Zuzanna Ginczanka / by Rachel Druck
Zuzanna Ginczanka – The lasting power of poetry
Zuzanna Ginczanka was a remarkable poet who managed to produce her most impressive work under desperately difficult circumstances. Though her poetry is largely unknown, particularly among English and Hebrew-speaking audiences, it has proved to have a lasting power that even Nazi oppression, and Soviet suppression, could not crush
Ginczanka (pronounced Gin-chan-ka) was born Zuzanna Polina Gincburg (pronounced Gintz-burg)in Kiev on March 1917 but her parents fled to the city of Rivne (then known as Rowne, also known as Rovno) shortly after her birth to escape the Russian Revolution. It was a turbulent time, not only nationally but also personally. Within five years after moving to Rivne Ginczanka’s father would leave the family to travel to Berlin and then America, while her mother would leave for Spain with her new husband. Ginczanka would never see her father again, and she would see her mother only once more. Instead, Ginczanka lived with her grandmother, Klara Sandberg, who owned a pharmacy in the center of the town.
Rivne, which between the two World Wars was part of the Wolyn (Yiddish: Volin) Province in Poland (currently part of Ukraine), was an overwhelmingly Jewish city; in 1921 71% of the city’s inhabitants were Jewish. It was a good place to be a budding writer; Rivne managed to produce a not-insignificant number of Jewish writers and intellectuals, including the Israeli writer Dahn Ben-Amotz and the historian Mark Wischnitzer. Additionally, though the Israeli writer Amos Oz, was born in Israel, his mother, Fania Mussman, was born in Rivne and the stories she told about her life there had a deep impact on her son, who would go on to write A Tale of Love and Darkness, chronicling both his own childhood and his mother’s memories from Rivne. Ginczanka’s time in Rivne would be essential to her development as a poet, whose powerful work would go on to have a unique history of its own.
Rivne during the interwar period has been described as a “provincial town [that] glittered with tradition while it also longed for modernity.” In spite of the city’s overwhelming Jewish population, at the time that Ginczanka was growing up in the city, Rivne was considered to be relatively multicultural, home to Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Armenians, and Poles. Indeed, the Jewish population itself was diverse; the city had come under the influence of the Hasidic movement, as well as the Jewish Enlightenment and was home to Zionists, socialists, Yiddishists, Hebraicists, and Hasidim, and the city had a richly diverse cultural and political life.
Ginczanka herself clearly benefitted from the options available to her during her youth. By the time she reached school age, Ginczanka had the option of choosing from a number of schools, each with its own linguistic, social, and/or political focus. Though Ginczanka was a native Russian speaker and spoke the language at home, she nonetheless made the fateful decision to attend a school whose language of instruction was Polish.
This decision proved pivotal in her development as a poet. Influenced by the novels and short stories of Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina, the headmaster’s wife, Ginczanka published her first poem in 1931, “Uczta wakacyjna” (“The Vacation Feast”), at age 14 in the school magazine. During this period she also began corresponding with another major literary influence, the Polish-Jewish poet Julian Tuwim. Like Tuwim, Ginczanka was a poet who was dedicated to writing in the Polish language, as well as to her own Polish identity, while simultaneously unable to escape being reminded of her Jewishness.
These reminders of her otherness would become particularly charged for Ginczanka. Though Ginczanka began corresponding with Tuwim when she was in high school, and he offered the budding poet advice, friendship, and mentorship, Rivne was ultimately too far removed from Warsaw, the center of Poland’s literary and poetic scene. And so, just after graduating high school in 1935, Ginczanka left for Warsaw.
Roundly admired for her talent, intelligence, and good looks, Ginczanka published her first collection of poems, On Centaurs, when she was only 19 years old. At the same time, however, she was never allowed to escape her ethnicity, however little she herself wanted to affiliate with her Jewishness (later, even under torture she would not admit to being Jewish). Though Ginczanka would sometimes mention anti-Semitism in the satiric articles that she wrote for Szpilki Magazine, her poetry did not relate to Judaism or to her own Jewishness. Nonetheless, her Warsaw colleagues nicknamed her the Star of Zion, and her striking good looks were often exoticized, a constant reminder of her otherness, even among colleagues who ostensibly accepted her. Ginczanka was often the only woman and the only Jew who ran in many of the circles she did in Warsaw during the late 1930s, a particularly precarious time to be Jewish in Warsaw; anti-Semitism was on the rise and her coreligionists throughout the country were victims of sometimes violent anti-Jewish activities.
Ginczanka continued to return to Rivne to visit her grandmother; she was there when World War II began and Rivne came under Soviet control. Ginczanka’s grandmother, who owned a pharmacy on the main street of the city, was considered bourgeois and therefore subject to economic penalties and harassment from the communist regime. The pharmacy was seized, and her home was used to house Soviet officials. Under these circumstances, Ginczanka fled to Soviet-occupied Lvov (also known as Lviv, now in present-day Ukraine) and went into hiding. Through it all, she kept writing; in Lvov she worked as an editor and wrote a number of Soviet propaganda poems. Additionally, it was during this period in Lvov that Ginczanka wrote what would become her most famous poem, “Non omnis moriar” (“Not All of Me will Die”).
Non Omnis Moriar
“Non omnis moriar,” whose title comes from Horace’s Ode 3.30, was written during a particularly difficult and dangerous period for Ginczanka. On June 22, 1941 the Nazis invaded territories that had been under Soviet control since September 1939; in Rivne, Ginczanka’s grandmother was arrested by the Nazis and died of a heart attack on the way to the execution site at Zdolbunow. Meanwhile, Ginczanka was in hiding in Lvov, and desperately attempting to avoid capture. Her striking good looks, which so obviously identified her as Jewish, had become a dangerous liability and rendered her effectively homebound. However, in spite of all of her efforts, the housekeeper of the building where Ginczanka was living denounced her to the Nazi authorities, prompting Ginczanka to flee to Krakow. This incident prompted her to write “Non omnis moriar,” her most powerful work.
Non omnis moriar — my proud estate,
of table linen fields and wardrobes staunch
like fortresses, with precious bedclothes, sheets,
bright dresses — all remain behind me now.
And as I did not leave here any heir
you, Chomin’s wife, the snitch’s daring wife,
Volksdeutcher’s mother, swift informer, do
allow your hand to dig up Jewish things.
May they serve you and yours, and not some strangers.
“My dear ones” — it’s no song, nor empty name.
I do remember you, and when the Schupo came,
you did remember me. Reminded them of me.
So let my friends all sit with goblets raised
to toast my memory and their own wealth,
their drapes and kilims, candlesticks and bowls.
And may they drink all night, till break of dawn,
and then begin to search for jewels and gold
in mattresses and sofas, quilts and rugs.
Oh, and what quick work they’ll make of it!
Thick clumps of horsehair, sea grass stuffing, clouds
of cushions torn and puffs of eiderdown
will coat their hands and turn their arms to wings.
My blood will bind these fibers with fresh down,
and thus transform these wingèd ones to angels.
(Translated by Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Aniela Pramik and Geoffrey Cebula)
“Non omnis moriar” describes the ways in which people related to each other in wartime Poland: the friends who become betrayers, as well as the interplay between betrayal and triumph. Though her betrayers may sit with her things and celebrate their victory, the poet maintains power over them, even after her death. The poem also represents the first time that Ginczanka referenced her Jewishness in a poetic context. The “Jewish things” that she bequeaths to her betrayer represent an acknowledgment of her identity, and the inescapability of that identity, to the point that even her possessions are identified by her Jewishness. In keeping with the poem’s realism, Ginczanka calls out her own betrayer, “Chomin’s wife,” in a testimony that would echo years later.
Ginczanka was ultimately discovered by the Gestapo in Krakow and arrested in the fall of 1944. She was executed at age 27 just before the end of the war. Meanwhile, “Non omnis moriar,” which Ginczanka had written by hand on a crumpled piece of paper, had been passed to a friend who managed to keep the poem throughout the war. After the war, it was given to the poet Julian Przybos, who published it in 1946 in the newspaper “Odrodzene.”
In January 1946 Zofja Chomin, who had worked as a housekeeper in the building where Ginczanka lived in Lvov, was arrested with her son Marjan Chomin and charged with collaboration. During their trial, Ginczanka’s “Non Omnis Moriar,” in which Ginczanka explicitly names her betrayer, was used as evidence against the Chomins—the first, and perhaps only, instance of a poem being used as evidence in a criminal trial. Zofja was sentenced to four years in prison for having betrayed Ginczanka to the Nazis when she lived in Lvov. Though Ginczanka had perished, her strong poetic voice not only survived but was able to bring her some measure of justice.
What the Nazis failed to destroy, however, the Soviets succeeded in repressing. Ginczanka’s poetry was censored in postwar Poland, having been deemed undesirable by the communist authorities. Her early death, the Soviet suppression, and the fact that Ginczanka wrote her poetry in rather complicated Polish, kept her from being more widely read, and her talents from being more widely acknowledged. However, since Poland became, once again, a democratic state in 1991, more people have begun discovering this remarkable poet; indeed, from October 29, 2015 until February 29 2016 the Museum of Literature in Warsaw hosted an exhibit celebrating Ginczanka’s life and work. She has also become a major figure in literary feminist theory and gender studies for her rejection of traditional femininity and her insistence on her own literary merit without the need for male validation. Ginczanka’s assertion in “Non omnis moriar,” that not all of her would die, proved to be eerily prescient. Hers is a voice that, in spite of ostensibly insurmountable odds, insisted on being heard and which, to this day, would not be silenced.
Special thanks to Professor Irena Grudzińska-Gross for allowing us to use her translation of Non omnis moriar.
Rachel Druck is the editor of the Communities Database at Beit Hatfutsot. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org