Halina Korn (born Halina Korngold) was Marek’s second wife, and a respected painter and writer in her own right. They were married for decades until her death on 2 October 1978 – precisely 36 years ago today. Other parts of Study for a Self-Portrait delve into the darker parts of their relationship, particularly Halina’s depression, but I thought I’d introduce her with this lively country-hopping section that includes how she and Marek first met. I particularly like the part about their life in London during the Battle of Britain. – AZ
It was autumn 1938. Yes, a year before the war. I had travelled to Warsaw as I’d an exhibition in the Institute of Art Propaganda, the so-called IPS.
I was on my way to Ziemianska to meet with Bela Gelbard. I looked around. Bela was sitting at a table with some girl.
“This is Hala Korngold,” she said, introducing us. “And this is Marek Zulawski, a well-known artist from London. You’ve probably heard of him…”
“Never heard of him in my life,” the girl replied cheekily.
She had magnificent blue eyes, dark-brown hair and a Nefertiti-like Egyptian profile. I told her so. It was only then that she started to regard me with interest.
We left the café together. On the corner of Marszalkowska Street, when she gave me her phone number, I experienced a vague feeling of anxiety. I promised her that I’d call, but I just couldn’t muster the courage for a whole week. Put simply, I was scared.
I instinctively felt that this would not be an ordinary affair. Some sort of grim foreboding came over me. Eventually I talked myself out of it, that it was nonsense, and, naturally, I made the call. I found her clearly waiting for me, and that’s how it started.
She lived on Raszynska Street with her beloved sister Jadzia and an aunt who spoke French constantly. I painted a portrait of them together with their dog and some still life. Both of them were murdered by the Germans during the war.
At New Year’s, we had a wonderful time at the IPS. Halinka wore a long dress with a plunging neckline – her breasts seemed to jump out from it. Her dress was sapphire blue with huge white polka dots – it’s the one dress that I can still remember clearly from my life.
Afterwards, once we had warmed up from the dancing and alcohol, we walked through a snow-covered Saxon Gardens. I found out she was wearing nothing underneath her dress. The next day, a card from her wishing me happy new year arrived in the post, along with a photograph of her in her bathing costume.
During this period, I had hired out Marek Napierski’s studio from Diana Eiger. He couldn’t stand his overbearing mother – she was much smarter than him. It was an elegant place, with a fireplace and large windows opening out to a garden. Mokotow. That was where we spent time together. Irena Krzywicka treated my romance sneeringly. I was painting her portrait at the time (I had already painted her father-in-law Professor Krzywicki) and was a regular guest at her literary arts salon.
Life in Warsaw was full of excitement, but I had to go back. I had my own studio in London after all, and, so it seemed, plenty of work to do. In a small bed and breakfast in Podkowa Lesna, where huge trees resounded with the chirping of birds, Halinka and I arranged to meet in Paris in August. And that’s what happened. Naturally we stayed in my old hotel, the d’Alsace on Rue de Beaux Arts in the 6th arrondissement. Transferred to another terrain, our romance took on a new brilliance.
At the end of August 1939, we travelled to St Malo. The stormy Normandy sea was strewn with black rocks, seeming to us much like the Bay of Naples. We collected mussels, cutting our fingers on the sharp edges of their shells – but it felt as if we were gathering flowers in the heavenly glades of Eden. I made love to her on cold rocks and warm sand. We walked along holding each other’s hands.
We’d no idea that war had broken out.
On 1 September, we walked along the beach to the bistro for a simple aperitif, only to find a great commotion.
“Mais voila,” called one of the patrons, gesticulating fiercely with a newspaper, “la guerre en Pologne…”
We were shocked. We had clearly been unaware of what was happening from not reading the press for several weeks. The German airforce had begun bombing Warsaw…
We returned hastily to Paris. What could we do? At the Polish consulate, they told us that the road to Poland was severed – it was perhaps only accessible via Italy, but Mussolini would almost certainly enter the war soon, and on Hitler’s side. The thought of being detained did not amuse me, even if it were in Italy.
I had an English visa. I decided to return to London and then try go through Scandinavia. But the English didn’t want to give Halina a visa. She would have to stay with her cousins, the Neumanns, in Neuilly while I returned to England on the last ferry to cross the Channel.
Parting ways on the steps of Odeon metro… gut-wrenching anguish.
What will happen, what will come of her?
Hurried kisses. The end of the affair.
I finally saw her again a year later, when the Germans encroached on Paris. She had been working in Angers and was evacuated from Pointe de Grave. The Atlantic was full of German submarines. She thought they were sailing to America, but she landed at Falmouth in Cornwall.
Our romance began again for the third time. We lived together.
London was being smashed by German bombs. Other than my canal-side studio where the roof had collapsed, I had a flat in Dudley Court on the fifth floor. Right beside it, in Marble Arch, stood a massive battery of anti-aircraft guns which boomed and roared as they forced the hostile planes up to higher altitudes. It was September 1940. The Battle of Britain began – the biggest air battle of all time. There were constant air raids day and night.
“Life in London,” hissed Goebbels over Berlin radio, “has become completely impossible.”
Halinka and I slept beside an open window. The pounding from guns and wail of sirens did not disrupt our sleep – we treated them like other typical city noises. Like many other Londoners, we never went down to the shelters. Every morning, a bottle of milk still stood in front of our door. “Business as usual” became the motto of this splendid nation which pays no mind to panic.
I woke up suddenly one night, completely sober and clear-headed. The guns had apparently hushed – the Germans had flown away. There was total silence. In the silence, I heard a steady distinct sound as if glass beads were falling onto a silver tray. I listened. No, it wasn’t the drip of water. Through the window, I saw the stars in the heavens. I’ve slept through another air raid, I thought to myself.
And then, in the corner of the room under our very ceiling, as if it were at an exceptional distance, there appeared a small speck of phosphorescent light moving towards our bed. I just watched it, frozen as if hypnotised. But I did not feel any fear. The luminous speck kept moving closer and after a while grew to the size of a phosphorescent ball. It came to a halt above Halinka’s head. I pinched myself – I wasn’t dreaming, I was sure of it. I wanted to wake her, but I changed my mind. She lay in a deep sleep, breathing normally. A cool waft of air entered the room through the open window. A moment later, the shining ball began to retreat. It seemed to slowly drift as if into a great distance into the corner between the walls and the ceiling. Eventually it disappeared completely.
“I had a dream about Jadzia,” said Halinka the next morning during breakfast.
It was only after the end of the war that we learned Jadzia had died in the Auschwitz concentration camp that same month, perhaps that very night that the ball of light hung above the sleeping figure of her sister.
Halinka had a beautiful voice. She studied singing at Comte-Wilgocki and Korwin-Szymanowski, but the war interrupted her career. In London, she only ever sang for friends.
One day, she had a cold and was lying in bed, something she was incapable of. She sulked. To keep her occupied, I asked her to draw the glass and saucer which were standing by the bed.
“But I don’t even know how to draw a straight line,” she insisted.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Draw them crooked.”
The results puzzled me. I arranged another still life for her. She continued to draw with a flush on her cheeks until evening.
There was something strangely original in her vision of the world. From that day onwards, nothing could drive her away from her sketchbook. She soon began painting too, and then sculpting. I gave her technical advice but said that if she started imitating me, I’d take away her paintbrushes and pencils.
She painted on anything she came across. One time I came home to find Adam and Eve painted on the doors of a cabinet. I was amazed by their piercing primitive beauty. She painted the same way a bird builds a nest – with divine grace, and without hesitation. Later on she would write like that too. She served herself well by being fluent in five languages.
Her book “Holidays End in September” is an extraordinary document of the epoch from her childhood. As emphasised by Stefan Themerson at her book launch, she says more about that irretrievably lost world than official volumes for study.
Before her illness ravaged her, she was one of the most multi-talented people I’d ever met and the most fascinating woman.