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Fellows Find: How Polish poet Bolesław Leśmian’s manuscripts survived World War II and journeyed across three continents

By Dariusz Pachocki

Dariusz Pachocki, an assistant professor in Polish studies at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, worked in the Bolesław Leśmian papers at the Ransom Center in 2013. While here, he investigated the provenance of the collection and pieced together the long journey the papers took before their arrival at the Ransom Center in 1970, and below, he writes about that journey. Pachocki’s research was supported by the Edwin Gale Fellowship.

 

Manuscripts of many outstanding writers are stored in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, and there are even archival materials from writers who never visited the United States and never wrote anything in English. For example, the Ransom Center has a great collection of manuscripts by Polish writer Bolesław Leśmian. How did the manuscripts of one of Poland’s greatest writers end up in the United States? This is the short story of a long and complex tale that brought these manuscripts to Texas.

 

Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937) came from an assimilated family of Jewish intelligentsia. In importance, he ranks with other such poets of his time as T. S. Eliot or Rainer Maria Rilke. However, his work was appreciated only at the end of his life. Scholars of literature have described him as a great poet with a brilliant style of language, which he used skillfully in his creation of numerous neologisms. A man of great culture, he combined old philosophies with modern skepticism. He wrote fables, essays, and dramas, among other things, but poetry was the most important. Though he published only three books of poems during his lifetime, he influenced the history of Polish literature. Few manuscripts have been preserved, so the collection at the Ransom Center is very important for Polish culture.

 

The journey of the manuscripts begins in 1944 during the Warsaw Rising, a rebellion during World War II that was violently supressed by Nazi Germany. Many civilians, including Leśmian’s wife Zofia Chylińska and his daughter Maria, left the city because of military action. Leśmian had died two years before the outbreak of World War II, and so his wife and daughter were forced to manage on their own during the occupation. Before the women left the city, Chylińska divided his literary output into two parts and placed them in suitcases. The first included manuscripts of literary works that had been published, and the other contained manuscripts that were unknown and unpublished. The women did not know what their fate would be, and so they took with them only the most necessary and most valuable items. They could not take both suitcases, so they decided to leave the suitcase with published manuscripts in the basement of their acquaintance. Leśmian’s daughter Maria recalled these events after the war in her memoir:

 

“Notebooks in a black cover made from oilcloth. Lost manuscripts. It was impossible to save them all and take from the burning house. Mother was weak from despair. She could not lift a leaf from the ground. But Warsaw was burning. And despite this I carried bulging suitcase on Rakowiecka Street to the house which was not in flames. It was opposite to the fortress improvised by Germans. There, on the ground floor, lived our friend. Her surname was Czarnocka. We placed the manuscripts in her basement […]. These were published literary works.”

 

The second half of Leśmian’s works travelled with his family on a long and dangerous journey:

 

A few essays, unfinished poems had a similar fate as their owners, they travelled with us to Mauthausen concentration camp. They, through work camps, got to another hemisphere. I remember when I was carrying them. I was exhausted, with terrible pain of heart, after three days and nights of trip with a sealed train. We were surrounded by soldiers with torches. We climbed the hill, we carried valuable bundle with difficulty, in the light of these torches whose scrappy, fiery flames reflected darkness of the night. It was in August 1944.

 

The German Mauthausen concentration camp was built in Austrian territory. As in other concentration camps, people from across Europe were exterminated, and inmates who survived lived in unimaginable conditions. The most important thing was to survive, and in such circumstances, bread outranks manuscripts. However, Leśmian’s wife and daughter did not part with the manuscripts. They protected them as their most valuable treasure.

 

After a few months of appalling living conditions, they were freed by the American Army in May 1945. Starving and ailing, they made it to Italy with the aid of the International Red Cross, and they decided not to return to Poland because the Soviet Army was not only a liberator but also an occupier.

 

After World War II, Poland was under the influence of the Soviet Union. It had been placed within the communist bloc, where thousands of soldiers maintained order. Consequently, many members of the intelligentsia—writers, artists, or soldiers, and Leśmian’s family—chose not to return to communist Poland. After leaving Italy, Chylińska and Maria Leśmian lived for some time in London, where they published some of the saved manuscripts. Soon after that, they emigrated to Argentina and settled in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. While it seemed like the women and manuscripts would be safe there, both women had problems finding jobs, and they experienced poverty and suffered from illnesses. Also, despite being treated with care and reverence, the manuscripts were deteriorating because of the damp climate in Argentina.

 

The women could not afford professional conservation, and so they made a dramatic decision to sell the materials both to save themselves from starvation and to preserve the manuscripts. Polish intelligentsia emigrants and people connected with Polish culture were interested in the materials, but no agreement could be reached with Polish institutions, even though Chylińska’s health and the condition of the manuscripts were worsening.

 

Finally, a Polish antiquarian bookseller from New York, Aleksander Janta-Połczyński, was travelling throughout Argentina, met with Leśmian’s family, and was interested the manuscripts. He searched for an institution that could purchase the manuscripts and preserve them properly. When that proved impossible, he decided to pay for them with his own funds in 1967. Sadly, Leśmian’s wife had died three years earlier.

 

The antiquarian bookseller came to an agreement with the then-Humanities Research Center (now the Ransom Center). House of El Dieff auction house brokered the transaction, and after a long journey across three continents, the manuscripts arrived in Austin in 1970.

 

This collection of manuscripts includes seven literary works that are very interesting. While there is evidence that the family rescued more manuscripts from burning Warsaw, a considerable part of them seem to have been lost. However, the manuscripts that survived are perfectly protected and available to scholars interested in the literary output of Leśmian. The Ransom Center’s collection is now the largest collection of manuscripts of Bolesław Leśmian in the world. However, that could change one day if the other suitcase that was hidden in the neighbor’s basement resurfaces. The building survived bombardment and all military actions, but the suitcase has never been found.

From the Outside In: Fritz Henle’s Photograph, “Ruhr Miner,” 1967

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This photograph from the windows of the Harry Ransom Center shows a coal miner from the Ruhr Valley in Germany resting next to a window after a long shift. The sunlight from the window contrasts with the miner’s face and clothes, still blackened by coal dust. The white container in his hand holds a quart of cold milk, which each miner was required to drink after his shift was over. The image can be likened to Migrant Mother in the adjacent window, particularly in the expressions of rugged self-reliance and the excellent tonal reproduction on the faces.

 

Fritz Henle was born in 1909, the son of well-to-do Jewish parents. As a teenager he showed great interest in photography and built himself a darkroom in his parents’ basement. When he applied to attend photography school at the Bavarian Institute of Photography in Munich, the faculty were so impressed by the portfolio he brought along that they allowed him to join as a second-year student. He finished the program at the top of his class. He always used Rolleiflex cameras, which generate large, high-quality negatives, and his mastery of photo composition allowed him to take well-balanced pictures of any subject.

 

Henle established his career in pre–World War II Germany, but during the rise of the Nazi Party, he left the country for an assignment as a photojournalist in the United States and did not return. He rapidly established himself as a documentary photographer working for the U.S. Office of War Information during the difficult war years. He photographed mundane objects requested by his clients, but he composed them to produce attractive images, and his business grew. He established himself as an independent, commercial photographer after the war, produced thousands of images on numerous assignments, and became known as “the last classic freelance photographer.”

 

Ruhr Miner was taken late in his career. The light in the picture, apparently coming from an open window, is sufficiently diffused so that the shadows are not completely blacked out but greatly enhance the grimy atmosphere of the photo as a whole. For the best effect, this window should be viewed with as dark a background as possible.

 

Henle himself wrote 20 books on photography. Much of the information in this description has been drawn from book Fritz Henle: In Search of Beauty by the Ransom Center’s Senior Research Curator of Photography, Roy Flukinger.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Alan Herbert wrote this post.

Ransom Center exhibits “Gone With The Wind” materials at TCM Classic Film Festival

By Jennifer Tisdale

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), premier sponsor for the Harry Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, hosts its fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood April 10–13.

 

Within Club TCM, the gathering point for festival passholders in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Ransom Center will exhibit a selection of Gone With The Wind storyboards and concept art from the Center’s David O. Selznick archive.

 

Also at the festival, TCM will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind (1939) with a screening of a recent restoration of the film in collaboration with Warner Bros. Studios.

 

Beginning September 9 at the Ransom Center, more than 300 original items from Gone With The Wind will be on display in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, including behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, fan mail, and costumes worn by Vivien Leigh. Drawing from its extensive archive of the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, the Ransom Center is in a unique position to tell, and share, the story of the making of this epic film.

 

Image: Dorothea Holt’s concept painting of Scarlett at the Butler House in Gone With The Wind.

Q&A With Julia Alvarez

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez speaks about her life and work with University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer M. Wilks in a Harry Ransom Lecture this Monday, March 31 at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium at Homer Rainey Hall. A book signing and reception follow at the Ransom Center. This lecture is presented by the University Co-op and co-sponsored by the 2013–2014 Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) Symposia: Reading Race in Literature and Film. Alvarez’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

 

In an interview with Cultural Compass, Alvarez shares her thoughts on women in the literary canon, cultural identity, and more.

 

Stories about men are considered universal, but stories about women are often considered “women’s fiction.” What do you think can be done to change this trend? How have your books centering on female protagonists been received with regard to this?

 

We’ve made a lot of progress. In my own lifetime as a writer, now over 40 years, I’ve seen a sea change in interest in authors of ethnic/racial/gender diversity—both as a writer in what gets published but also as a writer in the academy in the curriculum, the books departments select for their core readings.

 

That said, we are still living in the shadow of that old canonical/gated understanding of what constitutes classic, serious fiction. The travails and writing by men, mostly white, with some exceptions. Women’s novels are often considered lite fair. (Is there a male version of chicklit denomination?)  What was Samuel Johnson’s comment about women preachers? “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Well in many quarters, this was also the attitude toward women’s writing.

 

So, even though many of the most admired and serious American novelists and poets now come from other traditions, ethnicities, races, and many of them are female, that old mentality is there, like a gas we breathe and don’t even know it. Still it was daunting to read the op-ed in New York Times Book Review, two years ago, by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literacy Fiction for Men and Women.”

 

Additionally, it’s not just that women’s fiction isn’t taken as seriously, [or] reviewed as often, but also the default characters and plots of serious fiction are still those of the mainstream culture. So often when I write about a Dominican American family, it’s assumed this has to be my story. Why? Because otherwise I’d write about a John Cheever family in Connecticut? (I love John Cheever’s fiction, but those aren’t the stories I have to tell.) It’s as if our characters are only allowed limited minority fiction status—often there are courses just in this area, an infusion of fairness into an otherwise distorted canon! It’s a curious and often unconscious set of assumptions and expectations about who gets to have their stories told. Of course, I know this, too, is changing, but as Wolitzer cautions us, we ain’t there yet.

 

If I may take it a step further into personal experience: when I wrote In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) I told the story of the dictatorship seen for the first time from a female point of view. I heard from my friend, Dominican historian and author Bernardo Vega that he introduced Mario Vargas Llosa to the novel, and MVL got very interested in the dictatorship and subsequent “democratic dictatorship” by Balaguer. His novel, La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat) (2000), is often cited as the seminal work of fiction about those years. I admire the novel, and none of this is MVL’s “fault.” Just the way critics and even readers have these unexamined assumptions. Good for you for bringing up the question and forcing us to see these assumptions are still out there.

 

What can be done to change trend? My response is to keep writing. Spike Lee once said the only way to be avoid being flash-proof is to keep doing your work.

 

Attitudes/assumptions change slowly, over time, probably not during my watch, but if I don’t do my part, change won’t happen at all.

 

 

Many people categorize you as a Latina, Dominican, or bicultural writer. How would you like to be perceived as a writer?

 

I like the quote, attributed to Terence, the Roman playwright, “I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me.” That could well be the motto of literature. It’s how I would ultimately want to be remembered: one of the storytellers from my specific “tribe,” but telling the stories to all of us. We are all feeding the same sea, as Jean Rhys put it, as we come down and flow into it from our different mountains and landscapes.

 

After all, one of the things literature teaches—and why I gave myself to this “calling”—was that I recognized that this was the one place where the table was set for all. All the wonderful stories, poems are our legacy as part of the human family—our communal treasure chest, but in order to access it, of course, you need to get the key, that is, education, learning to read, having the time and opportunity to claim your legacy.

 

For so many years, I felt denied entry into that world of serious American literature (as Langston Hughes noted in his wonderful little poem, “I, too, Sing America”) so that when I finally was published I claimed my LATINA voice, my traditions, my culture with a vengeance. Often it was because I sensed that I needed to make a space and place for other kinds of stories on the shelf of American fiction. But as I get older, what’s important to me is that these terms describe the sources of my stories, my history, my traditions, but that they shouldn’t be used to limit my subjects, or limit my readership to only those in the tight circle of my own culture or background. Again stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what they are about.

 

 

Which of your works means the most to you, and why? Which one was most difficult to write? The most fun?

 

Oh dear, that’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child! Each work has taught me things I needed to learn—about technique/writing, about history/characters/situations I was curious to understand. So, each one was meaningful to me at the time.

 

I suppose writing the Tía Lola books for young readers was the most fun, just because Tía Lola is such a sassy, fun-loving tía. I’d catch myself eager to start the writing day, wondering what trouble she’d get into, and as the author, how I’d get her out of the fix she was in, or had gotten me into.

 

That said, on a good writing day, any book I am laboring on is “fun,” and even those fun books are difficult to write if I want to get them right. Let’s face it, good writing is hard work. I have this one quote about revision/writing by James Dickey that I like to share with my students:

 

“It takes an awful lot of time for me to write anything. I have endless drafts, one after another; and I try out 50, 75, or a hundred variations to a single line of poetry sometimes. I work on the process of refining low-grade ore. I get maybe a couple of nuggets of gold out of 50 tons of dirt. It is tough for me. No, I am not inspired.”

 

I guess I wouldn’t go that far—of saying I’m never inspired. But at the end of the day, the inspired piece of writing and the one that took 50 tons of dirt to get to a single nugget of golden writing—they have to be indistinguishable from each other.

 

Most meaningful? Always the writing I’m currently working on because that’s the cutting edge, the material or technique or character that I’m trying to understand, to serve, to get down on paper.

 

A little rambling, I know, but as the quote ascribed both to Twain and to Pascal (the problem with Internet searches!): “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

 

Image: Photo of Julia Alvarez by Bill Eichner.