Beyond Cohesion: Classical Songs from the Polish Partitions

My ideas in organizing this concert centered on the years during the Partitions of Poland when rightful artistic emphasis was put into keeping the Polish citizens of Prussia, the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary self-aware and proud.

After the unsuccessful uprisings of 1830 and 1863, a focus on domestic improvement called Positivism appeared which today might be called “organic”. At the same time, classical artistry in song was beginning to reach a degree of importance already felt for years in Western Europe.

The great patriotic hymns of the 19th century and before, continuing to burn in the collective consciousness, were soon joined by a classical component of song which has never enjoyed much of an audience.

The often noticeable doses of folk idiom and coded lyric in these songs showed that one of the goals of Polish art of the era stayed intact, but now composers could take melody and rhythm way beyond the march and mazurka. Chopin already had some years before – to somewhat auspicious result!

And the songs’ relative lack of audience thus far wouldn’t be a crime if the pieces weren’t so beautiful…

Prop Thtr, Chicago, IL
Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mark Piekarz, tenor
Una Stroda, piano

1. Moja piosenka [c.1871] – My Song
Aleksander Zarzycki (1834–1895)
Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812–1887)

2. Jeśli jest ten kwiat złoty [c.1873] – If It Is This Golden Flower
Aleksander Zarzycki (1834–1895)
Victor Hugo (1802–1885), tr. Kornel Ujejski (1823 – 1897)

3. Pieśń Jaruhy [1879] – Jaruha’s Song
Władysław Żeleński (1837–1921)
Józef Ignacy Kraszewski (1812–1887)

4. Zawsze i wszędzie – Always and Everywhere
Władysław Żeleński (1837–1921)
Zygmunt Krasiński (1812–1859)

5. Na ligawce – On the Ligawka
Stanisław Niewiadomski (1859–1936)
Marian Gawalewicz (1852–1910)

6. Na początku nic nie było – In the beginning, there was nothing
Stanisław Niewiadomski (1859–1936)
Adam Asnyk (1838–1897)

7. Dumka – Ukrainian Song
Piotr Maszyński (1855–1934)
Maria Konopnicka (1842-1910), “Po rosie, IV”

8. Żórawie – The Cranes
Piotr Maszyński (1855–1934)
Maria Konopnicka (1842–1910)

9. O zmroku niebios – In the Dark Firmament
Eugeniusz Pankiewicz (1857–1898)
Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), tr. Adam Mieleszko-Maliszkiewicz

10. Zawód – Disappointment
Felicjan Szopski (1865–1939)
Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer (1865 – 1940)

11. Pożegnanie – The Farewell
Zygmunt Noskowski (1846–1909)
Władysław Noskowski

12. Dwie zwrotki do Imionnika Jadwigi M. – Two stanzas from the diary of Jadwiga M.
Zygmunt Noskowski (1846–1909)

13. Palmy [c.1910] – The Palms
Ludomir Różycki (1883–1953)
Tadeusz Mićinski (1873–1918)

14. Akwarela [c.1910] – Watercolor
Ludomir Różycki (1883–1953)
Tadeusz Mićinski (1873–1918)

15. Łabędź [1912] – The Swan
Stanisław Lipski (1880–1937)
Maria Paruszewska (1864–1937)

16. Z nową wiosną [1895] – With the New Spring
Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909)
Czesław Jankowski (1857–1929)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A small correction, then: The value of remembering

First, I’m pleased to report that the Concerts of Polish Music at Ravinia, discussed in a previous posting, actually endured much longer than I wrote. I’ve since learned (with the help of Brother Bill Hallas in accessing the archives of the Congregation of the Resurrection in the Irving Park neighborhood) that the concerts lasted yearly until 1938.

* * *

Even though I’ve made a conscious effort to place emphasis (particularly for performance purposes) on songs with lighter subject matter or mood, a person can’t help but see the slant in Polish classical songs towards pessimism and, yes, depression. Those composing songs under the Third Partition utilized the poems of the day; using coded imagery to depict resistance and patriotism was a great tool, used countless times to squeeze past the censors.

Cenzury (Censors’) markings appeared only on music printed in the area of the Polish Partitions controlled by Imperial Russia. The following pieces were published in Warsaw (Russia controlled) as opposed to Kraków (Austrian controlled):

Z jesiennych tonów (From Autumn Tones)
Władysław Rzepko (1854-1932)
Passed by censor on July 8, 1895
Rzepko, Z jesiennych tonów, 1895

Krakowiak “Płyną jasne zdroje…” (The clear springs are flowing…)
Piotr Maszyński (1855-1934)
Passed by censor on May 17, 1897
Maszynski, Krakowiak - Clear Springs are flowing

Twój cień (Your Shadow)
Włodzimierz Kenig (1883-1929)
Passed by wartime censor on January 13, 1915
Kenig 1883-1929, Twoj cien, 1915

Seeing markings like this made life under these Partitions seem closer and more relevant, and definitely more real…

Even though examples abound in my archive of Polish songs of bodies and hearts torn apart, and eternal goodbyes of young men off to battle, I’d argue that these obsessions were almost always necessary and, upon thoughtful consideration, unremarkable.

To show wider subject matter of Polish songs, I’ll offer two poems which were put to music by Eugeniusz Pankiewicz (1857-1898), a short-lived composer of world-class talent. I really hope to record these in the near future.

Huczy woda
The Water Roars
Adam Asnyk (1838-1897)

Huczy woda po kamieniach,
A na głębi cicho płynie –
Nie sądź ludzi po zachceniach,
Ale prawdy szukaj w czynie.
Water roars over the rocks,
But quietly flows in the depths –
Do not judge people by their desires,
But search for truth in action.

Kto prawdziwe czuć niezdolny,
Ten się szumem słowa pieści –
Potok głośny a swawolny
Mało wody w sobie mieści.
The person who truly feels powerless
Is the one who is concerned with noise of words –
The brook is loud but careless,
And there’s little water to be found in it.

Lecz spokojnej cisza toni
Zwykle wielką głąb zwiastuje –
Na wiatr uczuć swych nie trwoni,
Kto głęboko w duszy czuje!
But the peaceful silence of the deep
Usually portends the great fathoms –
Whoever feels deeply in his soul,
Doesn’t squander his feelings on the wind!

A Morning
Michał Bałucki (1837-1901)

Był poranek cudowny, uroczy,
Słonko z deszczu przetarło swe oczy
i promieńmi złotemi, drzącemi
Do zbudzonej uśmiecha się ziemi.
It was a miraculous, charming morning
her eyes were paved with sunshine through rain
and their rays seemed golden, trembling to
awaken to the earth with a smile.

W taki ranek z jednego okienka
Jasnowłosa wyjrzała panienka
i skinęła mi przyjaźnie główka,
i rzekła mi na dzień dobry słówko.
On such a morning, the blonde maiden
looked out from a window
and warmly lifted her head to me
and gave me a sweet word.

A mnie było w duszy w one rano
Od spojrzenia tego tak świetlano,
Że choć potem za tę szczęścia chwilkę,
Zapłaciło męką serce biedne,
To przecierpiałbym raz jeszcze tyle,
By mieć jeszcze chwilkę taką jednę.
But I felt in my soul that fragrant morning –
Amidst such bright glances as these –
And though after those happy moments
Our poor hearts paid with anguish,
If I had to suffer one more time like this,
I’d have one more moment like this.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Polish music at Ravinia

Although I’ve neglected the “American” side of “Polish-American” history thus far, my next postings will be devoted to the history of Polish culture in Chicago.

In the years 1926-1928, the Polski Klub Artystyczny w Chicago (Polish Arts Club of Chicago) was successful in organizing concerts of Polish-composed and Polish-themed music at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. From looking at the Polish-language press of the day, the club prepaid for usage of the beautiful venue; arts journalists at these publications made it clear that large audiences were important to keep the annual evenings viable. Appropriately, there was mention of the ease of taking the very same trains we take today for transportation to the park.

It’s a tragedy that the annual concerts only lasted for three years. In hindsight, the ambitious step of devoting the third concert in 1928 to more modernist composers might’ve been overly ambitious!

Here is some detail of these notable evenings from the distant past:

Concert 1: Sunday, August 2, 1926
1. Polonia, Richard Wagner
2. Jeszcze Polska nie Zginęła (Poland Is Not Yet Dead)
3. Compositions by Ignacy Jan Paderewski and other Polish Composers
4. Three songs sung by Janina Burska of the Metropolitan Opera of New York by Władysław Żeleński, Zygmunt Noskowski, Ignacy Kossobudzki

Concert 2: Sunday, August 7, 1927
1. Three songs by Stanisław Niewiadomski, Janina Burska, mezzo-soprano
2. Selections by Frederic Chopin, Eleonora Koskiewicz, piano
3. Program of Music by Polish composers, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Eric Delamarter conducting
4. Scheduled opera: Rigoletto

Third Concert: Sunday, August 5, 1928
1. Tatry, Mieczyslaw Ziółkowski
2. Orchestral works, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Eric Delamarter:
a) Morskie Oko (Eyes of the Sea), 1875, Zygmunt Noskowski, Opus 19
b) Concerto, Mieczysław Karłowicz
c) Ballet Managua, Karol Szymanowski
3. Two choruses: Philharmonic Singing Society, conducted by B. Rybowiak
a) Na cześć wiosny (On the Return of Spring) by Karol Mieczysław Prosnak
b) Sztandary Polskie na Kremlu (The Polish Banner over the Kremlin), Wacław Lachman, sung by the Filarets Singing Society, A.M. Hess conductor
4. Cracovienne Fantastique, Opus 17, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Mieczysław Ziółkowski, piano
5. Sonata, George Frideric Handel, Stanisław Szpinalski and Wilkomirski, piano
6. Scheduled opera: Carmen (Janina Burska in the title role)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A love poem of old

These sentiments are not new – nor were they at the time – but I enjoyed reading and translating this poem of Daniel Naborowski(1573-1640), a Polish Calvinist and poet:

Do Anny
To Anna

Z czasem wszytko przemija, z czasem bieżą lata,
Z czasem państw koniec idzie, z czasem tego świata.
Z czasem ustawa dowcip i rozum niszczeje,
Z czasem gładkość, uroda, udatność wiotszeje.
In time everything passes, with time the years dash forward,
In time states come to their end; with time, the world also.
In time law is a joke and reason deteriorates,
In time smoothness, beauty, and finery decay.

Z czasem kwitnące łąki krasy ostradają,
Z czasem drewa zielone z liścia opadają.
Z czasem burdy ustają, z czasem krwawe boje,
Z czasem żal i serdeczne z czasem niepokoje.
In time flowering meadows lose their beauty,
In time the green tree is deprived of its leaves.
In time the brawls cease, and the bloody battles as well,
In time, heartfelt grief makes for anxiety.

Z czasem noc dniowi, dzień zaś nocy ustępuje,
Czasowi zgoła wszytko na świecie hołduje.
Szczera miłość ku tobie, Anno, me kochanie,
Wszystkim czasem na despekt nigdy nie ustanie.
In time night yields to day and day gives way to night,
Absolutely everything on earth pays homage to time.
My sincere love for you, Anna, my dearest –

In an affront to time – will never cease.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Last Lullaby – for Paderewski, 1941

In this posting, I’m offering theories with little proof. From my experience, though, their accuracy is probable.

I found an absolutely beautiful piece entitled Ostatnia Kołysanka (The Last Lullaby), with words and music by Mieczysław Oleszkiewicz (d. 1965). It was dedicated to Ignacy Jan Paderewski, eminent Polish pianist, composer and statesman, who died in 1941 – a time when few proper memorials were possible.

Kołysanki (Lullabies, from the verb kołysać, “to rock”, are a significant presence in Polish folk music. In Poland, and in other countries, folk tunes arranged as classical songs and dances often took on greater meaning than history lessons in national ethos. The Kołysanka is a great example; I’ve come across very many examples of lullabies in my research, in both song and instrumental settings. In Poland’s case in particular, I could easily imagine the appeal of a song devoted to rest and peace in chaotic times.

Mieczysław Oleszkiewicz was decidedly not a known figure in the history of Polish music; this is the only piece I can find from him. The only records I can find of a person with his name is a mathematician and inventor from Warsaw who taught in the faculty at the Warsaw Polytechnic University circa 1947. If this is true, he was also a director of a College Prep School in Piaseczno, a suburb of Warsaw 10 miles to the south.

There is also a record of someone with that name registering a patent with the Polish government for a pocket ashtray in May 1930… as well as writing a textbook on differential equations in 1947.

As I have no proof that these are one in the same person, only my personal instincts say that they are. The combination of a mathematical inclination with any kind of passion for music is somewhat common, I’ve found. I hope to post a recording soon.

I couldn’t find an example of Paderewski ever composing a Kołysanka, but still think the piece is striking, and fitting – especially given the era of horror.

Dziecinnych lat czarowny świat
wspominam dzisiaj znów,
jak obraz z dawnych snów,
w tęskniącem sercu mem
dawna piosenka wciąż brzmi,
którą, najdroższa moja mateńko,
do snu śpiewałaś mi:
The enchanting world of childhood years
I recall again today,
Like the image from old dreams –
in the longing of my heart
the old song still sounds –
the song with which you, my dearest mother,
sang me to sleep:

“Spij, mój maleńki,
cicho, cichutko,
niech ci się przyśni raj”…
“Sleep, my little one,
quietly, quietly,
May you dream of paradise”…

A gdy odeszłaś od nas zawsze,
do snu cichego, co wiecznie trwa,
chcę dzisiaj Tobie na Twoim grobie
tę kołysankę zaśpiewać ja:
But when you went from us forever,
to quiet, eternal sleep,
I want today to sing you
this lullaby at your grave:

Śpij, Matko moja, po ziemskim znoju,
śpij ci chuteńko w wiecznym spokoju,
śpij, moja Matko, śpij,
wiecznym snem, wiecznym snem…
Sleep, My Mother, from all the Earth’s toil,
sleep quiet one, in eternal peace,
sleep, my Mother, sleep,
in eternal sleep, eternal sleep…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Detours from Poland: Russia (1835), Germany (1922)

I had the pleasure recently to perform post-show music following the premieres of two plays at the Prop Theatre (3502 N Elston Ave, Chicago). It was a challenge to find pieces which complemented the very fine plays, and which shed some artistic background on their eras.

Friday, February 17
Diary of a Madman
Nikolai Gogol, 1835

1. Ya Vas lyubil’ (I loved you)
Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky, 1832
2. Ya lyublyu, ty mne tverdila (“I love you”, you insisted)
Mikhail Glinka, 1827
3. Ona prid’yot (She will come)
Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky

Friday, March 23
Drumming In the Night
Bertolt Brecht, 1920

1. Auf, auf zum Kampf (Up, up, to fight)
Version of text by Bertolt Brecht, song from the Franco-Prussian War
2. Oh Falladah, die du hangest! Ein Pferd klagt an.*
Text: Bertolt Brecht, Music: Hanns Eisler
3. Schließe mir die Augen beide (Close both my eyes)
Text: Theodor Storm, Music: Alban Berg, 1907
4. Brüder, zur Sonne, zur Freiheit (Brother, to the Sun, to Freedom), 1920
Russian folksong, translated to German in 1918

* Translation difficult, but it’s written from the viewpoint of a horse that’s being carved up by hungry Post WWI Berliners for meat (!)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The unclaimed legacy – a primer, 1860

The following is the beginning section of a rhyming history of Poland written by Maria Ilnicka, a poet, journalist, feminist and participant in the January Uprising of 1863.

Ilnicka completed the Illustrowany Skarbczyk Polski (An Illustrated Jewel-Box of Poland) in 1860, during a period of increased liberation efforts. It has sections of verse dedicated to choice characters of history, with prose commentaries following them. Near the book’s conclusion, I was shocked to find a series of six songs written to Ilnicka’s verse by Stanisław Moniuszko, a hugely important writer of Polish songs. The beginning section translated below is one of those six sections put to music.

It’s worthy to mention that the history contained in this book for children ends in the mid 17th century: even for 1860, this history was rather distant. It seems that Ilnicka and many others saw the waning century of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the subsequent era of partition as secondary to more heroic eras in Polish history.

As always, suggestions to my translation are welcome.

Do ……
To the Reader

Mój złotowłosy synku maleńki,
Wiem ja, że bardzo lubisz piosenki,
Które ci nucę niekiedy.
O wiernych pieskach, o białych kotkach,
Jasnych aniołkach, małych sierotkach,
Które Bóg strzeże wśród biedy.

My little golden-haired son,
I know that you dearly love
the songs that I hum to you at times.
Of the loyal puppies, pure kittens,
Bright angels, little orphans,
Whom God protects amidst disaster.

Ale są jeszcze piosenki inne,
Przy których dźwięku serce niewinne,
Zadrży nieznanem wzruszeniem:
O starych czasach, o ludziach dawnych,
Królach, hetmanach, rycerzach sławnych,
Co śpią pod mogił kamieniem.

But there are other songs,
before which the sounds of innocent hearts
tremble with unknown emotion:
About the olden days, about ancient peoples –
kings, hetmans, famous knights,
who sleep beneath stone graves.

To dziady twoje, to ojce twoje!
W grób z sobą wzięli skrzydlate zbroje,
Wzięli święcone bułaty.
Lecz zostawili sławy puściznę,
A ten kto taką ma ojcowiznę,
I tak dość jeszcze bogaty.

They are your grandfathers, your fathers!
They brought their winged armor into the grave,
They brought their hallowed swords.
But they left an unclaimed legacy,
But he who has that inheritance,
Is wealthy enough already.

Lecz skarby swoje znać trzeba dziecię,
By potem za nie kupić na świecie,
Wszystko, co wielkie a święte:
Trzeba je mówię, znać i szacować,
W synowskiem sercu z miłością chować,
By w proch nie padły strząśnięte.

Children must know their treasures –
so they can then purchase
all that is great and holy in the world:
I must tell about them, to know and appreciate them –
to educate with love the filial heart,
so these treasures won’t be tossed to the dust.

Słuchaj więc synku, co śpiewać będę
Gdy cię do serca tuląc usiędę
Pod Matki Boskiej obrazem;
Bo to królowa tych, co śpią w grobie
Pobłogosławi i mnie i tobie,
Kiedy westchniemy doń razem!…

So listen, my son, to what I sing
when I sit you down, your heart nestled
under Our Lady’s image;
Because the queen sleeping in the grave is yours,
and she blesses us both
while we yearn together for Him!…

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

1859: A pre-execution tribute to John Brown, and a warning

In 1859, Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote a poem concerning the then-upcoming execution of John Brown, famous American abolitionist. He had spent about eighteen months, from September 1852 to April 1854 in New York.

The “peculiar institution” obviously made a huge impression on him; more than five years after his return to Europe, he felt the need to write about a figure who brought the conflict between American ideals and American reality to the forefront.

Cyprian Norwid was, put simply, the first of the Polish modern poets. I hope to include as many translations of his works as I can, but here is the first.

Do obywatela Johna Brown
(Z listu pisanego do Ameryki w 1859, listopada)
To Citizen John Brown
(From a letter written to America in November, 1859)

Przez Oceanu ruchome płaszczyzny
Pieśń Ci, jak mewę, posyłam, o! Janie…
Like a seagull, I send a song to you, O John,
across the ocean’s floating plane,

Ta lecieć długo będzie do ojczyzny
Wolnych – bo wątpi już: czy ją zastanie?…
– Czy też, jak promień Twej zacnej siwizny,
Biała – na puste zleci rusztowanie:
By kata Twego syn rączką dziecinną
Kamienie ciskał na mewę gościnną!
Long will be this flight, to the home
of the Free – for there are already doubts: will it arrive?…
– Also whether the beam from thy frosty white
nobility will be assigned to the empty scaffold:
So the childish hands of thy executioner’s son
will throw stones at the guest seagull!

Więc, niźli szyję Twoją obnażoną
Spróbują sznury, jak jest nieugiętą;
So they check the ropes and
see that your bare neck is unyielding;

Więc, niźli ziemi szukać poczniesz piętą,
By precz odkopnąć planetę spodloną –
A ziemia spod stóp Twych, jak płaz zlękniony,
Pierzchnie –
więc, niźli rzekną: “Powieszony…” –
Rzekną i pojrzą po sobie, czy kłamią? –
So you’ll search for the ground with your heels,
So as to cast off this debased planet –
But the earth takes flight from under thy feet,
like a frightened reptile –
Then they will utter the word: “He’s hanged…” –
They’ll mutter and glance at each other: “is this a lie?” –

Więc, nim kapelusz na twarz Ci załamią,
By Ameryka, odpoznawszy syna,
Nie zakrzyknęła na gwiazd swych dwanaście:
“Korony mojej sztuczne ognie zgaście,
Noc idzie – czarna noc z twarzą Murzyna!”
Therefore they crumple his hat down upon his face
Before America can recognize her son
and shout at her twelve stars:
“Extinguish the unnatural fires of my crown;
The night is coming – a black night with the face of a Negro!”

Więc, nim Kościuszki cień i Waszyngtona
Zadrży – początek pieśni przyjm, o! Janie…
Bo pieśń nim dojrzy, człowiek nieraz skona,
A niźli skona pieśń, naród pierw wstanie.
So, before the ghosts of Kościuszko and Washington
tremble – accept the origin of this song, O John…
For before his song matures, a man will sometimes die,
But that the song survives, a nation will first arise.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

1949: Another go at Pan-Slavism

Let’s consider this a historical footnote…

Pan-Slavism is a movement which sprang out of common themes in arts, folklore and linguistics in the mid-19th Century. Originally a response to France’s actions in the Napoleonic Wars, it gained much interest in subsequent years in response to Pan-Germanism and romantic nationalism in general. As relationships between Slavic groups were rarely far-reaching and often tense, ideals of Pan-Slavism had an uphill battle. Encroachment from the Russian Empire (and that of the Soviet Union later) made the largest group an unlikely ally.

Pan-Slavism was perhaps the weakest in Poland, which for many reasons considered itself different from many other groups… but that didn’t stop the Communist government from promoting it in the following song Rzeki (The Rivers) – with music composed by Piotr Perkowski and lyrics by Kazimierz Jaworski:

Śpiewają rzeki z godnym chórem
młodości naszej bujną pieśń
i echo im odbrzmiewa wtórem
i ginie za morzami gdzieś.
Białoczerwonej Wisły fala
Warszawy honor głosi w świat
I Wołga jej wtóruje z dala
jak siostra siostrze, bratu brat.
The rivers sing in a worthy chorus
our youth send the song aflight,
an echo accompanies them in harmony
and dies off somewhere beyond the sea.
The red and white waves of the Wisła*
proclaim Warsaw’s honor to the world
And the Volga* echoes to it in the distance
like sister to sister – brother to brother.

O, rzeki bratnie, krwią płynące,
przelejcie w żyły nam swą moc!
Jedna jest droga Słowian w słońce
i jeden wróg jest wspólny noc!
Niebu uśmiecha się Wełtawa
i grzywą wstrząsa czeski lew.
Szeroka jest Wardaru sława,
czerwona partyzancka krew.
Oh, brother river, flowing with blood,
pour your power into our veins!
One is the Slavic path in the sun
and one is the common enemy, the darkness!
Heaven smiles upon the Vltava*
and shakes the mane of the Czech lion.
Broad is the Vardar’s* fame,
red as partisan blood.

Szumi Maryca wśród granitów,
Bułgarii w niej zaklęty los.
Od pól, do łąk, od górskich szczytów
ku morzom bije młodych głos.
O, rzeki bratnie, krwią płynące,
Przelejcie w żyły nam swą moc!
Jeden jest wróg nasz wspólny noc
Jedna jest droga Słowian w słońce!
The Maritza* roars amid the granite,
Bulgaria’s magical fate follows it.
From the fields, the meadows, the mountain peaks –
the young voices ring out towards the seas.
Oh, brother river, flowing with blood,
pour your power into our veins!
One is the common enemy, the darkness,
one is the Slavic path in the sun!

* Wisła, Volga, Vltava, Vardar, Maritza: The main rivers of Poland, Russia, The Czech Republic, Macedonia and Bulgaria, respectively.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An amazing memoir from the late Czesław Miłosz

I’m definitely not a scholar of Polish Studies, but I’m learning as time passes. One source besides Wikipedia that’s helped me tremendously is Czesław Miłosz’s 1959 memoir Rodzinna Europa (“Native Europe”, later translated to English in 1968 as Native Realm). By the way, that’s “Cheh’-swaf Mee’-wosh”. Yeah, that’s right.

Miłosz (1911-2004) was a Polish poet most famous for receiving the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. The era of his life witnessed an amazing progression of events. He was raised in a Polish-speaking home, near present-day Siauliai, Lithuania. Although he didn’t know Lithuanian, he identified with Lithuania – a fact which may seem strange until considering the multitudes in Ireland who don’t quite identify ethnically on the basis of their everyday language.

Following are some short excerpts. Some comments might seem harsh, but I think they begin to show how complicated the politics and traditions of Eastern Europe could be. It’s also important to note that he had a fantastic education for his time, and a somewhat aristocratic, if not wealthy, background.

Western Europeans’ view of the East:
“In Western Europe, it is enough to have come from the largely untraveled territories in the East or North to be regarded as a visitor from Septentrion, about which only one thing is known: it is cold… The first germ of this book, then, was the desire to bring Europe closer to the Europeans.”

On a Pole reaching Paris:

“An ambition to reach a heart that seems difficult to get at sometimes turns into love; it is similar with Eastern Europeans. Their snobbery seasons their experience of this storied city. They have a sense of personal achievement: “I, Stash or Jack, have finally made it” they say to themselves, and tap their foot on the sidewalk to make sure they are not dreaming”.

“When I arrived in Paris after the Second World War, it seemed small to me, as if the rush of history had pushed it aside: an Alexandrian town, drawing its reason for existence from the preservation of its treasures, preparing for its new function of a city-monument. A Soviet diplomat, assuming my solidarity as a Slav, said to me then: “We’ll teach them to work!”

On visiting his distant cousin Oscar, a scholar and diplomat in Paris (a signet ring commonly denoted someone who was titled, and held aristocratic meaning):
“I noticed a signet ring on his finger, and said that I did not wear a signet because it would have gone against my democratic convictions. (In Poland, that mania was characteristic of people I despised.) ‘That’s bad. You should remember that you are a seigneur de Labunava.'”

His cousin Oscar again:
‘Vous, les Slaves, vous êtes des fainéants! Fainéants!’ (You Slavs, you are idlers! Idlers!)… Who was right? Does virtue express itself in the patient shaping of the landscape over the centuries, in the carving of Louis XIII and Louis XV wardrobes… or is it expressed by sudden thrusts of will capable or raising a St. Petersburg out of the swamps on the Neva, and of releasing interplanetary rockets from the empty steppes?”

On his cousin Oscar, breaking the landowning tradition of Poland:
“The Polish gentry liked to bring in the idea of treason at every step. Treason meant not only an improper marriage but also the act Oscar committed when he came of age – selling his immense, hereditary forest lands. The code of patriotism in those provinces by the Dnieper was oddly bound up with the code of ownership. Whoever sold his family estate diminished, thereby, the “possessions” of his national group and facilitated Russian penetration. Oscar sold his – to Russian merchants.”

Paris, circa 1935 – The Lithuanian Legation vs. the Polish Embassy:
“The Lithuanian legation – quiet, peaceful, and democratic – was, despite the different language spoken there, somehow more pleasant than the Polish Embassy, where, even as you entered the lobby, your nostrils were assailed by an odor of contempt for anyone deprived of social prestige… it was peopled by magnificent specimens of titled fools, ingratiating to foreigners but impolite, even downright boorish, to their own citizens.”

Just a sampling… but overall, an incredible read.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment