Polish poet and musician Grzegorz Kwiatkowski offers a cold, distilled look at the collusion of everyday Poles who participated in, or fueled, the murder of Jews during WWII. His minimalist writing, as Jesse Nathan describes for McSweeney’s “Short Conversations with Poets” series, has the impact of a “dagger”: “Punctuation is rare, and so is human decency.” I recently spoke to Kwiatkowski about his work, and here we present that interview together with English translations of his poetry by Peter Constantine and newly commissioned Yiddish translations of his poetry by Magdalena Kozłowska.
Jessica Kirzane: How would you describe your body of work?
Grzegorz Kwiatkowski: I am a poet and musician. For many years I thought these were distinct spheres, but I was wrong, and it was only me who wanted to separate them. Now I understand both to be part of the same world of music.
My poetry focuses on history, biographies, morality, and subjects that are precarious. It allows me to grapple with situations without easy solutions and easy answers. Of course I am not the right person to describe my work objectively, but if pressed I would define it as being precise, minimalistic, and understated, yet still expressing big emotions. The poetry is meant to be read in chronological order.
I call my last four poetry collections an “anti-Wagnerian tetralogy.” My poetry is a result of my fascination with pre-WWII German culture and the subsequent shock of the war. I call it “anti-Wagnerian” in reference to Wagner’s infamous antisemitism and in reference to his epic, long, and very often melodramatic operas. So both the form and the idea are in opposition to Wagner, a kind of protest against it.
My music is a bit different from my poetry, though related. I am a member of the psychedelic band Trupa Trupa. We play psychedelic rock and are organized in a democratic structure. The band consists of four members, and everyone has different points of view, different ideas, different tastes. There is no leader, no front man. This is a very unusual organizational structure in the world of rock music. My focus on WWII has led Trupa Trupa to include in our repertoire a song called: “Never forget” inspired by Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” with the lyric: “We never forget humiliation/ we never forget those ghetto deaths/they sound like a midnight choir”. But mine is only one of the voices incorporated into our music.
Our democratic approach can cause problems: How can we manage a band with four different visions, without a captain for the ship? Instead of crying and fighting about it we think this is our biggest strength, this polyphonic and somewhat chaotic situation. This connects back to my poetry because as a poet I also love polyphony — many perspectives and many voices. Because of its polyphony, democracy and freedom, Trupa Trupa paints a very strange landscape – and I guess, or I hope, that our work is quite unique. It’s broken, full of mistakes, but also beauty. In my opinion both my poetry and this music are in some way a soundtrack for the devastated Central European lands or maybe just for devastated lands in general.
In both poetry and music there is a place for a reader and listener. The listener and reader can take responsibility for their own interpretation. This responsibility allows the audience an opportunity to transform through active partnership with the artists. Of course my work is dark art, full of tragedies. But the point of this art is not to assault the audience with horrors or graphic violence. I truly believe that when we confront tragedy we suddenly need more light and the moral apparatus that might be turned off in us can suddenly be switched on. “More light,” said Goethe, and after these words he died. In my opinion it’s not an accident that these were his last words. I really think we need more moral light.
JK: What led you to address histories and present realities of hatred and violence in your work? How did this work begin?
GK: My grandfather Józef was a prisoner in the Stutthof concentration camp, which is located 30 kilometers from the city of Gdansk. He and his sister were both prisoners. He was responsible for transporting dead bodies out of the camp hospital. After the war he was a traumatized, broken man and his sister was mentally ill.
As a child I went with him to the museum of this concentration camp. It was his first visit since the war. He cried, shouted, and relived his memories. He was devastated. I watched and didn’t know what to do. This led me to ask myself many questions, the most simple and the most difficult ones being: why do people kill each other, why do people hate each other, why did people build concentration camps and torture each other? This was a key moment for me, kind of a dark enlightenment. Year after year I thought about it and became more and more focused on history.
Earlier in my childhood I had begun attending a musical school and I was playing clarinet. So, the world of music was always important to me. I loved the Beatles and classical music. On the one hand I had a very dark family experience and story – on the other hand I was full of joy, full of music.
Many years later, I became a coordinator of Amnesty International in the city of Gdansk and I learned that history does not remain in the past; the present is full of unfairness and tragedies.
Still, I focused on art – on poetry and on music. I wanted to speak about the horror of history and humanity in the language of art, a kind of protest art. Of course it wasn’t a conscious decision. It wasn’t planned. A very young person acts impulsively and just does things he needs to do with exaltation and seriousness.
Something else that was essential to my path is that my mother was a teacher in a special needs school. Especially in the 90s in Poland the quality of these institutions was horrible. So I watched many tragedies unfold not only from the past but also in my everyday reality. These institutions were very poorly supported financially, but even more significantly – most of society did not accept these kids. These kids were stigmatized, publicly laughed at. I was also born in one of the poorest districts in the city of Gdansk, in Orunia. When I was six years old my family moved to another more wealthy area called Wrzeszcz. I grew up in a house full of love, but through the window and on the streets I saw a lot of violence and poverty in Poland at the end of communism; the end of the 80s and the beginning of 90s was characterized by poverty in Poland, especially in underprivileged districts such as Orunia. That, maybe most of all, had a significant influence on my art.
JK: Can you tell us about how you use archival sources in your poetry and song? Are there particular archival sources that you have found especially meaningful?
GK: I use scraps, fragments, shards. Johan, the protagonist of the Ingmar Bergman film Hour of the Wolf, says, “The Mirror has been shattered. But what do the shards reflect?” To me, humanity is like a shattered mirror, smashed by the Holocaust, and I salvage the shards. As a musician I am obsessed with musical fragments of reality, of conversations, of landscape. I gather these little musical or anti-musical remnants.
For example, I use my grandfather’s notes from his incarceration at the concentration camp, which I found by accident some time ago. Scientists have begun to study genetic memory, but I can say it’s true from my own lived experience. When I found my grandfather’s camp notes I realized that my writing style was almost exactly the same as his. This was a big shock for me.
Not always but very often I use material from the street, from the bus. For example, I’ll hear some antisemitic conversation in a tram and this language and conversation will strike me as so uniquely cruel and dark that I just have to write it down and work on it, to understand it and to distill its essence. I write down everything edgy and paradoxical that I can find. I am constantly searching for these scraps and trying to sculpt around them in a minimalistic way, just to create space around them. I make the proper space to expose these voices, often obscene voices full of hatred.
JK: What is the relationship between your poetry and Holocaust testimony? Do you see yourself as condensing testimony?
GK: One of the most important books for me was Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. This book was for me a kind of matrix, this form of epitaph, this polyphonic structure, this landscape made from human lives.
As a human rights activist, and as a person who wanted to understand my roots, I was always reading a lot of testimonies, historical reports, court reports, police reports, and descriptions of crimes from the past and present. I wanted to understand it.
More recently I discovered that my wife’s grandmother had hidden in the forest near the city of Rzeszów during the Second World War. The reason she was hiding was that she was Jewish, something my wife hadn’t previously known about her family.
This made me want to understand this tragic past even more, this hell, so I read more and more. Of course I know there is no way to really understand it. But I wanted to get as close as I could, to experience compassion without easy moralizing, to have a sense for how history unfolded as a process.
I have a summer house on a lake and a few years ago I met one of my neighbors there, a wonderful old man named Albin Ossowski. He was a sculptor. His family’s antique business was in London but he moved to Pomerania in his old age. During WWII he had been an underground army soldier and later was imprisoned in Birkenau. Like my grandfather, he was put to work in the camp hospital. He wanted to speak, to describe, to tell, to share. He was particularly motivated by the growing popularity of Holocaust denialism in USA and in Europe. He wanted to protest. My friend Rafał Wojczal and I proposed that we create a documentary about him and his story, and he agreed because he had a message for the world – the Holocaust was real, Auschwitz was real. And it could happen again. My relationship with Ossowski led me to go deeper and deeper into testimonies and history.
My method is to condense the stories I read as much as possible, like cut and polished stone. I believe that this lapidar mechanism is particularly suited to anti-hate and anti-war messages. Lapidary makes things more powerful, louder. Somehow the minimalism has the effect of allowing the words to gleam, so that while the poem seems quiet, each word speaks very loudly.
Though I want to be as close as I can to history, to testimonies and to facts, my work is ultimately art and not history. So there is always an artistic point of view. If someone wants to go really deep into learning the facts about the past, they should read works of history, not poetry. I see my poetry as a signal, a demonstration that the history is still alive and there is still a generation, a young generation, that is trying to remember the victims, and to analyze the mechanisms of evil. This shows that dark forces are not winning and evil will not have the last word.
JK: In what ways is uncovering history a component of activism for you? How does it relate to the present?
GK: Uncovering is the most important thing for me, not only in the field of history. I am very interested in the process of lying: everyday lying. Genocide and tragedy are almost always founded upon lying and manipulation.
Uncovering what has been hidden is central to what I do. While my friend Rafał and I were directing our documentary film about Albin Ossowski we were in the forest near the fence around the museum of Stutthof concentration camp when we stumbled upon thousands of shoes on the ground: women’s shoes, children’s shoes, colorful shoes. Stutthof was a leather repair center for the concentration camps. In 1945, after liberating the camp, the Red Army counted this mountain of shoes: half a million pairs of shoes from concentration camps all over Europe. In 1967, when the museum was established, they included only a small number of shoes in the exhibition and threw most of them into the forest outside the museum. They rotted there for almost half a century. We found these artifacts of genocide and went to the managers of the museum and asked them to do something to preserve them. They refused and said the items were trash, without any historical value. We were fighting on our own. We called the media and there was a big media storm, articles in the Guardian, CBC and more. But the museum didn’t do anything. The shoes kept on rotting. We fought for five years, not with people but with a mechanism of lying and a mechanism of lack of responsibility. After five years they buried not all but most of the shoes on the grounds of the museum. I asked them to preserve the artifacts and they buried them, they hid them. They are hiding these artifacts of genocide. So as you can see, I want to uncover things, but it’s not always easy and not always successful.
JK: What is the relationship between your music and your poetry? Who are the audiences for each?
GK: Many of my readers have families who were affected by World War II. I am grateful for these readers because they know this tragic landscape intimately. If they respect my work and feel it speaks to them in new ways, not because of facts — which they already know — but because of the art of montage, because of this minimalistic almost invisible tendency to alternate between whispering and shouting, then I feel that I accomplished something. Dealing with genocide is always very hard and there is so much kitschy art about it. Kitsch is full of easy black-and-white generalizations.
I am a great admirer of Glenn Gould’s work, which I take as an exemplar of how to avoid melodramatic art. I have been listening to his art every day for many, many years. His mathematical precision and anti-melodramatic approach stand out for me like a big “stop” sign, warning me not to enter the melodramatic territory of easy judgments.
I don’t want to say my work is a success, per se. I think you can never succeed in such territory. You can never express this tragic past. It’s impossible. But I think we can try. And I hope that this act of trying is in some way a moral act of trying to keep the victims’ memory alive.
Many of my readers also listen to Trupa Trupa’s music, though in general the audience for the music is larger. Poetry is kind of niche. I think that Trupa Trupa’s audience consists of people who are searching for something different, something broken, unusual, unique. Our listeners are very open to many different perspectives.
JK: Do you have a relationship to the contemporary Jewish community in Gdansk, or in Poland more generally? What has your experience been like as a Polish, non-Jewish artist writing (at least in part) about the Holocaust?
GK: I have experienced a lot of support and understanding from the Jewish community.
The Gdansk Jewish community opened the doors of the Synagogue in Gdansk Wrzeszcz for Trupa Trupa. Because of their open heart we recorded one of our albums in this special place. This is one of the only synagogues that wasn’t destroyed during World War II. We were recording our “++” album there for a really long time, a few months, so they were very generous to let us use the space.
I was also a guest of the Jewish Historical Institute and The Galicia Jewish Museum and experienced support from Polish scholars of the Holocaust, such as Professor Michał Głowiński, Romana Kolarzowa and Piotr Weiser. My first international lecture was at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. David Kraemer invited me and this felt like a spiritual opportunity for me. I felt great and I guess the audience did too. David and I hope to continue to work together. I had a similar experience at Johns Hopkins University where I discussed my work with Karen Underhill and Zackary Sholem Berger. I was privileged to be a guest at the Kupferberg Holocaust Center where I talked with Susan Jacobowitz, and The Holocaust Resource Center of Kean University where I talked with Joanna Sliwa. My friend Kiel Majewski invited me to the Together We Remember memory event. I also had the pleasure of discussing my art at Miroslaw Balka’s Studio of Spatial Activities at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. I think that Mirosław Bałka is one of the greatest Polish artists focusing on this tragedy. One day Michael Schudrich, the current Chief Rabbi of Poland, called me to thank me for my work. He attended a few lectures I gave for international universities. These are just a few activities that demonstrate the kind of support I have received.
JK: What language(s) are your source materials in? What is the significance of the language to your perspectives on the Holocaust?
GK: I speak and read in Polish and English. So I use materials from these languages. I feel that language can create and express reality, though not directly. But it is often used in the opposite way, to obscure reality. Most people are using language not to tell the truth but to lie, and their language is a machine used to cover up things they wish to hide. If you look at language from this perspective it’s easier to see truth and facts. This process of lying is always visible in the structure of language, the structure of narration, and storytelling. It is all there. The evil is inside the language. Understanding this about language helps us to analyze the tragedy of the Holocaust. Language can filter out cruel violent reality but if we turn our attention to the filters themselves in language then we become aware of what is really inside or underneath it. Generally speaking, for me, working with language means working on revealing something that is covered by language but this is there, underneath. That’s why I think that language and reality are close to each other, they are so close that they are almost one thing.
JK: What would you like readers of Yiddish (much of the audience of this journal) to know about contemporary Polish culture or about Polish artifacts of the Holocaust?
GK: It seems to me that Yiddish – and Jewish culture – are hidden elements of contemporary Polish culture. Most Polish children know some counting games based on Yiddish, such one that begins, “entliczek pentliczek.” But most of them don’t know the source. This is just one very small example of how Jewish culture shaped contemporary Polish culture, though most traces of this are hidden, covered.
To me, the most fascinating Polish artists were older masters who lived through the Communist era but also lived in modern capitalistic Poland. I’m thinking of Czesław Miłosz and Tadeusz Różewicz, who I believe were some of the best artists in Poland in the twentieth century. Their writing often touched on the tragedy of genocide and the Holocaust. Tadeusz Różewicz’s mother was Jewish, so he had Jewish roots but he didn’t discuss it and Polish readers were generally not aware. Perhaps he was afraid to speak more publicly about that. Stanisław Lem was also Jewish though he didn’t discuss it. In Poland Jews were persecuted even after the war, such as in the Kielecki Pogrom in 1946 and the antisemitic purge of 1968. So not only Jewish culture as a subject, but the Jewish heritage of important Polish writers, were hidden, leaving unspoken traces in the contemporary Polish literary landscape.
I am drawn to historical sources in Polish, and in these sources the role of Yiddish is even more palpable. Nowadays, there are more and more great academic books by Polish scholars about the Holocaust containing sources about the relationship between observers and perpetrators. The most important sources for me are folk sources from rural areas. They are important not only because of the brutality of their language but also because of the unique texture of pre-war Polish language. After the Second World War, and under the Communist regime with its aims of unification of culture, Poland became something of a cultural desert. Before the war there was much more diversity and polyphony. I certainly don’t mean to idealize pre-war Poland, which was, along with most of Europe, home to a great deal of antisemitism, but nonetheless before the war Poland was home to many different people, with different religions and cultures, and you can feel that in the texture of the Polish language in these pre-war sources – my sense is that Yiddish has more of a presence there.
You also asked about Polish artifacts of the Holocaust. There are still many traces. In some ways Poland is a cemetery full of ghosts. One of the biggest genocides in history took place here. It still reverberates and there are ghosts under the ground, on the ground, and in the air. There are so many tragedies that need to be shared and to be remembered. I believe that discussing these tragedies and remembering the victims can have an impact on the future and on future generations. The watchword “never forget” is a powerful guiding principle for anti-war activism.
What follows are three poems by Grzegorz Kwiatkowski in the original Polish, together with Yiddish translations by Magdalena Kozłowska and English translations by Peter Constantine. Peter Constantine’s book-length work of English translations of Kwiatkowski, Crops, can be purchased here.
nasz prawdziwy zawód to rolnictwo
rzezie na bagnach odbywały się w rytmie prac sezonowych
i kiedy były duże deszcze nie wychodziliśmy po plony
אוּנדזער אמתער פֿאַך איז אַגריקולטור
כאָטש בין איך מודה:
די שחיטות אויף די זומפּן זײַנען געװען אינעם ריטעם פֿון די סעזאָן־אַרבעט
און װען די רעגנס זײַנען געװען שטאַרק זײַנען מיר נישט אַװעק פֿאַר די שניטן
our real work is farm work
although I admit:
the massacres in the swamps have the rhythm of our seasonal labor
and when the rains were heavy we did not go out for crops
podczas wojny układaliśmy ciała jak drewno
ale już po wojnie układaliśmy w lesie drewno
jak świeżo ścięte ciała
בשעת דער מלחמה האָבן מיר געלייגט קערפּער װי האָלץ
אָבער שוין נאָך דער מלחמה האָבן מיר געלייגט האָלץ אינעם װאַלד
װי פֿריש געשניטענע קערפּער
during the war we laid out bodies like wood
but after the war we laid out wood in the forest
like bodies freshly felled
poszłam z dzieckiem do lasu i razem z nim bezradna płakałam
łzy ściekały mi z oczu a dziecko wycierało mi łzy rączką
i tak bardzo żałowałam że przywołałam je na świat
איך בין געגאַנגען מיטן קינד אין װאַלד און געװיינט מיט אים האָפֿענונגסלאָז
טרערן זײַנען גערונען פֿון מײַנע אויגן און דאָס קינד האָט מיר די טרערן אַװעקגעװישט מיטן הענטל
און איך האָב אַזוי שטאַרק חרטה געהאַט װאָס האָב איך אים געבראַכט אויף דער װעלט
I went with my child to the forest and cried helplessly with him
tears dripped from my eyes and the child wiped them away with his hand
and I so regretted that I had brought him into the world