Kazimiera Zulawska, Marek’s mother, was born on this day, 22 February, in 1883. In this excerpt from Study for a Self-Portrait, we get a glimpse of her stalwart attitude when she and Wawrzyniec (her youngest son) were hiding Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland.
The German bombers have flown away, the sirens have gone quiet – a strange silence has fallen. For the moment, London has put its head back on the pillow. Only the fire engines continue putting out flaming houses, while rescue teams search for anybody alive under the rubble. Otherwise, most of the city’s inhabitants sleep. Myself included.
A dream comes to me.
Outlines slowly begin to emerge from the darkness – incompletely-pressed plates on the wrong type of newspaper, vague and arranged in small specks which thicken in the darkest corners of my vision yet disperse as forms swell. There’s total silence in my dream, but I can make out people.
They breathe. Maybe they’re also dreaming…
Through a window, if one keeps staring long enough, one can see the roofs of old city apartments and a pale-grey night sky. In my dream, it’s the same time as it is in London. But I sense that it’s a different town, and I don’t know whose home this is that slowly appears before me. I begin to make out shapes of sleeping people. They lie on makeshift beds, on field cots. Some woman stirs and looks at her watch. I hear it tick. Now, on a wide couch, I can see the figure of my brother Wawrzyniec, his light hair upon a striped pillow.
I enter further into the unfamiliar home. I actually float in the darkness, without touching the floor. In the next room, facing the wall, there lies my mother. I can’t see her face, but I know it’s her. In a small windowless corridor, two other people are sleeping, unknown to me. On an armchair in the kitchen, snoring with his head leant back and an open mouth, an old man with unshaven jaws and a Semitic nose.
I return to the larger room, wanting to ask my brother where I am and who these people are, but I know it’s impossible, merely a dream. My dream about him.
Suddenly, I hear footsteps in the street. The footsteps of a platoon. Even, loud and getting louder. They’re nearing. I hear the cry of a command. The unit halts in front of the house, cutting like a knife. Another command enters my ears, as clear as day this time. It’s in German.
I quickly approach the couch my brother is sleeping on and try to wake him – to warn him. I make a superhuman effort to get him to hear, but can’t even shake him by the shoulder. It’s no use. My contact attempts leave me completely exhausted and the image of this dark home begins to blur in my awareness, to evaporate. At the last moment, as if through a fog, I see my brother suddenly sit up on his bed and look towards the window which, with the bright simplicity, heralds the dawn.
But this dream isn’t all I’m going to reminisce about today.
Just after the war, when I travelled to Poland in 1946, my mother and brother lived in Lodz. Warsaw lay in ruins. I’d take the bus there to draw this unbelievable phenomenon, to see a destroyed modern city that still lived due to the will of its inhabitants.
A victory of the spirit over the material.
One day, my mother came along with me to show me where she spent the worst years of the occupation. On Marszalkowska Street, there were still several homes left. They were damaged, riddled with bullet holes, and had scorched staircases, but still under a roof.
“We’ll go through the courtyard seeing as the entrance stairs have burnt down,” my mother informed me. We went upstairs. On the third floor, somebody had torn off all the blisters of chaffed oil paint and smoothed it down. We knocked on the door. An unfamiliar woman wearing an apron opened it.
“Oh! Madame Doctor! Please, please come in. Unfortunately, my husband isn’t in, he’s collecting bricks, but please come in,” she prattled. We entered the kitchen.
Once my eyes became accustomed to the strange darkness which filled her home, I had the impression that I knew the place, that I had been here before. But when? It was impossible. I put these thoughts aside as absurd but began to examine the place in detail.
The first things I noticed were the larch shelves from my father’s library, the one’s with the small cornices designed by his childhood friend. There were no books on them at least, but chipped plates and saucepans, while on the elegant larch edges of the boards were hooks and nails, screwed and hammered in, upon which hung black frying pans.
“Mum… These are our shelves…” I whispered. My mother batted me away with a look and returned to talking with the woman in the apron.
“Wawrzyniec and I lived here during the occupation,” she proclaimed eventually after listening to a long list of sorrows from the woman. “This here is my eldest son.”
“Oh, this world,” said the woman. Words which could have meant anything to anyone.
I didn’t listen, but simply gazed gravely at everything around us. It was only after a while that I realised the cause of the unusual darkness that dominated the kitchen. All the windows in the apartment were covered up. The only light reaching us was through the open door. I came closer to one of the windows and was dumbstruck.
Some of my figure studies from arts academy had been nailed up across the empty window frames using large clout nails. Painting in Kowarski’s workshop had always been solid – this was respectable material! I couldn’t tear my eyes away from one particular thickly-painted study of a handsome young man who emerged out of this dark background with the colour of burnt umber. He had been painted with ochre, earthy green and Venetian pink. That was how we always painted things in Kowarski’s workshop! He had one leg shifted towards the viewer, and a bemused expression. He was hanging upside down, so I angled my head to look at him more clearly. To make sure my eyes weren’t mistaken.
“But, Mum,” I uttered, “these are my paintings.”
“There’s nothing of yours here,” she replied with an icy tone. “Can’t you see that these people don’t have glass in their windows?”
I became embarrassed. My bourgeois sense of ownership, appropriate perhaps in England, suddenly seemed like something distasteful here. Worse, even: shameful.
After a the small windowless corridor, we went through to a room where there was a bed at the foot of a wall. A bathroom was on one side of it, while the kitchen in which we started was on the other.
The only thing lacking was an armchair occupied by a sleeping old man with side locks…