Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

For Polish readers at the time of the novel’s publication, the most startling aspect of Ashes and Diamonds was to be found in its portrayal of members of the Home Army. Andrzejewski’s novel was actually the first work to be published in Poland under official government sanction, and this underground organization received much sympathetic coverage in place of the mandatory condemnation. Because of the constraints of censorship, however, Andrzejewski was unable to set forth completely the reasons for the Home Army’s hostility toward the Soviet Union and its Polish henchmen. Much of the bitterness harbored by Maciek Chelmicki and Andrzej Kossecki toward their adversaries must surely have arisen because both men participated in the revolt against the Germans in late 1944, as the Red Army approached the Polish capital.

The Home Army, which was controlled by the London-based government-in-exile, sought to take control of Warsaw before the Soviet forces arrived and launched an attack on the Germans stationed within the city. Not surprisingly, the Soviet response to the insurrection was to cease all military activity against the Germans near Warsaw, and the Home Army was thus left to its own resources in battling the vastly superior Nazi forces. The bitter struggle lasted more than two months and cost more than 200,000 Polish lives. After the surrender of the Home Army, the Germans forcibly evacuated the city and then destroyed what was left of it, block by block. No reference to this background is contained within the novel itself, but Polish readers were fully aware of the political circumstances surrounding the destruction of their capital.

Thus, Andrzejewski’s appeal to his compatriots was for both sides to end their self-destructive enmity and to unite in the task of rebuilding their devastated homeland. The alternatives are sharply delineated in the title of the novel, which was inspired by a poem by Cyprian Norwid, one of the major figures of the Romantic era in Polish literature. Andrzejewski hoped to remind his readers of the question posed by Norwid in his poem, whether all that is destined to remain of one’s life is ashes or whether it is possible to conduct one’s life in such a way that a diamond will be found among the ashes.