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20 December 2012

a secret life

Morelle Smith

Kazimiera Illakoviczowna

Kazimiera Illakoviczowna, poet, writer, translator, stateswoman, 1888-1983

A plaque on the wall of a building in Gajowa, Poznan, announces that this was the last residence of Kazimiera Illakoviczowna, a Polish poet. A discreet notice in the doorway says that it has been turned into a museum which is open to the public on two afternoons a week. Salve is engraved on a flagstone outside, the enthusiasm of its greeting slightly eroded with age, but still visible. We ring the bell and climb the wide staircase with its worn and creaking wooden steps, typical of many art nouveau buildings in Poznan. Tall stained-glass windows shed light through their frosted panes onto the gloomy stairwell.

These were once the desirable, elegant residencies of Poznan's wealthier German citizens (from the days when this territory was part of Germany) and who stayed on after the first world war when it became part of Poland. The entrance to the apartment is majestic, with thick wooden doors and a towering frame, and once inside, the hallway is vast, and the rooms are spacious, with high ceilings. One might be forgiven for thinking that Kazimiera lived in style. Until we are ushered into a room on the left by the curator, and are told that this was Kazimiera's room. The apartment was shared with several other people.

In the days of communism people were allocated a place to live, known as 'permitted agreements'. Kazimiera did not choose to live here, but this was the town, the apartment block, and the room allocated to her. It was by no means a pokey room – bigger than the living-room of many modern buildings – but the bathroom and kitchen were shared between all the occupants – 32 in all. In a surviving letter written by Kazimiera to a friend she said that if only she did not have to share a bathroom with so many people, she would be happy.

From the window of her room she had a clear view of the street and it was from here that she witnessed, just outside her house, the killing of people who were involved in the 1956 uprising in Poznan against the communist regime. While this was hardly the first time that she had seen death and violence at close quarters, it was never something she became used to or condoned. After witnessing the execution of the people involved in the uprising, she wrote a poem in which she mourned the loss of life, the pain, the suffering and the tragedy of these deaths. No doubt this event was also mixed with memories of the suffering she had witnessed in other wars, beginning with the slaughter of the first world war with which she must have been intimately acquainted, when as a young woman she worked as a Red Cross nurse on the eastern front.

She had also known personal suffering before the first world war erupted over Europe, but this was something which on the whole, she did not talk about to others. Secrecy was imposed on her by the strict rules and moral judgements made by the society of that time. She must have found it hard to learn this lesson for one gets the impression that she had a forthright character, with energy and intelligence to spare, she had ambition, was as exacting of others as she was of herself, and so I imagine her learning to keep her secrets in the same way as she learned to tie up her hair and wear it in a chignon, immaculate under the wide brimmed hats she loved to wear. Faultlessly.

Kazimiera Illakowiczowna was born in 1888 in Vilnius (now Lithuania, but then part of the Russian empire), and christened in 1892 which is sometimes given as her year of birth. This was just the first of many secrets and deceptions surrounding her during her life.

Kazimiera's father was a well known and respected lawyer. But he died only a year after she was born. The story goes that her father lost a court case and was killed while travelling in a train, by his disgruntled client. Another version (perhaps more glamorous) is that the assassination was carried out by members of the tsar's security forces, because he had been 'conspiring' and documents were taken from him. Whichever account is true, the political motive or that of personal revenge, both agree that he was targeted and murdered. One does wonder about the political assassination version though, for whether or not he was a spy or secret agent or conspired against the tsar's rule, this man had a very big personal secret known only to a few people.

But whatever the true circumstances of his death, it is unlikely that his daughter Kazimiera saw much of her father in that first year of her life, for he was not married to her mother, he was in fact married to someone else, with whom he already had three children. Kazimiera's mother was a teacher of foreign languages and music and apparently met her father while they were both members of a choir. But the fact that she had two professional and well educated parents could not alter the fact that she was an illegitimate child.

Illegitimacy was a social stigma in the 19th century, something so shameful that I imagine it was not openly discussed, but rather, all attempts would be made to cover up this fact, if at all possible. It could not have been so uncommon however, as there was a pernicious law which discriminated against such children and did not allow them to have education beyond primary school. In order to get around this, the first deception of Kazimiera's life was created – or rather the first official, documented one.

Her christening certificate, four years after her birth, was basically a forgery. Her parents were named as her uncle and his wife, with her real mother's name given as her godmother. So she was 'adopted' by her uncle and aunt who were clearly prepared to take part in this deception, perhaps from a motive of family honour but it seems that they did not put too much effort into caring for her. Her uncle held a high position in the military and spent most of his time off fighting. But Kazimiera's rather bleak prospects were about to change, thanks to the intervention of a colourful, influential and wealthy character, the Countess Sofia Zyberk-Plater.

The countess Sofia, a close neighbour, had married against her parents' wishes, a man who turned out to be alcoholic, from whom she later separated. She then devoted her time and energy to philanthropic work, taking in orphans, ensuring that they got a good education. Kazimiera's real mother died when she was still a child and the Countess Sofia took her in, and sent her to a famous girls' school in Warsaw run by a member of the countess's family. She later even wanted Kazimiera to administer her estate but the young woman said she did not want to do that, but preferred to continue studying, travelling and writing. She had shown literary talent from a young age, with her first poem published in a magazine in 1905, and her first book, in 1911.

The countess continued to finance her studies, first in Oxford, England (1909) then in Fribourg in Switzerland. But while in Fribourg the countess died and Kazimiera was left without financial support. She then came to Krakow, where her sister Barbara lived with her husband and family.

During the first world war Kazimiera worked as one of the Sisters of Mercy on the eastern front. Because of her connections with aristocrats who owned mansions and palaces, she was able to arrange for wounded soldiers to go there, to be nursed. After the war she returned to Krakow. Her sister Barbara worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and encouraged her to apply for a job there, which she did. She worked for the Marshall Pilsudski and must have been very good at her job as she became his right hand man and partner, and in effect, the first Polish woman to have a position at the high level of 'departmental councillor', almost equivalent to a minister.

She worked in the ministry from 1918-1926. During this time the Marshall Pilsudski fought against the Bolsheviks, and led a coup overturning the government. When he later needed someone to be in charge of the Foreign Office he chose her for this post, making her the Marshall's closest co-worker, up to 1935. She was also an ambassador, and when the Marshall was unable to go to various countries, she would go in his place, giving talks and speeches. She had a diplomatic passport, which must have caused a slight bureaucratic hiccup, as these passports were only printed with Pan [Mister] on them. We were shown her passport, with her name 'Madame Kasimiera' etc on it. The 'i' (for Pani/Madame) had to be added and can be clearly seen on the photocopy, written by hand, for of course no-one then could imagine that a woman would require a diplomatic passport!

In September 1939 the German army entered Poland. Kazimiera's life went through another abrupt change, as she and the rest of the Polish government evacuated to Romania. While life there must have been very different from the one she had been used to, along with the privations, there was a simplicity and practicality which Kazimiera seems to have enjoyed, as she looked back on her years spent in Romania with affection. And, ever intellectually diligent, she learned the language, and started translating works into Polish. But when the war ended and communism ruled in Poland most of the members of the previous government emigrated, many of them to the UK. Kazimiera however, wanted to come back to Poland. At first she was refused permission to return, for she had been in the government which had fought against the communists, but in 1947, she was allowed back.

For Kazimiera to be granted permission to live in Poland again, it was necessary for someone else to vouch for her good biography, that is, someone who was a good communist (despite having been a member of the previous government) or at least was not against the communist government. The person who vouched for her was the Jewish writer Julien Tuwim. In effect his 'guarantee' went further – he also vouched for her in terms of her writing – that she would write in the way the communist government wished people to write – good socialist realist style, praising the workers, applauding their heroic efforts etc.

But Kazimiera was far from being a good communist. So once again she had to hide her past, her real thoughts and feelings. From having led a free and independent life, with considerable public status, to the life of an exile in Romania, she now had to live with secrets and present a public façade that did not correspond with her real self. She continued to write exactly what she wanted, but was selective in what she published. Nevertheless, by the end of her long life, she had produced a substantial body of work, including many poems for children, some of which were put to music by the composer Karol Szymanowski.

Kazimiera never married but we were told an intriguing story of a proposal. This was made by one Count Raczynski whose family home was the great palace and grounds of Rogalin, near Poznan. Kazimiera wrote many poems about Rogalin and its beautiful parkland, with its famous thousand-year-old oaks, so it seems to have been a place that was dear to her heart. But all we are left with in writing regarding the proposal is a few words in the memoirs of her friend Margaret Nowak-Solinska, who quotes her as saying, when they were together in Rogalin, 'you know Margaret, here under those thousand-year-old oaks, a young and handsome prince proposed to me but I only laughed and said no'.

According to the museum curator, the reason for her refusal was that she did not want the secret of her illegitimacy to be revealed, as it would, had she accepted it. And that Count Raczynski's family did not approve of her, perhaps knowing more about her origins than the young man did. But it is also possible that, even then, she had come to so value her independence that the life of a countess would not have appealed to her. After all, she came to lead a life during the 20s and 30s where she enjoyed a high government position, travel and independence.

During the inter-war years she also spent time at Zakopane, in the south of Poland. This area was a gathering place for many writers and artists, and Kazimiera made friends there with like-minded people, among them Julien Tuwim (who later 'vouched' for her) and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (known as Witkacy), the avant garde writer and artist who created the 'Zakopane style' and who painted her portrait.

Everything in Kazimiera's room is kept as she left it. This was how she lived, and the objects she lived among. The wooden travelling trunk, the old fashioned phone (which works), the Remington portable typewriter, the old radio. In a cabinet, a few pieces of pottery – plates and a jug – that she brought back from Romania. Several framed watercolours hanging on the walls were painted by her niece, Janina Czerwijowska (her sister Barbara's daughter) who looked after her when she was old and was losing her sight. (After Kazimiera's death, Janina inherited everything and it was her initiative to create the museum). Another person who looked after her in her later years was a young poet, Lucja Danielewska.

Photographs, diplomas and awards also line the walls. A young Kazimiera in a white ankle length dress, among flowering trees, another when she was a student at Oxford, capturing seriousness and beauty in chiaroscuro; others show her sometimes smiling, sometimes more serious, and sometimes wearing hats. (Always an elegant and well-dressed woman, she apparently divided women into two camps – those who wore hats and those who did not.) The loveliest of them all is a copy of Witkacy's portrait of her, capturing an expression that contains nothing of the severe and withdrawn person we are told about, but rather, shows luminosity and feeling, along with just a hint of mischief.

Kazimiera was fluent in many languages, translating from Russian and French, and later from Hungarian and Romanian. There are several bookshelves in the room but we are told that what we see here represents only about one tenth of her collection. There are books in German, 'Polnische Liebesgedichte', Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Versprechen'; in French, several volumes of Teilhard de Chardin and Simone Weil, as well as Saint-John Perse and Paul-Andre Lesort, while in English I notice books by C S Lewis, Graham Greene and P G Wodehouse. She received many gifts of books from writers, says the curator, but because they knew that she so often gave books away, instead of writing the dedication on the front page, they wrote it in a separate sheet.

After the second world war and her resettlement in Poland, Kazimiera earned her living as a translator, with a long list of authors to her name, among them Tolstoy and Emily Dickinson, as well as Hungarian and Romanian authors. She was awarded the Order of Wegierski (from Hungary) for her translations of Hungarian literature. And in 1981 she was given an honorary doctorate.

It seemed that for a long time her half brothers and sisters did not know about her existence, but in the 70s she corresponded with the youngest sister, Julia, and only then was given the facts about their father's death. Julia seemed to be a friendly and open person, referring to 'our' father which showed that she accepted Kazimiera as another daughter.

Two long pieces of dark blue silk are lying on her desk. The curator demonstrates – these were worn over one's sleeves when writing with ink, so that the cuffs of shirts or dresses did not get dirty or stained with ink when writing. She then gestures to me to sit down at her desk, to write in the visitor's book.

She had a hard life, says the curator, and because of all that had happened she had learned to be very wary, not to trust people, to keep herself aloof. She did not encourage intimacy.

Looking out of the window where Kazimiera once witnessed the summary executions of the 1956 insurgents, one can now see the plaque commemorating those who were killed. Just next to it is the old tram station. It is no longer in use, the building is dilapidated, there are tall weeds growing in the yard among the tram lines in front of the building. On the brickwork façade, above the entrance gates, you can still make out the faded numbers of the tram lines. Beyond the entrance, where the trams would have been housed, the process of demolition has already begun.

'Illusions and Reality' by Kazimiera Illakowiczowna

A heart promised to break.
It was not broken.
Life threatened to wither.
Nothing faded it.
So what has happened?
Is all this real?
Petrified in poetry
it stays alive.

'The Return' by Kazimiera Illakowiczowna

I am back to simple things – to the dance of dust in air, 
to a tiny sightless spider coloured like the wall, 
to bitter, sobbing blinds that shiver in the cold, 
to strange slits in the floorboards full of powder and puzzles.
I am back from a hard, triumphant journey, from a crusade, 
to the secret mousehole hidden in a corner, 
to the dreadful death of a woodchuck, to the hedgehog's fright, 
to escapes beyond belief of owls and bats.
Things are quieter now, easier, brighter, safer.
I am back like a weary dragon to the old, old tale.

Morelle Smith is a writer of poetry, fiction, travel articles and essays. She has lived and worked in Albania and the Balkans