Zuzanna Ginczanka's Beauty and Brand
Her extraordinary poems and exotic looks had all of interwar Warsaw down on its knees. Over 70 years after her premature death, her unearthly presence and poetic oeuvre continue to haunt Polish literature.
She was adored and promoted by the likes of Tuwim and Gombrowicz, of whom she was one of the closest friends. In spite of the 'Tuwim in a dress' moniker, she was not entirely dependent on the mainstream poetics of the leading interwar movement of the Skamandrites. Today, she is often regarded as a literary phenomenon of her own - read in the light of feminist theory and gender studies. Yet her poetry still a remote place in the Polish literary canon.
She was a liberated 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. One that could only be expressed in melancholic poetry, filled with androgynous motifs.
In a world dominated by men, Ginczanka was condemned to playing the role of either a dead person, or a demonic woman. The mark of her extraordinary beauty more often than not turned into 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 into a Jewish family in Kiev, in March, 1917. A year later, fleeing the Bolshevik revolution the family moved to Równe (Rovne), to the house of Zuzanna's grandmother, Klara Sandberg. Within the next five years, Zuzanna was abandoned by both her parents. First, her father, an aspiring actor, left for Berlin (from where he would later travel to America).Soon afterwards, her mother eloped to Spain with her new husband. Zuzanna would never see her father again, and she met her mother only once. Sana, or Saneczka - as she was called in her family home - was brought up by her grandmother.
Równe - tradition and modernity
The town of Równe (today: Rivne, Ukraine) was called the most Polish and the most Jewish settlement in Wołyń, made up of various cultures, nationalities, and traditions. According to Izolda Kiec, "Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars and Armenians lived next to Jews. Then there were Poles: office workers, teachers, soldiers." But while the provincial town glittered with tradition it also longed for modernity.
But why did Ginczanka become a Polish poet in the first place? The language spoken in her home was Russian. In the small, multi-ethnic environment of Rovne, Ginczanka could choose between a Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian, and Polish junior high school. Apparently, she decided to turn to Polish inspired by the poems of Julian Tuwim.
Brought up by her grandmother, from an early age she was very independent. 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 (the name with the Polish femine suffix is how she enrolled into shool) 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.
As Tadeusz Dąbrowski explains, these poems written when Ginczanka was only 15, "resonate with Skamandrites and Leśmian, inspire awe with their word-building folly, lapidary metaphors, a virtuoso play on the phonemes, and cubist imagery, and if they are naive than they are so in a wise way”.
Tuwim (in a Dress)
Ginczanka had already written to Tuwim in middle school. She visited him later in Warsaw, he soon became a great admirer her talent. Following his advice, in 1934 she took part in a poetry competition ran by the Wiadomości Literackie magazine, where she received a special mention, and her poem entitled Gramatyka (Grammar) was published in the paper. Ginczanka became a published poet.
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? Here's one of the old guys," which was an allusion to the biblical figure of Susanah.
Ginczanka arrived in Warsaw in 1935, right after graduating from high school. In the capital she was admired not only by the "elders” but also by the bohemians of Warsaw’s many literary cafes and clubs. She was only 19-years-old when she published her first and only collection of poems, entitled On Centaurs. In the titular poem, she wrote:
Rubbing against each other, rhymed verses rattling
— don't let dull thoughts posses you with prattling
— do not trust your hands like the blind,
nor your eyes like owls grappling —
I now call on all passions and wisdom
joined at the hips by battling
like a centaur. —
"Of Centaurs" [translated by Marek Kazmierski]
Her poems were full of erotic sensuality, usually coupled with subtle irony. Such is the case of Virginity (Dziewictwo), a poem in which the poet juxtaposes images of luscious (if not lustful) fruit of nut trees, udders "which dangle like pumpkins", and cows giving birth in a humid air 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 as "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 light, Ginczanka could only play the role of a dead or demonic beauty. Araszkiewicz describes this mechanism in terms of beauty which becomes a social stigma.
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, where 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 who was one of Ginczanka’s closest friends in Warsaw, would call her Gina. As Ewa Otwinowska recalled:
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. Gombrowicz on his part reminisced about the details of their last meeting in pre-war Warsaw:
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 writers 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 that subsequently came to be recognised as one of the most shocking poetic testimonies of the Holocaust and antisemitism.
Non Omnis Moriar...
The poem itself survived by another miraculous twist of fortune. Ginczanka kept it on a crumpled piece of paper. After the war one of her friends passed it on to the avantgarde poet Julian Przyboś who immediately recognised its greatness.
In the poem which employs the ironic use of classic motifs of European literature (including Horace's ideo of literary immortality) and draws heavily on Polish Romantic tradition, Ginczanka was able to preserve the name of her wrongdoer. The name of Chominowa, her neighbour and a woman who denounced her to the Gestapo, became inscribed in the history of wickedness, but somewhat ironically, also in the history of literature.
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 together with Janusz Woźniakowski travelled to Kraków. Acting as his fiancee, and, using fake "Aryan papers" she went into hiding at his aunt’s home in Felsztyn. But once again her extraordinary looks became a stigma and a threat to her life.
After some time spent in hiding in Kraków, she was forced to flee once again, this time to Swoszowice, where she met a friend from Równe, Blumka Fradis. In the autumn of 1943, she returned to Karaków – she went into hiding in a tenement house in Mikołajska Street. It was in this house that she was arrested by Gestapo (most likely in December 1943 or January 1944). Imprisoned and brutally tortured during the next couple of months, she was, most probably, killed at KL Plaszow in May 1944.
Following monographs by Izolda Kiec and Agata Araszkiewicz, which for a long time remained the only signs of interest in the poet's oeuvre, Ginczanka's life and work have enjoyed a renewed wave of interest around 2014 which marked 70 years since her death.
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, which also premiered a new selection of her poems, published by Biuro Literackie.
In October 2015, the exibition Only Happiness is Real Life at Warsaw's Muzeum Literatury featured a series of artistic takes on Ginczanka's life and work - and was accompanied by a conference and a published catalogue.
Coinciding with the poet's 100th anniversary of birth coming in March 2017, a comprehensive selection of her poems in now available online in English translation by Marek Kazmierski - the book can be dowloaded here.
Perhaps more than ever, Ginczanka deserves today a wider recognition as a feminist icon but also her due place in Polish literary canon. As Izolda Kiec concludes,
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 untamable 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.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 17/03/2014, updated: 08/03/2017