The Other Poland

May 3, 2010

It’s been some time since I posted here. My computer broke down and my time online was vastly limited. I’m slowly coming back, catching up, and thinking of new stuff.

I don’t know if people know, but I have several WordPress blogs. (Must be something with the cool WordPress themes. Whenever I can’t decide on one I begin another blog!) One of them is brand new, and it’s meant to be about the Old (First) Republic of Poland that existed up to the late 18th century.

While I’m likely to ramble around the eras, I don’t mean for it to be a blog about the 19th and 20th centuries misery, but rather an attempt to show where we, as a nation, are coming from.

There was a very long time when Poles self-governed via democratic measures, and when many of our present attitudes were created. Since our history considerably differs from that in other European countries, often our present attitudes are misconstrued when being seen via the prism of those elsewhere.

I mean to begin with general stuff, like the borders, laws, the political system etc, but, in the end, I hope to focus on the society, which should explain how we see ourselves today. I want to write about women too, and how their lives differed, about our literature and culture, and about the various historical events or the lack of them. Incidentally, I think that Poland’s history is pretty uneventful, but I want to show the reasons behind it.

The blog is partly inspired by new historiography, in Poland and abroad. The way we see history of various nations is a mixture of world histories, political ideologies, and myths. Many myths about Poland are being deconstructed now. For one, because history often serves as a kind of appeasement, justification, and inspiration. Poles needed another kind of history when they fought for their independence, and they need another one now when they’re free again and they need to self-govern rather than complain. Similarly, more and more Jewish scholars turn to the Early Modern period in Poland, because the borders are open and archives are available, and because they too want to have a richer history of their nation than the short story of the Zionist movement (a pretty marginal development when one looks at the whole).  Lithuanians, too, begin to change their mind about the period, with the May 3 Constitution being now officially celebrated in both countries. Tatars, the only ancient Muslim minority in the Christian Europe, publicise their history too.

Revisionism in the domain is not limited to Poland. There are Brits who take a Whiggish or non-Whiggish approach for example, but it’s a new thing for Poland, and in a way more fascinating, because, while in the West only people’s motives are revised, the entire shape of Europe is being changed here, as well as various nations’ role in it.

In other words, what happens nowadays is a very interesting development in the academic approach to Poland’s history, with a broader and more impartial view than what was done before. It’d be a shame to miss it!

Go to Res Publica to read more.


In answer to Pinolona in the thread My Friend Is Not My Przyjaciel I wrote so much about the differences between znajomy, kolega and przyjaciel, that it called for its own post rather than a reply in a comments’ thread. I’ve been trying to find a good analogy, because the words aren’t the same species. So let’s compare them to cloths.

Przyjaciel is like one’s shirt – “close to your body”. The word jaźń means ego, self, so przy-jaźń is “near your self”, and ciało is body, flesh, so przy-ja-ciel is “the body near your self”. In Polish it’s really safer to think of friendship as a love without the sexual aspect, because it encompasses all of its elements, with the exception of eros.

Kolega is like all of the cloths of the same kind. All shirts, skirts or all trousers, or sometimes an intermediate between them, i.e. if someone fancies that kilts are either like skirts or trousers. So it can be anyone with whom one’s on equal terms in some domain. It can be friendship – the equality of minds, but it can be school, work etc. When a parent says to his 14 years old daughter “zaproś kolegów” he means that she should invite her schoolmates – people in the same age. If an 18 year old boy shows up the father might say the boy is too old to be her kolega. However, at work age doesn’t matter, so one can say koledzy z pracy, or address them all as Koleżanki i koledzy meaning Ladies and Gentlemen in reference to the narrow group. Kolega po fachu is someone doing the same kind of job, no matter where. Every translator all over the world is Pinolona’s kolega po fachu even if she doesn’t know them.

Znajomi is like all cloths, no matter their kind. When one uses znajomi in plural it’s because one’s koleżanki and koledzy rarely are from the same group. I.e. one can go to the movies with three people: one from one’s school, one from work, and one – a private friend. The first would be kolega ze szkoły, the second koleżanka z pracy, and the third just koleżanka or even przyjaciółka, but they can’t be all grouped as trousers or skirts. And there’s always a chance that one of them brings someone new, and then one wouldn’t call him kolega at all. On the other hand one would say that one went there with koledzy ze szkoły. In this case one doesn’t even need to like them all. They just happen to go to the same school.

Znajomy is also anyone one barely knows. If a lady who sells obwarzanki tells me a story, and I repeat the story to someone else, I’ll say that znajoma sprzedawczyni told me…

Literally znajomy means “someone I know”.

All three have their verbs. One can poznać, zakolegować się or zaprzyjaźnić się with someone else. There’s also zaznajomić się that is rarely used in reference to people, although would be well understood. It usually means that one learns the content of something, a book for example. One can “zaznajomić się z tematem” meaning one knows what a topic is about, without necessarily going into any detailed knowledge. The English equivalent is familiarize. Poznać kogoś means to get to know someone, without stating the level of the knowledge. Zakolegować się means to create an equal relationship on a certain level. Zaprzyjażnić się means to become friends, and must include liking the other person, not just knowing him or her.

The word znajomy doesn’t hint on one’s closeness to the person at all. It can be one’s best friend as well as someone one met only once. One’s hairdresser is one’s znajoma, as well as one’s mother’s neighbour, and someone one has known for years and been close to, and one’s lover can be one’s znajomy too. The use of the word depends not only on one’s relationship with the person who is the subject of the conversation, but also on one’s relationship with the person one is talking to. It’s a defence against “kiss and tell”, or “too much information”, because if you’re speaking to someone you barely know you don’t really want to inform them that this guy is your lover, and that girl is your life enemy. You simply conceal the relationship and the emotional part of it, because it’s an umbrella word that can mean either your pants or your overcoat.

When talking to a stranger one uses the word znajomy most often, and defines the various relationships referred to more narrowly only when one wishes to or feels safe to do that. When someone asks you where did you get that great painting from, you say that your znajomy is a painter. Now, it’s Poland, so it means that znajomi znajomych do favours to each other, but one can refuse a znajomy, while one would never refuse a przyjaciel, so you say znajomy because you don’t want to hear in the next sentence “Super! Możesz mi taki załatwić?” (Great! Can you get me one?) If you said przyjaciel there’d be no return. Znajomy gives you the buffer, so you can come up with a white lie, and say you don’t know the painter that well, and it was given to you in return for some favour or on some special occasion etc. Or even you can suggest to ask the painter how much a painting like that would cost. Something you wouldn’t propose between two przyjaciele, because money in friendship is a taboo. However, even from your kolega the person you’re talking to would expect some discount. Otherwise one can go to a gallery and just buy one. And if they ever discover they didn’t receive a discount they’ll consider it your failure. So znajomy is safer for all purposes, especially with people who assume their own relationship with you is closer than you think it is.

Yet, if the person you’re speaking of is present you’ll use kolega, because you won’t pretend you don’t know them. That of course refers only to people with whom you’re on first name terms. Pan/Pani means a deference existing, no matter one’s age, genre, or common work. You’ll always call him znajomy, and you’ll always speak of him in his presence as Pan Tadeusz, Pan Kowalski etc. Note also that we use koleżanka instead of using the first name. I.e. when I’m talking to Pani Kowalska about my friend Małgosia who stands beside us, I’ll use koleżanka instead of Małgosia or I’ll add Pani before her name, because Pani Kowalska is not on first name basis with either of us. It doesn’t matter much when one’s very young, and so one’s addressed by their first name by everyone anyway, but it begins to matter with time, when one begins their professional career and doesn’t want to be addressed in a too familiar way anymore.

Then there are the stages of narrowing the meaning. Per rule Poles won’t narrow it if they can help it. So znajomy is safer than kolega, and kolega is safer than przyjaciel. However, there are situations when one has to narrow it like the one above. And most likely a good friend will always be called koleżanka in a conversation with another friend, although she might be dubbed znajoma in a conversation with a stranger.

The word przyjaciel is used when the conversation calls for giving your motivation. I.e. you say that you’re tired, but your znajomy throws a party and you have to go. Someone asks whether you can refuse, and you say no, he’s my przyjaciel. You might never call him that in other circumstances, and he may be even unaware that you consider him your przyjaciel, but in this case this one word is enough for all of the reasons why you can’t refuse. If he’s not your przyjaciel, but you have other reasons, you’d say that he’s your good kolega and he helped you in other circumstances, and you know that he really cares that you came, so you need to go. You don’t want to disappoint him. That takes much longer, but if he’s not your przyjaciel, you need to have other motivation in order to put yourself under the torture.

The narrowing stages are:

  • znajoma sprzedawczyni is a seller you know – you know her only as a seller, but not privately
  • znajoma ze sklepu is a seller with whom you’ve had some private chats, but you still know her mostly as a seller
  • znajoma, która pracuje w sklepie is someone you know privately and happens to work in a store – your relationship can be slight, or she can be your best friend, you keep the person you’re speaking with in the dark
  • koleżanka ze studiów is someone you know from your university, but you don’t say how well, and you can always call her znajoma ze studiów as well; koleżanka suggests that she’s at least your fellow student, while znajoma could be a secretary from the rector’s office
  • koleżanka alone is someone you know privately, and you hint that she’s closer than znajoma or koleżanka z… but still leave some details unsaid
  • so koleżanka, która pracuje w sklepie can help you find some great stuff but she doesn’t need to be your dobra koleżanka
  • bardzo dobra koleżanka is practically a friend for all purposes only that you don’t use the word przyjaciółka, and usually she’d be called just koleżanka anyway, but you can say it when you want to add your motivation and still avoid the word przyjaciółka
  • and przyjaciółka is the word used rarely, either to add motivation to your choices, to tell a story about your special relationship, or to let your best friend know that you consider her your best friend, but overusing it is like bragging, and your friend may not wish to be bragged about; it’s especially tricky when your friend is of the opposite gender and your repeating that he’s your przyjaciel to others can ruin his love life designs along with your friendship

A stranger who sees you with someone else will refer to her as your koleżanka, without assuming any closer relationship. If a stranger sees you with a man and speaks of him as Twój chłopak, it means he crosses the line, unless he saw the two of you kissing. Saying przyjaciel would be only one step less, but still too much.

However, people who are in a love relationship are usually open about it, so you could call your boyfriend mój chłopak even while talking to a stranger, and certainly you should do that while talking to people you know better. He might take offence if he ever learns you did not, assuming that you downplay the relationship.

Here Polish is short, because it lacks the English word partner in reference to people living together. While the words partner or partnerka can be used in this meaning, it might be confusing, because partner can mean a partner in business, dance or sex. It’s the same as in English, but I think that English is more accustomed to the use of the word in the meaning of concubinage than Polish is. People will often say narzeczony or narzeczona (fiancé or fiancée) no matter whether they’re engaged, or even mąż or żona (husband or wife) when they’re not married.

The first can be done in a humorous way while talking to friends even when the two people don’t live together, but the latter is used only while talking to strangers. Similarly to the case with znajomy it’s a simple way to define one’s relationship without going into details. I.e. a man can say that his wife will be home to deal with everything in his name, meaning she has all of the permissions needed, without explaining whether they’re legally married or not and why. When you rent a room for a weekend in mountains and the hostess asks if the man is your husband it’s not to make sure you two are one flesh in the eyes of God, only to ask you whether she should put you in a double bed without enquiring whether you’re actually shagging the man.

The narrower words are used more often when someone wants to scorn you. “Ale z Ciebie przyjaciółka!” means that someone considers you have no right to refuse. “Ale z Ciebie koleżanka!” means that someone thinks you haven’t played fair. “To mają być przyjaciele!?” means that a third party thinks that you invested in those people much more than they deserve. “Koledzy!” said with derision, means that they’re mean pigs who tell on you to your boss.

Generally Poles aren’t very eager to familiarize too quickly, because once they do there’s no return. It’s just safer to take the longer path. One can always become one’s przyjaciel later, but one cannot revert to being his znajomy without becoming his enemy. Similarly, while talking to someone else they don’t open all of their cards at once. They wait and see how much they want to tell.

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Last summer my American friend visited me in Poland. Eight months later I learnt that there occurred a misunderstanding between us that quite spoilt both her fun and her trust in me.

We sat in a small restaurant in Białowieża when I translated from Polish my short conversation with a waitress:

– What will you have?

– Pancakes for me and a salad for my colleague.

ingres_d_henrietteharveyandelizabetMy friend asked why I didn’t call her “my friend”, to which I began explaining the difference between przyjaciółka and koleżanka in the Polish language, and as it appeared just now I quite failed in it.

Thankfully I found this post at Polish Blog that quite proved my innocence, but I could lose a friend over a language incompatibility.

Poles almost never use the words przyjaciel or przyjaciółka, but all dictionaries translate them as friend – a word used in English so liberally it almost means nothing.

There are only three people I’d call my przyjaciele in an intuitive way: a girl whom I’ve known from sandbox (longer than my conscious memory ranges in fact), a classmate from my primary school and a girl who’s a year older but also from my primary school. All three are closer to me than 99% of the people I’m related to.

There was one more person but he got scratched from the list some ten years ago.

Then there are the people I met in lyceum out of whom two might be called my przyjaciele at one point, but one got scratched from the list some ten years ago as well. So the overall list consists in 4 names.

When in my 20s I met another boy who might be called my friend, but since I’ll never have an opportunity to go with him through so much as with the others I apply the word much more carefully.

And then there is my American friend with whom I’m very close, and we’ve been talking on IM daily for several years now, and yet I called her koleżanka.

In truth, due to our frequent communication, for several years I’ve been closer with my American friend than the remaining five Poles, but a Pole needs several years to even apply the word przyjaciel. When I go to cinema with my przyjaciółka and her boyfriend, I’ll say that I went there with znajomi (acquaintances) even though I’ve known her boyfriend for years and I like him a lot. We just don’t use the word so easily.

Moreover, people don’t usually say that someone is their przyjaciel while talking to strangers, so even if I sat in the Białowieża restaurant with my childhood przyjaciele I’d still use the word koledzy. Przyjaźń is an intimate relationship, even though platonic, so boasting of it to strangers is like boasting of sex.

There are also other aspects. For a man to call a girl his przyjaciółka implies that there’s more than just friendship between them, and although he can do that to emphasise the existance of a deep friendship, most likely he’d have to add tylko przyjaciólka – nothing more than a friend, or people would assume there’s a sexual relationship as well. Some men call their female friends by the masculine przyjaciel in order to avoid the confusion.

My American friend took it to heart, as apparently it’s offensive not to be called a friend by someone who’s close to you. I made an impression of a person who wants to keep her at a distance. At the same time, the majority of Poles will thank you for not calling them your przyjaciele. It just comes with such a huge responsibility people don’t want the burden apart from very few exceptions. It’s more than a loan, it’s like usury. You get a lot of dough, but you may be sure you’ll never be able to pay back.

Why then dictionaries translate such a loaded word into English as something used so commonly as “friend”? If I didn’t learn the word as such back in my teen years I’d never make the blunder. It should be said that the word doesn’t have an English equivalent, while friend should be translated as kolega/koleżanka which it really is. In English one can’t call too many people one’s friends, in Polish one can’t call przyjaciel too few of them.

And don’t even get Poles started on the word ‘love’!

From BBC News

The mystery of Ireland’s worst driver

Details of how police in the Irish Republic finally caught up with the country’s most reckless driver have emerged, the Irish Times reports.

He had been wanted from counties Cork to Cavan after racking up scores of speeding tickets and parking fines.

However, each time the serial offender was stopped he managed to evade justice by giving a different address.

But then his cover was blown.

It was discovered that the man every member of the Irish police’s rank and file had been looking for – a Mr Prawo Jazdy – wasn’t exactly the sort of prized villain whose apprehension leads to an officer winning an award.

In fact he wasn’t even human.

Prawo Jazdy is actually the Polish for driving licence and not the first and surname on the licence,” read a letter from June 2007 from an officer working within the Garda’s traffic division.

“Having noticed this, I decided to check and see how many times officers have made this mistake.

“It is quite embarrassing to see that the system has created Prawo Jazdy as a person with over 50 identities.”

The officer added that the “mistake” needed to be rectified immediately and asked that a memo be circulated throughout the force.

In a bid to avoid similar mistakes being made in future relevant guidelines were also amended.

And if nothing else is learnt from this driving-related debacle, Irish police officers should now know at least two words of Polish.

As for the seemingly elusive Mr Prawo Jazdy, he has presumably become a cult hero among Ireland’s second largest immigrant population.

I bet he has! Knowing Poles, it’s very likely they have actually told the policemen that it’s their very name. Perhaps the 51st just wasn’t able to do it with straight face.

The Irish police might want to learn a thing or two about the Polish grammar. Female first names always end with an ‘a’. That’s the law! Male first names tend to end with a consonant.

Words ending with an ‘o’ indicate the neutral gender, so it’s neither he nor she, only it. Dziecko – baby, mleko – milk, miasto – city, ciasto – cake, prawo – law.

The one exception worth bothering with is Mieszko, however, the majority of guys boasting of this name look something like this.

Make sure he doesn’t carry a sword behind the passenger’s seat.

Permis de Conduire printed at the top of the licence isn’t a name either, even if some fancied it’s an Earl Permis of Conduire.

The Irish police might also want to check how many times an individual named Dowód Osobisty (Personal ID) caused them all kinds of troubles.

Rzeczpospolita Polska is not a woman, even though some claim to the contrary.


Caution: Gregorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz could be a real name, but there exists a great danger that its owner is charged with all possible diversions, including the direct outburst of WWII. Make sure he’s not similar to this man.

This is a loose and shortened translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s drama Forefathers’ Eve, Part II.

According to George Sand and George Brandes Forefathers’ Eve was the greatest realisation of the Romantic drama theory, among such works as Faust by Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Manfred by George Gordon Byron

The original is written in the elegant thirteen syllables rhyme used by Polish romanticists. I didn’t even attempt imitating it, the translation reflects only on the content. Similarly, I didn’t use the play writing manner of marking who speaks before each sentence. I transformed it into prose instead. It is far from perfect, but to my knowledge no other English translation is available.

Forefathers’ Eve, Dziady in Polish, is a feast performed on the eve of All Saints’. Its equivalent in the Western world is Halloween that is stripped of its original spiritual dimension. Since Poland has always been a multireligious country some pagan traditions were never suppressed, merging with Christianity instead. Forefathers’ Eve was especially popular in the eastern parts of the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth. Today this region is in Belarus, where the tradition is still alive. The people who perform the rites in Mickiewicz’s rendition are Greek-Catholics.

Parts I, II, and IV were influenced by Byron, and are perhaps the most similar to the Gothic style in English literature within the Polish romantic writing.

At the end I added annotations mixed with elements of Mickiewicz’s biography, his views, some people from his acquaintance, and his feminist attitude.


Forefathers’ Eve

Part II


Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

The shaman entered the chapel, ordering its doors locked. Hurrying people to quench the candles, shut the windows deaf, cutting out the white beam of the moonlight.

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

The people gathered around a coffin, and the shaman started his rites:

“The souls of Purgatory! In any side of the world: whether you are burning in tar, freezing at the bottom of a brook, or for a severer punishment you are implanted into austere wood, while being bit by embers of a stove you cry mournfully and moan. Each of you hurry to join our herd! Let the herd meet. We are having Forefathers’ Eve!

“Descend into the holy place; where the alms, prayers, food and beverages await.”

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“Give me a fist of the distaff; I fire it, and you, as soon as the small flame shoots up, drive it with your light breaths. Like this. Like this. Go on. Go on. Let it burn in the air.”

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“First you, with light souls, who at this vale of darkness, storms, misery, pain and crying, shone and burnt just as the fist of distaff. Those of you, who in the windy maze did not fly to heavenly gates, we call with lit gesture, exhort.”

Tell us what is it that you miss. What you want. What you need.

“Look, ah, look up. What is it shining there under the vault? Here two children flutter with their golden feathers. Just as a leaf with a leaf in waft, they spin under the church’s crypt. As a dove with a dove on a tree, just a cherub’s game with his kin.”

One of the angels turned to a peasant woman standing in the crowd.

“To mama, we fly to mama. Why, mom, you do not recognise Joe? It is me, Joe, and my sister Rose. We are now flying in Eden. There is better there than at home. Look, our heads in golden glow, dresses out of the beams of dawn, and butterflies’ wings adorn our shoulders. Everyday we have another toy, wherever we stand grass grow, and wherever we touch a flower blossoms, but though we have everything aplenty, we are bothered by boredom and fears. Mom, the way to Heaven is closed to your dears.”

“What do you need, little soul, to get to heaven’s door? Do you ask for God’s glory? Or perhaps a sweet reward? There are donuts, cake, milk, berries. Whatever is it that you want?”

“Nothing, there is nothing we need. We are unhappy with the earthly sweets. All my life I knew no grief. Caresses, bounties, plays. To sing, jump, run in the fields. All my work was to gather flowers for Rose, and hers to dress her dolls. We came for Forefathers’ Eve. Not for prayers. Not for feast. We ask for two grains of gall, and the deed so small will be enough for all. Listen, and heed the advice, for Godly command says one who never knew bitterness will not know Heavenly happiness.”

“Angel, little soul! What you wanted you have got. And now go away with God. You do not need victuals or drinks. Leave us in peace. Begone, begone!

“The terrible night is coming. Close the door and padlock it. Hold aloft the torches. Place the kettle filled with vodka in the middle of the room and on the signal of my walking stick, let the vodka catch fire.”

It burst, boiled, and went out.

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“Now, you, the heaviest souls, chained to this vale of crime together with body and soul. Although the angel of death is calling you, your life cannot tear away from your bodily agony. If such a severe punishment can be eased by people a bit, and save you from the infernal hollow, to which you are so close, come. We call you, we exhort. Come through your element. Through the bonfire!”

Tell us what it is that you miss. What you want. What you need.

Behind the window a voice was heard, “Hey, ravens, owls, eagles! You cursed gluttons! Let me go to the chapel. Let me take at least two steps.”

“What a ghost, what a monster! Can you see the phantom? Pale like an old bone. Smoke and lighting in his mouth. His eyes shine like coals in ashes.”

From behind of the window the voice called again, “Children! Do you not know me? Look at me closely! I am your master. It was my village. Today, hardly the third year is gone since you put me in my tomb. Ah, too heavy is God’s hand! I am in the powers of bad ghosts. I suffer terribly. I am the subject of eternal hungers. And who will feed me? The greedy birds yank my body. There is no end to my tortures!”

“What is needed for you, miserable soul, to spare you this sore fate? Do you ask for Heaven’s glory or the Holy Matrimony? We have food and drink. Pray, what do you need to get to Heaven’s gates?”

“Heaven? Your profanities are absurd. No! I do not want to Heaven. I only want my soul to leave my body. Hell is better than continuous wandering with impure ghosts upon the earth, watching the marks of old joys, memories of old life. From sunrise to sunset and from sunset to sunrise, agonising from hunger and thirst, and feeding the greedy birds.

“Unfortunately my sentence says that till one of you, my serfs, feeds or waters my ragged body, I must carry my condemned soul in it. Please, just one drop of water or two seeds of wheat.”

The night birds interrupted, “In vain he cries and begs. Here, we, owls, ravens and eagles, once your servants, starved to death, will eat the food, will drink the water. Even if you hold it in your teeth we will use our claws to rip. You knew no mercy, master. Today we know no mercy. When we eat all your food we will get to you.”

The raven proceeded, “You do not like starving! Do you remember how one Autumn I came into your garden? The pears were ripe, the apples red. Three days I had no food in my mouth. I took several fruits, but your gardener made havoc and chased me with dogs as if I were a wolf. You made a case. And about what? The fruits that God gave to people free like water and fire? But you wanted to hold a performance. Called people to come and watch. Each of my bones was beaten severely! You knew no mercy, master!”

The owl added, “You do not like starving! Do you remember how during the severest winter I stood with my child at your gates. ‘Master!’ I called out in tears, ‘have mercy on orphans. My husband long dead. Give us allowance!’ You told your servant to drive us away. He pushed me with child to snow. Beaten and cold I could find no shelter, I froze with my child along the road. You knew no mercy, master!”

The birds joined, “Hey, owls, ravens, eagles, let us know no mercy as well! Let us rip the food. And when the food ends, let us rip the body to tatters. Let the bare bones show!”

“There is no help for me,” the phantom said. “You offer the dishes for nothing. Not for me the Forefathers’ Eve. I have to suffer for centuries. Justified God’s sentence is. Who was not a human even once, cannot be helped by humans.”

“Since there is nothing we can do for you, go away, you wretch. You do not take victuals or drink. Leave us in peace. Begone, begone!”

The phantom disappeared, and the shaman held out his stick, “Give me, friends, this wreath on the end of my stick. I fire the blest herbs. Up smoke. Up gleams!”

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“Now you, the middle ghosts, who at this vale of darkness and storms lived with people together, but free from human flaws. You lived not for us. Not for the world. Just as these savouries and mallows, no fruit from them – not a flower. Weaved into fragrant garlands, they are hanging high on the wall. This high, ladies, you held your eye and bosom. Thee, who till now, with her wing pure, did not pass the Heavenly doorway. With this light and incense, we call you. We exhort.”

Tell us what it is that you miss. What you want. What you need.

“What is it? The icon of Madonna? The angelic form? Just like a gleaming rainbow runs through clouds to a lake’s waters, such is she glowing in the chapel’s space. Her white robe encircles her legs, whips of hair with which breezes toy, bilberries glitter in her smile, but there is a tear of calamity in her eye.

“Flowery wreath on her head, a little twig in her hand, a lamb runs before her, a butterfly flies over her. She calls the lamb endlessly, chases the butterfly with the twig, but they evade her.”

The girl said, “I used to, in the mornings of Spring, wander through forests endlessly. Immersed in my songs and musings, I would not give a thought to the living. Once a boy, for a pair of doves, wanted to kiss my mouth. A gentleman offered me his hand and heart, but I only laughed. Yes, I was a carnal loveliness, but even at my age of twenty years I refused matrimony. I died not knowing the earthly bliss.

“I lived in the world, but not for the world! My thoughts too winged and never touched the common grounds. Chasing the breeze, flowery leaves, never a lover. I enjoyed listening to the men’s words of praise, but I loved none of them.

“Now, after my death, I do not comprehend what is happening to me. I am glowing with strange fire. Though I amuse myself at my will. I fly where the breeze takes me. Nothing saddens me. Nothing pains me. Where does the boredom come from?

“I am longing for someone at every rustle. Ah, and I am always alone! I am sorry, but the wind is endlessly lifting me like a feather, wafting me. I do not know whether I am from this or that world. Wherever I go the wind is always blowing me away. And so, amongst the timid wave, flying the eternal road, either rise up to the heaven or touch the land I cannot.

“What do you need, pretty soul, to get to Heaven’s door? Do you ask for God’s glory? Or perhaps a sweet reward? There are donuts, cake, milk, berries. Whatever is it that you want?”

“Nothing, there is nothing I need. Let the boys come to me. Let them catch my hands. Let them pull me to the ground. Let me frolic with them. Because listen and heed the advice, according to Godly command those who did not touch the ground even once can never go to Heaven.”

The shaman saw the men running to her, “You run in vain. Those are only mere shadows. In vain she offers her hands. The wind carries her away.

“Now I call all the souls together with my last command! For you is the tiny meal. I throw fists of poppy and lentils into every corner of the chapel. Take what you want. What you miss. What you need.

“It is time to open the chapel’s door. Light the candles. Midnight is gone. The rooster crows. The sacrifice is at its end, and the girl needs to go away.

“Stop! One more ghost!”

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“Look, the floor is falling, the pale wraith arises. He takes steps to the shepherdess, stands at her side. He turns his pale countenance to her, wild and saddened, drowned completely in her eyes. Look, ah, look at his heart! He pointed out his heart to the girl, but did not speak a word.

“What do you need, young soul, to get to Heaven’s door? Do you ask for Heaven’s glory, or the Holy Matrimony? There are donuts, cake, milk, berries. Whatever is it that you want?”

The wraith was silent.

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“Answer me, you pale wraith. Why, he is silent?

“Since you detest the mass and pierogi, go with God. You did not want meal or drink. Let us be. Begone, begone!

“Goodness! What a wraith. He does not go away, he does not speak!

“You soul, damned or blest. Leave the holy rites! Here is the open floor. Take your return road, or I will curse you in the name of God.”

The shaman paused, “Go away. Cross forests. Cross rivers. Begone for ages!”

The wraith did not move.

“Goodness, what is it? He is silent and does not disappear! In vain I ask, in vain I curse. He is not afraid of my words. Give me the sprinkler from the altar… No difference! The tormented soul stays, speechlessly dumb. Immovable, like a stone out of a tomb.”

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?

“This is beyond human understanding! Shepherdess, do you know this person? There is something horrid in it. Who are you mourning? Your husband and kids are well. Why, you do not say a word?! Why are you smiling? Why? What is so joyful about him?

“Give me the stole and the blessed candle. I will light it, I will consecrate… It is no use…

“Take the shepherdess out of the chapel.

“Why are you smiling, why? What is so charming about him?

“Goodness, the wraith follows her. Where we take her he is there.”

Darkness around. Dullness around. What will be now? What will be now?


Some notes:

Forefathers’ Eve is a strongly political drama, and was censured both by the 19th century Russian tsarist government and the communist authorities. An attempt to stage it in 1968 ended with social tumults, expelling of students and professors from universities, arrests of nearly three thousand people, and a purge of Jewish members from the communist party.

The drama, never finished, comprises of four parts usually read in the chronological order rather than the numeral. The second part goes first, followed by fourth, first and third. Each of them centres on another aspect of Mickiewicz’s worldview.

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)

The Part Two above expresses Mickiewicz’s philosophy of life, based mainly on folk morality and his own thoughts about love and death. The three ghosts summoned to the feast symbolize major moral virtues necessary for salvation.

The angelic children cannot enter heaven because they have never suffered. Since suffering was an inevitable effect of the occupation of Poland it became an important part of Polish romanticism. Till today martyrology is a significant aspect of Polish national identity.

The cruel master, who used to own the village and the serfs, cannot enter hell because he has never shown humanity. In 1791 the government of Poland proclaimed the May 3 Constitution abolishing serfdom. Poland’s neighbours – Austria, Prussia and Russia – used it as a pretext to further partitions of the country, and as soon as they annexed the lands they reverted the law, bringing serfs back under the power of the nobles. The move was supported by those who weren’t happy with the Constitution that expressed the views of the majority of nobles, but not all of them. Mickiewicz addressed his scorn to both the occupants and the cruel Polish lords.

The girl cannot enter heaven because she has never experienced earthly love.

Maryla (Marianna) Wereszczakówna

Maryla (Marianna) Wereszczakówna

Mickiewicz was a great poet and thinker, but a weak man. He summed up his own life along these lines:

My tears poured, copious, pure
Onto my childhood, blissful, angelic
Onto my youth, haughty and foolish
My age of mature, age of failure
My tears poured, copious, pure

He had an endless number of lovers, both married and maids, but for the most part he didn’t seem to have reached the emotional maturity necessary to enter marriage. The one woman whom he loved, and who became his early muse, Maryla Wereszczakówna, was already engaged when they met. She wasn’t thought to be a beauty, but she was intelligent and very well educated. The feeling was mutual, and they had an affair soon after her marriage. Yet, Mickiewicz was arrested for his political activity, and exiled to Russia proper. He’d never see Maryla again, nor return to his family site.

Years later, when he finally married, he seemed to have made the worst choice possible. It’s often said about female writers that marriage would end their writing career, in this case, the marriage put an end to his.

Celina nee Szymanowska, emotionally unstable, became mentally ill four years after their marriage. Neither their living conditions (a tiny three room Paris apartment), nor his lukewarm affection for her, seemed to promote happiness early in the union. His wife treated him with derision. She was one of two persons in whom he ever confined and presumably she used his own confidences against him in their domestic quarrels. She spoke to him only to bite. At one point, after six weeks of a continuous nightmare, he was driven to a point when he wanted to hit her. The realisation scared him. He hid in the cook’s room. When Celina found him there he was ready to attempt a suicide.

He brought her to a hospital, and the situation would repeat in the future. Their living conditions would get even worse. In winter, in a cold apartment, with his wife away and even their servant becoming ill from the freezing temperature, Mickiewicz would be left to nurse his kids on his own.

Yet his treatment of her was not better. He was kind. He’d fulfil her various requests or buy her presents, but he wouldn’t befriend her. That place would be eventually taken by Xawera Deybel, a governess to their children, who’d become Mickiewicz’s muse, friend, and sexual partner for years. Unlike Celina she wasn’t pretty, she’s said to be extremely short and perhaps even crooked, but to Mickiewicz she was an endless inspiration.

Both Celina and Mickiewicz would do better if they never married. She was not the strong, energetic, purposed woman with whom he could have been happy. If she were, perhaps she’d divorce him, sparing them both the continuous misery. Celina’s mother divorced her father and began her European career. But maybe that was Celina’s problem, she grew up in the great world, but she was unlike her mother.

No matter how much Mickiewicz failed in his personal life he was a feminist. Women in his works take prominent roles. They’re strong, brave, heroic, intelligent and just.

In 1848 in Rome Margaret Fuller wrote:

The Poles have also made noble manifestations. Their great poet Adam Mickiewicz has been here to enroll the Italian Poles publish the declaration of faith in which they hope to re-enter and re-establish their country and receive the Pope’s benediction on their banner. In their declaration of faith are found these three articles:

  1. Every one of the nation a citizen, every citizen equal in rights and before authorities.
  2. To the Jew, our elder brother, respect, brotherhood, aid on the way to his eternal and terrestrial good, entire equality in political and civil rights.
  3. To the companion of life, woman, citizenship, entire equality of rights.

This last expression of just thought the Poles ought to initiate, for what other nation has had such truly heroic women? Women indeed, – not children, servants, or playthings.¹

However, Mickiewicz’s view on women went further than universal suffrage. In his opinion women should exercise their sexuality in the same way men did.

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller

Margaret Fuller, an American feminist, was of an opposite opinion when they met in Paris in the 1840s. She viewed her virginity as a necessary condition to keep her independence. Nonetheless, she and Mickiewicz agreed on many other points, and by the time she left France he promised to correspond with her.

Mickiewicz found in Fuller a “true person”, the only “woman to whom it has been given to touch what is decisive in the present world and to have a presentiment of the world of the future.” But that meant to him that she needed still more rooting in the physical present. In his first letter to her he wrote:

For you the first step of your deliverance… is to know whether you are permitted to remain a virgin.²

When she wrote to Mickiewicz about having met Ossoli he urged her to deepen the relationship.

Prolong your good moments. Do not leave those who would like to remain near you. This is in reference to the little Italian you met in the Church.


Try to bring away from Italy what you will be able to take of it in joy and in health. There is nothing else to take!¹

Ossoli proposed to Fuller early in their acquaintance, but she refused, judging them very unfit. He was ten years younger, and from an aristocratic family. She fled. But Mickiewicz wrote again, telling her she must not limit her life to books and dreams:

You have pleaded the freedom of women in a masculine and frank style. Live and act as you write. … I have seen you, with all your knowledge, and all your imagination, and all your literary reputation, living in a bondage harder than that of a servant. … The relations that are right for you are those which develop and free your spirit while answering the legitimate needs of your body. You are the only judge of those needs.

Mickiewicz argued that if she was to become a woman of the new epoque she must part from her American friends and seek freedom.

A few months later Fuller returned to Ossoli, to soon become his lover. She was happy, she felt freed, but she became pregnant. Her anxiety diminished when she assured herself that Ossoli would remain by her side, but she was conflicted, unable to agree her own views and condition with the restraints of the society.

I’m not sure whether Mickiewicz could fully understand her position. To him it was simpler, but so it was to the women he knew. The situation would cause some gossip within the Polish society, but the woman would retain full respect, she would not become an outcast, she would keep her literary reputation, and her chances on the marriage market would not be threatened. After all Mickiewicz had many affairs with both virgins and married women from the Polish nobility. Chopin lived with George Sand in a free relationship for many years, both attended Mickiewicz’s lectures in College de France regularly. Mickiewicz lived in a threesome for a good part of his marriage, and Xawera Deybel, originally hired by Celina as a governess to their children, became an important persona in the Polish literary circles. She accompanied Mickiewicz everywhere, they had a daughter, and yet she still married afterwards. Maria Szymanowska, a divorcee, Mickiewicz’s mother-in-law, was known to not have a nun’s disposition. Maria Walewska was regarded as a heroine for agreeing to enter into an adulterous affair with Napoleon. Countess Delfina Potocka divorced her husband with whom she had two daughters, and became a friend, muse and lover to Polish romantics. Chopin dedicated his Minute Waltz to her. Her love affair with Krasiński lasted even after he had married Countess Eliza Branicka, and they still remained friends afterwards. Antoni Malczewski (a friend of Byron’s to whom he told the story of Mazeppa) engaged in an ill-fated affair with Zofia Rucińska, the wife of his friend. Countess Ewelina Hańska, who first wrote to Honoré de Balzac accusing him of uncomplimentary portrayal of women, kept her correspondence with him for nearly 10 years until her husband died and they finally met. They went on several voyages together during which she gave birth to a still born child. Afterwards he came to Ukraine to meet her family and marry. Count Aleksander Fredro fought for 10 years for the divorce of his beloved so that he could marry her. Out of female writers Narcyza Żmichowska, considered the first Polish feminist, was gay and never married. She was published even though she was fired from her governess position after the parents of her charge accused her of an affair with their daughter. She was active in the Polish conspiracy and became jailed for some time. Afterwards she went to study at Sorbonne. She argued against the notion of her American colleagues that men use their power over women, but then indeed, Polish men did not. Maria Wirtemberska or actually Maria Anna nee Czartoryska Duches von Württemberg-Montbéliard divorced her husband over politics after he had supported the enemies of Poland.

In England some affairs would happen only within the aristocracy, the USA had no aristocracy, but Poland had no middle class. Everyone was a noble within the Polish society, everyone was welcome in the highest spheres, even the impoverished Mickiewicz and Chopin. Sex was fair game. The only famous virgin of those times was Countess Emilia Plater who died at the age of 25 after having organised her own regiment and joining the Polish army against Russia in the November Insurrection, 1830. She was one of many women who fought for Poland since the late 18th century, but she was the first one promoted to the rank of Captain and given a commanding position in the army.

Emilia Plater and her scythemen (click to enlarge)

Emilia Plater and her scythemen (click to enlarge)

For Fuller, with her American background and conservative social links, things weren’t that simple. It’d take a few more years before she and Ossoli would decide to live openly together. During her pregnancy she was scared and depressed.

For several weeks in February and March, Adam Mickiewicz was a comfort to her. He came to Rome to raise a Legion of Polish exiles to join the Italians in their fight for national sovereignty. For him and his idealistic colleagues, Italy’s liberation was only the first step in a world revolution to liberate all oppressed people and inaugurate a new era of human freedom. Mickiewicz took rooms on the Via del Pozzetto, only a few blocks from Fuller’s apartment. He encouraged her to view her condition as a cause for rejoicing instead of guilt and morbid musing. Her depression, he told her, was no more than a fear of the future; a woman who had written so compellingly about the better world ahead should not suffer from melancholia. Pointing out that it was “very natural, very common” to be pregnant, he accused her of carrying on in an “extravagant manner”. Once she regained her morale, her physical sufferings would diminish.¹

Mickiewicz wasn’t a libertine, he never seduced a woman, he avoided lies. Before proposing to Celina he gave her a detailed confession of all of his weaknesses and dealings with women. But he fully believed that woman’s freedom must equal that of man’s in everything, including the sexual sphere, over 100 years before the sexual revolution in the USA. His writings, the most important and the most widely read in Poland, shaped both the Polish national feeling and the self image of Polish women.

The fourth ghost differs from the previous three. He came uninvited, breaking social rules. The people gather to help some ghosts of their former neighbours and family members. They decide who is invited, and offer them food and other ailments that could help their situation. The kind of responsibility for one’s ancestors is still very strong in Polish culture, just as the tradition of mourning is, not whiny, but quiet and full of reflection. The ghost, however, is unsocial. He comes uninvited, refuses to speak, and he doesn’t want anything from them. He refuses to leave either.

This is beyond human understanding!… There is something horrid in it.

Those sentences reflect people’s fear at someone’s daring to break the old established rules of the society.The shaman was about to tell the History of Forefathers, but the entrance of the fourth ghost puts an end to the mysterium and begins a drama.

This is a romantic hero, a Werther-like character. He rejects the society, and the society doesn’t understand him. He suggests to have felt an adulterous love to the shepardness, and he dared to have taken his own life.

From an additional poem, linking parts II and IV we learn that indeed that was the case. Mickiewicz offered a continuation of Werther’s story. The man is punished for suicide, and that means that every year he must return to the living for a month’s time, see the woman again, without the possibility of speaking to her or touching her, and then again he must leave her. The agony that led to his death will repeat over and over.

He resembles Gustaw, the main hero of Part IV.

When Mickiewicz made the acquaintance of Goethe this part was already written. I wonder whether they spoke about it.

Mickiewicz and Goethe shared their admiration for one woman, although certainly with a different feeling. Goethe was rumoured to have fallen deeply in love with Maria Szymanowska, the great European piano virtuoso and a pre-romantic music composer, who became Mickiewicz’s mother in law.

Maria Szymanowska, piano virtuoso and a pre-romantic composer

Maria Szymanowska, piano virtuoso and music composer

Wikipedia gives a short summary of the remaining parts of the drama:

Part IV is believed to be Mickiewicz‘s manifesto of his romantic philosophy of life, and also a story about his love to Maryla Wereszczakówna. The main reason for associating the bard’s and his hero’s biography is the resemblance in what Gustaw (the protagonist of the drama) says about his tragic youth. He met a fine girl, with whom he fell in love. Unfortunately, she married a rich duke and, subsequently, Gustaw committed a suicide. A similar situation took place in the poet’s life, but he managed to forgive his lover. When he was depressed, he wrote the fourth part of Forefathers’ Eve, one of the most beautiful Polish poems about love, and also a fascinating example of the romantic poetry. The action of the drama is divided into three episodes – the hour of love, the hour of despair and the hour of admonition. The book shows dangers of people’s romantic nature and reading sentimental masterpieces, which do not show the real world. On the other hand, Gustaw is presented as an owner of the metaphysical knowledge. It is him, not his teacher, who eventually notions to the philosophy of Enlightenment and visualises the true picture of the world, which is the reality conducted by paranormal laws.

Part I, published after Mickiewicz‘s emigration to France, was probably written in the early 1820s, although never finished. Meant to be a picture of “emotion of the 19th century people”, it was immediately given up by the author. It shows a young couple, feeling confused and trying to choose between the sentimental idea of love, adjustment to the society and respect to own nature.

Part III is thought to be the most significant one, or even one of the finest poems in the Polish literature. The main character bears a resemblance to Gustaw from part IV, but he is no longer a ‘romantic lover’. The drama was written after the fall of the November Insurrection, an event that strongly influenced the author. In the Prologue the protagonist of the drama writes on the wall “Gustavus obiit – hic hatus est Conradus” Today Gustaw died, today Conrad is born. Conrad is the name from Mickiewicz‘s earlier novel, Conrad Wallenrod. Wallenrod sacrificed his life and happiness for his own country’s sake. Gustaw transforms from a woman’s lover into his country’s lover.

Mickiewicz dedicated his work to people fighting for the freedom of Poland in the 1830s insurrection and especially to those who were exiled to Siberia by the Russian emperor. The book describes the cruelty of tsar Alexander, and persecutions of Poles. It has many mysterious episodes and, among historical characters, the reader can find ghosts, angels and also the devil. Poland, according to Mickiewicz‘s vision, was meant to become “Christ of Europe” and the national suffering was to result in releasing all of the persecuted people and nationalities, as Christ’s death has brought salvation.

The characters of the drama are chiefly prisoners, accused of conspiracy against the Russian conqueror. The self-named protagonist, Conrad, is a poet. In his vision, commonly known as “Wielka Improwizacja” – Great Improvisation – he talks to God about his patriotic feelings and the intention of becoming a leader of the nation. His love and suffering make him a symbol of the Polish soul. Nevertheless, in God’s opinion he is too proud to free his country. Another character, a priest called Piotr, also has a vision. When he happens to foretell the country’s future, he says one of the most mysterious words of the whole drama. Describing a person who will bring back the freedom of Poland, he says: “The Son of a foreign mother, in his blood old heroes And his name will be forty and four”.

The mysterious numerical name of the hero is easily deciphered with the Hebrew alphabet.

Adam = דמ, where ד Daled = 4, and מ Mem = 40.

(Mickiewicz’s wife, Celina, came from a Frankist family. Frankists were a Christianized Jewish sect. In the 18th century thousands of Frankists were brought to nobility.)

Adam Mickiewicz did not bring Poland’s freedom via his direct actions, but thanks to his writings Poles remained Poles for over 100 years of occupation, and forced russification and germanization. Thanks to him they didn’t forget what it means to be Polish.

Further Wikipedia writes:

The whole drama brings back the hope of Polish independence and gives a great picture of Polish society in so difficult a moment.

Our nation is like lava. On the top it is hard and hideous, but its internal fire cannot be extinguished even in one hundred years of coldness. So let’s spit on the crust and go down, to the profundity!

Great Improvisation and Prisoner’s Return from Part III in professional English translation.

¹ Minerva and the Muse: A Life of Margaret Fuller by Joan Von Mehren

² The Woman And The Myth: Margaret Fuller’s Life and Writings by Bell Gale Chevigny

Krzysztof Rutkowski about Xawera Deybel (in Polish)

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