Frascati is a street in a beautiful area of Warsaw that survived the ravages of the war, after which people connected with the new, communist regime came to live there. However, this book of memoirs by Ewa Kuryluk, a writer and painter who for many years has lived in Paris and New York, is about far more than just her private homeland, family place and closest relatives, or a paradise destroyed by “history let off its chain” (as a Polish essayist once defined the twentieth century). In this book the childhood idyll is permeated with an incomprehensible sense of threat. Gradually the private codes of the household members on Frascati Street become comprehensible to the reader (as they did in the past to the author). She tells the story of her own mother, Miriam Kohany, who adored the poetry of Trakl; she was a Polish-German Jew who escaped from the ghetto in Lwów and was saved by her future husband, the author’s father. Miriam only betrayed the secret of her origin to her daughter when she (Ewa) was forty years old. She never became free of fear, and was tormented throughout her life by recurring psychoses – it is Miriam who is the real heroine of this book. But there are others too: Ewa’s father, Karol Kuryluk, was an unusual man, a left-wing editor from Lwów and organiser of the 1936 anti-fascist Congress in Defence of Culture. He was an underground activist during the occupation, and after the war he was cultural attaché in Vienna, then minister of culture, but he soon fell into disfavour. Another leading character is Ewa’s brother, Piotr, a wunderkind blighted by schizophrenia who spent almost his entire adult life in hospitals and institutions for the mentally ill. The book also features friends, real ones and false ones, and a panorama of human fates, records of encounters with Polish anti-Semitism and Polish everyday life, in the past and nowadays, seen not just from the viewpoint of a flat on Frascati Street. We have a pilgrimage to modern-day Lwów – Lviv in Ukraine – in her parents’ footsteps, and to Israel in search of newly discovered relatives.
Kuryluk’s book is the record of recovered but traumatised memory, an unending labour of mourning for her deceased parents and brother, a chapter in the history of a new Herodotus; it has the dimension of a post-modern tragedy, the only history of humanity possible these days, viewed “from the inside” and from the perspective of the victims. This superbly literary book is a historical record and an excellent example of personal documentary literature. It arouses sympathy and alarm, and leads to understanding.
- Marek Zaleski
“Someone should write a post-war history from the inside. About the effects of shock and psychological polarisation,” Mama drawled slowly, as if guessing my thoughts, “about excessive empathy and total lack of empathy. Horror either sensitises one to evil, or leads to desensitisation. What does it depend on? A predisposition? A world outlook? Faith? Morality? Or the place where fate has washed us up?” She scratched her head.
“On all of them to some extent, Mama, but mainly on character.”
“Good character means little fear, lots of empathy and faith in oneself,” she stated with conviction.
“A rare combination.”
“Very rare! The war brings the worst characteristics out of rotten characters and the best ones out of good characters,” she claimed.
“It’s a fascinating subject, isn’t it, Mama?”
“I wanted to write about it, but I wasn’t up to it – it’s something for you,” she said, taking me by the hand.
“I don’t know much about the war.”
“You know a thing or two about the marks it leaves on the psyche,” she muttered knowingly. “Without too many details you’ll get to the heart of the matter more easily.”
“Frascati osculati,” she crooned after a longish pause, “hier ist meine zweite Heimat. Frascati is a tasty morsel,” she said, changing voice. “That terrible spring” – that’s what she called March 1968 – “they were lying in wait for our flat. They knew it had nothing but virtues. Three rooms in a pre-war tenement, quiet, with a balcony, the ideal layout, a residential area” – she counted on her fingers – “a grand piano, a secretaire, a music cabinet, a complete set of the periodical “Sygnał” in a pre-war binding. In the larder an assortment of jars of my own home-made preserves,” – she smacked her lips – “compote, mousse, jam and candied nuts. How much of it I cooked up after coming back from Vienna – do you remember? They wouldn’t give Karol a job, so I made some supplies. When he died they set Western diplomats on us working for the intelligence service. They tried persuading you to emigrate in every possible way.”
“No, Mama,” I muttered, “a few friends offered us help in case we left the country. They knew who Łapka was.”
“They knew!” she intoned ominously. “There’s the catch, meine Kleine,” she said, stroking my face as if I were a child, “they knew, but you didn’t. They knew because they had us wired from floor to ceiling,” – she raised her eyes – “they installed bugs in the phone, the radio and the television. They knew we were sitting there quiet as mice. They knew how to set a trap for a widow and her fatherless children” – she rolled her eyes. “They knew how to subject us to fear.”
“But Mama, no one did us…”
“Don’t play the fool!” she interrupted me. “You’re over fifty! They were rubbing their hands together with glee at the idea that we’d ask to emigrate voluntarily out of fear,” she stressed. “Over my dead body!” – she gnashed her teeth – “Voluntarily and for nothing! I gave myself a partisan’s word of honour” – she raised two fingers – “not for anything would we go whimpering for mercy like a kicked dog,” she whimpered. “If your mouths are watering at the thought of our Frascati, just break the door down with your rifle butts” – she shuddered. “Take away our documents” – she tossed a newspaper on the floor. “Take all our possessions” – she stroked the couch. “Confiscate our property!” – she waved the key to the bedside cupboard. “Los! Break your way in to a widow who’s not all there” – she tapped herself on the forehead. “Los! The Gestapo! Come in the night for meine Kleinen! Deport sick, underage children in cattle trucks with no water.”
“We weren’t underage, Mama.”
“Piotruś wasn’t eighteen yet,” she scolded me with her look. “He spent day and night on guard by the door to the stairwell, he and the dog, waiting for a father who was buried at Powążki, and gearing up to emigrate to the Moon. And why?” She looked at me. “Out of fear that he’d be stuck in a barbarian country with no one but a crazy mother and an asthmatic sister,” she answered herself. “Once a week an ambulance came and put you under an oxygen tent, or have you forgotten?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I knew you wouldn’t survive emigration” – she sighed. “I had to remain on Frascati Street” – she coughed. “How many thousands of people were frightened into emigrating?” She glanced at me.
“I don’t know exactly, Mama.”
“But they didn’t frighten us,” she boasted. “I made an oath that we wouldn’t give up Frascati voluntarily,” – she ran her gaze across the walls – “so I made up my mind.”
“To do what, Mama?”
“In March I played the madwoman to save Frascati.”
“You played…?” I stammered in shock.
“There was nothing else for it,” she muttered. “I worked out that they would never move a madwoman.”
“Was that why you used to scream?”
“I bawled the whole house down, so everyone would know” – she nodded. “I used to wind myself up to fall into a trance,” she added, “and I stopped taking the medicine prescribed by the junior professor.”
“Did you simulate the paranoia?”
“Mightily,” she replied. “I was terribly punished for it, I lured a beast out of myself. It was lurking inside me, and after two years one fine morning out it leaped. I very nearly committed murder” – she hid her face in her hands.
“So it was true?” “She was standing over me with a kitchen knife,” I heard my brother’s voice on the phone to Cambridge, “I had to call an ambulance” – he had made a great effort to be calm – “it took her off to the asylum”.
Mama nestled into a corner of the couch and closed her eyes. “That terrible spring” she didn’t wash, never took off her stinking dressing gown and never left the house. At night she would prowl about the flat with her ear to the wall, packing and unpacking suitcases, and tearing up letters and photographs. At dawn she would lie down on the sofa, and on waking she would plod into the kitchen. She’d drink water from the tap, fill a bucket and carry it into the room where the grand piano stood, with a string bag full of whatever she found in the larder: bread, preserves, onions, sugar cubes. She’d lock herself in and hide under the piano. “Los! The Gestapo!” she would scream until she lost her voice. Or, to our dog Zaza’s horror, she’d howl, whine and gnash her teeth. And what did I do? I cursed Mama, I reproached Łapka for not divorcing this mad old woman long ago, I almost choked coughing and planned my “final exit”.
“I dozed off for a moment, dear,” said Mama, wiping her eyes.
“I dreamed Karol and I were out for a walk to the Embankment.”
“What a nice dream.”
“Extraordinary,” she said and smiled at me charmingly. “I was whistling as loud as I could” – she started to whistle – “Frascati osculati”.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones