Ramblings on reading, Polish history, the Republic of Biafra, and annoying men. Bear with me.

“I only read books that are at least a hundred years old.” I was told recently(ish) in a conversation. If a book is this old and is still read, discussed, and referred to, it must be good. Decades of vetting and peer-review, my interlocutor seemed to think, stamped a seal of approval on it canonized its wisdom. All those decades passed, all these people read that book and agreed, for your exclusive benefit and edification: this book is fit for you to read.

My first reflex was to try to find arguments as to why only reading old books is a terrible idea. And that in itself was a bad idea, because it would be utterly futile. Only someone who doesn’t really like reading could have come up with such nonsense. Someone for whom reading is not a way to engage with the world and other people but who sees it as a badge, a mark of status that is paraded in front of an imaginary audience that will be duly impressed with the reader’s sophistication. I don’t actually think that guy read books at all (yes, of course it was a guy).

I had a similar conviction at the age of ten. It was partly adolescent self-importance and partly the limited catalogue of my local public library in rural Poland: the older books were usually classics and the newer ones were genre literature, romance and action novels, which I despised with the arrogance of a fourth-grader. If Korzeńsko Public Library had remained the only institution of that kind I ever visited, perhaps my taste would have remained where it was then. Thankfully, I have been more fortunate.

Half a Yellow Sunby Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would probably pass the muster of my smug ten-year-old self: it is an instant classic in the form of a sweeping historical novel. Calling it a historical novel might seem to flatten and diminish its range and impact with a label of a genre, but I think it does something else: it elevates the genre. It is an intimate history of the Republic of Biafra as told through the eyes of three very different characters: an intellectual and a mother, a young servant boy, and an Englishman in love with an Igbo woman.

The intricacies of the ethnic and political conflict of the 1960s Nigeria rarely made it to the headlines in the global North. It was the images of skeletal children with hunger-swollen bellies that often did. The Biafran hunger crisis, caused by the Nigerian blockade, elicited compassion and a flood of aid from the ‘civilized’ world in ways that defined and shaped modern concepts of humanitarian intervention and humanitarian aid. And so, the image of the white savior took on its modern guise.

Richard, the Englishman whose voice the author uses, has too much self-awareness to be a white savior. He remains in Biafra after the war breaks out and offers his services to the government of the republic, painfully aware of his position as a white man in decolonized West Africa. Travelling through the war-torn country, he meets another European, a Swedish aristocrat, a noble, selfless figure. The elderly Swede flies his shabby plane behind the enemy lines to provide relief to starving Biafrans. Richard is very impressed and full of admiration. He finds out that the count did the same thing in Warsaw during the Second World War, to relieve the Jews trapped in the ghetto.

Reader, I groaned. There was no Swedish aristocrat dropping food packages on the Warsaw ghetto. There was not even a sliver of a possibility that such a thing ever happened. In 1943, when the last of Warsaw’s Jews were sent to their deaths and the ghetto was razed to the ground, Warsaw was deep within the German zone of occupation: the Allied planes did not have aircrafts with the range necessary to reach Warsaw, and in any case, the accuracy needed to drop anything on the tiny area of the ghetto would be superhuman. In 1944, the second front was opened in Normandy and the Allies were pressing towards Berlin; the Soviets reached the Vistula and could have aided Warsaw if they wanted to. They didn’t and certainly had no interest in tolerating an eccentric foreign count flying aid missions from their territory.

What happened here was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie conflating the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 with the uprising of the Polish resistance 1944 uprising. The ghetto uprising of 1943 was a desperate effort of Warsaw’s Jews to preserve their dignity in the face of the inevitable annihilation. The 1944 uprising was an attempt by the Polish resistance to grasp control over the city from German hands before the Soviets could march in and impose their order (the Soviets watched the Nazis drown the city in blood from across the river until resistance fizzled). It was in 1944 that the Allies dropped aid for the insurgents, flying what amounted to suicide missions from Sicily. That these two very different instances of armed resistance against Nazi Germany are frequently conflated is a source of perpetual chagrin in Poland. Exasperation caused by ignorance is often understandable, as in the case of “Polish concentration camps” used persistently by Anglophone press (it is a different issue whether Poland is right to criminalize any doubts on the subject of the entire Polish nation’s heroic conduct during German occupation).

There is one more possible source for that character in Half a Yellow Sun: there definitely was at least one European flying an aircraft for the Republic of Biafra. Jan Zumbach, a former Polish RAF pilot, bombed Nigerian positions. He had left Poland when Nazi Germany invaded in 1939, found his way into France and then the United Kingdom and joined a Polish fighter squadron under British command. He became a mercenary after the war ended, a man of unclear allegiances that probably led to his death in murky circumstances in 1986 in France. He was certainly not an unblemished humanitarian, and all the more interesting for that.

But Half a Yellow Sunis not a novel about Zumbach or Warsaw’s wartime history (I allowed myself to get distracted by a tiny inconsequential detail with no influence on the plot of the novel because there is a distinct, indisputable pleasure in being right about things people get wrong; perhaps that smug ten-year-old is not gone after all). It’s not a novel about Richard the Englishman either. The way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reveals whose voice truly delivers the story of the doomed republic and its people is one of the marks of this book’s brilliance.

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The Peasant

„This is why I write history from the viewpoint of human rights”, says Daniel Beauvois in his book on Polish nobility in Right-Bank Ukraine. While Russian officials attempt to disown the stiff-necked Polish nobles, both parties agree on exploiting the labor and denying rights to those working the land. Beavois describes how the struggle for the land between Polish landowners and Russian state apparatus, “despite its national and political importance, was a tiny war in the midst of an ocean of human misery”. The peasants in question, perhaps not yet seeing themselves as Ukrainian but decidedly distinct from the Polish landowners and Russian administrators, defied the constraints imposed on them until their world was swept away by war and revolution.

This book could not have been written by a Polish historian. Beauvois’ writing is at odds with the collective Polish image of the lost Eastern borderland as an Arcadian space of harmony, presided over by the benevolent Polish nobleman whose homestead was the stronghold of Polish nationhood and of higher culture on the threshold of Asiatic Russian empire. Peasants do not feature in this idyllic picture at all.

The omission of the Ukrainian peasant from the mental landscape of Polish past is not terribly surprising in a nationally divided history. But the Polish peasant does not fare any better. Peasants are almost completely absent from the narrative of Polish struggle for freedom and independence which dominates the popular and official version of Polish history. The 1794 Kościuszko insurrection is the one notable exception, but that episode is only included in the narrative in its toned-down version, its social radicalism defanged and erased. The Polish peasant is only notable in the uprising of 1830 and 1863 by his absence. They were not his fights. Crucially, the broad masses of ethnically Polish peasants play no role in the miracle of 1918 when Poland comes back from the dead.

When they do appear, it is as a subject of reproach: they lacked national consciousness, they did not support those fighting for their freedom from foreign oppression, their stolidity and conservatism was an obstacle for real progress for Poland. Peasants are a constant disappointment to the exasperated Polish inteligent, beaurocrat, and politician. Time and again, they betray Polish nationhood. They fail the Polish national idea. This disappointment is rooted in the assumption that they indeed owed something to the national idea, the charge of betrayal – that this is where their loyalty was supposed to be. And yet, why would they owe anything to the national idea? The bearers of that idea were the pauperized heirs of the very landowners whose livelihoods were based on the peasants’ forced labor. The national idea held no attraction to them. It only demanded their loyalty.

The frustration with peasants lingers in historiography to this day, in curious ways. They are never what historians want them to be. I recently sat through a panel discussion of two prominent Ukrainian historians and a guest from Poland (all men, including the moderator, but that’s a different subject) about memory of the traumas of the twentieth century and all those charges rang through their arguments again, exasperatingly. I found a pet peeve. Not that I lack those.

What remains, I suppose, is to follow Daniel Beauvois’ lead and try to write history from the viewpoint of human rights. The tired cliché of giving the voiceless their voice back springs to mind. But the peasant masses never lost theirs and were never shy about using it. They made their opinions known, time and again. Eastern Europe has a long history of peasant rebellions; the most recent one in Poland was the Great Agrarian Strike of 1937: millions participated. Peasants are not an inscrutable force locked in a magical mindset of semi-pagan superstition. They have their voice.

A Sailor’s Life

Joseph Conrad was a miserable man. His whole life, he was plagued by ill health and sickly constitution. A shadow of depression hung over him, the illness flaring up occasionally. One of the depressive episodes, when he was jobless, alone, and broke in Marseilles at twenty, pushed him to put a gun to his chest and pull the trigger. He missed the heart entirely. The whole thing left him with a hole in his chest and a sharp letter from his uncle and guardian. The uncle berated him for his stupidity, but sent some money his way anyway.

He spent decades at sea, and mostly under sails, at the time when they were being pushed out by steam. An experienced sailor, he took positions he was overqualified for, and only captained his own ship once. He had hard time finding work on the high seas, and, in a tight spot, accepted an assignment on a steamship going up the Congo in 1890. He broke off the three-year-contract after five months and returned to London, sick, weary, and depressed again.

Writing her wonderful portrait of the ailing sailor turned literary giant, Maya Jasanoff follows in his footsteps on the high seas, and then up the Congo River, where Conrad found the “heart of darkness”. She boards a French cargo ship (it was the French merchant navy where Conrad started his maritime career), crosses the Indian Ocean, stops over in Singapore, Conrad’s “city in the East”, then sails around the Horn of Africa through pirate-infested waters and then through the Suez Canal. Her journey through Africa itself begins onboard of a plane though, and then a shabby taxi in Kinshasa. Only then she boards a barge and sails up the same dark river that Conrad journeyed on over a century earlier.

Jasanoff does not find the darkness that he did in what was for him an alien world. It is this portrayal of Africa as fundamentally alien Africans as mute and object-like that earned Conrad the ferocious criticism in the age of postcolonialism. She doesn’t defend him but notes that what he saw was seen with a white man’s eyes. His contemporaries assumed that he meant that it is Africa itself that pollutes the white humanity, that poisons civilization and drags it down to its own level. The savages were not the victims, but the perpetrator of the white men’s brutality, they thought. Conrad disagreed vehemently. Yes, the pile of black limbs, not differentiated in his eyes, is dehumanized and nameless, but he is quite clear on who the true savages are. They don’t carry spears in their hands or trinkets around their necks. They wear white suits and pith helmets. The savagery of the colonial scramble is of their making and not induced by inhuman surroundings: they themselves made the surroundings inhuman.

Colonial exploitation is in this book a facet of increasing global interconnectedness. If the ongoing explosion of information technologies defines our connections with the rest of the globe, in Conrad’s time it was the steam engine. The world grew smaller so suddenly, and stuffier, and more crowded, and the white spaces on the map disappeared and sprung up names. All in his lifetime. The Americans meddled, and their rise to the status of a global superpower was facilitated by these changes: suddenly it was so much easier. An age of a new kind of exploitation started, a different sort of dominion not defined by direct colonial power but resting on the same principles of material and financial exploitation. The American way, as it were.

This is a book for our modernity, looking for its roots in Conrad’s own modernity. What of the man himself though? From Russian-ruled Ukraine to literary salons on both sides of the Atlantic: this seems to be an extraordinary transformation. But the word itself suggests a linear, final, and ultimately an unsatisfying explanation of the multiplicity of guises that Conrad took on throughout his life.

Are his guises really so far apart? Is the “Russian arictocrat” really so far away from the rugged captain of the Otago, or from the grumpy novelist settled in the English countryside? Is English prose really this far from florid Polish romanticism? Identity is what people think of us, and the context of these interactions always changes, always evolves, as did Conrad and the personal world he carved out for himself.

All these guises of the man were not that far from one another: the gap that we think must be there is delusive. There is no gap that needs to be bridged in order to create a . He is all these things at once, and they are not incongruous. He is made possible by the globalizing world. In that sense, he is a thoroughly modern man.

The Child Soldiers of Poland

I spent most of a Wednesday afternoon a couple months ago reading the Polish fighters’ accounts of November 1918, when a handful of schoolboys and former Austrian officers fought off the Ukrainian attempt at controlling the city of Lwów. Their valour in Novermber 1918, then in the struggle against the Ukrainian Republic’s forces in 1919, and the subsequent Bolshevik threat in 1920 earned Lwów a very special place in Polish patriotic mythology. It was the intrepid fortress in the East, selfless and heroic, the rampart of Christianity and Polishness, withstanding the onslaught of the barbarian Ukrainians and the godless Bolsheviks. It sacrificed what it held most dear: the blood of its children stained the cobblestones.

The “defence of Lwów” was the starting point of Polish patriotic fascination with child soldiers. When Ukrainian units took over strategic points in the city, spontaneous Polish defence gathered: former Austrian officers, respectable middle-aged burghers, schoolboys. Sixteen-year-old fighters were a common sight on the barricades of the city.

Younger boys also volunteered. The most famous of those was Jurek Bitchan, a working-class fourteen-year-old. He fell fighting on the Lychakiv Cemetery, where his grave is now marked by a striking stylized cross. August Sobociński, himself seventeen, strictly forbade his younger brother, a fifteen-year-old, from following him when he snuck out of his boarding school to join the fighters.[1] Feliks R., another schoolboy, watched a close friend die: together they had snuck out of their school too. Roman Kwiatkowski writes of a fallen volunteer whose body he saw in the Jesuit Gardens (now Franko Park): “young, twelve-year-old boy, skinny, in shabby clothes, with a smile on his face and a bullet in his heart, and just next to this fiery patriotic heart a wild rose bloomed again, so late in the year. Warmed by the blood of the young heart, its flowered over the head of the child hero”. [2]

The struggle was so important that it justified inversion in the proper order of the world: women also volunteered, just as children did. In the last days of November, Gazeta Lwowska carried the obituary of the twenty-one-year-old Felicja Sulimirska and announced public services mourning her young life in the Latin Cathedral. Sulimirska fell by a Ukrainian bullet while carrying messages for the Polish defenders.

The lives of women and children, schoolboys and young ladies from respectable households were the ultimate sacrifice for the ultimate cause: Poland’s freedom. The cause so noble, so sacred that anything was justified in its service. In turn, the sacrifice itself, so tragic and enormous, elevated and hallowed the struggle. And in the end, it was all rewarded: Poland was at last resurrected. And so, even as the city’s importance in the new republic waned, its legend grew, together with the cult of its underage defendants. The Lwów Eaglets Cemetary, nicknamed so after them, provided the ‘Unnamed Soldier’ for the national monument in Warsaw. A provincial city, its glory days long over, could now puff up its self-importance with the legend of its children’s sacrifice.

The commemoration of the Warsaw uprising of August 1944 continues the theme. Even though children were explicitly forbidden to participate in hostilities against the occupying Nazi forces, teenage boys, especially scouts, were an important element of the Polish Home Army units. Children, sometimes as young as eight, served in auxiliary capacity as lookouts or couriers. After the war, these youngsters were given their own monument. The Warsaw monument of the Little Insurgent is the most famous and, some would say, the most morbid manifestation of this current in Polish patriotic mythology. The sculpture of a little boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, bears a German helmet and clutches a machine gun in his tiny hands.

The children of Lwów paved the way for the apotheosis of Warsaw’s children, and their stories played a role in a national coping mechanism. The patriotism of these children and of those who immortalized them is the patriotism of the nineteenth century when Poland, enslaved by the three neighboring powers, suffered as the “Christ of Nations”, a figure born of brooding Romantic ideals and fervent Catholic faith. Poland’s messianic role was, for Poland’s elites, a way of making sense of the century of political repression, failed rebellions, blood loss, and degradation. The twentieth century democratized the loss and the ideology: the masses suffered to an unprecedented degree, and the need for a way out of the trauma was so much greater. The most unspeakable loss, that of one’s children, was translated into a cult of child soldiers, willingly dying on the altar of the Fatherland. Perhaps a sacrifice is easier to bear than a child’s senseless death.

 

Maybe this explains the patriotism of the ultimate sacrifice, where living to fight another day is cowardice and dying for the Fatherland – the expectation; even children did it, so there is no excuse for anyone. Perhaps the glorification of Poland’s child soldiers is a crucial part of the national coping mechanism, more than a century old, but still alive in so many ways. It would explain so much. But would the trauma or the sacrifice be disrespected if we tried to define the national community in terms different than collective suffering? For so many people in contemporary Poland the answer is yes, and their conviction is ferocious.

 

[1] TsDIAUL Fond 837, op. 1, spr. 71, ark. 44 – 45, August Sobociński, undated, 1930s [probably 1935 or later].

[2] TsDIAUL Fond 837, op. 1, spr. 71, ark. 59 – 65, “Ze wspomnień”, Feliks R. Bursa, December 1918 and January 1919. [but submitted in mid-1930s].

Zasuwka

W Warszawie od poniedziałku. Archiwum Akt Nowych, w odróżnieniu od obu urokliwych, acz przestarzałych, archiwów lwowskich, które przez dziesięciolecia funkcjonują już w budynkach byłych klasztorów, mieści się w budynku z lat pięćdziesiątych, zajmowanych wcześniej przez Bibliotekę Narodową. PRL-owski modernizm jak się patrzy.

Znalazłam dziś w tekach Tymczasowego Komitetu Rządzącego we Lwowie zeznania nijakiego Dr. Karola Zagajewskiego, o okresie rządów ukraińskich w mieście w listopadzie 1918. Dr Zagajewski opowiada, jak to “młody, przystojny żołnierz ukraiński […] utrzymywał porządek w hali targowej na pl. Halickim. Publiczność nieustannie terroryzował browningiem. Straszenie bab widocznie mu sprawiało wielką satysfakcję”.

Prawie stulecie potem Adam Zagajewski napisze o dziadku wiersz.

Mój dziadek prowadził lektorat z niemieckiego

na lwowskim uniwersytecie — o ósmej rano.

Wielu studentów spóźniało się.

Dziadek Karol, zwolennik dyscypliny,

przykręcił do futryny drzwi zasuwkę

i minutę po ósmej sala była hermetycznie zamknięta

A oni spali, spali długo, szczęśliwie,

nie wiedząc że to miasto przestanie istnieć

razem z zasuwką, że wszystko się skończy,

że będą wywózki i egzekucje, i płacz,

i że ta zasuwka stanie się kiedyś

idyllicznym wspomnieniem,

broszką z Herculanum,

skarbem.

 

Shame

Independence Day, 99th anniversary of Poland rising from the smoke and ruin of the Great War. Tens of thousands people marched in Warsaw this Saturday to celebrate it, patriots, they called themselves. They bore banners and chanted slogans: “Poland for Poles”, “Europe Will Be White Or Deserted”, “Pure Blood and Sober Mind”. During the mass that inaugurated the march, a woman unfurled a banner quoting the Polish pope John Paul II: “Racism is Sin”. She was assaulted and dragged out of the church. The priest, mid-sermon, did not flinch.