June 9, 2023

Creating a novel - a step into Warsaw's past

Exploring my journey towards writing a novel set in WWII Warsaw. How my deep connection to the city’s past breathed into me a desire of bringing to light its lesser-known young heroes, Polish Scouts. Timeless tales that remain inspiring and moving despite the years gone by…

Since childhood, the history of my hometown has profoundly impacted my imagination. Wandering around the streets of Warsaw, every footstep was permeated by the weight of the past, the scars left on the city during the Second World War. A city once enslaved by the German Nazi invaders, its buildings still carry the impressions, both tangible and invisible, of fervent combat. I remember developing a fascination for a symbol depicted on countless memorial plaques and walls. The Kotwica (“Anchor”), formed of the intertwined letters P and W, standing for Polska Walcząca (Poland Fighting). Behind this silent emblem stand countless stories of courage from one of the darkest periods in our country’s history. A permanent reminder of the inequitable battle, which nevertheless had to be braved by the disadvantaged side. Poles stood up to revolt against the horrors inflicted by Nazi German occupation, despite the obvious power disbalance. Valor and respect for human dignity rose against brute force and rage.

Behind the silent Kotwica emblem stand stories of courage from one of the darkest periods in our country’s history.

Nazis were relentless in their pacification of a nation they deemed inferior.

Bloodthirsty retribution even for the lightest offenses

Collective responsibility drawn to its extremes

Arbitrarily assassinating civilians in response to anti-German resistance actions

Street roundups, collecting hostages for public executions.

Immediate execution of every family member in a household sheltering Jews.

Today’s Varsovians have not witnessed those days, and yet the mark left on the collective unconscious was strong enough for memories to live across generations. How can we forget when Warsaw’s pavements remain tainted by blood? Walls still whisper about those who gave their lives up for a principle stronger than any terror. Sacrifice is written behind every street corner.

Under the harsh repression, Poles did not abandon themselves to the Nazi Germans’ attempts to subdue and enslave them. Not long before, from 1795 to 1918, Poland had spent 123 years under the dominion of foreign invaders who had wiped her off the map of Europe. Hence, the people were not ready to give away their long-awaited and ultimately gained independence. They followed the nation’s timeless tradition of standing up for its sovereignty.

Yet, their motivation went beyond patriotism and desire for independence. Above all, justice had to be upheld against the incessant violations of human dignity. Poland could not remain indifferent to the heinous crimes committed by the Nazi Reich, dangerously spreading across Europe. Coldly ignoring the massacres of innocent, defenseless human beings, was in itself a transgression. Keeping quiet in the face of murder makes one an accomplice. And yet, a hostile silence still prevailed among many, turning a blind eye towards the suffering of millions…. This stubborn passivity had to be broken. For whoever does not condemn - consents.

Beyond patriotism stood another motivation – upholding justice against the incessant violations of human dignity.

One of the largest WWII resistance movements arose in Poland, despite the country being among the most oppressed in Europe. The Polish Home Army, by its steadfast battle against the overwhelming evil, has left a powerful legacy. Once introduced to me, it stubbornly stuck to my heart, awakening in me a habit of mind-wandering to the daily reality of those times.

For years I kept these sentiments inward, searching for a manner to appropriately express them, to give tribute to the heroes. I felt inadequate for the task, fearing my lack of skills would fail in painting the picture’s powerful beauty. So, I left the idea to slumber a while longer, while I began daydreaming of characters to fill the pages of a novel.

The topic intimidated me by its breadth, the vast amount of events that could potentially be covered. Also, I knew how much this historical period had been intensely explored from nearly every possible angle, whether academically or artistically. Did I even have anything worthwhile to add to the narrative?

I needed a focus and, still being a teenager, I decided on young adulthood as the most relatable age group within which I could place my characters. To that, my experience unexpectedly helped me refine the lens even further – Polish Scouts fighting for the Underground would be the heroes of my novel.

The ambition was to go a step further than work already produced around this theme in Polish culture. Although this narrative is so deeply engrained in the nation’s collective memory, little is known of it outside of Poland. And yet, it is a fascinating side of history, whose actors deserve to be remembered for their faithfulness to moral principles. A light that arose amidst the darkest evil, which cannot be extinguished merely by the passage of time. I wanted to spread this message of remembrance across our country’s borders.

And so, I slowly began drawing the outline of a plot, but for years, ideas of scenes were confined to my imagination. I absorbed experiences of daily life, interactions with people, hoping these might one day add color to my writing.

Finally, I was aware of the danger of soaring too high up into idealistic patriotism and losing touch with earthly reality. I created my characters without forgetting that these heroes were ordinary people, each struggling with their own flaws. Relationships between different personalities are a central part of my work. It’s the story of imperfect people, who went beyond themselves to fulfill what they believed was nothing else but their duty.

With my first book, I’m hoping to make a small step towards celebrating patriotism strengthened by friendship, which moved these young people. Hopefully, the universal themes touched upon can help in making the story appreciated by a wider audience, not only Poles. Let’s say the historical context serves as a background for exploring dynamics between characters, recreating emotions and psychological experiences we can still relate to today. All this to say, I hope the patriotic undertone doesn’t put you off, because there are definitely other sides to the book to enjoy.

I understand that the world in which I’ve set my novel can be difficult to fully grasp if you have not heard much about the daily reality of WWII in occupied Poland. This is why I will try my best to set the stage for you, by occasionally sharing posts about events and figures that have marked these days.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey towards (re)discovering a tragic, yet remarkable era of Polish history.

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