It is no wonder, then, that the young poet caught the attention of some eminent figures of the Polish literary world. At the time, only Iwaszkiewicz had serious reservations concerning the works of Baczyński.

And this brilliantly evolving creative genius was stopped short on August 4 by a German sniper’s bullet. Stanisław Pigoń, upon hearing of the poet’s death, said, “Well, we belong to a nation, whose fate is to send gems to face the enemy.” “That beautiful, ta1lented, eighteen year old boy,” remembers Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa in her book “Revolt of Memories” (Bunt Wspomnień), “carefully raised and molded by loving parents in a highly cultural atmosphere, a painter and writer of poems, sensitive to the spells of artistic magic, quickly and decidedly chose his position and responsibility. He joined the fighting ranks, performing the most difficult underground tasks so bravely and so like a man, as if battle was not unlike his earlier lifestyle. This amazed those who followed the voice of his knew him and his boyish impulses – against the persecutors and in support of the persecuted (…) Such was the beginning of the ardent and beautiful service of a soldier, undertaken with complete and serious awareness. ‘The young boy, grasping the sword of liberty,’ became in his own mind ‘injustice and revenge,’ ‘love and populace…’

Zbigniew Wasilewski, in his essay “So dismal a time” (Taki to mroczny czas) Soldier Poet Time’s Dust (Żołnierz poeta czasu kurz, Literary Publishing House, 1970), writes: “The drama of Baczyński – for which he paid with his life – is that he had to choose battle, for talent and history had destined him to be a poet of elegies. Let us examine a1ist of his works: the word “Elegy” is found in eleven titles, and it would probably be appropriate in the titles of most of his poems.”

Comparing these two reminiscences of Baczyński by his contemporaries, one can unhesitatingly lean to the notes of Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczakowa. They are simple with an air of authenticity. Wasilewski gives a rather pale, unconvincing report; striking a lofty tone, using unrealistic poetic terms, which are not always appropriate in describing the behavior of a living person. Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński did not have to choose battle at all. He could have withdrawn himself from it, left Warsaw, and survived. He would have been completely justified. After all, the commander of the “Zośka” battalion had removed the poet from battle, effecting his transfer to the sister battalion “Parasol”. Wasilewski knew Baczyński, thus many readers will believe his account. But knowing Baczyński’s works and analyzing his poems, one can easily conclude that he did not consider himself the hero of any drama. As did other young people at the time, so he went where duty called him. He confirmed by his actions all that he wrote in his poems:

Slowly it transects the circle like a knife,
It will cut the light before the day’s end,
While I sleep through the great sculpture
with my head heavy on my rifle.

Surrounded by the confusion of events
torn in half by the sharp circle,
I'll throw my head to the wind like a grenade,
and time win crush my breast with its, black paw;

for it was life's faint heart
and courage – when death was imminent.
Death will come, when you have loved
great causes with reckless love.

(December 4, 1943)

And it was that reckless love of great causes, determination within the confusion of events, which became the main reason for the poet choosing this illustrious path. “There was no time to think” – recall Baczyński's contemporaries – “there was only one road…”

We have our hearts – hammer of hammers,
which struck the earth through the centuries
quick as the sharp blow of swallows
and wings of eagles – flight of eagles.

Through our eyes devoid of tears
Oh earth! flow through your fields,
’Til each with a handful of free earth
We will storm time, which is
like the ashes of faith. We’ll raise
a home of iron – for people, storms, and dreams.

(January 7, 1943)

These verses clearly emphasize faith in victory, in a lasting country, raised for people, storms, and dreams. Baczyński’s faith in a better tomorrow, crowned by victory will often permeate his last works. And although, there will also appear a theme and premonition of death – the poet does not dramatize, as if assuming that he may not find himself in that home or iron, raised for people, storms, and dreams. And that childish, confident, and unselfish faith, the vision of great causes without egotism, additionally confirms the authenticity of his work. This faith is also part of his national heritage and the subject of reckoning of consciences, not only from the time of the uprising, but also those years, which have since passed.