On a recent visit to Warsaw, a relative, Wojtek, showed me his prized set of encyclopaedias. They had never been used by his children for their homework—over 70 years old, the information they contained was largely out of date. As a resource of information, this set of encyclopaedias was obsolete; however, looking at the books’ burnt spines and opening them up to find the edges of their pages were singed, I discovered they were kept for quite different reasons.
This set of encyclopaedias was one of the few survivors of the flames that engulfed his grandparents’ home when it was set alight during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. These books, symbolic of a pre-war cultural and intellectual heritage, had become objects, not to be read, but to be looked at. These books, Wojtek told me, spoke of something more than the information they contained. Their burnt spines told us something not only of the unspeakable physical destruction that Warsaw underwent, but of the intellectual life and systems of knowledge that occupation had sought to dismantle. As usable books to be read and rifled through, this set of encyclopaedias died in 1944, however they speak from beyond the grave as historical artefacts able to evoke both a national and a family history devastated by war.