"TAKE YOUR HEART FOR A WALK." Story of Anna Płockier

by Marta Tarabuła, art historianCracow, Poland, 2012

“Please come, I am waiting for you with joy.” “Please come, we will discuss Malte.” “Please come on Sunday, I will be very happy. We will go into the landscape, like last year.” “Please come and visit me one day (before Sunday). Now, days are so wonderful, even when it is raining, you have to spend them with somebody sensitive and close.” “Please come…” this invitation recurs, as a chorus, in every one of Schulz’s letters. Eighteen of them survived. They were found – scattered on the floor in an abandoned apartment in Borysław – just after the tragic death of its inhabitants – by a friend of the family, Marian Jachimowicz. Anna Płockier, along with her fiancé and his entire family, was murdered in the woods near Truskawiec on November 27, 1941 during the first mass execution of Borysław Jews. She was 26. Who was she? The dictionary of Polish and foreign artists operating in Poland provides several facts: she was born in Geneva on April 15, 1915, a daughter of Leon (Kazimierz) Płockier, a doctor, and Ewa Kohn, a music teacher; she passed her matriculation exam in the mathematics and nature gymnasium in Warsaw (1934); she completed painting school of Konrad Krzyżanowski in Warsaw and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow under the supervision of Władysław Jarocki and Wojciech Weiss (1935 – 1938). In 1938, she was admitted to entrance exams at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, but was not accepted. Her application, preserved in the archives of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, bears the date of September 13, 1938. Why did she decide to move to the capital? She left the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow following her fiancé, Marek Zwillich, after an event characteristic for the climate of these years. It was 1938. Marek, seeing the rector’s announcement about “numerous clausus” on the university corridor, tore it down, crushed and threw into a spittoon. He had to leave the university; he continued his studies in Warsaw and was active in the circles of avant-garde with communist sympathies. Marek – under Strzemiński’s impact – painted in the Unist spirit; the nature of Anna’s visual works is difficult to recreate. Probably the only preserved example of her creativity is a linoleum print entitled “Dance” (1938) stored in the collection of the Museum of Literature in Warsaw. Simplified, consciously primitivised and stylized – in line with the contemporary fashion – in a folk manner, it presents a dance step: an uhlan in a cap and trousers with stripes, shown in mid-turn, is leading a lady in a long dress. The lady raises her hand in a graceful gesture. Are they dancing mazurka? The whole work is typical for the Polish art deco: a smooth, harmonious line indicates influence of art related to “Rytm” – a motif of a national dance, a synthetic, geometric, slightly archaic form rather than avant-garde experiments. As far as other works of Anna Płockier are concerned, we have to rely on interpretations preserved in memoirs of her friends. “Her beautiful hands had some vegetal quality in them,” writes Marian Jakimowicz with ecstasy. “The lines of her drawings flowed with the same mildness.” Alina Chwistek Dawidowiczowa, a mathematician, recollects: “Her paintings enchanted me. She would paint famous paintings once again, but she put different expressions on faces. She provided them with psychological sense.” The information about the author is laconic and dry: “Anna was the daughter of a famous medicine professor. She resembled Pawlikowska by appearance.” A slightly scared young woman with dark, tightly combed her and an oval, plump face is looking at us from the photograph in the student ID card issued by the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow: “state affiliation: Polish, native language: Polish; denomination: Jewish.” In a photograph taken three years later, we can see a completely different person: in a bright dotted dress, with a rosebud by her belt, gracefully posing outdoors – on a blanket, slightly bent. She is looking straight into the lens and smiling mysteriously: she is presenting a clay bird in her outstretched hand – will it fly away? Or not? This is Anna, radiant with social success. Next to her is Laura Wurzberg, a beautiful librarian from Drohobych, mentioned in Schulz’s letters as “Miss Laura” and Bruno Schulz – gloomy, averting his eyes – the only person who seems to be tired and annoyed with posing for the photo. In the back, Marian Jachimowicz is lying on a beach chair and smiling. He is a friend who – as Dawidowiczowa said – “busied himself with stuffing birds, but was a poet.” He provided most information about intellectual life in Borysław in these years, about Anna and her fiancé, called Maciek by his closest friends – and many other Cracow’s artists who live only in his memoirs. The photograph is a token of careless summer holidays of 1938 – it was when Anna met Bruno Schulz. How did she end up there? Her fiancé came from Borysław – this was his family home. She came to spend the summer. Jachimowicz, who was friends with Marek, but knew Anna only from letters, recollects: “Borysław was a completely exotic place for a person from Warsaw. Ania came with Maciek when the summer holiday started. She was stout and resembled her font in awkward gracefulness. She was a German type. It seems she was a calm person, but her easy blushing gave her away. She walked a bit like a tower, as if wanting to justify her stay among us with delicacy of movement.” Did this captivate Schulz who was known for his fondness for women of substantial posture? “It was believed that this choice was Schulz’s perverse taste,” Dawidowiczowa writes bluntly. Ludwik Bugno, Juliusz Wit (Witkower), Marek Zwillich, Artur Rzeczyca (Buchsbaum), Marek Holzmann, Hilda Berger, Miss Laura (Laura Wurzberg), young Baruch Wahl known as Buzio and Kazio – whose family name remains unknown, as well as Henryk Wiciński who came to cure his lungs: painters, poets and half-poets, scribblers and amateurs of “important talks” lasting till early hours of the morning – in memoirs of Jachimowicz, the contemporary Borysław was a poetry basin, not only a petroleum basin. The impact of Czechowicz’s poetry was weighted against the impact of Cracow avant-garde; Strzemiński’s Unism was adored, along with the sophisticated simplicity of Stażewski; discussions regarded superiority of societies organized according to Marxist principles over poisonous miasma of individualism; books were read in huge quantities and heated discussions were conducted all the time. This was the environment to which Anna arrived in the summer of 1938 – just as its members, she was curious of the new form of the world and ready to argue for it; arguments were abundant. She lived in Marek’s house at Szczorsa 10. “My flat was distanced from theirs by several dozen steps only,” recollects Jachimowicz. “On the other side of the street, there was a house with a green veranda behind rotten pales. It was located between two friendly orchards: the one from the side of the street offered cherries whereas the other, in the back, was kneeling under the weight of pears and apples. Further, there were fields, houses here and there and finally forests and mountains. Here, we entered the interior filled with Marek’s Unist compositions and primitive motifs of children’s colouring books, which he loved. Here, we relished in the warmth of friendship, enthusiasm for art and flashes of awareness with respect to the issues that were of interest to us. From here, we walked to the orchard to continue the conversations on the grass and enjoy the clouds.” Bruno Schulz, a teacher of drawing and manual work in the local gymnasium lived nearby – Drohobych lies 10 km away from Borysław. He was a famous writer then: The Cinnamon Shops, published four years earlier in the Warsaw “Rój”, brought him recognition in the literary milieu and opened possibilities for further publications. Enchanted by the book, Anna and Marek went to Drohobych; the visit was a beginning of an interesting friendship, additionally intensified by adoration shown by the writer to Anna. “They came back happy, enchanted,” remembers Jachimowicz. He promised he would come. I was at their place when Maciek, looking through the window, said: “He is coming.” I looked across his arm. A gray man was passing by the church on the other side of the street. He was in a hurry.” The summer holiday ended. Anna and Marek went back to Warsaw. Marek became involved in organizing an exhibition of “modernist artists from Łódź, Cracow, Lviv and Warsaw”: Pronaszko, Stażewski, Osostowicz, Zwillich, Wiciński, Jaremianka, Stern – scheduled for the autumn of 1939. Anna, not accepted at the university, might have joined the classes as an auditor. When the war broke out, she was in Warsaw and Marek in Borysław. Anna survived the September siege of the capital and soon afterwards, at the beginning of the next year, she decided to join her fiancé; Borysław, incorporated into the USRR was, at that time, beyond the borders of the General Gouvernement. She set off alone on a dangerous journey. Jachimowicz says: “Ania, risking her life, sneaked across the German-Russian border on the Bug River (…). The feeling for Maciek and a certain dose of curiosity made her cross the river under fire. In the darkness, she was captured by Russian guards but, using some very feminine manoeuvre, slipped out of prison. She arrived in Borysław smiling.” Maciek got a job as a teacher of drawing in the local gymnasium. Ania started to give private lessons. It was 1940. In the territory of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, new Soviet cultural policy was dominant. In Lviv, Wanda Wasilewska was publishing a propaganda literary magazine called “Nowe Widnokręgi.” In Drohobych, Schulz, terrified by exiles and Soviet terror, cut off from his friends in Warsaw, was trying to adjust to the new reality. “Everybody managed to find their place, I was left out in the cold,” he was complaining in one of his letters. He decided to write to the Vocational Unions of Western Ukraine. “I would like to study the theory of communism thoroughly (…). I would also like, as far as possible and within the realm of my work, to cooperate in building the future of the socialist people,” he wrote in an application. The authorities were benignant; Schulz got a right to teach drawing in a school and, additionally, received orders for illustrations for a local newspaper and for huge portraits of state dignitaries, executed in the dry-oil technique. Caught in a trap of unwanted obligations and deepening depression, unhappy and sick – he did not write a single word. With the exception of his letters. Their addressee is Anna Płockier, the artist’s last muse. Schulz always addresses her as “Mrs.”; at the beginning, he used her maiden name and later, respecting her marriage with Marek – double name: Płockier – Zwillich. The correspondence began during the Soviet occupation in July 1940 and lasted for seventeen months; in the meantime, Germans entered Drohobych. Anna got the last letter a day before her tragic death. Already the first preserved letter to Anna indicates that her acquaintance with Schulz, renewed after her arrival to Borysław, had a more intimate nature. “In the moments of empty internal stagnation, I can count upon impulses flowing from you and from your friendly feelings towards me,” writes Bruno. Among meetings, walks and “important talks”, there are also arguments and misunderstandings. But still – “in spite of what I told you in anger, you are still an important person for me,” he assures her, apologetic, in a letter. And he willingly assumes the role of Cicerone: he leads Anna along his own path in great literature; he reveals in front of her – as islands – his favourite writers and poets. “I am happy that you like Rilke. In the course of time, when you become familiar with his poems, worlds of even more condensed beauty will open in front of you.” “You should read The Double or The Brothers Karamazov”… “As far as the analysis of Mann is concerned, you may be partially right.” With respect to art issues which Schulz mastered, he could be a rigid teacher. “I do not wish to disconcert you at all, but I cannot leave you with I think is erroneous (…). In literary issues, I claim to have certain competence.” But soon afterwards, he adds complacently: “The sole fact that I am arguing with you should be a proof for you that I am treating you seriously.” He gave her his manuscripts to read, extracted from the depths of his drawers, without a chance for publication; he encouraged her to write, as if he wanted her to enter his territory, to start practicing something that was much closer to him than fine arts. Anna brought her first texts to him. Bruno complemented her: “I liked the texts that you read to me a lot.” Then, assuming the role of her teacher: “I would like to you to be braver and have more impetus to embrace broader subjects, to work on the greater masses of your internal world using this method.” And further: “When can I read it? When will you come?” “I am inviting you heartily and with joy. I will wait for you every day until 6 p.m., because I believe that later you will not come.” Bruno is waiting. His time is filled with waiting for Anna. “Please do not get discouraged towards me and come in the next few days. I am very sad and in a deep hole. Maybe you could cheer me up a bit,” he invites and insists. And Anna? Anna has power over him; she knows about it and she knows how to use it. Their discussions – face to face or with friends – like the one about realism which provoked Schulz to write a short treaty in one of his letters – are a type of intellectual flirtation. Jachimowicz recollects: “Anna attacked him most boldly, using the charm which she exerted over Schulz, not resistant to her.” Anna bantered with him and sometimes used a typically feminine stratagem: she made a “scene.” Bruno was delighted; it is known that he liked to get satisfaction from imaginary danger caused by women. He wrote: “Please come (…) and do not spare me.” And at other times: “(…) in relation to the scene which you made. To tell you the truth, it was not deprived of some poetic charm exuded by your person and all your caprices. I felt it as a sudden attack of wind with rain – in April, when these spatters of rain hitting your face cannot smell any other way than of spring.” From Schulz’s letters to Anna, it is difficult to get a reliable portrait of their addressee: they provide us with information primarily about their author. The person that emerges from them is more of a creation of his imagination than a living person. Bruno “distilled” Anna from life and transferred her beyond reality: he made her the heroine of his poetic phantasmagoria. He was completely aware of the mechanism that functions in such cases. He determined it – at a margin of other divagations – in a letter to Stefan Szuman, long before he got to know Anna: “(…) the sight of a woman about whom we know nothing pierces us with sudden appalling certainty that she possesses all the hidden and - therefore unknown - characteristics that we desire so much.” In Anna, he concentrated not only his dreams; he endowed her with the features of his own art: he saw in her the mysterious transformation of matter, dynamics of constant changes, a parade of “pseudo-personalities” accepted only for a moment, a metaphysical automation of puppets… Let us look at one of the letters: “Dear Ania, I am constantly under the impact of your charming metamorphoses. I believe that they are so charming, because they are independent from your will – they are automatic and unwitting. It is as if somebody was furtively putting forward another person, changing you and you were accepting this new person and taking it to be you and played your own role on a new instrument, not knowing that somebody else was on the stage. (…) you do not realize how much other forces are at play here; how much there is of metaphysical puppetry. At the same time, you are incredibly reactive, immediately forming a supplementary shape, some beautiful accompaniment… Everything takes place outside of intellect, in a certain shorter and simpler way than the way of thoughts. It is simply a physical reaction. It is the first time that I encounter such wealth of nature not fitting the scale of one person and therefore activating auxiliary personalities, improvising pseudo-personalities ad hoc, initiated for the time of a short role that you have to play. This is how I explain your Prometheus-like nature. You may think that I am taken in, that I am proposing deep interpretations for ordinary coquetry. I assure you that coquetry is something very deep and not understandable for you. (…) I approve you – just in case – in all your metamorphoses (…).” If only this letter survived out of all letters to Anna Płockier, she would still have her place in literature: an unknown painter, a half-real Muse – she appeared to Bruno Schulz “(…) one day in a gap in a park, a light wanderer walking from the groves from Borysław into the alleys of Truskawiec.” “Take your heart for a walk,” this is what Artur Rzeczyca, a forgotten young poet from Borysław wrote in one of his poems. It has been known forever: walks are inspiring - especially, when a poet is walking in the company of his Muse. Marta Tarabuła Kraków-Ryczów, July 2012