European studies blog

09 June 2020

Inheritance Books: Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

Listeners to BBC Radio 4s Saturday Live programme will know of its ‘Inheritance Tracks’ feature. For those unfamiliar with the show, this is a segment where a famous person chooses two pieces of music, one which they’ve ‘inherited’ (usually something from their childhood or youth) and one which they would ‘pass on’ to later generations (usually a favourite or significant piece from their adult life), and talk about what the tracks mean to them. We have borrowed this idea for a series of blog posts about our British Library ‘Inheritance Books’. Colleagues choose an ‘inherited’ item that was already in the library when we started working here, and one that we have acquired or catalogued for our collections during our own time to ‘pass on’ to future users, visitors and colleagues, and will explain why theyre important to us. Our first post comes from Zuzanna Krzemien, a curator in our East European collections area.

One of the important books I ‘inherited’ after I joined the library was a Polish edition of George Orwell’s 1984 (Paryż, 1983; X.950/31144), translated by Juliusz Mieroszewski. My first encounter with this translation took place when I was 13 years old. I stood in front of my father’s bookshelf, looking for a good read for the summer holidays. I chose 1984 because it looked small and I knew it was famous. Only when I sat on the beach and opened the book for the first time did I realise my mistake — the book turned out to be an illegal edition printed by the Polish underground movement when Poland was still a communist country. That explained why the book was so small — as with all samizdat publications, it had to be printed cheaply, in a small format and with the smallest possible font. In this particular case, it was clearly intended to be read with a magnifying glass. I didn’t have one, so I read the whole novel squeezing my eyes and holding the book a few centimetres away from my face. Two things happened as a result: firstly, because I had to focus so much, I still have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the book (and I read it almost 20 years ago). Secondly, I had to start wearing glasses after that summer.

Photograph of four Polish samizdat publications

Polish samizdat publications. Image by Julo/Wikimedia Commons 

My second choice, the book that I catalogued after I had started working for the British Library, is Etnografie sociální mobility by Jaroslav Šotola and Mario Rodríguez Polo [(Olomouc, 2016) YF.2019.a.11091]. The book is devoted to the Romanies in Slovakia. The authors felt that Romanies suffered from prejudice, both conscious and subconscious, and so they decided that the only way to approach the subject was for the reader to erase all their existing cognitive schemas related to the Roma. In order to convey this message, the authors overturned the order of the whole book, which was bound upside down and has a reversed sequence of pages. The book has a sentimental value for me, since I used to work with the Roma community myself and I remember how much my world view changed as a result of that job.

Photograph of a Roma settlement in the region of Šariš

A Roma settlement in the region of Šariš. Image by Jozef Kotulič / Wikimedia Commons 

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections