Upon hearing the news that Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński joined the Szare Szeregi “Grey Ranks” (the codename for the underground paramilitary Polish Scouting Association), Stanisław Pigoń, a historian of Polish literature, remarked: “We belong to a nation, whose fate is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds.”
When Poland regained its independence in 1918, following the Treaty of Versailles which ended the Great War, or World War I, people in Poland, were, understandably, exuberant. After 123 years of foreign rule and of forced and ruthless Russification and Germanization, Poles could once again use their own language at home, let alone at school, legally. The generation of Poles born in the 1920s was to be the first generation that would live in, and discover what it means to be in, a free Poland. Instead, their adolescence and young adult lives were marked by World War II.
The young intelligentsia of that period came to be known as the Generation of Columbuses. John Paul II belonged to that generation as well as writers Stanisław Lem and Zbigniew Herbert, and Władysław Bartoszewski, Auschwitz survivor, historian and politician who was instrumental in Polish-German reconciliation. But then there were those diamonds whose lives were cut short by the war. This list presents some of them.
1. Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. We opened the article with him so it’s only fitting he opens the list. Baczyński was born in 1921 and graduated from lyceum in 1939. From an early age he showed talent for drawing and writing. While attending gymnasium and lyceum, he was interested in Polish and French literature. He wrote poems in Polish and later in French.
His style demonstrated catastrophism and a strong romantic influence. He published four books of poetry during the German occupation. His poems showed the need to find your true self when faced with the brutality and barbarism of war. He did not write about the war in a literal manner but rather through an apocalyptic and dreamy prism. His poems addressed the problems of sculpting the human soul and psyche, search for ideals and sense of war which he saw symbolically as a destroyer of moral norms and values. He also wrote the best erotica in Polish literary history. He was held in high regard by his contemporaries as Stanisław Pigoń’s quote asserts.
He was killed by a sniper on 4 August 1944: the 4th of the Uprising.
2. Barbara Drapczyńska – wife of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński. She is as responsible for the best erotica in Polish literature as her husband. She was a student of Polish Philology in the underground Warsaw University.
She was struck by a splinter of glass which damaged her brain and died pregnant on 1 September 1944, the 32nd day of the Uprising. She never knew her husband was killed.
3. Tadeusz Gajcy. Born in 1922, he attended school with Wojciech Jaruzelski. He showed talent for poetry from an early age but later destroyed all of his early poems. He studied Polish Philology in the underground Warsaw University. He was one of the creators, and later an editor, of Sztuka i Naród (Art and Nation) a monthly literary underground magazine. On its pages, he published his poetry and short stories, sometimes under pseudonyms, and he often polemicized with literary predecessors.
Through his poetry he tried to philosophically understand the world and the fate of a person. His poems are pessimistic but reflexive and war is treated in a metaphoric, apocalyptic vision, and not literally. He also wrote some erotica and translated parts of Homer into Polish.
He was killed on 16 August 1944, the 16th day of the Uprising.
4. Wojciech Mencel – born in 1923, he attended the same lyceum as Baczyński from which he graduated in 1941 and joined the underground Warsaw University and studied Polish Philology. He was on staff of the Art and Nation magazine and later he worked for Droga (Way). He also worked for the Bureau Information and Propaganda in the Home Army. His poems were not published during his lifetime.
He was killed on 13 September, 1944, the 44th day of the Uprising.
5. Zdzisław Stroiński – born in 1921, he spent his youth in Zamość where his father was a legal advisor. In 1941 he started studying Polish Philology in the Underground Warsaw University (see a pattern?). He worked for Art and Nation (another pattern?). He spent some time in the infamous Pawiak prison in 1943 after he was caught laying a wreath under a statue of Copernicus (along with Gajcy) but was released a couple months later.
In his poems, he created metaphoric images which showed influences of the Kraków Avant-garde with messianic accents. He also explored humanistic and patriotic avenues in his works.
He was killed on 16 August 1944, the 16th day of the Uprising.
6. Józef Szczepański – born in 1922, he graduated lyceum in 1939. During World War II, he joined the Gray Ranks and Battalion Parasol (Umbrella), a Scouting battalion which distinguished itself in many underground operations. Among others, he was part of an unsuccessful operation which attempted to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Wilhelm Koppe, responsible for numerous atrocities against Poles and Jews.
He often wrote his poems inspired by the moment and his works chronicle the life of Parasol. Probably his best known work is his last, Czerwona Zaraza (Red Plague), which expresses frustration at the Red Army which stopped on the right bank of the Vistula and waited for the Germans to crush the Uprising before attacking the city. It was banned in post-war Poland.
He was mortally wounded on 1 September, and died on 10 September 1944, the 41st day of the Uprising.
He received the Cross of Valor twice and was posthumously awarded Virtuti Militari, Poland’s highest decoration for courage and heroism.
7. Jan Romocki – born in 1925 he completed secondary school in the underground in 1943. He joined the conspiracy in 1941, the Grey Ranks in 1942 and the legendary battalion Zośka in 1943. His underground pseudonym (and middle name) was, quite fittingly, Bonawentura, after the medieval scholastic theologian.
What survived from his poetry deals mainly with issues in, and of, Christianity and his poems are deeply seeped in Christian ethics. His poem Modlitwa (Prayer) was sung by the members of the underground.
He was killed by an aerial bomb on 18 August, 1944, the 18th day of the Uprising.
8. Krystyna Krahelska – born in 1914 her father was an engineer and her mother was a biologist. Her aunt Wanda was a member of a group that attempted to assassinate Georgi Skalon, a Russian-Empire Governor General of Warsaw in 1906 by throwing a bomb at his carriage. Krystyna studied geography, history and then ethnography at the Warsaw University in the 1930s receiving her degree in 1939. She posed for Ludwika Nitschowa, an artist who created the statue of the Warsaw mermaid. She worked as a courier, and, during the Uprising, as an emergency medical technician.
She wrote poetry and songs since 1928, one of which, Hej, chłopcy, bagnet na broń (Hey boys, mount the bayonets), became the most popular song of the Uprising.
She was shot three times in the chest on 1 August 1944 while attempting to save a wounded friend, and died, after a surgery on 2 August, the 2nd day of the Uprising.
9. Włodzimierz Pietrzak – born in 1913 in Warsaw, he attended the Tadusz Kościuszko Gymnasium in Kalisz and studied law at the Warsaw University graduating in 1935. Before the war, he published in several literary magazines and was a deputy editor-in-chief of Młoda Polska (Young Poland). During the war, he was a staff member of Art and Nation. His poems dealt with the questions of morality and ideals and were written in the vein of catastrophism.
He was killed on 20 August 1944, the 20th day of the Uprising.