22 III 1917, Kiev — I 1944, KL Plaszow (Kraków)

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Biography

Zuzanna Ginczanka was a poet who chose to write in Polish. She made her début at the age of 14 and immediately became an important figure in Polish literary life.

She was born in 1917 in Kiev as Sara Polina Gincburg. She grew up in Rivne, a town in Volhynia, in a middle-class, Russian-speaking family. She chose to attend a Polish high school. She was fascinated by the poetry of the Polish writers Julian Tuwim and Bolesław Leśmian. She made her début in 1931, when she was still a high school student, with the poem Uczta wakacyjna (“A Vacation Feast”) which was published in the school newspaper. Three years later, her poem Gramatyka (“Grammar”) received an award in the Young Poets’ Competition announced by Wiadomości Literackie (“Literary News”), an important social and cultural weekly published in Warsaw. In 1936, she began to collaborate with the satirical weekly Szpilki (“Pins”/“High heels“). In the same year, she published her only book of poetry – O centaurach (“About Centaurs”).

Zuzanna’s youthful poems were passionate and sensual, full of references to physiology and biology. They can be interpreted as a sign of rebellion against the bourgeois lifestyle. Her work alluded to the myths and traditions of the Far East, ancient Germanic culture, Mediterranean countries and Jewish culture.

She spent the first years of the war in Lviv. Due to her noticeably Semitic looks, she had to disguise her origin and stay in hiding. Despite her efforts, the Gestapo found her, and she was arrested, probably as the result of a denunciation by a woman named Chominowa, a former caretaker of the building in which she lived. At that time, Zuzanna managed to avoid the worst of fates, fleeing to Kraków. She immortalised the figure of Chominowa in her poem Non omnis moriar („I shall not wholly die“). In Kraków, Zuzanna was arrested again, after another betrayal. She was first imprisoned and later sent to the Plaszow camp where she was most likely shot in 1944. 

Zuzanna Ginczanka was a poet who chose to write in Polish. She made her début at the age of 14 and immediately became an important figure in Polish literary life.

She was born in 1917 in Kiev as Sara Polina Gincburg. She grew up in Rivne, a town in Volhynia, in a middle-class, Russian-speaking family. She chose to attend a Polish high school. She was fascinated by the poetry of the Polish writers Julian Tuwim and Bolesław Leśmian. She made her début in 1931, when she was still a high school student, with the poem Uczta wakacyjna (“A Vacation Feast”) which was published in the school newspaper. Three years later, her poem Gramatyka (“Grammar”) received an award in the Young Poets’ Competition announced by Wiadomości Literackie (“Literary News”), an important social and cultural weekly published in Warsaw. In 1936, she began to collaborate with the satirical weekly Szpilki (“Pins”/“High heels“). In the same year, she published her only book of poetry – O centaurach (“About Centaurs”).

Zuzanna’s youthful poems were passionate and sensual, full of references to physiology and biology. They can be interpreted as a sign of rebellion against the bourgeois lifestyle. Her work alluded to the myths and traditions of the Far East, ancient Germanic culture, Mediterranean countries and Jewish culture.

Zuzanna spent first years of the war in Lviv. Because of her noticeably Semitic looks she had to disguise her origin and stay in hiding. Threatened and denounced by Chominowa, a caretaker of the building she lived in, the poet decided to escape. She arrived in Kraków, while Chominowa was immortalised in her Non omnis moriar poem. In Kraków Zuzanna was arrested by Gestapo. She was shot in 1944 in KL Plaszow.

Virginity
Translated from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak Huss

We…
A frenzy of hazel trees, disheveled by rain,
a scented nutty buttery crush.
Cows give birth in the humid air
in barns, blazing like stars. 
O, ripe currants and lush grains
Sapid to overbrimming.
O, she-wolves feeding their young, 
their eyes sweet like lilies.
Sap drips like apiary honey.
Goat udders sag like pumpkins.
The white milk flows like eternity
in the temples of maternal bosoms.

And we…
in cubes of peach wallpaper
like steel thermoses
hermetic beyond contemplation
entangled up to our necks in dresses 
conduct
proper
conversations. 

[Translation first published in New Ohio Review]

Side commentary
Translated from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak Huss

I was not made
from dust,
nor unto dust
will I return.
I did not come down
from heaven,
nor will I return there.
Like a glass vault
I am the heavens.
I am the earth
like the fertile soil.
I did not escape
from anywhere,
nor will I return
there.
I know of no other beyond, beyond myself.
In the full lungs of the wind
and in the calcified rocks,
scattered
here
I must
find
myself.

[Translation first published in Washington Square Review]

To another
Translation from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak Huss

It’s easy for you to fall in love.
harder to stay in love. So be it. 
This is not altogether bad. 
Nor an obstacle, as I see it. 

It would be easy for me to love you
despite this poor arrangement
but I cannot fall in love with you
and I’m powerless to change it. 

Infidelity
Translation from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak Huss

Nobody can stop me. 
Sin of suede and bats
its mousish head hanging down in the attic of fear
At dusk I will slip out of the tower, from the fortified tower 
I will escape through the cutting sharp wasps,
a pillory of poisoned herbs –

The crushing crags of the commandments will arduously rise from the rubble, 
the twenty hells of the Vedas,
flames,
howl
and whistle
a fanatical night will threaten, stoning with stars, 
I will slip through fingers like Mercury.
Nothing can stop me.

You will turn into a wolf, I, a wagtail –
you into the eagle, I into the winding wonders – –
With inscrutable intent I will forestall you in your chase. 
The world won’t stop me
oh my love – oh my dear – oh my sweet one
unless I myself
choose 
a sweet May
fidelity.

Escape
Translation from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak Huss

Ablaze with color, a garden gone wild sticks out like a wick.
Add a touch of red, hot like fire, and the soil will burst like a bomb.
Proud peacock of iridescent enamel struts in the sun
behind a tapestry of maples arrayed in green rows.

That’s daytime: sunflowers circling bright sparks of buttercups,
lacquered maple leaves and haughty garish peacocks.
Midnight bright as high noon from the gloss and glitter of lightning.
Bolt after bolt it lights up the trees with nothing but glitter and gloss.

I circle lonely rooms, pondering the inscrutable garden,
I gaze at grey upholstery, ensconced in creaks and rustles,
I—the only known earth amidst planets orbiting lifelessly,
amidst matters of overt color and covert, obscure content—

I gaze into standing pools of mirrors and float to the surface as if drowned
with worried hand I feel my eye and probe its bony orbit
then the scream—I rush into the peacock bright garden, 
copper trees ablaze, and lilacs white hot.

I dive into the brimming chestnuts, into the swaying of hazels and willows, 
into the bustle of hazy appearances and covert and obscure content—
I weep in sorrow, 
kissing on the lips,
bursting out laughing,
and furrowing my brow,
What I am left with in life is life
to forget death to death.

[Translation first published in Pleiades]

Non omnis moriar
Translation from Polish by Joanna Trzeciak Huss

Non omnis moriar—my proud estate,
Meadows of tablecloths, bastions of armoires,
Miles of bedsheets, all my fine linens
And dresses, bright dresses shall be my bequest.  
Here I have left no heir.
Let your hand then pick through my Jewish possessions,
O brave spouse of a snitch, Mrs. Chomina from Lviv, 
An eager informant, a Volksdeutscher’s mother.
May they suit you and yours: why leave them to strangers?
This is no song, dear neighbors, nor an empty name  
I remember you the way you remembered me
to the coming Schupo, reminding them of me.
So friends, break out the goblets,
Drink to my death and to your riches:
Kilims and tapestries, platters and candlesticks.
May you drink all night and as the day breaks
set off on your search for jewels and gold
In featherbeds, mattresses, sofas, and rugs.
Many hands make light work, so it shouldn’t take long,
Clumps of horsehair and sea grass stuffing,
Clouds of torn pillows and billows of down,
Will cling to your arms, and turn them to wings,
And my blood will congeal fiber and feather
And transform into angels those now merely winged.

[Translation first published in Consequence]