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Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski

Ashes and Diamonds (1948)

by Jerzy Andrzejewski

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Recently added byprivate library, uscer, Jernsaksa, Gizmex, RobNor, KSpeicher, FlorenceArt, tosorens
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    A Funny Dirty Little War by Osvaldo Soriano (chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: Military dictatorship, communists and anti-communists, armed groups of youths, ideology used for personal gain... the universal absurdity is dealt with in different, though equally effective, ways by Soriano and Andrzejewski.

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A better title for this book might be “Ashes and Ashes”, but although it is rather depressing, it is also an impressive, excellent read. It is all the more impressive that the book was published in 1948, and although there is a lot that goes unspoken (the actions of the Polish partisans and the uneasy relations with the Soviet Union are mentioned in sideways fashion), it is not difficult to see the start of the conflicts and changes that would affect Poland for the next several decades. The book takes places over the course of a few days before and after the end of World War II in the Polish town of Ostrowiec. Unlike, say, the U.S., where the end of WWII meant celebrations, a return to normalcy and triumph over Nazis, Poland after the war was devastated. 25% of the population had been killed, they had been overrun by both the Nazis and Soviets, some of the most notorious concentration camps were located on Polish soil, and the Soviet encroachment was already becoming apparent.

The author follows several related and intersecting characters. There’s an assassination plot, a murder, plotting by various radical groups, political machinations and infighting, and a Communist meeting at the local hotel where many of the characters come to talk, drink and party hedonistically. Andrzejewski portrays his characters sympathetically – at least at first. Gradually, some of their backstories become clearer, and many are shown to be morally gray, compromised, scarily sociopathic, naïve or going down a dangerous path. As many are related, the reader knows why certain characters are acting in puzzling ways which baffle their friends and family. For example, the Kossecki family has reunited after the privations of the war, but they are all in their own isolated misery. Mrs. Kossecki had to hold down their home during the war and longs for their contented, successful pre-war life. She doesn’t understand her husband, newly returned from the camps, or her two sons, Alek and Andrew, who are both radicalized in different ways. Michael Chelmicki, a recent arrival, is taking on an assignment for his shadowy group, but over the course of a couple days finds himself at odds with his friends. Szczuka, a loyal Communist in town for the meeting, can’t communicate with his in-laws, members of the local aristocracy who are carrying on as though it were the pre-war days, and realizes there is an unbridgeable gap between him and his old friend, an upright Socialist.

Besides the inevitably depressing subject matter (murders, people dead or returning from concentration camps), the grey, defeated atmosphere of the book is rather depressing. There’s a sense of emptiness and loss – they sacrificed and lost so much for a present that feels hollow and hopeless. The partisans and radical groups now have no clear goal. Regaining things that they lost seems like an insurmountable task to many of the characters. Those who seem the least affected are the wealthy who have a strong streak of denial, and some selfish, ruthless characters who see the loss of many structures as an opportunity for themselves. Even when the end of the war is announced, the population can barely be bothered to note it – it is just another day and they still have to struggle to survive. It doesn’t help knowing what will happen in the future. (Andrzejewski portrays several of the Communists sympathetically – although others are scheming and selfish – but the introduction notes that the pre-war purges would have likely selected for the scheming and selfish.)

The two introductions in my copy, by Northwestern University Press, were very helpful. They also add in a couple excised passages. However, the names remain anglicized – for example, Maciek is changed to Michael, which was a bit annoying. ( )
1 vote DieFledermaus | Aug 23, 2015 |
Ashes and Diamonds made for a great follow-up to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain and if you are interested in Europe at the end of World War 2 I recommend it highly. It probably helps to know a little bit about Poland during WW2 because there are a huge number of characters in the book, all connected to each other. Ashes and Diamonds is set in Ostrowiec, a small (fictional) town in Poland, over 4 days in May 1945, just as the war in Europe is ending. The end of the war means little to many of the locals, who are trying to get their lives together after a brutal 6 years.

The Kossecki family is all back in one place – the father has survived Auschwitz but hides in his study all day, the mother just wants everything to come right, Andrew is still in the Home Army, and teenage Alek and his mates are up to something. There’s a big party happening at the Hotel Monopole to celebrate Communist victory in the war, and Andrew Kossecki and a friend of his, Michael Chelmicki, have a job to do for the Home Army. There are Communist Party hacks trying to climb their way up, people getting hammered on vodka, former aristocrats unaware at how bad their lives are going to get pretty soon, a band, a lovely barmaid, survivors of the Warsaw Uprising – just about everyone you can think of except for Jews, because they have all been killed.

As usual in books about WW2, this is all about what decisions people made and how they rationalized them. It’s a very readable book and only 240 pages long. ( )
1 vote cushlareads | Jan 13, 2013 |
Originally published in 1948, and considered one of the best Polish postwar novels, Ashes and Diamonds takes place in a Polish town in the days just before and after the German surrender in May 1945. The Soviet army has liberated the town from the Nazis, and it is still unclear what exactly will happen. The town is awash in former Polish Home Army soldiers (although unnamed as such since the Soviets had already taken over by the time of publication), local and Soviet communists, bureaucrats looking to advance, a somewhat discomfited aristocracy, returnees from Nazi concentration camps, teenagers who grew up in the chaos of the war and seem to have no values, those who seek to make money no matter who is in power, and of course regular folks. The novel switches back and forth between various people and their stories, and it takes a little while to figure out who is who and how they are connected.

Essentially, Andrzewjewski portrays people who have had to confront issues of ethics and conscience during the war, or are continuing to confront them, and how they individually decide to act. There are plots to kill people, plots to betray people, and yet people are intertwined in ways that can be awkward, at best, in the fluid situation; for example, the head of the local communists, mourning the death of his wife in a concentration camp, has to tell her sister about her death, and the sister is one of the local aristocrats. Everyone comes together at the town's hotel, the Monopole, which is striving to recapture prewar days, and they all certainly drink as if there is no tomrrow.

The title of the novel comes from a poem by Cyprian Norwid, that asks:

"Will only ashes and confusion remain,
Leading into the abyss? -- or will there be
In the depths of the ash, a star-like diamond,
The dawning of eternal victory!

It is hard to see the diamond in these ashes.

The edition I read had two introductions: one, by Heinrich Böll, written for an earlier edition, before the Wall came down, and one written by Barbara Niemczyk in the post-Communist era. Both point out that, for Polish readers would have immediately understood the unexpressed reality that the Soviets who "liberated" Poland were the same Soviets who occupied it in the days of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact. In addition, Niemczyk notes some errors in the translation, including two long sections that were omitted by the original translator. Finally, I found it disconcerting that the Polish names were "translated" into English (sometimes incorrectly as Niemczyk points out); for example, the Polish name Maciek becomes Michael and Jerzy becomes Julius. I would have preferred it if the translator kept the Polish names.
13 vote rebeccanyc | Jul 22, 2012 |
A tale of political factional intrigue in Poland following World War II. ( )
1 vote | zenosbooks | Feb 26, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Andrzejewski, Jerzyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Böll, HeinrichIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Niemczyk, BarbaraForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Welch, D.J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Maciek is a young Resistance fighter who is ordered to kill Szczuka, a Communist district leader, on the last day of World War II. The Soviet leader who has arrived in town to establish a new government. A mistake leads him to a beautiful barmaid who shows him what his life could be like and although killing has been easy for him in the past, Szczuka was a fellow soldier, and Maciek must decide whether to follow his orders.… (more)

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