An Angel Against Her Will: Zuzanna Ginczanka’s “Non Omnis Moriar”

Zuzanna Ginczanka.jpg
Zuzanna Ginczanka

Zuzanna Ginczanka (born in 1917 as Zuzanna Gincburg) wrote her first poems at the age of 4. By 14, she had found her mature voice. At 19, she was a rising star in Warsaw’s avant garde.

At 27, she was murdered by the Nazis.


Two years before her death, she narrowly escaped capture by the German police, or “Schupo.” She processed her experience in this remarkable poem.1

Non omnis moriar – my noble estate,
My fields of tablecloth and expansive sheets,
My steadfast wardrobe bastions, still replete
With pastel-colored dresses will outlive me yet.
I left no successor to inherit these
Jewish things. May your hand then reach,
Mrs. Chomin of Lvov, brave wife of a snitch,
A Volksdeutcher’s2 mother, for them if you please.
May they serve you and yours. For why should it be
Outsiders? Neighbors, you – that’s more than empty name.
I still remember you, and when the Schupo came,
You remembered me. Reminded them of me.
May friends of mine sit down and raise their jugs
To drink away my death, toast the things they’ll own:
The platters and candles, tapestries and rugs.
May they drink all night, and at the break of dawn
May they search for gold and for precious stone
In mattresses, couches, and duvets in turn.
Their work will go so fast, it will almost burn,
While billowed horsehair, seagrass, eiderdown,
And clouds from gutted pillows will drift gently
Down to their arms. And then my blood will cling
To fiber and to fluff and form the wings
Turning those in seventh heaven into angels.


 It’s one thing for Horace, who lived to 56, to claim “non omnis moriar” (“not all of me will die”)-another for a 25-year-old Jew hiding in Nazi hell. The poetry Horace left behind offered comfort; Ginczanka’s material possessions are only a threat. If Mrs. Chomin hadn’t hoped to pillage Ginczanka’s “Jewish things” after her death, if jealousy towards her neighbor’s relative wealth hadn’t turned to spite, Ginczanka wouldn’t have needed solace in the first place.

I’m haunted by those pastel-colored dresses. I wonder if Ginczanka remembered, when writing that line, how she had used the image of the dress in “Virginity.” In this poem, we, women,

in cubes of peach-tinted wallpaper,
as hermetically sealed
as a steel thermos,
ensnared to our necks in dresses,
carry out
civilized
conversations.

The dresses symbolize her innocence and youth, but also the curse of her notorious beauty. Before the war, this meant unwanted male attention and female jealousy. Now, she carried the burden of an unforgettable face, the utter impossibility of passing for an “Aryan.”

Nothing is as worthy of jealousy as it seems; jealousy itself, morphed to malice, ensures that.


The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace. (Source.)

Knowing that doesn’t stop the jealousy. Even I feel it: jealousy for Ginczanka’s talent, beauty, heroism. Even for her martyrdom.

I want to be a hero too. Instead, I’m beset by uncertainty, flitting from one pursuit to the next, always wondering whether I could make a bigger difference, devote myself to something more important. Ginczanka had no such choice; hiding away from the Nazis, all she could do was the thing she loved most: write – and that was enough to turn her into an angel.

The bitter sarcasm of her poetry brings me to my senses: I, and only I, am the enviable one.


More than half of the population of Ginczanka’s hometown of Równe (now Rivne, Ukraine) was Jewish. Still, Christmas was the holiday for which her grandmother would decorate the family storefront. Each year, she would dress up her beautiful granddaughter, attach wings to her, and place the angel behind the glass display. Local children would stand on the other side of the glass, rooted in place by the spell of Zuzanna’s beauty.3

And so her childhood prefigured her death: transformed into an angel against her will, locked inside a small room on the other side of reality, hoping for invisibility behind a glass wall.

Did she return to this memory when writing “Non Omnis Moriar”? Was she using her blood as a final act of defiance, sticking her wings onto her tormentors? “Here, you be the angel, see how much you like it!”


Słowacki, by James Hopwood
Juliusz Słowacki

Ginczanka’s poem includes several references to Juliusz Słowacki’s “My Last Will.” One of Poland’s great Romantic bards, Słowacki wrote at a time when Poland was absent from world maps, partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The poet, who suffered from tuberculosis, “leaves no successor,” so he bequeaths his writing to the Polish people. He hopes it will inspire them to keep the flame of Polish culture alive and to, if necessary, fight and perish for the sake of independence “like stones cast by God onto the barricade.”

It’s a powerful and bittersweet thing to see Ginczanka claiming this Romantic lineage. Though she had called Poland her home for almost her entire life and inhabited the Polish language as comfortably as anyone, she may have never held a Polish passport.4

Fleeing pogroms, her parents had brought her to Poland during the first few years of her life. At home, she spoke Russian, but inspired by the rich poetic culture of inter-war Poland, she chose Polish as her written language. In “Non Omnis Moriar,” she is, like Słowacki, taking it upon herself to pass on the torch of Polish culture; the republic is, once again, erased from the map. But she’s doing something else too: sketching a new map, a map of a country that would claim her as its own. A country of culture, of compassion, of tolerance.


When Ginczanka asks “For why should it be outsiders?” she’s surely paraphrasing something Mrs. Chomin would have said. Of course, for the snitch it is the Jews who are outsiders – but Ginczanka willfully misunderstands her neighbor. If Poland is the only place she ever called home, how could she be an outsider?

A better Christian than Mrs. Chomin, she models loving your neighbor like yourself. A better Pole, she knows the country’s literary canon by heart (I doubt there’s space in her hideaway for volumes of Słowacki!).

Of course, none of that makes any difference.


The image of the angel is also borrowed from Słowacki, who closes his poem by prophesying that that the force of his poetry will turn “bread eaters” – complacent Poles unfazed by the country’s partition – into angels.

Ginczanka’s angels are much more enigmatic. Her death turns her snitches into what passes for angels in the topsy-turvy world of Nazi-occupied territories: obedient subjects. Appealing to Mrs. Chomin’s withered conscience, Ginczanka reminds her that it is her own blood that makes this illusory honor possible.

If Mrs. Chomin is an angel, she is an angel of death.


The righting of the topsy-turvy world came too late for Ginczanka. But just as she prophesied, her poem lived on.

In 1948, Zofja Chomin was sentenced to four years in prison for collaborating with the Nazis. The evidence? Among others, “Non Omnis Moriar” – one of the only poems ever used as testimony in court.


Ginczanka’s early poem, “Grammar,” features an unforgettable simile:

And pronouns are as confidential as flowers
as the minuscule, minuscule roomlets
in which you live in secret evasion.

The “roomlets” hold a pair of lovers, hidden in the anonymity of “you” and “me,” but they’re also the shelter Ginczanka would find in language – the only place that would hold her.

“Non Omnis Moriar” is a tour de force of poetic control. Ginczanka twists Mrs. Chomin’s words “why should it be outsiders?” for her own purpose and returns the wings which her oppressors forced on her.

It is, of course, control only on paper – the only type of control she knew in her short life. The plot is made by the powerful; all she can do is choose the words in which she tells her story. The words make a difference, yes – but by then all of her is dead.

In the “Grammar” of Ginczanka, a woman and a Jew, there are no verbs.


[1] All translations are mine.
[2] The Volksdeutche were subjects of Nazi-occupied territories who claimed (or were pressured to claim) German heritage and received special treatment as a result.
[3] Anecdote taken from Izolda Kiec’s biography Ginczanka. Nie Upilnuje mnie nikt.
[4] Izolda Kiec cites an acquaintance of Ginczanka’s on this point, but also expresses some scepticism, since Ginczanka’s own mother did posses a Polish passport.


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2 thoughts on “An Angel Against Her Will: Zuzanna Ginczanka’s “Non Omnis Moriar””

  1. Hi Eve
    Thank you so much for your extra notes, I was fascinated to read your poem originally but the added comments have reminded me of the great service you have performed in bringing Ginczanka’s life to my attention and to many. The saddest story but ultimately with wings to glory, thanks to you.

    Like

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