Krystyna Żywulska is best known as the author of Przeżyłam Oświęcim (I Survived Auschwitz), her candid and moving account of life and death in the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps. Published in Poland immediately after the war, Żywulska's memoir represents one of the earliest and most significant contributions to Polish literature on the Holocaust. Less known, but no less important, are Żywulska's songs and poetry created during her imprisonment. These remarkable works offer valuable insight into the daily experiences and cultural activities of prisoners in the Nazi camps.
Żywulska was born Sonia Landau on 1 September 1914 in Łódź, Poland. There she completed her schooling at a Jewish gymnasium before pursuing law in Warsaw. Prevented from further study after the Nazi occupation of Poland in September 1939, she returned home to be with her father, mother and younger sister. As the Nazi persecution of Jews in Łódź grew more violent following the city's incorporation into the Third Reich, the Landau family fled to Warsaw, where they were eventually relocated to the ghetto in 1941. Weighing the chance of survival against the certainty of deportation or death by starvation, Żywulska daringly walked out of the ghetto with her mother on 26 August 1942. On the 'Aryan side' she assumed a false identity, that of Zofia Wiśniewska, joined the Polish resistance and provided aid to Jews-in-hiding and German deserters by counterfeiting identity cards and documents. To the Nazi authorities who sought her capture she was known only as 'Blond Zosia'.
In August 1943, she was arrested and taken to the infamous Gestapo headquarters on Szucha Avenue in Warsaw. Under interrogation she assumed the identity of Krystyna Żywulska. From Szucha she was transported to Pawiak prison, then to Auschwitz, where she was registered as a Polish political prisoner. Twenty years later, apparently compelled to reveal her Jewish identity before her readers, Żywulska published Pusta woda (Empty Water); in it she describes her experiences in the Warsaw ghetto and, after her escape, the agonising paradox of life in hiding on the 'free' side of the ghetto walls.
Though she had never before written poetry, in Auschwitz Żywulska began creating verses in order to endure the endless roll-calls to which prisoners were subjected. Fellow inmates eager to learn her poems memorised and disseminated them beyond an immediate circle of friends. Among the most popular was 'Wymarsz przez brame' (March out through the gate), which records with biting humour the reality of marching out to labour details beyond the camp, and concludes with an inspiring call to persevere until the day of liberation. It was Żywulska's poem 'Apel', however, that in large part saved her life; a well-positioned older prisoner named Wala Kostecka heard the poem and, so taken by it, sought out its author, offering protection to a near-death Żywulska and eventually securing her transfer to Birkenau and an Effektenkammer kommando (work detail) in February 1944.
Work in the Effektenkammer — storage facilities for personal effects confiscated from arriving prisoners — was considered among the best in the camp. Prisoners assigned to this type of labour squad were safeguarded against harsh physical labour outdoors and had ample opportunity to illegally obtainfood, clothing and other valuables. They slept in smaller barracks, were allowed to wear civilian clothes and grow their hair and were released from both roll-calls and selections. Yet for all of their privilege, the Effektenkammer workers, located adjacent to the crematorium, could not escape the sight, screams and stench of the relentless, daily mass killings taking place just a few yards away.
It was under these circumstances that Żywulska wrote some of her most provocative poems. Enormously in demand, they rapidly spread from Birkenau to Auschwitz, principally through oral transmission; two were set to pre-existing melodies and disseminated more broadly in parody-song form. 'Tancz, dziewczyno' (Dance, Girl, 1944), for example, was adapted to the tune of a Czech/Slovak czardasz, Ešče si já pohár vínka, by Auschwitz inmate Krzysztof Jażdżyński. Jażdżyński similarly set to music the extensive "Wycieczka w nieznane" (Excursion into the Unknown, 1944), modifying when necessary Żywulska's text to fit the alternating melodies of the international hits Santa Lucia and Gloomy Sunday. Żywulska also contributed to, and took part in, clandestine satirical cabaret held in the Effektenkammer barracks in 1944. During such performances, prisoners recited poems, danced, and sang songs created in the camp.
Other verses by Żywulska were from their inception conceived for singing. Wiązanka z Effektenkammer (Medley from the Effektenkammer), among the lengthiest of compositions to survive the camps, was a string of 54 song fragments set to an array of Polish folk songs and prewar popular tunes. Typed on 45 pages, decorated with multi-coloured drawings by fellow inmate Zofia Bratro and signed by 72 prisoners, Żywulska's Wiązanka was presented as a name-day card to block Kapo Maria Grzesiewska-Wojciechowska on 8 September 1944. Corresponding melodies were indicated at the head of each of Żywulska's songs, and the entire Wiązanka was performed by four inmates, including Żywulska. The inscription on the title page affectionately reads: 'For our dear Maria on her name day, from all of those with whom she shared the good and the bad, and whom she helped to endure — as a souvenir.' Although the shifting texts of Wiązanka z Effektenkammer register kaleidoscopically the everyday universe of the Effektenkammer, they also lead consolingly to visions of future happiness, to life after captivity. In its overt sentimentality, Wiązanka powerfully records the optimism and encouragement Żywulska shared with her fellow inmates.
Towards the end of 1944, Żywulska also composed one other parody song, 'Marsz o wolnosci' (March of Freedom), borrowing the well-known Soviet tune 'Moskva mayskaya' (Moscow in May) (music by Dmitriy and Daniel Pokrass, 1937). Also known as the 'Parting March', it was sung by prisoners including Żywulska during their forced evacuation from Birkenau. Żywulska escaped from this so-called 'death march' on 18 January 1945.
The exact number of Żywulska's camp poems and songs remains uncertain, but at least eight complete texts survive. These are all invariably marked by a vivid realism, a quality of direct and sober reportage. Some like Wycieczka w nieznane very poignantly juxtapose the peaceful sounds and images of nature and life beyond the camp with the grotesque, death-ridden environment of Birkenau. Yet while sarcasm and irony prevail, Zywulska's compositions seldom lapse into despair. Rather they most often exude life, specifically Żywulska's own will to live, and deliver a powerful message of resistance. That several of these creations have survived in numerous variants, with alternate titles and accompanying music, is a testament to their widespread popularity and the profound impact they made on the inmate populations of Auschwitz and Birkenau.
After the war, Żywulska remained in Poland, married and had two sons. She worked as a writer, mostly of satire, contributing pieces to the magazine Szpilki and fashioning satirical monologues for Polish actors such as Alina Janowska as well as directly for Polish Radio. She was also a successful songwriter. In 1968 her 'Żyje się raz' (You Only Live Once) (music by A. Markiewicz) became an instant hit in Poland when it was debuted by the singer Sława Przybylska. 'Proszę pana, jestem taka zakochana' (Please, Sir, I'm So in Love) (music by J. Szczgiel) was also famously popularised by Przybylska. In 1970, Żywulska moved to Düsseldorf to be with her sons, who had earlier emigrated to the west. She died there on 1 August 1992. Those who had been closest to Żywulska remember her as a woman who loved to laugh, sing and jest. In the last decade of her life, without training and with impressive success, she took up painting, fulfilling a life-long desire.
By Barbara Milewski
Zywulska, K., 2004. Przeżyłam Oświęcim, Warszawa: tCHu.
Zywulska, K., 1963. Pusta Woda, Warszawa: Iskry.
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Kulisiewicz, A., 1982. Polskie Piesni Obozowe, 1939-1945.