Life After War: The Bad, the Bad, and the Worse

By Anna Sebree

There are no two ways about it: life after war is a trying time. Whether a country “wins” or “loses”, there are bodies left to bury, buildings to brush up, and traumas to bear. Scars are left on a country and collective memory that may never fully heal. Whether the ends justify the means, or the war will go down as another failed rebellion, there will always be the aftermath to deal with. The rubble and ruins and wreckage left behind that doesn’t go away until it is dealt with. The parts of war that no one discusses; not the heroic uprising, or the tragic fall, not the justice or comradery, nor the jail or collapse, but the days, months, and years of reconstruction; sweeping the streets, rebuilding the shops, and resting the dead.

Wislawa Szymborska’s 1993 poem The End and the Beginning captures the devastating post-war realities like few others. In her poem The End and the Beginning, the Polish poet takes us on the journey of reconstruction, from the end of the war to the beginning of a country reborn. Her all-encompassing poetry is a trek from the moment a war initiates the clean-up process to the moment it must act as a lesson and a memory to the incoming generation; a generation not so shackled to the past that can light the way to the future.

Poland is a country that knows destruction and devastation all too well. The country’s physical borders expand and contract through the lens of time. The mid-20th century was no exception and marked a particularly catastrophic period in Polish history: the invasion of the Nazis, the invasion of the Soviets, the partition and subsequent re-assemblance of the country’s frontiers, the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the fall of Nazism, and the fall of communism, to name a few. Although today Poland operates independent from foreign forces and maintains a steady perimeter, the scars left behind from the atrocities of war can still be felt throughout the land.

By the end of World War II, two-fifths of Poland’s cultural property had been destroyed, and Poland’s capital, Warsaw, had been annihilated (1). Approximately 84% of Warsaw’s architecture was destroyed: 90% of its industrial infrastructure and historic monuments demolished, and 72% of residential buildings desolated (2). In the post-war era, Poles were left to pick up the pieces of their ravaged homes and capital city. Former residents and displaced persons pilgrimaged back to barren cities to begin the reconstruction process on a personal level. Building a house on the ruins of their home, trying to find lost family, friends, and neighbors, and recreating their life under the restrictions of an outside regime. In her poem, Wislawa Szymborska writes

“After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.

Someone’s got to shove
the rubble to the roadsides
so the carts loaded with corpses
can get by.

Someone’s got to trudge
through sludge and ashes,
through the sofa springs,
the shards of glass,
the bloody rags.

Someone’s got to lug the post
to prop the wall,
someone’s got to glaze the window,
set the door in its frame.”

Szymborska’s stanzas encapsulate the suffering that continues after the fighting is over. The harsh realities of the everyday citizen that takes a lifetime to restore. Her words represent the internal war that persists even after the weapons are laid down. There is nothing glamorous about having “to shove the rubble to the roadsides so the carts loaded with corpses can get by.” Nothing heroic about “propping up the wall, glazing the window or setting the door in its frame.” The reconstruction of a post-war country is daunting and demanding. It is a darker side of war that no one talks about. There are

“No sound bites, no photo opportunities
and it takes years.
All the cameras have gone
to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,
the railroad stations, too.
Shirt sleeves will be rolled
to shreds.”

The aftermath of a conflict is endured in solitude. The media has moved on to cover the latest atrocity, and the cities and their inhabitants are left behind to fend for themselves. In Warsaw, reconstruction councils were created by Poles to replicate what they had lost. The entire city was recreated using historical records, documentation, personal memory, conservation inventories, and art historian expertise. The process was completed in 1984, 39 years after the war ended (3).

Today, 76 years after the end of the war, 32 years after the fall of communism, Warsaw, along with the rest of Poland, has been largely rebuilt. Other than the lingering feeling of loss, there is little evidence to the untrained eye in the architecture of the buildings or the monuments that depict the loss and demolition Poland lived through. As time goes on, the memory of war and the labors of reconstruction, though never forgotten, become increasingly less pronounced and less painful. Szymborska declares in her poem

“Someone, broom in hand,
still remembers how it was.
Someone else listens, nodding
his unshattered head.
But others are bound to be bustling nearby
who’ll find all that
a little boring.

From time to time someone still must
dig up a rusted argument
from underneath a bush
and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew
what this was all about
must make way for those
who know little.
And less than that.
And at last nothing less
than nothing.

Someone’s got to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds.” (4)

The narrative of her concluding stanzas illustrate life years after the war is over. It is the part of reconstruction that happens after the physical labor is over; the cultural reconstruction that rebirths a nation as the memories of life before, during, and after war start to fade away. The new generations are less and less attached to the past until finally it is forgotten. Children will grow up far removed from the horrors of the past, and adults can lie upon the scarred ground unbeknownst to the depth of the tragedy that incurred where they lay. The final act of rebuilding is reaching a point in time where a person can enjoy the land free from the trauma it conceals.

However, today we find ourselves amidst a battle for memory. An on-going conflict centered around confronting the atrocities of the past. Although the streets have been rebuilt and the buildings restored, there is an undeniable quest to preserve the memory of those that came before and the tragedies they endured. Of course, there will be those that are disinterested in remembering the past. Those that “find all that a little boring,” but there are also those who refuse to let us forget; “from time to time someone still must dig up a rusted argument” and keep the spirit of memory alive.

In contemporary Poland the loss is felt, and the tragedies are discussed, but today’s natives and tourists alike can enjoy the fruits of the reconstructive labor. To say the history has been forgotten or the traumas ignored would be a gross exaggeration of modern-day realities, however, the restoration process has been successful enough that students can enjoy a night at the pub, or a stroll through the park without the debilitating memory of war. It is a memory that lives on with every generation without overshadowing the progress that has been made since.