Building the Barricades
Anna Swirszczynska ‘Swir’
Selections (click on title to hear)
We were afraid as we built the barricade
The tavern-keeper, the jeweler’s mistress, the barber,
all of us cowards.
The servant-girl fell to the ground
as she lugged a paving-stone, we were terribly afraid
all of us cowards –
the janitor, the market-woman, the pensioner.
The pharmacist fell to the ground
as he dragged the door of a toilet,
we were even more afraid, the smuggler-woman,
the dressmaker, the streetcar driver,
all of us cowards.
A kid from reform school fell
as he dragged a sandbag,
you see we were really
Though no one forced us,
we did build the barricade
In the morning when he began setting
the bottles of gasoline in the gateway,
the janitor swore like mad.
stuck his tongue all the way out at him.
In the evening the soldiers brought him back,
he had set a tank on fire.
Now the janitor swore more softly as he dug a small hole
in the yard for that brat.
Said the Major
(in memory of Anna Ratynska)
“The order must be delivered within the hour,”
said the major.
“That’s impossible, it’s hell out there,”
said the second lieutenant.
Five runner-girls set out,
one got through.
The order was delivered within the hour.
The sweethearts were dying
buried in the rubble of the cellar.
When there was no more air
forgot to come
who gave who
the last drop of air.
They’ve stopped shooting, lieutenant,
give me a grenade, I’ll go first,
I’m the smallest, they won’t spot me,
I’ll move like a cat on it’s belly, give me a grenade.
Like a cat on its belly, through the puddle,
a grenade in my hand, slowly, very slowly,
my heart pounding so hard they might hear it,
help me, God, slowly, very slowly,
like a cat on its belly, closer, closer,
oh God, even closer, even closer,
now pull the pin, leap.
She leaped. The Germans
let loose with a burst.
Those were not German planes,
they were bringing help,
we could not believe our eyes,
but there were fewer and fewer living eyes left.
of antiaircraft bursts
those were not German planes.
We lifted up our hands,
with our hands
we tried to shield from death
the planes that were not German.
My fear grows more powerful
I am as powerful
as a second of fear
I am a universe of fear
I am standing at the wall
and don’t know whether to close my eyes
or not close them.
I am standing at the wall waiting to be shot.
For a split second
we look each other in the eye.
When the split second passes
you will shoot at me.
It’s hard to die
it’s hard to kill
there is fear in my eyes
there is fear in your eyes
you are killing these two fears
He is going into captivity as if bearing
the bodies of his lads who’ve been killed.
He repeats in a whisper, repeats endlessly
their eighteen-year-old names,
he sees the eyes of their mothers, they are looking at him.
“Your son was killed defending the barricade
that’s no longer there, defending the house
that’s now disintegrated into rubble, into fine sand.
Your son was killed defending the street
that’s ceased to exist.
For those bricks, for that rubble, for that sand
they gave their living bodies.
I led them to their death
and I am alive.”
The Germans are saying: Hurry up, lieutenant,
hurry up into captivity.
But he can’t move any faster, he’s bearing
the bodies of his lads.
“The Warsaw Uprising was one of the most tragic events of World War II. The destruction it brought to a city of more than a million people can only be compared to the destruction visited on Hiroshima. Warsaw was transformed into a wasteland filled with corpses, ruins and smouldering ashes. That part of the population which survived the inferno was driven out and deported to various concentration camps. After the capitulation, German soldiers systematically burned and dynamited the remaining buildings. Himmler said: “Warsaw must be levelled to the ground, in order to set a deterring example for the whole of Europe.”
The priceless cultural heritage that had been accumulated in Warsaw over the centuries by countless generations of Poles was completely destroyed. The splendid palaces, the Castle of the Polish Kings, the historic churches, the rich collections of art, the museums, the libraries – all were turned into ashes and rubble. The flower of the young intelligentsia, who had been raised in a romantic love of freedom, perished. So did thousands of heroic children, the world’s youngest soldiers at twelve and thirteen: with unexampled courage they threw themselves at the tanks, gasoline bombs in hand, and carried dispatches under a hail of bullets. The German army that fought the insurrectionists was very well-equipped; it had bombers, tanks, self-propelled guns and flame-throwers. The insurrectionists had few weapons, limited mainly to pistols and grenades. People for whom even these weapons were in short supply often took them from the enemy with their bare hands. The insurrectionists suffered from hunger and cold; they had no medicines nor bandages. Despite everything, they fought heroically, in the belief that fervor and self-sacrifice would make up for the overwhelming strength of the enemy.
Life in Warsaw during the Uprising had the quality of a nightmare. The city was deprived of water, electricity, gas and food supplies. The sewer system was largely unoperative. Hospitals lacked medicines of pure water. German bombers rampaged over the city day and night, burying the living beneath the rubble. People sought shelter from the air raid in basements, but found no safety even there: the Germans dragged them out and conducted mass executions – of men, women and children. The Nazi tanks that rolled through the streets spread death and destruction. The insurrectionists and the population at large tried to defend themselves by building barricades. Everyone joined in this undertaking, regardless of age and sex. People did not sleep, eat or wash for days on end. No one knew whether he would be alive five minutes later. Corpses lay about in the streets, and the stench of rotting bodies rose from the ruins. Despite these horrible conditions, the city put up a heroic struggle for sixty-three days. The insurrectionists and the population at large displayed an extraordinary moral courage. But faced with the lack of food, weapons and ammunition, Warsaw finally had to surrender.”
(translated by Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire)
Not all wars are fought by soldiers. Some of the most heroic battles of the last century were fought street by street, doorway by doorway, rice field by rice field; were fought by ordinary civilians who found they could no longer bear the tyranny of occupying forces, and chose to take arms against them, knowing full well that the odds were impossible, that defeat was almost certain. These were people who chose to reassert themselves in the face of oppression, and the cost of their rebellion was measured out in the lives of the innocent.
I first heard of Anna Swirszczynska in an essay by Milosz. Writing about the reaction to World War II and the destruction it caused to Poland in Polish literature, Milosz praised Swirszczynska to the skies, extolling her book Building the Barricades (Budowalam Barykade) as one of the finest literary responses to the horror of those days .
It’s not hard to see why. These poems, exquisite and deeply moving taken individually, form a collection that is an authentic masterwork of the last century – one now tragically overlooked (as I write this, no copies of Building the Barricades are availabe on Amazon, or anywhere else that I can find).
There are many reasons why these are incredible poems. There’s the honesty, for one thing. Like many of the other poems we’ve featured in this theme, these poems give you the authentic sense of lived experience, show you vividly what it was like to be there . Nothing is abstract here, nothing is imagined or metaphorical – indeed, the book as a whole reads like a furiously edited documentary, a collage of heart-rending vignettes put together by deft hands. Married to this is Swirszczynska’s eye for detail, her ability to unerringly pick the one scene that will tell it all, her talent for telling us just enough so that the picture comes alive, and leaving it to us to imagine the rest. (In one of the other poems – They were Twelve Years Old – Swirszczynska writes: “Two of them went to disarm an M.P. / one threw sand in his eyes, the other / lunged after the pistol in his holster./Only one returned that evening to his mamma with the pistol”). Then there’s the sheer range of the poems – the way Swirszczynska shifts effortlessly between the prosaic and the lyrical, between the human and the heroic, making you laugh and cry at the same time. But most of all, there’s the incredible sense of simplicity in her narratives, the vision of ordinary people somehow continuing to be their ordinary selves even as they perform extraordinary acts. Swirszczynska’s great insight is that heroes, at the end of the day, are people too. They have their frailties, their weaknesses. Their hopes are childish, their pride sentimental, their loves banal; they are frequently silly, often afraid. Yet it is such stuff from which the human barricade is fashioned, it is such stuff of which the resistance to tyranny is made.
 Milosz is also co-translator of a book of Swirszczynska’s later poems, Talking to my Body (Copper Canyon, 1996)
 Swirszczynska did, in fact, live through the Warsaw Uprising. At one point, in fact, she was arrested and awaited execution – an experience she describes in Waiting to be Shot above.