Jerzy Ficowski, Poet and Translator

By Joshua Cohen

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.

Jerzy Ficowski, a peerless advocate for the arts and letters of a decimated Polish Jewry, died in Warsaw on May 9, at the age of 82.

Following World War II, during which he served in the Home Army and participated in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Ficowski published nearly 20 volumes of poetry, including the acclaimed “A Reading of Ashes.” However, it was his work as an archivist that marked him for greatness: Having witnessed the genocide, and the ongoing oppression of the Roma, Ficowski became one of the few translators from their languages, producing renditions of folktales lauded for their whisper-weight mastery.

Translations from Yiddish followed, as well as from Russian. Ficowski humbled his gifts, too, in the shadow of Bruno Schulz, perhaps the greatest Polish Jewish writer of modernity, murdered by the Gestapo in 1942. If not for Ficowski, who was not Jewish, Schulz’s work would have been lost. Ficowski later published a seminal “biographical portrait” of Schulz called “Regions of the Great Heresy.”

Ficowski would produce only one book of his own fiction, a set of stories that extend Schulz’s preoccupation with estrangement, and with dreaming as escape, into new worlds of isolation — muted by violence, beset by the politics of catastrophe. Only this month did that book, “Waiting for the Dog To Sleep,” find its way into the English language; copies arrived at Ficowski’s house two weeks before his death. A riddling, forbidding colloquy of fantasies fevered by war and privation, it offers only the grayest of consolation: the pleasures of a last cigarette, the aroma of a cup of coffee, the quiescence of hiding. “The dead things are glad,” Ficowski writes. “I have descended to be one of them, from this moment on.”



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