Jerzy Ficowski

Poet and scholar of Roma culture
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jerzy Ficowski, poet, translator and critic: born Warsaw, Poland 4 September 1924; twice married; died Warsaw 9 May 2006.

The Polish poet, scholar and translator Jerzy Ficowski was widely known internationally as the author of A Reading of Ashes, first published as Odczytanie popiolów by an émigré Polish publisher in London in 1979 and translated into English two years later. Two further editions appeared in Poland during the 1980s. This moving cycle of poems remembering the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War is among the best poetry written on that subject by a non-Jewish poet.

In one of these poems Ficowski celebrates the self-sacrifice of the Polish doctor Janusz Korczak who accompanied his orphanage from the Warsaw ghetto to certain death in the Treblinka camp. The poem opens with these words (translated by Yala Korwin):

What did the Old Doctor do

in the cattle wagon

bound for Treblinka on 5th of August

over the few hours of blood flow

over the dirty river of time

I do not know

This volume is illustrated with drawings by Marc Chagall. Ficowski published some 20 volumes of poetry in total; a good selection of his verse, Poezje wybrane ("Collected Verse"), was published in Warsaw in 1982.

One of Ficowski's major interests was Roma culture. Already in 1953 he published some sketches on this ethnic group in his homeland (Cyganie polscy, "Polish Gypsies"), and later he became known as a leading scholar in Roma studies. He edited a popular anthology of Roma tales, Galazka z drzewa slonca ("A Branch of the Sun-Tree", 1961) and in 1989 produced an important study, Cyganie w Polsce: dzieje i obyczaje, translated the same year as The Gypsies in Poland: history and customs.

Ficowski perhaps came to Jewish themes through his early interest in the Roma - in fact, he might have had some gypsy blood himself - and the same preoccupation led him to translations from the Spanish, that is to the author of Gypsy Ballads: Federíco García Lorca. As early as 1949 Ficowski translated Lorca's ballads and in 1958 produced a good selection of Lorca's poetry in Polish, which was reprinted several times, the last time in 1975. It was mainly that work that earned him the special award of the Polish Pen Club in 1977.

Apart from Spanish, Ficowski translated from a number of languages, including Russian, Yiddish and Hungarian. He also rendered into Polish Boleslaw Lesmian's early poems written in Russian, as Pochmiel ksiezycowy ("Moon-Made Hangover", 1987).

When I first visited Warsaw as a very young man (50 odd years ago), it was Polish literature that interested me most, but right after that came history, especially the history of the Second World War, in which Polish armies fought the Germans on three different fronts. Some friendly writers took upon themselves my instruction in contemporary history and it was in Jerzy Ficowski's flat that I heard for the first time the real story of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

While seemingly accepting Soviet-style "socialism", most Poles of Ficowski's generation even at that time would not agree with the official version of the uprising - they were proud of the fact that, at whatever cost in human life, at least in their capital there was a long- lasting armed struggle against the Nazi occupier. After 1956 the Communist authorities allowed a freer discussion about the uprising and the role of the nationalist clandestine Polish army, the Armia Krajowa, in Polish resistance.

Ficowski, born in 1924 in Warsaw, was a member of that army and after the suppression of the uprising was interned in a German prison camp for nearly a year. On his return to Poland he enrolled at Warsaw University to read philosophy and sociology. It was during his studies that he produced his first book of poetry, Olowiani zolnierze ("Lead Soldiers", 1948) followed by three more collections of verse before the volume Makowskie bajki ("Makowski's Tales", 1959) on the drawings of - and illustrated by - the Polish graphic artist Tadeusz Makowski.

Early on he was influenced by the poetry of Julian Tuwim, but later Ficowski moved closer to poets of the inter-war avant-garde, notably to Józef Czechowicz, whose neo-Symbolic free verse he admired and to some extent followed.

Another of Jerzy Ficowski's lifelong interests was the work of the great Polish Jewish writer Bruno Schulz, who died in the Holocaust. He had been collecting Schulziana for many years before publishing the seminal study Regiony wielkiej herezji (1967, translated into English as Regions of the Great Heresy, 2003). He edited Schulz's correspondence (Ksiega listów, "A Book of Letters", 1975) as well as his letters and short prose pieces (Bruno Schulz: listy, fragmenty, 1984).

Ficowski also wrote an introduction to a book of Schulz's drawings, Xiega balwochwalcza (1988, The Booke of Idolatry) - many of them illustrations to his prose writings. He was also instrumental in establishing the collection of Schulziana at the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw. The Collected Works of Bruno Schulz, edited by Ficowski, was published by Picador in 1998.

Jerzy Ficowski's own writings available in English include the collection Sister of the Birds, and other Gypsy Tales (1976), two editions of A Reading of the Ashes and some stories and prose sketches entitled Waiting for the Dog to Sleep, translated by Soren A. Gauger and Marcin Piekoszewski and published this year by Twisted Spoon Press. The theme of the latter collection is the "mythologisation of reality", a subject which keenly interested Ficowski, who also translated Oriental tales into Polish, of which Opowiesc o Sindbadzie Zeglarzu ("The Story of Sinbad the Sailor", 1968) was the most widely read.

George Gömöri