Aleksander Wat
Aleksander Wat; drawing by David Levine

“At Saratov station, where all of us, seated in freight cars, were waiting for departure, the doors were suddenly opened, and with the help of those near them a man was pulled in: he stood out distinctly against the background of all present since he had a fur coat with an otter collar and…a bowler hat…. And just as he stood on the car’s wooden floor, he collapsed. He was so weak that he could not stand by himself.”

The recorder of that surreal vision was a Polish-Jewish student who had just been released from a Soviet camp. The time was late 1941. Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union in June. Under the terms of Stalin’s agreement with the Polish government-in-exile, the gigantic penal empire of labor camps and prisons was reluctantly beginning to disgorge some of the two million Poles who had been deported into slavery after the Soviet invasion and annexation of eastern Poland in September 1939. The destination of the cattle-car—seething with lice and crammed with Poles and their families—was Alma-Ata. In Soviet Asia, there was rumored to be food. Almost as important, offices of the Polish government had been set up there, and General Wladyslaw Anders was gathering around his standard the nucleus of a free Polish army, nursing and feeding tattered skeletons until they could become soldiers.

The man in the otter collar and the bowler hat was Aleksander Wat, a Polish poet and prose writer whose stature is only now becoming appreciated and honored in the Western world. The picture of him at Saratov catches him in the middle of the great and transforming experience of his life, the nearly seven years which he spent in Soviet prisons and in penal exile in Kazakhstan before returning to Poland in April 1946. Wat was easy to hoist onto the train because he now weighed a mere 45 kilos (under 100 pounds), half his pre-war weight. He had just been released from the prison at Saratov, shaved and given two loaves of bread, and had spent a day and a night wandering among the thousands of uprooted, desperate people who had overrun the station.

“That night,” he later wrote, “when I was walking through the dark at the periphery of the station, I came on a woman being raped. It was a very large station. A few tramps and a woman. They were simply raping her. No one paid it any attention, and no one would have come to her defense even if she had screamed.” Wat, a few months previously, had undergone an experience of religious conversion in his cell which was eventually to permeate his whole life and lead him—born into a Jewish family in Warsaw—into Catholic baptism. But these scenes at the station did not touch him.

In the cell at Saratov I had had a vision of those great enormous expanses of gigantic Russia with its millions of human tragedies…and there it was before me in the flesh—tragic Russia…. The breakthrough I had experienced in Saratov seemed to have reached to my very depths, but the layers of experience are very thin. I was not moved by this spectacle; I saw these people as human manure.

He was on his way south to search for his wife Ola and his child Andrzej. They had been arrested separately, and for eighteen months he had not known whether they were dead or alive. But they had survived, working as forced laborers on the Kazakh steppe and selling their clothes for food or stealing grain to avoid starvation, and in February 1942, after discovering each other’s whereabouts, Ola met him in Alma-Ata.

Both have left a description of that moment, and that shock. Ola tells how she entered the tiny night watchman’s hut where—she had been told—Aleksander was staying. In the middle of the room was a cradle holding a dead baby, who had just died of scarlet fever.

On a stool, an old man smoking a pipe, at the stove a woman in a kerchief, girded with an apron….The old man, almost without a word, motioned his head to the right, and there in the middle of another room stood Aleksander who was jotting down something on a card. He had grown grey. I saw a large black cross under his unbuttoned shirt. He did not hear me entering since he was absorbed in writing. When I saw him for the last time getting into that black car after the arrest, he was forty. He was young and strong, he had very dark hair and large shining eyes. Now, virtually an aged man stood before me, grizzled, thin, exhausted.

Wat remembered: “Andrzej looked like a child from the Warsaw ghetto. He had the beginnings of tuberculosis, a corpse’s skull. How old was Ola then? She was thirty-odd years old and looked like a sixty-year-old woman, completely ravaged.” This was not the last of their separations. A few years later, both were arrested for refusing to accept Soviet passports. Ola was beaten up and savaged by Russian women in her cell. They were reunited again for another spell of exile in the Kazakh settlement of Ili near the Chinese border. But they had not been forgotten in their own country, and after the war the intervention of other Polish writers eventually secured their release—almost certainly saving their lives in April 1946.


The train stopped in a field, some miles from the ruins of what had been Warsaw, and unloaded the Wats “with our bags full of tin plates, dried bread crumbs, rags and other goods and chattels….” They begged a lift into the city from an official driver, who to their alarm turned out to be a chauffeur for the Ministry of State Security. But he refused to take any money. “I do not request payment from martyrs,” he said.

More suffering—political and physical—lay ahead of them. But the part of their lives that ended in 1946, the years of captivity, has until now provided most of what non-Poles know about them, and about Aleksander Wat as a writer. There are several reasons for this. One is that little of Wat’s poetry and prose has been translated. The other is the existence of three works—two memoirs and a film—which cover only their period in captivity but which are in themselves so moving and absorbing that questions about the rest of Wat’s life and his work are edged into the shadows.

The most recent of these works is the 1992 film Wszystko co najwazniejsze… (“Everything That Really Matters”), directed by Robert Glinski, which attracted shamefully little international notice but which stands in the great tradition of Polish film before 1989. It is the story of Ola Wat’s experiences in Soviet hands (the actress Ewa Skibinska plays her, and will be remembered for it), and it is based on Ola’s own account with the same title, in a series of interviews with the writer Jacek Trznadel. Published originally in London by PULS in 1984, the book had to wait until the collapse of communism to become a best seller in Poland.

The only one of the three works translated into English is Aleksander Wat’s memoir, My Century, published in the United States in 1988. * This is one of the great classics of prison experience; it can take its place beside Silvio Pellico’s My Prisons or Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead. Properly speaking, it is not a memoir but a series of taped conversations with Czeslaw Milosz at Berkeley and then in Paris, in 1964 and 1965. Aleksander Wat was ill and in too much pain to write, and Milosz decided to tape his recollections. What developed from these meetings was not so much a series of conversations as what Milosz called “seances” in which he had the “honor to serve as a medium”; and it is not too much to say that My Century is one of Milosz’s own great achievements as well as Wat’s testament. Coming from the same background, Milosz well understood what his fellow poet was saying, and what he found difficult to say. In the foreword to the book, Milosz wrote:

I quickly realized that something unique was transpiring between us. There was not a single other person on the face of the earth who had experienced the century as Wat had and who had the same sense of it as he. This has nothing to do with the cruelty of fate or history, for a enormous number of people were more grievously afflicted by it than he was. No, what matters here is a cast of mind, a culture…specifically, the culture of the Polish intelligentsia.

The taped conversations start with Wat’s literary and political life in pre-war Poland and they break off, quite abruptly (because Milosz had to leave Paris and no satisfactory substitute “medium” could be found), in Kazakhstan, not long before the family returned to Poland. They are an account of Wat’s years in captivity, of his spiritual journey to communism and then away toward religious belief, and of his agonizing guilt and remorse at having once supported an ideology which he had come to regard as satanic. But they are only part of the Wat story. My Century does not deal with his years in postwar Poland, with his struggles with the Stalinist and post-Stalinist cultural bureaucracy, or with his decision in 1959 to go into exile in France. Neither—more importantly—do they discuss in any coherent way his writing and his life as a writer.


Tomas Venclova, the Lithuanian poet and critic who now teaches literature at Yale, has filled in what has been missing. His book is in part a biography, relying on and supplementing the memoirs of Ola and Aleksander (which are not without mistakes and omissions, even within the restricted time-spans they cover). But it is also a work of literary criticism. Venclova’s book closely analyzes Wat’s poetry and prose. As he does so, he sets Wat’s development as a writer—his sudden transformations, his long silences, his indistinct and Aesopian utterances which were devised to outwit the censors, his magnificent outbursts—against the cultural and political development of Poland and Russia during the terrifying decades between the Bolshevik Revolution and the decay of Stalinism after 1956.

Wat was born on May Day, 1900, in Warsaw. His family was middle-class and Jewish, at once socialist and Polish—his parents’ first language was Russian but they were patriotic Poles. One of his first memories was of seeing his father and one of his sisters returning bloody and battered after a demonstration against Russian rule in 1905. Constantly asked in later years whether he considered himself more Jewish than Polish, Wat would reject the question as superficial: “I never felt myself either a Polish Jew or a Jewish Pole…. I always felt myself a Jew-Jew and a Pole-Pole.”

The resurrection of a free Poland in 1918, after a century and a quarter of partition, left Polish literature confused. Its main theme, the messianic struggle for national independence, had suddenly been removed, and an age of wild, imitative experiment ensued. Wat, a dandified and eccentric student who had spent most of his childhood lying on his stomach under the family dinner table devouring world literature, plunged into the new fashion of Futurism. Among his early friends were Anatol Stern, Bruno Jasienski and the great Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy)—“the most original Polish writer of the 1920s and 1930s,” Venclova writes, whose “…bizarre absurdist plays and novels enjoyed little success during his lifetime.”

At their first meeting, Witkacy—stark naked—invited the young Wat to an instant vodka bout, during which Wat took off his own clothes, proclaimed himself an ostrich, and announced “in dadaist babble” that he was about to lay eggs. It was an exuberant, silly time of chaotic “happenings.” But, as Venclova demonstrates, Wat was already writing verse which, in spite of its deliberate vandalism of language and meaning, could not conceal an extraordinary mastery of poetic technique. In the long prose poem “Pug Iron Stove,” which he wrote at the age of eighteen, Wat produced a fantastic subversion of conventional literature into which he crammed blasphemed elements from the Bible, the Kabbala and the rest of his own prodigious and precocious reading.

But Polish Futurism, baffling within its own country, was itself easily undermined by outside influences. One of these was the modish cult of violence, which in the West drew poets toward fascism but in Poland was represented by the ferocities of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Polish Futurists began to veer leftward in the 1920s. Jasienski was among the first (“We will crush everything under our boots [since we are] beautiful, huge and human”); he migrated to the Soviet Union and, along with many of Wat’s closest friends in the pre-war Polish Communist movement, was murdered by Stalin. Wat himself became fascinated by the idea of the “purifying violence” of the Revolution, and by the dream of a new proletarian literature. If he did not actually join the Communist Party (his formal membership is still a matter of dispute), he became an enthusiastic fellow traveler and—as Venclova says—a “captive mind” in the sense later described by Milosz.

By the late 1920s, Wat was a well-known Warsaw figure; he had published the dazzling Lucifer Unemployed, a volume of short fiction and parables, and he had married Paulina Lew (Ola), whose love was to preserve and comfort him for the rest of his life. In 1929, he became editor of a new Communist periodical, Miesiecznik Literacki (“Literary Monthly”). In spite of its raucous Stalinism, the monthly became highly fashionable among the radical Polish intelligentsia.

For Wat, these were good years. He was happy with Ola, happy in his work, happy to be relieved of doubt and uncertainty. He felt almost triumphant when his journal got into hot water with the government—ironically, given what was to come, he had published an exposé of torture in Polish prisons—and Wat and his fellow editors were briefly thrown into jail in 1931. They became heroes. In the cell, Wat’s friend Jan Hempel announced with shining eyes, “You know, two blast furnaces are being fired today in Magnitogorsk!” (A few years later, he too was shot in a Soviet prison.)

Gradually doubts set in. The Literary Monthly was suppressed, and as the 1930s passed, Wat’s connections with the Communist Party weakened. He consorted with dissident Marxists, and put his energies into working for a liberal Warsaw publishing house. The details of his disillusion are not clear. But, above all, he must have learned—was perhaps at first unwilling to believe—that between 1937 and 1938, at the height of the Purges, Stalin had ordered the collective murder of some 5,000 exiled Polish Communists in the Soviet Union, including the entire Party leadership and many of Wat’s closest friends. And Wat grew increasingly appalled by Soviet policy toward Hitler’s Germany, well before the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.

When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, Wat escaped to Lwów, with Ola and his son Andrzej. Here they met Soviet invaders advancing eastward. Lwów became the capital of “Western Ukraine,” soon annexed to the Soviet Union, while Hitler and Stalin proclaimed the abolition of the Polish state, the “abortion of Versailles.”

There followed the lowest point of Wat’s life. Lwów was crammed with Polish refugee families, including much of literary Warsaw. For a time the new Soviet masters played a cat-and-mouse game with the Polish intellectuals, pressing them to recognize and support the new regime. Some, desperate with fear, consented. Others, seeing that this moral abdication would only postpone their inevitable destruction, refused. But Wat, along with other famous writers like Tadeusz Boy-Zeleå«nski and Wlå?adyslå?aw Broniewski, signed humiliating declarations and agreed to work on the regime’s tame Polish newspaper, Red Banner. Venclova gives us a few samples of its content:

The working people of the Western Ukraine, having languished for several decades under the yoke of Polish landowners and capitalists, can take only one decision. With pride and joy, they declare their desire to live under the sun of Stalin’s Constitution, in the united family of happy Soviet people!

To this, Aleksander Wat lent his name. The shame of those months was to overshadow the rest of his life with guilt.

Soon the arrests began. Wat was seized in a scene of Shakespearean horror and irony. His “friend” Daszewski had invited him and Ola to dinner at a restaurant with other Polish writers. A stranger entered, introduced by the host as a “Soviet art historian.” At a certain moment, the “art historian” suddenly punched one of the guests and overthrew the table; muscular men burst out from behind curtains and attacked the other guests. They were followed by the police. Wat was dragged away, half-conscious, and pushed into a car. Daszewski slipped into the street, and Ola saw the police making way for him. She did not see her husband again for nearly two years.

The captivity began. For the first few months, Wat was stifled and starved with twenty-eight other prisoners crammed into a single cell at Lwów. In the fall of 1940 he was transferred to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, where he was at least properly fed and civilly interrogated. His crime was never made clear, but neither was his fate. Then, after the Nazi invasion, Lubyanka was evacuated in July 1941 and Wat found himself again in terrible conditions in the main prison at Saratov, hungry, ill, and expecting that a further German advance would induce the NKVD to shoot all its prisoners before retreating. And it was here that his “religious conversion” took place.

He tried to describe it to Milosz. One night, weak and fevered with dysentery, he heard the Devil laughing outside in the prison corridor, a loud and vulgar laughter that came and went and came closer again. Then Satan entered his cell, “a devil with hooves, the devil from the opera.” Wat knew that this was somehow “the devil in history,” but “I felt something else, that the majesty of God was spread over history…. The ceiling of the cell was lifted away and God was above it all.” Later Wat realized that he had been delirious, and that the laughter was the air-raid siren of a patrol boat out on the darkness of the Volga River. But the revelation, the conviction, never left him.

Later came his release, his reunion with Ola and Andrzej, his time in Alma-Ata, and his last captivity in the Kazakh wilderness. But he had begun to write again.

In January 1942 he wrote “Willows in Alma-Ata,” a poem which somehow reached Poland and was reprinted by the underground press during the Nazi occupation, to be snatched up and memorized by the younger Polish generation in spite of its private references:

Willows are willows everywhere

Beautiful in rime and luster art thou, O willow of Alma-Ata.
Yet if I forget thee, O dead willow from the Rozbrat street,
let my hand forget her cunning!

Mountains are mountains everywhere

Before me Tian Shan sails in violet hues,
froth of light, stone of colors, it grows pale and vanishes.
Yet if I forget thee, O distant summit of Tatry,
O stream of Biala where I with my son imagined colorful sailings,
both of us blessed by the silent smile of our good patroness—
let me turn into the Tian Shan stone!

If I forget you
If I forget thee O my native city

O Warsaw night, rain and gateway, where

a beggar stretches his hand in the gateway
a dog has torn his coat.
Sleep Jedrus….

I spread my hands sorrowfully, like Polish weeping willow

If I forget you,
O gas lamps of the Zórawia street, the stations of the Calvary of
my loveshining hearts nestled in the dark bashfulness of leaves
and whisper and rustle and rain, rumble of a carriage in the
Alley and golden-feathered dawn of doves.

If I forget thee, O fighting Warsaw
O Warsaw foaming with blood

If I forget Thee
If I forget You

After the war, and especially after he had begun to visit France and Italy in the later 1950s, he became more prolific than he had ever been, in spite of the agonizing nervous illness which struck him down in 1953 and was to torment him until his suicide in Paris in 1967.

Tomas Venclova, by printing in Polish and English the text of many of Wat’s later poems and by his own discussion of them, has done an enormous service to literature. Wat emerges as one of the most talented and profound lyricists of his time. Venclova has also reconstructed, as far as possible, the fragments of Wat’s huge unfinished novel about Nazi Germany, Loth’s Flight, and summarized Wat’s extensive postwar critical writings about literature and politics. He gives a moving account of his last work.

Secretly, Wat made arrangements concerning his only property—his books and the tapes of My Century. He considered most of his work trash that might, at best, be of use to Ola should she decide to write an autobiography. In July 1967, he wrote his last poem, which was found later among his papers:

I clad myself in the armor of silence:
all the words are already taken away except for one.

Perhaps they were only on loan?

Perhaps they were only displayed
to tempt the eyes of a passerby?
and now is night, the dead of night?

That word, the last remaining one,
I am not allowed to pronounce it:
birds in the air would fall!
and thunder from the clouds
would strike the heart of my friend!
yet she is to visit my grave
so that both of us could find consolation
in silence
without words.

In retrospect, as Venclova says, Wat exaggerated the strength and permanence of Stalinism as a thought-system or “semantic universe.” But in doing so he was once more seeking to emphasize the scale of his own imagined guilt, even as a writer. Wat came to regret his own early assault on conventional meaning as a Futurist because, as Venclova puts it, there is “something in common between the avant-garde artist and the totalitarian dictator…generating and destroying meaning at will.”

Wat himself insisted to the end of his life on remorse as the dynamic motive of his work. “I perceive the world, life and myself through categories of guilt and punishment…. I’m neither a repentant intellectual nor a masochist—this is simply my burden as a Jew.” The second part of that is not persuasive: Wat was certainly repentant (though not about being an intellectual) and his self-punishment can sometimes seem excessive and compulsive. But it is a strength of Venclova’s wonderful book that, with much tact, he allows us to understand Wat’s work in its own brilliant, exultant, and iconoclastic vigor, without Wat’s own melancholy exegesis. And as I write these words, by strange coincidence, a friend telephones from Warsaw to tell me that his thirteen-year-old daughter has taken to writing Futurist poetry in the manner of Wat, in order to provoke her conservative and patriotic teacher. The Devil in Saratov had no words, only laughter, but it seems that the poet is still speaking and communicating from beyond the grave.

This Issue

November 28, 1996