On May 18, 2014, for his contributions to understanding history and for his creative confrontation with memory, Krzysztof Czyzewski was awarded the Dan David Prize along with the French historian Pierre Nora and the Israeli Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander. Of these three, the two distinguished historians and the theater practitioner-publisher-memory activist, I am very proud to note that the activist is my friend. Right now, as I compose this post, he is giving his Dan David Prize Lecture.
When he visited The New School recently, Elzbieta Matynia and I had a public discussion with Czyzewski about his work. He vividly described the activities for which he is being honored. Public Seminar posted the proceedings.
As we spoke, I recalled a conversation I had with him many years ago in Sejny, Poland, where his Borderlands Foundation is located, near the border with Lithuania, very close to Belarus, and not far from Russia and Ukraine. He described the circumstances of his meeting the Nobel Prize winning poet, Czeslaw Miłosz. I have always regretted not recording, or at least being able to take careful notes after that conversation. When I recalled this with Krzysztof, we agreed to try to repeat the discussion. Here it is. Zeyno Ustun filmed it. It’s not the same, but not completely different either. It reveals deep and hopeful cultural connection in a troubled land, a ground not only of despair, but also, against nostalgia, for unsentimental hope. -Jeff Goldfarb
P.S. The Dan David Prize awards one million dollars each year for work on history and memory. Yesterday, it was shared by Krzysztof Czyzewski and two other recipients. There is also a junior prize dedicated to the support of young scholars working in this field. One of my former students, Yifat Gutman, received this scholarship earlier this year in order to work on a project called “The Production of History and Memory in Everyday Life: How Jewish and Palestinian Citizens of Israel Narrate and Commemorate the 1948 War Outside State and Academic Institutions.” When I wrote a letter supporting her candidacy, I had no idea that Krzysztof would be awarded this prize.
P.P.S. Here is an English translation of a Miłosz poem Krzysztof sent me, to which he refers in our conversation. I believe it captures not only the spirit of Miłosz’s return, but also of Krzysztof’s creative practices for which he is being honored.
In my old age I decided to visit places where I wandered long ago in my early youth,
I recognized smells, the outline of post glacial hills and oval-shaped lakes.
I forced my way through a thicket where a park was once, but I did not Find the traces of the lanes.
Standing on the shore while the wave shimmered lightly as it did then, I was incomprehensibly the same, incomprehensibly different.
And yet I will not repudiate you, unlucky youngster, nor dismiss the reasons for your sufferings as foolish.
He to whom the pitiless truth of existence is suddenly unveiled, cannot but ask: How can it be?
How can it be, such an order of the world-unless it was created by a cruel demiurge?
There is nothing to esteem in the fattened wisdom of adults, and acquiescence trained in slyness is disgraceful.
Let us honor a protest against the immutable law and honor revolvers in the hands of adolescents when they refuse to participate for ever.
And then — was it not like this? — a woman’s hand covers our eyes and a gift is offered: brown shields of her breasts, the ebony tuft of her belly.
How the heart beats! Only for me such happiness? Nobody knows, nobody guesses the golden marvel of her body.
Only for you? I nod and look at the lake — only for you, and thus since the millennia, so that the beauty of the earth be exalted.
And now, after a long life, grown slyly just and made wise by mere searching, I ask whether all that was worthwhile.
When doing good we also do evil, the balances evening out, that’s all and a blindly accomplished destiny.
Nobody here, I did not feel troubled spirits flying by, only the wind was bending the bulrushes, so I could not say to her: You see.
Somehow I waded through; I am grateful that I was not submitted to tests beyond my strength, and yet I still think that the human soul belongs to the anti-world.
Which is real as this one is real and horrible and comic and senseless.
I toiled and kept choosing the opposite: a perfect Nature lifted above chaos and transience, a changeless garden on the other side of time.
– Czesław Miłosz