Today, Valentine’s Day 2015, marks what would have been the 99th birthday of Wawrzyniec Zulawski (pronounced “Vav-zhin-yetz”, or simply translated as Laurence), affectionately known as Wawa by all those who knew him (the much easier “Va-va”). I thought it would be a good opportunity to post up this section of Marek’s memoirs in which he talks about his brother’s passion for mountaineering, an activity that consumed his life in more ways than one.
When not climbing, Wawrzyniec was a composer and author, inspired by the peaks he scaled, as well as the director of ZAIKS, Poland’s copyright overseers. During the Nazi occupation, Wawrzyniec and his mother Kazimiera sheltered hundreds of Jews, and together they were awarded the title of Righteous Among The Nations.
We sat on a jagged rock planted in a sheltered depression on the northern face of Galeria Gankowa, connected to each other by a rope. Jacek and Hanka, using another rope, were a little behind us and had just vanished from our view behind a large chunk of this splendid precipice along which we were taking the Kulczynski route.
Up above, slanted sunbeams caught upon the protruding teeth-like peaks, their bases obscured in the cool gloom of shadows. From time to time, we heard the clatter of a falling rock. On both sides of us, sharpened shards and little crags appeared – above our heads, wisps of clouds floated about, sliced by the surrounding ridges. Occasionally, some bird tore itself away from the rocks with a shriek and folded its wings into a falling nosedive down into the lower regions of the tremendous massif. The murmur of a stream reached us, driven by the wind from somewhere far away. Directly beneath our feet, a few hundred metres vertically down, we could see the scree of the Dolina Czeska.
We were totally exposed.
I looked at Wawa carefully, with the kind of attention you’d expect from an experienced 24-year-old mountaineer looking at 16-year-old novice whom he had taken on his first serious expedition. In front of me I saw heavy calves squeezed tightly around the rock they were straddling, smooth-skinned arms protruding from unrolled jumper sleeves, and hands with the fleshy fingers of a pianist propped against a sharp edge. Nothing was trembling. I shifted my gaze a little higher and saw a muscular nape emerging from an unbuttoned shirt and the clean, almost girlish, outline of his cheeks.
“So,” I asked, “how do you feel?”
Instead of replying, he lifted towards me those incredible blue eyes shaded by long eyelashes, and all his teeth lit up in a wide smile.
“Not flustering you, being exposed?” I asked, as if casually. Yet again a cheerful happy smile lightened up his young face.
“Let me go up front.”
It was like a plea for an almighty favour. Before replying, I looked above us. The rock was tough, but the path was relatively clear. His eyes followed mine and touched upon the cliff with an almost loving rapture.
“All right,” I said after a pause. “From here on in, we’ll swap places… Until I change my mind,” I added quickly.
But there was no need. Wawa handled it well and with self-assurance.
“You’re going to be a climber, brother, no two ways about it,” I told him as we passed each other at a safe position.
He replied with a deep conviction.
This was, if I’m not mistaken, August 1932. Afterwards, our lives took alternate paths. A couple years later, I stopped going to the Tatras and left the country. Wawa became an outstanding climber and alpinist. Rumours reached me every now and then about his new successes and feats. Then war rumbled across the world, and, in Poland, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse took their time grazing their steeds. Many years passed. Strictly speaking, 25 years since our first expedition.
It was a bright June morning when again, step by step, I hiked with Wawa from Kuznica to Hala Gasienicowa. We didn’t betray our emotions to each other. With heavy sacks on our backs, we weren’t hurrying anywhere. With Wawa’s silent consent, I had come to stay under any old pretext. One moment I’d seem to have difficulty remembering the names of peaks, another I’d be inhaling the rediscovered scent of the forest… I’d adjust the ropes on my back, then close my eyes and immerse myself in the murmur of a stream. I’d arrange the hooks in my sack to stop them rattling, then furtively brush my hands against beloved herbs I hadn’t seen since my youth. I’d position myself in the sun and light a cigarette, then secretly drink the pristine dew drops lying inside a little ragged-edged leaf as if it were chalice.
Wawa certainly saw all this, although he didn’t say anything. He simply encouraged us to dawdle.
“We have loads of time,” he reassured my mountaineering conscience. “We can spend the night on the mountain pasture.”
Afterwards we continued on. We completed several climbs, we relaxed around ponds. With exceptional awareness, Wawa invariably lowered the tempo whenever I slowed my footsteps. He offered me food whenever he reckoned I might be hungry. He ran leaping to the stream when it came to preparing tea, he offered me the choicest beds in our shelters. He moved slowly, but he was never tired. He could stay or go further, eat or not eat, climb like a machine or doze about all day when the tendons in my knees, unused to walking, were worn out by running through mountain passes. But these were not sacrifices for him, or at least he never gave me that impression. He was simply generous. Going along with my whims seemed to give him a special joy…
Gradually, and with some difficulty since so many years had passed, we began to talk and got to know each other all over again. As the days flowed by on this shared walkabout, I started to uncover more and more about Wawa, the truth about his relationship to the world and to people. We spoke of many matters, both important and unimportant, everyday and unusual, general and personal. Not once was there even the tiniest bit of conflict between us. Perhaps Wawa kept yielding before such a possibility revealed itself.
I was in Poland for several weeks and had the opportunity to observe him throughout, not only on our trip, but also in Warsaw where during his morning shave he would already have dealt with scores of matters over the telephone. I saw how random people would cross his path with gloomy faces, whether at his home, the ZAIKS office, or even on holiday, and walk away delighted and cheerful. With his characteristic generosity, he gave everybody his friendship and that same open smile which I remembered from our distant youth.
I think that if it could be said his life was not concentrated enough on consequential steps in a single direction, that he did not devote himself enough to creating as a composer, then it was not despite of but because he lacked even an ounce of egocentricity – he was always ready to sacrifice his time and energy for every person who needed him.
At the base of his worldview there lay a wise scepticism and tolerance – but to give oneself fully to creative work, one has to be a fanatic. One has to believe in civilisation, in art, in one’s mission. And “in the name of all goals”, meaning one’s own, chase away anybody who might disturb you from your door. Meanwhile, for Wawa, other people were always more important. He did not attach too much weight to his art nor himself – and that was his characteristic feature.
And that was why, above anybody else, there was no better companion for mountain capers than Wawrzyniec. Mountains were his passion. Through this passion, he unleashed the best parts of his character: faithfulness, courage, sacrifice, and lack of pretension.
But one pays with one’s life for great passions. That was why I always worried about Wawrzyniec… Lying before me now is a letter he wrote years ago in reply to my arguments and pleas that it was high time he stopped climbing before it ended in catastrophe.
“As for my mountain exploits,” he wrote, “you’ve no need to be anxious. Contrarily, it’s only youths who get killed as a general rule, due to their over-the-top ambitions in terms of their experience and technique. Swierz is the only exception but he simply confirms the rule… Besides, he weighed 92 kilos. That was also an excess of ambition in terms of what was possible. In addition, safety techniques were different back then. With the state of today’s techniques, I maintain that a fatal accident in the Tatras during summer is impossible if two people, forming a close-knit team, accurately keep to modern safety methods… During winter though, or in the Alps, the weather can finish you off, as well as that factor independent of man, the avalanche…”
The catastrophe which followed in August was caused precisely by that “factor independent of man”. Wawrzyniec went on that final expedition, to confront his fate, with a sense of duty towards lost companions. He went, as so often before, because that was what he always did.