The End and the Beginning | Facing History & Ourselves
Reading

The End and the Beginning

Read this poem by Wislawa Szymborska and reflect on the aftermath of war.
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At a Glance

Reading

Language

English — US

Subject

  • English & Language Arts
  • Human & Civil Rights
  • The Holocaust

Wislawa Szymborska is a Nobel Prize–winning poet who grew up in Poland in the years between the two world wars. In this poem, titled “The End and the Beginning,” she writes of the adjustments made in the aftermath of every war.

After every war

someone has to tidy up.

Things won’t pick

themselves up, after all.

Someone has to shove

the rubble to the roadsides

so the carts loaded with corpses

can get by.

Someone has to trudge

through sludge and ashes,

through the sofa springs,

the shards of glass,

the bloody rags.

Someone has to lug the post

to prop the wall,

someone has to glaze the window,

set the door in its frame.

No sound bites, no photo opportunities,

and it takes years.

All the cameras have gone

to other wars.

The bridges need to be rebuilt,

the railroad stations, too.

Shirtsleeves will be rolled

to shreds.

Someone, broom in hand,

still remembers how it was.

Someone else listens, nodding

his unshattered head.

But others are bound to be bustling nearby

who’ll find all that

a little boring.

From time to time someone still must

dig up a rusted argument

from underneath a bush

and haul it off to the dump.

Those who knew

what this was all about

must make way for those

who know little.

And less than that.

And at last nothing less than nothing.

Someone has to lie there

in the grass that covers up

the causes and effects

with a cornstalk in his teeth,

gawking at clouds. 1

  • 1Wislawa Szymborska, “The End and the Beginning,” in View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems, trans. Stanislaw Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995), 178–80. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

French Countryside after World War II

French Countryside after World War II

Two brothers look down at their devastated town in the French countryside, Agneaux, as an American military Jeep drives by. The brothers’ father was executed by the Germans in 1944.

Credit:
PhotosNormandie, CC BY-SA 2.0

Connection Questions

  1. What kinds of challenges face a society in the immediate aftermath of war or mass violence? What are some of the challenges for the generations who grow up in a post-war society? 
  2. What images does the poem evoke? What do you picture as you read different stanzas of the poem? What imagery best represents the way you picture Europe as it looked after World War II?
  3. In what sense is the end of a war also a beginning? 

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "The End and the Beginning," last updated May 12, 2020.              

 

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