My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life

by Witold Rybczynski

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Witold Rybczynski's parents and grandparents were a thriving, cultured family in prewar Warsaw, then a sophisticated European city. With the onset of war, their world fell apart. His mother and father made separate escapes, reuniting against many odds on a ship bound for Scotland from Marseilles.

That people can lose everything, overcome stunning odds to survive, remake themselves in a foreign country, learn a new language and culture, and then do it again is extraordinary. My Two Polish Grandfathers is a testament to the boundaryless world of art, architecture, and music -- which can be transported from one country to another -- and clear affirmation of Rybczynski's own path toward becoming an architect and one of today's most original thinkers.

Beautifully written, thoughtful, and extraordinarily subtle, this riveting work offers a rare glimpse into the development of Rybczynski's educated outsider's eye and is a tribute to a European generation that has helped to define postwar American culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416561286
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 02/03/2009
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,020,737
File size: 796 KB

About the Author

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture and urbanism for The New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Home and the award-winning A Clearing in the Distance, as well as The Biography of a Building, The Mysteries of the Mall, and Now I Sit Me Down. The recipient of the National Building Museum’s 2007 Vincent Scully Prize, he lives with his wife in Philadelphia, where he is emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Read an Excerpt

My Two Polish Grandfathers

When I was a boy, conversations around the kitchen table were regularly punctuated by the phrase przed wojnaÞ -- before the war. My parents' lives in a faraway country were the subjects of family stories, which were told and retold like fairy tales. Once upon a time there was a place where everyone was happy all the time, living in splendid houses, going to balls, finding glass slippers. In the fairy tales, the war was like the evil witch: malevolent, destructive, ruinous. The stories had different purposes. For my parents, they kept alive the memory of who they were -- or had been. But the tales were also for the benefit of my brother and me. Of course, the subjects of my parents' stories were people who, in most cases, were still alive, but to me they seemed as distant as ancient ancestors. And just as potent.

My mother's fairy tale involved growing up in an enchanted castle. The family house was on Mokotowska Street, near the city's principal park, Lazienki Gardens, and behind Aleje Ujazdowskie, a broad avenue with parallel rows of lime trees -- Warsaw's Champs-Elysées. The neoclassic house was designed by Francesco Maria Lanci, one of those itinerant Italian architects common in nineteenth-century central Europe. Lanci had built the house in 1860 for Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, the foremost Polish man of letters of his time. My grandfather bought it in 1928 and spent two years renovating and enlarging; with three daughters, he needed more space. The building was laid out like a Renaissance villa, with high-ceilinged living quarters on the second floor and lower-ceilinged service rooms below. The family occupied only the upper floor, the lower level was rented for offices, and the cellar contained rooms for storing coal, potatoes, pickle barrels, and wine. The household staff included a nanny, two maids, a cook, and a watchman who tended the furnace. My mother, her older sister, Wisia, and their little brother, Michal, who was born the year they moved in, all had their own bedrooms, which seemed luxurious to me since my brother and I shared a room. Krysia, the youngest sister, slept in her mother's room; my grandfather had his own room as well as a library -- he was an avid reader. There was a small salon and a large drawing room for entertaining, as well as a long dining room with heavy oak furniture. Outside the dining room was a terrace with an ivy-covered stair leading to the garden. The garden, which was overlooked by four-story apartment blocks, was not large, and on hot summer days the family decamped to a country house in Piaseczno, a small town in the Warsaw suburbs. There, while the accommodations were rude, without indoor plumbing or running water, the girls and their friends could enjoy a modern amenity: a tennis court. Lazy summers in the country, a bustling household in town -- it all sounds wonderfully civilized.

The walls of the entrance hall at Mokotowska Street were hung with animal trophies -- stags' antlers and boars' tusks -- for my grandfather's other passion was hunting. The extensive wilderness areas of rural Poland offered a wealth of opportunities. There were boar in the puszcza, or primeval forest, in national parks on the Lithuanian border, deer in the Carpathian Mountains, waterfowl in the Pripet Marshes, and hunting clubs stocked with partridge and wood grouse in the vicinity of Warsaw. These outings were generally social occasions, groups of men setting out in horse-drawn carriages -- or a convoy of cars -- carrying hampers of food and drink. Hunts on private estates were sometimes followed by house parties, to which nonhunters -- and wives -- were invited. One of the hunting trophies on the wall at Mokotowska Street included a gold medal from the 1937 International Hunting Exhibition in Berlin. That event was presided over by another enthusiastic hunter, Hermann Göring.

My grandfather Mieczyslaw Jan Hofman was, in every sense, a self-made man. He was born in 1881 in Kalisz, a small city west of Warsaw on the Prosna River, which, until the end of the First World War, marked the boundary between the Russian and the Prussian parts of Poland, Kalisz being on the eastern (Russian) bank. He was the son of a customs official whose father had migrated from Bavaria to be manager of a local estate, and had set down roots and assimilated.* As a young man, my grandfather studied economics in St. Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire. The choice of the distant university was a measure of his ambition. Although he came from a solidly middle-class family -- one brother became an engineer, another a pharmacist -- he chose to make his own way, leaving home at an early age and supporting himself as a student by managing investments for wealthy clients. He clearly had a head for business, and on his return, he worked for -- and ended up running -- a cooperative savings bank based in Poznan´. He then became president of Bank Handlowy (Commerce Bank), the largest privately-owned bank in the country, headquartered in Warsaw. My grandfather belonged to what Poles call the "generation of the twenties," that is, the generation responsible for building the modern Polish state after the rebirth of the republic in 1918 (Bank Handlowy, for example, financed the construction of Gdynia, Poland's only Baltic port). He married Jadwiga Glowacka, the daughter of a Lublin judge, and had a happy family life including -- and how important this was at that time -- a male heir. He was fifty when he moved into the house on Mokotowska Street. In other words, a classic success story.

My grandfather appears somewhat forbidding in photographs, with a notable exception. A snapshot shows him sitting on a garden bench with another man. Jerzy Komorowski was president of the largest steel works and machine factory in Poland, Lilpop, Rau & Loewenstein (for whom my father worked). The two men were best friends, had lunch once a week at a Warsaw businessmen's club, and went hunting together. The extensive garden in the photo is behind Komorowski's summer house; the time is late spring of that fateful Polish year, 1939. The two friends are smoking -- an ashtray between them -- relaxed and smiling; perhaps the photographer has just said something funny. Or maybe they are amused at the odd spectacle they make. My grandfather is wearing a tweed suit, white shirt, and natty bow tie. He seems to have dropped in unannounced, for Komorowski is casually dressed, in a sort of T-shirt, white shorts, socks rolled down to his ankles, and -- a jarring note -- beat-up leather brogues. It's what one might wear on a Saturday morning for a spot of gardening. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, their contrasting dress, the two figures make a definite pair. An odd couple, one might say: the industrialist, relaxed, expansive, apparently uninhibited; the banker, more compact and controlled, not aloof, exactly, but with something held in reserve.

I never knew my grandfather, who died when I was a year old. He knew of me, however. In his will he left me, his only grandson, a share in one of his apartment buildings, the equivalent of the not inconsiderable sum of twenty-five thousand zlotys. He wrote the will in December 1943. By then, his stocks and bonds -- he patriotically invested only in Polish companies -- had been rendered worthless by the war. In addition to making various provisions for his family, the will also specified two scholarships at Warsaw's business school for the children of bank employees. "I acquired my estate by the work and savings of my entire life," my grandfather wrote, "for I inherited nothing from my parents and did not accept a dowry when I married." But the three-page handwritten document offers a glimpse of something else beneath the severity. After precisely spelling out the legal details of his bequests, he added a touching message to his family, written in a formal, old-fashioned Polish that doesn't quite translate into English.

I strongly ask my wife to continue to safeguard the children's welfare, to assist them morally as well as materially, and to bring up Michal- as a brave and patriotic citizen. As for the children, they should try, during all their lives, to be modest and true in order to stay cheerful in heart and mind, to work and save, not only for themselves but, as far as possible, for the entire community, and to love and help one another. Be happy, my dear ones, and may God bless you.

He scrawled a terse postscript untidily at the bottom of the page: "Due to completely altered circumstances I hereby annul this will." He added that on October 24, 1944, on his deathbed. The altered circumstances to which he alluded were the result of the Warsaw uprising. When the city fell, and the Germans ordered an evacuation, half a million Varsovians were interned in Durchgangslager 121, a transit camp at Pruszków, a Warsaw suburb. From there, they were sent either to work on fortifications outside the city, to Germany as forced labor, or to concentration camps. My grandfather bribed a guard to let his family out of the camp and, hidden in hay wagons, they made their way to a friend's country estate. From there they could hear the boom of detonations as the Germans blew up the city, block after block, building after building.

Before leaving his house on Mokotowska Street, my grandfather had concealed two suitcases containing gold coins, the family silver, a collection of pocket watches, and the deeds to his properties -- all that was left of his fortune -- in a bricked-up room in the cellar. Since access to the city was forbidden, he hired two men to retrieve the valuables. They did so, but when he opened the suitcases, they contained only bundles of old newspapers; someone -- most likely the hired men -- had removed the contents. Faced with this ultimate indignity, my grandfather collapsed with a stroke, and died a day later.

I never warmed to my mother's tale. It seemed to me sad -- a tale of loss rather than accomplishment. Moreover, the grand house on Mokotowska Street served only to underline the modesty of our own suburban lives: our small home, our unexceptional recreations, our holidays spent in rented caravans or in crowded campgrounds. No hunting parties or balls, or private tennis courts. It made my grandfather's achievement sound even more distant, and more unreal.

My father's fairy tale was about his father the schoolteacher -- except he wasn't, exactly. Witold Erasmus Rybczyn´ski was also born in 1881, but at the other end of the country, in Stanislawów, a small town in the Austrian province of Galicia. Despite the exotic name, Galicia was a backwater of the Habsburg Empire, and, like much of central Europe, it was a cultural stew. The two largest groups, separated by language, religion, and culture, were the Polish landowners and city dwellers, and the Ruthenian peasantry, who were known as Little Russians and were descendants of the ancient Kievan Rus´. The cities contained sizable Jewish communities as well as a small number of German and Austrian civil servants. With the exception of the townspeople, and a handful of Polish aristocrats, the inhabitants of this largely agricultural area were poor, so poor indeed that, according to the historian Norman Davies, "Galicia was in a worse predicament than Ireland at the start of the potato famine."

The two main cities of Galicia were Krakau and Lemberg -- Kraków and Lwów to the Poles -- which were the capitals of the western and eastern parts of the province. Despite the rural poverty around them, the cities were prosperous. Lemberg was a charming place, with a cobblestone market square, beautiful Baroque churches, and a Viennese-style opera house. The Habsburgs' policy of benevolent neglect allowed Polish institutions to thrive (German and Polish were the official languages), and among Lemberg's cultural institutions was the venerable university where my grandfather studied philosophy. His doctoral diploma, in physics and mathematics, was awarded by Emperor Franz Joseph I and includes the title of the dissertation: "The Movement of a Fluid Sphere in a Viscous Liquid Under the Influence of Gravity."

I have his photograph, a studio portrait, probably taken when he was in his twenties. He is a handsome man, with a mustache and long sideburns, dressed for the occasion in a dark vested suit. He is wearing a high starched collar with a diamond stickpin through the knot of his silk tie, which is fashionably loose. He looks ambitious, studious, and quietly self-confident. His father was a district court judge and a leading citizen in the small country town of Kolomya. He must have been prosperous, for he sent both his sons to university. After my grandfather graduated, he married Kazimiera Laska, a young woman from an established Lemberg family, and the following year they had a son. Their apartment, on Castle Hill, overlooked the city. For the next five years my grandfather taught in a gimnazium, or high school, and continued his research in theoretical physics. Secondary education was a serious business in the Austrian Empire, with teaching ranks as in a university, and in due course he was promoted to professor. His doctoral thesis was translated into several languages. Like most Galician intellectuals, he looked beyond his homeland. The University of Lemberg was well regarded abroad, and he received a scholarship to work under the great theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld at the University of Munich, and for several years lived with his wife and young son in Germany, where he also met Max Planck and Albert Einstein.

The family summered in Jaremcze, a village in the Carpathian Mountains, south of Lemberg. They were there in August 1914, when the First World War broke out. Barely escaping the Russian invasion, they fled west through Hungary to Vienna, where they spent most of the war. Although my grandfather had done his compulsory military service, a weak heart prevented him from being conscripted. Instead, he worked for an organization that helped refugees, of whom there were many, for Galicia was a chief theater of the Eastern Front and the fighting was fierce, especially around the fortress town of Lemberg. At first the Russians were successful and overran the city, but following the abdication of the czar and the Bolshevik coup, their army crumbled and Austro-German troops advanced deep into Ukraine. In 1917, after the Russian rout, my grandparents were able to move back to Galicia, though not to Lemberg but to Tarnów, a small country town in the western part of the province, where my grandfather had relatives.

At the end of the war, the situation in Lemberg remained tense. The defeat of the Germans and the collapse of the Habsburg Empire produced chaos in Galicia, as it did throughout central Europe. Polish and Ruthenian nationalists both occupied parts of the city, and the Ruthenians proclaimed a republic allied with the neighboring short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic. Meanwhile the newly formed Polish state claimed Galicia as its own. The Polish army occupied Lemberg in short order, and after eight months of fighting established control over the entire province. By then my grandmother and her son were back in Lwów, as it was now called. They lived with her parents, but without my grandfather, who had stayed in Tarnów. Their marriage was over.

My grandfather spent the rest of his life in Tarnów. He got a job in the local gimnazium and never returned to Lwów, or to the cosmopolitan world of theoretical physics. One day he was a budding young physicist (just before the war he had been offered a teaching chair at the university), the next he was teaching the second law of thermodynamics to country lads. Fairy tales do not have to explain events; things just happen -- the bean is planted and the stalk grows -- so my grandfather's odd decision was never clearly explained. It was only much later that I pieced together what may have happened. My grandfather -- he was thirty-seven -- had fallen in love. Marja Vayhinger was the lonely and unhappy wife of a local government official who traveled a lot (he was in charge of locks and waterways in the district). He must have been a tolerant sort, for my grandfather became a frequent houseguest, although the precise nature of Marja and his relationship remains unclear. They lived together for more than thirty years, but as lovers or platonic friends? They never married. Yet the fact remains that he gave up everything for her: wife, family, career.

Marja must have felt guilty about breaking up the marriage, for she introduced my now-divorced grandmother to her brother, Adam Korytowski, a former captain in the Austrian cavalry, now a major in the new Polish army. The major proposed, and Kazimiera accepted. My father never talked about why his parents divorced, and Marja was never mentioned, except in passing, and then only as the sister of his stepfather. As a boy, I was given to understand, in some vague way, that it was my grandmother who was to blame for the breakup. From the time she lived with us in England, I have vague memories of babcia's bedroom, which I was sometimes allowed to visit. The darkened room had for me a dissolute air, not only because she had divorced -- which I knew was forbidden by the Church -- but also because she was the only one in the house who smoked. She used a holder and had a snuffer shaped like the famous statue of the Belgian Boy. I think it was this -- the smoking and the little peeing boy -- that made her supposed culpability easy for me to accept.

What my father did recount, with obvious affection, were his boyhood summer holidays with his father, whom he revered. These periods were spent not in Tarnów but in Lusl-awice, a nearby village in the Carpathian foothills. Here the Vayhingers owned a summer residence, an early-nineteenth-century manor house on the Dunajec River. A prominent figure in the Lusl-awice fairy tale was Jacek Malczewski, a painter. In 1921, at the age of sixty-seven, Malczewski moved his family from Kraków to Lusl-awice, where his two sisters lived. By then he was Poland's most renowned painter and Marja Vayhinger, in the guise of patroness, built him a studio on her estate. He painted there for the next five years and was a regular visitor at the manor house. An ascetic-looking man with gaunt features and a beard (there are many self-portraits, one in a suit of armor that makes him look like Don Quixote), he painted allegorical scenes in a realistic style, peopling the Polish countryside with biblical and mystical figures. He made a small painting of my grandfather. It is a simple scene: my grandfather and Marja's son, Adzio, on a tennis court, the two standing figures in crisp white shirts with rolled sleeves, my grandfather holding a racket. Although Malczewski's work tends to be melancholy, the atmosphere here is cheerfully summery, the afternoon sun low, the chirping of the crickets almost audible.

I was much taken with my grandfather's story -- the romantic liaison, the mysterious retreat from a scientific career, life in a secluded country manor, rubbing shoulders with a famous painter. The fact that I was his namesake made this particular fairy tale even more appealing.

My grandfather retired from teaching in 1933, at the age of only fifty-two, supposedly the result of his weak heart. Or maybe he just wanted to stop. A former student remembered him as his best teacher, and an outstanding public lecturer, but not someone who seemed to be absorbed by teaching. His students liked him, but he kept his distance -- both from them and from other teachers. A colleague described him as spending his free time at home, surrounded by books and paintings. After retirement he devoted himself to reading and writing -- his eclectic works included many poems, a physics textbook, numerous magazine articles, a translation of Maeterlinck's Death, and a popular scientific book titled What Is Radar? He and Marja now lived at Luslawice together year-round -- she had separated from her husband. My mother remembers visiting them on the occasion of her marriage. She recalls that they addressed each other formally, pan and pani -- sir and madam. My mother did not know her father-in-law well, but he struck her as a gentle, retiring, and content person; she remembers Marja, who was known as Nunia, as a commanding presence who looked like George Sand.

My father's last summer in Lusl-awice was in 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. The Germans occupied Galicia, but fighting generally bypassed the isolated village. Marja and my grandfather stayed in the house, taking in a score of displaced relatives and friends. He went back to teaching -- clandestinely, for schools were outlawed. After the end of the war, eastern Galicia became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with Galician Poles forcibly resettled and Lwów renamed L'viv. Western Galicia -- and Lusl-awice -- remained in what was now the People's Republic of Poland. Marja and my grandfather continued to live in the old manor house, where he died in 1949. While playing bridge, he bent down to retrieve a dropped card, and his heart just stopped. He was buried in the village cemetery, less than two hundred miles from where he was born, yet, in its own way, the trajectory of his life was as roiled by external events as that of his son. He sampled all the forms of government that the turbulent twentieth century had to offer: imperial rule under the Habsburgs; democracy and then authoritarianism during the twenty-year Polish Republic; fascism under the Third Reich's General Gouvernement; and -- briefly -- Communism. In spite -- or, perhaps, because -- of the unsettled times in which he lived, he created for himself a remarkably settled existence. His was a happy unhappy life, which, as John Lukacs has pointed out, is preferable to an "unhappy happy one."

I once visited Luslawice. Tarnów, where my grandfather had taught school, was a sleepy country town, just as I had imagined. A local bus dropped me at the hamlet of Luslawice, and I easily found the manor house, a rustic Palladian villa with an elegant central portico supported by Doric columns. The large grounds were overgrown, and the building was boarded up. I walked up the road and, after asking directions, located the local cemetery. The graves were scattered beneath a grove of trees. I found my grandfather's tombstone; it gave me a frisson to read his/my name. It was a hot summer's day, but cool in the dark shade. All around was a rolling landscape of open fields and meadows, bright in the glaring sun.

Copyright © 2009 by Witold Rybczynski

Table of Contents


Part I

The House Under Calton Hill


My Two Polish Grandfathers

Part II



Virtute et Labore

Part III

Formentera Spring


The Boathouse

Bibliographical Notes and Acknowledgments

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