After Hitler’s attack on Poland, Andrzej Panufnik became involved in the defence activities in the closest neighbourhood to his family home located at the apartment block at 14 Ks. Skorupki Street in the central district of Warsaw, where he was assigned to air-raid defence as a volunteer. He recalled later that during those first days the mood in Warsaw was quite optimistic, almost heroic. Under the influence of the atmosphere of those days, the composer began drafting a new orchestral work – the Heroic Overture. Soon, however, the situation changed. Poland was defeated, the act of capitulation was signed, and there could no longer be any question of composing a joyful, heroic piece. Panufnik abandoned work on the Overture, only to return to it many years later in totally different circumstances.
This was the time of Nazi occupation, and the people of Warsaw had to concentrate on looking after their basic needs. Obtaining food required much effort; the Panufniks managed by selling a number of instruments from father’s extensive collection. In March 1940 the Germans requisitioned the whole of Tomasz Panufnik’s collection, but fortunately most of it was regained after Andrzej took the risk of intervening with the German authorities on the matter. In spite of the difficult material situation, the Panufniks had reason to be thankful; so far, no family member had been hurt and all were well.
During the first months of 1940, Panufnik returned to creative work. Paradoxically, this was aided by the dangerous situation in the streets of Warsaw, where round-ups of innocent passers-by by the Nazi authorities threatened at all times. Thus the composer spent most of his time at home, and creative work allowed him to escape from the harsh reality outside. Looking for inspiration, he found in the library at home a collection of Polish folk melodies. Enchanted by their beauty and simplicity, in a short time he composed Five Polish Peasant Songs. During the following months he also continued work on Symphony No. 1, which he had begun during his stay in Paris, and in 1941 he composed his next symphony, Symphony No. 2. In the meantime he moved out of the family home. For a while he lodged at the house of Stanisław Dygat, a writer, then he became involved with Staszka Litewska, the widow of a cavalry colonel, and moved in with her.
During the war years Panufnik also became friendly with Witold Lutosławski, with whom he formed a piano duo, which gave concerts in Warsaw’s artistic cafés. The main reason for taking up that activity was the composer’s mundane need to earn a living. Since the occupying powers banned all legal cultural activity, café performances provided the only possibility for artists to practise their profession. The piano duo Lutosławski-Panufnik appeared almost daily, and their repertoire included transcriptions of classical works – from Bach to Brahms, works by Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky and Szymanowski (in spite of the ban, they played their own version of the ballet Harnasie), as well as Paganini Variations for two pianos, specially composed by Lutosławski. Panufnik recollects that at times they would stray outside classical music:
Sometimes, for fun, we performed jazz, particularly Duke Ellington and the best of the Americans, dangerously including the music of blacklisted Jewish composers such as Gershwin. Sometimes, to avoid boredom as we performed day after day, we would throw away caution in a different way and improvise our own jazz pieces, totally unrehearsed. Before starting, we would draw a diagram indicating tempo and harmonic progression in a given number of bars. From this tiny scrap of paper, we would spontaneously invent melodies, counterpoints and rhythmic patterns, taking staggering risks, terrifying each other by tearing away in flights of wild imagination, yet never giving away the secret to our audiences that we were improvising rather than performing carefully written and rehearsed music.
Work in the cafés brought not only money, but a degree of security since, being employed as a musician, enabled one to obtain an official German work permit, the Kennkarte, This made it easier to move around the city, and might save one’s life by avoiding arrest if caught in a round-up.
In 1942 an opportunity arose for organising official symphonic concerts in Warsaw. These would be tolerated by the German authorities, since they were being organised by the so-called Central Welfare Council, a charity organisation legalised by the occupiers. The organisers had at their disposal a symphony orchestra of 80 musicians. Many prominent Polish soloists and conductors, including Andrzej Panufnik, appeared with it before the charity ended its activities (at the start of the Warsaw Uprising). The Welfare Council concerts meant that some of the compositions written during the war had their first performances, among them two newly finished works by Panufnik, Tragic Overture and Symphony No. 2. The premières of these compositions, in March and May 1944, conducted by the composer himself, not only made a big impression on the audiences gathered at the wartime concerts, but they also confirmed the significant talent of the young artist. The first performance of Tragic Overture was also the occasion of the last (as it turned out) meeting between the composer and his brother, Mirek, who was killed when a bomb destroyed the family home a few months later, on 16 September 1944.
As part of his work for the Polish resistance movement, Panufnik composed a handful of patriotic songs during the war; the most popular among them was Warszawskie dzieci [Warsaw Children] to words by Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski.
During the Warsaw Uprising, Panufnik was looking after his sick mother, having moved with her to the outskirts of Warsaw. They left Warsaw at the beginning of July 1944, expecting to be back in the capital within a month at the latest. However, when the fighting broke out in Warsaw it became impossible to go back.
After the fall of the Uprising the Panufniks, like thousands of Varsovians driven out of their native city, decided to go to southern Poland. In January 1945 they reached Zakopane, but by early March the composer was able to go to Krakòw to assess the situation there. He was offered work by the Polish Army Film Unit, composing music for documentaries; he decided to accept the offer and move to Krakòw.
However, before starting his new life, at the beginning of May 1945, Andrzej travelled to Warsaw to find his manuscripts and to move his brother’s body to the family tomb in the cemetery of Powązki. He found Mirek’s temporary grave, dug in front of the apartment block, and with the help of others disinterred the body and, placing it in a wooden coffin, took it to Powązki. He then went to Staszka’s apartment, where he left his manuscripts. There he was told by a woman he had never met that she had thrown away all the papers she had found in the apartment, including his manuscripts.
I dashed down the stairs two at a time, leaping on to the stinking pile of rubbish. I began flinking empty tins, rotting food, burnt curtains, broken glass and blackened metal in every direction. With my bleeding hands, I examined every scrap of paper – but hope slowly dwindled into despair as I began to find little heaps of scorched paper, with the tracing of a crotchet or a minim, black on black, hardly visible. Someone had made a magnificent bonfire from the work of twenty years. My manuscripts were gone forever, victims of the Warsaw Uprising as surely as if they had been burnt by a Nazi firebomb rather than, by grimmest irony, incinerated at the hands of my uneducated, uninterested compatriot. I felt as crushed and broken as the buildings of Warsaw around me.
In those circumstances, similar to other composers whose creative output had been wholly or partially destroyed by the war, Panufnik had to start everything all over again.