Ginczanka is a frightening, as well as fascinating, figure. Gabriela von Seltmann’s recent musical project, based on her life and poetry, goes by the name “Zar-Ptak/Firebird,” and the title is no accident. Ginczanka’s legacy scorches us all. Sometimes burning completely, always fiercely.
My gender in this case is an issue. It doesn’t matter that in the past 10 years I have translated and published mostly women poets – Grzegorzewska, Lech, Jakubowska-Fijalkowska, Amiel, Jastrzebska – nor that I have devoted my adult life to working in a range of non-profit, culturally engaged causes. Nobody cares about this – Ginczanka comes loaded with a reputation of being a beauty, a charmer, a seductress even. Because of this, I will be judged as one of the many men, dead and alive, who claim to serve Ginczanka while actually being much more likely to be trying to use her.
But nobody can use Ginczanka. Many have tried. All have failed. Ginczanka, as a poet and a person, is beyond anyone who tries to manipulate her legacy for corrupt ends.
Ginczanka looks the spitting image of my mother, when she was her age. As far as I know, I do not have any Jewish roots, but considering how angry and animated my mother becomes when the topic of Jewish culture is mentioned, I wonder. I wonder what we might all be hiding.
Ginczanka is a revelation. Not just in terms of her talent, but as a prism – she reveals things about herself, about our world, about ourselves.
I first learnt about Ginczanka thanks to my friend Bogdan Frymorgen (a London based artist and activist) who introduced me to Zuzanna Lipinska, the daughter of Eryk Lipinski and Ha-Ga, both renowned Polish illustrators. When I mentioned that I was translating Tuwim, Brzechwa and other poets she met and who her parents worked with, Zuzanna asked if I had ever heard of Ginczanka. I hadn’t. She sent me Ginczanka’s last and best known poem – Non Omnis Moriar – via email later that night, revealing that her father had been close friends with Ginczanka (back in her brief Warsaw years) and that she herself had been named Zuzanna in honour of the tragic poet. I translated the poem into English the next day (see below), and sent it back to her straight away.
Back then, I was still living in London. Since then, I have moved to Warsaw where I continue my translation of great Polish writers of poetry, story and song – a great many of them, of course, Jewish. For a while, I lived in Muranow, the site of the former Jewish district and the place the Nazi occupiers chose to construct the genocidal Warsaw Ghetto. While renting a tiny apartment on Nalewki St (which used to be the heart of the Jewish District, now completely vanished), I heard about an exhibition at the Museum of Literature, just down the road in the Old Town, focused on Ginczanka’s life and work.
The show was called “Only Happiness is Real Life,” a quote from one of her poems. I liked the way the show was arranged – taking us on a tour of the poet’s life, but backwards, from her death (which so many of us know about) right back to her birth (which so few of us know at all). Many influential visual artists had been commissioned to produce pieces for the show, but they were mostly very dark and very far from the mood suggested by the title of the show. I had the distinct impression few of them had actually bothered to read any of Ginczanka’s poems.
This is a universal problem. There are many famous poets in our culture – Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, Bukowski, Plath, Szymborska, and of course Ginczanka’s namesake Alan Ginsberg – but they are rarely read. Many factors are to blame for this – our educational systems, our arts funding models, the way in which we price and distribute books. Ginczanka is becoming more and more known, in literary circles, in Poland, but how many actually read her work, considering how hard – often impossible – it is to get our hands on books written by her?
The publisher Czuly Barbarzynca released a selection of her poems, edited by Agata Araszkiewicz (co-creator of the “Only Happiness Is Real Life” show), last year, but other books of Ginczanka’s poems remain hard to find. Austeria published a translation of her key poems in Italian a few years ago, but the book is very expensive and did not get any sort of meaningful distribution – unlike the hardback notebook, featuring her poems, put together by Jaroslaw Mikolajewski and issued by Austeria last year, in what can only be considered a kindhearted attempt to cash in on the renewed interest in Ginczanka.
When I think of Sana Gincburg (the name she was born with), I often think of comets. Like them, Ginczanka appears in Poland’s literary firmament from time to time, then vanishes. Poles call books which are impossible to find and buy “white ravens” – Ginczanka herself, as well as being a Firebird, is that.
Jan Spiewak, who knew her personally before WWII, published a selection of her poems in 1953. It was reissued in 1980, but then it was down to Izold Kiec, a young academic, to rekindle Poland’s interest in Ginczanka. I met Kiec in 2016, but since then all my calls and emails to her have gone unanswered. I suspect, after some decades devoted to saving Ginczanka from being forgotten, Kiec too has been burnt by her fire and has withdrawn from anything associated with the tragic poet. The cause of promoting her work has now been taken up by Araszkiewicz, and one hopes this will continue – although I am not convinced. Sure, Czuly Barbarzynca has published her selection of Ginczanka’s verses, but everyone in Poland’s literary circles knows that publisher to be a very controversial, even scandalous set up, hence my doubts.
As the “Only Happiness is Real Life” show was about to close, I sat in my little flat on Nalewki St and translated the whole of “O Centaurach/Of Centaurs,” the only book of poems published during Ginczanka’s lifetime (a total of 18 poems). I formatted the text to mimic the layouts of that 1936 publication, paid for hundreds of copies to be printed on Nowolipki St, just down the road from POLIN Museum, and handed them out to everyone who came to the conference which concluded the exhibition.
Very few people took the trouble to contact me afterwards. Since then, I have seen English translations of Ginczanka published which are poor, or even dreadful, but because the translators or editors or publishers operate in the same circles, my translations remain ignored. I have the impression Ginczanka continues to be something people feel very possessive or territorial about. They want to keep Ginczanka for themsleves. Having spoken to academics working in the field of traumatic cultures (Judaism, feminism, exile) I now believe this follows a certain pattern – experts, publishers, artists jump on fleeting bandwagons, which come along once in every generation, but this rarely lasts.
There are no mainstream publications of Ginczanka’s work. No foundation or other official commemorative organisation. No museum or centre keeping the flame of her memory going. However recently an academic book has been published in Krakow and a Swedish writer Agneta Pleijel has written about Ginczanka, so it seems she is being talked about more and more. And no one has worked harder to increase public awareness of her work than Gabi and Uwe von Seltmann, the founders of AHA (Art, History and Apple Strudel) and producers of the Żar/Ptak/Firebird show, which has seen Ginczanka talked about on television, radio and in lifestyle magazines.
I set up http://www.ginczanka.org (with my own time and money) last year, on the 100th anniversary of Ginczanka’s birth – the website has a little bit of info about Ginczanka, but it mainly allows anyone anywhere in the world to download, free of charge, a book of 28 poems I have translated into English and titled “Not All Of Me Will Die.” Books of poems are all fine and well, but they rarely do the words justice and almost never get decent distribution. The PDF file I have uploaded to ginczanka.org not only has a wide selection of her poems, in two languages, but also has maps, drawings and lots of additional info, helping us understand why Ginczanka was extraordinary. It can be downloaded and printed by anyone, anywhere in the world, with an internet connection and a home printer.
Because we are human, and flawed, Ginczanka’s legacy will continue to suffer – her poetry will be criticized, her looks commented upon, her ethnicity fought over. But any careful reader of the words she wrote will understand – Ginczanka was a seer, a visionary, someone who tried to transcend this physical, mortal dimension and become free of the restrictions we are all born with.
I think that’s why she continues to stun people, and frighten many – especially men. She was, to my mind, not only interested in emancipation as a Jew, a woman, an artist – she wanted to reach beyond language, beyond life, and to achieve a state of connection with the universe which makes me think less of poetry and more of prophecy.
No matter what happens next, we cannot allow Ginczanka to be forgotten again. To disappear from our bookshelves, our colleges, our minds. At a time when refugees, women, Jews, artists, academics, adventurers are coming under attack again, Ginczanka must speak to us night and day.
I think it is up to all of us to share her work, and her story, with everyone we meet. Maybe a play will be written about her. Maybe a feature film made. I am told someone is already working on a novel based on her life and death.
A century after her fateful birth, it is not Ginczanka who needs us to make an effort in her name.
It is our world which needs Ginczanka, almost as desperately as ever.
Marek Kazmierski, Warsaw 2018
NOT ALL OF ME WILL DIE
Non omnis moriar – not my proud estate,
Meadow table cloths, wardrobe castles strong,
Acres of fine bedsheets, linen treasures great,
And dresses, light dresses – these are my swan song.
Because I leave behind not a single heir,
Let your hungry hands through my Jew things browse,
Ms Chomin of Lviv, landlady betrayer,
Nazi true informant, if conscience allows.
You and your loved ones, recall my name and face
As you remembered me when the Gestapo came,
Minding to lead them to my hiding place.
They recognised me then. Now, remember again
As you drink to my grave and supposed wealth:
Fine drapes, candlesticks, my remains your prize:
Goblets raise, friends, to your lasting health,
Drink all night, drink! And when the cockerel cries
Start hunting for gemstones, digging round for gold
Through mattresses, sofas, furnishings what may
The bounty you seek, the treasures you want hold
As you go tearing through stuffed horsehair and hay.
Feathers ripped from cushions, clouds of gutted quilts
Will snow upon your hands, turn your arms to wings,
Pure white down will bind with my blood congealed,
Letting you take flight, my angels, my kings.
(Non omnis moriar, “Not all of me will die,” are the opening words of Horace, Ode 3.30.)