By Joanna Trzeciak Huss
Any biography of Zuzanna Ginczanka (1917-1944), however short, should attempt to speak to her desire to define herself and her refusal to be defined by others. For her, social and artistic identity was something to be chosen and cultivated, but in the times in which she lived, identity ascribed by others was a matter of life and death. Born Zuzanna Polina Gincburg in Kiev in 1917, she fled shortly after the Russian Revolution with her family to the border town of Równe in Volhynia (present day Rivne, Ukraine), which was at one point part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and was about to become Polish again in 1920. The destination was not accidental: it was the town where her Russian-speaking maternal grandparents were well-ensconced. Yet this provincial capital proved too confining for her parents, who abandoned her to the care of her grandmother: her father leaving for Berlin when Ginczanka was three and her mother for Pamplona, Spain after she remarried. Równe, a multi-ethnic city, was Ginczanka’s childhood home and it was there she attended a French pre-school and Polish elementary school and high school. She adopted the name Ginczanka, and though Russian was her native tongue, chose Polish as her language of poetic expression. Yet she was never able to obtain Polish citizenship and remained stateless throughout her life.
Poetry was Ginczanka’s passport out of Równe: on the merits of her poetic prowess, she moved to Warsaw where she was mentored by Julian Tuwim, a giant of Polish poetry, who recognized and fostered her talent. Through him, she found a welcome reception in the capital’s literary scene, where she wrote for the satirical magazine Szpilki (Pins), hung out in cafés with other poets and writers, and at nineteen, published her first and only collection of poetry, O Centaurach (On Centaurs, 1936). While feted in this scene, there was a recognizable element of fetishization of Ginczanka, due to her darker skin, her beauty, and her bearing. Agata Araszkiewicz has persuasively argued for treating Ginczanka’s biography and poetry as of a piece, in the words of Gertrude Kolmar, a “tangled melancholy of body and text.” Refracted in her poetry, we see a vibrant young woman interrogating gender and sexuality in a literary world dominated by men. Her poetry evinces an understanding of the male gaze, which she experiences as object and mines as knowing subject. Warsaw was also Ginczanka’s first encounter with full-throttle anti-Semitism. An outstanding student at the University of Warsaw, where she studied education from 1936-1939, she scrupulously avoided attending lectures to steer clear of roaming bands of antisemitic thugs. She was mocked in print for changing her name from Gincburg to Ginczanka.
World War II profoundly altered her life course. Seeking passage out of Poland, including to the Americas, in the end, she was unsuccessful and fled to Lwów, a Polish city under Soviet occupation (present-day L’viv, Ukraine), where she continued to write poetry and was part of a Polish literary scene populated by writers who had escaped the Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. She translated Ukrainian (Taras Shevchenko) and Russian (Vladimir Mayakovsky) poetry into Polish for the Soviet paper Czerwony Sztandar (Red Standard). She married Michał Weinzieher, a lawyer and art critic, who had ties to artistic circles in Lwów, Kraków, and Warsaw. At around this time, she had an open love affair with her husband’s friend, the graphic artist and painter Janusz Woźniakowski. With the housing shortage brought on by the influx of war refugees, crowded living arrangements became the norm, increasing tensions that fomented distrust and betrayal. After the Nazi invasion of 1941, there were bloody pogroms in Lwów, followed by the creation of the Lwów ghetto in the fall of 1941, and searches for Jews hiding outside the ghetto, where she remained. Ginczanka tried to pass for an Armenian, was denounced as a Jew by her neighbor (see “non omnis moriar”), arrested, and released on a bribe. Forced to flee again, she continued to write, although no poems from this period are known to have survived. She was eventually imprisoned by the Nazis, tortured and killed in Kraków on May 5, 1944, several months before the liberation of the city. Her final written words were a list of necessary items sent to the International Red Cross.
Appearing here are translations of two of Ginczanka’s poems, “Virginity” and “Process.” They are from her 1936 collection, O Centaurach (On Centaurs).
Joanna Trzeciak Huss is an associate professor at Kent State University. Her research concerns translation theory and issues at the intersection of literature and philosophy. Her translations have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, Harpers, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Field, Zvezda, Boston Review, and nonsite, among others. Her books of poetry translation include Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wisława Szymborska (W.W. Norton 2001) and Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems of Tadeusz Różewicz (W.W. Norton 2013). Her Firebird: Collected Poems of Zuzanna Ginczanka is forthcoming in 2022 from Zephyr Press. She is the recipient of the 2020 Michael Heim Prize for Collegial Translation.