We’re pleased to offer these new translations from ON CENTAURS & OTHER POEMS by ZUZANNA GINCZANKA, translated by ALEX BRASLAVSKY, out from World Poetry Books this month. This is the first selected volume in English of Zuzanna Ginczanka, a visionary Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish poet of the inter-war years whose life was cut short by the Holocaust.
Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917-1945) was a Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish poet of the interwar period. Born in Kiev, which her parents fled to avoid the Russian Civil War in 1922, Ginczanka began writing seriously as a child in Równe, Poland (now Rivne, Ukraine). She was nationally recognized for her poetry by sixteen years of age. Encouraged by a correspondence with poet Julian Tuwim, she moved to Warsaw in 1935. There she became associated with the Skamander group and the satirical magazine Szpilki, and befriended many writers including Witold Gombrowicz. Her 1936 collection, On Centaurs, was widely lauded upon its release. At the start of World War II, she moved east, living in Równe and Soviet-occupied Lviv. In 1942, after the German takeover of Ukraine, she escaped arrest and fled to Kraków on false papers to join her husband. She was arrested in 1944 and shot by the Gestapo a few days before Kraków was liberated by the Soviets. After the war, her last known poem “Non omnis moriar…” was used in court to testify against her denouncers.
Nine hours to Białystok from Berlin, to a city teetering on the Polish border. The train noses through fields of yellow flowers, which to me are eternal reminders of Europe in spring, but which are actually new additions, planted in recent decades for the rapeseed harvest. On the way to Warsaw, we sit in a car with a classical musician, our age, with a confident nose and sculpted, striking eyebrows. “She looks like Anna Karenina,” we whisper. She tells us about witches in Podlachia, because we are going to Podlachia. Past Warsaw, on a hotter train, portly men in cheap suits flank the compartment, carrying the odor of polyester, sweat, spirits.
I’ve brought us east to find traces of that universal language, Esperanto, created by a man from Bialystok named L.L. Zamenhof, a Jewish man, born here when this land was Russian Empire. Legend says he went to the city market as a child, eavesdropped on Yiddish, Russian, German, concluded that division by language was the great tragedy of mankind. What if we all spoke the same tongue? Wouldn’t pogrom and war fall away? He gathered 28 Latin letters, prefixes and suffixes, and he tried to share this with the world, and they called him Dr. Hope.
Underground, you expected a loamy smell. Instead you inhale a dry, metallic breeze. The English-speaking Polish guide tells your tour group that the mine’s temperature holds at 57ºF despite the 80º May day above in Krakow. You zip up your jacket before you descend the stairs cut out of salt.
In October I had the pleasure of hearing the young Polish poet Tadeusz Dąbrowski read his poems in a bilingual performance at Atomic Books in Maryland, a stop on his recent tour of the United States. TC readers will no doubt join me in appreciation of his poems, which are simultaneously deeply moving and surprisingly comic. Hopefully you will also relish my aggressive effort to deliver his work to you. As soon as the reading was done I pursued him to the sidewalk, where I procured a promise that he would send us poems to publish. His word’s as good as his work: we’re offering four of his poems here, and three more will follow in the print issue.
Dabrowski is only thirty-four but has already published eight books of poetry; the list of his prizes is longer than the ingredients for plum pudding. His work has been translated around the world—into twenty languages—and his readership continues to grow. Another German collection is due out very soon, and Antonia Lloyd-Jones’ second volume of English translations is well underway—these poems come from that. He’s drawn high praise from Adam Zagajewski in his homeland, and in the US his Anglophone debut, Black Square, was hailed by Timothy Donnelly as a “brilliant, unforgettable book.” We welcome his work to our pages with sincere excitement.
There is a palace in a tiny rural village two hours west of Warsaw, with an orange mansard roof, two spired towers, and a park stretching beyond it. It is strange to think that in the 1940s, when war was grinding Poland into the ground, the palace still belonged to the prominent Radziwiłł family, who shared it with Nazis while members of the underground Home Army, villagers, hid in the woods behind the palace park. Here, planes dropped packages into a clearing among alders, cherries, and pines. They’d drop food or weapons, which the villagers distributed or took to Warsaw, and sometimes they’d drop men.