Thursday, 9 June 2016

Papua New Guinea - The Present Violence

You may have come across this story this morning (9th June 2016) the content of which I found deeply shocking although unsurprising in view of my studies and travels there.

The author Michael Moran on KarKar Island - happier and more peaceful times. Such a beautiful part of the world and such friendly people.

I find the present violence at the university in Port Moresby where demonstrating students have been shot by the police appalling. A desperate people simply protesting at their perception of corruption. The government and police massive response is tragic, misguided and inflammatory. 
It seems Papua New Guinea - well, Port Moresby anyway - has become very dangerous indeed. Although warned from all quarters against doing so, I wandered this city many times chatting to friendly locals entirely without fear. No, not at night..

I must say I really did not find PNG 'dangerous' at all - quite the opposite in the Island Provinces - but then I travelled there many years ago. 

I am sure the media reports are accurate but by their very nature unfortunately give a greatly distorted and myopic view of the country as a whole. It is a picture greatly at variance with  the majority of warm, hospitable and friendly Papua New Guineans I met on my extensive travels. Melanesian culture is one of the most ancient and most harmonious on the planet. 

PNG is an enormous place and cannot possibly be considered as culturally homogeneous. That is the problem. An inappropriate Westminster style of government has been grafted upon a culture made up of a huge number of significantly different tribal groups lumped together in a governable, utilitarian blanket concept known as 'Papua New Guinea'.

In my book Beyond the Coral Sea: Travels in the Old Empires of the South-West Pacific (London 2003 - and still in print) I seriously, rather than sensationally, examine in great detail the fascinating country and island cultures of Papua New Guinea. 

I wrote this book specifically about the rarely described Island Provinces of Papua New Guinea (as opposed to the Highlands). I was so proud the book was short-listed for the 25th and final Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

If you are at all interested in a more balanced view of this extraordinarily culturally diverse and beautiful place, please do not make severely negative general conclusions concerning the country from what you read in today's press, appalling as these events appear to be.

For my Polish readers the book has been translated into Polish with the title Za Morzem Koralowym (PIW) and is available at the Bookshop of the Muzeum Azji i Pacyficu in Warsaw, Allegro and direct from me if you email me.

Teraz dostępna tylko od autora

Sunday, 22 May 2016

The Pocket Paderewski - The Beguiling Life of the Australian Concert Pianist Edward Cahill

London 1934. Edward Cahill seated in the front row on the left of Princess Alice at a private Mayfair piano recital at the home of the Dowager Lady Swaythling

To those of you interested in this story, the progress of which has been an ongoing saga in my internet journal over the last 6 years - I have just finished correcting the First Page Proofs of the biography of my great-uncle the glamorous concert pianist Edward Cahill.

It will be published in Melbourne Australia by Australian Scholarly Publishing in their Arcadia imprint, I hope in September or October 2016.

If you wish to hear the playing of Edward Cahill in Liszt and Chopin or the singing of his musical partner George Brooke (up to his tragic death in 1930) click on:

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Dinara Klinton - an astonishing CD Debut

It is always a beautiful thing to watch and listen to a musical talent flowering into maturity. Such is the case with the extraordinarily gifted Ukrainian/Russian pianist Dinara Klinton. She was born in Karchiv close to the Ukrainian/Russian frontier not far from a region of murderous war and cruel ideological conflict. Her mother was forced to flee. The enigmatic nature of her nationality (a child of the borderlands) and her name (so redolent of a powerful democracy) hints at a passionate existential intensity, a romantic quest for certainty and stability that powerfully expresses itself in her playing and her searching interpretations of the Romantic piano literature.

I first heard her command a remarkable range of piano music at the extraordinarily demanding but rather unknown IX International Paderewski Piano Competition held in the city of Bydgoszcz in Poland in November 2013 - Scarlatti, Liszt, Paderewski, Chopin, Brahms, Schumann, Prokofiev, Bach and Tchaikovsky.

I wrote at that time ‘This player is a true artist and must appear among the finalists.’ She won the 2nd prize as well as the best semi-final  prize, best Paderewski prize and best Chopin prize. Of her performance of the Chopin Op. 25  Études I wrote:

She then played all the Op.25 set of Chopin Etudes which for me at least was a revelation. She revealed all manner of inner complexities invisible to me previously, as well as delineating the familiar approaches one tends to absorb as the benchmark. And then comes along a supremely musical individual like this...It was one of those outstanding performances of a much loved work where one has absolutely nothing to say after it is complete - a completely integrated, brilliant and consistent vision of these taxing Études. 

And of the Tchaikovsky Concerto No 1

I spoke of her previously as having immense reserves of power while driving normally 'in music town' as it were (like a Lamborghini – great unused power in reserve) but in this concerto she was close to the limits, taking risks I felt, but a terribly exciting player because of this although never exceeding her control. She drew breath and launched into an incredible cyclonic octave display. The huge ritardando before the closing triumphant coda was tremendously exciting too, the rhythmic brakes fiercely applied in a premonition of the unstoppable momentum and almost barbaric energy and drive that concludes the work. The Tatar hordes racing across the steppes. Absolutely enlivening and inspiring. Shouts and screams from the audience...

I then heard her again at the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw in October 2015 where she won the best non-Finalist prize. I felt she deserved more. Of her performance of the Op. 35 B-flat Minor Sonata during the competition I wrote:

The Sonata Op. 35 was perhaps modelled by Chopin on Beethoven's own funeral sonata Op.26 which he taught and played. Here Klinton gave us a searching interpretation of immense individuality and fatalistic penetration especially the Marche funèbre. Threat and tragedy hovered above the entire reading. 

And so it was with great anticipation that I have listened and compared two CDs she has recorded to date. The first was in 2007 of Liszt and Chopin (for the Guzic Foundation on the Delos label) under her birth name Dinara Nadzhafova when she was merely sixteen; the second as Dinara Klinton, her most recent 2016 recording of the Liszt Études d’exécution Transcendante for the esteemed German label Genuin. A fascinating contrast emerges which is most instructive as to how young pianists of immense talent develop.

Dinara Klinton has recently completed the Artist Diploma in Performance at the Royal College of Music. She is the first recipient of the prestigious Benjamin Britten Fellowship supported by the Philip Loubser Foundation. Prior to this she was awarded a Master of Performance degree with distinction at the RCM where she was under the tutelage of Dina Parakhina. Upon graduating from the Moscow Central Music School, where she studied with Valery Pyasetsky, she went on to achieve the Graduate Diploma with Honours at the Moscow State Conservatory where she worked with Eliso Virsaladze. She has therefore been schooled in the sublime late nineteenth century school of pianism, that of Leopold Godowsky and Heinrich Neuhaus, a tradition that brought forth Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter. She is a laureate of many competitions and has performed with outstanding international orchestras. Her website has much more on her career both past, present and future 

The first CD was a result of her being chosen for a Guzik Foundation Award on their scholarship programme. The cream of Russian musical virtuosi are selected for the award to assist deserving young talent. From the sleeve note I read:  ‘The children who compete in the Guzik Foundation programmes generally come from families of meagre resources, often single-parent families living in poverty.’ Another laudable reason to listen carefully to what Dinara Klinton has achieved through sheer talent and dedication in the face of adversity.

The first thing that struck me was remarkably individual tone and ‘voice’ of this young pianist of 16. She has a complete command of the keyboard. The synapses of the ‘little grey cells’ spectacularly firing in her brain are surely a gift from God. In this first CD she revels with understandable youthful exuberance in her power and ‘what she can do’ seemingly without effort and yet with power in reserve. This was clear in the superb articulation in the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies No 2 and 6. One should not approach them as ‘deep philosophical works’ but as exciting cultural explorations which she accomplished so well with vigorous rhythmic drive. Her feeling for Romantic nuance was evident in the Liszt Sonetto 123 del Petrarca from the Annéees de Pèlerinage Deuxième Année : Italie and the Liebestraum No:3 in A flat major.  

The Liszt Feux follets was taken at a slightly faster tempo than her more recent recording but revealed the virtuosic feathery lightness, velocity, charm and finger dexterity of a generation of pianists I thought had passed  forever – that late nineteenth century school of towering virtuosos -  Godowsky, Lehvinne, Rosenthal, Hofmann. Of course she has not yet developed their deep musicality and command but the seeds were definitely there ready to develop at an early age. This was also evident in her performance of the Chopin Études Op. 10. The beginning is a veritable eruption of virtuosity. A brilliant set in so many ways but for me lacking in the lyrical poetry that inevitably comes with age and experience. But what a foundation this young lady had to build on at 16 – surely the envy of all her peers!

The Genuin CD cover
Note the enthusiastic endorsement by the distinguished pianist and conductor
Stephen Kovacevich

     Now to her most recent CD of the Liszt Douze Études d’exécution Transcendante some ten years later. What have we now then? Certainly an ambitious CD debut and fearless laying out of your cards upon the table as a young pianist. A brief examination of Liszt’s intentions in this fiendish work is instructive. 

     Nine of the twelve Études of the 1851 version were given titles by the composer. One is forced as an interpreter to assess the significance of the titles, assuming as given a command of the extreme keyboard virtuosity demanded by them. We are forced in a way to ‘focus’ on the poetic idea inherent in the title taking us as listeners into the musical ‘programme’, something seemingly at odds with the pedagogical associations of the nature of the piano Étude. In this regard Dinara Klinton has few peers, if any, among young pianists excepting shall we say the breathtaking Daniil Trifonov. Certainly the titles given by Liszt influences the listener and possibly the approach of the pianist to these demanding works. The German musicologist and author Frederick Niecks considered the titles ‘fanciful afterthoughts’ but is there not more to the titles than this? 

     In his Gesammelte Schriften Liszt writes ‘In programme music…the return, change, modification, and modulation of the motives are conditioned by their relation to a poetic idea.’ Certainly it cannot be denied that the titles are a significant part of the aesthetic nature of these works. Chopin in his two sets of Études eschewed, in fact militated against giving his works titles by poetically inclined publishers and their close attention to the agenda of sheet music sales. 

     However quite unlike the ‘absolute’ music of Chopin (pace possibly one or two of the Ballades) one must never forget the literary dimension of so much of Liszt’s thought and inspiration, the profound effect of the life and poetry of Byron and Victor Hugo on the evolution of the musical Romantic movement in Europe. This was when poetry had the power to influence behaviour – seldom experienced today. We are far in 2016 from the definition of the poet by Shelley as ‘the acknowledged legislator of the world.’ Liszt was an excellent writer himself. Poetry was of immense importance and inspiration to artists in all the artistic disciplines, something contemporary artists have largely lost. All his life the great painter J.M.W. Turner attached poetic quotations, sometimes his own verse, to his paintings in addition to a title as an ‘extra dimension’ for the soul to inhabit. 

     One of the great achievements of Klinton’s performance is to rescue Liszt from the persistent image of being merely a keyboard ‘wizard’. He is still being consigned to the margins of serious composition by far too many listeners, critics and musicologists. Under her fingers each Étude becomes a moving, on occasion humanistic and noble, symphonic poem that speaks poetic volumes. In her introduction to the CD she perceptively and quite accurately refers to them as ‘emotional soundscapes’. Her interpretations are achievements of sensibility that are far more than excuses for tremendous virtuosic display (although they are partly of course as is sometimes the case of the great Lazar Berman and György Cziffra). 

     Here an inquiring, analytical intelligence and sensibility underpins an astonishing sound palette and mastery of the keyboard. Klinton writes further ‘…Liszt explores the infinite variety of human life via feelings of joy, sorrow, love, anger, dignity and defeat. Each study has its own unique expressive profile, which makes unifying the cycle especially challenging.’ Such expressive depth and musical aspiration is most uncommon among young virtuoso pianists, especially in Liszt. I cannot help feeling this true spiritual depth may well have grown organically from her personal background of comparative deprivation and struggle.

   The opening Preludio functions not essentially as poetry but as an introduction, immediately attracting our attention to the depth and richness of her tone quality, touch, dynamic range and finger dexterity. Similar observations could be made for the untitled second étude which in many ways is also a virtuosic Prélude in the manner of Paganini or perhaps even a premonition of the dramas to come. 

     The far more substantial and atmospheric third entitled Paysage transports us into the nineteenth century concept of the pastoral. ‘Nature’ in the early nineteenth century had abandoned the eighteenth century bucolic idea of the rococo pastoral and Watteauesque fêtes galantes and gathered about itself connotations of Nature as a powerful yet humanly indifferent ‘force’, a threat and stormy turbulence interspersed with lyrical, reflective episodes. Klinton captures this unified mood of subdued reflection, perfectly in keeping with its vague pantheistic pastoral ‘programme’ or rather associative idea. Although there is no orage (storm) common to this genre, she captures the central emotional agitation and passion of a ‘human figure in the landscape’ and then allows its presence to subside in a beautiful rocking motion, fading away as evening gathers into dusk.

     The cruelty of Mazeppa then suddenly erupts over us, the fourth and arguably most tempestuous of the Grandes Études. Was Liszt inspired by the Victor Hugo poem taken from Les Orientales or possibly Byron’s poem Mazeppa? The story itself is well known. The Ukrainian nobleman Ivan Mazepa has an adulterous love affair with a Countess Theresa while serving as a page at the Court of the Polish King Jan II Kazimierz Waza. When all is revealed (as is usually the case) the Count punishes Mazeppa by tying him backwards and naked to a wild horse and setting the horse bolting across the steppes, through woods, forests and across freezing rivers until it expires through exhaustion. Mazeppa survives the ordeal, emerges triumphant and is elevated to a Cossack Hetman. 

     The music follows this ‘programme’ possibly more literally than others in the set. Klinton captures the panicked, uneven, relentless almost hysterical galloping rhythm of the horse frighteningly well (if you have ever ridden it is possible to imagine the frightful torture for the animal as well as the man tied as he was in that grotesque position). Exhaustion. Death. The survival of Mazeppa. Ultimate triumph – the sub-textual allegory of the artistic life of Ferenc Liszt perfectly delineated. Her judicious use of the pedal in this work assisted the rhythmic articulation and inexorable forward drive brilliantly. A ‘warhorse’ of distinction.

    Klinton is already well known for her astonishing account of Feux Follets. Emanuel Ax laughed in astonished pleasure on hearing her in this work. Still present from her teenage years is that virtuosic feathery lightness, velocity, articulation, charm and finger dexterity of a generation of pianists I thought had passed forever. Present too in these Will-o’-the-Wisps or Jack o’Lantern is the ominous atmosphere of ghostly light and phosphorescence, possibly fire-flies, that hover over swamps, boggy ground and marshes leading wayfarers to their doom (her glittering, evanescent tone palette here is extraordinary). Few pianists can achieve the light scherzo, Queen Mab character as strongly in this work, possibly inspired by Goethe’s Faust. A quick-silver phantasmagoria of impressionism as bewildering as the Will-o’-the-Wisps themselves.

     With Liszt we are quite often in the presence of meditations on death – well it was a closer companion in the mid nineteenth century. With Visions Klinton captures the grim psychological reality of death with the heavy tread of a fantasy Liszt constructed around the Dies Irae together with a tumult of church bells. Was the piece composed in memory of Napoleon as some have speculated? Was it inspired by an ode of Victor Hugo? Does this matter? Certainly the work possesses an heroic mien of inevitability, the tragedy of a Miltonic vision together with intimations of immortality. The title itself reeks of metaphysicality. So much is apparent from the way Klinton creates this ominous atmosphere with immense weight and depth of piano sound in the chordal/choral passages as we approach the gathering darkness, a destiny we must all face with defiance. Such an excellent recording of the instrument by the Genuin technicians.

    In the remarkably interesting book Programme Music in the Last Four Centuries (London and New York 1907), the author Frederick Niecks expostulates ‘What vast subjects, for instance, are indicated by single words such as Faust, Hamlet, Manfred, Hebrides, Eroica, Hungaria &!’ It is impossible when reading the Lisztian title of number seven, ‘Eroica’, to escape a flurry of Beethovenian associations, the myth of Prometheus or once again connotations of the heroic Napoleon. 

     The composer was fascinated by heroes and epic historical achievements although not as obsessed by this as Wagner. Here we have expressed in music Byronic individuality, the impulse to action, defiance, to fight the fate we have been handed at birth. There is clearly no literal ‘programme’ in this Étude but the mythical atmosphere of noble military resistance is inescapable. Jim Samson (to whom I am greatly indebted in this review and his book Virtuosity and the Musical Work - Cambridge 2003) sees affinities with the first of the similarly titled Douze Études de salon Op.5 similarly named Eroica by the unjustly neglected German composer Adolf von Henselt. It is difficult for the modern sensibility to immerse itself in the unfamiliar atmosphere of conduct and emotion pertaining to military matters before the defining ignoble tragedy and irreversible sea-change of the Great War. Klinton gives this work the appropriate military stature.

     She literally erupts into the Presto Furioso of Wilde Jagd with an unsettling vengeance and demonic force. Such ‘wild demented horse rides’ through forest and across plains were an integral part of the Romantic Gothic imagination. A modern equivalent might be a wild drive in a Ferrari (the prancing horse) through the Black Forest pursued not by demons but the police. The smell of sulphur pervades this supernatural ride as it does the B minor Sonata or Dante Sonata. The grotesque, possessed associations of a ‘Witches’ Sabbath’ inspired many composers from Weber through Berlioz to Ravel. The baleful atmosphere of the paintings of Henry Fuseli rightfully invest the interpretation.

     The ninth in the series entitled Ricordanza is an intensely personal, self-communing piece by Liszt. Busoni called it ‘a bundle of faded love letters’. I felt Klinton managed the transition from the clearly delineated physical wildness of the former ride into this diffuse, soft focus, poetic meditation as if it were the Adagio of a classical sonata – quite brilliant and a seemingly inevitable and welcome respite after the emotional storm that preceded it. This enabled her to demonstrate her fine control of cantabile tone and long, sung legato line, the piece being essentially a song of ‘emotions recollected in tranquility’ as Wordsworth expressed such feelings so accurately in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads. 

     The tenth is a tremendously powerful and emotional work despite not having the support of a title. But then F-minor and F-sharp minor are my favourite keys. Here Liszt embraces Chopin. His respect for the Chopin Études is as well known as Chopin’s admiration of Liszt’s performance of them. At times Liszt lays his own composition over the Chopin Étude Op. 10 No.9, borrowing and augmenting the idiom of the Pole. Klinton is an intuitive Chopin interpreter of great stature, qualities that are rare in the young and not given to many of any age despite the popularity of this deceptively accessible composer. Her instinctive rubato in this commanding and movingly passionate virtuoso interpretation comes directly from her penetration of the soul of the Chopin Études. 

     There is little doubt that the Harmonies du Soir is one of the great masterpieces of the declaration and yearnings of Romantic love in nineteenth century piano literature. The titles of these pieces leave open many possible interpretations to the listener. This is merely my own. I find in this work the presage of the passions that inspire that sublime arc of tension and release contained in the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde. Wagner’s debt to the harmonic adventurism of Liszt is never in doubt to my mind. The difference here is that life and not death inhabits this particular panorama of love. 

      Softly the bells toll at dusk as the lover wanders in a pastoral reverie, perhaps in a park in Weimar, passing by Goethe’s summer house, wood smoke in the air and the burble of the nearby Ilm river. He begins to dwell on his feelings for the seductive other who has captured his heart in a net. We begin to inexorably move into his ‘human, all to human’ mind as he imagines his beloved, we feel his fears and apprehensions, experience his almost coarse desire, his passions rising and falling in waves of increasing ecstasy, finally reaching an apotheosis. These debilitating emotions slowly fade as he returns to the calm of evening, ‘calm again now my heart’ as if the soft wings of a night moth had settled over him. Klinton’s instinctive rubato and tone colour manages the transition from pastoral idyll to rhapsodic oceanic waves of sound with perfect control and judgement and then the elegiac return to the calm reflective soul as the night harmonies close over us in a dream. A wonderful performance.

     A return to the power and threat of nature in a form envisaged by J.M.W. Turner rather than its ability to lead us to the world of lyrical dreams suffuses the final Étude entitled Chasse-neige (Snow-drift, Snow-storm, literally Snow-plough). One has no difficulty in envisioning a tumultuous winter scene as a snow storm begins to rage and inexorably buries all human life and civilization beneath it. 

  Klinton gives a fine atmospheric, impressionistic interpretation of the work with superb use of the pedal. She accomplishes this soft focus yet powerful snowstorm in a Debussyian sense rather than taking the opportunity to display sheer declamatory virtuosic power, tempting as that may be in such a piece. Interestingly her approach shifts the emphasis from amazement at the performer to the work itself and its meaning as a painting in sound. Lazar Berman in his 1963 Melodiya recording of the Études gives such a simply astounding performance of finger dexterity and sheer visceral excitement that it distracts one from what I imagine to be the essential Lisztian poetic intention of Chasse-neige. But then Liszt himself, although a great and extraordinarily generous man as well as revolutionary composer, was a mass of contradictions as is any pianist overburdened with supreme technical facility at the keyboard. 

   This is one reason I admire Klinton so much – the restraint and discipline of her extraordinary technical abilities which she places  fully at the service of inner musical meaning in her searching interpretations of these Janus-faced works. Rare in one so young in our current atmosphere of theatrical, narcissistic fireworks and physical gymnastics, often ‘full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’ C.P.E. Bach put it well in his Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen (Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments) of 1753: ‘They overwhelm our hearing without satisfying it and stun the mind without moving it . . .’ 

    Dinara Klinton is never tempted by ego-driven superficial display as she moves towards becoming not ‘merely’ a fine pianist but a truly distinguished artist. 

     A remarkable CD debut by any musical standard one might care to mention. 

            *  *  *  *  *

Two confirmations of my early judgement have just been brought to my attention. She will be performing the Liszt Douze Études d’exécution Transcendante at the Progetto Martha Argerich Festival in Lugano Switzerland on June 22 at 6.30pm at the Chiesa Evangelica Riformata. A not insignificant achievement I would have thought...

            *  *  *  *  *  

This recording has also been chosen as BBC Music Magazine 
Record of the Month 
May 2016

Monday, 21 December 2015

A Polish Christmas and New Year's Eve - A nostalgic Return to the Past - Wishing 'the happy few' who read my ramblings this year a Happy Christmas 2015 and an optimistic and affluent New Year 2016

At Christmas time the importance of the Polish family is ever-present - a force that binds this society together with affection and love. On Christmas Eve a blessed wafer is broken by each member of the family and best wishes are made for the future. The appalling history of loss in Poland meant the family and the Catholic church were often the sole refuge from oppression. Here in Poland the family at Christmas is to be warmly embraced not fled from in anguish.

I quote from the unedited version of Chapter 27 of my book  A Country in the Moon for a nostalgic account of Christmas and New Year in Poland at the turn of the millennium. There has never been a better one for me. The 'Writer's Cut' if you will. Some 30,000 words and many evocative scenes were cut from my original manuscript of this literary travel book before publication - all quite normal in publishing today but what treasures were lost! 

How life in Poland has changed since those far off days! The charm and unique flavour of the country is slowly leaching away in the affectionate embrace of the EU.

Click on photographs to enlarge - far superior - taken in 2000 with a
      Nikon F 2 on Fuji Film


A Yellow Sleigh for the Departing Guests

      No wind and silence. Virgin snow. White lace. A capillary of frost on the delicate network of branches. Deep drifts against the base of the tree trunks. I wandered down to the river past the frozen pond where I had spied a deer on one occasion in the summer. Zosia drew me back to Poland many times over the years that followed. But no visit was more moving and memorable than that at the turn of the millennium. We spent Christmas Eve in Warsaw under a heavy blanket of snow, the heaviest for many years. The Vistula lay half-frozen under a crusted blanket of white ice. A group of nuns were gathered around the swings in the park, giggling and laughing in arcs of joy, their habits like the wings of bluebirds against the snow.

       Preparations for the last Christmas of an epoch were complete. Zosia and her mother seemed to have been cooking for hours, days, weeks. The tree was dressed and lit, piles of presents placed under the branches and the traditional empty place laid at the table should an unexpected wanderer call. The pets had begun to speak in tongues (different languages) – well, that is the folk tale anyway. Twelve dishes are served, symbolizing the twelve apostles. Red barszcz (beetroot soup), carp in jelly, mushroom and cabbage pierogi (similar to ravioli) and other dishes too numerous to list. The blessed opłatek (Christmas wafer) embossed with a Nativity scene was broken and shared among the family with good wishes for the future. Presents were opened and carols sung.

‘Put some fish scales in your wallet, Michałku! It will bring you luck and money!’

       For that special New Year’s Eve we headed into the High Tatra mountains to stay at the great Renaissance castle of Niedzica. This mysterious frontier castle, perched on its limestone crag above a frozen lake had lured me to the region. The eyrie had originally been built by the noble Polish–Hungarian Berzeviczy family above the gorge of the wild Dunajec river early in the fourteenth century.

The author reading in Niedzica Castle. The rooms are furnished with genuine 
Polish antiques and Turkey carpets

       The castle is situated in the remote area of the Spisz in the south of Poland and to the east of Kraków. I had hoped to hear the folk tunes that inspired Chopin’s Rondo on Krakowian themes written when he was eighteen. We had wandered eastwards into the Spisz, a region that has always attracted me by its backwardness and the music of its festive gypsy communities. 

Domestic chores in the Spisz

Following the snowy valley of the Łapszanka river, one climbs between quaint wooden houses to the old villages of Wyżni Koniec and Rzepiska where the most spectacular view of the High Tatra Mountains of Poland and Slovakia opens out in a vast panorama. At least thirty major peaks, craggy and treeless, covered in snow and  shifting in golden light, slice into a pale sky. The tinkling harness of working horses pulling hinged sledges of logs through the dark stands of fir drift on the wind. The horses emerge from the forest, clouds of steam gushing from their nostrils, the gap-toothed peasants in woollen caps shouting rude intimacies to the animal and cracking their whips, crossing the fields at the base of the mountains in wide arabesques, approaching the village along white paths then to suddenly struggle up a steep slope onto the main street. The drivers holler rough greetings to elderly women leaning out of cottage windows in scenes reminiscent of 1920 or 1820 or 1720 or 1620 such is the unaltered chronology of the place. In many houses merely a thin wooden wall separates man from beast.

A village in the Spisz region of Poland

Small shingled churches are scattered through the Spisz famous for their polychrome interior decoration. In Trybz near the castle there are some exceptional naïve paintings in the seventeenth century church of St. Elizabeth. A telephone call secures the key as long as one is prepared to outface the manic, tethered dog that looks like a ragged wolf circling on a red lead secured to a roof beam in the barn. A young boy quietened the carnivore and we entered an extraordinary damp wooden world of saints, Tatra landscapes (the oldest in Poland) and the naked figures and devils of the last judgement. 

Naive polychrome in the Church of St. Elizabeth, Spisz, Poland

The paintings executed by a priest long ago were intended as an encouragement of faith for a simple congregation unable to read. A fairyland waterfall like a piece of miniature theatre scenery tumbled nearby. Unspeakable smells erupted as a man mucked out a cow shed sharing a wall with the living room of his dwelling. A woman dressed in black had cut an opening in the snow and ice of a stream and was washing clothes in the freezing water. Preserved in time and  surprisingly distant from civilization, the Spisz passed whimsically to and fro through history between the Austro–Hungarian Empire, Slovakia and Poland

The Castle of Niedzica in the Pieniny region  in the south-east of Poland. The 'Ghost Room' is in the second pepper-pot tower from the left
        Zosia and I spent the previous night listening to odd noises in our room, the Komnata ‘z duchami’ or Ghost Room, located in one of the corner towers of the castle, formerly a chapel. The irrational was soon forgotten as the New Year’s Eve ball began with a sumptuous feast. Opulent jewellery, bright in the flickering candles, rose and fell on the low-cut gowns of women breathless with dancing and amorous laughter. Polish mazurkas and polonaises together with Hungarian gypsy music accompanied flurries of snow whispering past the icy windows. In the heat of dancing the gentleman removed their dinner jackets and hung them on the high backs of the mahogany chairs.  A little girl in a voluminous, yellow ball-gown galloped about in red shoes. A fierce fire burned in the fireplace below the ballroom, the walls covered in antlers and artless Polish family portraits.

'Zosia' (real name Barbara) in the 'Ghost Room' on the eve of the Millennium Ball at Niedzica Castle, Poland

      By midnight it had begun to snow heavily as we climbed the castle keep with a bottle of champagne and sparklers. The spotlights illuminating the turrets created remarkable effects on the clouds of rushing snow. Champagne toasts were drunk and impossible Slavic
promises were made for another thousand years. I pulled my sheepskin jacket over my dinner suit, made a brief excuse to Zosia, my Polish princess, and wandered alone into the snowy courtyard beneath the golden clock to smoke a celebratory aged Dunhill Club Havana. 

     Snow fell from the trees in a muffled hush. The night was silent, clear and minus twenty degrees, the moon full and the sky hectic with stars. The air was like cold steel to breathe. I lit the cigar and watched the smoke drift listlessly in the air above the rugged walls and ancient  windows. Entrance to the castle is gained through an oak door banded in iron strap-work strengthened with massive studs. Feeling restless and in need of air, I heaved it open and wandered out onto the frozen carriage ramp. An arch loomed above, bearing the device of the Hungarian Horvath family, owners of the castle from the eighteenth century until the communist takeover after the Second World War.

     After my return to the dining hall suddenly at 2.00 am the heavy tapestry curtains of the entrance hall were flung wide and three flaming piglets were wheeled in on silver trolleys. Cheers filled the vault as carafes of vodka glowed once more on the tables. Portions of the succulent meat were carved with a flourish.

    The scintillating ball was meandering to its close as we emerged into the night. A yellow sleigh was drawn up waiting for departing guests, its curved sides decorated in crimson banding. A horse covered in a rustic blanket munched some hay carelessly thrown on the ice. Torches burned on either side of the driver, who appeared to be asleep. Flames glittered off the steel runners as I leaned against it and loosened my bow tie.

‘Have you seen the ghost of Umina walking by the lake?’ 

A disembodied voice emerged from the recess of the driver’s fur-lined hood. I could scarcely reply from the surprise of hearing a human voice cracking the silence.

‘No. Umina? Who was she?’

‘Ah, a visitor who comes to the castle and does not know the story of the haunting. Shall I tell you some of it? I used to be a guide here. But now my legs . . . the steps to the dungeon . . . too old now.’

He pushed back the cape to reveal a weathered face, the face of a mountain dweller. His Pieniny dialect was difficult to understand at times, but the tale he told me on that millennium eve has fascinated me ever since.

    It was a confused account, as he delivered it, involving an impoverished eighteenth-century Polish–Hungarian nobleman, his voyage to Peru and marriage to the last princess of the Incas, their flight to Venice after a public execution of revolutionaries, the family forced to flee to Poland from the Venetian island of Burano carrying with them a golden treasure protected by a coded curse. Pursued by Spanish assassins and Serenissima spies they had sought refuge in the ancient castle of Niedzica in the High Tatra mountains of Poland.

     The narrative was rudely interrupted by the arrival of some fifteen sanie (sleighs) with flaming torches for the kulig (sleigh ride) and bonfire in the forest which would conclude that magical evening. I rushed inside to collect the Princess. Amid the drivers shouting and arguing harshly in peasant Pieniny patois, the tinkling of bells, the neighing horses and cracking of whips we set off in minus twenty degrees of frost. A spectacular group of perhaps twenty sleighs snaked between the pines, the women wrapped in furs and the men in heavy overcoats covering their dinner jackets, some smoking pipes and cigars.

   Pale blue light reflected off the moonlit snow, limestone crags and wooden cottages as we bowled along, each sleigh a pool of warm light, the occupants laughing and chattering as sparks from the bitumen torches flew onto their clothing and lodged in their hair or fur caps. The torches blew wildly in the wind and suddenly we were racing. Passing and re-passing on the narrow icy road, the faces of the occupants bathed in light were gleeful, urging the driver on to even greater efforts, the excited horses’ hooves slipping, sparks from the torches speeding in long trails now. 

   Two huge bonfires had been built in a clearing and mulled wine with plenty of cinnamon was served from steaming cauldrons warming our frozen bodies and sedating our minds. Kielbasa (sausages) were attached to long poles and cooked over the resinous flames. Humorous and obscene folk songs were sung around the fire about ‘Maria’ lovingly making pierogi for her faithless husband. The blanketed horses dimly visible under the trees were eating hay.

     Slow on the long return, a heavy pull up the hill to the castle and a luxurious feeling of exhaustion as the steaming animals rested and the fur blankets were taken from around our knees. It was 5.00 am when we finally passed under the stone cross and crawled into bed in the ghost room of the castle. It was noon when I awoke with Zosia in my arms and decided to move to Poland for good. I could not have known then it would take another six years.

                    Christmas scene in Białowieża village in the far north-east of Poland 1993

For details of my book on Poland in both English and Polish 

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland  
(Granta, London 2008 and Czarne, Warsaw 2010) 



Polish language translation of the book is available direct form the author: 


Thursday, 29 October 2015

All Saints Day in Poland - 1 November 2015 - A Triumph of Humanity - A Memory Recalled

Click on photographs to enlarge - far superior rendition

Folk Carving of the Saviour at the Camaldolese Monastery on Lake Wigry

The grave of the Polish pianist Wladislaw Szpilman in Powazki Cemetery Warsaw on All Saints Day. The hero of Polanski’s film The Pianist died in Warsaw in July 2000 after a distinguished post-war musical career (he was an excellent interpreter of Chopin) and the composition of over five hundred popular songs. Ironically one of his loveliest songs is called W małym kinie [In a Little Cinema] which laments the loss of small, intimate cinemas so popular in the past in Poland. Many of his original recordings are still available transferred to CD.

*  *  *  *  *  *
[Polish translation of this passage in green below - scroll down]

‘Will you come with me to sweep the leaves from the grave of my aunt’s husband and her mother? She can’t leave her flat these days.’ Zosia asked me the morning of All Saints’ Day, November 1. ‘We’ve left it a bit late!’

‘Well, I suppose so.’ I replied rather reluctantly. Visiting graves on a feast day or as a recreational activity is popular in Poland, but seemed far too melancholic to me.

‘Oh, and bring your camera. You can take a picture for her after we have decorated it.’

The original fabric of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Warsaw has almost disappeared except paradoxically among the dead at Powązki cemetery. In many respects it is an extension of the tombs at Wawel in Kraków. Particularly eminent citizens are buried there among the legions of the forgotten. An autumn funeral at Powązki is particularly moving. The mourner emerges into a chill sun from under the cupola of the cemetery church of St. Charles Borromeo. The last leaves of summer flutter down like flakes of gold from an azure sky. One follows the coffin drawn by men dressed in eighteenth century livery of gilded black behind the priest and swaying cross along far-reaching allées to the waiting vault.

We packed gardening gloves and plastic rubbish bags into a basket. Outside the gates we bought funeral candles in coloured-glass containers of various shapes and sizes, candles that would burn for three days. We bought wreathes of dried and fresh flowers from the acres of blooms on display.

‘Well, hold open the bag while I put the dead leaves in then!’ Zosia was impatient as I stood impotently moving from foot to foot. I took a few photographs in the golden light after we had cleared the grave of leaves, washed and buffed it with Hades, the favourite polish for marble tombs.

On this day Poles not only honour departed members of their own families but all who have contributed to the national identity – in politics, the military, the arts and liberal professions. Entire dynasties of architects such as the Merlinis, who built the palaces of Warsaw, lie buried here. A fierce patriotism and intimate relationship with the dead imbues Polish society with rare cohesion. Solitary figures sit hunched on seats cemented to the foot of a grave, rising now and then to adjust just a fraction their arrangements of flowers and candles. The beautiful weather meant Varsovians were in a buoyant mood and an almost festive atmosphere pervaded the golden-leaved necropolis. I found myself purchasing candles and searching out the graves of my favourite Polish musicians and artists with an unaccustomed feeling of what one might fancifully call ‘sepulchral elation’. These gestures of a communal belief in the immortal soul of man were deeply affecting. At dusk the cemetery took on a true metaphysical atmosphere as the temperature fell and the mists of autumn descended. The dome of the church dissolved in fog as I joined the human tide passing through the Gate of Great Silence. The dark paths were illuminated by innumerable points of light, swathes of candles in an expression of fervent theatricality. Poles filtered past the graves in silence or in soft-whispering groups.

A million or so dead have been buried here over two centuries and countless graves robbed or lost. The ‘catacombs’ are normally long, gloomy galleries with six vertical rows of vaults for wealthier citizens, but that night they were a river of candle-light in red, yellow and white. A complete wheeled fortress gun-carriage adorned the grave of Major-General Jędrzej Węgłowski who invented it and died in 1861. A propeller was fixed to the grave of the Polish aviator Major Ludwik Idzikowski who died attempting to fly the Atlantic in 1929. Tram rails formed a cross for a tramway man killed when a boiler exploded in 1917. This cemetery was the only place leading sculptors could work without police interference from the partitioning powers, which resulted in superbly sculptured figures.

The funeral processions of Varsovian high society usually departed from the home where the body had been lying for three days. Chopin himself left the instruction ‘Open my body that I may not be buried alive.’ The body would then pass to the Holy Cross Church in Krakowskie Przedmieście (where Chopin’s heart lies) and then the considerable distance through the pungent and colourful Jewish ghetto quarter to Powązki. The coffins of two Polish racing airmen, Żwinko and Wigura, were mounted on top of the fuselage of their wrecked plane to be transported through the city.

I placed my own candles on the graves of the great pianist Witold Małcużyński, whom my pianist uncle Edward Cahill knew and admired, the national composer Moniuszko as well as the violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. Chopin’s teachers Wojciech Żywny and Jozef Elsner were buried here and more recently the Polish film director Krzyszof Kieślowski. His grave has a bronze sculpture of two hands framing a scene before shooting on film. Chopin's sensitive and extremely gifted poetic sister Emilia, taken tragically young from tuberculosis, is covered in flickering flames. Famous Polish actors and other artists smilingly wander about collecting money for the restoration and maintenance of the graves. Such a warm, communal and intimate atmosphere is created within the great reality of death. As I wandered down long avenues among nuns, lovers, families, priests and the elderly, glass containers shattered intermittently releasing small seas of fire that were hastily extinguished by passers-by.

Polish 'Golden October' in the gardens of the Palace of Nieborow during All Saints Day
not far from Zelazowa Wola where Chopin was born

The cemetery harbours many fascinating stories. Theatrical melodrama is seldom absent from the death of a Polish artist. Maria Wisnowska was a vivacious actress at the Variety Theatre. Radiantly promiscuous, she became slavishly obsessed (but not in love) with Alexander Bartenev, a glamorous Russian cornet in a regiment of hussars stationed in Warsaw. In the Slavic way of these things, they decided on a mutual suicide pact. After shooting her with his revolver his nerve failed when it came to turning the gun on himself. Bartenev was demoted in disgrace and imprisoned in a fortress. Impoverished he faithfully visited his lover’s grave until death. More macabre was the result of a bomb which fell on Powązki from a Soviet aircraft. A coffin was thrown up from the depths of a tomb and on the hands of the skeleton were seen a pair of white kidskin gloves. The right hand held a wave of long golden hair, which fell from the skull to the bony knees and rippled in the breeze like a bizarre resurrection of life.

The memorial to the Katyń massacre is illuminated by a veritable sea of candles. The massacre at Katyń forest on the banks of the Dnieper river near Smolensk was one of the most notorious and controversial atrocities suffered by Poles during the Second World War. After the outbreak of hostilities some 25,000 Polish reserve officers (doctors, scientists, teachers, businessmen and other graduates – ‘the cream of the class enemy’) were detained in Russian camps in September 1939. After a few months of correspondence with their families an ominous silence descended. In April 1943, 4,321 corpses were exhumed from a mass grave by the Nazis. Each had his hands tied behind his back but had a bullet lodged in the base of his skull. The Nazis blamed the Soviets and the Soviets blamed the Nazis.

Soviet guilt was established beyond doubt when President Gorbachev admitted the crime and revealed the location of the other two mass graves containing the remainder of the corpses. This outrage remains a symbol for Poles of the many atrocities committed against Poland by the USSR. The issue continues to smoulder and has affected generations of Poles with a negative or at the least chronically suspicious stance towards Russia. Katyń is a weeping sore that seems to never heal.

Some distance on from Powązki is the Military Cemetery, where the military of the last two hundred years are buried. Here are the anonymous graves of Home Army soldiers who fought in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, casualties of the Battle of Warsaw or the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ in 1920 and soldiers who died valiantly fighting the German invasion of 1939. The extensive open nature of this section set among birches recalls the heartbreaking and bloody resistance of Poland to unmerited aggression. Contemplating the serried ranks of military crosses, each with a candle winking in the night, it is as if the cloth of heaven has been laid upon the earth. After independence in 1918 many of the most notable citizens of Warsaw were buried here, including Władysław Szpilman the pianist.

A visit to the Jewish Cemetery adjacent to Powązki in Okopowa Street is a powerful and melancholic reminder of the tremendous historical presence of Jews in Warsaw and the central contribution they made to the life of the city. From 1527 to 1795 Jews were not permitted to live in Warsaw. The cemetery was founded in 1806, at that time outside the walls, and covered a massive eighty acres. Up to 1939 it contained the bodies of some 200,000 Jews in marked graves. Much of it is a sad and neglected place, finely carved gravestones overgrown and awry, decorative wrought iron rusting in piles, doors to mausoleums gaping as if the soul has fled. Despite this, clearance and dedication by volunteers has improved sections immeasurably over the years. Most moving are the common mass graves to the Ghetto Insurgents (overgrown grassy depressions surrounded by a circle of white marble standing stones with a simple black band) and memorial graves erected by Jewish families living abroad, family members murdered but never met. An inscription reads ‘In memory of one million Jewish children murdered by Nazi German barbarians 1939-1945.’

A statue of the renowned Janusz Korczak ‘The King of Children’ gently accompanies a few of his charges from his orphanage to their joint annihilation. Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) was the pseudonym of Henryk Goldszmit, the heroic Polish-Jewish paediatrician, children’s author and educational theorist. Andrzej Wajda made a film of his life in 1990 called Dr. Korczak.

Of the numberless descriptions I have read of the horrors of the Holocaust, this passage of the final journey of 200 children to the Treblinka extermination camp is the most heart-rending of all. It comes from Władisław Szpilman’s The Pianist.

"One day, around 5th August, when I had to take a brief rest from work and was walking down Gęsia Street, I happened to see Janusz Korczak and his orphans leaving the ghetto.

The evacuation of the Jewish orphanage run by Janusz Korczak had been ordered for that morning. The children were to have been taken away alone. He had the chance to save himself, and it was only with difficulty that he persuaded the Germans to take him too. He had spent long years of his life with children, and now, on this last journey, he could not leave them alone. He wanted to ease things for them. He told the orphans they were going out in to the country, so they ought to be cheerful. At last they would be able exchange the horrible, suffocating city walls for meadows of flowers, streams where they could bathe, woods full of berries and mushrooms. He told them to wear their best clothes, and so they came out into the yard, two by two, nicely dressed and in a happy mood.

The little column was lead by an SS man who loved children, as Germans do, even those he was about to see on their way into the next world. He took a special liking to a boy of twelve, a violinist who had his instrument under his arm. The SS man told him to go to the head of the procession of children and play – and so they set off.

When I met them in Gęsia Street the smiling children were singing in chorus, the little violinist was playing for them and Korczak was carrying two of the smallest infants, who were beaming too, and telling them some amusing story.

I am sure that even in the gas chamber, as the Zyklon B gas was stifling childish throats and striking terror instead of hope into the orphans’ hearts, the Old Doctor must have whispered with one last effort, ‘It’s all right, children, it will be all right,’ So that at least he could spare his little charges the fear of passing from life to death."

Władisław Szpilman The Pianist   trans. Anthea Bell (London 2000) 95-96

Details of the Childrens' Memorial, Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw

Such public and collective acts of celebration and mourning, both glorious and humbling, morally impeccable and unashamedly artistic, bind Polish society together. Such gestures guarantee the continuity of the Polish psychological inheritance. As I finally left through the clammy autumnal mist gathering my coat about me, I realised that All Saints’ Day in Poland was not a quaint, even macabre foreign custom, but a unique spiritual contribution to the soul of Europe and a triumph of humanity.

Polish Translation

- Pójdziesz ze mną uporządkować grób męża mojej ciotki i jej matki? Ona sama nie może teraz wychodzić z domu – spytała mnie Zosia w poranek Dnia Wszystkich Świętych, pierwszego listopada. – Zostawiliśmy to na ostatnią chwilę!
- Dobrze, pomogę ci – odparłem bez entuzjazmu. Odwiedzanie grobów w świąteczne dni i spacery po cmentarzach to Polsce bardzo popularny zwyczaj, mnie jednak wydawało się to zbyt melancholijne.
- Aha, i weź aparat. Zrobimy dla niej zdjęcie, kiedy już wszystko uprzątniemy.
Oryginalna tkanka osiemnastowiecznej i dziewiętnastowiecznej Warszawy znikła już niemal bez śladu; paradoksalnie jedynym zachowanym w całości fragmentem tej tkanki jest cmentarz na Powązkach. Pod wieloma względami jest to przedłużenie wawelskich krypt. Pośród legionów zapomnianych całkiem obywateli miasta grzebie się tu ludzi wybitnych i sławnych. Jesienny pogrzeb na Powązkach to szczególnie poruszająca uroczystość. Żałobnik wychodzi w chłodne promienie słońca spod kopuły przycmentarnego kościoła świętego Karola Boromeusza. Prosto z lazurowego nieba lecą ostatnie liście lata, płatki szczerego złota. Kondukt żałobny postępuje za trumną niesioną przez mężczyzn odzianych w osiemnastowieczną liberię, czarne szaty z ozdobnymi złoceniami. Z przodu kroczy ksiądz z krzyżem, prowadząc wszystkich wzdłuż długiej, prostej alei, do przygotowanej uprzednio krypty.
Włożyliśmy do koszyka rękawice ogrodnicze i worki na śmieci. Przed bramą kupiliśmy znicze nagrobne w pojemnikach z kolorowego szkła, w różnych rozmiarach i kształtach; sprzedawca zapewniał nas, że będą się palić przez trzy dni. Kupiliśmy również wieńce z suszonych i świeżych kwiatów, wybierając je spośród hektarów rozłożonych dokoła podobnych wiązanek.
- Trzymaj przynajmniej worek, a ja będę ładowała do niego suche liście! – niecierpliwiła się Zosia, podczas gdy ja przestępowałem bezradnie z nogi na nogę. Zrobiłem kilka zdjęć w złotym blasku słońca, kiedy już oczyściliśmy nagrobek z liści, umyliśmy go i wypolerowaliśmy „Hadesem”, ulubionym środkiem do czyszczenia marmurowych grobowców.
Tego dnia Polacy oddają cześć nie tylko zmarłym członkom swoich własnych rodzin, ale też wszystkim tym, którzy przyczynili się do zachowania narodowej tożsamości – politykom, wojskowym, artystom, różnego rodzaju twórcom. Leżą tu całe dynastie architektów, takich jak Merlini, którzy budowali pałace Warszawy. Gorący patriotyzm i bliska więź ze zmarłymi niezwykle spajają polskie społeczeństwo. Samotne postacie siedzą przygarbione na ławkach przed nagrobkami, podnoszą się od czasu do czasu, by przestawić o drobinę kwiaty lub świece. Piękna pogoda sprawiła, że warszawianie byli w pogodnych nastrojach, a na przykrytym złotymi liśćmi cmentarzu panowała prawdziwie świąteczna atmosfera. Nim się zorientowałem, sam kupowałem już świece i wyszukiwałem groby moich ulubionych polskich artystów i muzyków, przepełniony niezwykłym uczuciem, które można by nazwać „cmentarną euforią”. Te gesty wspólnej wiary w nieśmiertelną duszę człowieka były ogromnie wzruszające. O zmierzchu na cmentarzu zapanowała prawdziwie metafizyczna atmosfera, szczególnie gdy podniosła się jesienna mgła. Kopuła kościoła rozmyła się w ciemności i mgle, gdy przechodziłem wraz z ludzką falą przez Bramę Wielkiej Ciszy. Mroczne ścieżki oświetlał blask niezliczonych płomyków, połaci ognia tworzących niezwykłą, teatralną atmosferę. Polacy przechodzili obok grobów w milczeniu, niektórzy wymieniali szeptem jakieś uwagi.
W ciągu ponad dwustu lat pochowano tu około milion ludzi, ogromna liczba grobów została też ograbiona lub zniszczona. „Katakumby” to zwykle długie, ponure galerie z sześcioma pionowymi szeregami krypt przeznaczonych dla bogatszych obywateli; tej nocy jednak wyglądały jak rzeka ognia, czerwonych, żółtych i białych świec. Ogromna laweta forteczna zdobi grób generała Jędrzeja Węgłowskiego, który wynalazł to urządzenie (zmarł w 1861 roku). Śmigło znaczy grób polskiego lotnika, majora Ludwika Idzikowskiego, który zginął, próbując przelecieć nad Atlantykiem w 1929 roku. Szyny tramwajowe tworzyły krzyż na nagrobku motorniczego, który poniósł śmierć w wyniku eksplozji kotła w 1917 roku. Ten cmentarz był jedynym miejscem, w którym najlepsi rzeźbiarze mogli pracować, nie obawiając się interwencji policji mocarstw rozbiorowych, dlatego też powstało tutaj wiele posągów niezwykłej urody.
Kondukt pogrzebowy warszawiaków pochodzących z wyższych sfer wyruszał zwykle spod domu zmarłego, gdzie jego ciało spoczywało uprzednio przez trzy dni. Chopin zostawił instrukcję następującej treści: „Otwórzcie moje ciało, bym nie został pogrzebany żywcem”. Zwłoki przenoszono potem do kościoła Świętego Krzyża na Krakowskim Przedmieściu (gdzie spoczywa serce Chopina), a potem wyprawiano w długą podróż na Powązki, wiodącą przez barwną dzielnicę żydowską. Kiedy chowano dwóch sławnych polskich lotników, Żwirka i Wigurę, na czas transportu przez miasto umieszczono trumny na kadłubie ich rozbitego samolotu.
Postawiłem świeczki na grobie wielkiego pianisty Witolda Małcużyńskiego, którego mój wuj znał i podziwiał, na grobowcu światowej sławy kompozytora Moniuszki oraz skrzypka i kompozytora Henryka Wieniawskiego. Pochowano tu również nauczycieli Chopina, Wojciecha Żywnego i Józefa Elsnera, a w nieco mniej odległych czasach polskiego reżysera filmowego Krzysztofa Kieślowskiego. Na jego nagrobku znajduje się brązowa rzeźba przedstawiające dwie dłonie ułożone na kształt klatki filmowej obejmującej kolejne ujęcie. Kiedy przechadzałem się długimi alejami, pośród zakonnic, kochanków, rodzin, kapłanów i starców, niektóre szklane znicze pękały z trzaskiem, rozlewając dokoła małe oceany ognia, gaszone w pośpiechu przez przechodniów.
Z Cmentarzem Powązkowskim wiąże się wiele fascynujących historii. Śmierć polskich artystów często otoczona jest aurą teatralnej melodramatyczności. Maria Wisnowska była pełną życia aktorką. Olśniewająco piękna, a przy tym dość rozwiązła aktorka uwikłała się w niewolniczy, pozbawiony miłości romans z Aleksandrem Barteniewem, „kometem” oddziału rosyjskiej kawalerii stacjonującego w Warszawie. Postanowili, że popełnią razem samobójstwo. Kiedy już Barteniew zastrzelił ją ze swego pistoletu, zabrakło mu odwagi, by targnąć się na własne życie. W konsekwencji został zdegradowany i uwięziony w fortecy. Gdy wyszedł w końcu na wolność, okryty hańbą i zubożały, odwiedzał grób swej kochanki aż do śmierci. Inny, makabryczny spektakl był wynikiem eksplozji bomby zrzuconej na Powązki przez sowiecki samolot. Z grobowca wyleciała trumna, a oderwane wieko odsłoniło szkielet z białymi, skórzanymi rękawiczkami na dłoniach. Prawa ręka trzymała pukiel złotych włosów, które ciągnęły się od czaszki po kolana i kołysały na wietrze, jakby przywrócone nagle do życia.[1]
Wokół pomnika zbrodni Katyńskiej rozciąga się prawdziwe morze świec. Masakra w lesie Katyńskim, nad brzegami rzeki Dniepr w okolicach Smoleńska była jedną z najbardziej osławionych i kontrowersyjnych zbrodni dokonanych na narodzie polskim w czasie drugiej wojny światowej. Po rozpoczęciu działań wojennych we wrześniu 1939 roku zatrzymano w rosyjskich obozach ponad dwadzieścia tysięcy polskich oficerów rezerwy oraz żołnierzy w innych stopniach (byli to lekarze, naukowcy, inżynierowie, nauczyciele, biznesmeni i ludzie innych profesji – „śmietanka wroga klasowego”). Po kilku miesiącach, podczas których żołnierze korespondowali ze swoimi rodzinami, zapadła złowieszcza cisza. W kwietniu 1943 roku naziści rozkopali masowe groby i ekshumowali ponad 4000 ciał. Każdy z zabitych miał związane ręce i sowiecką kulę z tyłu czaszki. Naziści obwiniali sowietów, sowieci obwiniali nazistów.
Wina sowiecka została udowodniona ponad wszelką wątpliwość, gdy prezydent Gorbaczow przyznał się w imieniu Rosjan do zbrodni i wskazał, gdzie znajdują się pozostałe masowe groby, zawierające resztę ciał. Ten akt przemocy pozostaje dla Polaków symbolem wielu zbrodni popełnionych przez Związek Radziecki na narodzie polskim. Sprawa Katynia wciąż nie została ostatecznie zamknięta i sprawiła, że wielu Polaków ma negatywny stosunek do Rosji. Katyń to otwarta rana, która wciąż nie może się zagoić.[2]
Niedaleko Cmentarza Powązkowskiego znajduje się Cmentarz Wojskowy, gdzie od dwustu lat chowa się ludzi związanych z wojskiem. Tutaj znajdują się anonimowe groby żołnierzy Armii Krajowej poległych w powstaniu warszawskim, ofiary bitwy warszawskiej czy też „Cudu nad Wisłą” z 1920 roku, oraz żołnierze, którzy walczyli mężnie z niemieckim najeźdźcą w roku 1939. Ten rozległy fragment nekropolii, porośnięty wierzbami, przywołuje pamięć o dramatycznym, krwawym oporze, jaki Polska stawiała niczym nie uzasadnionej agresji. Patrząc na zwarte szeregi wojskowych krzyży, wśród których migocą płomyki świec, odnosi się wrażenie, że oto szata niebios została rozpostarta na ziemi. Po roku 1918, kiedy Polska odzyskała niepodległość, pochowano tu wielu wybitnych obywateli Warszawy, między innymi pianistę Władysława Szpilmana.[3]
Wizyta na przylegającym do Powązek Cmentarzu Żydowskim przy ulicy Okopowej przypomina, jak znacząca była niegdyś obecność Żydów w Warszawie, i jak wielki był ich wkład w życie tego miasta. W latach 1527-1795 nie pozwalano Żydom osiedlać się w Warszawie. Cmentarz powstał w roku 1806, wówczas jeszcze poza miastem, i obejmował ogromny obszar ponad 32 hektarów. W roku 1939 spoczywały tu ciała około 200 000 Żydów, pochowane w oznaczonych grobach. Obecnie duża część nekropolii jest zaniedbana, pięknie rzeźbione nagrobki chylą się ku ziemi, ozdobne kute żelazo rdzewieje, a drzwi grobowców stoją otworem, jakby uciekły z nich dusze zmarłych. Mimo to, dzięki pracy i poświęceniu wielu wolontariuszy, w ostatnich latach sytuacja znacznie się poprawiła, a spore fragmenty cmentarza zostały oczyszczone i odrestaurowane. Najbardziej wzruszające są masowe groby uczestników powstania w getcie (zarośnięte trawą zagłębienia, otoczone kręgiem stojących marmurowych bloków z czarnymi opaskami) oraz symboliczne nagrobki ufundowane przez Żydów mieszkających za granicą w hołdzie tym członkom ich rodzin, którzy zostali tu zamordowani i nie mieli szansy ich poznać. Napis na jednym z pomników głosi: „Pamięci miliona żydowskich dzieci zamordowanych przez niemieckich barbarzyńców 1939-1945”.
Na terenie cmentarza znajduje się również pomnik, a zarazem symboliczny grób, Janusza Korczaka[4] „Króla dzieci”, który towarzyszy grupce swoich wychowanków z domu dziecka, zmierzając wraz z nimi ku wspólnej zagładzie. Spośród niezliczonych opisów okropności holokaustu, które miałem okazję czytać, ten właśnie fragment, opisujący ostatnią drogę dwustu dzieci do obozu zagłady w Treblince, jest najbardziej rozdzierający. Pochodzi z książki Władysława Szpilmana „Pianista”.

„Kilka dni później, chyba 5 sierpnia, udało mi się wyrwać na krótko z pracy i szedłem ulicą Gęsią, gdy przypadkowo stałem się świadkiem wymarszu Janusza Korczaka i jego sierot z getta.
Na ten poranek zaplanowano, zgodnie z rozkazem, opróżnienie prowadzonego przez Korczaka żydowskiego sierocińca. Dzieci miały zostać wywiezione same, jemu zaś dawano szansę uratowania się i tylko z trudem udało mu się przekonać Niemców, by zezwolili mu towarzyszyć dzieciom. Spędził z nimi długie lata swojego życia i teraz, w ich ostatniej drodze, nie chciał ich pozostawiać samych. Chciał im tę drogę ułatwić. Wytłumaczył sierotom, że mają powód do radości, bo jadą na wieś. Nareszcie mogą zamienić wstrętne, duszne mury na łąki porośnięte kwiatami, na źródła, w których będzie można się kąpać, na lasy, gdzie jest tak wiele jagód i grzybów. Zarządził, by ubrały się świątecznie i tak ładnie wystrojone, w radosnym nastroju ustawiły się parami na dziedzińcu.
Małą kolumnę prowadził SS-man, który jak każdy Niemiec kochał dzieci, a szczególnie te, które miał wkrótce wyprawić na tamten świat. Wyjątkowo spodobał mu się dwunastoletni chłopiec – skrzypek, który niósł swój instrument pod pachą. Rozkazał mu wyjść na czoło pochodu dzieci i grać. Tak też ruszyli w drogę.
Gdy spotkałem ich na Gęsiej, dzieci, idąc, śpiewały chórem, rozpromienione, mały muzyk im przygrywał, a Korczak niósł na rękach dwoje najmłodszych, także uśmiechniętych, i opowiadał im coś zabawnego.
Z pewnością jeszcze w komorze gazowej, gdy gaz dławił już dziecięce krtanie, a strach zajmował w sercach sierot miejsce radości i nadziei, Stary Doktor ostatnim wysiłkiem szeptał im:
- To nic, dzieci! To nic… - by przynajmniej swym małym podopiecznym zaoszczędzić strachu przed przejściem z życia do śmierci”.[5]

Takie publiczne i zbiorowe akty czci i żałoby, chwalebne, a zarazem upokarzające, moralnie nienaganne i bezwstydnie artystyczne, spajają polskie społeczeństwo. Takie gesty budują ciągłość polskiego dziedzictwa psychologicznego. Kiedy wreszcie wyszedłem z okrytego wilgotną mgłą cmentarza, otulając się szczelniej płaszczem, uświadomiłem sobie, że Dzień Wszystkich Świętych w Polsce nie jest dziwnym, nawet makabrycznym obyczajem, lecz unikatową częścią duszy Europy i triumfem człowieczeństwa.

[1] Historia Powązek opisana została w ciepły, a zarazem głęboko patriotyczny sposób w bogato ilustrowanej książce Jerzego Waldorffa „The Rest is Silence: The Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw” („Reszta jest milczeniem”)
[2] Więcej szczegółów można znaleźć w książce „The Murderers of Katyń: A Russian Journalist Investigates” V. Abarinov (Nowy Jork 1993). Warto również zajrzeć na stronę prowadzoną przez australijskiego historyka Davida Miramsa – – dostępnej w polskiej i angielskiej wersji językowej.
[3] Bohater filmu Romana Polańskiego „Pianista” zmarł w Warszawie w lipcu 2000 roku. Przeżywszy cudem wojnę, zrobił wspaniałą karierę muzyczną, skomponował ponad pięćset popularnych melodii i piosenek. Jak na ironię jeden z jego ulubionych utworów nosi tytuł „W małym kinie” i opłakuje zniknięcie małych, kameralnych kin, które niegdyś były ogromnie popularne w Polsce.
[4] Janusz Korczak (1878-1942), a właściwie Henryk Goldszmit, Polak żydowskiego pochodzenia, był bohaterskim lekarzem pediatrą, autorem książek dla dzieci i pedagogiem. Andrzej Wajda nakręcił w 1990 roku film o jego życiu zatytułowany „Korczak”. Do dziś działają sierocińce zainspirowane jego ideami.
[5] Władysław Szpilman, „Pianista” (Kraków 2002) str. 91-92

Extract from:

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland by Michael Moran (London 2010) 

Kraj z Księżyca: Podróże do Serca Polski (Warszawa 2010)

Polish language version is  ow available direct from the author: Contact

The grave of Jerzy Waldorff (1910-1999) Powazki Cemetery Warsaw on All Saints Day
For a warmly patriotic, anecdotal and profusely illustrated account of the history of Powązki Cemetery see The Rest Is Silence : The Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw by the wonderful Polish music critic, writer, journalist, social activist and great character Jerzy Waldorff  trans. Chester Kisiel (Warsaw 1992).

By tradition actors, actresses and media folk collect money in the cemetery to assist in the refurbishment and upkeep of graves of the illustrious in the Polish past.

                                                                       *  *  *  *  *  *

In Poland, the presence of Islam is an old phenomenon, deeply rooted in the history and culture of the country. In the 16th and 17th centuries some 100,000 Sunni Muslim Tatars emigrated to Poland. Yesterday, Sunday 2 November 2014, I again ventured into the clammy night to visit the small Muslim Tatar Cemetery in Warsaw. So many appalling acts are being committed by Islamist extremist fundamentalists at present I felt I wanted to visit a place where the traces of some 627 years of relatively peaceful co-existence between Poles, Lithuanians and Tatars remain. Years ago I had visited the tiny Muslim mosques of Kruszyniany and Bohoniki and written about the experience:

There was no fresh horse blood on the menu at the Tatar restaurant. Delicious dumplings were recommended by the two beautiful young teenage girls who served me. One was a descendant of the Tatars who settled  in Kruszyniany three  hundred years  before.  She was of a markedly  eastern appearance with jet black, straight hair. The other girl was a blonde Pole with flowers in her hair. As they stood smil- ing, waiting to take my order, I could not help reflecting on the harmony that existed between Islam and Christianity for centuries in this region during the period of the religiously tolerant Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and comparing  it with the lamentable world  situation  today.  During  the  sojourn  of Adam  Mickiewicz among the Crimean  Tatars in 1825, he developed ‘oriental’ enthusiasms reflected in his beautiful Crimean Sonnets. He was able to effortlessly reconcile his great reverence for Islam with his Catholic faith. At this time he also developed an enduring respect for the Jews, to the point of attempting  in 1855 to raise a Jewish legion in Istanbul, the Hussars  of Israel. The story of the ‘Lipka Tatars’  is an extraordinary one full of passion and exoticism.

The villages of Bohoniki  and Kruszyniany are east of Białystok close to the border  with Belarusia and both  possess tiny mosques. As one passes through the magnificent  Puszcza  Knyszyńska, it is easy to imagine the small sturdy horses of the Tatars scything across the broad, open plains. The car passed silently over a thick carpet of fallen leaves as there  was virtually  no traffic in this remote  place. Kruszyniany is a hamlet of rustic, mainly wooden houses that straggle along a muddy road. The mosque set among birch trees is a small eighteenth-century weatherboard building painted green. If it were not for the tiny golden star and crescent glittering on the top of twin cupolas,  it  would  be  almost  indistinguishable from  a Christian parish chapel. Fortunately I arrived as one of the Tatar descendants was locking up. His face had a distinct Mongol cast from the central Asian  steppe  and  he  was  extraordinarily friendly.  Turkish   and Persian rugs covered the floor.

‘Do come in! You are most  welcome,  sir. Did  you  know  there were still Tatars like me in Poland?’ He gave a terrific grin.

‘Yes, I did actually. I came to this village to see the mosque. I’ve just had a delicious lunch of Tatar specialities.’

‘Ah! You like the Tatar foods! So you know everything about us, but you do not know the Islamic features in here, I think.’

‘No, you’re right. I certainly don’t know enough about Islam.’

‘The small room there is for the women, separate from the men. Here is the Mihrab that indicates the passage to Mecca. The Minbar is this small platform where the Imam delivers prayers and addresses the congregation. On the walls there are Muhirs, ornamental hangings with  embroidered verses from  the Koran.’  

The mosque  was diminutive  in scale but  had a definite atmosphere of holiness  and peace.
‘I see. Is the mosque still used?’

‘Yes, but not so often. There are only three Tatar families left in the village now. All the young people are in the city. But I like it here and talking to interesting  visitors like you, my good sir!’

Islam has had a long, relatively peaceful relationship with Poland of  a  unique  character.  Polish  Sarmatians  claimed  descent  from Iranian  ‘barbarian’  tribes  from  the  Black Sea steppe.  The  Lipka Tatars have been living on the lands of the old Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth since the  fourteenth century.  The  Tatar  warlord Tokhtamysh and his clan were permitted to settle in Lithuania  by the  Lithuanian  Grand   Duke   Vytautas   (1352–1430)  after  being defeated by the legendary Turco-Mongol warlord  Tamerlane. They were permitted to maintain  their tribal organization and given the religious freedom  to practise  Islam. Many  fought  as light cavalry against the Teutonic  Knights  at Grunwald and subsequently defended the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from attack. Cooperation lasted through successive reigns until the Counter Reformation, when restrictions of their long-held  privileges caused them to appeal to the Sultan Murad III in Istanbul. They finally rebelled and went over to the Turks when the Polish–Ottoman war erupted  in 1672.

The Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, himself descended from Christianized Lipka Tatars, won the Nobel  prize for literature  in 1905. 201 The name ‘Lipka’ comes from the old Crimean Tatar name for Lithuania and a corruption of the Polish meaning ‘small lime tree’. His  great  historical  Trylogia  (Trilogy)  written  in the  late nineteenth century  described and in many ways helped forge the national character of Poles, inspiring them to resist under foreign occupation and the Nazis. The Tatar rebellion was immortalized in the last novel of the trilogy – Pan Wołodyjowski (Colonel Wolodyjowski, or Fire in the Steppe):

The young  Lipka raised his proud  head, cast his lynx-like  glare over the gathering  and, having suddenly  torn  open  his tunic  to reveal his broad chest, he exclaimed “Behold, the blue fish tattoos! I am the son of Tuhaj-Bej!” The room was stunned to silence. The very name of such a terrifying  warlord  curdled the blood.

Only a year later the Lipkas had become disaffected by their new masters and after the Polish victory at Chocim  in 1673 their privileges were restored  in an amnesty.

They  then  fought  alongside  the  winged  cavalry  of  King  Jan Sobieski III at the great Battle of Vienna in 1683, wearing straw in their helmets to distinguish  themselves from the Tatars fighting on the Turkish  side. The famed ‘Tatar tactics’ of a feigned retreat  fol- lowed by reverse and attack contributed greatly to victory that day. Sobieski wrote to his wife Marysieńka, ‘Our Tatars are entertaining themselves with falcons they have brought with them . . . and are proving  to be loyal and trustworthy.’ After this victory they were rewarded with land, noble status and exemption from taxes. The ennobled  Lipka cavalry units (some astonishingly sharing the same Nałęcz coat of arms as Joseph Conrad) lived like szlachta, took part in uprisings after the partition of Poland, fought in the Napoleonic army and finally against the Nazis.

I followed the advice of my Tatar descendant to visit the Mizar or Tatar cemetery set in woodland on a slight rise, a place eloquent  of the remarkable  mixture  of cultures  in eastern  Poland.  The grave- stones near the entrance were clearly Christian, but these gave way to older Tatar headstones, overgrown and tilted at crazy angles, topped with iron crescents and stars, some with Russian or Arabic inscrip- tions. Names  such as Mustapha  Bogdanowicz or Ismail Jankowsy reflect the marriage of Pole and Tatar. The origins of Jewish Tatars however  are hidden  in the mists of time. Families clearly of Asian origin were clearing graves of leaves and tangled overgrowth in preparation for All Saints’ Day, a custom  they have adopted  from their Christian neighbours. One  particularly strong Tatar physiognomy sent my mind reeling straight back to the fourteenth century.

Hundreds of rarely visited lakes and ancient forests dominate  the regions north of the Tatar villages along the Belarusian frontier up to the Lithuanian border.  The Puszcza Augustowska and the Suwalszczyna possess some of the most remote, beautiful and undeveloped country- side in Europe. Lake Wigry is a labyrinthine network of creeks, forest, marsh and water with many varieties of fish, beaver, game and birds. The  outrageously pink  Camadolese  monastery dominates  the  lake. Pairs of storks perch and clack conjugal bills on haystacks. Carts pulled by lusty horses are loaded with laughing children sitting on piled leaves of green tobacco. Deserted roads of a blessed rural past.

Extracted from: 

A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland by Michael Moran (London 2010)

The Tatar mosque at Kruszyniany

The friendly custodian of the Tatar mosque in Kruszyniany in 1993

The Tatar cemetery in Warsaw is deeply atmospheric due in part to the subconscious overlays of horror at present chocking our hearts and souls. The small cemetery was founded in 1867 to cater for Muslim soldiers in the Tsar's armies stationed in Warsaw. It then became the resting place for Polish Tatars mainly from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. 

In November 2010, a monument to the Polish Tatars was unveiled in Gdansk in a ceremony addressed by the Polish President Komorowski and Tatar representatives from across Poland and abroad. The monument is a symbol of the long and important role of Tatars in Polish history. "Tatars shed their blood in all national independence uprisings. Their blood seeped into the foundations of the reborn Polish Republic." President Komorowski stated at the unveiling. The monument is the first of its kind to be erected in Europe. Distinct Tatar military units have fought bravely for Poland over the centuries in an analogous way to the Gurkha units for Britain but naturally over a far longer period. Since the Battle of Grunwald (Battle of Tannenberg in 1410) until World War II, Polish Muslim­ Tatars have been separate units in Polish army.

Tatar Mosque at Bohoniki
This active cemetery was originally divided into sections for the rich on the right and the poor on the left. This division has been abandoned but appeared still in evidence last night as the left side was mainly in darkness without candles and the right brightly lit in a number of places. According to their religious law, a Muslim needs to be buried within three days after his death with cremation forbidden. 

The history of Polish Tatars is a perfect example of co-­existence of two different cultures. I ask myself whether this  process of acculturation was enabled by Polish tolerance towards their Muslim neighbors. Certainly Polish soldiers were much respected by Muslims in their zone of occupation after the recent Iraq war. Awareness of the history of the successful acculturation of the Polish Tatars might well go a long way to returning all truly religious hearts to a respect for the sacred miracle of human life.

Polish Translation

W menu tatarskiej restauracji nie było wcale świeżej końskiej krwi. Dwie śliczne nastolatki, które mnie obsługiwały, poleciły pyszne pierogi. Jedna z nich była potomkinią Tatarów, którzy osiedlili się w Kruszynianach trzysta lat temu. Miała typowo wschodnią urodę, podkreśloną przez proste, kruczoczarne włosy. Drugą była jasnowłosa Polka z kwiatami we włosach. Kiedy stały, uśmiechnięte, czekając na moje zamówienie, pomyślałem mimowolnie o harmonii panującej w tym regionie między islamem i chrześcijaństwem przez wiele stuleci, w czasach tolerancji religijnej Rzeczpospolitej Obojga Narodów; nie mogłem też uniknąć porównań z opłakaną sytuacją współczesnego świata. W czasie pobytu wśród Tatarów krymskich w 1825 roku Adam Mickiewicz uległ fascynacji „orientem”, czemu dał wyraz w swoich pięknych „Sonetach Krymskich”. Udało mu się wówczas bez trudu pogodzić szacunek dla islamu ze swą wiarą katolicką. W owym czasie nabrał także wielkiego szacunku dla Żydów – do tego stopnia, że w 1855 roku próbował stworzyć w Stambule (Konstantynopolu) Legion Żydowski, Husarię Izraela.[1] Historia „Tatarów polskich”, zwanych również Lipkami[2] to rzecz niezwykła, pełna namiętności i egzotyki.
Wioski Bohoniki i Kruszyniany leżą na wschód od Białegostoku, blisko granicy z Białorusią. W obu znajduje się maleńki meczet. Wędrując przez wspaniałą Puszczę Knyszyńską nietrudno wyobrazić sobie małe, mocne konie Tatarów pędzące przez wielkie, otwarte równiny. Samochód jechał cicho po grubym dywanie suchych liści zalegających na drodze, gdyż w tym odległym miejscu nie było prawie żadnego ruchu. Kruszyniany to osada złożona z rustykalnych, głównie drewnianych domów rozrzuconych wzdłuż błotnistej drogi. Meczet ukryty między brzozami to mały, drewniany budynek z osiemnastego wieku, pomalowany na zielono. Gdyby nie maleńkie złote gwiazdy i półksiężyce, lśniące na szczycie bliźniaczych kopuł, właściwie nie różniłby się niczym od parafialnego kościółka. Dopisało mi szczęście, bo dotarłem do meczetu w chwili, gdy zamykał go jeden z potomków tutejszych Tatarów. Miał twarz o charakterystycznych mongolskich rysach, rodem prosto z azjatyckiego stepu, i był niesłychanie uprzejmy. Podłogę meczetu okrywały tureckie i perskie dywany.
- Proszę wejść! Serdecznie pana zapraszam. Wiedział pan, że w Polsce wciąż żyją Tatarzy, tacy jak ja? – Uśmiechnął się od ucha do ucha.
- Tak, prawdę mówiąc wiedziałem. Przyjechałem tutaj, żeby obejrzeć meczet. Właśnie zjadłem pyszny lunch, same tatarskie specjały.
- Ach, więc lubi pan tatarskie jedzenie! Więc wie pan o nas wszystko, ale pewnie nie wie pan, jak zbudowany jest meczet.
- Ma pan rację. Rzeczywiście niewiele wiem o islamie.
- Ten mały pokój przeznaczony jest dla kobiet, oddzielonych od mężczyzn. Tutaj jest Mihrab, który wskazuje, gdzie leży Mekka. Minbar to małe podwyższenie, z którego imam prowadzi modlitwę i przemawia do wiernych. Na ścianach wiszą muhiry, ozdobne tkaniny z wyhaftowanymi wersetami z Koranu.
Meczet był maleńki, ale wypełniała go atmosfera świętości i spokoju.
- Czy ktoś nadal korzysta z tego meczetu?
- Tak, ale niezbyt często. W wiosce zostały już tylko trzy tatarskie rodziny. Wszyscy młodzi ludzie są w mieście. Ale mnie się tutaj podoba, i lubię rozmawiać z takimi ciekawymi gośćmi jak pan!
Długa historia islamu w Polsce ma wyjątkowo spokojny, unikatowy wręcz charakter. Polscy Sarmaci twierdzili, że są potomkami „barbarzyńskich” irańskich plemion z czarnomorskich stepów. Tatarzy polscy (litewscy) żyli na terenach Rzeczpospolitej Obojga Narodów od czternastego wieku. Tatarski chan Tochtamysz i jego klan osiedlili się na Litwie za zgodą wielkiego księcia Witolda (1352-1430) po tym, jak zostali pokonani przez legendarnego wodza turecko-mongolskiego Timura. Pozwolono im zachować strukturę plemienną i swobodnie praktykować islam. Wielu z nich walczyło w oddziałach lekkiej kawalerii przeciwko Krzyżakom na polach Grunwaldu, później zaś broniło granic Rzeczpospolitej Obojga Narodów. Współpraca ta trwała przez wiele lat, aż do czasów kontrreformacji; kiedy odebrano im przywileje, którymi cieszyli się przez tak długi czas, szukali pomocy u sułtana Murada III w Stambule. W końcu zbuntowali się i w roku 1672, kiedy wybuchła wojna polsko-osmańska, przeszli na stronę Turków.
Potokiem Lipków był polski pisarz, Henryk Sienkiewicz, który w 1905 roku otrzymał literacką nagrodę Nobla. Jego wielki cykl historyczny, „Trylogia”, napisany pod koniec dziewiętnastego wieku, dodawał Polakom otuchy i kształtował ich narodowy charakter, nakłaniając do czynnego stawiania oporu państwom zaborczym, a później również i nazistom. Tatarski bunt uwieczniony został w ostatniej powieści „Trylogii” – „Panu Wołodyjowskim”.

„A młody Lipek podniósł dumnie głowę, powiódł swym żbiczym wzrokiem po zgromadzeniu i nagle rozerwawszy żupan na swej szerokiej piersi rzekł:
- Ot, ryby siną barwą wykłute!... Jam jest syn Tuhaj-beja!...
Umilkli wszyscy, tak wielkie imię strasznego wojownika uczyniło wrażenie.”[3]

Zaledwie rok później Lipkowie zniechęcili się do swoich nowych panów, a po zwycięstwie polskiej armii pod Chocimiem, w roku 1673, wrócili do Polski i otrzymali przywrócone w wyniku amnestii przywileje.
Później walczyli u boku skrzydlatej kawalerii króla Jana III Sobieskiego w wielkiej bitwie wiedeńskiej, w 1683 roku; nosili wówczas słomę przywiązaną do hełmów, by odróżnić się od Tatarów walczących po stronie tureckiej. Słynna „tatarska taktyka”, polegająca na pozorowanym odwrocie, po którym następuje nagły atak, w znacznej mierze przyczynił się do zwycięstwa polskich wojsk. Sobieski pisał do swojej żony, Marysieńki: „Nasi Tatarzy zabawiają się sokołami, które przywieźli tu ze sobą… są lojalni i godni zaufania”. Po tej wiktorii Lipkowie otrzymali w nagrodę ziemię i tytuły szlacheckie, zostali również zwolnieni z podatków. Lipkowscy kawalerzyści (co ciekawe, niektórzy pieczętowali się herbem Nałęcz, tym samym, co Joseph Conrad) żyli jak szlachta, brali udział w powstaniach po rozbiorach Polski, walczyli w armii napoleońskiej, a w końcu także przeciwko nazistom.
Kierując się radą mojego tatarskiego przewodnika, postanowiłem odwiedzić mizar czyli tatarski cmentarz, ukryty w lesie na niewielkim wzgórzu, miejscu świadczącym o niezwykłym pomieszaniu kultur we wschodniej Polsce. Nagrobki przy wejściu bez wątpienia były chrześcijańskie, dalej jednak ustępowały miejsca nagrobkom tatarskim, zarośniętym i przechylonym na różne strony. Każdy z nich zwieńczony był żelaznym półksiężycem oraz gwiazdą i opatrzony napisem po rosyjsku, polsku lub arabsku. Niektóre nazwiska, takie jak Mustafa Bogdanowicz albo Ismail Jankowski były naocznym dowodem zrastania się ludności polskiej i tatarskiej. Jednakże początki żydowskich Tatarów giną w pomroce dziejów. Ludzie o typowych azjatyckich rysach czyścili groby z trawy i liści, przygotowując je do Dnia Wszystkich Świętych i trzymając się tym samym zwyczaju, który przejęli od swoich chrześcijańskich sąsiadów. Oblicze jednego z nich, o wyjątkowo mocnych, azjatyckich rysach, przeniosło na moment moją wyobraźnię prosto do czternastego wieku.
Setki rzadko odwiedzanych jezior i połacie starych, gęstych lasów dominują w krajobrazie regionu położonego na północ od tatarskich wiosek, wzdłuż białoruskiej granicy, aż po Litwę. Puszcza Augustowska i Suwalszczyzna to jedne z najpiękniejszych i najdzikszych obszarów w Europie. Jezioro Wigry otoczone jest prawdziwym labiryntem strumieni, lasów i trzęsawisk, w których żyje mnóstwo różnorakich gatunków ryb, zwierząt lądowych i ptactwa. Nad jeziorem góruje szokująco różowy klasztor kamedułów. Na stogach siana przysiadają pary bocianów, które klekocą głośno w małżeńskim uniesieniu. Krzepkie konie ciągną wozy wyładowane stertami zielonych liści tytoniu, na których siedzą roześmiane dzieciaki. Puste drogi szczęśliwej wiejskiej przeszłości.

[1] Szersze omówienie stosunku Mickiewicza do Żydów, których ogromnie szanował za gotowość do walki i stawiania oporu (co sprzeczne jest z powszechnym mniemaniem o służalczości Żydów), oraz prób stworzenia legionu żydowskiego, znaleźć można w fascynującej książce „Black Sea” Neala Aschersona (Londyn 1995) str. 171-5
[2] Nazwa „Lipka” pochodzi od starej, tatarskiej nazwy Litwy i została prawdopodobnie wywiedziona od zdrobnienia nazwy drzewa lipa.
[3] „Pan Wołodyjowski”, Henryk Sienkiewicz

Extract from: 

Kraj z Księżyca: Podróże do Serca Polski (Warszawa 2010)

Polish language version is now available direct from the author: Contact

Church in Bieszczady