Archive for July, 2010

borowski competition update

Friday, July 30th, 2010

here in our aushwitzThe deadline for our Book Cover Design Contest No. 4 on Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is exactly one month away! We have assembled an impressive list of jurors, some of whom will be familiars to frequenters of this site: Alicia Nitecki, John Guzlowski, Jae Rossman, Barbara Girs, and Marco Sonzogni.  For a little inspiration here is the working cover design for the forthcoming Yale University Press London translation of Borowski’s stories (translated by Madeline Levine, Professor of Slavic Literatures, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill). It’s worth noting that this translation contains twenty stories in addition to the twelve that comprise This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (incidentally, the title story is here translated as “Ladies and Gentlemen, Please Come to the Gas.”). I have my doubts that this will be the actual cover, since YUP London used that image on last year’s The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak.

9780300116908Yale University Press New Haven shows a different and I’d say less interesting cover on their website (left), although something tells me this won’t be the actual cover either.

We are grateful to the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Los Angeles for their partnership in this important competition!

A complete list of rules is here (in English) and here (polski tekst).

stara gwardia (the old guard) by mieczysław lurczyński, 1946, translated by alicia nitecki

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

“What was done to people locked up behind wires and dressed in stripes simply defies description.” – Mieczysław Lurczyński, Preface, The Old Guard

Gustaw Morcinek Listy spod morwyWorld War II casts a long shadow over history. Remarkably, fifty and sixty years later, there are still works of Holocaust literature being published in English translations for the first time. And, shamefully, there are other books that for one reason or another may never see publication in English. An unfortunate example of the latter is Gustaw Morcinek’s Listy spod morwy (Letters from Under a Mulberry Tree). Morcinek (1891 – 1963) was an important author who had written a dozen books during  the interwar period. He was arrested on September 6, 1939, a mere six days into the German invasion of Poland,  and spent the entire duration of the war in concentration camps, first in Sachsenhausen and then in Dachau from March 1940 until the camp was liberated in April 1945. Letters from under a Mulberry Tree, a collection of a dozen essays, was written in France that summer.  According to Alicia Nitecki, “in its disawoval of any claims to ‘heroism’ or ‘martyrdom’ and its unflinching portrayal of what existence in the camp revealed about human nature (“A psychologist would have wonderful material here to study and deepen his knowledge of man, Morcinek wrote) the work is indeed close in spirit to that of We Were in Auschwitz.”  Someday, hopefully soon, we will be able to read it!THE OLD GUARD

Stara Gwardia (The Old Guard) by Mieczysław Lurczyński (1908 -1992), published this year in a searing translation by Nitecki, is a fortunate example of the former. A member of the Polish Home Army, Lurczyński was arrested in February 1943 and after a month in Pawiak Prison and a week in Majdanek was transported to Buchenwald. In February 1945 he was transferred to SS-Kommando Hecht in Escherhausen.  He managed to escape from the train transporting the prisoners out of the camp as it was being evacuated at the end of March 1945.  Like Morcinek and Letters from under a Mulberry Tree, no sooner had Lurczyński gained his freedom than he began writing The Old Guard. Nitecki notes in her introduction that “the play is based on situations its author had witnessed, characters he had seen, and conversations which he had noted down verbatim on scraps of paper in Buchenwald and its sub-camp SS-Kommando Hecht, and had miraculously managed to smuggle out of the camps with him.”

In his own preface Lurczyński writes that the “the play does not have any great atrocities in it. The focus, rather is on internal experiences and on depicting pained, sick, desperate , and resigned psyches, on depicting the methods by which people were turned into beasts, and beasts into freaks of nature.” Acutely aware that the language of the play was “the depraved language of a human cesspool” he elected to print only 200 copies and to personally distribute them to people “who will tolerate the raw breath blowing from its pages, and who will realize the moral imperative of telling the truth…at any price.” And indeed the raw callousness with which the characters describe the depravity around them is harrowing, and the venomous rage present in the characters’ exchanges is disagreeable and disarming, suggesting a much more recent play at perhaps a greater remove from its subject matter. It is to Nitecki’s credit that she chose not to tone down the play, but instead unleashed it full force, which no doubt some readers may find offensive.

At the heart of the play (set in the single room where all three acts take place) is the struggle between Geniek, the thuggish, debased, disillusioned Lageraeltester (the Camp Elder, a prisoner in charge of the camp and answerable to the Commandant) and Fryderyk, “an old actor of considerable renown; a man of the 19th century: romantic, self-centered, idealistic…a relative newcomer.” Fryderyk, who as Professor Nitecki tells us in her introduction, is modeled on “Fryderyk Jarosy (1890 – 1960) a theater director, film actor, and reknowned king of Warsaw cabaret.” is a sort of elder statesman, a civilized relic from a saner era who because of his relatively privileged status within the camp has so far has managed to resist its dehumanization. As he says in one scene:

“I was part of the scene where Wedekind performed on the guitar, where one evening Chaliapin at the dawn of his fame sang Russian folks in a bass voice, where the divine Eleanor Duse and Sarah Bernhardt and the satirist Heine passed through, where Thoma and Rilke, still young and unknown, came by. I had the good fortune to see the beginnings of contemporary French art and music. Next to me, Picasso created the first of his works, Debussy played. I took part in creating theatre with Rheinhardt who was financed by my father among others. I had the fortune to spend time in Austria where the exiled Meyrink wrote his political satires. As a young diplomat, I managed to get to know the court of Nicholas II, Francis Jozef, and Wilhelm II; I witnessed the behind-the-scenes negotiations and trivialities. I studied in England at Oxford…”

In fact, Lurczyński noted later that “a conversation with him was an escape, it allowed me to get a breather from the primitiveness and bestiality surrounding me on all sides.”

In contrast, witness Geniek’s stunning ἀπολογία directed at Fryderyk, arguably the play’s most powerful passage:

“We, the old guard, the old numbers…do you know what number I have from Auschwitz?

(shows his tattoo)

See. 7000. 1940. We the Alte Garde, we’ve survived everything and we’ll survive this, too, because we are the future of Poland, the backbone on which everything will depend. You weren’t in Auschwitz; you didn’t see what we saw. For us, dying was like shitting is to everyone else. You don’t know a goddamned thing, that’s the problem. Did an SS man choke you half to death like Palitsch did me? Did you squeeze into a bunker, crammed with twelve others – in 9 square feet of space! – when the little high window got frozen over from our breathing and you couldn’t reach to wipe it clear? I was taken out for interrogation and the others croaked, suffocated over the next few days, the window frozen over. They were carried out before my eyes. Six days without eating and to die from a lack of air! Have you experienced anything like that? So how can you know? Did you see how the Russkies gave a beating? How they’d pick a guy up and slam him to the ground so that they’d rupture his kidneys. And he’d swell up and lie dying for weeks on end. Or how they’d hold a victim under water in such a way that he wouldn’t drown. By the hour, in the Block gutters where the fucking Holzschuhe are washed. I saw a Kapo from Cologne, a German Gypsy, built like that –

(demonstrates the wide breadth of the man’s shoulders)

who was beaten in Buchenwald for half a day and then was carried out in a wheelbarrow, a pile of meat vomiting blood, and dumped behind the small Lager. And then I saw that pile of meat leap up and run, blindly, with dislocated shoulders, to the gate, seeking safety with the SS.

(he drinks)

So what do you know, you old rat fuck? Huh? What the fuck do you know? You didn’t get to experience the Lager thanks to my good graces. Did you see the first mass extermination at Auschwitz? Were you there? In the evening, six hundred people were called out and herded into Block Eleven. Nobody believed – nobody wanted to believe – they would be shot. But already, in the morning wagons were pulled through the Lager loaded to the top with corpses still leaking blood like pigs. I myself pulled a wagon…and behind us we left a broad trail, like a bubbling red stream. The wind blew back the canvas and we saw the naked bodies, riddled with bullets, with bared teeth and eyes wide open. For weeks I loaded corpses, was a Leichentraeger. Two of us would pick up a body by its extremities and swing it – hup, hup, hup – into the air and onto the wagon where it would land among its shit-caked and foul-smelling kinsmen. My first three days on the job, I couldn’t eat a thing. And I was hungry, friend. I’d’ve settled for anything: a crust of stale bread or some soup made from rutabaga and old gramophone records. But I couldn’t eat. My hands were thick with fat from the corpses and there was nowhere I could wash them.


That’s what times were like. And now you want me to regret the loss of a bowl? I’ve got bowls up the ass in the Block. Let those cocksuckers organize for what they need wherever they can, the way I organized old food cans from the garbage so that I could find enough peelings to make a half cup of soup. Fucking money-grubbing, ass-fucking millionaires! What do I give a shit about them? Did you see my number? The first transport to Auschwitz, two years of penal Kommando in Birkenau, where organizing the dregs from SS lunches was hog heaven. I shit blood for two weeks after getting typhus – do you hear me? Typhus! – wasn’t able to eat a thing. People like me will be the future of Poland. We know what we have to do. Our Lager education will come in handy.”

Very special thanks to Alicia Nitecki for her introduction to and translation of  The Old Guard, Excelsior Editions, SUNY Press, 2010. Information from Letters from under a Mulberry Tree is from Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process.

byliśmy w oświęcimiu

Saturday, July 24th, 2010

bylismy w oswiecimiuI am indebted to Alicia Nitecki for sending me this image of the 1958 edition of Byliśmy w Oświęcimiu (We Were in Auschwitz) published by Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej with a cover designed by Miroslaw Pokora (1933 – 2006) an artist perhaps best known for his illustrations of children’s books.

recovered land, alicia nitecki

Saturday, July 17th, 2010

recovered land 1

Perhaps central to apprehending the experience of those who endured and bore witness to the myriad horrors of the German occupation of Poland during World War II is acknowledging its persistent influence on those sons, daughters and grandchildren, whose daily lives today, sixty five years on, remain infused with the bitter distillate of loss, trauma, despair and anger, and on whom still rests the burden to comprehend what for most of their lives has been shadowy, elusive, and incomprehensible. John Guzlowski, born in a Displaced Persons camp in 1948 to parents who met in a slave labor camp, has spent his life using his stark and powerful verse to peer through his parents’ eyes, wringing poignant beauty from their terrors. Alicia Nitecki, who was two years old when she and her family were arrested and deported to a labor camp in Lauterbach in 1944, has spent the latter part of her professional life immersed in the literature of the Holocaust, translating the work of Tadeusz Borowski, Mieczyslaw Lurczynski, Henryk Grynberg, and other survivors. As if that weren’t enough, she has given us yet another gift, Recovered Land, a collection of intelligent and discerning essays detailing her return to the places of her early childhood, specifically Warsaw and Lauterbach, but also the slave labor camps of Buchenwald and Flossenburg where her maternal grandfather was imprisoned. These essays articulate beautifully the struggle to come to terms with the past, especially amidst the heavy psychological burdens with which specific places are weighted down. What results is an exploration both fascinating and enriching, and one close to what I feel the Greeks meant by νοσταλγία.  With prodigious grace and quiet unassuming wisdom she writes of trying to reconcile her fragmentary memories and the constructed images in her mind with the realities of these places. Of Warsaw she writes, paraphrasing Eliot, “the footfalls that echoed down the passage of my memory led always to a door that opened not into the rose garden but into the city” likening being in Warzaw to “peering at a landscape I knew well late at night when the darkness has hidden all the familiar details.” In Lautenberg she is “searching the pages of a book I’d read looking for a half-remembered passage that would illuminate some half-formulated question.”  She is also searching for the father she has not seen since 1946 who is “as shadowy and as solid as the city itself.” Upon their first meeting she expresses her yearning eloquently:

“I wanted only that first immediate recognition and to trace with my finger the familiar geography of my father’s face: the high forehead, the hooded eyes, the hollow of his cheeks; to hug him as I must have hugged him as a child, and in this thoughtless way to confirm the reality of this man to whom I was connected by birth.”

Inevitably, perhaps, and with the sense of sorrow and loss threaded throughout all of the essays, she ends her discussion of her father by saying: “We never did connect, my father and I. The distance between Warsaw and Boston, between the man that he was and the woman I had become, proved in the end too great.”

In the final essay, “Border Country”, Nitecki mentions another loss. Once, upon questioning her mother about a photograph of her grandfather in striped prison garb, her mother snatches it from her and immediately rips it up. Years later her mother offers to let her read her grandfather’s Flossenburg memoir.

“After my mother had died, her dying breath closing the door to my childhood, I searched for the memoir but did not find it, and I regretted our inarticulateness: what my mother, in her desire not to force an obligation on me, had not said, which was that she wanted her father’s memories preserved; what I had never been able to say to her, which was that I was afraid to read them and reluctant to reveal an interest in the horrors he had lived, because such an interest seemed perverse.”

When we spoke recently, Professor Nitecki told me:

“My mother was very fond of my grandfather and was profoundly troubled by his incarceration. She never talked to me about his war experience, she also somehow assumed I knew it, which I didn’t. When I asked her when I was a teenager what he’d done during the war, she responded with rageAs you know he was in a concentration camp.’ (which I didn’t know, nor did I really know at the time what those places were like). She ripped the photo up probably because it enraged her to see him like that. I am very sorry that I was never able to locate his memoir. Since I had been born in the middle of the war, she tried when the war was over for me to live a normal, happy life, and, essentially never referred to the past. I decided to visit Flossenburg in order to understand/see what my grandfather had lived through.”

She writes that she “drove there with an uneasy conscience, afraid of appropriating for myself my grandfather’s experience.” Perhaps, as the title Recovered Land seems to suggest, Nitecki finds that she is the sole custodian and bearer of that experience, which is her birthright and her lot. As she notes in “Pictures From Germany”: “those of us who were born in Eastern Europe during the war are exiles from hell, not paradise. War was the first world I knew, and it is as much a part of me as the color of my skin and eyes, my disposition to migraine. I know that winter is the end and the beginning, the chain on which that brilliant gift, spring, is strung as a bead. Perhaps that is why today, chaos, fear, and death are more familiar to me than peace, confidence, and life.”

pożegnanie z marią, tadeusz borowski, 1948

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Pożegnanie z MariąPożegnanie z Marią, (the U.S. title is This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, the subject of our Book Cover Contest #4) , was first published in Warsaw in 1948 by Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza “Wiedza” with a cover designed by concentration camp survivor Maria Hiszpańskiej-Neumann (1917 – 1980). Hiszpańskiej-Neumann, trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and a member of the resistance during the German occupation, was arrested in April 1941, and imprisoned in Radom and Pińczów. In April 1942 she was transferred to Ravensbruck, the Reich’s largest women’s camp, ultimately finding herself in the armaments factory at Neubrandenburg, one of its 70 slave-labor sub-camps. While interned she made hundreds of drawings of camp life, few of which remain.  During a forced death march from the camp April 1945 just prior to liberation she escaped and after the war worked as a commercial and fine artist in a wide variety of media.

ostatni etap (the last stage), wanda jakubowska

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Polish PosterI 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.”

 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.”

ostatni etap 2

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.