Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968)

by Sławomir Buryła (Author) Dorota Krawczyńska (Author) Jacek Leociak (Author)
©2020 Monographs 770 Pages


Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968) scrutinizes literary and documentary testimonies produced during or after the extermination of Jews in the Second World War and rooted in that historical, political, and anthropological context. Whether someone wrote a text during or after the war influenced the nature of what was communicated. Hence, the authors divided this publication to separately cover two periods: 1939–1944/45 and 1945–1968. This publication overviews belles-lettres, personal document literature, and press publications. Almost all texts were written in the Polish language. The genre category constitutes the basic compositional criterion. The individual parts of our publication discuss poetry, narrative prose, personal document literature, and the press discourse.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • From the Editors
  • Introduction
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • Part I 1939–1945
  • Jacek Leociak, Marta Janczewska: Literature of the Personal Document
  • Introduction
  • The Topography and Chronology of Holocaust Records
  • The State of Danger, Awareness of the End, and Entrapment in Time
  • The Time and Space of Writing
  • The Geography of Writing
  • The Places of Writing
  • Testimony as an Autobiographical Strategy
  • The Witness as the Chronicler of the Collective Catastrophe
  • 1 Emanuel Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto
  • 2. Ludwik Landau’s Kronika lat wojny i okupacji
  • The Witness as a Judge Meting Out Justice and a Public Prosecutor Collecting Evidence for the Crime
  • The Witness as the Avenger
  • The Witness as the Newspaper Reader
  • Witness of Existence
  • 1. Abraham Lewin
  • 2 Dawid Sierakowiak
  • Testimonies Written in Extremis
  • Baruch Milch and Basia Temkin-Berman
  • The Anonymous Brother and Sister from the Łódź Ghetto
  • The Everyday and the Uneveryday of the Holocaust
  • The Everyday as a Research Category
  • The Home
  • The Home as an Idea and the Home as the Living Space
  • The Hiding Space
  • The Everyday of Domestic Routine
  • Reading
  • Things
  • Transformations of Objects
  • Objects as Commodity
  • Post-Jewish Property
  • Death
  • Eye-Witnessed Death
  • Imagined Death
  • (Un)awareness of the Holocaust
  • The Faith in Survival and Life Against All Odds
  • “History’s Program Speech”
  • The Awareness of the Inexorability of the Holocaust
  • Awareness of the Holocaust as a Source of Energy
  • “Like Sheep to the Slaughter:” A Figure of the Holocaust
  • The Ringelblum Archive as a Global Text
  • Piotr Matywiecki: Poetry
  • The Poetics of the Holocaust. Motivations, Functions, Contexts
  • To Express the Inexpressible. Subject and Form of the Poetry about the Shoah
  • Ghetto
  • Hiding on the ‘Aryan’ Side
  • Normalcy, the Ordinary, and the Everyday
  • Hope – Hopelessness. The Future
  • Poles and Jews. Witnesses to the Holocaust
  • Portrait of Germans
  • Revenge and… Love
  • Jewish Identity. Ahasver
  • Bare Life
  • Mass Death
  • Two Mythologized Individuals: Korczak and Czerniaków
  • Eschatology. Philosophy of History
  • God. Jesus Christ. Bible
  • Conclusions
  • Portraits
  • Władysław Szlengel (1914–1943)
  • Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (1921–1944)
  • Jerzy Kamil Weintraub (1916–1943)
  • Izabella Czermak (1898–1964)
  • Mieczysław Jastrun (1903–1983)
  • Czesław Miłosz (1911–2004)
  • Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak: The Press
  • Introduction
  • The Official Press in the East
  • The “Reptile” Press
  • The Underground Press
  • The Jewish Underground Press: From Ideologizing to Recording the Experience
  • Part II 1945–1968
  • Sławomir Buryła: Postwar Fate of Jews
  • Political Situation and Public Mood
  • Population Structure
  • Political Divides
  • Threats to Safety
  • Polish Jews and the Socialist State
  • The Situation of the Jews after the Liberation
  • Illegal and Legal Emigration (1945–1950)
  • Cultural Life
  • Decrease of the Autonomy
  • With the Soviet Union in the Background
  • The Year 1956 in Poland
  • Piotr Matywiecki: Poetry
  • The Posthumous Word Versus the Socialist Realist Ideologization
  • Poetry Written Immediately after the War
  • Direct Testimonies
  • Socialist Realism
  • The Issue of Guilt. Ethical Judgments in Poetry after the Holocaust
  • Existence and Mental Situation of Survivors. Their Mission. Their Feeling of Guilt
  • Postwar Germany
  • German Guilt
  • The Situation of a Holocaust Witness. The “Guilt” of Witnesses
  • The Jewish Strangeness and Anti-Semitism
  • The Christian Consciousness in the Face of the Holocaust
  • The Dilemmas of Post-Holocaust Memory
  • Remembering and Forgetting the Holocaust
  • Poetizations
  • The Holocaust and Nature
  • Beyond the Human Speech. Deliberations on the Meaning of History and Poetry after the Shoah
  • The Philosophy of History of the Holocaust
  • Silence after the Holocaust. Inexpressibility
  • Portraits
  • Mieczysław Jastrun (1903–1983)
  • Stanisław Jerzy Lec (1909–1966)
  • Arnold Słucki (1920–1972)
  • Tadeusz Różewicz (1921–2014)
  • Sławomir Buryła, Dorota Krawczyńska: Prose
  • Introduction
  • Issues Concerning the (In)expressibility of the Holocaust
  • The Issue of the Metaphor
  • The Space of the Holocaust Experience
  • The Issue of Description
  • Difficult Truths
  • Polish-Jewish Relations
  • The Myth of ‘Jewish gold’
  • Other Problems
  • The Issue of Theodicy
  • Critique of Culture
  • Camp and Holocaust Literature
  • The Holocaust in Social Realist Prose
  • The Jewish Issue in Communist Poland
  • Murderers from the National Armed Forces
  • Unwanted truths
  • ‘Silent Heroism’ and the Compromised Intellectual
  • A Jew and Priest in One Person
  • An Overall Look
  • The Authors of the 1950s and the 1960s
  • Portraits
  • Tadeusz Borowski (1922–1951)
  • Leopold Buczkowski (1905–1989)
  • Stanisław Wygodzki (1907–1992)
  • Adolf Rudnicki (1912–1990)
  • Jacek Leociak, Marta Janczewska: Literature of the Personal Document
  • Memoirs
  • Testimonies
  • Testimonies as a Genre
  • The Discourse on Helping
  • Openly Declared Motivations for Provision of Help
  • The Requests for Help and their Substantiations
  • The Attitude of the Helpers (Poles) to the Helpees (Jews)
  • Discourse on Murdering
  • Indirect Perpetration
  • Adults’ Testimonies
  • Child Narratives
  • Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak: The Press
  • Discourse about the Holocaust in the Polish-Jewish Press
  • Introduction
  • The Polish-Language Jewish Press Published in 1945–1950
  • The Holocaust as a Context
  • Tentative Conclusions: Confronting the Massacre
  • Conceptual Patterns, Rhetoric, Descriptions of the Holocaust
  • Assessing the Attitudes of Those Doomed to Die
  • In Search of Forms of Expression
  • Commemorating the Holocaust
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

From the Editors

Holocaust literature has long been an object of multifaceted analyses and discussions. However, among the publications in the Polish language, there is an overwhelming preponderance of studies, dissertations, and articles devoted to individual authors, genres, and problem threads instead of studies of a synthetic or cross-section character. The latter include, for instance, Irena Maciejewska’s introduction to the anthology entitled Męczeństwo i zagłada Żydów w zapisach literatury polskiej [Martyrdom and Extermination of Jews in Polish Literature]; the “ghetto experience in literature” entry in Słownik literatury polskiej XX wieku [Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Polish Literature]; Władysław Panas’ article “Zagłada od zagłady. Szoah w literaturze polskiej” [The Holocaust from a Holocaust. Shoah in Polish Literature]; the collection of Natan Gross’ critical and literary sketches Poeci i Szoa. Obraz zagłady Żydów w poezji polskiej [Poets and Shoah. Holocaust Depiction in Polish Poetry]; Henryk Grynberg’s essay Holocaust w literaturze polskiej [Holocaust in Polish Literature]; Józef Wróbel’s book Tematy żydowskie w prozie polskiej 1939–1987 [Jewish Topics in Polish Prose 1939–1987], which focused on a differently defined problem area, but also encompassed the Shoah subject matter, which can also be said about Kazimierz Adamczyk’s Doświadczenia polsko-żydowskie w literaturze emigracyjnej (1939–1980) [Polish-Jewish Experiences in Émigré Literature (1939–1980)] and Karolina Famulska-Ciesielska’s Polacy, Żydzi, Izraelczycy [Poles, Jews, Israelis]. Other publications also aspiring to comprehensiveness include Literatura polska wobec Zagłady [Polish Literature and the Holocaust], edited by Alina Brodzka-Wald, Dorota Krawczyńska, and Jacek Leociak; Stosowność i forma [Appropriateness and Form], edited by Michał Głowiński and others; and Aleksandra Ubertowska’s Świadectwo – trauma – głos [Testimony – Trauma – Voice]. However, none of these publications aspire to be a complete and exhaustive monograph of the topic.

Preparing a thorough synthesis of various forms of recording the Holocaust experience after nearly 70 years since the Second World War seems necessary not only for purely cognitive reasons. The area of Polish Holocaust literature (let us emphasize that we do not mean here literature written by ethnic Poles but that written in Polish) spans two poles: the Jewish Holocaust and its Polish expression. The pleiad of eminent authors, the incredible multitude of literary works, and the tragic entanglement of the Polish and Jewish lot give Polish literature on the Holocaust experience a unique character.

←11 | 12→

Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968) is a presentation, analysis, and interpretation – rooted in the historical, political, and anthropological context – of literary and documentary testimonies produced hic et nunc or post factum that discuss the extermination of Jews during the Second World War. For whether a text was written during or after the war, from a longer time perspective, did influence the nature of what it communicated. Hence, the division of this publication into 2 parts, one spanning 1939–1944/45 and the other 1945–1968.

The sources used in this publication are: belles-lettres in its basic forms and genres, the literature of the personal document (diaries, memoirs, recollections – various types of non-fiction autobiographic genres), and press publications. Almost all the analyzed texts were written in the Polish language. The genre category constitutes the basic compositional criterion used in this monograph (the individual parts of our publication discuss poetry, narrative prose, the literature of the personal document, and the press discourse).

The clear differences in the individual chapters’ length result from the dynamic of the increase of the number of the individual forms of record in relation to the chronological distance to the events described. In short, among the accounts recorded on the spot the most widely represented were poetry and testimonies from the sphere of the literature of the personal document, while prose was almost completely absent. It appeared after the war, bringing extremely important works, some of which were key to Holocaust literature in the international dimension (for instance, Tadeusz Borowski’s Auschwitz stories).

The synthesis of the literary Holocaust testimonies we present is complemented with an analysis of the press discourse, which is extremely important for the big picture. The postwar public debate on the Holocaust reached several apogees, changing its shape depending on the historical period. Nevertheless, it always played an important role in the shaping of collective consciousness.

Our study ends with bibliographical documentation, which at present is the fullest one in Polish literature on the Holocaust. The subject bibliography is divided into the genres: belles-lettres – the literature of the personal document – the press.

The authors of the sketches strived for possibly the fullest presentation of the various stages of recording and the various genre forms of the expression the Holocaust experience. Aside from the large stock of published works, the authors also considered the less known or forgotten accounts and archival materials which had never been used before.

In the context of the current state of knowledge, it must be said that our compendium has no precedent among Polish reference books.

←12 |

The chronological caesura used in our monograph requires a short commentary. Wishing to avoid the ongoing and still unresolved, though secondary to our monograph, discussion on when the Holocaust history began, we opted for the outbreak of the Second World War. Bearing this date in mind in our reflections, we did, however, include certain works produced before September 1939 which anticipated the Holocaust. Most such works can be found in the poetry section, while as far as prose is concerned the only work that can be read in that way is perhaps Adolf Rudnicki’s Lato [Summer]. The choice of the year 1968, which is symbolic for the postwar history of Polish-Jewish relations, is socially, politically, and culturally justified. Nevertheless, we decided to bring our narration in this volume more or less to the mid-1960s, that is, the period before the events immediately preceding the March 1968 anti-Semitic campaign. The second part of the decade in the social-political history of the People’s Republic of Poland and March 1968 shall be the starting point for Reprezentacje Zagłady w kulturze polskiej [Holocaust Representations in Polish Culture] – the three-volume publication planned as the thematic and chronological continuation of the monograph Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968).

This volume is a part of a project the next stage of which is going to be a monographic synthesis continued up to the contemporary times and encompassing – aside the subject matter present in this volume supplemented with chapters on the essay, émigré literature, and Yiddish texts – a reflection on visual arts’ approach to Shoah: Polish features and documentaries, photography, theater and drama, and visual arts. The next volumes are to discuss the Holocaust in Polish pop culture and new media, with a separate volume recapitulating the theoretical approaches to various ways of expressing the Shoah experience.

The planned three-volume monograph Reprezentacje Zagłady w kulturze polskiej is to contain not only a subject bibliography but also an object bibliography including the subject matters discussed in this volume.



In his introduction to the collection of studies entitled Literatura wobec wojny i okupacji1 [Literature in the Face of War and Occupation] Janusz Sławiński defines the tasks faced by a scholar who would like to prepare a synthesis of Polish literature discussing the events of the Second World War and the occupation. Consequently, he is discussing a matter more general than the one which we intend to systematize in our monograph. However, it is subject to similar classification directions, it causes similar difficulties, and it is ‘thought’ in a similar manner. At the same time, it must be stressed that in both these cases – literature about the war and literature about the Holocaust – we have to do with a whole array of topics. Sławiński orders them in the most general and at the same time the most basic way, indicating the main points for an analysis and interpretation of this area of literature. This subject matter is governed by several regularities: the war generates a host of (new) motifs which enrich the existing repertoire of characters, situations, and experiences. This makes literature face unprecedented challenges, to which it responds in two ways: it either tries to find a new individualized form of expression for the unfamiliar content or it “makes do with the existing repertoire of selected motifs or anecdotes,”2 deeming the new events the content that intensifies their meaning.

Literature devoted to the Holocaust builds up around specific situations and events, motifs, and threads. These can be arranged into a characteristic index of topics for which the authors are not trying to find special means of expression (at least during the period we discuss in this volume, that is, 1939–1968). Instead, their objective is to (immediately) report on their situation, suffering, and fears, while the form suggests itself (depending on the author’s world view or education). And (mainly) during the initial phase (that is, when the events described were taking place) that form – aside ephemeral poetry – is the broadly defined testimonial (personal document) literature, which later went on to become a signum temporis in the area of all contemporary literature.

←15 | 16→

With the passing of time and the increasing distance to the Shoah tragedy, the proportions gradually reverse – the number of novels begins to increase. That process, however, is parallel to a different one – the blurring of the differences between genres or – in order words – the extension of the boundaries of prose to include all kinds of testimonial or documentary texts.

At the same time, Sławiński remarks that the search for the new language could even mean a shift away from literature. However, we try to show that justified here is the thesis about the expansion of the area of literariness (of which Kazimierz Wyka took note in his Pogranicze powieści [The Borderland of the Novel], which for many reasons is fundamental to our reflections). This explains the “career of the authentic” (to use Jerzy Jarzębski’s expression), that is, of the personal document, reportage, testimony, and quasi-document.3 “There has been a dramatic increase in the documentary prose about the recent war, and it is becoming more and more obvious that it does not constitute a preparation for the literary narration but its substitute,” claims Sławiński.4 And we can do nothing but agree with him on this.

The next regularity noticed by Sławiński is the thematic areas (which match the specific indicators of time and space: a usual day during the occupation, the front line, the ghetto, the camp), each of which is covered in line with the appropriate canon rooted in the literary tradition. And the selection of the canon depends on, for instance, the author’s world view or his literary inclinations. There is no “topic as such,” states Sławiński. There can only be a “topic overgrown with meanings.”5

One example of this thesis is the prose of Zofia Nałkowska, who spoke out about the wartime experiences as early as in 1946, when she published a cycle of her short stories entitled Medallions, which has been regarded as an almost canonical manner of discussing a limit experience. However, she did that as a mature writer, already the author of Tajemnice krwi [Mysteries of Blood] (1922), where one of the short stories includes the following symptomatic words: “War is no different from life. It is but a condensation or ‘acceleration’ of its evil. Or perhaps merely its revelation. I think that laboring in mines like in tombs or in factories like in hell, that the dull sadness of peasants and the scattered hospitals and mental institutions are something from the same order, something cognate. War incorporates what already exists: savagery, misery, suffering, and death.”6

←16 | 17→

This sounds familiar in the context of the year 1946, which marked the publication of the collective work entitled We Were at Auschwitz,7 which included Tadeusz Borowski’s short story “Here in Our Auschwitz.”

Sławiński’s another diagnosis is the thesis about the kind of synchronicity of the war topic with the later times. This is to say that this subject matter exists both in the order of history and in the order of contemporariness, which poses a constant challenge not only to scholars of literature and historians. In our opinion, this thesis pertains particularly to the motifs connected with the Holocaust, which finds confirmation in the ever-increasing volume of the reference literature, which encompasses not only literary studies, but also history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. This is no place for showing how Sławiński’s pithy statement was becoming increasingly timely with the development of those fields of knowledge. Suffice it to say that according to contemporary scholars of the relationship between historical and literary narration (to list only the ones most often quoted nowadays: Hayden White and Frank Ankersmit), fundamental to understanding this relationship is the issue of the record of the limit experience (particularly the Shoah experience). This trend is also visible in the development of the reflection on trauma, the various ways in which it is manifested in art, the forms of its record, the opposition between the possibility and the impossibility of representation, with this contemporariness of the Holocaust (or, more broadly speaking, war) manifesting itself in all those spheres.

As for the issue of language as such, Sławiński observes that a new topic does not automatically generate a new language, although there is a conviction (which emerged with time) that there is a need for it. Meanwhile, the new experience can be expressed (and usually is) by means of languages we are very familiar with. For the literature of the experience of the Second World War (and the Holocaust) did not emerge in a void. Instead, it drew from the existing models, though the authors often gave expression to the helplessness of their technique (and the word as such) in the face of the accumulation of evil and suffering brought by the years 1939–1945. Hence, the systematic analysis of traditions, updated when literature faced the topic of the war and occupation. Hence, the postwar discussions on the shape of prose, which were swiftly (and unfortunately) channeled into one current in line with the dynamic of the political transformation, which imposed a specific (and unified for years) model of writing.

←17 | 18→

All these postulated spheres of research interests in their different variants can be applied to the topic of the Holocaust representation in literature. Even if one views this phenomenon as separate from the war (due to its scale and nature), the mechanisms and behavior of literature seem similar in these two cases. Consequently, the first question could be: should the Holocaust experience literature be regarded as part of war literature? If the answer is affirmative (and it should be) then most of the above comments can be applied to the topic of our interest.


The reflections and doubts we are sharing with our Readers pertain to the deliberations on narrative prose as well as essay, drama, and reportage. They also pertain, to a large extent, to the part devoted to the personal document. We often had to decide, in the course of our work, how a given text should be categorized in terms of its genre, at least when the criteria were not completely unambiguous. The sheer volume of the material, which was accumulating gradually and incessantly, forced us to make rational decisions regarding the ordering method. Hence the new and sometimes arbitrary systematization of prose texts: using not only the obvious chronology criterion but also the genre criterion (here our compass was Philippe Lejeune’s definition of indicators of autobiographism in literature).8

Coming back to the issue of systematization, for the purpose of the first part of our analyses we used the caesura of the year 1949, which marked the Congress of Polish Writers held in Szczecin, which introduced the doctrine of socialist realism for the years to come. In the other part, the caesura is March 1968, treated as a kind of supplement to the darkest period in the common/separate Polish-Jewish history. Our reflections cease before 1968. The atmosphere and the texts of March 1968 shall constitute the starting point for our future project, which is going to discuss the relationship between literature and the Holocaust until contemporary times.

We are interested in literature written in Polish and connected with the Holocaust events. As far as the chronology is concerned, the publication date was the criterion for inclusion of a given text into one of the two parts. In the case of a substantial discrepancy between the production and the publication date, this temporal distance sometimes became an object of analysis and interpretation ←18 | 19→due to its historical and literary consequences. It did not, however, determine the text’s chronological classification.

The perspective we adopted is, of course, a contemporary one, but it does not obscure the theoretical and literary diagnoses timely for the period in question with regard to prose, realism, genres’ boundariness, and the genre amorphism of prose accounts. Thus ordered, the material shall (hopefully) lead to an emergence of a map of topics around which literature about the Holocaust has been organizing itself, though this outcome is going to be secondary to the original conception of the whole. For the original objective was to try to look at the means used for presenting the Holocaust limit experience and the manner in which the individual literary genres have been trying to cope with it, even at the expense of their becoming ‘muddy.’ What new elements gradually appear within (and without) the genres? How does the exemplum transform into the emblem? That is, how does a given attempt to record the Holocaust become the current language – at least temporarily? What forms of recording that experience does literature choose? How does it draw from direct tradition and what does it rebel against?

The definition of literature determines the choice of the model according to which one writes its history. And so does the way in which one understands history. Every history of literature is selective and thus arbitrary. Every choice is a normative one. Consequently, can the criteria for material selection be legitimized? And if so, then how? How can the individual threads of narration be linked with one another? A leading representative of German constructivism argues that historians of literature have become aware of the fact that the literary texts regarded as ‘data’ to the history of literature are not objectively ‘given’ facts but products of interpretation and evaluation. The scholars have also realized that the non-verbal ‘events,’ ‘facts,’ and ‘actions’ are always and by necessity regarded as such in the light of the points of reference, schemata, or cognitive theories (adopted explicitly or implicitly). In short: the ‘data,’ be they located in the past or in the present, are ‘data’ only in the light of the observer’s theoretical systems of reference, that is, the field of cognition of a living system.9

←19 | 20→

The new histories of literature shift away from the principle of comprehensive synthesis, instead turning toward illustrative examples. These histories are not meant to be compendiums but something more like maps, compasses, or guidebooks, that is, materials which help navigate around the specific areas of literature. We think similarly about our monograph.


If one was to point to the tradition of the literary record of the limit experience of war closest to the period of our interest, then it would be the literary depiction of the First World War – as a universal psychological and historical experience. The scope, technique, losses, mass character, and cruelty – that was the first time that that phenomenon emerged on such a scale in modern society. In the discussed tendencies exhibited by the prose produced during that period, one can discern the directions of its later development, its search for the form, the way in which it faced the experience of total annihilation, and its discovery of the most appropriate means of expression of the experience defying comprehension and, consequently, description.

In his analysis of the 1918–1932 prose,10 Tomasz Burek discusses two phases of the stylistic evolution of the modern world novel. The first one was based on the ‘close observation’ perspective, which later found its outlet in the reportage and personal document, dominated by the factographic, documentary, and chronicle approach and with the directly recorded emotional reactions, evaluations, reflections, also those of a metaliterary character, that is, ones regarding the word’s suitability and capacity (predominantly the works of the German expressionism, for instance, Ernst Jünger’s). The other one was characterized by the broadening of the cognitive and artistic perspective. “It substituted the poetics of scream and festering with the poetics of the reflective distance. There was an intensification of the interest in psychology and the tendency to see the affairs of the experienced war either through the prism of the writer’s individual philosophy or in the dimension of a broad social synthesis,” remarked Burek on the literature produced during that period.11 Generally speaking, however, in that prose persisted the stylization for documentary forms of expression, which was ←20 | 21→also symptomatic later, even though there were also attempts at a synthetically and prose depiction of the events.

The Polish experience of the war somewhat stands out against this background. Burek mentions the “tone of painful miserabilism” which persisted in the 1918–1932 literature, the manifestations of sympathy with the suffering victims, and the tendency to take note of the non-heroic aspects of the war. The general reflections formulated at that time, which could be noticed in the individual works that discussed the war and its influence on reality (both simultaneously and ex-post), bear a resemblance to the direction of thought in the works devoted to the events of the Second World War, obviously, and also the Holocaust experience. First and foremost, there was the reflection on the reevaluating role of the war as a limit situation and ‘transforming event.’ Hence, the need to rethink the existing systems of values, ways of thinking and, consequently, expressing. Such reevaluations could lead to, for instance, a revival of religious life (after the Second World War this vein was present in the works by Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Jerzy Andrzejewski, and others; it was also a vital theme in the writings of the authors directly affected by the Holocaust events) or – quite the reverse – abandonment of faith or even an inclination to nihilism. An important novum Burek notices in the postwar literature is the treatment of the war as an extension of ‘normal,’ everyday life. Though the longing for a synthesis was not absent from the literature produced during that period (for instance, in Józef Wittlin’s works, which constituted war literature’s most ambitious achievement at that time), it became apparent with time that in the case of mass catastrophes, contrary to what one would expect, the detail was closer to the truth of the events than the overall picture. The category of the point of view, the perspective from which one is looking (and describing) became increasingly important in war literature.

At that time a new tendency in literature, also that devoted to the war, was an attempt to merge two perspectives: the distanced one and the demonstrative one. That was connected with the gradually crystalizing outlook on history (in line with the Annales School’s conception) as a key to cognition (and a way of describing) the human condition, both in its individual and general shape. It was also connected with looking at history as an element of a larger system, combining other fields of humanistic reflection. This is how Alina Brodzka characterizes this regularity in the chapter devoted to the transformations of a historical narration included in the synthesis entitled Literatura polska wobec Zagłady, which has already been mentioned:

←21 |

The works which reveal this compromise, that is, ones which use both fiction and document, seek justification for the forms of representing the historical reality and the motivations for the perspectives from which it is looked at. These questions inscribed in the texts take part in the modern literature’s autoreflection which examines the possibilities of recognizing and presenting all realities, be they incidental or psychological. At the same time, they also emphasize the individual nature of every fictionalization of the past: the inevitable – even when it is being overcome – mediation of the perception of the phenomena evoked.12

A testament to those ambitions can be found in Wacław Berent’s cycle of ‘biographical stories:’ Nurt [The Current] (1934), Diogenes w kontuszu [Diogenes in a Split-Sleeve Overcoat] (1937), and Zmierzch wodzów [The Dusk of Leaders] (1939). Berent’s term ‘biographical story’ became one of the genre names in the typology of literary biographical writings.

[F];ictionalizing documentary facts to a varied extent[, this novel] became popular in world literature in the last 50 years. In the typology of this field of writing, the term borrowed from Berent is meant to denote the works radically devoid of any forms of novelistic narration and fictionalization; works where the voice of the story-teller, in an essayistic or story-telling manner, presents and comments on the surviving first-hand accounts.13

In independent Poland, where we look for the roots of the contemporary literature on war, parallel to the literary attempts at dealing with this subject matter there were discussions about the novel as a carrier of truth about reality. Those disputes were mostly disputes over realism.14 They continued until after the war, in turns subsiding and intensifying, indicating the main directions of thinking about prose. This is no place to discuss them in detail. Important to us are only their elements or threads which would in some way facilitate understanding the shape of postwar literature and the artistic choices made by its authors. Thus, some of the issues most interesting to us would be the event presentation manner, the place of the author/narrator, and, consequently, the category of perspective and point of view, and the account’s directness and authenticity. The issue of authenticity acquired particular significance in the discussions on literature during that period. It was not always understood in one way. Sometimes it was defined as aiming at a faithful reproduction in word of all internal sensations ←22 | 23→of a character. At other times, the search for authenticity in the novel acquired a factographic character, defined as a retreat from fiction and opting for the reportage or document.

The issue that later influenced the manner in which the Holocaust events were presented was the novelistic conceptions’ dependency on the worldview of their advocates, with that tendency visible in the literary discussions during the interwar period. An important motif in the reflection on the novelistic presentation of the Holocaust subject matter, it pertains to the prose produced by the witnesses rather than that penned by the victims.

• • •

In January 1944, in his foreword to Legends of Modernity, which he wrote during the war, Czesław Miłosz states the following:

This book is not a collection of essays on various writers, though it could seem one. In fact, each of these figures is looked at from only one, special angle, and they constitute but a pretext. […] Aware of the relationships between the various spheres of human activity, one can easily notice the political tenor of these reflections on literature. Seen in this way, they become reflections from the area of historical dialectic. Clear is the attack on nationalism, the negative evaluation of the ‘myths’ popular not long ago, the doubts about the future of religion and the defense of realism in art – and also the intention to subject art to superior ideals which are shaping the society.15

Attached to this volume of essays, Miłosz’s letter to Jerzy Andrzejewski includes the following symptomatic remarks: “During the third year of the war I often thought about writing a new ‘confession of a child of the century like the one Musset penned over 100 ago, a confession, which through its fury and a cry of pain would prove superior to the examinations of conscience inherited from that Romantic epoch.”16 In response to that declaration Andrzejewski formulated a thesis which seems decisive for the issue of literature’s ‘capability’ in the face of the limit experience:

I would not worry if you never happen to write a new confession of a child of the century. It is very dangerous to give testament to a generation while retaining a lyrical approach toward the events instead of a prose one, which is the only one which resurrects people and things in their objective and quite truthful dimension. […] Our times are difficult, tangled; they are white hot, they are sore. A lot of wounds open for years, festering maliciously; there are a lot of new ones too. To enter this dark abyss, tread on the cinders and ←23 | 24→ashes, watch fires spreading flames everywhere, listen to the howl of aggravated peoples and so many voices of despair and suffering, or perhaps descend even deeper, where only silence inspires terror and oh! to be amidst that and write about that!17

Let us emphasize here not only the words praising prose as the only decent way of representing reality, but also the tendency to immediately make use of most tragic events, which was so characteristic of Andrzejewski. His hasty use of the drama as material for writing was what he was criticized for during the literary milieus’ discussions about his story “Wielki Tydzień” [Passion Week], which we comment on briefly later in this volume. Under the pressure of the history happening here and now, of the events the horror of which has not been entirely realized, literature subordinates itself to serving as a testament, with the lead taken by the means of expression which best serve this function. Thus, literature gravitates toward documentariness and shorter, more ambiguous forms. Therefore, the conception of ‘amorphic prose’ discussed during that period. Though it was criticized by some (for instance, Ważyk),18 others (for instance, Wyka)19 accepted it as an undisputable fact. And even though Wyka “essentially remained an advocate of the purity of genres and even deemed it a fundamental complement to the postulate of realism, he did not reject a form that had ‘many tensions and directions’ as long as it remained a coherent construct. What is more, he suspected that the ‘genre of prose fitting our reality would be unlike any of the past genres.’ ”20 The most important to our reflection on prose is Wyka’s book Pogranicze powieści – a fundamental work presenting the processes, the key threads, and the mechanisms of literary representation (almost as they manifested themselves), which were profound for the entire later development of the prose forms.

We should also recall several of the theses formulated by Wyka on account of the aptness of his interpretative intuition and observations regarding the formal transformations of prose. The most significant here is the thesis about the genres’ boundariness. Wyka’s book Pogranicze powieści [The Borderland of the Novel] includes fundamental reflections on the literature produced immediately after ←24 | 25→the war, with those reflections losing nothing of their aptness and timeliness with the passing of time.

The first noteworthy issue is the paradox Wyka observed with regard to Seweryna Szmaglewska’s Dymy nad Birkenau [Smoke Over Birkenau] and Ksawery Pruszyński’s Droga wiodła przez Narvik [The Route Led Through Narvik]. Wyka writes:

To the matter, which seemingly cannot be presented in the form of a novel, Szmaglewska did apply precisely that form, intentionally adjusting and tailoring it to the requirements of her topic. The resultant book is extremely stimulating artistically. It is important as a form of prose. To the topic which, through its battle exoticism and powerful emotions, connected with this truly exceptional episode in the struggle against the Germans, it truly called for a loftier artistic sanction, so Pruszyński did apply that sanction, clothing Narvik in the robe of the novel. He failed. The clasps of this book do not fit, they creak and prevent the form from shutting tightly over the author’s intention. Why? Why? Why does Pruszyński’s novel not produce the final result as a novel does? And why does Szmaglewska’s book succeed in doing just that?21

Wyka deems Szmaglewska’s book the first one about the camps, not only due to chronology. He emphasizes its characteristics which went on to become the model of how to write about the Holocaust: gravitation toward the document, fragmentary narration, and the author’s characteristic transparency. All this makes up the boundariness of form, so characteristic of texts about Shoah, which Wyka presents as a distinctive characteristic of postwar prose. Dymy nad Birkenau is a ‘morally authentic’ document wishing to be, to use Wyka’s expression, “a supplement to the indictment.” Hence the documentariness, the poetics of witness, the ethical authenticity and involvement, the discreet style, and the meticulousness in the recording of the events.

In her introduction to Dymy nad Birkenau Szmaglewska declares: “I intend to present only the facts I observed or experienced first-hand. […] Everything I am going to write here, I can prove before any tribunal.”22 Though this prose is close to a reportage, the author applied to it the form of the novel in order to strengthen its tenor: “the novelistic devices seem to fit this document’s tenor so tightly that, at first, they seem invisible.”23 These devices are: the narrator’s stance which is characteristic of the realist novel (sparse author’s commentary), “traces of direct glossing typical of the reportage style,”24 moderation in the expression ←25 | 26→of emotions, and rhythm. “Dymy nad Birkenau is and shall remain a characteristic testament to the attitude to the world, which constitutes the foundation of realistic justice in art.”25

Analyzing examples of postwar prose – Adolf Rudnicki’s cycle of short stories, Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Noc [The Night], or Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions – Wyka emphasizes the characteristics which later became model features of texts taking up the Holocaust subject matter. In Rudnicki’s case, those were the “function of solidary memory” and the need to reckon with one’s own literary technique, while in Nałkowska’s case those were: the category of tact and discretion and abstaining from direct contact with the cruelty and evil presented. Finally, in Andrzejewski’s case, Wyka emphasizes the topic’s gravity for the internal dynamic of the development of his literary output: the topic called for modifications of one’s own writing. This theme is timely not only there where the author modifies his own writing technique, but also there where a non-writer takes up writing under the influence of his experiences – a very frequent motif in Holocaust literature. The reflections included in Pogranicze powieści are topped with the statement: “and the frontier of the novel persists,”26 which can serve as the starting point for a presentation of Polish literature on the Holocaust.


Holocaust literature – defined as any attempt to apply the literary form to this experience which defies description – begins to pose a research problem the moment it is subjected to any classification. For even singling out – generally speaking – the ‘Holocaust literature’ (from all other kinds of literature) encounters fundamental obstacles: beginning with an attempt to specify the time frame and ending with its internal ordering with the use of clear criteria (for instance, the criterion of the genre). Questions arise when one tries to determine the internal taxonomy of this literature with regard to both its content (should one include all works which in any way discuss the Holocaust? – this is the ideal assumption, which, unfortunately, cannot be realized) and the form (the blurring of the boundaries between genres under the pressure of documentariness).

Moreover, the increasing time distance between today and the events of the Second World War brings and shall continue to bring more literary attempts to face this subject matter. However, they shall be made not by the direct participants ←26 | 27→or witnesses, but by the subsequent generations, which also wish to speak out. And then the questions which this literature will be asked will concern not only the classification of the works produced or the esthetics (appropriateness) but also – or even predominantly – ethics.

Coming back to the issue of the ordering of the material – be it in the form of an (imaginary) dictionary or a (possible) synthesis – when one responds to such challenges it seems reasonable to formulate basic questions, for instance, what is Holocaust literature? What constitutes it? Where does it belong and how does it evolve? Should it be read as a literary genre about death, war, cruelty, and trauma? Can the sheer volume of this literature be compared to the responses to other Jewish catastrophes? Should it be measured in its own categories? Does it require new interpretation tools?27

This index of doubts can be broadened to include detailed topics, such as the criteria for defining the individual types of this literature mentioned at the beginning of these reflections. Hence, where is the line dividing the novelistic narration, on the one hand, and a recollection or autobiographic prose, on the other hand? Can literature produced by those doomed to extermination and that penned by those who only witnessed their lot coexist here on equal terms? Can the works by authors from the second or third generation be included here, and if so, then on what terms? Does Holocaust literature encompass texts written by those who feel heirs to the Holocaust experience only on the basis of their empathic attitude to reality but are not entangled in their families’ memories of the ‘epoch of furnaces’?

In the order of these preliminary findings fits the issue of the fluidity of the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, between the accounts recorded on the spot and those produced after some time, with the participants’ or witnesses’ authorization. Should works which are a parable of the lot of those doomed to extermination be included in the canon of the works on Shoah? Should one include the testaments to the survivors’ guilt? If one decides to order this material not according to an alphabetical index of the authors’ names but according to the genre variants of this literature and within these variants according to the tropes and themes, the certain ‘constant variables’ which determine the direction of reading, then how should one approach, for instance, the various literary ←27 | 28→forms used by the same author who sometimes uses literary fiction, while at other times appears as author of a personal document or fictionalized recollection?

These issues are still timely, and they encourage current decisions, compromises, and arbitrary judgments. It must be stressed, however, that they have been appearing on the boundary between narrative prose and personal document because the game for the border zone is played by precisely these two spheres of literature.

To a certain extent, points according to which the act of reading can be ordered, which we have mentioned and which can be distinguished, belong to issues such as (to list only the most important ones): the anticipation of Holocaust events, which can be gaged from some of the prewar works; exclusion in the existential and topographic dimension; life in hiding; objectification; and the limits of humanity. In the literature produced immediately after the war, one can observe the following recurring motifs: the sense of guilt, the sense of the randomness of one’s survival, uprooting, problems with defining one’s identity, and memory. A separate canon of topics is marked out by the questions addressed to literature or – more broadly speaking – the written word. Here situated are all the doubts concerning the ability (or actually inability) to depict a limit experience, the appropriateness of using specific literary procedures, the blurring of the boundaries between genres, and, finally, the constatation that the area of literature is being broadened by all kinds of personal documents and testimonies.

The methodological complications are also caused by the fact that this topic belongs at the same time to the order of history (and also psychology and sociology) and to the order of contemporariness, when we talk about a specific individual who experienced the Holocaust. As a consequence of the discrepancies between individual and historical memory, here also arises the question about the primacy of either of the two. The problem of sources’ credibility is discussed by historians, and the reflection concerns the gravity of the text produced on the go or ex-post. In the latter case, there inevitably appears the time and emotional distance. The undeniable special potency of the testimonies produced in the midst of the events which constitute a personal document can be contrasted with the credibility of a generalization made years later, sometimes marked with an aspiration to explain the events and experiences.

The accusations against a narration which gives meaning and a logical quality to the Holocaust experience, a narration which orders the seemingly random events into a narrative that has a beginning and an end can paralyze all attempts at metaliterary reflection, which are characterized by a tendency to synthesize and search for (or even construct) meanings. Imre Kertész warns us that the ←28 | 29→more we emphasize the irrational character of what happened at Auschwitz, the further we push it away from ourselves, the less we can or even want to understand, because we have concluded that this defies understanding.28 Elsewhere, Kertész adds: “This is the reason why it appears to be ever more intelligible, the more people talk about it.”29 Consequently, this is another issue which should be included in the register of unsolvable problems, both on the level of literature and the reflection on it.

A basic characteristic of literature devoted to the Holocaust is its moral markedness; stronger than in the case of any other area of literature. Berel Lang stresses that the very act of writing about this event is ethically burdened – be it fictionalized, discursive, or, finally, scholarly; in short, the act of writing as such. Moral judgment constitutes the axis of this literature instead of being situated ‘outside’ of it: in the sphere of intentions and conclusions. In line with Lang’s diagnosis, the most essential and valuable literature about Shoah assumes the form of a historical discourse instead of prose, drama, or poetry. For this discourse realizes the ideal of truth and realism. Historical literature, defined as any kind of document that constitutes a source of discovering the truth about those events, sometimes also becomes the basis for strictly literary presentations of this topic. Hence, in this case literature is indebted to history.

With the point of gravity shifted to the literature of testimony, where the author’s participation in the events presented constitutes a guarantee of truthfulness, all other attempts to present the Holocaust seem suspicious. Berel Lang argues that

aside the great trust that figurative literature on the Nazi genocide puts in the literary forms, which clearly evoke historical conventions (diaries, memoirs), the strategies used in the more traditional forms and genres of literature (the novel, poetry, and drama) also reflect this tendency.30

According to Lang, the said literary means encompass a revision of the literary forms’ conventions in the direction of the historical discourse: the authors’ commentary both within and without the framework of the text, the confirmation of the fiction’s historical bases, and the assumptions present in the text concerning ←29 | 30→both specific historical knowledge and the moral point of view on the part of the prospective reader.31 Means of this type seem to have only one objective: they are a carrier of the authority – and presumably realness – of historical truth.32

The hope for truth pinned on the literature devoted to the Holocaust, or perhaps not so much hope as a demand for it, inspires suspicion toward any ‘literariness’ of the record that suggests itself. Let us bear in mind Elie Wiesel’s vote of non-confidence for the expression ‘Holocaust literature:’ “There is no such a thing as a literature of the Holocaust literature, nor can there be. The very expression is a contradiction in terms. Auschwitz negates any form of literature, as it defies all systems, all doctrines […]. A novel about Auschwitz is not a novel or it is not about Auschwitz. The very attempt to write such a novel is a sacrilege.”33 Acknowledging that this statement is rhetoric, one should at the same time realize the consequences of such an outlook on this problem in relation to the theory of literature which undertakes to examine and describe all forms of Holocaust records. According to Lang, the categories typically used in literary analysis, such as genre, point of view, tropes, and figures of speech, have both a moral and stylistic significance. In other words, the scholar’s methodological decision is also morally burdened. The act of writing is not free of these connotations either. The knowledge of what happened after the stories told, of the consequences of the events described, constitutes a framework for the act of reading, intensifying the text’s historical statements through the contrast between randomness of the events represented and the inevitability of their outcome.34

Lang claims that, because literary representation is an intermediary between the topic and the reader, the process of the representation becomes morally responsible for the consequences which it can have for these two parties; and the reflection on figurative literature on the Nazi genocide is an important reflection on these relations.35 At the same time Lang indicates the point of gravity and the direction of the development of the literary and critical reflection on the subject matter of the Holocaust.

←30 | 31→

Consequently, one should yet again stress the significance of the act of reading Holocaust literature. And even though it is obvious that literature cannot exist without readers, in this case the issue of the reception becomes no less important than the act of writing. So, how should one read literature about Shoah? Answers to this question belong to both the historical and literary theory, on the one hand, and – generally speaking – the ethical order, on the other hand. Pondering on the essence of the reflection on Holocaust literature, Alvin H. Rosenfeld states:

we lack a phenomenology of reading Holocaust literature, a series of maps that will guide us on our way as we pick up and variously try to comprehend the writings of the victims, the survivors, thee survivors-who-become-victims, and the kinds-of-survivors, those who were never there but know more than the outlines of the place. Until we devise such maps, our understanding of Holocaust literature will be only partial, well below that which belongs to full knowledge.36

So, how can the study of literature which examines this issue develop? Is it possible that it will not introduce ever new interpretative tools? That it will not draw from the new currents of critical reflection, such as feminist, post-colonial, or gender studies criticism? But no matter what attempts at analysis or interpretation the Holocaust literature is subjected to, the category of appropriateness applied to literary realizations of this topic seems to be justified also in the case of literary studies. Particularly because certain areas of the limit experience, and consequently, also the relevant literature are tabooed for various reasons, predominantly out of respect for the victims. The discussion about whether this is good or bad is yet another of the unsolved problems characteristic of this area.

Dorota Krawczyńska

←31 | 32→←32 | 33→

1 J. Sławiński, “Zaproszenie do tematu,” in Literatura wobec wojny i okupacji. Studia, ed. M. Głowiński, J. Sławiński (Wrocław, 1976).

2 Ibid., p. 9.

3 J. Jarzębski, Powieść jako autokreacja (Cracow, 1984).

4 J. Sławiński, “Zaproszenie do tematu,” p. 13.

5 Ibid., p. 10.

6 Qtd. After Z. Nałkowska, Tajemnice krwi, in Opowiadania (Warsaw, 1984), p. 209.

7 T. Borowski, K. Olszewski, J. Nel-Siedlecki, We Were in Auschwitz (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000).

8 P. Lejeune, On autobiography, trans. K. Leary (Minneapolis, 1989).

9 S. J. Schmidt, “O pisaniu historii literatury. Kilka uwag ze stanowiska konstruktywistycznego,” in Współczesna teoria badań literackich za granicą. Antologia, vol. 4, part 2, Literatura jako produkcja i ideologia. Poststrukturalizm. Badanie intertekstualne. Problemy syntezy historycznoliterackiej, ed. H. Markiewicz (Cracow, 1992), p. 399.

10 T. Burek, “Problemy wojny, rewolucji i niepodległości w zwierciadle prozy narracyjnej,” in Literatura polska 1918–1975, vol. 1, 1918–1932, ed. A. Brodzka, H. Zaworska, S. Żółkiewski (Warsaw, 1991), p. 462.

11 Ibid.

12 A. Brodzka, “Narracje o historii,” in Literatura polska 1918–1975, vol. 2, 1933–1944, ed. A. Brodzka, S. Żółkiewski (Warsaw, 1993), p. 542.

13 Ibid., p. 543.

14 See H. Markiewicz, Polskie teorie powieści. Od początków do schyłku XX wieku (Warsaw, 1998).

15 Cz. Miłosz, Legendy nowoczesności. Eseje okupacyjne (Cracow, 1996), pp. 2–4 [English edition: Legends of Modernity (New York, 2006)].

16 Ibid., p. 161.

17 Ibid., pp. 176–177.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (June)
Holocaust Polish Literature History Testimonies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 770 pp.

Biographical notes

Sławomir Buryła (Author) Dorota Krawczyńska (Author) Jacek Leociak (Author)

Jacek Leociak is Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences and author of many monographs about Holocaust literature. Sławomir Buryła is Professor at the University of Warsaw and specialist in Polish prose from the Second World War. Dorota Krawczyńska is Doctor at the Polish Academy of Sciences and Head of its publishing house.


Title: Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968)
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772 pages