Czesław Miłosz and Kraków

Interview with Ewa Zamorska-Przyłuska,

author of the literary guide to Kraków and the Małopolska region,

Przewodnik literacki

po Krakowie i województwie małopolskim (WAM 2010)

I invite you to read below the interview she gave for the Karnet monthly, on Czesław Miłosz’s Kraków:

Barbara Fijał: In your book, you name nearly a thousand men of letters associated with Kraków and Małopolska. A very special place among them is assumed by Czesław Miłosz, whose name – next to that of Stanisław Lem – crops up most often. Was it a conscious decision or is it just that while writing about literary Kraków one simply cannot leave out the person of Miłosz, who lived in Kraków for just 10 years?

Ewa Zamorska-Przyłuska: My decisions about including an author or a place in the guidebook usually had their own “solid” reasons, the ranking of the person or a venue on the map being among the most important ones. Yet those decisions also had certain undertones based on nuances and personal preferences. Czesław Miłosz owes his multifaceted presence in the book not only to his unquestioned position in the world of literature, but – possibly even to a greater degree – to the fact that I still find him intriguing, somebody who does not leave me in peace, and who in different periods of my life I must rediscover anew, even if only in small snippets. The measure of time, whether only a decade or an entire lifetime, is of no consequence here. The game is played at another scale whose name is intensity.

B F: Miłosz was already living in Kraków in 1945.

E Z-P: He was, but it may be worthwhile mentioning his earlier encounters with Kraków first. When he saw our city before the second world war, he found it charming. In 1941, when he arrived here with Jerzy Andrzejewski from the ruins of Warsaw and visited the café in the architecturally perfect and modern Dom Plastyków – the “House of Artists” designed by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, at ul. Łobzowska 3, the city brought Paris to his mind…

Early in 1945, the poet reached Kraków, freshly liberated by the Red Army, and moved with his wife Janina to the Dom Literatów providing accommodation to assorted men of letters at ul. Krupnicza 22, from where he soon moved to ul. św. Tomasza 26, to a large louse-ridden flat which he occupied together with Tadeusz and Zofia Breza. He had the quarters assigned to him by a political officer of the Polish Army, a true éminence grise and writer, Adam Ważyk, who – as a “Lublin man”, closely associated with the new powers that be – had opportunities in this city that were next to infinite. Miłosz resided in Kraków for less than a year, witnessing not only the new order, but also the poverty and suffering of the people who he met e.g. around the railway station.

To get to know the places associated with the poet at this time, you need to visit the headquarters of Film Polski at ul. Lea 5 (today’s Mikro cinema), where he wrote the script for Unvanquished City (Robinson Warszawski) together with Jerzy Andrzejewski. In The Captive Mind (Zniewolony umysł, 1953) you can find a staggering description of the view from its window onto the courtyard of the Regional Security Office (UB) where the soldiers of the clandestine army were held captive.

Ul. Wielopole 1 is the address of Dziennik Polski, where Miłosz published his regular column under the nom de plume czmił. He knew Jerzy Putrament, the editor-in-chief of the daily, very well from his Vilnius days. Miłosz also published in Twórczość and Odrodzenie, which were housed in the Feniks building at ul. Basztowa 15, and in Przekrój weekly which at that time was based both at ul. Wielopole 1 and at ul. Starowiślna 4. As he wrote in a tribute to Kazimierz Wyka, Professor at the Jagiellonian University, editor-in-chief of Twórczość, and activist of the Polish Writers’ Union (ZLP), “friendship with him sweetened my time in Kraków, where I found myself much like many others (…). If not for the delegation to a foreign post, I would probably have stayed at ul. św. Tomasza in between Wyka and Jerzy Turowicz, with whom I left the galley proofs of my volume entitled Ocalenie (Rescue) in 1945. When I come to think about it today, I believe that having such friends is a sufficient reason to take root in Kraków, even though how I would have behaved in the Stalinist period, I dare not pronounce.” (2000).

In December, Miłosz left for New York as a diplomat, saying his farewells to Poland in 1951 to become an émigré for a long period of time. In 1959, Czesław’s father, Aleksander, died and was buried in the Rakowice Cemetery (quarter LXIII, row 11, grave 18). It was not until June 1981 that the poet was welcomed back to Kraków as winner of the Nobel Prize.

Return visits to Kraków since the late 1980s are separate subject…

B F: Was our city frequently present in the writing of the Nobel Prize Winner? What is the Kraków that emerges from his works?

E Z-P: Kraków was certainly not one of the foremost themes of Miłosz, even though it plays an important role e.g. in A Poetical Treatise (Traktat poetycki, 1957), where it is identified with the culture of the Młoda Polska – Young Poland movement. One may not gloss over the image in Powrót do Krakowa w roku 1880 (1984) either, devoted to someone hardly known today, Julian Klaczko, a man from Vilnius who settled in Kraków. Miłosz mentions “the little town in a hollow by Cathedral Hill / with the graves of the kings”. Another work (W Krakowie, 2001) reads: “on the border of this world and the other, in Kraków. / Pitter-patter on the worn out marbles of the churches, / Generation after generation. It is here that I’ve understood / Something of the customs of my sisters and brothers”. Kraków does not fascinate Miłosz as an urban organism or structure. Perhaps it used to be more of a pretext than the goal of poetic expeditions that went far beyond the borders of the city… Yet, as Ewa Bieńkowska wrote after his death, “it happened thus that Kraków proved the place of Miłosz’s last reconciliations and his last thanksgivings”. Which is the very measure of the intensity I mentioned earlier in this interview.

B F: What, then, could incline the poet to choosing this very city when he decided to return to Poland in 1993?

E Z-P: In the interview he gave to Bronisław Maj in the same year 1993, when he was still living at Berkeley, Miłosz very clearly put a finger on it thus: “I like Kraków very much. I enjoy Kraków, as it is truly a university city, yet in a size that is still human. Moreover I finished growing up in Vilnius, and in many respects Kraków reminds me of my university in Vilnius. The walking of the same few streets every day has its charm. It has, and there are plenty of things going on within these few streets. It is very important, and it is plainly seen, especially in contrast with those cities where nothing happens for tens of miles – in music, poetry, literature, science: no cultural events… (…). Moreover: the beauty of your city also means a lot. Old stones, architecture…”. Miłosz emphasised that his relations with Kraków are of precisely a spiritual character – still in this fragment, we see that the physical “substance” of the city is what crops up second in Miłosz, after the description of its “function”. Already when he arrived to be granted the honorary doctorate of the Jagiellonian University in 1989, Miłosz was believed to have asked that they should find him a home (obligatorily within the garden ring of Planty), since he might soon settle down in Kraków – the city he considered the most attractive. And indeed, together with his wife, Carol, they ended up living close to Planty, yet on the outside of its ring. It was his favourite place for walks.

B F: You have mentioned a few places that Miłosz was connected to – the house at ul. św. Tomasza, the flat in Krupnicza, and another one at Bogusławskiego… Did he take any special liking to any spot in Kraków, did he make his mark on one particular place?

E Z-P: I believe this would be the apartment at ul. Bogusławskiego 6, on the first floor. Even as late as the 1990s, he would come here in the spring to return to California in autumn, yet at 90, he remained here for good. And in that apartment he died on 14th August 2004. I recently read the talks between him and Agnieszka Kosińska, the poet’s secretary from 1996 until his death. In her memoirs, she fills up the space of the city with an exceptionally subtle, modest, and at the same time highly realistic tale full of expression and temper about Miłosz. Moreover, the readers are also familiar with a colourful account by Jerzy Illg, who got the apartment ready for the arrival of the Miłosz couple… Yet the testimony of Kosińska about how Miłosz filled this space with his presence seems to me, particularly acute.

B F: Miłosz’s Kraków is more than just places, it is primarily people – the writers he was associated with, and the magazines and newspapers where he published his poems. Could you talk about this side of Miłosz’s life in Kraków?

E Z-P: It is generally known that the poet remained on friendly terms with the milieu of Znak, the Catholic monthly and Tygodnik Powszechny the Catholic weekly – Jerzy Turowicz was among his chief friends. The realm of closest friends included Wisława Szymborska, Professor Teresa Walas and Professor Aleksander Fiut, Marek Skwarnicki, and the late Professor Jan Błoński, whom he visited in the district of Kliny. The publisher of the vast majority of the Nobel Prize Winner’s writings is the Znak Publishing House, which – together with Wydawnictwo Literackie – coedits his “collected works”. In 1992, the Biblioteka “NaGłosu” series (documenting the legendary NaGłos “spoken magazine” of the 1980s – editor’s note) published a small volume of his Haiku translations. In addition Miłosz was also published in Kraków by Dekada Literacka.

In the last period of the poet’s life, his health was in the care of Professor Andrzej Szczeklik. And let me stop at this, as I want to keep a distance from matters of “living people” remaining closer to “stones” – as I perceive myself as primarily writing a literary guide to the city…

Cz. Miłosz and J. Błoński, photo Błońscy Family

B F: And a very special location for the end – Skałka – the Church “on the Rock”. It is here that Czesław Miłosz was buried on 27th August 2004. Did he visit this place, while still alive?

E Z-P: Yes, he did, Miłosz visited Skałka in the summer of 1941, having visited Kazimierz Wyka in Krzeszowice. An exceptional story, highly significant and complex. Andrzejewski mentions it – though without revealing the name of his friend anathematised by Communist Poland – in his foreword to Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, as the decision to emigrate undertaken by the great 19th-century prose writer and, by the way, one of the Kraków protagonists of A Poetical Treatise(Traktat poetycki), he associated with the impulse to which he and Miłosz yielded when they “began to withdraw from Skałka in silence, first slowly, nearly on tiptoes, and then speeding up their pace the further away they went…”. Andrzejewski’s text is so interesting and important that I would not like to make a summary of it here, as it would certainly lead to trivialising of its senses. Although I quote fragments of it in the guidebook, I do encourage you to reach for the 1956 edition of Lord Jim so that you can read this episode in its natural context.


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