Sunday, December 26, 2010

Poland, Love, Communism, and Spring

I received a poem a couple of days ago from my friend Danusha Goska, and I thought I would share it with you. I've also asked her to send a photo from her time in Poland and a brief piece about the origin of the poem.

I lived in Krakow, 1988-89. Communism's blackened, necrotic carcass was blotting out the sun. Solar scientists can confirm this: there was less available light in Poland, 1939-1989. Daily life was a Kafka text. Riots provided the edgy outlet of a cocaine jag. Against all odds, I fell in love with a Polish man. It wasn't happy. I took a train north. I got off at Gdansk and began to walk. I walked beyond the edge of the city. I walked through ploughed fields. Polish spring smacked me in the face.

It's Hard to Believe

It's hard –
striding full the scratch
of eager underbrush,
pregnant smells: alfalfa, earth fresh cut,
the ting and bang and thump and squeal of fields of lapwings,
bog-bound frogs,
flower bidden-bees,
yellow squares, quilted, tight, of rape,
bruise-blue ripening rye,
and sturdy chestnut colts: shoulders & rumps & thighs
shiny as chrome,
and tattered path-side tapestries
of Queen Anne's lace
and fallow fields scattered
as skies where you don't yet know the constellations
to believe –
to know, yes, I know –
but to really believe
that you won't be coming
back into my life again.


The photo of Danusha was taken the roof of Dom Studencki Piast in Krakow, Poland.

She is the author of Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture and the novel Love Me More: An Addict's Diary.

She blogs at Bieganski the Blog.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Two Books by Maria Jastrzębska

In these two books -- Everyday Angels and I'll Be Back Before You Know it -- there are poems for anyone who has ever lived in two countries, two languages, two hearts at once.

Maria Jastrzębska was born in Warsaw in 1953 and came to England as a young child when her parents escaped from Poland. She writes poems that are at the same time here in the new world (England or America, call it what you will) and there in the old world (Poland). Her poems explore the borderland between lives and countries that all exiles, refugees, and immigrants live in, the shadow land of objects, places, and people that sometimes as sure as stone and other times elusive as dreams.

What her poems do in these two books is to make this shadow land, this border between here and there, real to the reader in the way that only poetry can be. She slows down the swirling calls of time and memory and allows us to rest for a moment in that changeless place she has created, regarding the ashes in our hands, the ones that refuse to be ashes.

These are deeply personal poems that speak directly and clearly to the reader. I saw this immediately in "Europa," the first poem in the wonderfully titled I'll Be Back Before You Know It.


There was a smell before I was born.
It came across fields
dotted with sows, above yards

where thin chickens scratched
in the dust, past cordons
of pines, scaring out quails.

It was stronger than the smog
of Nowa Huta, which eats away
stone faces and newborn lungs.

How could you miss it
when it rose from chimney stacks
along that flat skyline

or blew over rivers and broken
telegraph wires to spread
above schools and church spires?

Ladies dabbed Chanel Number 5
on their fox furs to ward it off -
gents lit the fattest cigars.

Gents with made-up eyes, ladies
with shingled hair and monocles
danced rumbas and milongas

but overnight they vanished.
Not even alcohol or opium
could dispel it - the smell

stayed in the air.
Soon everyone coughed.
Some politely, some not.

In Ms. Jastrzębska's more recent book Everyday Angels, she continues to explore this borderland and her exploration, I think, becomes a search for what lasts in this life and the one we left behind. I see this in many of the poems, but perhaps most clearly in the poem that ends this volume.


No one
expected them

to live this long.
Their bodies sharp

sticks. Whitened
by mildew. Skin

mottled by every
disease known.

Buds form

in spite of them,
rotting before.

they've had a chance
to open, like words

misshaped by
the lips,

coated in cuckoo
spit, petals

darkening too soon.
One or two

survive, nodding
high, lucidly

sweet, impossible
to reach.


Everyday Angels is available from the publisher at, I'll Be Back Before You Know It from Pighog Press.

Contact information for Ms. Jastrzębska can be found at her webpage.

Poems by Ms. Jastrzębska appeared in the issue of KRITYA devoted to Polish Diaspora writers, edited by Christina Pacosz and me.

To read more about Maria Jastrzębska, please go to the Poetry International website.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Borowski Design Competition Winner

I was fortunate enough to be asked to serve as one of the judges in the recent competition to find a cover design for Tadeusz Borowski's seminal book about his experiences at Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman. We received hundreds of fine designs from around the world, and the image above by Anna Zyśko of Tarnobrzeg, Poland, was finally--after much discussion--chosen as the winning design.

To read more about this competition and to see five other entries to the contest, please go to John Bertram's site Venus Febriculosa.

The competition was sponsored in part by the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles.

Ewa Lipska's The New Century Poems

For many readers, Poland is the country of poets. Some of them are internationally known. The recent Polish Nobel Laureates, Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, of course, come to mind. But the list of fine contemporary Polish poets is deep, and some of their names are familiar to American readers, names like Zbigniew Herbert, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Adam Zagajewski; others aren't yet.

But they will be.

A new generation of translators are working to make the best contemporary Polish poetry available to American readers. I've written about some of these translators here in the past, scholars and poets like Karen Kovacik, Leonard Kress, Oriana Ivy, Piotr Florczyk, Janusz Zalewski, Danuta Borchardt, Bill Johnston, and Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough.

Robin Davidson and Ewa Elzbieta Nowakowska have joined this list with their powerful and long-overdue translation of the poems of Ewa Lipska. Entitled The New Century: Poems, this volume from Northwestern University Press gathers together many of her finest poems with introductory material by the two translators as well as Ewa Lipska.

Here's a piece from Robin Davidson's informative introduction to Ms. Lipska's work:

"To situate Lipska's verse within twentieth-century Polish lyric poetry, it is important to see the work as arising from Poland's distinct encounters with European totalitarianism. The poems are shaped by the legacy of wars, both by Polish cultural memory of the German occupation and the horror of Holocaust atrocities and by the presence of Soviet communism, in particular the two decades of the 1970s and 1980s, during which Lipska matured as a poet. The intersection of history, politics, and the literary arts has typified East European culture for more than two hundred years.... The role of the Polish poet became one of an 'acknowledged legislator,' to reverse Shelley's depiction of British romantic poetry. In Polish lyric poetry, neither does the speaker stand outside time nor does the poem consist of epiphanic moments where time stops and human experience expands. Rather, the Polish lyric becomes the site of intersection between social forces and the individual, primarily because the genre has repeatedly served national political agendas."

Some of the finest poems by Lipska focus most keenly on this intersection.

Here are a few:

God Asks

That you not invoke him. That you not buy and sell him.
That you not hang his grace from political stalls.
That you not use the alibi Gott mit uns
for a godless crime.
That you not perform rituals of evil
in his name.
That you not take in vain
the adoration of the shepherds.
That you not shove. Not squander.
Not burn anyone at the stake.

From the charred eye
ran a tear.

Perhaps he will come to you
o, wretched humanity,
as you cross over
to the other sin.

The New Century

The new century has come as no surprise.
After midnight we already call it by name.

Your dress lies beside the bed.
My suit a pirate flag.

Reports warn us
about the slippery surface of history.

The question of what comes next
we send back to the gala.

We speak to each other in fireworks.
A drowsy noun in the mouth.

We subject breakfast to laboratory tests.
314 calories on a white plate.

We’re zipped fast
into a lifeproof vest.

Press Enter

Forever and ever Enter
(in the news )

The most state-of-the-art crematorium in Europe.
Berlin Treptow. An Arcadia of mourning.

The holy order of computers with eyes of lusterless crepe.
A web of silence. Only the rustle of artificial leaves.

The afterlife of Pentium.
Immortal memory.

The concurrence of two days in one.

For the deceased a hairdresser. Beauty treatments.
A photographer’s studio. Warm blackness.

Antivirus software on guard at each floor.
(Torrential content outside the window.)

A casket on a hard disk.
We lie there in the index of names.

A droplet in the corner of the mouth.
Moisture of dead love.
We were in love when this happened.

Now there’s only a file connected to the sky.
A closed database.
An orphaned cloud from the chimney.

Are you sure you want
to begin deleting?

Press Enter

Newton’s Orange:

They already were.

They fight a losing battle of dates.
Blurred. Against a background of surly clouds.

In the Hollywood movie theater
a train of abandoned seats whistles.

The remains of films
still breathe through the screen’s lips.

“But Venice for me is so much like
the graveyard of happiness that I haven’t
the strength to return”—wrote Marcel Proust.

We are now.

In love’s globalization
we succumb to sensuous market forces.
Speculative fireworks.

The corrupt bed linens of Shakespeare
in the national theater.

A city of muscular stadiums
clings to us.

A pirated copy of prosperity.

The penitence of a wilted rose
tells us nothing yet.

Arrhythmia of infinity.
Gigabytes of memory.

At dawn
a bigoted breeze shivers.

Norton AntiVirus software
scans our lungs.

All around
the broken glass of frost.

You are yet to be.

On a balcony a woman
a cloud resembling a kiss.

New Year’s Eve night is trembling.

The twenty-second century.
The twenty-third century.
The twenty-fourth century.

We are connected
by a dye works of sunrises and sunsets.
A polishing shop of magic, words, and fire.

They divide us forever.


The New Century: Poems was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by Piotr Gwiazda.

Monday, October 11, 2010


The following is an article written by the poet and journalist Oriana Ivy regarding a lecture that the Polish poet and Nobel Prize for Literature nominee Adam Zagajewski, author of Without End, Canvas and Tremors, recently delivered at the Vermont Studio Center. If you click on the link, you'll be taken directly to Ms. Ivy's site.

oriana-poetry: ZAGAJEWSKI'S "ANTI-CRAFT LECTURE" AT VSC, SEPTEMBE...: "                                                                                                       STEFAN GEORGE ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI’S “AN..."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Here's some news about the activities of Polish and Polish-American writers and artists.

The Fall Edition of features the poems of prize-winning poet Polish-American poet Elisabeth Murawski (author of Zorba's Daughter), along with Evelyn Posamentier, Lesley Wheeler, and Luisa A Igloria. The features editor is Andrena Zawinski.

Thad Rutkowski's story "Pan Tadeusz" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the Westchester Review.

Grzegorz Wroblewski's series of drawings MY LIFE WITH ANN 2 is now available on the Post-Literate (R)Evolution website. Three of his poems have been translated into English by Agnieszka Pokojska. They appear in the latest issue of Postmodern Culture.

The current issue of Connecticut River Review features poems by Polish and Polish American writers Ewa Parma, Leonard Kress, Cecilia Woloch, Linda Nemec Foster, John Minczeski, Suzanne Niedzielska, and John Guzlowski.

Leonard Kress has a new chapbook (Thirteens)--poems w/prints by Mania Dajnak--due out any day from Aureole Press. He also has poems in the recent Crazy Horse and Harvard Review.

Lisa Siedlarz recently had her book I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball -- about her brother's experiences in the Afghan War -- reviewed by the Yanaguana Literary Review.

Oriana Ivy recently returned from a poetry workshop at the Vermont Studio Center. She will soon be blogging about this experience.

Anna Maria Mickiewicz has recently published a collection of poems in Polish called Proscenium. The poems were written during the period of martial law in Poland during the 1980s.

Leslie Pietryzk's short story "The Chicago Brother" appears in the latest issue of Crab Orchard Review. The story is from her novel in progress about Polish immigrants in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century.

Amy Nawrocki's second collect of poems, Nomad's End, is available from Finishing Line Press.

Jakub Julian Ziolkowski, a young Polish artist (born in Zamosc, Poland, 1980), is having his first solo exhibit in the US. The New York Times wrote an informative piece about him that includes a slide show of his paintings.

My book Lightning and Ashes was recently reviewed by Gently Read Literature. The review was entitled "Children of the World War" and the reviewer Marc Sheehan liked it.


The illustration above is by Polish artist Adam Guzowski.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Metropolis Burning by Karen Kovacik

I love the poems in this book.

In it, Karen Kovacik does almost the impossible. She writes about the tragic 20th-century history of Poland with a firm awareness of what happened in Warsaw and Auschwitz but she also manages to infuse the Polish landscape of lost lives and lost battles with a love for Poland and an excitement in writing about it that is infectious. And in doing so she gets at -- for me -- the very heart of Poland.

Here's one of my favorite poems.

Versions of Irena

for my aunt who grew up near Oświęcim [Auschwitz]


When she was five, her great delight was gooseberry juice.
At seven, she experienced the strangeness of books.
When she was ten, her beloved uncle expired at the table.
At eleven, she refused to leave the coal stove in the corner.
By twelve, she had forgotten her uncle’s bloody cough.
At thirteen, she chewed poppy leaves and hallucinated music.
When she turned fourteen, her dress grew tight in the bodice.
At fifteen, she scrubbed the parlor of a short Nazi sergeant,
and the night smelled of cognac and smoke.
At twenty, her mind declared war on her body.
For years, local doctors have regarded her case with gravity.


She could smell them burning, their forgotten
valises piled in a corner of the yard
along with topcoats and short pants, sheet music,
a book of French pictures. She hid the brittle pages
in her coat and learned what a man’s body
could do to a woman’s. Midnight was the hour
of gravity, when the sergeant swung the bell
on his table. He wanted his heart’s delight:
something milky to help him sleep, warmed cognac
to dull his dreams. Each night, she smelled them burning.


Having lost her uterus at 25, she feels the effects
of gravity, her lumpy body without music or delight.
She walks plates of white bacon from the table
to the sink, and rinses the grease in cool suds.
Behind her sits the American niece with a short book
of Polish phrases. The girl hardly ate her supper
and only sweetened her tea with one sugar.
Time to slide the featherbed into the starched cover
and make up the girl’s couch in the corner.
She wishes her niece untroubled dreams:
“What is forgotten,” she says, “will not harm us,
and only sleep can take the war out of night.”


Karen Kovacik directs the creative writing program at Indiana Univ. Purdue Univ. Indianapolis. She's currently at work on a new collection with the working title Vérité. Her poems and translations have appeared in APR, Boston Review, Crazyhorse, Massachusetts Review, West Branch, and elsewhere.

She is the recipient of a number of awards, including a guest fellowship at the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Creative Writing and a Fulbright Research Grant to Poland. She is also the author of Beyond the Velvet Curtain, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize (Kent State University Press, 1999).

Been and Gone: Poems of Julian Kornhauser

Julian Kornhauser is a Polish poet, novelist, literary critic, and translator who, along with Adam Zagajewski, was one of the major figures of the New Wave poetry movement of the early 1970s. Although Kornhauser's work continues to be read and appreciated overseas (winnning the European Poetry Prize and the City of Krakow Prize), he's not very well known in this country.

This translation of his poems by Piotr Florczyk, therefore, is long overdue. Florczyk, a native of Krakow now teaching in the US, captures the stark clarity and mystery of Julian Kornhauser's Polish originals in this bilingual edition from Marick Press.

As poet Adam Zagajewski says of Kornhauser in his foreword to Been and Gone, "when I read Julian's poems now, I'm amazed by the continuity of his writing, by the honesty of his poetry, by his patient worship of the concreteness of the world. Poetry is for him like the origami he describes in the poem written while traveling from Karkow to Oswiecim, a small city whose German name was Auschwitz--an object both arbitrary and necessary:

We pass hills and forests,
a paper swan
looks sleepily on the burning


Here are two poems from Been and Gone I especially liked.

The first is dedicated to Ewa Kuryluk, an artist who left Poland in 1981 when martial law was imposed.


A search, an escape, death.
The search for languages, the escape
from a school desk, death of dear ones.
Eternal journey over clouds of smoke,
a swirling thin thread of life,
game of lands, gruff farewells, naked bodies
impressed on the cloth. Heart calls out no more
for help, it sinks its claws into a glacier
hung high above the sky. The smell of burning
skin weakens a step from the abyss, the fire
of native captivity, unexpressed happiness.
Ever further, so not to return to the Viennese
apocalypse, young rebels, a departing
mother. Ever closer to a tiny bit of a table
and a narrow window, beyond which one
sees only the happy eyes of a a little Jewess
and two raised wings of an apple pie.


are smarter than we are
know everything
even n o t h i n g to them has the hue of a chestnut
they see mountains where we don't see them
seas splash when nothing is heard
through their crooked teeth
words known to no one slip out
fear and an inexpressible adventure
lurk under dirty fingernails
when they run
their oversized shoes cackle
and their hair sticks to the wind
when they're silent
their eyes express so much adult longing
they stand on tiptoe
to touch what's forbidden
they try to wrestle with rules
to be able to tell the difference
between a joke and fear
sometimes they lie quietly on the floor
casting strange spells
and the the glass falls from the table
opportunity arises
a crayon moves slowly across the white-papered wall.


Some of Piotr Florczyk's own poem are available online. Here are two published in InPosse Review.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Danuta Borchardt wins the 2010 Found in Translation Award

The Polish Cultural Institute in New York Press Release:


Found in Translation is an annual prize given for the best book-length translation of a work of Polish literature into English. This year's winner is Danuta Borchardt for her translation of Pornografia (Grove/Atlantic, 2009), by Polish literary giant Witold Gombrowicz (1904-69) - an underground classic since it was first published in the Polish émigré press in Paris in 1960 and subsequently rendered into several European languages, including English via the French and German versions. Borchardt provides the first translation of the book into English directly from the Polish original.

Robert Boyers, editor of Salmagundi, writes, ”Borchardt brings Gombrowicz's great novel to us with a force and beauty English-language readers have not felt before. Deception and illusion, savagery and high mindedness, fire and ice, desire and impotence are all captured in the crystalline sentences of a translator who is herself a masterful stylist.”

The award will be presented at the University of Illinois at Chicago during the ceremonial inauguration of The Stefan and Lucy Hejna Chair in Polish Language and Literature, to be assumed by Professor Michal Pawel Markowski. Prof. Markowski is one of Poland's leading public intellectuals with 12 books and over 150 essays to his name and winner of numerous awards. The bequest of Romuald Hejna to the University of Illinois at Chicago is the largest single gift to the university and will fund two chairs in Polish history as well as the chair in Language and Literature, representing a major expansion in the field of Polish studies in the U.S.

The winner of the Found in Translation Award, established in 2007 by the Polish Book Institute in Krakow, the Polish Cultural Institute in London, the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, and W.A.B. Publishers in Warsaw, receives a monetary prize and a three-month residency in Krakow funded by the Book Institute. The first Found in Translation Award, in 2008, was given to Bill Johnston for his translation of New Poems by Tadeusz Rozewicz (Archipelago Books, New York, 2007). In 2009 the award went to Antonia Lloyd-Jones for her translation of Pawel Huelle's The Last Supper. Candidates for the Award may be nominated by private individuals as well as institutions in Poland and abroad. Nominations should be sent with the subject-heading FOUND IN TRANSLATION to: The Polish Book Institute, 31-011 Krakow, ul. Szczepanska 1, Poland, e-mail:


To hear a podcast of an interview she gave Bill Marx, click here

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Recently, Polish-American poet Christina Pacosz found a box of copies of her highly acclaimed book This is Not a Place to Sing, a collection of poems about her visit to Poland. She wants to share these books with others and is offering to send them to interested readers for the price of postage: $2 for a copy, $3 for 2 copies.

The books can be purchased by contacting

Christina Pacosz
4238 Charlotte
Kansas City, MO 64110

When it was originally published in 1987, Choice, the official publication of the American Library Association, published a review that said the following:

"The Wind at the Wedding," the first poem in this unusual, moving collection, is intensely powerful and original. Written as a prose poem, it describes a wedding in Poland in which 'The wind lifts the hem of the birde's dress,' revealing her ankles. The scene is sharp and poignant as the poet weaves it, strand by strand, into Poland's terrible history. Pacosz states, 'In this country there is too much to remember,' and with each poem she adds to the picture of the devastation ... of the past that can never be forgoten, and a present in which life is difficult. "Matka Boska, Matka Polska" tells of the women who "are mothers with capable hands and patient feet" and of "an entire country criss-crossed with lines where women wait...." Other practically strong poems are "Auschwitz: Oswiecim" and "On the Propensity of the Human Species to Repeat Error." The poet employs daring technique and style; she does not hesitate to take risks. Highly recommended.

Here are the three poems from Christina's book mentioned in the above review:

The Wind at the Wedding

The wind lifts the hem of the bride's dress. She is wearing white shoes. Her feet look frail surrounded by the hard stones of the street, the raised hoop of her skirt. The bride is a bell for a moment, waiting to be rung.

Unlike the wind, who is a traveler, the bride is stationary and may never leave Lublin. Possibly she will visit the Black Sea on a holiday with her husband, but she will not be wearing her white dress. She will never be a bell again, all the notes wrung out of her, whether she remains in a flat in Lublin, or suns herself on the sand.

The wind is an old wind, full of understanding, but, like the bride's feet, it has no strength against the stones of the street. No strength to lift the people's hearts, even for a moment. The wind has only enough strength to lift the white hem of the dress of the bride who is wearing white shoes with high heels to match her high hopes.

The groom has white gloves on his hands. The stones at his feet are gray. The stones are gray and as old as the wind, maybe older.

In Krakow there are fossils embedded in the paving stones around St. Mary's Church. There, the brides and grooms step on ancient animals without thinking. There, when the trumpeter plays his notes from the steeple, he imagines he is flinging his song to the sky, which is like the sea, blue and roiled, but by swallows, not fish. What does it matter: fist, fowl, human flesh? We all share the same fate.

The bride and groom are waiting for the bells to ring, for permission to become one flesh. The wind lifts her dress and the bride does not blush when the groom stares at her feet. Why should she?

The wind blowing its way through the old city is a kind wind. Wise and kind and old like a grandfather or grandmother. The bride and groom may be thinking that one day this day will lead them to a garden and grandchildren climbing on their laps in the sun. Peace.

The bride and groom are young. They have never known war, but the wind cannot forget how it blows over the eyelids of the dead in all directions. Today the wind wants to play a simple joke and lift a bride's dress, showing her shoes, her ankles to the world.

The wind harbors no illusions. To lift a dress is not to lift a heart, except maybe his, the groom's, who is staring at the bride's ankles, thinking how they will be his soon. He wants to kiss the blue vein under the strap of her shoe. He wants to begin there.

The wind knows the hearts of the people are hungry, but for what? Meat lines, milk lines, bread lines, lines for vodka. Lines on the palms of his hands, the map of his life lost to a grenade in the Warsaw Uprising.

What is the soldier doing here? Isn't this a wedding, not a war?

In this country there is too much to remember. Better to watch the wind lift the hem of the bride's white dress like a cloud moving across the gray stones into the church.

On the Propensity of the Human Species to Repeat Error

And if they kill others for being who they are
or where they are Is this a law of history
or simply, what must change?
Your Native Land, Your Life Adrienne Rich

The world is round
This should tell us
something, this should
have been our first clue.

what goes around
comes around

Scientists are studying
a rent in the roof of sky
over the South Pole
right now, but poets
need not adhere
to the caution
of the scientific method.

The message is simple:

what goes around
comes around

The battery acid of
Plato's Republic
has finally reached
the ozone layer,
a membrane, protective
like skin or an amniotic sac,
permeable and destructible.

what we take
for granted
will get us
in the end

The Sioux woman's breast
severed from her body
dried into a pouch
for tobacco,
what book was that?

Or a chosen people's skin
stretched across the heavens,
shade for us to more easily
read the harsh lesson
of history.

Message from the Past to the Present

A looming mound
of empty zyklon B canisters
behind glass: to open death
like canned peaches

Behind the tins:
corporate profit.

Are there no new tales
we can tell each other?

Artifacts of the age,
the waning twentieth century
on parade, naked
and exhausted.

Each time capusule
should include
one of these.

Such eloquent

Auschwitz: Oswiecim

Los Nas Dla Was Prestroga
Let Our Loss Be Your Warning
Majdanek Monument

We are leaving
flowers like messages
in this awful place:

what else to do
except fall down
with weeping
into a grieving
that will never
be done.

And how to live
int the world then?

So it is calendula
for memory, here
with the children's
clothing they never

And here before
hundreds of neatly
lettered suticases
with addresses from
every country in Europe
never claimed
by their owners
we leave
our innocence
in the form
of a single
white daisy.

We should haul
larkspur by
the truckload
and fill every
exhibit room
from floor to ceiling
with levity
with light.

We must airdrop
hyacinth purple
sorrow raining down
until this place
of the awful name
is smothered in

We should be weaving
miles of rosemary garlands
for remembrance
and planting olive
for peace.

The lilac leaves
are waving, try
to imagine
them blooming.

The poplar trees
are voices
in the wind:

We did not
that our bodies
be used
as weapons.

Remember the ash
how it sifts down
to the desks
where the bureaucrats
are stamping papers.


The books may be purchased by contacting

Christina Pacosz
4238 Charlotte
Kansas City, MO 64110

“The Wind at the Wedding” appears in St. Andrews Review, Issue No. 37, Laurinburg, North Carolina, 1989.

“On the Propensity of the Human Species to Repeat Error,” “A Message from the Past for the Present,” appeared in Beyond Lament, Poets of the World Bearing Witness to the Holocaust, edited by Marguerite M. Striar, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois 1998.

“Auschwitz: Oswiecim,” Blood to Remember, American Poets on the Holocaust, revised, second edition, edited by Charles Ades Fishman, Time Being Books, St. Louis Missouri, 2007.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Friends of Poland

I've been a member of Friends of Poland, an online discussion and information group for people interested in Poland and Polish things for about six years now, and I recommend it as a place where people can talk with others about everything from Polish cuisine to Polish history, from Polish film to Polish politics.

Here's a recent piece by member Robert Strybel describing the group:

Interested in people, places and things Polish history, culture, politics, current events, religion, traditions, food and most anything else? Do you occasionally have a question about your Polish heritage but don't know whom to ask? Are there things about being of Polish background you sometimes would like to discuss with someone? If you have answered affirmatively to any of those questions, Friends of Poland might be worth looking into.

Friends of Poland (FoP for short) is a unique Internet discussion forum devoted to any and all topics relating to things Polish or Polonian. Not knowing Polish is no obstacle, because all discussion is in English. The forum was set up in the 1990s by Polish-born IT expert Marcin Żmudzki, but most members are US-born Polonians. Other participants hail from Australia, Canada, Poland, Britain, Russia and other countries.

"I joined FoP in 1998, as I was looking for information to assist me in an upcoming trip to Poland," explained Laura Zurowski, a college official from Clintondale, NY, who is now one of the forum's moderators. "This year we have also started a FoP Facebook addressed to a younger audience with moreemphasis on arts and culture. Now that we have two avenues to participate(Facebook and YahooGroups) we have something to offer all those interested in the topic of Poland and Polonia."

Another FoP stalwart is John Radzilowski, a University of Alaska history professor. "I joined because it was and is one of the few places where Poles and Pol-Ams could discuss issues and exchange ideas in areas ranging from politics and religion to cultural matters and even Polish food," he told this reporter. "I've learned a lot from FoP. The great thing about it is that not everyone shares the same point of view. It's a bit like a community center, open to everyone even if some people spend way more time there than others."

FoP participants include Rik Suligowski Fox, one of Polonia's leading historical re-enactors, who regularly promotes the glory of Old Poland's military might on America's Renaissance Faire circuit. One FoP contributor from Michigan is now planning to move to Krakow in a few years, when he and his wife retire.

Another is James Conroyd Martin, the non-Polonian author of Poland-themed historical novels. The forum is an excellent place to announce Polish or Polonian events as well as Polish-related books, projects or services. But aside from people knowledgeable about and/or directly involved in Polish or Polonian affairs, like all such forums the FoP also has its share of lurkers. That is the term applied to participants who prefer to listen to and learn what others are saying rather than to actively contribute. There is no obligation to post messages, but after a time some lurkers decide to join in the discussion.

The only rules are that each post must pertain to some facet of things Polish or Polonian and be in English. If Polish terms or sayings are posted, and English translation must be included. And posters are required to sign each message with their name and location.

Another benefit of FoP is a daily news service dealing with Polish current affairs, compiled by another forum veteran, Professor Roman Solecki. Another of his achievements is his constantly expanding Prominent Poles website. It is a goldmine of information on Poles and Polonians who have made various contributions to the world.

If you feel such a source of information and the lively discussion it often generates may be your cup of tea, contact listowner Marcin Zmudzki for more information and details on how to join: marcin(at) @ for (at).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ostatni Etap--The Last Stage: Auschwitz

The following article about Ostatni Etap, one of the first films about Auschwitz, was written by John Bertram and first appeared at his blog Venus Febriculosa:

I first learned about the existence of this relatively obscure (in the United States, anyway) film while perusing a gallery of vintage Polish film posters. My eye was immediately caught by one similar to the original cover for We Were in Auschwitz designed by Anatol Girs. Its designer, Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914-1954), a largely self-taught artist from Warsaw, was one of the original graphic designers commissioned after World War II by Film Polski and Central Wynajmu Filmow (state-run film producers and distributors) to design film posters. The film Ostatni Etap was a semi-autobiographical story about prison life in the women’s barracks at Auschwitz.

A member of the Polish resistance during the war, director and co-writer Wanda Jakubowska (1907-1998) was arrested in 1942 and spent six months in Warsaw’s Pawiak prison before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where, she says, “the decision to make a film…originated when I crossed the camp’s gate.” A member of the camp resistance, she was moved to the Rajsko, an experimental agricultural station and one of more than 40 sub-camps, and in early 1945 was transferred to Ravensbruck where she was liberated by the Soviet Army. Once free, Jakubowska immediately began work on the script with another survivor Gerda Schneider, a German Communist, based exclusively on events witnessed by them and their fellow prisoners. By the end of the year they had produced a first draft and, returning to Auschwitz in the spring of 1946 where she had decided to film, she was shocked to find “daisies of monstrous proportions and exuberant, indescribable vegetation on the soil that was fertilized by blood and sweat.”

Filming at Auschwitz-Birkenau began in the spring of the following year. Actors, many of whom were originally interned at Auschwitz, lived in the former barracks and instead of costumes wore authentic striped prison uniforms. One actor noted that “the air was filled with a characteristic unpleasant smell that had a depressing effect on us.” As harrowing as the movie is, Jakubowska notes that “the camp’s reality was human skeletons, piles of dead bodies, lice, rats, and various disgusting diseases. On the screen this reality would certainly cause dread and repulsion. It was necessary to eliminate those elements which, although authentic and typical, were unbearable for the post-war viewer.”

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Released in Poland in March 1948 barely three years after Auschwitz was liberated, Ostatni etap was the second film produced by Film Polski and the first Polish film to get international distribution. Writing in The New York Times upon the occasion of the film’s U.S. release in March 1949, Bosley Crowther points out:

“ …the story itself is secondary…to the staggering accumulation of daily atrocities, seen in the pattern of the story through a pitilessly factual camera’s eye. From the opening shot in the death camp, showing the brutality of a guard to a pregnant girl, standing among a group of women in a dreary sea of mud, the film is a continuation of horrifying episodes which make up a modest realization of the inhumanity of the Nazi camps.

There is the episode, for instance, of the murder of the baby born to the suffering girl. There is the arrival of a trainload of Jewish prisoners who are brutally separated, some to be gassed. There are terrifying scenes of the inmates being driven and beaten in the prison yard while a band plays serenely cheerful music under the baton of an agonized girl. And there is one simply overwhelming sequence of little children being marched off to be killed, with a cut of their discarded toys piled up among the relics of all the dead. There are also recognitions of the frailties of the inmates themselves, revealed in vicious and deceitful stratagems and deeds.”

Interestingly, Wanda Jakubowska’s creative arc parallels that of Tadeusz Borowski’s: imprisoned at Pawiak, then Auschwitz, shortly thereafter producing an authentic, unflinching landmark work based upon harrowing experiences. However, whereas Borowski’s stories remain completely free of any trace of ideology, in Ostatni etap, Jakubowska’s Communist leanings are clear to the point that to some the propagandist nature of the film (at one point, for instance, Stalin’s name is reverently invoked) leave it irrevocably compromised. Still, it remains a valuable document for its powerful imagery that has served as template for numerous subsequent films on Auschwitz.

Special thanks to Polish film historian Professor J. Marek Haltof of Northern Michigan University whose book Polish National Cinema (New York/Oxford, 2002) and essay “The Monstrosity of Auschwitz in Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948)” provided indispensable background material for this post.

For more information, see Women in Polish Cinema, Chapter 8, Wanda Jakubowska: The Communist Fighter, by Ewa Mazierska.


To read more about women and what happens to them in war, please click to my post Women in War.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Borowski Design Competition Update

The deadline for the competition to design a possible cover for Tadeusz Borowski's Auschwitz memoir This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen has been extended.

In addition, the amount of the prize has been increased to $1000.

Here are the full details from the sponsors:


This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen


The purpose of the contest is to foster interest in the relationship of literature to the visual arts through the design of a hypothetical book cover for Tadeusz Borowski’s remarkable collection of concentration camp stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is an ideas competition only: as of this writing there are no plans for the winner’s work to be featured on a forthcoming edition of Borowski’s work.


This international competition is open to anyone 18 years or older. Graphic design students and professionals are especially encouraged to enter. ONLY ONE ENTRY PER PERSON IS ALLOWED.


Entries must be received by Monday, August 30, 2010.


There is no fee to enter. All design entries must be an original artwork of the entrant's own creation. Use of copyrighted materials not owned by the entrant will result in disqualification from the contest. Submissions must include Name, Address, E-Mail Address, Country, and School Attending (if Student).


Submissions must be in digital JPEG format only and must be sent to both of the following addresses: and


5” x 8” Vertical Orientation Only
300 dpi preferred. 2MB Maximum file size.
Image file name should include the entrant’s name only (e.g.: Rudolph Nureyev.jpg; rudolph_nureyev.jpg; rudolphnureyev.jpg).


Artwork must contain the words “This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” and “Tadeusz Borowski.” No other words or phrases shall be used unless they are used in a purely graphical manner.
Only submissions of the front cover will be accepted.


Submissions will be evaluated on how creatively they address the collection’s themes. Entrants are encouraged to visit the Wikipedia entry for Tadeusz Borowski and, of course, to read the book (click here for excerpts .)


There will be one winner. The designer of the winning submission will receive a cash award of $1000 US and will be featured on the Venus febriculosa website . The award will be announced on Friday, October 1, 2010 on


Copyrights of all entries shall remain the property of the artists. The contests sponsors retain the right to reproduce any of the designs on Venus febriculosa’s website (, as well as in any publications resulting from this contest.


All questions should be directed to

Official Press Release

Venus febriculosa

Press Release – For Immediate Release


John Bertram, Administrator
Venus febriculosa

LOS ANGELES, CA June 17, 2010 Venus febriculosa, a website devoted to contemporary literature and the art and design of books, announced today the jurors for its Book Cover Design Contest No. 4 – This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, a collection of short stories by Polish journalist and poet Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951) based upon his experiences in the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps during WWII. His short story The Battle of Grunwald about his time spent in a displaced persons camp after the war was made into the film Landscape after Battle in 1970 by acclaimed Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda.

Previous Venus febriculosa book cover contests have included Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, and The Eel by Eugenio Montale.
The submission deadline for this contest is Monday, August 30, 2010. The winner will be announced on Friday, October 1, 2010. Complete details are available at


Alicia Nitecki, Ph.D, Adjunct Professor of English, Bentley University
Translator of We Were in Auschwitz (Welcome Rain) and Postal Indiscretions: The Correspondence of Tadeusz Borowski (Northwestern University Press).

John Guzlowski, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Contemporary American Literature, Eastern Illinois University, Author of Lightning and Ashes (Steel Toe Books) a collection of poems dealing with his parents’ experiences in German slave labor camps during WWII.

Jae Jennifer Rossmann, M.L.S., Assistant Director for Special Collections, Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, Yale University, Curator of 2002 Yale University Exhibit on Polish designer and publisher Anatol Girs, who published We Were in Auschwitz by Janusz Nel Siedlecki, Krystyn Olszewski and Tadeusz Borowski.

Barbara Girs, Daughter of Anatol Girs, who designed and published We Were in Auschwitz and was himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau.

Marco Sonzogni, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in Italian, School of Languages and Cultures, Victoria University of Wellington, Widely published academic and an award-winning editor, poet and literary translator currently working on a new and experimental area of research: the study of the book cover as a form of inter-semiotic translation.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Polish

Janusz Zalewski has long been interested in the beats and especially in Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Zalewski has edited a special issue of Nowa Okolica Poetow devoted to the Beat writers and one devoted specifically to Ferlinghetti. The Ferlinghetti issue contains a number of Zalewski's translations of Ferlinghetti's poems into Polish.

Recently, I asked Janusz to tell me something about his interest in the Beats and Ferlinghetti, and he sent me the following note:

I am interested in the Beats because they were all against the traditional culture, in multiple ways, like Burroughs, whom you know well. He was against traditional cultural values, in a way that created new values opposed to those not accepted before: explicit writing, use of drugs, gender issues, etc., etc.

Ferlinghetti, although he does not admit being a Beat in a strict sense, actually helped in creating the movement by publishing "Howl" and defending its publication by winning a law suit against it in court, and thus became a part of the culture himself, and continues to be a part of this culture.

It is interesting how I found out about the Beats. When I was in a high school (lyceum), there was a magazine published in Poland named Forum, which included translations of articles from other languages. Of course, it
was mainly created to publish Polish translations of articles published in western magazines (Le Monde, Figaro, Financial Times, Stern, Newsweek, etc.), and to keep the authorities happy, it also included translations from Russian, East Germany, and other magazines. From Forum I have learned, as a very young man, about all the literary and revolutionary movements in the West. It was interesting, how the booksellers laughed at me, when I was asking them about poetry books by writers like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and also Gombrowicz, Henry Miller, etc., who were either unpublished or banned in Poland.


Three Ferlinghetti Translations by Janusz Zalewski

Pound in Spoleto

Pound w Spoleto
(latem 1965 r.)

W południe wszedłem do Teatro Melisso, wspaniałej renesansowej sali, gdzie codziennie odbywały się odczyty poezji i koncerty kameralne Festiwalu w Spoleto, i nagle zobaczyłem go pierwszy raz w życiu, Ezra Pound, siedział sztywno jak statua mandaryna, w loży z tyłu teatru, na pierwszym balkonie. Doznałem szoku. W pierszej chwili nie rozpoznałem go, dostrzegając tylko uderzająco starego, ale to starego człowieka w dziwnej pozie, chudego i długowłosego, o orlim wyglądzie, około osiemdziesiątki, z głową dziwnie przechyloną na jedną strone, pogrążonego w permanentnej medytacji. W ten sposób przesiedział południowy koncert, nigdy nie zmianiając pozycji, ani nie poruszając wzroku.

O piątej po południu przeszedłem się w kierunku loży, gdzie mogłem zobaczyć Pounda ponownie, naprzeciwko siebie. Po trzech młodszych poetach recytujących na scenie, przychodziła na niego kolej, aby czytać wprost z kabiny, gdzie siedział w towarzystwie starej przyjaciółki (która trzymała jego papiery), oczekując w tej samej pozie co przedtem, jakby tak spędził całe popołudnie. Głowę miał teraz opuszczoną, oglądał knykcie swoich palców, ruszając nimi nieco, bez wyrazu. Poza tym, pozostawał nieruchomy. Tylko raz, gdy wszyscy widzowie w wypełnionym teatrze zaczęli oklaskiwać kogoś na scenie, on też ożywił się, aby złożyć ręce, nawet nie przyglądając się, mechanicznie, jakby reagował na dźwięk w pustce. Pawłow. Jego kolej nadeszła po prawie godzinie. Albo po wieczności.

Wszyscy na sali podnieśli się, odwrócili i patrzyli w górę na Pounda w swojej kabinie, klaskając. Oklaski trwały nadal i Pound starał podnieść się ze swego fotela. Mikrofon był w drodze. On ujął poręcze fotela swymi kościstymi dłońmi i spróbował wstać. Nie udało mu się, ale spróbował ponownie, bez skutku. Jego stara przyjaciółka nie starała się mu pomóc. Wreszcie, podała mu wiersz do ręki i conajmniej po minucie dało się słyszeć jego głos. Najpierw poruszył szczęką, po czym wydawał głos, niesłyszalny. Młody Włoch przysunął mu stojący mikrofon trochę bliżej twarzy i głos zaczął docierać, wątły ale stanowczy, wyższy niż się spodziewałem, cienki, cichy i monotonny. Sala zamilkła jak porażona. Ten głos zwalił mnie z nóg, taki cichy, taki cienki, taki wątły, a przy tym taki stanowczy. Oparłem głowę o ramiona na welwetowym parapecie loży. Ze zdziwieniem spostrzegłem jak łza kapnęła mi na kolano. Cienki, nieposkromiony głos brzmiał dalej. Oprzytomnieć! Wyszedłem z loży oślepiony, przez tylne wyjście, na pusty korytarz na piętrze teatru, gdzie oni wciąż siedzieli wpatrzeni w niego, zszedłem na dół i wytoczyłem na światło dzienne, łzawiąc... W górze, ponad miastem, przy starożytnym akwedukcie, nadal kwitły kasztany. Bezgłośne ptaki fruwały poniżej w dolinie, dużo dalej, słońce padało na kasztany i liście mieniły się w promieniach, i mieniły się, i mieniły się, mieniły, i wciąż się mieniły. Jego głos brzmiał dalej, i dalej, przez liście...

(to read the English version, please click here.)

The Old Italians Dying

Starzy Włosi umierają

Przez lata starzy Włosi umierali
w całej Ameryce
Przez lata starzy Włosi w wypłowiałych filcowych kapeluszach
wystawiali się na słońce i umierali
Widzieliście ich na ławkach
w parku na placu Waszyngtona
starzy Włosi w swoich czarnych butach na zatrzaski
starzy mężczyźni w swoich starych filcowych kapeluszach fedora
z poplamionymi wstążkami
umierali i umierali
dzień po dniu
Widzieliście ich
co dzień na placu Waszyngtona w San Francisco
gdzie powolny dzwon
bije rankiem
w kościele Piotra i Pawła
w marcepanowym kościele na placu
o dziesiątej rano powolny dzwon bije
z wieży u Piotra i Pawła
a starzy mężczyźni, którzy jeszcze żyją
siedzą rzędem opalając się
na drewnianych ławkach w parku
i obserwują pochody w tę i z powrotem
pogrzeby rankiem
śluby po południu
powolny dzwono rano Szybki dzwon w południe
Wejście jednymi drzwiami, wyjście drugimi
starzy mężczyźni siedzą tam w swoich kapeluszach
i obserwuja wchodzących i wychodzących
Widzieliście ich
tych, którzy karmia gołębie
łamiąc twardy chleb
swymi kciukami i składanymi nożykami
tych ze starymi zegarkami kieszonkowymi
tych z sękatymi dłońmi
i dzikimi brwiami
tych z powypychanymi spodniami
zarówno na paskach jak i na szelkach
pijących grappa z zębami w kolorze kukurydzy
Piemontczyków, Genueńczyków, Sycylijczyków
których czuć czosnkiem i pepperoni
tych którzy kochali Mussoliniego
starych faszystów
tych którzy kochali Garibaldiego
starych anarchistów czytających L’Umanita Nuova
tych którzy kochali Sacco i Vanzettiego
Oni prawie wszyscy już odeszli
Siedzą i czekają na swoja kolej
i opalają się przed kościołem
nad wrotami którego znajduje się inskrypcja
wyglądająca jak niedokończone zdanie
z Raju Dantego
o wielkości Jedynego
który utrzymuje wszystko w ruchu
Starzy mężczyźni oczekują
aż to się skończy
aż ich chwalebny wyrok na ziemi
dobiegnie końca
powolny dzwon bije i bije
gołębie paradują wokoło
nawet nie myśląc o lataniu
powietrze jest za ciężkie przy takim biciu dzwonów
Czarne wynajęte karawany zajeżdżają
czarne limuzyny z zaciemionymi na czarno oknami
chroniącymi wdowy
wdowy w długich czarnych welonach
które przeżyją ich wszystkich
Widzieliście je
madre di terra, nadre di mare...
Wdowy wyłaniają sie z limuzyn
Krewni wychodzą w sztywnych garniturach
Wdowy idą wolniusieńko
po schodach katedry
z opuszczonymi siatkami welonów
opierając się ciężko na ramionach w ciemnej odzieży
Ich twarze nie są rozbite
Są zaledwie roztrzęsione
One są wciąż matriarchami
które przeżywają wszystkich
starych italiańców umierających
w Małych Italiach po całej Ameryce
starych martwych italiańców
odholowywanych w porannym słońcu
które nie opłakuje nikogo
Jeden za drugim, rok za rokiem
zostają wynoszeni
nigdy nie przestaje bić
Starzy Włosi o pomarszczonych twarzach
są odholowywani w karawanch
przez opłaconych grabarzy
w płaszczach jak mafioso i w ciemnych okularach
Starzy martwi mężczyźni są odholowywani
w swoich ciemnych trumnach jak małe łódki
Wchodzą do prawdziwego kościoła
po raz pierwszy od wielu lat
w tych ociosanych czarnych łodziach
gotowi do przeprawy
Księża drepczą wokół
jakby mieli odrzucić linki holownicze
Inni starzy mężczyźni
wciąż żywi na ławkach
obserwują to spod swoich kapeluszy
Widzieliście ich siedzących tu
czekających aż koło fortuny przestanie sie toczyć
czekających aż dzwon
przestanie bić i bić
aż powolny dzwon
zakończy bicie
opowiadając niedokończoną historię z Raju
odzwierciedloną w niedokończonym zdaniu
u wrót kościoła
odzwierciedloną na twarzy rybaka
w czarnej łodzi bez żagli
odbywającego swój ostatni połów

(to read the English version of The Old Italians Dying, click here.)

Come Lie with Me and Be My Love

Chodź połóż się i kochaj mnie

Chodź połóż się i kochaj mnie
Chodź ze mną śpij
Złóż siebie mi
U cyprysowych pni
Na słodkich trawach
Tu gdzie wiatr dmie
Tu gdzie wiatr łże
Gdy noc przemija
Chodź połóż się
W tę noc przy mnie
I nasyć się całując mnie
I nasyć się kochając grzech
I niech mój jaszczur zagra ci
I niech nam jedno serce brzmi
Przez noc u cyprysowych pni
Bez krzty miłości


A special issue of Nowa Okolica Poetow, on Ferlinghetti, was published as No. 13 in 2003, with lots of my translations and brief conversations with him. Link to the Table of Contents by clicking here.

Nowy Dziennik's
cultural weekly, Przeglad Polski, has just published Zalewski's review of Janusz Szuber's They Carry a Promise. The Polish title is Janusz Szuber: Laboratorium Slowa - Janusz Szuber: A Word Laboratory.

The photography above is of Ferlinghetti and Janusz Zalewski taken this summer, in Caffe Trieste, on North Beach, in S.F.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Milosz and Captive Minds: Now and Then

Tony Judt's article originally appeared in the New York Review Blog:

Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czeslaw Milosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there were snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional clump of ice-bound trees and posts marking the national frontiers.

My host waxed lyrical over the cultural exchanges planned for Milosz’s ancestral home. I was absorbed in my own thoughts: some seventy miles north, in Pilviskiai (Lithuania), the Avigail side of my father’s family had lived and died (some at the hands of the Nazis). Our cousin Meyer London had emigrated in 1891 to New York from a nearby village; there he was elected in 1914 as the second Socialist congressman before being ousted by an ignominious alliance of wealthy New York Jews disturbed by his socialism and American Zionists aghast at his well-publicized suspicion of their project.

For Milosz, Krasnogruda—”red soil”—was his “native realm” (Rodzinna Europa in the original Polish, better translated as European Fatherland or European Family). But for me, staring over this stark white landscape, it stood for Jedwabne, Katyn, and Babi Yar—all within easy reach—not to mention dark memories closer to home. My host certainly knew all this: indeed, he was personally responsible for the controversial Polish publication of Jan Gross’s account of the massacre at Jedwabne. But the presence of Poland’s greatest twentieth-century poet transcended the tragedy that stalks the region.

Milosz was born in 1911 in what was then Russian Lithuania. Indeed, like many great Polish literary figures, he was not strictly “Polish” by geographical measure. Adam Zagajewski, one of the country’s most important living poets, was born in Ukraine; Jerzy Giedroyc—a major figure in the twentieth-century literary exile—was born in Belarus, like Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth-century icon of the Polish literary revival. Lithuanian Vilna in particular was a cosmopolitan blend of Poles, Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, and Jews, among others (Isaiah Berlin, like the Harvard political philosopher Judith Shklar, was born in nearby Riga).

Raised in the interwar Polish republic, Milosz survived the occupation and was already a poet of some standing when he was sent to Paris as the cultural attaché of the new People’s Republic. But in 1951 he defected to the West and two years later he published his most influential work, The Captive Mind. Never out of print, it is by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.
Milosz studies four of his contemporaries and the self-delusions to which they fell prey on their journey from autonomy to obedience, emphasizing what he calls the intellectuals’ need for “a feeling of belonging.” Two of his subjects—Jerzy Andrzejewski and Tadeusz Borowski—may be familiar to English readers, Andrzejewski as the author of Ashes and Diamonds (adapted for the cinema by Andrzej Wajda) and Borowski as the author of a searing memoir of Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.

But the book is most memorable for two images. One is the “Pill of Murti-Bing.” Milosz came across this in an obscure novel by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability (1927). In this story, Central Europeans facing the prospect of being overrun by unidentified Asiatic hordes pop a little pill, which relieves them of fear and anxiety; buoyed by its effects, they not only accept their new rulers but are positively happy to receive them.

The second image is that of “Ketman,” borrowed from Arthur de Gobineau’s Religions and Philosophies of Central Asia, in which the French traveler reports the Persian phenomenon of elective identities. Those who have internalized the way of being called “Ketman” can live with the contradictions of saying one thing and believing another, adapting freely to each new requirement of their rulers while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker—or at any rate a thinker who has freely chosen to subordinate himself to the ideas and dictates of others.

Ketman, in Milosz’s words, “brings comfort, fostering dreams of what might be, and even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.” Writing for the desk drawer becomes a sign of inner liberty. At least his audience would take him seriously if only they could read him:

Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot.

Between Ketman and the Pill of Murti-Bing, Milosz brilliantly dissects the state of mind of the fellow traveler, the deluded idealist, and the cynical time server. His essay is more subtle than Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and less relentlessly logical than Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals. I used to teach it in what was for many years my favorite course, a survey of essays and novels from Central and Eastern Europe that included the writings of Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Ivo Andric’, Heda Kovaly, Paul Goma, and others.

But I began to notice that whereas the novels of Kundera and Andric’, or the memoirs of Kovaly or Yevgenia Ginsburg, remain accessible to American students notwithstanding the alien material, The Captive Mind often encountered incomprehension. Milosz takes for granted his readers’ intuitive grasp of the believer’s state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression. In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon—whether associated with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression—would be familiar.

And indeed, when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a “captive mind” was not a good thing. Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.

Contemporary students do not see the point of the book: the whole exercise seems futile. Repression, suffering, irony, and even religious belief: these they can grasp. But ideological self-delusion? Milosz’s posthumous readers thus resemble the Westerners and emigres whose incomprehension he describes so well: “They do not know how one pays—those abroad do not know. They do not know what one buys, and at what price.”

Perhaps so. But there is more than one kind of captivity. Recall the Ketman-like trance of those intellectuals swept up in George W. Bush’s hysterical drive to war just a few years ago. Few of them would have admitted to admiring the President, much less sharing his worldview. So they typically aligned themselves behind him while doubtless maintaining private reservations. Later, when it was clear they had made a mistake, they blamed it upon the administration’s incompetence. With Ketman-like qualifications they proudly assert, in effect, “we were right to be wrong”—a revealing if unconscious echo of the plaidoyer of the French fellow travelers, “better to have been wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.”

Today, we can still hear sputtering echoes of the attempt to reignite the cold war around a crusade against “Islamo-fascism.” But the true mental captivity of our time lies elsewhere. Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgaenger—the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress, and History. Just as the hapless British Labour chancellor in 1929–1931, Philip Snowden, threw up his hands in the face of the Depression and declared that there was no point opposing the ineluctable laws of capitalism, so Europe’s leaders today scuttle into budgetary austerity to appease “the markets.”

But “the market”—like “dialectical materialism”—is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers—mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers—who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.

Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives. We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently the “Washington consensus” in vulnerable developing countries—with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation—has destroyed millions of livelihoods. Meanwhile, the stringent “commercial terms” on which vital pharmaceuticals are made available has drastically reduced life expectancy in many places. But in Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, “there is no alternative.”

It was in just such terms that communism was presented to its beneficiaries following World War II; and it was because History afforded no apparent alternative to a Communist future that so many of Stalin’s foreign admirers were swept into intellectual captivity. But when Milosz published The Captive Mind, Western intellectuals were still debating among genuinely competitive social models—whether social democratic, social market, or regulated market variants of liberal capitalism. Today, despite the odd Keynesian protest from below the salt, a consensus reigns.
For Milosz, “the man of the East cannot take Americans seriously because they have never undergone the experiences that teach men how relative their judgments and thinking habits are.” This is doubtless so and explains the continuing skepticism of the East European in the face of Western innocence. But there is nothing innocent about Western (and Eastern) commentators’ voluntary servitude before the new pan-orthodoxy. Many of them, Ketman-like, know better but prefer not to raise their heads above the parapet. In this sense at least, they have something truly in common with the intellectuals of the Communist age. One hundred years after his birth, fifty-seven years after the publication of his seminal essay, Milosz’s indictment of the servile intellectual rings truer than ever: “his chief characteristic is his fear of thinking for himself.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Lullaby of the Trains

One of the outstanding poems in Elisabeth Murawski's recent book Zorba's Daughter is "Lullaby of the Train," about the transport of Gypsy children to the Nazi death camps. Ms. Murawski has allowed me to post the poem here.

Lullaby of the Train

With eyes like empty
begging bowls
the orphan gypsy girls

have stopped complaining
of shoes that pinch
their toes, of dresses

with holes. The town
clock releases
a knight on horseback,

announces the hour.
The children can’t tell
time yet. Numbers

on paper, they shuffle
forward, too weary
and hungry to cry

or look back.
The German nun waves
to her charges, obedient

as shadows. Click clack
go the wheels
kissing the railroad track,

lullaby of the train.
Click clack, click clack
to the smoky town in Poland.


To read more about the fate of the gypsies during the Holocaust, please visit the Jewish Virtual Library.

Ms. Murawski's book, winner of the 2010 May Swenson Prize, is available at Amazon.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture

If you are a Pole or Polish-American living in this country, you have probably been called a dumb Polak. You have also probably been told that Poles are stupid, lazy, anti-semitic, and brutal.

You have heard this from your friends and the people around you. When I was a four-year old refugee from Germany, I heard it from a boy my own age who lived next door to me. Later, I heard it where I worked and lived. And always, of course, I heard it from the media, from TV shows, movies, books, and music.

I never understood it. I saw Poles who were smart, caring, helpful, and idealistic, and I wondered where the stereotype of the brute Polak came from.

Danusha Goska's new book answers this question.

Bieganski: The Brute Polak Stereotype in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture is a daring and far-reaching study that examines the sources and prevalence of stereotyped images of Poles as brutal, subhuman creatures. Drawing on her extensive research in history, popular culture, and folklore, and also on interviews of Poles and Jews in America today, interviews of both stereotypers and victims of stereotyping, she teaches us all something profound about how the image of the Polak originated and why it continues to flourish.

Two decades in the works, and written and researched without institutional support, her study has been called "groundbreaking" and "brilliant."

Here are two more recent responses to this "groundbreaking" and "brilliant" book:

From John J. Mearsheimer, R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago

"Bieganski is a truly important book because it challenges and demolishes the widely held belief that Poles are nothing more than ignorant and brutish anti-Semites who played a central role in causing the Holocaust. Goska does a first-rate job of describing how Jews and Poles really interacted with each other over their rich history together. Let's hope that this book is widely read and helps change the conventional wisdom about Polish-Jewish relations."

From John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Ph.D., professor of Social Ethics, Director, Catholic-Jewish Studies Program Catholic Theological Union, Chicago

"Stereotypes of Poles have been commonplace in Western society. Danusha V. Goska presents a comprehensive overview of such images in a balanced fashion. She offers no apologetic for genuine instance of Polish anti-Semitism. But she also exposes those rooted in outright prejudice with no foundation in fact. An important contribution to improved Polish-Jewish understanding."

From Dr. Michael Herzbrun, Rabbi Temple Emanu-El, Rochester, NY:

"In this most important work, Dr. Goska's style incorporates those necessary ingredients that justify writing as an art form: her grammar is impeccable, even while the pathways of her sentences can be unpredictable. Her imagery is robust, but yet it never gets in the way of the underlying premises of her arguments. Moreover, her thinking is crisp, and her knowledge of this very sensitive topic is thoroughly evident. Indeed, the reader cannot help but be persuaded by the logical unfolding of the positions she brings to this necessary work. Above all, she establishes that all-important trust in her readers: that while she may jostle their previously-held constructs, she will also protect them on a literary journey that could be harrowing and dangerous in lesser hands."


Dr. Goska has started a blog devoted to her work on Bieganski and other issues. You can see her blog by clicking here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration

If you're reading this, you probably came to America as an immigrant or your parents did or your grandparents did. You or your people came with little or very little, and the world they found was always strange and often hard and sometimes threatening.

Immigrants, for the most part, don't like to talk about those days. I know my parents didn't. When I would ask my mother as a child what it was like when we came, she would wave me away. Like so many other immigrants, she wanted that past forgotten. Remembering that past was somehow a betrayal of what she wanted to be, an American. She wanted to be an American sharing the real American dream, the one that promises you never have to remember where you came from and how hard the passage here was.

But we can't forget those stories, shouldn't forget them, because some time we'll need them. They are part of our essential legacy, and they tell us that we can survive no matter how hard times are; they tell us we can keep going even when it seems like we'll never succeed, never crawl out of the mess we're in.

Gregory Tague understands how important these stories are. In Common Boundaries: Stories of Immigration, he has gathered together a collection of twenty true stories by twenty immigrants from Poland and Hungary and Mexico and Iran and Morocco and Cuba. (The two essays about Polish immigrants were written by Dagamara J. Kurcz and me.)

These stories are sad and funny and heartbreaking, and they need to be read and passed down because someday we'll need to remember what courage and hope and strength and love can really accomplish when faced with the impossible.


Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration is available from Amazon and Editions Bibliotekos.

To find out more about Common Boundary, please read the recent article in the Brooklyn Eagle.

Further information is also available at the Editions Bibliotekos website.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Barney and Gienka by John Surowiecki

Part Dante’s Virgil and part Groucho Marx, John Surowiecki writes about his Polish-American parents, aunts, and uncles with seriousness and humor, elegance and wit. The narrative of his peoms begins as his father wakes after a stroke and weaves back and forth across the years, taking the reader to pre-war movie theaters, army staging areas in England, a ball-bearing factory in the States, and the small-town Connecticut world his parents lived in after the war.

Where other writers would treat the lives of such working-class people with pointless nostalgia or sentimentality, Mr. Surowiecki reveals real lives in all their cluttered and touching complexity.

This book adds to Mr. Surowiecki considerable achievements which include winning the Poetry Foundation's first Pegasus Award for Verse Drama, the 2006 Washington Prize for Poetry, and the 2007 Pablo Neruda Prize, also for poetry.

Originally, I was going to post "Barney and Gienka," the title poem, but I think "Mr. Szmykleszczwladeczeryniecki’s Funeral [June 13, 1965]" offers a sense of the Polish-American community that is very powerful. There's death and rebirth and joy and suffering in the poem that speaks of the continuity of that community even as the old members pass on.

Mr. Szmykleszczwladeczeryniecki’s Funeral [June 13, 1965]

The foundry workers, who were so loud
and tearful at his wake, sit quietly
in back of the church, stepping
outside now and then to smoke cigarettes
and to hear the shouts and cries
of children playing in the street.

A few people from the St. Casimir Society
remember the time he played Santa Claus,
handing out bright fragrant oranges to children
who handed them back saying they wanted PEZ
dispensers and comic books, not something their
parents brought home every week from the store.

The stained-glass windows of the church
feature portraits of the Holy Family:
Lazarus the uncle, cousins James and Jude,
Martha the worrying aunt, grandmother Ann,
Joseph teaching carpentry to toddler Jesus
and Mary, pained, thinking of what’s to come.

And the glass is so thin it admits the shouts
of the children outside and it shudders and rattles
with the organ’s every throb. It groans as the priest
explains that death ought to be an occasion for joy
and celebration, then sighs, finally, at the squeak
of Mrs. Jablonski’s thin soprano voice.


Barney and Gienka is available at Amazon.

To read more about Mr. Surowiecki please click here.

You can also visit his website.