Mysteries of Childhood. Jerzy Ficowski / exhibition

JERZY FICOWSKI RETURNS TO WARSAW

Mysteries of Childhood. Jerzy Ficowski is an exhibition presenting the childhood of the poet and his work addressed to children,


prepared by Bożena Szroeder and Wiesław Szumiński, creators associated with the Borderland Center in Sejny, presented from October 27, 2017 until the end of August 2018 in Stara Prochownia, Warsaw.

 

 Borderlander

In 1999, the year when 75-year-old Jerzy Ficowski was honoured by the Borderland with the title of the Borderlander, turned out to be a breakthrough[1] in the reception of the author of "A Reading of Ashes".  In an interview for Tygodnik Powszechny, when asked about the criteria that Jerzy Ficowski had to meet in order to receive this title, Krzysztof Czyżewski said: ‘In the case of Jerzy Ficowski, the criterion was to be Jerzy Ficowski. Jerzy Ficowski was first, and the title of "Borderlander" included in our programs and projects came later’. But the award not only crowned the writer, but also set new paths for his interpretation.  Since that time, his legacy has had a number of new readings, including many research syntheses, two monographs and several significant re-editions. 

Jerzy Ficowski, a poet, fiction writer, researcher of Gypsy / Roma culture and Jewish culture, monographist of Schulz and Wojtkiewicz, translator and songwriter, who died in 2006, bequeathed to the Borderland Center an inspirational legacy, one important also due to his often repeated in his works special attitude to childhood. On the occasion of the exhibition, Bożena Szroeder said: 

‘Here, in Borderland, we deeply believe that childhood forms our creative attitudes, supplies life’s capital and is the most proper time to lean towards the Other. We endeavour to show that through our exploration of the life and creativity of Jerzy Ficowski. We are setting on a journey to meet the small Juraś who from his early days intensively and with great sensitivity observed the world, nature and people around. His childhood was brutally interrupted by the Second World War which forced him into adulthood making Jerzy Ficowski, in spite of his young age, join the Warsaw Uprising. He became a member of the Home Army.’

From Sejny to Warsaw

The exhibition, which can be seen in Warsaw’s Stara Prochownia from the end of October is a new edition of the exhibition which had been presented for two years in the Borderland House, Sejny. It has already had hundreds visitors. It became a basis for workshops for the young and a two-hour tale of the poet’s childhood and its role in his writing. Considering the conditions of the capital city, the Warsaw exhibition will be presented for a long time, i.e. until the end of August 2018. In this way, Jerzy Ficowski, a writer very closely associated with Warsaw (here he was born, lived almost all his life and died; he authored such works as Memories of Old Warsaw and a volume for children The Little Mermaid), metaphorically returns to Warsaw.

The exhibition is a multi-layered event, designed for both young and adult visitors. It invites for an interactive visit and reading of his works at several layers.  Firstly, it allows to recreate the young years of Jerzy Ficowski, born in 1924, and to observe his maturation accelerated by the war. Secondly, following his favourite child's readings, one can perceive childhood as a universal experience. Thirdly, little Juraś's passion for the natural world and adult Jerzy's pioneering research into the culture of Gypsies / Roma, reveals the writer’s unique sensitivity to every phenomenon of existence and to the Other. When read from today's perspective, his retaining these features as unique values of his work in spite of the times in which he lived, makes them all the more pronounced.  Fourthly, the exhibition shows him as a creator of children’s culture, full of wise beauty and deep communion with nature.  And finally, fifthly, the exhibition is a moving outcry against  war, woven into the program of education for peace.

The Warsaw edition of the exhibition is much smaller than its Sejny original. The demands of the interior of the historical Kazamata hall determined the minimalistic, and intensified character of the exhibition. Its arrangement has been based on the experiences of the Sejny exhibition. It aims to present all its threads within the small interior and create workshop space for working with young people. ‘It is crucial,’ said Bożena Szroeder, during a meeting with methodologists, ‘that apart from individual visitors, it would also be visited by school classes and organized groups, to build a community around children's readings and to talk about the experience of childhood’.

Red Snake, the tour guardian

The Sejny exhibition opens with an installation symbolizing a red snake - a guardian of Gypsy wanderings, referring to a motif borrowed from Jerzy Ficowski’s Gypsy fairy tales. In Sejny, the snake gliding on the floor invited visitors to embark on a tour into childhood. In Warsaw, it has also been granted a symbolic, fairy-tale-like place: it is a small stained glass placed in a small window - visible only in the daylight, disappearing in the evening. The snake’s function was partly taken over by red tables arranged throughout the entire hall. Suspended over them are Jerzy Ficowski’s books and volumes of poetry for children, presenting the artist's output and encouraging their reading. They stand for the places where the first workshops related to childhood and literature were held: with favourite childhood books and tiny exhibits referring to particular books by Ficowski.

Don’t forget the child inside of you

In the centre of the exhibition, there is a roll containing the titles of all books read by JF in his childhood. It was made on the basis of the child-poet's notes. The very act of unrolling of the list awakens childish joy in visitors, and in accordance with the assumption of the exhibition authors, invites participation in a game. Organized groups, working at the long red table make their own rolls with titles of their childhood readings. It turns out that the mere mentioning of childhood memories is something special, and the choice of books close to your heart is a difficult task, but it brings a lot of joy to the participants of the game. Finally, the roll is rolled up and sealed with a specially prepared seal.

There are many more literature games available, too. They refer to Jerzy Ficowski’s loved childhood books - Przygody Okruszka by Antoni Gawiński and Skarby [Treasures] and Pożegnania domu [Farewell to Home] by Zofia Żurakowska - which he preserved and published to save them from oblivion. He also dedicated to them his text on the sources of myth in literature, in which he confided that they were the roots of his fascination with myth-making. 

A new addition to the exhibition is a give-away received by visitors - a bracelet in the colours referring to his passion for nature and gypsy colours: red, green or blue adorned with a quote: Don’t forget the child inside of you The sentence is an excerpt from the dedication Jerzy Ficowski wrote on the book which he presented to Bożena Szroeder.

What the mysteries of childhood hide

The secrets of little Juraś compose another interactive element of the arrangement. These are short quotes from the author's children's diaries, memories of his childhood games, small toys or objects hidden in small glass boxes. They are to be drawn from a big, transparent treasure box. In Sejny, they accompanied individual elements of the exhibition, in Warsaw they occupy the central place - here you can choose them at will, read or watch them. These include notes about Juraś's natural passions, the children's toys which children used to play with before the war - a small wooden elephant or a little top. Each of them is provided with a comment and hides its own secret - thus, with the elephant we learn that JF recorded in his 1933 journal, the birthday of an elephant in the Warsaw zoo.

The game with secrets reveals also their dramatic context, which is actually the main background of the entire exhibition. The children's notes from the JF diaries presented on the walls reveal his literary talent and the author's great passion for the natural world. In April 1939, JF notes a beautiful, very detailed story about a wasp building its nest. Only a few months later, in September 1939, just a few days after the outbreak of the war, his diary entries radically change their substance. His description of the bombing of his beloved house in Filtrowa Street was already penned in a much more grown-up handwriting.

Bożena Szroeder says: 

‘I think and I always say it out loud that he wrote his post-war childhood works, in a way, for himself, to come back to his childhood and remember himself as a child, his children's poetry is dedicated a little to the poet himself. Perhaps it is a bold statement, but I am deeply convinced that it could have happened a bit that way.’

Happy children's faces and the Holocaust experience 

The exhibition contains more elements in which pre-war childhood mixes with the horrors of war. They are recalled here as symbols, chosen from the copious materials available to the authors of the exhibition. The Sejny exhibition included many pictures from the poet’s childhood, here only three of them are presented: Juraś on a bike, with his mother and with his younger sister Krysia. Bożena Szroeder admitted that they were such beautiful children and that there was a great temptation to show as many of their photographs as possible. However, a limited number favours expressiveness and happy children's faces are more memorable.

From among the poet's adult works, a special place here was reserved for a poem dedicated to Janusz Korczak, starting with the words:

What did the Old Doctor do 

 in the cattle wagon

bound for Treblinka

over the few hours of the bloodstream

over the dirty river of time

The poem is written in a book surrounded by small pebbles, displayed in a glass case. Such a way of displaying the text creates an impression of celebration, makes visitors stop and read the poem. JF's wartime experiences, among which especially engraved in his memory was the fate of Jewish children, inspired him to create the volume of "A Reading of Ashes” - one of the most moving volumes of poetry devoted to the Holocaust in Polish literature.

Gypsies on Polish roads

The part dedicated to the JF’s post-war years focuses on the Gypsy / Roma theme.  Already in the war years, he was deeply shocked by a notice read on a pole, advising anyone who knew anything about the Gypsies to inform the police station about them or send them directly to the ghetto. After the war, he placed an advertisement in a newspaper asking for information about the war fates of the Gypsies. Two people responded to it - one was the poet Julian Tuwim, who conducted his own philological research on Roma culture and the other Edward Czarnecki, “the Lieutenant", a  swashbuckler of count's pedigree, horse dealer, instruments maker and a daring character. It was he who introduced Ficowski to the Gypsy caravan in Płoty, at the same time helping him to escape the persecutions of the secret police. Here, the poet got to know the Wajs family and, first of all, Papusza. The story of Ficowski as a researcher of the Roma culture is rests on two pillars. On the one hand, there is a story about the literary relationship of three poets: the much older poet Julian Tuwim (whose creativity he discovered thanks to his father as a child), the endowed with an innate poetic talent Papusza and the young poet.  On the other hand, there is Jerzy Ficowski as an insightful researcher and artist inspired by the world of the Gypsies. 

- We are fascinated by the way Ficowski draws various threads from this world of magic, from the Romanipenu (unwritten Romani code), how he gets to know and learns individual words and then applies them to his extremely beautiful Gypsy fairy-tales collected in the "Branch of the Sun Tree," - Bożena Szroeder remembers.

 

The exhibition  features also original watercolours by Wiesław Szumiński, illustrations to the "Branch" reissued by the Sejny publishers in 2001. Accompanying them are four films about Gypsies. The winner of international awards The Fable of the Gypsy and the Red Snake and the inspired by Gypsy symbolism parable About Wandering created by the youth working at the Borderland studios. Two archival films produced by Se-ma-for were based on the poet's fairy tales. The made in the 1950s Birds’ Sister and About Bachtało the Gypsy from 1966 narrated by Masio Kwiek, famous Gypsy singer and Ficowski’s friend who established a contact with the poet being a small boy when the poet was cursed by the Roma. The incredible exchange of letters that followed included  Masio Kwiek’s offer of help and stories about the Gypsy culture.

Childhood as treasure box

"I have this theory that throughout our life we explore a box of treasures which we have previously collected. It can be later subjected to various judgements, but in its basic framework it can no longer be enriched "- Jerzy Ficowski admitted in one of his interviews.  The exhibition, prepared by Bożena Szroeder and Wiesław Szumiński, explores the childhood of the poet, focusing on topics on several levels and providing pretexts to discuss his work. Their long-term reflection on the work of the author of “Denerwujek" allowed them to construct a multi-threaded and at the same time extremely current story about being a child, about childhood books, and about passions that accompany our whole life.

Elżbieta Ficowska remembered the opening of the exhibition in Sejny:

“For me, apart from being personally moved, the exhibition has brought the joy of a meeting between Jerzy Ficowski and children. Thanks to the authors of the exhibition, their sensitivity to poetry and deep knowledge of children, the meeting takes place at many dimensions. It allows the small participants almost a direct contact with the poet and a close encounter with his creativity, encouraging personal expression. This has contributed to the creation of a kind of communion of feeling, understanding of the world in the way available only to children In one word, I really enjoy the exhibition. I enjoy the fact that my husband is still alive in what he bequeathed, in the treasures rediscovered by new generations”.

Anna Ficowska-Teodorowicz said about the exhibition in Warsaw:

Mysteries of Childhood. Jerzy Ficowski is not just an average exhibition. Bożena Szroeder and Wiesław Szumiński when creating this exhibition apparently shared Jerzy Ficowski’s belief that childhood is for each of us is an act of "creation of the world". Its authors with unusual delicacy and intuition introduce us into the realm of a boy’s childhood, both the small and the slightly older Jurek, who in the future would become an excellent poet, writer, and author of, among other things, a great literature for children. The world of childhood, with all the richness of its sensations, the joyous, happy and carefree, but also dramatic times, connected with war, shaped his sensitivity and directed his interests and creativity towards specific areas. The exhibition is a beautiful, intimate place which is also able to evoke dreams and memories of one's childhood. The narrative that accompanies the exhibition helps to get to know Jerzy Ficowski better as a man from his earliest years. And for me, the trip to my father's childhood is a very special experience - it proves irrefutably that my father was once a child.’

The exhibition is open daily 1 p.m. - 8 p.m. The welcoming animation and photo feature Jerzy Ficowski as a small boy on a bike and a piece of his childhood diary. Weaving through it are insects drawn in his own hand: a bug, spider and earthworm.

The project's partners are the Center “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nations”, the Jerzy Ficowski Foundation, founded by the wife and daughter of the poet–Elżbieta Ficowska and Anna Ficowska-Teodorowicz– and the Capital Cultural Education Centre.

 

Marta Kowerko-Urbańczyk

 

Media contact:

The Jerzy Ficowski Foundationjerzyficowski@gmail.com

Centre “Borderland of Arts, Cultures and Nationscentrum@pogranicze.sejny.pl



[1] Piotr Sommer wrote about it: ‘I consider the year 1999 as a critical moment in the reception of Ficowski's poetry, the year when Sejny Borderland Foundation awarded him [...] the Borderlander title awarded then for the first time. In some significant sense, Ficowski became then not only a laureate, but also the patron of later laureates of the Sejny award. His books published on the occasion of that gala (both new editions and re-editions), the works written for the seminar devoted to him in September 1999, as well as later sketches describing the last period of his poetic work, in various ways have documented transformations concerning reading of his works that occurred at the time - including also transformations in the climate accompanying reading of his poetry.’ P. Sommer, Odczytywanie Jerzego Ficowskiego, in: Wcielenia Jerzego Ficowskiego, selected and edited by P. Sommer, Pogranicze, Sejny 2010, p. 12

Foto Wiesław Szumiński

Foto. Piotr Fiedorowicz


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