Greetings from Zamość: A Literary Guide to the ‘Perfect’ City
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default, Michał Rycaj, the Freestyle Football World Champion, during practice at Zamość’s old town, photo: Jakub Orzechowski/AG, zamosc_cwiczenia_ag.jpg
‘The air in Zamość makes you wise’, wrote the bookseller Dawid Szyfman in Oda do Zamościa (Ode to Zamość), published in 1879. Was he right?
The perfect city
During its beginnings, Zamość spearheaded the cultural and scientific avant-garde of the Republic of Poland. The city had a strong presence on the literary map of Poland, thanks to the writers for whom Jan Zamoyski, the city founder, served as a patron. These included Pior Ciekliński, the first Polish comedic writer, and Szymon Szymonowic, the author of Sielanki (Idylls) and the co-founder of the Zamość Academy.
The Zamość Academy engaged the wisest minds from the Western institutions of higher learning. It became famous in scientific circles when it initiated a debate across Europe on the methods of treating Polish plait (plica polonica, a medical condition which leads the hair to become irreversibly entangled). (Sure, the debate was not really a success, because it wasn’t until the 19th century that the brightest scholars of Western universities established that the best cure for the condition is, essentially, a haircut.) It is also in a Zamość printing shop where the letter ‘ó’ was first used in Polish (1654). The first Polish political drama was also performed in this city – Polska Napadnięta przez Szwedy (Poland Invaded by Swedes) by an unknown author (1663).
In later centuries, Zamość’s landscapes were particularly appreciated by the authors of historical novels, starting with Sienkiewicz and Kraszewski. The former vividly described the 1656 siege of Zamość in his Deluge. The protagonist of the novel, Andrzej Kmicic, could hardly contain his admiration of ‘the wide streets, regularly arranged in Italian fashion, as if in a line’. Another enthusiast of the city was Iwan Bajbuza, the hero of Kraszewski’s novel about the life and work of the hetman Jan Zamoyski:
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At the time, Zamość was not at all similar to other cities in the Crown; it gave an impression of fresh replanting, as if it were a foreign plant, not yet accustomed to the soil in which it was supposed to grow, but already well-rooted. What was also striking is that there was nothing old like in the other cities, no ruins – everything fresh, new, shining and arranged in an affluent and well-spaced out manner for the future populace. There were no cottages, small houses or poor manors, which could have been found even in Warsaw, next to the castle. […] Nobody dared build just any shack.
In fulfilling his fantasy of building ‘la citta ideale’ in the middle of nowhere, money was no object for Zamoyski. Some 20th-century writers pointed to the phantasmagorical character of the city, which scarcely fit in with the surrounding landscape. Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski wrote in Mateusz Bigda: ‘a miracle in mud, a diamond crown laid in a pile of dung’. Eighty years later, Andrzej Stasiuk reached similar conclusions in a Tygodnik Powszechny column:
The entire city looked like a hallucination. Zamoyski had a Renaissance dream, an Italian mirage. And it stands there now, beautiful and devoid of context. A perfect city bordering beetroot fields reaching as far as Hrubieszów and the horizon. A Renaissance pearl in the middle of frozen stubble fields. […]
A prison city
From the years 1821 to 1886, the partitioning power decided to take advantage of the potential of the Zamość fortress and turned the city into a giant prison. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz related his impressions from the militarised zone in the following way:
I was struck both by the grandiosity of the walls and by the emptiness, the deaf silence on the streets. There is no one there but the soldiers; instead of the noise of the crafty populace, there are only drums and the sounds of the military.
The most famous prisoner from this period was Walerian Łukasiński. It is also here where Ignacy Rzecki from Bolesław Prus’s The Doll spent ‘a year and a bit’, and as he was skilled at chopping wood, he was able to go outside into the fresh air every day: ‘I will never forget the joy I felt when I heard I was supposed to ride to Zamość. Actually, I never really rode there, I walked. But with such happiness!’ Why was he so happy? Well, the dungeons of Zamość were nothing compared to the mines of Siberia.
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Claustrophobic life in a closed-off city was described by Icchok Lejbusz Perec in the short story Czasy Mesjasza (The Times of the Messiah):
The town where my parents lived, and where I spend my childhood, was a fortress surrounded by a moat, embankments and high walls. There were cannons located at the walls and guards armed with rifles were stationed densely. Each day, at dusk, a drawbridge would be raised and all the gates would be closed. Until the morning, the town would be closed off from the world. Each gate leading to it would have a guardsman on duty.
Only once day fully broke were we free. Then, we would be allowed to enter and leave the city without asking the regiment leader for permission. We would be allowed to swim in the river that flowed near the city. We would be allowed to lie in the meadow by the river and look at the sky or off in the distance.
We were allowed to look at whatever we wanted. We weren’t bothered by anyone, and even if someone didn’t come back to the city in time, nobody would ask about them. There was only one rule: there had to be complete silence at night. No one could enter or leave the city at night. Nobody was allowed into or out of the city. I used to think in those times: at least thankfully, they let the moonlight in.
‘The Paris of the Jewish Enlightenment’
Icchok Lejbusz Perec is (aside from Rosa Luxembourg) the most famous person born in Zamość. He earned his spot in encyclopaedias by being one of the fathers of modern Yiddish literature. But even before that, he tried writing his juvenilia in both Polish and Hebrew.
Perec considered Zamość to be his ‘family vault’ and drew on his memories there extensively in his work. The city is where was created his debut long poem Monisz, which brought him wider recognition. Perec also made Zamość the setting of his play Noc na Starym Rynku (Night in the Old Square), which was compared to the works of Stanisław Wyspiański. The Zamość main square became for Jewish literature what the Bronowice hut from Wyspiański’s The Wedding was for its Polish counterpart. The literary critic Chaim Löw wrote that ‘like the director in Wyspiański’s Liberation, Perec wanted to create a ‘national stage’ on the small-town market square, to ‘present a nation’, to contain Jewish thought’.
Perec had tried unsuccessfully to operate a mill and brewery (the story has it that all of his businesses quickly turned into debate clubs). In the end, he found his calling as an attorney, maintaining a law firm in Zamość for 11 years. He often served as a defence attorney during political trials and was a renowned social activist – he co-founded the local volunteer fire brigade, gave lectures for working-class youth and founded a Jewish secondary school.
At the time, Perec was partial to the idea of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. Zamość was an important centre for this movement (hence its nickname of ‘the Jewish Paris’), but the city was also home to a sizeable conservative population. The writer ridiculed the local community in the poem Zamoszczer Porzondkes (Zamość Cleaning Up).
As a result of a denunciation which accused Perec of crimes such as aiding the Polish cause and promoting socialism, the Russian authorities revoked his permission to operate a law firm. Lacking a way to make a living, the writer was forced to move to Warsaw.
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Zamość city hall and Armenian tenement houses, photo: Jacek Skwierczyński / Forum
Before Perec, Zamość was a home to the playwright Shloyme Ettinger (in Polish: Szłoyme Ettinger), who is known above all for his play Serkele, inspired by Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice but adapted to the reality familiar for Eastern European Jews. Finally, Zamość (and surrounding shtetls) often appeared in the work of the Noble Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer. The writer knew the region very well, given that as a young man, he lived with his grandparents in the nearby city of Biłgoraj. The illustrator of Singer’s books, Irene Lieblich, was also from Zamość.
Israel Joshua Singer, the brother of Isaac, created an idealised image of Zamość in his memoirs:
Cities with names such as Zamość, Szczebrzeszyn, Goraj and Józefów; cities with old synagogues, cemeteries, churches and towers, as well as spacious marketplaces surrounded by wooden stalls filled with merchants and tradeswomen; cities where beadles called Jews to pray before dawn, where singing melameds walked children to a cheder, where drummers drummed on the marketplace, announcing the newest decrees and bringing some news from other parts of the world, where boys and girls decorated Jewish houses during holidays with lions and deer; cities where Jews were more Jewish and the Gentiles more Gentile than anywhere else in Poland. […] Both the Jews and the Gentiles living in the ‘land of the poor king’, in the Lublin governorate, were a God-fearing, colourful and old-fashioned people. Far from the railroads and all civilisation, these lands appeared as if not aligned with the times, separated from the outside world by dense forests.
A commendation of the province
Bolesław Leśmian spent 13 unhappy years in Zamość. There, he wrote his poems which are collected in the books Napój Cienisty (Shady Potion) and Dziejba Leśna (Forest Happening). He was transferred there from Hrubieszów. It was technically a promotion, but it brought the poet little happiness, as he disliked his work as a court notary: ‘A writer, willing to have a permanent income, has to dress up as a generally respected member of society, and only in this painful mask of a useful person deserves some money.’
This ‘provincial exile’ brought him suffering. Leśmian was the worldly type, having previously lived in Paris and Munich, and he complained that: ‘Here in Zamość, you could lie down on the main square in the middle of the day. You could sleep in complete peace, nobody will come to you, nobody will step on you… The only passers-by are a spotted cow and two goats walking near the gutter.’
He called Zamość an abject town, other times he referred to it as ‘malicious, grim and unpleasant’. It seems that he was not particularly well-liked. It’s very likely that Zamość was the birthplace of a very old joke, which states that one time, an empty carriage arrived, out of which came Leśmian (editor’s note: on account of his small stature). He prolonged his travels, whether internationally or to Warsaw and Zakopane, for as long as possible. He wrote in a letter: ‘I absolutely do not want to return to Zamość – it is a tragedy for me.’
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View of Zamość, 1903, Klemensów, printed by S. Goldman, Warsaw, photo: Polona
Leśmian was, however, spared from the greyness of the city by his visits to the botanical garden. His social enclave consisted of the Zamość Book Lovers Club. He was friends with the poet Adam Szczerbowski, who was very active in these circles, and he devoted a poem, titled Spojrzystość (Lookidity), to the Zamość bibliophiles.
The atmosphere of Zamość, however, was particularly suitable for Leśmian’s friend from the aforementioned club, Stanisław Młodożeniec. After his early years of futuristic excesses, he arrived in Zamość to work as a Polish teacher at a local secondary school. There, he published a masterfully illustrated book of poetry, Kwadraty (Squares), in which he mixed futuristic poems with more classical forms; one of the lyrics was entitled Pochwała Prowincji (A Commendation of the Province). The book can be seen as a turning point in Leśmian’s work – it marked a moment when this onetime promoter of modernity decided to devote himself to creating a modern peasant literature. But he still considered himself a futurist: he mixed local dialects and the rhythm of folk songs with an avant-garde idea of ‘words let loose’.
It is worth mentioning another avant-garde poet, Józef Czechowicz, who sometimes visited Leśmian. The series Prowincja Noc (Province Night) from his book Dzień Jak Co Dzień (Day Like Any Other) consists of three poems depicting three cities: Lublin, Wilno and Zamość. Within these, Czechowicz adapted the big-city tendencies of contemporary poetry to regional speech. Zbigniew Herbert described the series as ‘an album of sleepy cities abandoned by history, but full of faded-out beauty.’
Both Leśmian and Młodożeniec appear as characters in Marcin Wroński retro crime novel Kwestia Krwi (A Matter of Blood). In this, the seventh book about policeman Zygmunt Maciejewski, we meet the protagonist as a patrolman straight out of police academy who is in Zamość taking part in his first big investigation. The notary Bolesław Lesman gives ‘Zyga’ a lead related to the case of a young girl from a good home who has gone missing. The novel takes place in two periods: the years 1926 and 1952. Here, pre- and post-war Zamość seem as if they were two different cities, but both parts of the book deal with the darker side of Zamoyski’s city.
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The most valued modern books located in Zamość also take place in the Interwar period. Piotr Szewc, who was labelled by Michał Głowiński as ‘the Faulkner of Zamość county’, based his trilogy there. It includes Zagłada (Doom, 1987), Zmierzchy i Poranki (Dusks and Dawns, 2000) and Bociany nad Powiatem (Storks over the County, 2013). Zagłada, published in 1987, appears to be a forerunner of the literature ‘of little motherlands’, a movement which became popular in the 1990s.
Three novels, three summer days in pre-war Zamość. In each of the texts, the readers are able to observe the Zamość community at a moment that is significant precisely because nothing significant happens – it’s all business as usual in a provincial city. Some things can be interpreted by the reader as signs of the coming disaster, but the main characters don’t see them. Life goes on.
Inga Iwasiów described Szewc’s work in the following way:
Piotr Szewc has found possibly the best way to describe the Holocaust. Not only did he not use the word, he did not even paint the slightest possibility for its exposition. He portrayed a world full of life, erotically fulfilled and awaiting the future. Only we [the readers] realise what was to come.
In the book, Zamość is reduced to Listopadowa Street and specifically one corner, where the readers observe the meticulously reconstructed scenes from the life of the city’s inhabitants: the textile merchant Hersz Baum, the publican Rosenzweig, the attorney Walenty Daniłowski and the prostitute Kazimiera M. This is their Zamość:
In its microcosmic scale is a reflection of the universe: with the river that surrounds it on the southern side, with the twisted streets, temples, courts. In this diorama, the Magistrate, the church and the marketplace are the centre around which the ritual of life takes place. We are able to assume that they are all deeply convinced that they live in the authentic centre. It is all similar to a stone dropped into water. The enlarging circles are the strange cities, rivers and people separated by time and space, completely unknown.
Written by Patryk Zakrzewski, May 2018, translated by MW, June 2019
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Originally written in Polish by Patrick Zakrzewski; translated by MW, Jun 2019