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Jerzy Andrzejewski: Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds)

This book is best known, at least in the West, for the superb film of the book, directed by the legendary Andrzej Wajda and starring the almost as legendary Zbigniew Cybulski in the role of Maciek Chelmicki (though the English translation of the book calls him Michael Chelmicki). Even if you have seen the film and, indeed, if you have not, this book is a very fine book and, while close to the film, there are a few differences.

The book is set in the town of Ostrowiec during the last two days of World War II. Everyone knows that the Germans have lost and are about to surrender. There is, however, no widespread rejoicing, as people now have face up to the realities of what looks like a grim situation – different groups jockeying for power (the Communists have not yet fully taken over), friends and relatives killed and missing, various people who have collaborated with the Germans worrying about their fate and massive destruction. We primarily follow two groups. The first is the Communists, with Szczuka, an old leftist, a key figure. Szczuka lost his wife in Ravensbrück and finds someone who was with her in the camp. However, while struggling with this loss, he is focused on the future, now that his side seems to be in power.

It is by no means a given that the Communists will take power and they are opposed by a small group, of which Chelmicki is a member. Nowadays, this group would probably be called terrorists, and they do seem to behave like gangsters, but they see themselves as keeping the old Polish values. At the beginning of the book, they kill two men, mistaking them for Communist leaders and, as we soon learn, Chelmicki has been instructed to kill Szczuka. The problem is that, in the meantime, he has met and fallen in love with Christina and wants to leave the group and go away with Christina. His dilemma – and the price he pays – is a key theme of this book. But the strength of the novel is not just Chelmicki’s personal struggle but the hugely varied picture he gives of Poland at the end of the War in this small town. We see the old-fashioned aristocrats and the about-to-be new aristocrats, in the form of the Communist Mayor who is going to be made a minister. We see the ambitious and the downtrodden and the ruthless and the opportunists and the traitors and collaborators. All in all, in a relatively short book, Andrzejewski gives us an image of the issues Poland – and other countries coming out of a war – will face.

Publishing history

First published 1948 by Czytelnik
First English translation 1962 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Translated by David J Welsh