An audience, trusted and gathered by word of mouth, had assembled in a large meeting room with blocked windows on a street in the heart of Warsaw. They had come to hear poetry. If discovered by the Gestapo police, they knew they would be killed on the spot! Lookouts were posted at strategic points.
The poet, an underground member of the Home Army (or A.K.) began. His careful reading of the vital and historic memory of the recent past.
Introduced by his code name, Mierzwa, Józef Pluskowski spoke of the shut down schools, closed universities and newspapers, and all meetings not in German. Hitler had come to Warsaw on October 5th having announced that his army should “kill without mercy, men, women, and children of the Polish race and culture” .
Shouts Stefan Starzynski Send help Europe
To fighting Poland”
Poetry therefore was an act of defiance, to preserve a living language during a reign of terror.. Józef continued his observations reporting that
“each day the tormentor lurked,
Each day people were shot to fill hearts with fear”
His young wife Irena had already lost her brother Henryk in the daily roundup of people, taken randomly from the street as “hostages”, then executed. She had also terminated her first pregnancy by jumping off a tree – it was not a time to bear children.
Instead came the effort to preserve lives. Hidden in Józef and Irena’s extensive apartment, at 5 Elektoralna, was a Jewish family of four, the Millers, and a space where Józef/Mierzwa could write, in some safety, notes, reports, and poems in the newly forbidden language.
There was also his contact with the Ghetto. An official entrance existed near his home in the wall separating the Ghetto from the “Aryan” side. Irena, mourning her brother, had volunteered to carry arms to the desperate Ghetto fighters preparing for revolt. On one recorded occasion, she had carried some 98 hand grenades past the guards at the entrance, having practised how to walk casually with a heavy weight under her fur coat. Her younger blonde sister, Lucyna, came along as a distraction for the guards.
When the uprising of 1943 took place, Józef recorded the ultimate fate with another clandestine meeting in which his words contrasted the exceptional sunny autumn days with the protest of those fighting the tanks.
“Each step is in blood. The traces of blood of the fighting
The Ghetto! A graveyard! Grave next to grave
The ashes of the burnt! Blood in the rubble and smoke”
After every organized reading he never went home, sleeping in pre-arranged hiding places so as to ensure he wouldn’t be followed and denounced. Even then, he still had to pay off blackmailers and,, according to witnesses, he was questioned extensively and even tortured, surviving only because of his fluent knowledge of German and ambiguous answers.
His verses at this time were collected and mimeographed. Just before the uprising of 1944 they were issued under the title “From the struggle and Labour”. As important as carrying arms, Poetry was an efficient way of doing this. In five lines, as much information and feeling could be conveyed as in five paragraphs of prose, providing topics for internal debate. Resist, witness, educate were the recurrent themes. Always the threat of instant death was there to focus the mind.
He wrote that
“The enemy foams, and gasps in revenge Warsaw is a burnt desert,
Blood mixed with sand,
Glory to the soldiers”
Fighting as an officer in the great uprising of 1944, he was given the highest military awards for bravery. He was wounded three times before being captured. Concentration camp for seven weeks was followed by being classified as an official POW and deported to Germany.
His verses from the “Officers Transit Camp” in his “Saga of the Warsaw uprising” asserted that “the world will never forget, even if a century were to pass”.
In the camp at Gerolstein, writing letters was permitted as long as they could pass scrutiny. Here, writing in Polish, in verse, enabled him to confuse the censors and send vital information home:
“German town, near the Belgian border
from a distant and to us
such a hostile land
write those in captivity
Once from Warsaw, the uprising, now
In the camp” – 11/11/1944
Until the liberation that followed the Battle of the Bulge, he barely understood that his wife, Irena, had given birth to a son in the middle of the German bombardments, in the cellars of 5 Elektoralna. Only after the German surrender was he able to meet him, a year later.
He died in exile in Paris, away from a Stalin controlled Poland. He was aged 54.
The last verses in the selected “96 poems” were those in the “Words of Freedom” section where he wrote that
“we are citizens of the world
No citizenship do we have
After prison, detention, confinement and gulag…
How our desire to soar free grows”.
The poems are in the original Polish with an outline introduction, in English, to his life and work and available under : Józef Pluskowski, Poesie
He is also acknowledged in the Warsaw Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
In 2016 Józef and Irena Pluskowski were honoured by the Yad Vashem Holocaust
Memorial in Jerusalem with the title Righteous Among the Nations.
Poland awarded him the highest order for valour, the Virtuti Military, during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.