Zuzanna Ginczanka's Beauty and Brand
Her extraordinary poems and exotic looks had all of interwar Warsaw down on its knees. 70 years after her premature death, Italian television has produced a film about her, and a collection of her poems is released in Poland.
She was adored and promoted by Tuwim. Gombrowicz, of whom she was one of the closest friends, and who would twist her arms... In spite of the "Tuwim in a dress" moniker, she was not entirely dependent on the Skamadrite movement. Today, she is often regarded as a literary phenomenon of her own, and read in the light of feminist theory and gender studies. And yet, her poetry is still not included in the classic canon.
Ginczanka was a free woman, one breaking stereotypes, with a rebellious nature. According to her biographer Izolda Kiec, she did not need men's recommendations in order to exist in the cultural world. But under this guise of independence, and apart from the awe of numerous men, there hides a dramatic fate. It is a fate that could only be expressed in melancholic poetry, filled with androgynous motifs.
In a world dominated by men, was Ginczanka really condemned to playing the role of either a dead person, or a demonic woman? Was the mark of her beauty also a stigma? What was the life of this poet like, a life ended by Nazi bullets at the age of 27 ?
Zuzanna Polina Gincburg was born to a Jewish family in Kiev, in March, 1917. A year later, the family flees from the Bolshevik revolution and moves to Równe, to the house of Zuzanna's grandmother, Klara Sandberg. Within the next five years, Zuzanna is abandoned by both her parents. First, her father, an aspiring actor, leaves to Berlin (from where he will later travel to America). Then, her mother leaves for Spain with her new husband. Zuzanna will never meet her father again, and will only see her mother once more. Sana, Saneczka - as she was called in her family home - would be brought up by her grandmother.
Równe - tradition and modernity
Równe was called the most Polish and the most Jewish settlement in Wołyń. During the interwar period, it was a conglomeration of various cultures, nationalities, and traditions. According to Izolda Kiec, "Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and Armenians lived next to Jews. And there were Poles: office workers, teachers, soldiers. General Anders would visit the place..." The provincial town glittered with tradition while it also longed for modernity. The town hosted the third largest fair of the Second Polish Republic, the Wołyń Fair.
Why did Ginczanka become a Polish poet? The language spoken in her home was Russian. Apparently, she decided to learn Polish as a young girl, under the influence of Tuwim’s poetry. In the small, multi-ethnic town of Równo, Ginczanka could choose between a Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish junior high school. Her choice fell on the latter.
Brought up by her grandmother, Ginczanka is known to have been very independent from an early age. And she must have manifested this independence in her choice of a school. A friend from her childhood years in Równo would later comment "I’m sure that Sanka chose Polish poetry for herself without the influence of either her mother or her grandmother".
The Debut of a 14-year Old
In 1931, Zuzanna Gincburżanka (which is how she was inscribed on the students’ list), made her debut with a poem entitled The Vacation Feast (Uczta wakacyjna in the original) in the school magazine. According to Izolda Kiec, the novels and short stories by Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina, the wife of the junior high school’s headmaster had a major influence on this young poet’s work. Ginczanka also drew inspiration from the verse by Julian Tuwim and Bolesław Leśmian.
The poems Ginczanka wrote when she was only 15 which "echo with the Skamandrites and Leśmian, inspire awe with their word-creating folly, lapidary metaphors, a virtuosi play on the phones, and cubist portrayal, and if they are naive then in a wise way” says Tadeusz Dąbrowski, who created the newest selection of her poems called Wniebowstąpienie ziemi (The Ascension of Earth)
Tuwim (in a Dress)
Ginczanka had already written to Tuwim in junior high school, and later she visits him in Warsaw. He became a supporter of her talent. Following his advice, in 1934 she takes part in a poetry competition ran by the Wiadomości Literackie magazine. She receives a special mention, and her poem entitled Gramatyka (Grammar) is published in the paper. The moment of publication earns Ginczanka the accolade of poethood.
Ginczanka signed the submitted poem as "Sana", her childhood nickname. Tuwim would later joke, evoking the Latin quotation Mens sana in corpore Sana - A sound mind in a healthy body. And when he phoned Ginczanka he would say "Zuzanna? One of the elders here", which was of course an allusion to the biblical figure.
Ginczanka arrives in Warsaw in 1935, right after graduating from junior high school. She is admired not only by the capital’s "elders”, but also by the bohemians of Warsaw’s many literary cafes and clubs. Ginczanka is only 19-years-old at the time of the publication of her first collection of poems, entitled On Centaurs. In the titular poem, she writes:
Ścierają się rym o rym ostrzone wiersze ze szczękiem
- nie ufaj ścisłym rozmysłom, by żaden cię nie opętał,
- nie ufaj palcom jak ślepcy,
ni oczom jak sowy bezrękie
oto głoszę namiętność i mądrość
ciasno w pasie zrosnięte
Sharpened rhyme on rhyme, the verses collide with clang
do not trust strict purposes, so none of them haunt you
do not trust fingers like blind-men
nor the eyes like owls lacking hand
I hereby prophess passion and wisdom
tightly fused in the waist
like a centaur
"On Centaurs" [translated by Paulina Schlosser]
Her poems are full of erotic sensuality, which are also coupled with subtle irony. Such is the case of the Virginity (Dziewictwo) poem, wherein the poet juxtaposes the luscious if not lustful fruit of nut trees, udders which dangle like pumpkins, and cows giving birth in a humid atmosphere with … women who carry out their cultural small talk enclosed in "little cubes plastered with wallpaper".
The Star of Zion, a Jewish Gazelle
Everyone who had ever met Ginczanka was always strongly impressed by her extraordinary beauty. Halina Cetnarowicz, a friend who studied psychology with Ginczanka in Warsaw, recalled:
She had beautiful legs, hands, neck and an completely wonderful way of carrying her head - like an African. She walked around like a queen, it was really difficult indeed not to lay your eyes on her. And she had the complexion of a mulatto.
The Warsaw cafe and club lot monikered her the Star of Zion, and Ryszard Matuszewski would later describe her "beautiful like a Byzantine icon". Jan Kott said she looked like the biblical Shulamite. Nowadays, not only from the 21st century perspective, these descriptions seem to be manifestations of extreme sexualization.
Agata Araszkiewicz, a researcher of Ginczanka’s work and author of the monograph on the poet addresses this issue. Araszkiewicz sees the mask of "a beautiful Jewish woman" which was imposed on Ginczanka as a hostile sign of doubled alienness - that of a woman and a Jew. Perceived in this manner, Ginczanka could only play the role of a dead or demonic beauty. Araszkiewicz describes this mechanism as "beauty and brand".
Ginczanka was also compared to a Gypsy and an Armenian. Yet Antoni Słonimski, who once met her at Tuwim’s home, claimed that "there could be no doubt" as to her Semitic features. Her extraordinary looks proved all too soon to be a curse.
The memories of Ginczanka’s incredible eyes keep surfacing in the recollections of those who knew her. Apparently, she had eyes of two different colours, although there seems to be some dispute as to which two colours they were. Jan Kott claimed that "she had one eye so black that the iris seemed to blend with the pupil, and the second one was brown with golden specks all over the iris". Halina Cetnarowicz commented:
One eye was light brown, while the other was ….apparently blue. As far as I remember, I think it was rather green. Or rather, one of the eyes was dark brown and the other light brown, or golden
Tuwim would joke about her eyes, saying Haberbusch and Schiele — which were the names of two brands of light and dark beer.
Satire, fascism, antisemitism
Her lyrical works combine an extraordinary sensuality and erotics with the broadly understood experience of culture. When she arrived in Warsaw of the late 1930s, antisemitism and fascist ideas were on the rise. She began to write satiric pieces for Szpilki magazine, and at the time, she was the only woman in a male-dominated milieu. Her satires reflect the reality of a society, and they seem to foresee a war drawing near. They are also a protest against the proliferating antisemitic slogans.
Gombrowicz and Gina
Witold Gombrowicz was one of Ginczanka’s closest friends in Warsaw. Ewa Otwinowska reports that Ginczanka was one of the very few people whom Gombrowicz addressed in the first person, calling her Gina. [the Polish manner resembles that of French language, wherein the courteous way to address someone requires a more distanced form. In Polish, the third person of the singular is a commonly used form.]
He treated her like someone that he could take things out on in a specific way, and all of it for the sake of a joke. He would twist out her arms and pull her hair. I remember that once when we were leaving the Zodiak, he stuffed her head in a trash bin.
It seems that Gombrowicz was indeed very close to Ginczanka. After many years, in a letter to his friend Stanisław Piętak, Gombrowicz inquired about the details of her death. He recalled the details of their last meeting:
Going back home from Zodiak through Mazowiecka street, I was explaining to Gina that for this coming war, one has to absolutely supply oneself with poison. And she laughed.
When the war broke out, Ginczanka was in Równe where she had gone to stay with her grandmother for the summer holidays. She soon transferred to Lviv, where many Polish literates and artists lived following German invasion. In early 1940, Ginczanka married Michał Weinzieher, an art critic much older than her. But she was involved with a Lviv printmaker, Janusz Woźniakowski. In the summer of 1942, during one of the biggest police actions, she was forced to flee the city of Lviv, after being denounced by the housekeeper. Ginczanka miraculously escaped death. She subsequently managed to preserve her traitor’s last name in a poem.
Non Omnis Moriar...
The poem itself survived by another miraculous twist of fortune. Ginczanka kept it on a crumpled piece of paper, and one of her friends passed it on to the poet Julian Przyboś after the war. Jarosław Mikołajewski comments on how the name of Chominowa became forever inscribed in the history of wickedness, and somewhat unjustly, the name was also made eternal in the history of literature. Ginczanka’s poem, which became her testament, is a masterpiece.
It is an ironic twist of classic motifs from European literature and (such as Horace), Polish Romantic poetry. Non omnis moriar became one of the most important poems to describe the Shoah and wartime relations between people in Poland. Read the poem in English translation here.
In the fall of 1942, Ginczanka travels to Kraków together with Janusz Woźniakowski. She pretends to be his fiancee, and, using fake "Aryan papers" she hides at his aunt’s home in Felsztyn. Her "bad looks" betray her, and she has to run. She lives with her husband in Kraków. She is afraid, and flees to Swoszowice near Kraków. There, she meets a friend from Równe, Blumka Fradis. In the fall of 1944, she is in Kraków once again, and she hides in a house on Mikołajska street - no. 5. She is soon taken from there by the Gestapo, probably due to one of the neighbours’ delation. She and Blumka are brutally tortured, but the poet does not admit to being Jewish. Zuzanna Ginczanka is shot on the courtyard of the prison by Czarneckiego street - only a few weeks before the end of the war.
In 2014, 70 years have passed since the poet’s death. For a long time, the work of Ginczanka was not appreciated enough. It has only recently been receiving the attention it deserves. The very first monograph of Ginczanka’s work, written by Izolda Kiec appeared as late as the 1990s. The following one, authored by Agata Araszkiewicz, was released in 2002. Ginczanka is nowadays frequently read in the light of feminist theory and gender studies. Izolda Kiec comments
Ginczanka did not need men’s recommendations in order to exist in the cultural world. She did not need any schemes of femininity - be it the old one, sanctions by the tradition, or the new one, which was then invented by Maria Pawlikowska. She did not need these schemes that would enclose her untameable nature and burning senses in a fashion store. She wanted to be a nature freed from the salon, breaking stereotypes, rebellious and calling for a real girls’ revolution.
In 2012, the Polish-Italian edition of her poems was released under the double title "Krzątanina mglistych pozorów. - Un viavai di brumose apparenze". In 2014, an Italian film documentary about Ginczanka La Poesia spezzata (Interrupted Poem), directed by Alessandro Amenta and Mary Mirka Milo, premiered at the 19th Literary Port Festival in Wrocław.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, poem translation by Paulina Schlosser 17/03/2014