Today I walked to the 14 century Collegium Novum at the Jagiellonion University in Kraków, where Copernicus and Wisława Szymborska were notable alumni. During the fifteenth century almost half the students who attended were from central European countries. Most of the academic staff were arrested during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. They were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp as part of the Sonderaktion Krakau operation. In the post–war era the Communist regime suppressed the University’s activities but since liberation in 1991 the university has flourished once more.
It was lovely to spend quiet time at the public library, in one of the reading rooms (Room 116) for foreigners with its simple furnishings, leafy plants and brass light fittings.
I love this city, its windy streets, its slow ancient trams and graffiti, the Art Nouveau cafés and bohemian rooms of Kazimierz and its history. Schindler’s museum brings testimony to the horror of the past. It’s one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen.
No words can describe the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where I felt nauseous, walking through mud and decades of sediment that still hold the smell of death. It seems to colour many thoughts. I have been haunted for instance by Judith Beveridge’s image of Yasodhara’s hair, ‘the dark wings of a vulture’ being hacked, the ‘flump’ of it falling to the ground as if remotely post-Holocaust.
Have been reading a beautiful book, Mother Departs by the Polish poet, Tadeusz Różewicz, in which his poetry blends with letters from his mother, diary entries, recollections of his childhood, of his mother dying and his brother Janusz, who worked in the underground, was betrayed and shot by Gestapo. The style of the writing is spare, evocative, traumatic, despairing, hard in its verdicts, both about himself and others:
‘Writers who write stand-alone stories, novels, poems are superficial. Conrad was writing a poem, one poem, all his life; Zeromski was too. The writers here are busy little bees. They skip from one flower to the next. But it’s no good.’ —– TR, 15 June 1957
It is Sunday morning, it is colder and darker. Somewhere between the old ghetto and the café on the south side of the river I have lost a pair of brown gloves. That was a few days ago and though they were an elegant thing I don’t mind. I mean, there was a pang of thinking something of mine is gone…. and then, after a while, I was released. That’s how it happens. I didn’t go looking to claim them back. Besides, so many objects have gone missing in these streets why should I fret? Last night a man in the markets approached me and asked me to join his company. He was handsome and well-spoken, swift and agile for I did not hear him but I declined. The vodka was sweet and sent me to sleep; a deep sleep from which I have only just awoken.
Outside the hotel the artisans are setting up paintings and people are talking in Polish. I have not used the little Russian I remember from the university course I took so many years ago. How funny! Here are two more quotes from the fatalistic soul of the Gliwice Diary, in Mother Departs.
“I wish I could finish this book. I’ll earn a break – on parole from writing poems – for a few years. No doubt my muse will show clemency and permit me not to write. —–TR 18 June 1957
I see how she is suffering and I should wish for her release. But I wish so much more she could live, so that I could scrounge at least half a year more, so I could look at her sometimes. Is this selfishness – but no, love can be like this… she may suffer terribly but let her breathe, let her eyes be open, let her look, let her speak – there’s still warmth in this poor, butchered, tormented human body. — TR 22 June 1957