RADIO ON - by Sława Harasymowicz
Sława Harasymowicz, The Spring To Come, 2016.
The Poetry Library, London. Photo: Harpreet Kalsi.
- ...again, who was Marian?
- …your grandfather’s brother. He was in a concentration camp in Hamburg and at the end of the war the Germans loaded them on a mined ship and that’s how it ended.
(It is 1977)
I recall a gathering in my grandmother’s dining room.
(It feels different to other family dinners during which grandmother would serve chicken soup with hand-made noodles from porcelain vases, passing them on around the large round table, or when someone would try to teach me how shoelaces should be tied).
There are people here today that I do not recognise; more chairs have to be brought in. I look at the visitors one by one. Seated against the afternoon sunlight creeping in from the sixth floor windows, they appear as dark outlines. Voices are hushed. I watch fascinated as they stir their dense black coffee and sugar in tall glasses. One of the adults asks if I want to try it; the liquid tastes like poison and I recoil.
The name ’Marian‘ passes quickly, lightly around the room.
All of a sudden, my grandfather, as usual sitting upright and holding on tight to the armrests of his green chair, begins to cry. Tear lines appear on his face, which then, and later, always made me think of a mask.
So this happens: a member of the underground resistance, a recently married poet and a violin teacher find employment in a sport shop owned by his in-laws. One day, a group of the SS takes his father and sister away while another unit is waiting inside the shop after they’ve ordered the shopkeeper to telephone for Marian to arrive.
And so he does.
(It is 2016)
I am walking along Basztowa Street in Kraków. I am here to collect a translation of a document written in German reporting a ship’s salvage operation.
The ship, named Thielbek, was one of
three ships anchored in Lubeck Bay and torpedoed by the RAF Typhoon Squadron on 3 May 1945, just as the war was coming to an end.
The pilots had not been informed that
the ships’ lower decks contained thousands of concentration camp prisoners, evacuated by the Nazis from Neuengamme camp, and held below the metal floors since late April. Among those thousands was Marian, my maternal grandfather’s younger brother.
(It is 2016)
I stop for a few minutes on one of Basztowa’s corners, where the road turns into the Kleparz Market. The market is arranged hierarchically in zones, starting with small clumps of people scattered here and there, peddling junk. The trade intensifies as it moves inwards, towards the established points of sale: blood red meat, plucked chickens, sliced pigs feet, nuts, milk, cheese and branded nylon tights.
I collect the translation in a disproportion-
ally high, small and narrow windowless room. The receipt is written out by hand.
Thielbek was salvaged five years after the sinking in May 1945. It was cleaned of “800 tonnes of silt”, of “13 whole bodies, 175 skulls and numerous other smaller human bones”. Its name was erased, and replaced with a freshly painted Reinbek.
“Thielbek was hit under water surface by a number of rockets. Thielbek sank in ca. 20 minutes [along with its cargo of just under 3000 prisoners]. Only a few managed to survive. The concentration camp prisoners who were primarily kept in the front and rear cargo holds could not escape from the holds quickly enough to rescue themselves as the ship was sinking. (…) According to reports by eyewitnesses, a lot of people swam in the water on the day of the sinking. (...) The ship was hit by 7 small-calibre rockets (ca. 30 kg) under water surface and sunk in approximately 20 minutes. As it was going down, the water flooding its insides pushed many people out of the ship. When the vessel had sunk, it rested on its portside. Covers of all openings were washed away, leaving them open. Due to water current and pounding of the waves, many bodies floating inside the ship were washed out. This explains why only a small portion of bodily remains was found (…)” (Source: Final Report, Water Police Lübeck Area, Criminal Investigation Department, Lübeck, 16 March 1950. Courtesy of ITS Arolsen).
Marian was a poet. He wrote his own poems, and also learnt other poetry by heart, especially lyrical, romantic poems, to recite to his fiancé.
But in his diary, on 6.12.1939, he writes:
„Wednesday – morning
Saint Nicholas’s Day. How different this childhood holiday used to be! Everyone was gifted with something, a little joy. Today…German soldiers’ singing is drifting in through our windows. St Nicholas’s gift from the Kulturträgers…“
I read passionately. Since Saturday, I have read more than one book a day, just to kill time, or, should I say, forget about the reality.
I don’t know why, but I can’t write poetry now. Somehow, the kindness of spirit has gone, the tenderness that allowed me to express or describe my feelings. And there would be plenty to write about – excitements abound. Only, they arouse anger rather than poetic aura, the desire for a gun instead of a pen. So, how can I write? “
Radio Warszawa (Radio Warsaw) was a clandestine cultural activity, a re-enactment of a re-enactment, a performance of a memory of a better time by prisoners, addressed to their fellow inmates. It was staged regularly, from the beginning of 1944 to spring 1945. A group of five or six prisoners would gather together, at night, in the Polish barrack, with two or three prisoners in one bunk bed. The selected speaker would start in a low voice: ”This is Radio Warsaw… this is Radio Warsaw…. Can you hear us?....”
Then followed news from the front, special reports, satirical section, weather forecast and poetry from the camp. The last column was always prepared and presented by Marian, reciting poetry, from memory, and from imagination.
Radio On was the second ‘chapter’ exhibition in a three-part multi-disciplinary project by artist Sława Harasymowicz. Begun at Centrala Gallery in Birmingham in 2015 with a final evocation at the Poetry Library in London later in 2016, the project fuses biography, newly commissioned writing and documentary records to explore one of the biggest WWII maritime disasters. The event – obscured in history and clouded in ambiguity – operates for Harasymowicz as a springboard to challenge political and cultural amnesia.
The centerpiece of the Radio On exhibition was a new sound installation in the form of a radio broadcast, dramatising real activity that took place in a German concentration camp towards the end of the war. As a way of exploring the impact of the event, and as a test for the potentiality of new narrations when they start circulating through her artworks, the artist has recorded a live performance in Sigmund Freud’s former study at the Freud Museum, North London. The work presents an aural collage of performed testimonials, fiction, poetry, scientific research, experimental writing and sound distortions.
Sława Harasymowicz is a visual artist and a PhD candidate at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. Her work in progress includes research-based exhibition and book project in collaboration with BWA Gallery in Tarnów, Poland (2017), supported by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. Recent solo exhibitions have included The Spring to Come, The Poetry Library, London (2016), Radio On, narrative projects, London, supported by the Arts Council England (2016); H.N.5 515, Centrala, Birmingham (2015), Ersatz, Ethnographic Museum, Kraków (2014), and Wolf Man, Freud Museum, London (2012), following the publication of a graphic novel Wolf Man (Self Made Hero, 2012). Her publishing collaborations have included Penguin Books, The Guardian, Le Gun and Modern Poetry in Translation. Her work is held in the V&A Museum’s Permanent Prints and Drawings Collection, National Museum in Poznań, and other collections internationally.
She is represented by l’etrangere, London.
Her mixed-media practice draws on forgotten or ‘marginal’ episodes from the Second World War in Europe, accessed by retracing her own family history (Polish, Ukrainian and German roots), to pose questions around history, affect, and reconstructed intimacy. She frequently uses archive, as a point of departure, as a strategy and a cognitive tool to pose questions around the validity of recollection, the ambiguity of reconstruction, political representation and autobiography.