Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
Stefan Szczuka (SHCHEW-kah), the son of a tailor, trained as an engineer. He becomes a member of the Communist Party in the period before the war and spends several years in prison for subversive activities. During the occupation, he is arrested again, this time by the Germans, and is sent to the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen. With the liberation of Poland by the Red Army, he becomes the head of the Communist Party Area Committee in the Southeast. Now in his mid-forties, he is ready to help build Communism in Poland. This, he believes, must be done according to the Soviet example, although through reconciliation, not revenge and repression. His credo is that a man lives in order to shape both his own country and history. His wife, Maria, was killed at Ravensbruck, and he is driven to find out details of her death. When he meets someone who will give him such information, however, he realizes that this knowledge is less important than knowing that she comforted her fellow prisoners, helping to protect them from doubts and despair. He is thus able to lay the past to rest, but this happens ironically just prior to his own death by an assassin’s bullet.
Antoni Kossecki, a “stubborn, honest, and ambitious” magistrate in Ostrowiec, a moderately sized town one hundred miles south of Warsaw. He is not a man of exceptional talents but has managed to rise through hard work and perseverance. He is arrested by the Germans early in the war and sent to the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen, where, under the name of Rybicki, he becomes a camp orderly, participating in the control and beating of other prisoners. He judges this collaboration necessary for survival. The price is a guilty conscience and fear of discovery. He reconciles himself to this evil chapter in his life by consciously cutting it out from the years of peace. Now, in his fifties, he believes that he may be able still to achieve peace of mind by making a positive contribution to society.
Frank Podgorski, a former law clerk of Antoni Kossecki, now the secretary of the local committee of the Communist Party in Ostrowiec. He returns from the war, in which he fought as a member of the underground, with a strong desire to create a new social order in conformity with Marxist historical rectitude. He expects this transformation to have the support and cooperation of the Polish people, but he has doubts. He asks himself if he is capable of making the necessary sacrifices that “the world demands.” He is pessimistic that the hopes of the dead and the living will ever be fulfilled. His attitude becomes more doctrinaire after the murder of his older mentor, Szczuka. He hardens into a party operative, abandoning shades of gray for a strict party code of right and wrong. Whereas, earlier, he could view Kossecki’s weakness in the face of death with sympathy, he now turns him over to the Security Police to be tried for war crimes.
Andrew Kossecki, Antoni’s twenty-one-year-old son. He served in the Polish underground while still in his teens, rising to the rank of lieutenant. His former struggle against Nazi Germany has now become one against the Communist government implemented by the Russians. His present assignment is to assassinate Communist Party boss Szczuka, a man he does not know and has no reason for wanting dead. He questions the necessity of carrying out the mission but in the end decides to obey the orders of his superiors.
Alexander Kossecki, the timid, seventeen-year-old younger brother of Andrew. He is involved in his own war. He is a member of a teenage gang that has vague goals of fighting Poland’s enemies, whoever they might be. Alexander’s diffidence and lack of resolution, typical of others in his generation, eventually are offset by a determination to start his own troop of fighters, all presumably possessing the same predilection and attraction toward violence.
Julius Szretter (SHREHT-tuhr), the leader of the teenage gang of which Alexander is a member. He is tall, slender, and cruel, a great bully. He kills one of the boys in his gang because he believes that the boy would betray them and is later proud that such an act helped to steel his resolve and demonstrate his worth as a leader.
Michael Chelmicki, a friend of Andrew and a conspirator in the plot to assassinate Szczuka. The first failed attempt resulting in the death of two strangers makes him brood about the lack of justification for such violence. When he falls in love with a young woman named Christina, he wants to quit altogether because continued participation in a right-wing death squad seems obscene next to an ordinary relationship of life without violence. His fear at letting down Andrew, however, overcomes his reservations and prompts him to carry out the murder by himself.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
While it is true that both Szczuka and Chelmicki are portrayed sympathetically throughout the novel, there can be no doubt that Andrzejewski draws a vital distinction between them on the basis of the political realities of postwar Poland. Despite his age, Szczuka represents the future of his nation in its role as a political and military ally of the Soviet Union. Since neither Szczuka nor his deputy are ever depicted in the act of enforcing any of the decrees issued by the Soviet-controlled regime in Warsaw, it is relatively easy for the author to present them in an entirely positive light.
In contrast to Szczuka, Chelmicki embodies the patriotic and conspiratorial tradition developed during Poland’s tragic historical experience as an enslaved nation. The destructive aspect of this mentality is underscored by an incident that occurs with a band of youths who attempt to imitate their elders by establishing a conspiratorial organization of its own. While Mr. Kossecki’s younger son, Alek, is one of its members, the moving force behind the organization is a charismatic youth named Juliusz Szretter. To instill a rigid sense of discipline among his subordinates, Szretter actually kills one of them for failing to comply with one of his demands. This deed is even more senseless than Chelmicki’s assassination of Szczuka.
The moral problem involving Mr. Kossecki is of an entirely different order. Like many other men, he proved to be incapable of withstanding the pressures of cruelty and degradation to which the inmates of concentration camps were routinely exposed. For the sake of personal survival, he allowed the Germans to make him a block warden, and he frequently inflicted severe corporal punishment on his fellow prisoners as part of his duties. In addition, many of his former victims charge that he carried out these shameful acts with great zeal. The former judge declares to Podgorski that the traditional moral principles of everyday life do not apply to the abnormal circumstances which prevailed during the German Occupation. As Podgorski takes leave of Mr. Kossecki, the assistant administrator is pleased to recall that Szczuka is the one who is obliged to make the decision as to whether this case is to be prosecuted. Ironically, because of Szczuka’s subsequent assassination, Podgorski himself will be forced to pass judgment on Mr. Kossecki.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58
Krynski, Magnus J. “The Metamorphoses of Jerzy Andrzejewski: The Road from Belief to Skepticism,” in The Polish Review. VI, no. 1 (1961), pp. 111-116.
Krzyzanowski, Jerzy R. “On the History of Ashes and Diamonds,” in Slavic and East European Journal. XVI, no. 3 (1971), pp. 324-331.
Miosz, Czesaw. “Alpha, the Moralist,” in The Captive Mind, 1953.
Miosz, Czesaw. The History of Polish Literature, 1983.
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