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The life of a Polish intellectual - sketch for a portrait
Prof. Jerzy Pomianowski in a conversation with abp. Tadeusz Pieronek

Professor, I would like to begin with an issue that has been widely discussed: for the first time, the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus, Kirill I, came to Poland and signed a declaration with the head of the Conference of the Polish Episcopate, archbishop Józef Michalik, the representative of the Catholic Church in Poland. The declaration was an appeal for the reconciliation of both nations, Poland and Russia. Do you, Professor, as an expert on Russia and its culture, think that it was an important step in the right direction?

I believe that it was not only an important step, but a step towards the future, towards good and long-lasting mutual relations. A step that 'leaves behind' a terrible past, which may have been one of the topics of discussion with the patriarch. I think that this event will shake the conscience of those Russians who have forgotten about the horrible events in the history of Russian-Polish relations. This bears repeating: Russian-Polish relations, not just Polish-Russian. The Russian people have learned a great deal regarding matters that they had not previously known about. Moreover, and this is of great import to me, we now finally have the opportunity to convince many Russian people of the validity of some of our questions and doubts. Such a possibility appears when you speak not with the authorities or prominent religious figures, but with representatives of the intellectuals and the middle class that is growing in power in Russia. In my opinion, there is no better way to improve relations between the Polish and the Russian peoples. They are the dialogue partners that we should seek out among the Russians, partners who are different from those with whom we talked in the past - people who will be able to understand the complexities and difficult issues regarding the Polish-Russian and the Russian-Polish past.

Let us return to the main topic of our conversation - to your biography. Your life story is so rich that it seems as if you have lived several lives. What is the source of your fascination with Russia, Russian culture and literature?

Pomianowski: My mother taught Polish and that was how she earned her living when she was still a maiden. My father, on the other hand, knew Russian very well. Except that no one was allowed to speak Russian at home. It is a long story, so maybe I will start from the beginning. I was born in Łódź, and in Łódź, as you know, almost everyone worked in the textile industry. My father was a textile technician, and years later he became an engineer. My father came from a Jewish family, a family that was completely polonized. He studied in Łódź and also in Alsace, which was still German at that time, where he finished a school for textile technicians with good marks. He returned to Łódź and was supposed to begin working in the factory, but the war broke out and the Russians called him to military service. He shared the fate of many young men from Congress Poland. He turned out to be a good soldier and obtained the rank of senior sergeant. He was also awarded the title of the Cavalier of the Three Crosses of Saint George. This is why my name is Jerzy (George). But my father's war tribulations did not end with serving in the Tsar army. When Kiereński gave his consent to establish divisions based on nationality, the Polish units were founded, including the 4th Rifle Division under command of General Żeligowski. My father joined it, together with his brave brother Mieczysław, later a renowned officer and Piłsudski supporter. Along with the 4th Rifle Division under command of General Żeligowski, he participated in the white occupation of Odessa - surprisingly, no one in Poland remembers that. Those were Polish and French soldiers that captured Odessa and, after the revolutionary chaos died down, they made it into one of the happiest and non-Bolshevik cities around, at least for some time. After returning to the now free Poland, my father fought in the Polish-Bolshevik war as part of the 28th Łódź Infantry Regiment. After the campaign in 1920, he finally returned to civilian life. But, as my mother recalls, when she met my father, he was still wearing the cap with the Polish Eagle. Soon after, they got married.

Your family has a rich military tradition, for example your uncle, Mieczysław Birnbaum, famed officer and marshal Piłsudski's confidant.

Pomianowski: Yes, my uncle, Mieczysław Birnbaum, was not only a member of the Legions, but also a Piłsudski supporter, a trusted and liked officer serving under marshal Piłsudski. He was Head of the Military Department of the Ministry of Military Affairs and he was responsible for anti-Bolshevik counter-intelligence. He knew perfectly well the leaders of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, and he was fluent in Russian. When the Marshall ordered so, my uncle conducted talks with Polish people serving on the Russian side. Piłsudski knew that my uncle could glean bits and pieces of news during such talks, news which could be important for the interests and safety of a young country. I will mention one of uncle's missions. As Tuchaczewki captured Radzymin in August 1920, when it seemed that he would cross the Vistula river and possibly capture Warsaw, the diplomatic train commanded by my uncle Mieczysław (still a second lieutenant) was directed from Warsaw to Minsk. My uncle was fluent in Russian which made it easier to get through the frontlines. It was not easy, even though the train had diplomatic status, the security was in position, and they were traveling in an armored carriage. Eventually, they arrived in Kobryń. During the stop there, while they were waiting to adjust to the engine to the Russian railway system, my uncle received news that Tuchaczewski was running away from Warsaw and that there was no point anymore in going to Minsk. So he turned the train around, much to the surprise of the diplomats who were already discussing between themselves the terms for the capitulation of Warsaw. In 1921, during the peace treaty negotiations with Russia in Riga, my uncle was the Head of the Military Experts of the Polish Commission. Uncle Mieczysław Birnbaum was murdered in Katyn and he is buried there as a Polish officer.

Professor, you mentioned that no one spoke Russian at your home. So how did you learn to speak Russian so fluently and became so well acquainted with Russian literature?

Pomianowski: Yes, that is true. At home, we were not allowed to speak a word in Russian. That was my mother's will. But even she, in her moments of tenderness, addressed father as 'chłopak' (boy), etc. On the other hand, when she was angry, she would call him 'soldat,' since he had served four years in the Russian army. So my contact with the Russian language was, at first, limited to occasionally listening to war songs which my father would mutter in the bathroom during his morning shave. Mother turned a blind eye to those Russian bathroom tunes. As for me, I did not really understand them at the time. Thus, during my years of middle school education, I did not have contact with the Russian language. Because I was the son of an activist of the Polish Military Organization, and because Colonel Więckowski, adjutant to marshal Piłsudski, offered his help, I was able to get into a good private school - Polish Junior High School of Men in Łódź and there I passed the Matura exam, before the outbreak of the Second World War. I will just mention that in that school Polish was taught by Mieczysław Jastrun. Before the war, I began my studies in philosophy at the University of Warsaw, probably due to a sense of false pride. I decided to study philosophy because one day, after a certain reading, I met Tadeusz Kotarbiński and he encouraged me to come to Warsaw once I am done with my Matura exams: 'Visit me and we shall talk about philosophy'. This came to pass and so I began studying neither medicine nor the Russian language, but philosophy with prof. Kotarbiński.

Your life during the Second World War, much of it was related to Russia.

Pomianowski: When the war broke out, for me, as a former student of philosophy at the University of Warsaw, the rallying point was station 36 of the Regiment of the Children of Warsaw, but I did not manage to get there. On the first day of the war, my regiment was sent towards Wieluń, the city that was one of the first to be bombarded by the Germans. In the station in Warsaw, I met a 'know-it-all' who took me in and said: 'Mister, you're late; in a matter of moments we'll be victorious. You may as well wait here; if things go wrong, we'll head east.' This 'east' had an ominous ring to it. Uncle Mieczysław, who was my mentor at the time, used to warn me: 'Heaven forbid that you ever stay in Lwów, Łuck or Kowlo. Not in the places where the Russians will come, because behind the front line of Russian soldiers, you'll find the NKVD officers (he called them 'Chekists') and they will immediately start cleaning everything up and rounding up people with mysterious names like ours.' Yet in 1939, my father and I did go east, to Ukraine. We took shelter there and - how should I put it - we let ourselves be voluntarily taken captive. However, that was not real captivity. I cannot say that I experienced great hardships in some camp. It was different than that. First and foremost, civilians and low-rank soldiers were very frequently given freedom. In particular, people from the eastern borderlands were released, and they soon returned to their towns and villages. I ended up at a mine called 'Krasnopol' in Eastern Ukraine, in the Wołoszywogradzkie Province. Wołoszyłow was extremely popular at the time, and the town, like the whole province, was named after him. 'Krasnopole' was a tough mine to work in. We had to squeeze our way around narrow passages through which small mine cars traveled, or rather carriages without mine cars. We had to push and load the carriages by hand. The rails were extremely narrow and wobbly, and the coal was chopped in large pieces. Every 150, 200 meters, the carriages would fall from the track. When that happened, we had to unload all the coal, place the empty carriage back on the rails, and load it up with coal once more. And so we pushed them, from one obstacle to another. But when you think about it, it was not that bad. The narrow passages were not supervised and we even managed to trick the Russians. As my father was fluent in Russian, he was tasked with all manner of scribal work, so for quite a long time he had to write out dispatches with information on how much each of us managed to produce. Of course, we presented a higher weight of the yield than we actually provided. Thanks to that, instead of 400 grams of brown bread (which we initially disliked, but afterwards thought was really tasty), we received portions of 600 or even 700 grams and a whole metal bowl of potato soup each. Sometimes, but only during Soviet holidays, they gave us some bean soup. My mother and sister joined us some time later. They sneaked out of Łódź and got to Siemiatycze where they were robbed by the Germans. At that time they were still not as cruel towards people who wanted to get to Russia - they did not kill people, but they certainly did not hesitate to rob them. My mother had a letter with the number of 'our' camp that we had previously sent to her. She showed it to the Germans, and they said: 'Cross the frozen Bug.' This is how they miraculously got to Russia. And the Russians immediately arrested them: my mother and my 14-year old sister While they were in prison, some noble soviet doctor diagnosed my mother with a rare illness called 'Werlhof's disease', characterized by a low count of white blood cells which caused frequent bleeding. The doctor said: 'Oh, this is an interesting illness; we'll send you to the capital city.' 'I don't want to go to the capital, but to Ukraine,' she insisted, 'because my husband and son are there, working in a mine.' The doctor finally relented; he did not send my mother to Moscow, instead providing her with a medical certificate confirming that she had this rare disease. This is how my whole family found themselves in Ukraine. There, I learned to speak a little Russian. But it was far from proper Russian; it was only the kind of Russian that you could learn while working in a mine. In 1941, when Mr. Majski, the Soviet ambassador in London and general Sikorski, concluded a deal, I was promptly released from the mine. I was nineteen at the time and I quickly learned to speak the Russian language. My first teacher was a wonderful girl from Leningrad, Victoria Simonova, who had already survived 2 years in the camp. She was arrested and put in a camp with a less strict rigor, but soon a terrible thing occurred: she was sent beyond the Arctic Circle, much further than Murmansk or Archangelsk. It was extremely cold there and she was given only a jacket without a collar. As a result, she got frostbite on her cheeks. She could not eat or drink. Fortunately, her mother, a renowned surgeon, spent her whole fortune and was able to buy her unfortunate daughter out from the corrupt officials. Victoria was released. But her father, an old anarchist, died in the camp. Although they continued to receive the occasional news that he was still in the camp, he was probably dead by that time. I met Victoria, who was slightly older than me, in Tajikistan where I began my medical studies. We became friends. Instead of using sweet words, she would recite poems. She knew whole volumes of those beautiful poems. She came from Leningrad which was a city of intellectuals, and that could have been the reason why it was persecuted so often by Moscow and the Soviet authorities. Intellectuals, they were suspicious people, so they were under constant watch. They were the kind of people who would prefer to buy books instead of bread, even during famine disaster. Victoria knew hundreds of poems, especially by Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and Mandelstam, and I learned Russian by listening to them. More to the point, I started thinking that I could already speak Russian using poetic language. But it turned out that I did not yet know everything. One day, she began reciting a wonderful poem of Anna Andreyevna, or Akhmatova. I heard the first words not by ear but with my mind. Suddenly, I grasped the melodic nature of the Russian phrase. I understood that I should not speak word by word. Only in Russia can you find this indispensable, innate, melodic layer of the language. This is the language's great quality and beauty. I took to poetry above all. I had already read Russian novels in Polish. In Poland, as a seventeen- or eighteen-year-old boy, you had to know Dostoyevsky and other Russian writers. Admittedly, I did not read the second volume of 'War and Peace'; I struggled through the first one and it was fairly difficult. As for poetry, it was much easier. Thanks to it, I learned Russian to such an extent that I could very satisfactorily pass the exams during my medical studies, first in Dushanbe and then in Moscow after the war.

Professor, you returned to Poland after 1945. In what role?

Pomianowski: Yes, I did return, as a repatriate, not as Berling's soldier. On Wikipedia, somebody wrote about fragments of my life that are completely unknown to me. For example, someone wrote: 'He came back to Poland as an officer of Belring's Army.' This is completely false. I have never served in that army. I went straight from the mine in Donbas to Bezułk where the first headquarters of General Anders were situated. I thought I would find my uncle there. I did not know then about what had happened in Katyn. Then, from Bezułk, I followed General Anders' 1st Division, marching side-by-side with emaciated, undernourished ex-prisoners who went through more than I did. Believe me, I am not boasting. I lived through the Soviet Union without much problem, from working in the mine to having affairs with female experts on Russian poetry. I spent nine and a half years among the Russians. I improved my Russian considerably and met many famous people. Among them were people who became dissidents, and now they are free citizens who do not support Putin. As I mentioned earlier, I began my medical studies in Dushanbe, back then the city was called Stalinabad, and continued my education in Moscow. And from there, it was probably after the third or fourth year of medical studies, I went back to Poland in 1945. I really wanted to see my parents. They returned to Łódź earlier, thanks to an engineer named Topolski. He worked for the government and was searching for specialists who would be able to help him rebuild the ruined Polish industry. He was gathering outlaws and deported people from all over Russia. Among them, he found my father and, thanks to a special permit, he sent him and my mother back to Łódź. However, that stay in Poland did not last very long. I received letters from Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and my schoolteacher, Mieczysław Jastrun, which made it easier for me to return to Moscow where I wanted to finish my studies. However, once I arrived in Moscow, I was invited to participate in a Polish and Russian publication of the 'Anthology of the Polish Poetry'. That was a truly satisfying task for me because I loved literature, especially poetry. The editing office consisted of two Russians: one was Głowienczenko, the other was Puznikow, director of the publishing institute; and I was the third member of the team. Since I had recommendations from Iwaszkiewicz and Mieczysław Jastrun, I felt very confident. I said that I would not agree to omitting Polish poets on emigration. It should be an anthology of Polish poetry, not of Rej or Kochanowski, but of the modern, contemporary Polish poetry. I did not like the fact that such names as Leśmian or Wierzyński were not included. True, they accepted Tuwim, since he was already in Warsaw, but they questioned the inclusion of Słonimski as he was still staying in London. And Słonimski was printed in Moscow not so long ago. In 1941, 'The Anthology of Contemporary Poetry' was published which contained, among others, his poem 'Alarm'. Beyond that, I used to be a press reporter for some time while I was in Moscow, and then in 1947, after graduating from medical school, I came back to Warsaw. Here, besides working, I could focus on my cultural interests. I translated works of many distinguished Russian writers into Polish. I was passionate about theatre; I even happened to be a dramaturge at the National Theatre. I also worked as a lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism at the University of Warsaw, and I was even the leader of a film group called 'Syrena' ('The Siren'). As you can see, I had a wide range of interests and occupations in the field of culture.

Professor, how is it that someone with such a broad range of possibilities in the Polish People's Republic would leave the country in 1966? What happened that caused the Polish People's Republic to 'kindly' allow you to leave?

Pomianowski: No. I was not exiled from Poland. I had already been awarded twice at the national level. The first award, which was of the highest rank, was just for some… stuff, for translations. The second one was an award from the Minister of Culture for my contributions which, in my opinion, were miniscule. It does not matter. It is worth remembering, however, that a scandal was the best form of protection for a persona non grata in a Communist country. A scandal had the power to make an undesirable person popular. One such example would be the stripping of Leszek Kołakowski of his member status in Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) in 1966. I was against this decision and that is why I could no longer find my own bearings in that reality. I was allowed to emigrate west, but that is a completely different matter altogether, which would be difficult to touch upon in a single interview. If it is possible, I will talk some more about my work during emigration, including my work with the Italian government regarding cultural initiatives, about my academic activities, about my work with Radio Free Europe and about my work for Jerzy Giedroyc's 'Kultura Paryska' magazine. Coming back to the matter of Kołakowski. Hardly anyone had heard about him. No one could sense his real greatness. I considered him a real genius from the very beginning. Once he got his passport, after much pleading, he left westward. He went to Frankfurt to the Frankfurt University. At that time, Habermas was the head of the philosophy department. He was an average philosopher...

...but he was well-known and influential.

Pomianowski: Yes. Maybe. I am sorry, but I have read his works and I think he is a decent, but not outstanding, thinker and philosopher. Anyway, when Kołakowski began teaching at the Frankfurt University - imagine that the students threatened to strike unless Kołakowski leaves. The reason was that they felt disgust towards someone who had betrayed the Communist country, and they considered the Polish People's Republic to be such a country. It took great effort, but he eventually managed to overcome all opposition and obtain a position appropriate to him. He was at a couple of universities, and he finally settled down at Oxford. He was fluent not only in German, French and Russian, but, most importantly, in English. He was greeted with open arms, and he stayed there for the rest of his life, not as a guest, but as a tutor, a distinguished professor, honored and respected.

Jerzy Pomianowski was born on 13th January 1921 in Łódź in a polonized Jewish family. His father: Stanisław Birnbaum; his mother: Janina from the house of Kliger. Professor Pomianowski is a Polish writer, essayist, expert on culture and renowned translator of Russian literature. His translations include works by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Bulgakov; poetry by Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pushkin; and almost all novels and plays by Isaak Babel. He worked in many jobs throughout his life, some of which include being a doctor, an office worker, a literary critic, a playwright, and even a dramaturge at the National Theatre in Warsaw during Horzyca's tenure as director of the theatre. In 1966, he emigrated to Italy where he gave lectures on Polish literature at various universities, he translated works by Fredro and Wojtyła into Italian, he contributed over 60 entries on Polish culture to the Italian edition of 'Encyclopaedia Britannica'. He also worked for the 'Kultura' magazine, contributing translations of many works, including 'The Gulag Archipelago' by Solzhenitsyn. He returned to Poland during the first half of the 1990s and to this day he continues his work as an essayist and expert on literature. Since 1999, he is editor-in-chief of the monthly 'Nowaja Polsza' (original idea by Jerzy Giedroyc), the only magazine on Polish culture available in Russian. He currently lives in Cracow.

January 1, 2012
Photos: Judyta Papp and Arturo Mari


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