Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I have never had an urge to seek out my ancestral home. It’s enough to know that it was either in Ukraine, Russia or Poland. In fact, what was Poland one year was gobbled up by mother Russia the next. There is an old story about a youngster asking his father whether he lived in Poland or Russia. You are in Poland, was the reply. Thank God, said the child, I couldn’t stand another Russian winter.

I, too, have an affinity for Poland and not for its weather. However if I had been born there I’d have been dead for 72 years owing to their shameful and virulent anti-Semitism.

On the other hand, it gave the world Copernicus, Chopin and Madame Curie. More recently, Poland has been the birthplace of some of my favorite people. Besides Peggy’s maternal ancestors and my new son-in-law’s family it has given us great poets and writers, pre-eminent film makers and visual artists.

Wislawa Szymborska and Adam Zagajewski are among the finest poets writing today and the work of the late Czeslaw Milosz has been widely translated into English and taught throughout this country. Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. Her poems are unadorned, ironic stilettos which could only have been written by a witness to 88 years of tragedy and perseverance. Her tongue is bitter and transcendent as one must be having endured two brutal occupations and a devastating war.

Hunger Camp At Jaslo

Write it. Write. In ordinary ink
on ordinary paper: they were given no food,
they all died of hunger. "All. How many?
It's a big meadow. How much grass
for each one?" Write: I don't know.
History counts its skeletons in round numbers.
A thousand and one remains a thousand,
as though the one had never existed
… They sang with their mouths full of earth.

On Death, without Exaggeration

It can't find a star, make a bridge./ It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,/ building ships, or baking cakes.. / It can't even get the things done/ that are part of its trade:/ dig a grave,/ make a coffin,/ clean up after itself.. Sometimes it isn't strong enough to swat a fly from the air.. Many are the caterpillars/ that have out-crawled it. All those bulbs, pods,/ tentacles, fins, tracheae,/ nuptial plumage, and winter fur /show that it has fallen behind/ with its halfhearted work.

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s films have touched me with themes that evoke the wounds of the human heart, its mysteries and the forces which can reconnect us. He did it using the language of cinema and stretching the limits of the art form. For quite a few years Peggy and I would watch his film, The Double Life of Veronique, every New Year’s Day. Kieslowski died in 1996. He also left us The Decalogue and Trois Couleur Trilogy, Red, Blue and White. Uszula Antoniak is another filmmaker whose debut work, Nothing Personal, is my movie of the year.

During the Communist era some of the finest artists were pressed into service doing public art. We have a collection of Polish movie posters. They are recognized as the boldest, most inventive graphics in that medium. There is a museum in Warsaw devoted exclusively to this poster art. Our particular favorite is Andrzej Pagowski. What he does with a human face defies description. Candles come out of the top, birds nest in the hair, or stairs or key holes out of the eyes.

No one embodies the porous borders of Poland and their stained past so much as the writer, Bruno Schultz. Polish anti-Semitism accommodated Nazi madness and Schultz was a victim in 1942. His phantasmagoric stories are regarded as early post-modern and celebrated by Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Jonathan Safran Foer and Salman Rushdie. He is claimed by both Ukraine and Poland.

In part, the birth of gifted artists is fortuitous, but not entirely. I suspect great art is released from oppressed and occupied regions when the lid on expression is lifted. Eastern Europe has emerged as such a place. It helps when there are past masters to build upon. Poland has stories to tell on the page, the big screen and in images like no other.

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