Back Then: Life in Post-War Krakow

08.08.2016 Joanna Olczak-Ronikier
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  • Znak, Kraków 2015
    140 × 205, 320 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-240-3869-5

Joanna Olczak-Ronikier’s memoirs are a tale without a happy ending, despite starting in 1945 when the war was finally over. Here she tells the story of her childhood, without sentimentality or nostalgia, but with a fair dose of acrimony.

This book picks up the thread that was broken off at the end of the war in Olczak-Ronikier’s previous family memoir, In the Garden of Memory. And so in 1945 we rediscover the author’s grandmother, Janina Mortkowicz, and her daughter (the author’s mother) Hanna Mortkowicz-Olczak living in a small room on Krupnicza Street in Kraków, within a house occupied by writers and other literary figures. The youngest member of the family, Joasia (as the author was called in childhood), is not there; since being placed in the care of nuns in 1942, she has gone missing in the upheaval of war, not to be found until June 1945. They do their best to rebuild their lives, and to add some style to their existence, although it falls a long way short of pre-war conditions. Once Joasia joins them, all three of them live in the little room, but her grandmother refuses to cook in it, insisting instead on keeping their cooker in the bathroom. Whenever guests appear, they have to hide away their clothing and clear the papers from the table, because in an intellectual household it is important to maintain the correct form, even within the restrictions of a tiny studio flat.

Back Then is an account that sets our knowledge of the past straight, describing the total social breakdown that followed the war, the birth of the new political system with a new culture to match, the fear, mourning and despair. Olczak-Ronikier shows that our idea of the past is naïve, because the post-war period was not typified by joy, but by anxiety, wariness, and painful memories that nobody was eager to divulge. Meanwhile, official silence was maintained by the state and its system of censorship. Anyone who wrote about a wartime death did it in a roundabout way, such as: “died in 1942”, or “died in 1943”, when what they meant was “starved to death in the ghetto” or “deported to Treblinka”. Alongside the silence imposed by the authorities there was another kind of silence, at grass-roots level, not openly agreed upon but universal: it came from a desire to preserve one’s dignity, not to be maudlin about the tragedy of war, and also from a psychological need to restrain the nightmare and limit it to the confines of the war years. The authorities rarely brought up wartime suffering and score-settling, only when it was useful in a political sense – immediately after the war people were encouraged to fill in questionnaires recording their wartime losses, the aim being to obtain compensation from Germany. Losses caused by the Soviet Union were not included, nor were “enemies of the people” or residents of the Recovered Territories (the parts of pre-war Germany that had now become parts of Poland) allowed to express their views.

The past is recalled here on the basis of memories, but also from Janina Mortkowicz and Halina Mortkowicz-Olczak’s letters, and various notes and documents that were preserved in the family home. This is an important perspective, because Olczak-Ronikier rarely applies the lyricism of childhood memory, which allows her to avoid simplifications. But she often employs the dramatic device of confronting memories that recur in the mind of a child with the historical truth, as told in conversations between the adults that were far removed from the nursery. In time, her understanding of the past changes: she describes various scenes that she witnessed, including her grandmother’s encounter with Princess Radziwiłł, to whom she delivered some family documents from their lost palace at Nagłowice, which had been converted into a residential home for the creative arts. The countess is full of pride, and refuses to talk to Janina Mortkowicz as an equal; instead she offers her some money, which offends Janina, who had been expecting friendliness and gratitude. Olczak-Ronikier passes present-day comment on this situation: “I have grown wiser, and only now do I understand the tragic side of the situation…. Fate has set up a two-way mirror between me and us. We could see nothing but our own reflections.”

Back Then could also be read as a book about Kraków, by picking out themes relevant to the city and the names of people born there, or who sought refuge there after the war. It is also a history of the building that became the writers’ commune, the only address of its kind in Poland, where Wisława Szymborska, Tadeusz Różewicz, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński and Sławomir Mrożek all lived under one roof. We could also read it as an account of wartime losses and the era of post-war transformation, when the old system was gradually disappearing into the past but the new reality had not yet taken its place (this account ends at the turn of 1948 and 1949). Here one can find a reckoning of wartime losses suffered by the community of Polish Jews, who were persecuted by blackmailers, forced to sell off their flats and libraries and to change their names. Other themes include the change of ideology, childhood in the shadow of war, how unresolved traumas constantly return, and how impossible it is to throw away wartime documents. This is also a fascinating historical story, set in the aftermath of war, making it an excellent accompaniment to Magdalena Grzebałkowska’s recently published book of reportage, 1945: War and Peace, as well as to Magdalena Tulli’s 2014 novel Noise. In all three books the same issues and similar conclusions recur, and cultural memory takes shape in a similar way.

Paulina Małochleb

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones