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Home arrow Autobiography arrow 1946-1964
1946-1964 Print E-mail


1 with Father, 1946 | 2 with Mother, 1947 | 3 with Peter at the ZOO, 1953 | 4 with Peter in Nieborow, 1955
5 Our Class, December 1958, right: myself in white dress. Photo: Family Archive

5 May 1946 I was born in Cracow as the first child of Karol Kuryluk and Maria Grabowska. My father was the founder and editor of the cultural magazine Signals in Lwow and after the war editor in chief of the literary magazine The Renaissance in Cracow. My mother was a writer and translator, and a gifted amateur pianist. From my birth until her death she suffered from schizophrenia.

1947 - 1949 The Renaissance was transferred to Warsaw and we moved with it. In February 1948, as Stalinist policy was imposed on the magazine, father quit and found a job at the Polish Radio.

1950 My mother was pregnant again, and her health deteriorated. In the winter my father brought me to Wroclaw where his friends, two women writers, took care of me.

23 April 1950 My brother Peter was born. He had a misshapen head and an allergy to animal protein, including mother’s milk. After my father’s death I learned that Peter had been his pseudonym in the underground.

1951 - 1952 With father’s help I learned to read. Mother taught me French and asked the pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman to find a music teacher for me. I was too small to reach the keyboard and carried a pillow to my piano lessons. I liked to listen to the radio and focused on information about the war. Convinced that soon a new one would break out, I collected tiny drops of mercury, scratched out from the cracks in our floor, to poison myself. I hated kindergarten and waited for Sunday, the only day of the week I spent with my father. We would walk to the Botanical Gardens or take the tram to the ZOO, whose director Jan Zabinski was a friend of his. Once I heard him say that Australia had not sent us a kangaroo. The word sounded like our name, and I said: ”I am the kanagaroo”.

1953 In first grade I was disoriented; I could not read, write, draw or play the drum in the school orchestra.

Spring 1954 - Spring 1955 I injured my ear, and was given a shot of horse serum. The allergic reaction knocked me out. My skin was one big blister. Day and night my parents walked me around in wet sheets. A month later a heart attack felled me at the piano. As I regained consciousness, my first question was can I stay home? The answer was yes, and I felt relief. Diagnosed with rheumatic fever and an inflammation of the inner heart and the heart muscle, I spent half a year in hospital, another half at home. Friends took care of Peter so he wouldn’t disturb me. I dozed or contemplated the reproductions on our walls: The Girl in the Turban by Vermeer, Village Wedding by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, View of Montmartre by Utrillo. I was intrigued by Gauguin’s pink soil and my mouth watered at the sight of the yellow background in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Irises.

Every day mother made me a mug of kogel mogel, a mix of egg yolks and sugar that was “good for the heart”. Seated at my bedside she talked about the past: her family house with the view of the mountains, her sister Hidegard and the dachshund Waldemar, the canaries singing on the veranda, the smell of the tea roses, the cherries and apricots made into delicious preserves, and the Spanish-looking grandmother whom I resembled. I never inquired what had happened to them. But I asked for a proof of their existence: a small cloth bag with prewar buttons. My favorite ones were the white ebony buttons “cut from Hilda’s dress”. They had the shape of elephants and reminded me of the elephant who died in the ZOO after somebody had fed him nails. Slowly I grew stronger. Mother, who had a gift for embroidery, made drawings on old sheets and I embroidered them. Or I read books by Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Balzac, Proust, Orzeszkowa.

Summer - Autumn 1955 Peter and I and our beloved “aunt Zosia” spent the summer vacation in Nieborow: once the palace of the Radziwill family, now a retreat for intellectuals and artists. My muscles had atrophied and I was learning how to walk. A handsome seventeen-year-old made me dream about romantic strolls. But he didn’t pay the slightest attention to an overweight nine-year-old. So I strolled with a couple of writers: Ola and Alexander Wat. He suffered from chronic migraines and believed that apple-tree resin, when pressed to his forehead, eased the pain. I collected the resin for him. In September I went to a new school. The children seemed annoying, and I befriended our mistress. A good, well-behaved pupil, I disliked only one subject: drawing.

1956 My father was appointed Minister of Culture in the post-Stalinist Gomulka government.

1957 He invited Yves Montand, who came to Warsaw and sang for factory workers. Other artists came as well. Gérard Philipe, whom I considered the most handsome man on earth, visited us at home. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh performed in Titus Andronicus directed by Peter Brook. Henry Moore’s sculpture was exhibited at the Zacheta Gallery. The Minister of Foreign Affairs “planned” an alliance of non-aligned countries under Soviet supervision. To lobby for the plan, a government delegation, my father included, flew to the Far East. At the official dinner in Peking a whole duck was served and Mao-tse-tung swallowed the beak. In Burma monkeys sang in duets. At the year’s end prince Sihanouk visited Poland in return. At the performance of Swan Lake he dozed on my shoulder.

1958 In the spring the writer Marek Hlasko, who had received a travel grant from the Ministry of Culture, asked for political asylum in France. Gomulka welcomed the opportunity to sack my father and kick him out of the country. A globe appeared on our table. My parents discussed life in Ulan Bator or Athens. When the money had run out, father took a post in Vienna. Born in a small town in Galicia under the emperor Franz Joseph, he was fluent in German, and mother knew it better than Polish.

1959 The Polish embassy was located in two palatial villas in the suburb of Hietzing. Our residence was a suite of corridors and salons with gilded mirrors and imitation antiques. Only two corner rooms were suitable for living. One was turned by my parents into their bedroom, Peter and I were given the room with the piano. The French lycée of Vienna wanted to downgrade me by three years. So I decided to attend a nearby Realgymnasium for girls. In the cloakroom my new fur coat, the first piece of clothing my parents had acquired in Vienna, was slashed with a razor blade. After school I took daily German lessons, but made no progress. Soon the German teacher was threatening me with an institution for the handicapped. From the school’s extremely decent director, a socialist, mother learned that during the Nazi period Jewish children were routinely declared mentally retarded. The director assured her that I had nothing to fear from this teacher, who was secure in her job only because of the policy to keep a balance between “the black and the red.”

Peter liked his elementary school and had no trouble learning German. For his ninth birthday mother bought him a thorny plant with tiny bloodred flowers. Did she know that it was a crown of thorns? Today the cactus is as high as the ceiling of our Warsaw flat, and it is still blooming. Mother’s persecution mania intensified. In everybody over forty she saw a Gestapo member. She tried to kill herself and ended up in the clinic of Professor Hoff, a pupil of Freud. Feeling safer in the hospital than in the embassy, she remained there almost a year, coming home for short visits only.

The drawing teacher approached me with a small mirror in her hand. I understood that she wanted me to do a self-portrait, and painted myself. She showed my portrait to the class. On my way home I stopped in front of an artists supply store. In the evening I asked for money to buy brushes and paint. On my 13th birthday I told father that I wanted to be a painter.

For the summer vacation I went to a schoolgirl holiday camp on the Adriatic, taking with me The Idiot by Dostoyevsky and a camera: a gift from my father. Such was the begining of my self-portrait photography. In Italy I began speaking German. In September I was no longer afraid of school. I sat in the last row and read books. When I had no time to paint during the day, I locked myself in the bathroom and painted at night. On Sunday I went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to sketch paintings.


1 Still Life with Flowers, oil on paper, 1959 | 2 Still Life with Bananas, oil on canvas, 1960, Collection: H.& R. Lihne, Vienna | 3 Self-portrait with a Friend, Misano Mare 1959 | 4 Self-portrait, Marina di Massa 1960

Father was obliged to invite each of the ambassadors accredited in Austria. As the Soviet representative at the Agency of Atomic Energy walked in, mother, just back from the clinic, asked his wife: How was it possible? Your husband was the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and you were in a camp? - Stalin didn’t know it! - she replied, and father turned to me: Darling, please fetch our hamster! Comrade Molotov loves animals so much.

1960 My parents befriended the Japanese ambassador and his wife. I admired their daughter Michiko Uchida, today a well-known pianist. She played for me and I painted for her a still life with fish. In return she gave me a photo album of Kyoto, which, father told me, had originally been the target for the atomic bomb. The pilot who had dropped it on Hiroshima became mentally ill. I read about him in a book by Guenther Anders, the first husband of Hannah Arendt. He lived in Vienna with his second wife, an American. Father went to see them and took me along. I calculated that I had been conceived right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mother insisted on my going to Elmeyer’s Dancing School, father wanted me to take up ice skating. I paid our school super to let me smoke in the cellar. After school I took the tram to Havelka’s: the coffeehouse of the Viennese artists whom I wanted to meet.

1961 In January a good-looking man sat down at my table. I added a year to my age but saw a shadow pass over his face when I mentioned my father’s job. The thirty year old Hungarian exile, a painter, photographer and film maker without papers or money, kissed me good-bye and rushed away without leaving me his name or address. But I searched everywhere and found Géza. For the summer vacation, to improve my English, I went to Hastings. On my way I visited the writer Tadeusz Breza, my father’s friend in Paris. He introduced me to the painter Jan Lebenstein and Kazimierz Romanowicz, the owner of the Galerie Lambert, and joked: “Ewa can really paint. Will you show her work when she grows up?” Romanowicz nodded, and he kept his word.

In September I moved to another class. In the new one I made friends with Marinella d’Alessandro, who was half Italian and half Hungarian, and with Marina, the daughter of the leftist writer Ernst Fischer. Together we founded a school magazine. For the first issue I wrote an enthusiastic article on Sartre. It was denounced as Communist propaganda. Our director hushed up the scandal. Father tolerated all of this and more. I went to movies forbidden to minors and performances of the Viennese actionists.

1962 Géza panicked about making me pregnant and tried to discourage my visits in his sublet attic. In vain. So he disappeared. Every day father visited mother in hospital. She made embroideries, read Thomas Mann, exchanged letters with his daughter Erika. Once in a while she came home, but didn’t recognize us. But she looked at my paintings and at the sight of Peter’s work repeated: “He is gifted for everything”. Indeed, he painted, made paper cuts, mosaics, masks, clay figures, herbaries, collected butterflies, watched stars.

Prof. Hoff told father that a puppy might keep mother at home. He was right. At once she fell in love with the two-week old cocker spaniel whom I called Zaza. In spring father suffered a heart attack. Released from hospital, he passed a few weeks in the Vienna Woods. There he met Professor Friedrich Heer: a revisionist historian and the author of The Austrian Catholic Adolf Hitler. His book made a big impression on us. During the summer I attended a French literature course in Saint Malo. In the fall I discovered the painting of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and the poetry of Georg Trakl and Propertius, whose Latin verses we read at school. I decided to learn Italian at the Instituto Italiano. Father told me that he wouldn’t stay in Vienna longer than a year. In order to pass the Austrian matura, the final school exams, I applied for permission to skip a year.


1 Self-portrait with a Lion, oil on canvas, 1962 | 2 Mother with Zaza, 1962. Photo: H. Alt | 3 Ewa, 1962, Photo: Family Archive | 4 With my brother & a friend, Zakopane, 1963. Photo: Family Archive | 5 With the poet Jerzy Hordynski, Rome 1964, Photo: anonymous

1963 I skipped the year in the spring. During the vacation I took a summer course in French culture and civilization at the University of Marseille in Nice. On the beach I met an American landscape painter with whom I occasionally painted in the Alpes Maritimes.

1964 My portfolio of drawings and paintings was accepted by the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. I was also permitted to take the entrance exams in the fall, since in the spring they coincided with my matura. I passed it, and also won a student competition at the Instituto Italiano and was awarded a two-month fellowship at the University of Urbino. I went on a school trip to Greece, but separated from my class and hitchhiked to Delphi, Epidaurus, Mycenae and Tiryns. In July I visited the Venice Biennale and was struck by Rauschenberg’s combined paintings. In Urbino I lived near the house of Raphael, painted on the balcony, hitchhiked in Umbria and Tuscany. In Florence I met Odile, a young French teacher from Normandy. In September I flew from Rome to Warsaw. Father had no job and was disappointed by my choice of studies. After I had passed the entrance exams at the Academy of Fine Arts, he asked me to do a course in typewriting.

My first Professor’s perception of my person and work was negative: I was corrupted by the West, and if I had any talent at all, it was of a literary sort. In the winter I got asthma which was misdiagnosed as tuberculosis. Later my many allergies, including those to charcoal and oil paint, were discovered. The asthma attacks climaxed at night. At regular intervals an ambulance transported me to the hospital and I was placed under an oxygen tent.

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