Marek Skwarnicki, in the crowded apartment on Ulitsa Pigonia
For the last week or two, I kept thinking that I should drop a note to Polish poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, and translator Marek Skwarnicki So I finally wrote him a friendly email on Saturday, inquiring about his well-being and that of his wife, Zofię. Marek is another in the tribe of people I wanted to stay in touch with – but he was so easy to lose track of, even in Kraków, living way out on Prądnik Biały, in the most farflung northern outskirts of the city, in one of the highest floors of an anonymous apartment block on Ulitsa Pigonia.
I googled him yesterday, just to see what he might be up to, and had another shock: according to the Polish media, he had died on the 12th of March, about the same time I began having the impulse to write him. (This is the second time this has happened in two months, which is eerie to say the least.) He was a month shy of his 83rd birthday. President Bronislaw Komorowski posthumously awarded him the Officer’s Cross of the Mark Skwarnickiego Polish Order of Polonia Restituta, for “outstanding contribution to Polish culture.” The Polish media don’t list a cause of death (nor does Rome’s La Stampa), nor tell us whether his wife survived him. Obviously, I didn’t attend the 20 March funeral mass at the Benedictine abbey in Tyniec, celebrated by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski – the eminent poet Julia Hartwig spoke afterwards at the event, which was attended by former colleagues at Tygodnik Powszechny and Znak.
So let this be my tribute to one of the kindest people I remember.
Marek was one of the contributors to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz – I don’t remember who suggested I talk to him. This is what I had to say about him in the Contributors Notes:
Marek Skwarnicki—Polish poet, writer, and translator of poetry—was imprisoned in the German concentration camp Mauthausen in 1944. From 1958 to 1991, he was on the editorial board of Tygodnik Powszechny. He has written many volumes of poetry and memoirs from his travels with John Paul II, which he covered as a reporter. His correspondence with Miłosz is included in his book Mój Miłosz (My Miłosz).
I made the trek out to meet Marek and his wife Zofię in 2008, during my fellowship to Poland. Did I bring flowers on this visit, or the second? I can’t recall, but flowers always seemed plentiful in that apartment, along with the sweetish wine and store-bought pastries they served to guests. At one point I brought an armload of bright yellow flowers – that I remember.
On my first visit, the devout Catholic writer told me cheerfully, “Miłosz was a heretic, like all great artists” – yet gave a nuanced portrait of the anguished religiosity of the Nobel poet. In Invisible Rope, he tells the story of his first contact with Miłosz:
“Because of the changes in the Soviet Union, Khrushchev coming to power and de-Stalinization, the year 1956 became pivotal in Polish political history. The publishing policies in my country experienced a “thaw,” an easing up of the state censorship that used to control not only every printed word, but also the size of periodical circulation and even the content of business cards. The name of Czesław Miłosz was now permitted to be mentioned in print. Tygodnik Powszechny — a general-interest, political, Catholic, and sociocultural weekly — resumed its publication after a forced hiatus.
While still a student, I had written for the magazine under an assumed name. Later, I forged relations with the former editors and, in 1957, (since because I myself had started writing poetry), my poem titled ‘A Letter from Warsaw’ appeared in Tygodnik Powszechny; this poem was my way of thanking Czesław Miłosz for being the ‘daylight’ of my young years and the ‘rescue’ in Warsaw. Truth be told, the entire Communist press lashed out at me. Nevertheless, the poem was published.
In younger days (Courtesy the Skwarnicki family).
On Christmas 1957, I received a letter from Paris. The envelope carried no return address. Inside was a white card with a red-and-white border. In the top left corner, there was a little Christmas tree and a handwritten inscription ‘Merry Christmas’; and in the lower rightcorner, it was signed ‘from Czesław Miłosz.’ This was the beginning of our relationship, which deepened into a friendship between an older poet and a younger one (this is how Miłosz described it) and ended only with his death in Kraków.”
The two had a mutual friend in their fellow Pole and fellow poet, John Paul II. Marek met Karol Wojtyla in the late ’50s in the editorial offices of Tygodnik Powszechny – well, Kraków is a small town. From that time onwards, he became a sort of literary counselor to the poet-pope, and was invited to Rome to assist the Pope in the final editing of Wojtyla’s Roman Triptych: Meditations. Marek also translated the Psalms – curiously enough, so did Miłosz, teaching himself Hebrew to do so.
The only time I riled this gentle man, even a little, was when, on his manuscript, I politely inquired whether Polish authorities weren’t tracking his unconventional trip across America, where he finally met Miłosz face-to-face after years of correspondence:
“I like to add that you made me slightly angry on you with your remarks about my fear of Polish political police. I am and I was in your free country the free man, not slave, not afraid of Polish KGB. I did not made report to them after return to [my] country. They did not know that I was visiting office of Polish Section of Voice of America, what was more dangerous than [visiting] Milosz. Sorry. Warm wishes to you.”
I remember my second and last visit to the tiny, crowded apartment on Pigonia in 2011. As I left, they urged me to come back again before the end of my trip – I remember saying goodbye, not knowing if I had the time in my tight schedule to find my way to this apartment building again. I suspected I would not, but looked at the generous, expectant faces of this hospitable, open-hearted, and thoroughly devoted couple – half-blind, half-deaf, yet waiting for me – and I said I would try.