Was it a real bullet, son,
or your heart that broke?*
He was only 23. His name was Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski. He was one of many whose lot it was to live through the tragic days of September, 1939, and not see liberation. He experienced – what he himself envisioned – a shower of bullets, grenades, hitting the dirt, and ‘one charge only, straight up to heaven’. From this supreme sacrifice of countless such young daredevils was supposed to be born a mighty Poland free as a bird: ‘... We'll raise a house of iron – for nations, storms, and dreams’, he wrote in January, 1943. Yet poets are often wrong, and so was Baczynski. Warsaw fell ... a different Poland emerged. But whatever one may now say about the Warsaw Uprising, nothing can erase the sacrifice and heroism of the insurgents.
Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski was born in Warsaw on January 22, 1921. His father was a literary critic, his mother, Stefania Zielenczyk, the sister of the well-known philosopher, Adam Zielenczyk. Krzysztof was an only child. He attended the excellent Stefan Batory gymnasium , but was not a good student. His dream was to become a graphic artist or a book illustrator. [ baczynski art ] He belonged to the generation born and raised in a free and independent Poland, a generation which did not know foreign rule. He started to write poetry very early. In 1936, at the age of 15, his first poem was published. But it was the shocks, the uncertainties, the cruelties of war which brought his true talent to the fare. He became the poet of fighting Warsaw.
Here we stand over so tragic
The battlefield is smoldering –
a brew of fractured memories
(‘Miserere’ spring 1940)
As an active member of the AK (Armia Krajowa – Home Army) his underground name was Jan Bugaj. He was a prolific writer, his poems often appearing in the underground press. Also the first volumes of his verses were all printed in clandestine print-shops. His untitled last poem, describing wartime lovers is dated July 13, 1944, barely three weeks before his death. It ends:
And then ... they wake up crying,
for shots are heard from afar
and they dreamt that they had conceived
a child as red as fresh blood
What was this youthful poet like? Stanislaw Pietak, himself a poet, describes him thus: “Of almost boyish stature, of less than average height, face thin, eyes gray – a bit tired, he suffered from severe asthma which he did not try to hide ... yet never fussed over it or worried, scorning it and creating it rather as a joke. He was unusually witty and eloquent, and endowed with a most spontaneous sense of humor. He was also boyishly defiant, constantly talking of battle actions, and always eager for a skirmish."
In 1942 Krzysztof married his beloved Basia (Barbara Drabczynska) to whom so many of his most beautiful lyrics are dedicated.
Standing by the mirror of silence
Barbara with her hands at her hair
pours into her body of glass
silvery droplets of song
And then as a pitcher - she fills
with light and so sparkling
all the stars she absorbs
and gleams with moonlights white dust.
(‘White Magic' Jan. 4, 1942, 3 a.m.)
[ white magic ]
A Polish novelist, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, describing the ceremony wrote: "On a glorious June day in 1942, I attended Baczynski's wedding. That year the lilacs bloomed more profusely than ever, and I appeared at the ceremony. with a huge bouquet of these flowers. After the service was over, I remember remarking to someone that the whole thing seemed more like a First Communion than a wedding. Both Baczynskis, very young, appeared even younger because of their small height. They really looked like two children kneeling at the altar."
September of 1939 marks the beginning of the annihilation of Baczynski's generation. First the onslaught on Poland and the siege of Warsaw, then the years of occupation – the darkness of Hitlerian terror and bestiality. Finally Warsaw starts to prepare for the Uprising. In 1943 Krzysztof joins the Polish Scouting Attack Groups and after some military training is assigned to the famed Scout Battalion ‘Zoska’ (Sophie). It is then that the young poet's talent really blossoms out and reaches its peak. He achieves poetic maturity in record time and his poetry of this period is full and complete. In June 1944 he receives some more field training and in the rank of assistant platoon leader is assigned a post at ‘Starowka’ (Old Town). He was killed in action during the first days of the Uprising.
Zbigniew Czajkowski-Dabczynski, in his book Dziennik Powstanca (Diary of an Insurgent), gives a detailed report of his death: "It was then that I saw Krzysztof for the last time, because they left for a new position at Palac Blanka without me. That day I heard from a buddy that he was hunting Germans with great success from the ruins of the Opera House. The next day a call came for a first-aid patrol to come help a wounded in the Palac Blanka. Not having much to do I joined them. At his post, in a corner room, we found Krzysztof lying on a Persian rug with a huge wound in his head. He was dead. Nurses carried the body over to the City Hall (next door). That same evening the funeral was held. It was rather solemn. The grave was dug in the City Hall courtyard. Some sixty people, soldiers, officers, civilians, were present. Someone said a few words. The body was lowered to the grave. We all sang the National Anthem, then the grave was filled."
It was only the fourth day of the Uprising, August 4, 1944. On August 24, the poet's beloved wife Basia is wounded. She dies on September first, not knowing of her Krzysztof's death. In many of his poems Baczynski was prophetic. In a poem "A Little Song" (‘Pioseneczka’), dated January 16, 1942, and dedicated to Basia, he wrote:
And so, leaning over the waters,
we will float away to oblivion
and on earth there will cry for us only
our own shadows which we left behind
During those terrible days many crosses spring up on the streets of Warsaw. The city stands in flames. The Poles defend their posts street by street, house by house, square by square. Warsaw is tumbling into rubble, yet still fights on.
City of menace, like a coffin lid
thrown down an abyss as if
by a tempest's blow –
as a black lion who takes long to die
wrote Baczynski on February 10, 1943 in a poem entitled ‘Warsaw’. Finally, after 63 days of super-human struggle, on October 2, 1944, the Poles agree to surrender under honorable conditions thus assuring to the insurgents the rules of the Geneva Convention. Three days later decimated units of the Home Army march out of Warsaw – into captivity.
Thus ends the story of the most heroic Polish upsurge. Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski did not witness it .., he came to rest among the ruins of his own native city just as he prophesied in his verse:
For us, one charge
– straight up to heaven
one medal only,
– a cross on our grave.
The war ended. Slowly Warsaw raised itself out of its shambles. Buildings, squares, streets, were re-built. Over the Old City King Sigismund reigns again as before from his lofty column. In January 1947 Baczynski's body was dug out of the ruins of the City Hall and Krzysztof and Basia were finally laid to rest together in one grave at the Insurgents' cemetery at Powazki.
Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski is no more – left is the memory of his sacrifice and the fruits of his work. "Admirable is the scope of this work and its maturity," wrote of him Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. "It often happens that lives which are predestined to end prematurely are filled with such intensive work, blossom out so quickly, that during a very short span of time they seem to achieve completeness."
And a Polish writer and critic; Stanislaw Pigon, had this to say at the news of Baczynski's death: "What can we do? We belong to a nation whose lot it is to shoot at the enemy with diamonds."
Poems translated by Irene P. Coulter
*Elegy on . . . (a Polish boy)
They kept you, little son, from dreams like trembling
they wove you, little son, in dark red
blood two mournful eyes,
they painted landscapes
with the yellow stitch of conflagrations,
all with hangmen’s trees
the flowing oceans.
They taught you, little son, to know by heart
your land of birth
as you were carving out with tears
of iron its many paths.
They reared you in the darkness
and fed you on terror’s bread;
gropingly that shamefulest of human roads.
And then you left, my lovely son, with your black
gun at midnight,
and felt the evil prickling in the
sound of each new minute.
Before you fell, over
the land you raised your hand in blessing.
a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart
March 20, 1944
Baczynski, Krzysztof Kamil. White Magic
and Other Poems.
Bill Johnston translator.
Green Integer, 2004.
'Elegia o Chłopcu Polskim'
Oddzielili cię, syneczku, od snów, co jak motyl drżą,
haftowali ci, syneczku, smutne oczy rudą krwią,
malowali krajobrazy w żółte ściegi pożóg,
wyszywali wisielcami drzew płynące morze.
Wyuczyli cię, syneczku, ziemi twej na pamięć,
gdyś jej ścieżki powycinał żelaznymi łzami.
Odchowali cię w ciemności, odkarmili bochnem trwóg,
przemierzyłeś po omacku najwstydliwsze z ludzkich dróg.
I wyszedłeś, jasny synku, z czarną bronią w noc,
i poczułeś, jak się jeży w dźwięku minut - zło.
Zanim padłeś, jeszcze ziemię przeżegnałeś ręką.
Czy to była kula, synku, czy to serce pękło?