'War is proof that man has failed'

As a child in Warsaw, Ryszard Kapuscinski grew up thinking starvation, poverty and cruelty were facts of life. As we prepare to mark 60 years since the end of the Second World War, he recounts his incredible story of survival - and warns that we are still just as vulnerable to ignorance and hatred
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Total war has a thousand fronts; during such a war, everyone is at the front, even if they never lie in a trench or fire a single shot. When I go back in memory to those days, I realise, not without a certain surprise, that I remember the beginning of the war better than its end. Its onset is clearly fixed for me in time and place. I can conjure up its image without difficulty because it has retained all its colours, all its emotional intensity.

Total war has a thousand fronts; during such a war, everyone is at the front, even if they never lie in a trench or fire a single shot. When I go back in memory to those days, I realise, not without a certain surprise, that I remember the beginning of the war better than its end. Its onset is clearly fixed for me in time and place. I can conjure up its image without difficulty because it has retained all its colours, all its emotional intensity.

It starts with my suddenly noticing one day, in the azure sky of a summer's ending (and the sky in September 1939 was wondrously blue, without a single cloud), somewhere very, very high up, twelve glittering silver points. The entire bright, lofty dome of the sky fills with a dull, monotonous rumble, unlike anything I've ever heard before. I am seven years old, I am standing in a meadow in eastern Poland, and I am staring at the points that are barely moving across the sky. Suddenly, there's a dreadful bang close by, at the edge of the forest. I hear bombs exploding. It is only later that I learn they are bombs, for at this moment I do not yet know that there is such a thing as a bomb; the very notion is foreign to me, a child from the deepest provinces who had never even listened to a radio or gone to the movies, who didn't know how to read or write, who had never heard of wars and deadly weapons.

I see gigantic fountains of earth spraying up into the air. I want to run towards this extraordinary spectacle, which stuns and fascinates me, because, having as yet no wartime experiences, I am unable to connect into a single chain of cause and effect those shining silver planes, the thunder of the bombs, the plumes of earth flying up to the height of the trees, and the danger of imminent death. I start to run there, towards the forest and the falling and exploding bombs, but a hand grabs me from behind and throws me to the ground. "Lie still!" I hear my mother's shaking voice. "Don't move!" And I remember my mother, as she presses me close to her, saying something I don't understand and that I want to ask her about later. She is saying, "There's death over there, child".

It's night and I'm sleepy, but I am not allowed to sleep; we must run, we must escape. Where to, I don't know. But I do understand that flight has suddenly become some sort of higher necessity, a new form of life, because everyone is fleeing. All the highways, roads, even country paths are full of wagons, carriages, and bicycles; full of bundles, suitcases, bags, buckets; full of terrified and helplessly wandering people. Some are making their way to the east, others to the west, still others to the north and the south. They run in all directions, circle about, collapse from exhaustion, fall asleep anywhere they can, and then, having caught their breath for a moment, they summon what's left of their strength and start once again their confused and endless journey.

I am supposed to hold my little sister tightly by the hand. We can't get lost, my mother warns. But I sense, even without her saying it, that the world has suddenly become dangerous, foreign, and evil, and that one must be on one's guard. I walk with my sister next to the horse-drawn wagon; it is a simple wooden cart lined with hay, and high up on the hay, on a linen sheet, lies my grandfather. He is paralysed and cannot move.

When an air raid starts, the panicked crowd, until then patiently trudging along, dives for the shelter of the ditches, hides in the bushes, drops down in the potato fields. On the empty, deserted road only the wagon remains, and on it my grandfather. He sees the planes coming towards him, sees them abruptly descending, sees them taking aim at the abandoned wagon, sees the fire of the on-board guns, and hears the roar of the machines over his head. When the planes vanish, we return to the wagon and mother wipes my grandfather's perspiring face. Sometimes there are air raids several times a day. After each one, sweat trickles down my grandfather's exhausted face.

We find ourselves in an increasingly bleak landscape. There is smoke along the distant horizon. We pass empty settlements, lonely, burned-out houses. We pass battlefields strewn with abandoned implements of war, bombed-out railway stations, overturned cars. It smells of gunpowder, of burnt things, of rotting meat. We encounter dead horses everywhere. The horse - a large, defenceless animal - doesn't know how to hide; during a bombardment it stands motionless, awaiting death. There are dead horses in the roads, in ditches, in the fields a bit further out. They lie there with their legs up in the air, as if shaking their hooves at the world. I don't see dead people anywhere; they are quickly buried. Only the horses - black, bay, piebald, chestnut - lie where they stood, as if this were not a human war but a war of horses; as if it were they who had waged among themselves a battle to the death and were its only victims.

A cold and hard winter arrives. Under difficult circumstances, one feels the cold more keenly; the chill is more penetrating. Winter can be just another season, a waiting for spring; but now winter is a disaster, a catastrophe. That first winter of the war is truly bitter. In our apartment the stoves are cold and the walls are covered with thick white frost. There is nothing to burn; there is no fuel to buy, and it's too dangerous to steal any. It's death if you're caught filching coal or wood. Human life is worth little now, no more than a lump of coal or a piece of kindling. We have nothing to eat.

Mother stands motionless for hours at the window, staring out. You can see people gazing out at the street like this in many windows, as if they were counting on something, waiting for something. I roam around the yards with a group of boys, neither playing nor explicitly hunting for something to eat; that would mean hope and then disappointment. Sometimes the smell of warm soup wafts through a door. When that happens, one of my friends, Waldek, sticks his nose into the crack and begins feverishly to inhale the odour and to rub his stomach with delight, as if he were sitting at a sumptuously laid table. A moment later he is sad again, and listless.

One day we hear that they are going to be giving away candy in a store near the square. We immediately line up - a string of cold and hungry children. It's the afternoon already, and getting dark. We stand all evening in the freezing temperatures, then all night and all the following day. We stand huddled together, hugging each other for a little bit of warmth, so as not to freeze. Finally the store opens, but instead of candy we each get an empty metal tin that once used to contain fruit drops. Weak, stiff from the cold, and yet, at that moment, happy, I carry home my booty. It is valuable because a residue of sugar still remains on the inside walls of the can. My mother heats up some water, pours it into the can, and we have a hot, slightly sweet, beverage: our only nourishment that day.

Then we are on the road again, travelling westwards from our town, Pinsk, because my mother has heard that our father is living in a village outside Warsaw. He was captured at the front, escaped, and is now, we think, teaching children in a small country school. When those of us who were children during the war recall that time and say "father" or "mother", we forget, because of the solemnity of those words, that our mothers were young women and our fathers were young men and that they desired each other strongly, missed each other terribly, and wanted to be together. And so my mother sold everything in the house, rented a wagon, and we set off to search for our father. We found him by accident. Riding through the village called Sierakow, my mother suddenly cries out to a man crossing the road: "Dziudek!"

From that day we live together in a tiny room without water or electricity. When it grows dark, we go to bed, because there aren't even candles. Hunger has followed us here from Pinsk. I search constantly for something to eat - a crust of bread, a carrot, anything. One day, father, having no other recourse, tells his class: "Children, whoever wants to come to school tomorrow must bring one potato." Father didn't know how to trade, didn't know how to do business and received no salary, so he decided he had only one option: to ask his students for a few potatoes. Half the class don't show up the next day. Some children bring half a potato, others a quarter. A whole potato is an enormous treasure.

Next to my village lies a forest, and in that forest, near a settlement called Palmira, is a clearing. In this clearing, SS men carry out executions. At first, they shoot at night and we are woken up by the dull, repetitive sound of gunfire. Later, they do it also by day. They transport the condemned in enclosed, dark-green trucks, with the firing squad bringing up the rear of the convoy in a truck without a covering.

The firing squad always wear long overcoats, as if a long overcoat belted at the waist were an indispensable prop in the ritual of murder. When such a convoy passes by, we, the village children, observe it from our hiding place in the roadside bushes. In a moment, behind the curtain of trees, something that we are forbidden to witness will begin. I feel a cold tremor running up and down my spine - I'm trembling. We wait for the sound of the salvoes. There they are. Then come the individual shots. After a while, the convoy returns to Warsaw. The SS men again bring up the rear. They are smoking cigarettes and talking.

At night the partisans come. They appear suddenly, their faces pressed against the window. I stare at them as they sit at the table, always excited by the same thought: that there is still time for them to die tonight, that they are marked by death. We could, of course, all die, but they embrace the possibility, confront it head on. They come one rainy night in autumn and talk to my mother in whispers (I haven't seen my father for a month now, and won't until the end of the war; he's in hiding). We get dressed quickly and leave: there is a round-up taking place nearby and entire villages are being deported to the camps. We flee to Warsaw, to a designated hiding place. I see a large city for the first time: trams, multi-storey buildings, big stores. Then we are in the countryside again in yet another village, this time on the far bank of the Vistula. I can't remember why we went. I remember only walking once again next to a horse-drawn wagon and hearing the sand of the warm country road sifting through the wheels' wooden spokes.

All through the war I dream of shoes. To have shoes. But how? What must one do to get a pair? In the summer I walk barefoot, and the skin of my soles is as tough as leather. At the start of the war, father made me a pair of shoes out of felt, but he is not a shoemaker and they look strange; besides, I've grown, and they are already too tight. I fantasise about a pair of big, strong, hobnailed shoes that make a distinctive noise as they strike the pavement. The fashion was then for high-topped boots; I could stare for hours at a good-looking pair. I loved the shine of the leather, loved listening to the crunching sound they made. But my dream of shoes was about more than beauty or comfort. A good, strong shoe was a symbol of prestige and power, a symbol of authority; a shoddy shoe was a sign of humiliation, the brand of a man who has been stripped of all dignity and condemned to a subhuman existence. But in those years, all the shoes I lusted for trod past me in the street with indifference. I was left in my rough wooden clogs with their uppers of black canvas, to which I would sometimes apply a crude ointment in an unsuccessful attempt to impart a tiny bit of lustre.

Late in the war, I become an altar boy. My priest is the chaplain of a Polish Army field hospital. Rows of camouflaged tents stand hidden in a pine forest on the left bank of the Vistula. During the Warsaw Uprising, before the Russian army moves on the city in January 1945, an exhausting bustle reigns here. Ambulances speed in from the front lines, which rumble and smoke not far away. They bring the wounded, who are often unconscious and arranged hurriedly and in disarray, one on top of the other, as if they were so many sacks of grain (only these sacks are dripping blood).

The medics, themselves half-dead from fatigue, take the wounded out, lay them on the grass, and then drench them with a fierce spray of cold water. Those that give some signs of life they carry into the operating tent (in front of this tent there is always a fresh pile of amputated arms and legs). Those that no longer move are brought to a large grave at the rear of the hospital. There, over that yawning tomb, I stand for hours next to the priest, holding his breviary and the cup with holy water. I repeat after him the prayer for the dead. "Amen," we say to each of the deceased, "Amen," dozens of times a day, but quickly, because somewhere beyond the woods the machinery of death is working non-stop. And then, one day, everything is suddenly quiet and empty - the ambulances stop coming, the tents disappear. The hospital has moved east. In the forest, only the crosses remain.

And later? The passages above are a few pages from a book about my wartime years that I began to write and then abandoned. I wonder now what the book's final pages would have been like, its conclusion, its epilogue. What would have been written there about the end of the Second World War? Nothing, I think. I mean, nothing conclusive. Because, in some fundamental sense, the war did not end for me in 1945, or at any time soon afterwards. In many ways, something of it endures in me. For those who lived through it, war is never over, not in an absolute way. It is a truism that an individual dies only when the last person who knew and remembered him dies; that a human being finally ceases to exist when all the bearers of his memory depart this world.

Something like this also happens with war. Those who went through it will never be free of it. It stays with them as a mental hump, a painful tumour, which even as excellent a surgeon as time will be unable to remove. Just listen to people who lived through a war, when they sit down around a table of an evening. It doesn't matter what the first topics of conversation might be. There can be a thousand topics. But in the end there will be only one: reminiscences from the war. These people, even after years of peace, will superimpose war's images on each new reality, a reality with which they are unable fully to identify because it has to do with the present, and they are possessed by the past, by the constant returning to what they lived through and how they managed to live through it; their thoughts an obsessively repeated retrospection.

But what does it mean, to think in the images of war? It means to see everything as existing at maximum tension, as reeking of cruelty and dread. Because wartime reality is a world of extreme, Manichaean reduction, which eliminates all intermediate hues, all things gentle and warm, and limits everything to an aggressive counterpoint, to black and white, to the most primal battle of two powers: good and evil. No one else on the battlefield! Only the good (in other words, us) and the evil (meaning everything that stands in our way, that opposes us, and that we force wholesale into the sinister category of the enemy).

The image of war is imbued with the atmosphere of force, a nakedly physical force, grinding, smoking, constantly exploding, always on the attack, a force brutally expressed in every gesture, in every strike of a boot against pavement, of a rifle butt against a skull. Strength, in this universe, is the only criterion against which everything is measured - only the strong matter; their shouts, their fists. Every conflict is resolved not through compromise, but by destroying one's opponent. And all this plays itself out in a climate of fury and frenzy, in which we feel always stunned, tense and threatened. We move in a world brimming with hateful stares, clenched jaws, and gestures and voices that terrify.

For a long time, I believed that this was the world, that this was what life looked like. It was understandable: the war years coincided with my childhood, and then with the beginnings of maturity, of rational thought, of consciousness. That is why it seemed to me that war, not peace, is the natural state. And so, when the guns suddenly stopped, when the roar of exploding bombs could be heard no more, when suddenly there was silence, I was astonished. I could not fathom what the silence meant, what it was. I think that a grown-up confronted with that quiet could say: "Hell is over. At last peace will return." But I did not remember what peace was. I was too young for that; hell was all I knew.

Months passed, and war constantly reminded us of its presence. I continued to live in a city reduced to rubble; I climbed over mountains of debris, roamed through a labyrinth of ruins. The school that I attended had no floors, windows, or doors - everything had gone up in flames. We had no books or notebooks. I still had no shoes. War as trouble, as want, as burden, was still very much with me. I still had no home. The return home from the front is the most palpable symbol of war's end. Tutti a casa! But I could not go home. My home was now on the other side of the border, in another country called the Soviet Union. One day, after school, I was playing soccer with friends. One of them plunged into some bushes in pursuit of the ball. There was a tremendous bang: my friend was killed by a landmine. War thus continued to lie in wait for us; it didn't want to surrender. It hobbled along the streets supporting itself with wooden crutches, waving its empty shirtsleeves in the wind. It tortured at night in bad dreams those who had survived it.

But above all, war lived on within us because for five years it had shaped our young characters, our psyches, our outlooks. It tried to deform and destroy them by setting the worst examples, compelling dishonourable conduct, releasing contemptible emotions. "War," wrote Boleslaw Micinski in those years, "deforms not only the soul of the invader, but also poisons with hatred, and so deforms, the souls of those who try to oppose the invader." And that is why, he added, "I hate totalitarianism because it taught me to hate." Yes, to leave war behind meant to internally cleanse oneself, first and foremost to cleanse oneself of hatred. But how many made a sustained effort in that direction? And how many succeeded? It was certainly an exhausting and long process, a goal that could not be achieved quickly, because the psychological and moral wounds were deep.

When there is talk of the year 1945, I am irritated by the phrase, "the joy of victory". What joy? So many people perished! Millions of bodies were buried! Thousands lost arms and legs; lost sight and hearing; lost their minds. Yes, we survived, but at what a cost! War is proof that man as a thinking and sentient being has failed.

When there is talk of 1945, I remember that, in the summer of that year, my aunt, who miraculously made it through the Warsaw Uprising, brought her son, Andrzej, to visit us in the countryside. He was born during the uprising. Today, he is a man in late middle-age, and when I look at him I think how long ago it all was. Since then, generations have been born in Europe who know nothing of what war is. And yet those who lived through it should bear witness. Bear witness in the name of those who fell next to them, and often on top of them; bear witness to the camps, to the extermination of the Jews, to the destruction of Warsaw and of Wroclaw. Is this easy? No. We who went through the war know how difficult it is to convey the truth about it to those for whom that experience is, happily, unfamiliar. We know how language fails us, how often we feel helpless, how the experience is, finally, incommunicable.

And yet, despite these difficulties and limitations, we should speak. Because speaking about all this does not divide, but rather unites us, allows us to establish threads of understanding and community. The dead admonish us. They bequeathed something important to us and now we must act responsibly. To the degree to which we are able, we should oppose everything that could again give rise to war, to crime, to catastrophe. Because we who lived through the war know how it begins, where it comes from. We know that it does not begin only with bombs and rockets, but with fanaticism and pride, stupidity and contempt, ignorance and hatred. It feeds on all that, grows from that. That is why, just as some of us fight the pollution of the air, we should fight the polluting of human affairs by ignorance and hatred.

'When There is Talk of War,' translated by Klara Glowczewska, appears in the new issue of Granta, priced £9.99.