From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, p.26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Food For The Children
Leo Cooper, £4.95
This is a diary of the Warsaw Rising of summer 1944 against the German occupation. It is written by a young Polish woman who was caught by the Rising a few streets away from home and could not return. It is a fascinating account from the early days of hope of liberation through the Rising to the later days of rout, death and disillusionment. The direct, blunt detail, recorded by an honest ‘unpolitical’ participant (unpolitical beyond the deep desire for Polish independence) has a power that, as Warsaw turns into rubble under the German bombardment, becomes quite shattering.
The author, with another few women, set up a kitchen to feed the children of the neighbourhood. The Rising is largely seen and described through the efforts of provision, the kitchen with food, water, fuel and utensils in conditions that stagger from the difficult to the impossible.
The diary of any single day illustrates the mixture of life and death with apparently trivial detail with give such fascination to the account. 23rd August, the 21st day of the Rising. The author’s brother Mike is describing the day he had gone through:
‘We had to stop by one of the holes blasted in the wall to allow a sanitary patrol to pass with a casualty. The dead man, butchered by a hand grenade, looked terrible. We found it difficult to look at him, seasoned soldiers though we were ...’
Then the permanent worry.
‘We discussed the Russians. When would they finally arrive? “Who knows,” Mike shrugged. He would gladly shoot a few Russians for the procrastination. I risked voicing a question which had been preying on mind for some time, but which I had suppressed. “Wasn’t it too big a risk to start the Rising without reaching an understanding with them?”’
In the middle of these agonies of life and death, there is a lucky acquisition of some buckwheat and porridge, allowing a change of ‘menu’ in the kitchen. Her helpmate
‘Kazia had a moment of utter bliss as she dreamily planned the change of diet. She proposed that tomorrow we make her favourite soup – a filling peasant dish of thick, hand-rolled noodles with buckwheat. What a treat for the kids! “The noodles,” she said, “must be rolled by hand, not cut, or the soup loses all its character.”’
Alas for Kazia’s hand-rolled noodles! Next day, ‘the air raids are getting more and more frequent and the bombs fall closer and closer ...’ The helper ‘started to make a fuss about rolling the noodles. It would be much simpler if we just chopped them up.’ Higher authority was sought. The noodles were indeed chopped.
‘Kazia went around like a thundercloud ... After dinner she cornered me and made a scene about it. Those chopped noodles had spoilt it all! Her torrent of complaints and grievances was interrupted by an air raid.’
Later, ‘Kazia was still in a huff, so I promised her solemnly that in a couple of days time, we would use the rest of the buckwheat to make some peasant soup with big rolled noodles thick as your fingers. We’d start the previous evening ...’ and so on.
The diary is full of these little vignettes of life (and death) under siege. Early on the heady feeling of freedom on shouting the words, suppressed for years, ‘Long live the independent state of Poland! Death to the invaders!’ The early euphoria over the heroic Polish soldiers of the Rising, then the shocking relevation: ‘What a fine army! On duty with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a hand grenade in the other.’ The nuisance of the water carrier who took advantage of his vital job to demand more than his fair share of scarce food, but often kept the kitchen waterless, cowering in a corner during air raids. Finally, the loss of all clean water, and the problems of how to make up bottles for new-born babes when the only available liquid was sewage water.
The diary lurches inevitably towards the ultimate doom. For a long time delivery by the Russians is hoped for, and arms and provisions drop by the Western Allies expected. The latter took place during the first fortnight by flights from and back to the West, but losses were very heavy. The hopes of aid were bitterly blighted. The Russians did not move, and also refused the Western Allies landing strips on her territory. Warsaw is totally destroyed, 300,000 killed, thousands of others transported to be slaves in Germany.
The translation is excellent. Ewa Barker, the author’s daughter and translator, attempts ‘to make the British feel “at home”. I wanted him to imagine what it would be like to have it happening in his own High Street, in his local Town Hall, to his neighbours.’ She succeeds admirably.
Colin Barker contributes a very useful background history to an introduction.
This diary should be ready by anyone who wants to experience the lives and struggles of ordinary people who, for a brief period, are heroes, propelled into the centre of the historical stage.
Last updated: 16.3.2008