Poet Anna Frajlich-Zajac (she uses Frajlich as her pen name) is retiring from Columbia University, where she taught Polish language and literature for decades. The Harriman Institute’s Ronald Meyer has written a tribute to the Polish poet. Here’s how she came to New York City, in a wave of Jewish emigration too little known in the West:
Anna and her family were part of the mass emigration of some 13,000 Poles of Jewish descent who had fallen victim to a virulent anti-Semitic campaign and political crisis known as March 1968. Emigration required renunciation of one’s Polish citizenship, which Anna had to perform on behalf of her two-year-old son. Like her fellow émigrés, Anna believed that she would never see her native land again. Officially they were bound for Israel, but her husband argued that if they were to leave Poland, they should go as far as possible from Europe; thus they informed the authorities in Vienna that they wished to make the United States their home. They traveled to Rome under the care of the gendarmerie due to their statelessness. As they awaited travel documents for the United States, they were charged only with refraining from any demonstrations, which left them free to explore the Eternal City and begin adapting to life in the West. Many years later Anna’s Roman ramblings would provide the background for her dissertation and monograph, The Legacy of Ancient Rome in the Russian Silver Age.
I couldn’t agree more with Anna’s assertion that “language is a key to literature, to history, to understanding progress of any sort.” I had the good fortune to meet Anna in connection with An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz:
Anna worked as a freelance cultural correspondent with Radio Free Europe (RFE) as a writer and interviewer, which culminated in her interview with Czesław Miłosz upon his receiving the Nobel Prize. She first met Miłosz at a lecture at the Guggenheim on October 17, 1978; he inscribed the date in his book about Stanisław Brzozowski, which Anna had purchased in a local Polish bookstore and brought for him to autograph. When writing her thesis on “one of the most original Polish thinkers of the twentieth century,” to cite Miłosz’s formulation, Anna had to travel across Warsaw to read this same book in the restricted section of the library, after producing a document from her thesis adviser. Now she had her own copy, with the author’s inscription. They continued to meet sporadically at readings and conferences.
The Nobel interview, which has been published in English translation [that would be in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz], almost did not come about. Miłosz had not been treated well by RFE in the early days of his emigration, and he did not feel obliged in the least to give them an interview. But he had been persuaded that since he had given an interview to Trybuna Ludu, the Polish Communist daily, he should give one to RFE. He agreed, but insisted that Anna conduct the interview. The interview took place at Miłosz’s home in Berkeley. The piece, which very much represents a poet interviewing a poet, was a resounding success; it was broadcast four times and published. In 1993, Anna was conducting interviews for the column “What Other People Read,” which was appearing in the cultural supplement to the Polish Daily News. She conducted a telephone interview with Miłosz for the column, realizing only after hanging up that she had forgotten to hit the record button. She immediately called him back and explained the situation. He “graciously” suggested that they conduct the interview again the next morning. You can read about Anna’s relationship with Miłosz, including how he introduced her to Scotch after they concluded the Nobel interview and that she taught his granddaughter Polish at Columbia, in her essay, “He Also Knew How to Be Gracious.”
Anna earned her master’s degree in Polish philology at Warsaw University, writing her dissertation on the philosopher and critic Stanisław Brzozowski and the Polish positivists. She began her graduate studies under the guidance of Zoya Yurieff, a professor of Slavic literatures and cultures at New York University who was an early inspiration and encouraged her graduate education in the first place. Yurieff also suggested the topic of ancient Rome in the poetry of the Russian symbolists.
What future for Anna? She plans to write a memoir called Women in My Life, which will include portraits of her mother and a Warsaw University professor, among others, and, of course, Zoya Yurieff.
Read the whole retrospective here. Meanwhile, a poem dedicated to her wonderful husband, reprinted with her permission:
The bridges overhang the city
like diamonds in a diadem
reflected lights are burning
in the Hudson and the Harlem Rivers
in the East River in the bay
and in puddles on the road
the bridges overhang the city
that shone in flight
between a setting star
and the rising moon
walls pinned into heaven
pressed by granite to the ground
wind in its stone sails
out to sea
it moves at dawn
(Translated by Ross Ufberg)