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Jerzy Illg

photo by Joanna Gromek-Illg

Jerzy Illg

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Read by Wojciech Barczyński, recorded by Radiofonia Association.
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English translation: Dominika Stankiewicz

Long after Czesław Miłosz died, there was this feeling that would wash over me whenever I was passing through Dietla street. I imagined that if I turned into Sebastiana and then Bogusławskiego street, climbed a flight of stairs and rang the doorbell, I’d hear the familiar patter of the walking stick, after which the door would swing open and this little ritual would be completed with the stentorian voice asking me: “What shall we drink today, Jerzy?” Together with Miłosz, we spent countless evenings in his study or parlor, oftentimes his kitchen, usually accompanied by bottles of various content, shape and color. Regrettably, with time the details of our conversations wane and only the impression of their fervency and gravity remains constant. There is one frame from that picture, though, that lingers on the screen of my memory with particular vividness. One night, after a few we had at his kitchen table, Czesław caught me unawares with an extraordinary request: “Jerzy, please, do tell—where should I be buried? I gave it some thought and I’m curious what you think of my choices.” To get some Dutch courage I asked for another drink and thus we began to debate the alternatives he put forward. Sopot, where his mother was buried, we dismissed at once (“It was only by accident, Czesław, that your mother was repatriated and died there of typhus in 1945”.) Then I reasoned with him that he should not be buried in Berkeley, where he could be reunited with his first wife, Janina (“You felt so terribly lonely in California for so many years. You said you wouldn’t go back there and now you want to rest there forever?”) Vilnius he discarded himself (“Who’d light a candle for you there come All Hallows?” I asked to insure him against the choice.) I proposed an old verdant churchyard at Salwator hill, which I thought had beautiful views and eminent company—among others his friends, the critics and artists, Kazimierz Wyka and Jerzy Kwiatkowski (now, when I write this down, they have been joined by the one closest to his heart, Jan Błoński). Once, we stopped by that green churchyard on our way back from a walk to the Kościuszko Mound. Miłosz spent a long while standing at the graves under tall trees.

When I related the events of that eerie night to Bronisław Maj—my friend and a master of dark humor, who could turn anything into pure nonsense—he looked at me pitifully: “Oh, you dull fool! When he asked you about his grave, he wanted to hear one answer only: ‘Nothing but the Royal Tombs of Wawel Castle are right for you, sir.’ You should have told him: ‘Granted, there are prospects, it can all be arranged, but you have to be ready in two weeks.’”

English translation: Dominika Stankiewicz
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Jerzy Illg

(1950-) – a journalist and literary critic, for years the editor-in-chief in the Społeczny Instytut Wydawniczy Znak publishers. An extremely important figure in the Krakow literary life, and a friend of Czesław Miłosz, with whom he emptied many a glass of whisky. In 2009, he published Mój znak, a book where autobiographic themes intertwine with the history of Polish 20th-century culture. In the book, Illg describes his life and work for the publishing house, yet also builds exceedingly colourful portraits of his friends and acquaintances: Wisława Szymborska, Bronisław Maj, Ryszard Kapuściński and Leszek Kołakowski. (ms)
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