Ascent to Heaven (Wniebowstapienie)

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ASCENT TO HEAVEN (Wniebowstąpienie)

Novella by Adolf Rudnicki, 1948

Ascent to Heaven (1951; Wniebowstąpienie, 1948) by Adolf Rudnicki remains one of his most representative works on the subject of the Holocaust. In the manner typical of this Polish writer, the novella combines the elements of fiction and reality and uses such diverse narrative forms as the short story, reportage, and historical document. It is a tragic tale of a young Jewish couple who strives and does not succeed to survive the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Poland. The main characters, Raisa and Sebastian, get married shortly after the Nazi army attacks the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Polish city of Lwów, where the couple lives, was occupied by the Soviets until the German invasion. The city's inhabitants flee eastward to the Soviet Union, but Raisa and Sebastian decide to stay. The terror that immediately follows the Nazis' entrance to Lwów, however, makes the couple escape to Warsaw. While they find help and shelter with the Poles, the couple's life continues to be full of anxiety and fear. To survive they constantly have to move from one apartment to another. Their tormented life becomes even more difficult after Sebastian, who "does not acknowledge the presence of the Germans" and attempts to live a normal life, shows signs of a serious mental illness caused by constant fear. His unpredictable behavior endangers the life of Raisa and their cohabitants. She does everything to protect her husband, but her heroic efforts are in vain, as one day he leaves the house and gets arrested. After two months in a Nazi prison, he is taken out to work, and one night, apparently during an escape attempt, is shot dead. Raisa also gets killed, but a little later: she is buried under the rubble of a bombed house during the Warsaw Uprising in September 1944.

Alongside the story of Raisa and Sebastian, Rudnicki also tells a more general tale of the realities of life in Nazi-occupied Poland. He presents, even if sketchily, other characters and their efforts to survive the war, and lists, rather dryly, many facts about the Second World War and the lives of the Polish Jews during the German occupation of Poland. Many facts are contained within both the conversations between the characters and the descriptions of their actions. Yet it is not only the novella's unforgettable dramatic content but also the distinct voice of the narrator and diverse narrative forms that make Ascent to Heaven a highly valuable testimony to the Holocaust. The distinct narrator, found in all Rudnicki's short stories, is able to be emotional, sometimes even sentimental, and also show presumably little or no passion. His emotionality is voiced almost throughout the entire presentation of the main characters' love. But Raisa's obsessive love for her mentally ill husband ("ascent to heaven" is a metaphor for her love) is depicted against the stark images of the tragedy of the Jews. This contrast provides the narrator with enough motives for his almost uncontrolled emotionality combined paradoxically with his dry and dispassionate voice. In it one can even hear irony or sarcasm, as in his comment on Raisa's honeymoon (one that should be wished to no one) or in his observation that the radiant moments of a person's life do not always harmonize with history. The fictitious tale of Raisa and Sebastian intertwined with such comments and observations, along with the dry reporting of the war's historical events, make Ascent to Heaven a work of diverse narrative forms, expressing effectively a strong moral message about the highest of human values.

—Andrzej Karcz