Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817
The events which make up the plot of Jerzy Andrzejewski’s Ashes and Diamonds occur over a period of four days in an industrial city of modest size called Ostrowiec. Situated approximately ninety miles due south of Warsaw, the city of Ostrowiec had already been liberated by Soviet forces in January, 1945. The novel itself formally begins on Saturday, May 5. It is on this day that Stefan Szczuka, a Polish Communist in charge of administering the entire district, narrowly escapes assassination at the hands of some members of the outlawed underground organization known as the Home Army. An unfortunate consequence of the miscarried ambush is the inadvertent killing of two innocent workmen from a local cement factory. Maciek Chelmicki, one of the participants in the ambush, is ordered by his superiors to make a new attempt to eliminate the Communist functionary. Chelmicki therefore checks into the Hotel Metropol, where he succeeds in obtaining a room immediately adjacent to the one occupied by Szczuka. In the reception hall at this hotel an official banquet is to be held later on that same day in anticipation of the imminent surrender of Nazi Germany. There is also a less formal assembly of townspeople in the bar situated next to the reception hall of the hotel. By reporting on both of these gatherings in great detail, the author is able to acquaint his readers with a host of characters drawn from a wide spectrum of Polish society without unduly complicating the structure of the plot.
One of the problems confronting Szczuka pertains to the ultimate disposition of a case involving a former jurist named Antoni Kossecki, a man recently released from the German concentration camp of Grossrosen. Szczuka, for his part, has firsthand knowledge of Mr. Kossecki’s collaboration with the enemy, for he had also spent a few months at Grossrosen after his own arrest by the Gestapo before being transferred to other camps in Germany. Most distressed over the affair is Szczuka’s deputy, Franciszek Podgorski. He had known Mr. Kossecki before the war and had always found him to be a man of unblemished probity. Podgorski visits the Kossecki household, and, after a lengthy discussion with him, instructs the former jurist to report to Szczuka at six o’clock on Tuesday evening. Podgorski then departs to attend the victory banquet at the Hotel Metropol. The festivities at the hotel begin at nine o’clock in the evening and terminate at dawn on Sunday morning as the last guests march out onto the street performing a polonaise to the discordant beat of the music provided by the hired orchestra.
Szczuka and Podgorski spend Sunday and Monday in the country on Party business and are not scheduled to return to Ostrowiec until Tuesday, when they will attend the funeral of the two men from the cement factory. During this interval, the novel focuses on the moral dilemma now confronting Chelmicki. Shortly after having checked into the Metropol, Chelmicki met and fell in love with a young woman named Krystyna Rozbicka, who is employed as a barmaid at the hotel restaurant. Because of her, he now desires to make a clean break with his violent life in the Home Army and lays plans to enroll at a polytechnic institute. Most important among the Home Army members who finally persuade Chelmicki to carry out his commission is Andrzej, the eldest son of Mr. Kossecki.
On Tuesday morning, Chelmicki goes to the cemetery where Szczuka is scheduled to attend the burial service. Even though it proves to be a painful ordeal for Chelmicki to witness the burial, he remains firm in his resolve to kill Szczuka at the most opportune moment. Subsequently, he trails Szczuka to a house where the Party secretary hopes to obtain information about the manner in which his wife perished in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck from another former female inmate. Chelmicki bursts into the house and dispatches Szczuka with his revolver.
On his way back to the Hotel Metropol, the loudspeakers in the town square announce that the unconditional surrender of Germany has just been formally ratified by the German High Command in Berlin. Tomorrow will be the first day of peace in Europe. Immediately, Chelmicki checks out of the hotel and heads for the railroad station to catch the next train for Warsaw, where Krystyna has agreed to meet him. When he is challenged by a military patrol consisting of three Polish soldiers, however, Chelmicki suddenly panics and runs from them and is shot dead by one of the soldiers. Thus, the lives of both Szczuka and Chelmicki are terminated by equally senseless acts of violence. Still to be resolved is the case of Mr. Kossecki. Because of Szczuka’s death, it is Podgorski who must now pass judgment on the distinguishedjurist. Readers of Ashes and Diamonds are, accordingly, left to wrestle with this ethical dilemma for themselves.
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