Tag Archives: Poland

The Family Moskat: Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence

22 Dec

I am more than half way through Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel “The Moskat Family”, originally published in 1950, and I am enjoying it tremendously, although it is very sad at parts. The novel follows the lives of the members of the Moskat family and others associated with it, in Warshaw, in the first half of the twentieth century. The character who appears very early in the beginning and quickly takes central place is Asa Heshel; a disillusioned Jew who read Spinoza’s writings a bit too much. At first he comes off as a misunderstood, moody loner but very soon reveals a lack of character and horrible moral standards. A lot of things happen as the novel progresses; Asa falls in love with Hadassah, the granddaughter of the family patriarch Meshulam Moskat, tries to elope with her unsuccesfully but later marries Meshulam’s step-daughter Adele in Switzerland, their love (or lack of it on his behalf) quickly becomes bitter and they return to Warshaw where he reunites with the now also married Haddasah and starts an affair with her, then joins the military at the outbreak of the World War One.

In the novel’s beginning Asa’s life was a blank page, a clean white piece of paper, and oh how quickly the ink stains of bad decisions, flaws, inconsistencies, and betrayals tainted the paper’s snow whiteness! The lyrics from the Joy Division song “New Dawn Fades” comes to mind: “different colours, different shades, over each mistakes were made.” In a way, the character of Asa is symbolic of the desintegration of the Jewish culture due to the process of modernisation which planted a seed of doubt in many; some characters become Christians, some move abroad and leave their traditions behind. Characters who, like Asa, were seeking freedom from old norms and traditions, instead found themselves lost, directionless, disillusioned… I can’t help but wonder then, what differentiates an experience from – a mistake?

The passage that struck me particularly and that I will share in this post is when Asa first arrives to Warshaw one warm October eve from the countryside and he is quickly enamoured by the hustle and bustle of the big city, and everything seems to him as if he had seen it before; everything is familiar yet strange both at once. This particular feeling of arriving to a new place, being young and full of dreams, is something I have experiences myself and I love reading about it in a novel. I love how vividly Singer describes the scene, I can really imagine I am there; the carriages, the red trams, the scents in the air, the large red setting sun, it is so atmospheric.

Pierre Bonnard, Rue vue d’en Haut, 1899, colour litograph

A few weeks after Meshulam Moskat returned to Warsaw another traveler arrived at the station in the northern part of the capital. He climbed down from a third-class car carrying an ob­long metal-bound basket locked with a double lock. He was a young man, about nineteen. His name was Asa Heshel Bannet. On his mother’s side he was the grandson of Reb Dan Katzenellen­bogen, the rabbi of Tereshpol Minor. He had with him a letter of recommendation to the learned Dr. Shmaryahu Jacobi, secretary of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw. In his pocket rested a worn volume, the Ethics of Spinoza in a Hebrew translation.

The youth was tall and thin, with a long, pale face, a high, prematurely creased forehead, keen blue eyes, thin lips, and a sharp chin covered with a sprouting beard. His blond, almost col­orless earlocks were combed back from his ears. He was wearing a gaberdine and a velvet cap. A scarf was wrapped around his throat. “Warsaw: he said aloud, his voice strange to himself, “War­saw at last. People milled about the station. A porter in a red hat tried to take the basket from him, but he refused to surrender it. Though the year was well into October, the day was still warm. Low clouds floated about in the sky, seeming to merge with the puffs of steam from the locomotives. The sun hung in the west, red and large. In the east the pale crescent of the moon was visible. The young man crossed to the other side of the railing that separated the railroad station from the street. On the wide thor­oughfare, paved with rectangular cobblestones, carriages bowled along, the horses seeming to charge straight at the knots of pe­destrians. Red-painted tramcars went clanging by. There was a smell of coal, smoke, and earth in the moist air. Birds flew about in the dim light, Happing their wings. In the distance could be seen row upon row of buildings, their window panes reflecting the daylight with a silver and leaden glow or glinting gold in the path of the setting sun. Bluish plumes of smoke rose from chimneys. Something long forgotten yet familiar seemed to hover about the uneven roofs, the pigeon cotes, the attic windows, the balconies, the telegraph poles with their connecting wires. It was as if Asa Heshel had seen all of this before in a dream, or maybe in a previous existence.

He took a few steps and then stood still, leaning against a street lamp as though to protect himself against the hurrying throngs. His limbs were cramped from the long hours of sitting. The ground seemed still to be shaking beneath him, the doors and windows of the houses receding as though he were still watching them from the speeding train. It had been long since he had slept.

His brain was only half awake. “Is it here I will learn the divine truths?” he thought vaguely. “Among this multitude?”

Film: Brzezina (The Birch Wood) 1970

17 Jan

“From my window in the sanatorium, I saw things that could have been beautiful if I had been able to touch them. But I never touched them and never will.”

In December I watched the Polish film “Brzezina” or “The Birch Wood” (1970) directed by Andrzej Wajda and based on a short story by Jarosław_Iwaszkiewicz. I found it just…. captivating! The title alone was alluring to me because I love birches and I find them the most poetic and gentle of all trees. The film is set in the 1920s and it starts with a pale and sickly looking yet smiling young man called Stanisław returning home to a cottage in the woods where his brother Bronisław, a widower, lives with his young daughter Ola. Stanisław, a pianist and a man who has travelled and seen the world, is at once enchanted with the peacefulness, greenness and fresh air of the countryside, but something is not quite right. The atmosphere is tense; Stanislaw may be smiling and delighting in nature but Bronislaw is clearly agitated, shouting both at his maid and at his daughter who, as we see later in the film, seems lonely and neglected, often by herself, playing with a broken doll, sitting on a swing or visiting her mother’s grave in the birch forest. The film is full of such poetic scenes; poetic both in mood and visuals. The birch woods and blooming meadows certainly provide a lot of visual delights.

A very poignant scene in the film is around the fourteenth minute; in the evening Stanislaw is playing piano and Bronislaw comes to his room and tell him that the music is going on his nerves, and Stanislaw, smiling a smile tinged with nostalgia, dreaminess and melancholy, responds by saying that the music is irritating him too because it reminds him of a world that he never really got to know well; a world that he can never return to. Later in the conversation Stanislaw admits to his brother that he returned home to die because he is suffering from consumption. Bronislaw, who had not so long ago lost his wife, is disturbed at the thought of death in his house again, but his sadness never manifests itself in tears and gentleness, but rather through drinking and shouting, especially at his timid daughter Ola who is obviously frightened of him in many scenes.

Bronislaw is a desperate broken man badly coping with his wife’s death, and the handsome starry-eyed Stanislaw is desperate to live, to taste the life that is seeping away from him like sand in a sand clock. His eyes shine with a desire for life to the point that it’s tragic. The film shows two people, two brothers, who have completely different situations in life and it compares their two different life philosophies, or approaches to life. Stanislaw would give everything just to be healthy and strong again, and Bronislaw seems oblivious to all the good things he still has in life, such as his sweet little daughter Ola, and he allows himself to sink into grief and bitterness, giving away the precious life he has, drinking it away, he is alive but not really living. When you think of Stanislaw, so eager to live and so enchanted with music, nature and the world around him, it truly seems ungrateful to treat life the way Bronislaw does, to waste it away, to be “dead” before you actually die. It almost seems a sacrilegious to throw life away. Still, there’s a very Slavic sadness to this film which I like a lot. Also, now that I think of it, Ola reminds me of one of my best friends from childhood whose mother had also died when she was very little, the same blonde hair and timidness…

Laura Makabresku – A Macabre World of Dreams and Melancholy

10 Nov

Stillness, quiet melancholy and spider-web fragility of the world Laura Makabresku has created in her photographs keep haunting me for weeks now. I discovered her photographs slowly, one by one, and each intrigued me because it seemed to tell a story, without a clear beginning or ending, like a frozen moment in time that leaves your wondering and daydreaming.

Polish photographer Laura Makabresku is completely self-taught and she sees photography as a diary-medium to portray her feelings and her inner world; this makes me even more intrigued. Her photographs are easily recognisable by their dreamy beauty. Still, by gazing at them one after another, one can sense the changing moods: innocent sleepy chambers where long-hared maidens reside in their flimsy gowns of wistfulness and reverie, easily thorn by the sharp claws of reality. Ophelia-maidens trapped in cages of silk, birds and fawns are their only companions. Pale feminine ideal, porcelain muses easily shattered by rays of light. They seem lonely and mute, yet their hair whispers softly of darker secrets underneath their porcelain skin… From their muteness arises the melody of Chopin’s Nocturnes, at times deeply melancholic, at times shiveringly passionate. While some photos resemble David Hamilton’s dazzling mix of innocence and eroticism, the others portray the gruesome and bloody side of fairy tales and folklore; pale arms adorned with cuts, wrists with drops of blood, dead birds, dried flowers and lace doilies soaked in old perfume… If you’ve read real fairy tales, and not the naff Disney-versions, you’ll know how darkly imaginative and disturbing they can get, and I think Makabresku captures that mood well. The fairy tale fabric of her dreamy scenes is woven with a thick Slavic atmosphere of silence and mysteries. In some of her photos, I feel the dreariness and mystique of the Polish fields and meadows that Chopin wrote in one of his letters. At other times, I feel an oppressive and claustrophobic Kafkaesque mood. Her photos simply evoke so many ideas, dreams, memories… These are just my impressions, now I will leave you to enjoy the pictures!

 

Dark coat, a lock of hair with a ribbon, a bird peeking from the pocket: if this doesn’t intrigue you, I don’t know what does! Just looking at her photos gives me story ideas.

And here is a link to her website: http://lauramakabresku.com