THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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210 posts categorized "Slavonic"

15 October 2020

Solidarity in satire

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This is the last post in a series of blogs on the Solidarity movement published to commemorate its 40th anniversary. You can read about the 21 Gdánsk demands here, the poet Jadwiga Piątkowska here, and 'Mały Konspirator', a manual to anti-government activity in 1980s Poland, here

The British Library collection of Polish underground ephemeral publications [BL shelf mark Sol. 764] includes a significant number of posters, photographs, cartoons and humorous ephemera created by artists involved in various opposition groups. The ephemeral publications best reflected a rapidly changing reality in 1980s Poland. They were particularly effective in conveying Solidarity ideas, documenting its activities and informing about crucial social and cultural events of the time. Both simple in form and laconic, these visual materials carried powerful and indirect commentaries on the political situation as well as delivering witty, amusing and comforting messages. Most of them were produced anonymously and only some had features that later allowed for identifying their designers.

Lenin with Mohawk punk graffiti

Lenin with Mohawk punk graffiti (1987) designed by Dariusz Paczkowski, a street art and graffiti artist. It was created to mock the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917, whose image was widely used in communist propaganda.

A mock ‘wanted’ poster for General Wojciech Jaruzelski

Arrest warrant – the society hunts a national enemy (ca. 1982). A mock ‘wanted’ poster for General Wojciech Jaruzelski, responsible for proclaiming martial law in Poland in December 1981, with a description and an offer of a reward for his capture.

An image of a wolf dressed as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother with a police baton; an image of General Jaruzelski and a red star

I love PZPR (the Polish United Workers’ Party) – an image of a wolf dressed as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother with a police baton; I love the USSR – an image of General Jaruzelski and a red star; I love ZOMO (Motorized Reserves of the Citizens’ Militia) – para-military formations particularly brutal during the period of martial law in 1981-1983.  At the right bottom corner – Solidarity wins!

The next two images are examples of ephemera discouraging Polish citizens from voting in elections and must have been created either in October 1985 for the parliamentary elections, or in June 1988 for the election to the National Councils.

A sticker styled after a telegram

A sticker styled after a telegram: “Stay at home / stop / Gorbachev votes in your place anyway / stop”.

A mock election list with drawings of pigs as candidates

Election List. Candidate no. 1 the Polish United Workers’ Party, Candidate no. 2 the Alliance of Democrats, Candidate no. 3 the United People's Party, Candidate no. 4 the Christian Social Association. *Fill in missing data.”

Drawing of a person sitting on a TV and reading the journal «Solidarność»

A poster advertising the University of Poznań Solidarity journal Serwis Informacyjny Komisji Zakładowej NSZZ «Solidarność» przy UAM w Poznaniu. Created in 1981.

Drawing of Lech Wałęsa with his hand coming through a TV

New Year’s wishes with the image of Lech Wałęsa, the future first democratically elected president of Poland and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Created in the 1980s.

Poster with the logo of A Cappella

The Military Song Festival in Kołobrzeg 88. The festival began in 1969. Part of the official propaganda, it was organised by the Main Political Directorate of the Polish Army and its aim was to instill patriotism and promote the image of a heroic soldier. In 1988 a group of activists from Ruch Wolność i Pokój (Freedom and Peace Movement) planned to disrupt the festival carrying with them 30 posters. Stopped and searched by secret service agents they managed to leave behind this poster which features the logo of A Cappella, a periodical published by Ruch Wolność i Pokój.

Poster with a dove/peace sign

A poster by Ruch Wolność i Pokój advertising an International Seminar on Peace taking place in Warsaw on 7-9 May 1987. Ruch Wolność i Pokój was a peaceful anti-government movement and advocated non-violent resistance. Its programme included support for conscientious objectors, protection of the environment, international cooperation, protection of the rights of minorities, abolition of capital punishment, and withdrawal of the Soviet army from Poland. It carried out numerous protests including hunger strikes, occupational strikes, marches, happenings and public burning of draft cards.

A poster with the logo of A Cappella
 

“A teddy bear is better than a machine gun”. A poster with the logo of A Cappella published by Ruch Wolność i Pokój

Zuzanna Krzemień, Ela Kucharska-Beard and Magda Szkuta, Curators of East European Collections

30 September 2020

“Contested commemoration”: Trieste’s memorials of Fascism, Nazism and World War Two

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On 13 July 2020 the city of Trieste marked the centenary of the arson attack on the Slovene National Hall by returning it to the use of the Slovenian-speaking community there. During a day of commemorations for victims of the fascist and war periods attended by the current President of Slovenia, Borut Pahor, the Italian President Sergio Mattarella handed ownership to two Slovenian-speaking associations.

In these troubled times, when stories of the rise of the far right abound in many countries, Trieste seems to be trying to take the opposite route, confronting and coming to terms with its own complicated history. The fate of and attitudes to the Slovenian community there act as a mirror to this history.

Photograph of the Slovene National Hall

Photograph of the Slovene National Hall prior to the arson attack in 1920. Image from the National Library of Slovenia 

The National Hall was a symbol of worldly success in late Habsburg Trieste. It contained a theatre, a library, and a hotel, and was built to the highest modern standards based on plans by the local architect Max Fabiani. Its existence sent the clear message that people need no longer abandon the Slovenian language to attain success: it was the language of some of the most successful citizens, as vital to Trieste as German and Italian, the languages of administration.

When a group of Blackshirts burnt the Hall down, to the apparent passivity of local police, it marked the beginning of a very dark period – and not just for the Slovenes. Trieste, a symbolically crucial site for Italian nationalism, became a laboratory and showcase for fascism, with new buildings erected on a massive scale and fascist agitators shipped in from other parts of the country to encourage the movement’s development there. Fabiani himself joined, just one year after the destruction of his own work on the National Hall. From its university to its lighthouse, the graceful Habsburg port acquired a nationalist and then totalitarian overlay.

Yet, ironically, it took the collapse of the fascist government for things to reach their nadir. In 1943, the successful Allied invasion of southern Italy led to Mussolini’s dismissal and disavowal by the King, and the occupation of the northern half of the country by its Nazi “allies.” Trieste and the province of Fruili became part of the Reich, forcibly tugged back into their pre-1918 alignment with central Europe. It was the Nazis who converted an urban rice processing plant, the Risiera di San Sabba, into a transit camp, with indications that it was also intended from the start as a death camp, the only one actually inside an Italian city, within earshot of the population. Ovens designed for drying rice provided a ready-made infrastructure for a new, grimmer, purpose.

Prisoners held at San Sabba – some to die there, some on their way to other camps across occupied Europe – ranged from local Jews to people with learning disabilities to other members of the area’s resistance to fascism, including the writers Boris Pahor and Giani Stuparich. In charge of the camp was one of Austria’s most notorious Nazis: Odilo Globočnik, the man responsible for the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto and the beginning of the ethnic cleansing of Poland, among numerous other appalling crimes.

Globočnik was born in Trieste himself: his name suggests that he was an ethnic Slovene, though his ancestors were from Tržič on the modern border with Austria rather than the Trieste area as such. After returning to his birthplace in 1943, Globočnik oversaw the deaths of up to 5,000 people at the Risiera before fleeing to Carinthia where he committed suicide when captured by Allied troops. Many of his associates, however, escaped without trial or retribution into post-war civilian life.

As Tito’s and other Partisans arrived in the Trieste area, a huge range of reprisals began against locals perceived as collaborators with the Fascist or Nazi regimes. On the Karst above the city, they followed Fascist examples in using natural cracks and chasms in the rock to conceal the bodies of thousands, a grim exercise echoed in many parts of Yugoslavia as the incoming regime rounded on those who had prospered during the war years. Trieste’s own fate was not settled for almost a decade: occupied by Allied troops and argued over by Italy and Yugoslavia, the city was ultimately assigned to Italy again, but lost its Slovene-speaking hinterland, which had been Italian between the wars, to the reconstituted Yugoslavia. Sections of population fled in both directions.

At Basovizza/Basovica, a karst village that is now effectively a suburb of Trieste, the mass grave at the Foiba, the chasm, and the nearby memorial to four young Slovene resistance fighters of the anti-Fascist TIGR movement stood as sad reminders of recent history, and a particular focus for aggrieved locals.

Photograph of the Foiba

The Foiba. Photography by Janet Ashton

For domestic and other reasons, much of Italy’s war history went unexamined in the country more widely. It suited the strong Italian Communist Party not to say much about the various Foibe (some of their own members might, after all, have been perpetrators) and it suited many more to look on Fascist war crimes as somehow “less bad” than those committed by the Nazis, the perennial Teutonic invader of nationalist historiography. In the exhibition at the Risiera, for example, the perpetrators were presented as foreigners who had come in from Poland with the Nazi occupier, ignoring Globočnik’s local roots, the assistance of locals from all ethnic groups, and the racial policies of Mussolini’s government.

After the break-up of Yugoslavia things began to change, and investigations of mass graves from the 1940s took place in both Italy and Slovenia. The Foiba di Bassovizza suddenly became a new focus for Italian national identity and the memory politics of the emergent right, a symbol of “Slavic barbarity” and the dangers that lurked in Communist states. The annual commemoration ceremonies can acquire unpleasant overtones, with nationalists and even neo-fascists taking over what could be a simple remembrance for the dead and underlining it with territorial claims to the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts.

The official text on the walls at the memorial is more conciliatory, setting the massacres into the context of the repressive fascist years and pointing out that the killings were driven as much by politics as ethnicity, some of the victims being Slovenes or Croatians themselves.

Photograph of the TIGR memorial

The TIGR memorial. Photography by Janet Ashton

During the ceremonies to mark the handover of the National Hall, Borut Pahor and Sergio Matterella held hands before both the Foiba and the TIGR memorial, acknowledging and trying to put behind them the political and ethnic complexities of local history. There were decorations from both states for Boris Pahor, the Triestine Slovene who has never seemed fully at home in either country, and who is now, at the age of 106, finally emerging from a relative obscurity that stands in such contrast to the renown of that other Italian holocaust writer, Primo Levi.

Janet Ashton, West European Cataloguing Team Manager

Further reading on the Foibe and San Sabba and their place in Italian memorialisation of World War Two and the Holocaust:

Claudia Cernigoi, Operazione foibe a Trieste: come si crea una mistificazione storica : dalla propaganda nazifascista attraverso la guerra fredda fino al neoirredentismo. (Udine, 1997). YA.2001.a.24080

Dante Fangaresi, Dieci settimano a San Sabba. (Florence, 2003). YF.2007.a.10020

Ferruccio Fölkel, La Risiera di San Sabba: Trieste e il Litorale Adriatico durante l'occupazione nazista (Milan, 1979). X.809/48579

Susanne C. Knittel, The historical uncanny: disability, ethnicity, and the politics of holocaust memory. New York, 2015). m15/.10563

Paolino Nappi, ‘Between memory, didacticism and the Jewish revival: the Holocaust in Italian comic books’, Journal of modern Jewish studies, Vol. 17 No. 1 (2018). 5020.681700

Katia Pizzi, ‘Storia e memoria ai confini nordorientali di Italia'. Italian studies, Vol. 68 No. 3 (2013). P.P.5044.am.

M. Purvis, D. Atkinson, ‘Performing wartime memories: ceremony as contest at the Risiera di San Sabba death camp, Trieste’, Social & cultural geography Vol. 10 No. 3 (2009). 8318.042550

Louise Zamparutti, ‘Foibe literature: documentation or victimhood narrative?’, Human remains and violence, Vol.1 No. 1 (2015). ELD Digital store

Louise Zamparutti, ‘Brava Gente and the Counter (Re)public of Italy: Constructing the Foibe as a National Symbol,’ Romance studies, Vol. 35 No. 1 (2017). ELD Digital store

15 September 2020

Mały konspirator

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This post is a part of a series of blogs written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. You can read about the 21 Gdánsk demands here and the poet Jadwiga Piątkowska here.

Seeing the British Library’s collection of independent Polish publications from the 1970s-1980s, one cannot fail to be impressed by the range and complexity of the material. Thousands of items – books, periodicals, posters, photographs, leaflets, stamps, etc. – form a very rich, dynamic collection. There is a sense of urgency about it. Almost all of this material was produced illegally and quickly, using various, sometimes unusual, duplicating methods, in response to the changing situation in the country. The aim was to inform and to educate.

Engaging in any anti-government activity involved taking huge risks: the threat of physical violence, loss of job, being expelled from university, imprisonment. It meant crossing a significant psychological threshold. But what do you do once you have made your decision? How do you conspire effectively, and, crucially, safely? With her history of partitions, uprisings and anti-Nazi movements during World War II, Poland had a long tradition of conspiring. Books like Bibuła by Józef Piłsudski offered some advice, but they reflected very different times. There was clearly a need for an updated manual, and it appeared in the form of Mały konspirator, issued by the Agencja Informacyjna Solidarności Walczącej (Information Agency of Fighting Solidarity). This unassuming little book with densely-printed pages went through 10 editions in 1983-1984. For me it is an embodiment of the spirit of the collection.

Cover of Mały konspirator drawn in cartoon style. One figure is painting the title on a wall while four others stand watch

Cover of Mały konspirator (Wrocław, 1983) Sol. 255s

A short introductory note explains that “Mały konspirator is a collection of texts written by people who were temporarily free. If you read the first chapter you may not have to follow the advice given in the next two chapters. Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the second chapter you will know the legal reason why you cannot be prosecuted for reading the third chapter. While reading the third chapter you will realise why it would be better not to mention that you have had this book in your hands”.

Mały konspirator is full of practical advice on plotting. It tells you how to run a cell within an illegal network (links with the centre as loose as possible to avoid detection, meetings in person infrequent for the same reason but frequent enough to sustain a sense of purpose and solidarity between its members. Distributors should be paid well, otherwise they will not do their job properly – don’t trust anyone who offers to do it for free, for ideological reasons – their enthusiasm will wane and you will be left with piles of undistributed material. One should only keep minimal notes, if any at all, e.g. no full addresses, just numbers of houses/ flats; everything should be encrypted, if possible. It tells you how to behave when you suspect that you are being followed, and how to dispose of incriminating material if you think you are just about to be arrested. Crucially, Mały konspirator tells you what your rights are. Let’s say you have received an official-looking letter asking you to come to the militia station / court. Do you turn up? Ignore it if there is no case number on it, the book advises. There is nothing to be gained from appearing so eager to face the authorities.

Page from Mały konspirator. The heading translates as "Interrogation game"

Page from Mały konspirator. The heading translates as "Interrogation game"

Mały konspirator invites you to play a game: imagine a situation when you are arrested and interrogated. The prize is information. What kind of questions will you be asked? What sort of pressure will you be put under? What are your reactions likely to be? Do you know what your weak points are? You’d better find out fast because they will be exposed and mercilessly exploited.

Mały konspirator is a document of its times. Is there anything one can learn from it in the age of WhatsApp, Telegram and Nexta? I think that the main message remains very clear: don’t take democracy for granted. And always know your rights.

Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections 

 

08 September 2020

Chernobyl: two new acquisitions at the British Library

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Like many, I was hooked by the HBO miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ when it was released last year. Receiving widespread critical acclaim, it sparked a surge of interest in the events surrounding the nuclear disaster of April 1986.

For those keen to delve deeper, the British Library holds a large amount of material relating to Chernobyl (Chornobyl in Ukrainian), from scientific articles and theses to photography albums and poetry collections. Earlier this year, the Library also acquired two particularly important sources: a new digital archive and a copy of a rare Cold War-era newspaper.

Information about the Chernobyl Files from East View

Information about the Chernobyl Files from East View

The digital archive, The Chernobyl Files, is a collection of declassified documents prepared by Russian and Ukrainian government agencies, including the KGB, that ‘detail the most important developments in the wake of the disaster, as well as internal reports and investigations on its various causes’. Among the documents are internal reports, communiqués, and correspondences between local and regional KGB officials long before the tragedy. The archive is currently only available in the Library’s reading rooms (please see our website for information on how to book a slot) but I am happy to assist with enquiries via email if possible. 

Front page of Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2

Front page of Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2 (London, 1987). BL shelf mark ZK.9.d.258

The second new acquisition is an issue of Ukrainian Peace (Committee) News. This newspaper was published in 1986/7 by the Ukrainian Peace Committee (UPC), which, according to the publication’s statement of purpose, ‘was formed in response to the disaster at the atomic plant in Chornobyl’. Its aim was to address issues relating to nuclear disarmament, human rights, the environment and national liberties, which it believed were at the centre of ‘hostilities between the governments of Eastern Europe and Western countries’. Further research, however, led me to a series of declassified CIA documents, which in turn unveiled a more complex story behind the UPC and its newspaper…

In October 1986, an individual, referred to only as ‘RK’, filed a report on the creation and activities of the UPC. The document, which was declassified and released in 2007 on the CIA’s Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room website, detailed how the organisation had been set up that year by Prolog, a small group of Ukrainian émigrés working for the CIA since 1950, with the specific aim of intervening in the World Peace Congress (WPC). The WPC was in turn sponsored by the World Peace Council, a largely Soviet project established in 1949/1950 to promote peace programmes around the world and counter what it viewed as the ‘warmongering’ attitude of the US. The 1986 congress took place from 15-19 October in Copenhagen, the first time it had been held in a non-communist capital since the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The UPC, which was registered at an address in Hammersmith, London, comprised both Prolog and non-Prolog members, the latter of whom were allegedly unaware of the convert operation. In the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen WPC, members of the UPC worked to establish themselves as a credible group and gain access as delegates to the congress.

Despite several hiccups, the group’s activities in Copenhagen were deemed a success and RK recommended that the UPC should be allowed to continue and even expand its work. This included publishing ‘a 4 page tabloid size newspaper 4 times a year’ and travelling to ‘different conferences in Western Europe, Asia and Africa’ to ‘conduct interventions similar to the intervention in Copenhagen’.

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4

Front page of Ukrainian Peace News, no. 3/4 (London, 1987). BL shelf mark ZK.9.d.258

We know for certain that the UPC went on to publish four issues of the newspaper, Ukrainian Peace Committee News, three of which are held by the British Library (no. 2, published in spring 1987, and the combined no. 3/4, published in winter 1987 and kindly donated to the British Library by the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto). Although they display the same peace dove logo, the design and typeface used for issues no. 2 and 3/4 differ significantly.

All of the issues focus heavily on the Chernobyl disaster and include samizdat (literature secretly written, copied, and circulated in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union) and other articles. The Soviet war in Afghanistan and the issue of workers’ rights also feature in the paper. In addition, one article in issue no. 2 deals with the proposal to build a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) at the British nuclear power station Sizewell B. By including the latter article, the newspaper supported Prolog’s view that in order to ‘gain credibility within the Peace movement’ the UPC’s position ‘had to be a balanced one – not an anti-Soviet group only, but one critical of the West in some respects as well’.

Pages from Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2 with the headline 'Chornobyl in Samizdat'

Pages from Ukrainian Peace Committee News, no. 2

The UPC appears to have ceased its activities at the end of 1987, at the time the last issue of its newspaper was published. Although the British Library unfortunately does not hold the first issue, Ukrainian Peace (Committee) News is an invaluable source for those researching topics including Cold War relations, the Chernobyl disaster and the peace movement.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections 

Further reading:

Svetlana Alexievich, Voices From Chernobyl (London, 1999). YC.2001.a.808

Kate Brown, Manual For Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future (London, 2019). DRT ELD.DS.389500

Adam Higginbotham, Midnight in Chernobyl (London, 2019). YC.2019.a.8185

Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy (London, 2018). DRT ELD.DS.277839

04 September 2020

Jadwiga Piątkowska, the forgotten poet of Solidarity

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This post is a part of a series of blogs written on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Solidarity movement. You can read the first here

Cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska with her photograph

A cover of a book on Jadwiga Piątkowska published by her daughter. Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków: 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Jadwiga Piątkowska (1949-1990), also known as Jagoda, was a member of the opposition movement and a poet writing about Solidarity and events related to the political struggle in Poland in the 1980s. A single mother, Jagoda was on holiday in Czechoslovakia when she heard about the onset of the strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk on 14 August 1980. She immediately returned to Poland and convinced Lech Wałęsa, the future leader of Solidarity, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and the first democratically elected president of Poland, that she might be of help to the protesters. She began working as a typist and, after Solidarity was established on 31 August, as an editor and journalist for its periodical Rozwaga i Solidarność (‘Prudence and Solidarity’; Gdańsk, 1982-1989; Sol.90), in which she published many of her poems. The shipyard workers' journal was established in April 1981. During the duration of the martial law in Poland (13 December 1981 - 22 July 1983), it became an underground publication of the movement, which circulated documents related to Solidarity and described repressions suffered by the political opposition.

Photograph of Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia

Jadwiga Piątkowska during her visit to a coal mine in Silesia as a reporter for Rozwaga i Solidarność. Photograph taken from Ewa Korczyńska, Jagoda sierpniowa, Jagoda grudniowa (Kraków, 2014), YF.2017.a.5431

Piątkowska’s work describes the struggle of the opposition against the Polish communist government. In one of her best-known poems, ‘Ewie-mojej 12 letniej córce’ (‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’), Piątkowska tries to comfort her child, who hasn’t seen her in a long time, but who gave her the energy to persist in the strike along with other protesters. The poem was written on August 29, 1980, at 23.45 — two days before the Solidarity movement was officially established.

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’

A copy of the poem ‘For Eve, My Daughter of 12’, from a Collection of Polish underground ephemeral publications. Sol.764

Hold out a while longer, my little daughter.
Our destiny is at stake.
Never mind that so many days
I’ve been away from you.
Never mind the sleepless nights,
the tired eyes and hands.
Faith heals people,
and people are with us (…).

(Translation from the album Solidarity! — Postulat 22: Songs from the New Polish Labour Movement (Nowe Polskie Piesni Robotnicze) (Folkways Records, 1981). You can listen to this poem set to music from the album here).

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk

Jagoda’s letter to Maciej Pietrzyk, an actor, singer and voice of the Solidarity movement. Sol.764

After martial law had been declared in Poland, Piątkowska stayed with other members of Solidarity until the Lenin Shipyard was pacified by the militia. She witnessed a female colleague being crushed to death by a tank and got arrested. Once released from prison, she returned to her work in the opposition, this time underground. After a few months, she was re-arrested, subjected to torture and threatened with deprivation of parental rights. Her poem ‘Behind the walls’ reflects the despair many political prisoners felt at that time:

(…) I znowu nic.
Pustka. Oczekiwanie.
Zgrzyt klucza
W grubych drzwiach.
Moje serce otoczyły
Chwasty.
Wiem, że nie przyjdziesz
Chryste.

(…) And again nothing.
Void. Anticipation.
A creak of a key
In the thick door.
My heart is surrounded
By weeds.
I know you will not come,
Christ.

As a result of her imprisonment, Piątkowska suffered damage to her health, which resulted in her premature death at the age of 41.

Zuzanna Krzemien, Curator East European Collections

References and further reading:

http://jagodapiatkowska.blogspot.com/ 

‘Rozwaga i Solidarność’ in: Encyklopedia Solidarności (2010-), available at: http://www.encysol.pl/wiki/Strona_g%C5%82%C3%B3wna  

31 August 2020

21 Gdańsk Demands: the First Step towards Freedom

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This post is the first in a series published to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland on 31 August 1980.

In July 1980, a wave of strikes swept over Poland in response to the increased food and other goods prices set by the government. On 14 August a strike broke out at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk as a reaction to the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz, a crane operator, for her participation in an illegal trade union. The former shipyard electrician, Lech Wałęsa, also dismissed for his trade union activities four years earlier, took his famous leap over the shipyard fence to lead the strike. The workers demanded labour law reforms, respect for human rights and increased wages.

Solidarity logo

The internationally recognised Solidarity logo designed by Jerzy Janiszewski BL shelf mark Sol.764

The strike quickly spread to other enterprises in Gdańsk and a few days later the Inter-factory Strike Committee (Międzyzakładowy Komitet Strajkowy) was formed with Wałęsa as its head. The Committee drew up and presented the government with a list of 21 demands, including the right to organise independent trade unions, a guarantee of freedom of speech, the release of political prisoners and the right to strike. They went far beyond the scope of usual workers’ demands. Tough negotiations between the striking shipyard workers and a government commission, which lasted for eight long days, resulted in the signing of the accord, known as the Gdańsk Agreement, on 31 August. This led to the creation of the first independent trade union in the communist bloc.

Photo of Lech Wałęsa

French postcard with a photo of Lech Wałęsa (copyright Michel Philippot) Gdańsk, 16 December 1980. BL shelf mark Sol.764

Underground publishing began in Poland in 1976, and the network of independent publishers, printing facilities and distribution was well established before August 1980. Unsurprisingly, illegal publications were also being issued in the striking factories during the summer unrest of 1980. In the Gdańsk Shipyard, the Strajkowy Biuletyn Informacyjny Solidarność (Solidarity Strike Information Bulletin) began publication on 23 August. The bulletin became the official journal of the striking shipyard workers, openly produced and uncensored. It contained reports on the current strike situation and the progress of negotiations with the authorities. It also included texts of official documents and statements, strike poems, interviews and reportages. But above all, it stimulated the spirit of the strikers. The daily circulation reached approximately 40,000 copies. A spontaneous general strike embracing almost the entire working population of the country in solidarity with the striking workers in the Gdańsk Shipyard inspired the editors to come up with the idea of “Solidarity” for the title of the bulletin. The last issue, no. 13, was published on 31 August and included the text of the agreement and the statue of the newly established Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarity.

Strajkowy Biuletyn Informacyjny Solidarność, issue no. 13

Strajkowy Biuletyn Informacyjny Solidarność, issue no. 13 BL shelf mark Sol.103

The Twenty-One Demands of August 1980 are included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List as one of 20th-century’s documents of particular political importance.

The demands initiated a process which culminated in the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989. Solidarity, created as a result of the Gdańsk Agreement, is not only the name of a trade union and a massive social movement with nearly ten million members but also serves as the symbol of a European peace revolution.

Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

19 August 2020

The City of Rijeka: European Capital of Culture

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Rijeka (Croatia) and Galway (Ireland) are the joint European Capitals of Culture in 2020. Rijeka (in Italian Fiume) is one of the most important cities in Croatia, the largest port, and  a cultural, educational and scientific centre. It is a major Croatian publishing centre and the seat of the University founded in 1973. Geographically and culturally Rijeka and the Bay of Kvarner connect the Istrian peninsula with mainland Croatia.

Map of the Gulf of Kvarner
The Bay of Kvarner in an 1872 Austrian map of Rijeka Harbour, Croatia. Maps 3.e.19. 

To mark the first Croatian European Capital of Culture, and to showcase some rare items from the British Library Croatian collections, we team up with a Library user, Marko Grba a poet and PhD student at the University of Rijeka. Coincidentally, he has the same surname and initials as the curator of Southeast European collections in the Library.

Rijeka’s cultural programme motto is “Port of Diversity”, and in this blog post we will try to revive the memory of the people, events, tradition, identity and culture that created the city and this region. To highlight a succession of eras in this beautiful city and the surrounding Bay of Kvarner we are presenting, in addition to the selected collection items, a poem in Croatian and in its English translation by the poet, together with a selection of personal photographs taken recently.

Opening of a devotional book in Glagolitic script
Mirakuli blažene Deve Marije
(Senj, 1508) C.48.b.23., a printed Glagolitic book from the Senj printing press

This book is a translation from Miracoli della gloriosa Vergine Maria and other popular religious works of the period. It is the last of at least seven Glagolitic books from the Senj press, printed there between 1494 and 1508. A digital copy is available from the Digital Library of the Croatian Academy in Zagreb.

The printer of this early Glagolitic book was Grgur Senjanin, the first known printer in Croatia, who printed the Glagolitic Missal (1494), among other books, in the Senj printing press founded by Silvestar Bedričić. The British Library copy is one of the five known copies in existence worldwide.

Title page of the 1531 Croatian Missal, printed in red and black with a woodcut of St Jerome in his study
Title page of a Croatian Missal from the Rijeka press, Misal hruacki po rimski običai i činь (Rijeka, 1531) C.110.e.2.(1.).

Only six Glagolitic books have been identified so far from the Glagolitic printing house in Rijeka founded by Šimun Kožičić Benja, Bishop of Modruš, and the Croatian Missal of 1531 is regarded as the most beautiful work of the press. The book is printed in Church Slavonic, in Croatian Glagolitic script in two columns, in liturgical black and red letters, and decorated with woodcuts and initials in Gothic and Glagolitic uncial fonts. Bartolomeo Zanétti (b.ca. 1487), a typographer, is named as the printer of the book. The British Library copy is one of 15 copies identified in libraries around the world. A digital copy is available from the Digital Library of the National and University Library in Zagreb.


Title page of 'Amelia, ossia Il Bandito'
The first performance of the opera Amelia, ossia Il Bandito (Fiume, 1860) 906.d.5.(5.), adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s drama Die Räuber by the great Croatian composer Ivan Zajc from Rijeka. 

Title page of 'Fiume zur Zeit der Uskokenwirren'
Alfred Fest, Fiume zur Zeit der Uskokenwirren (Fiume, 1893). 10210.ff.9. A History of Rijeka in the 16th and early 17th centuries in the time of Uskoks, Christian rebels against the Ottomans who operated from the Habsburg border garrison in Senj and the Croatian Military Frontier in the Habsburg Monarchy.


Title page of 'Memorie per la storia della liburnica città di Fiume'
Giovanni Kobler, Memorie per la storia della liburnica città di Fiume (Fiume, 1896) 10201.ff.7. A history of Rijeka in three volumes, with two appendices: chronological notes on the history of Rijeka from the year 395 to 1875, and a register of useful historical records from 803 to 1839. The author, Giovanni Kobler (1811-1893), was a lawyer and historian from Rijeka and the work was posthumously published by the city of Rijeka in 1896.Heraldic emblem featuring a double-headed eagle perched on a rock
Facsimile of the emblem granted to the city of Rijeka by Emperor Leopold I on 6 June 1659. From Memorie per la storia della liburnica città di Fiume.


Photograph of Giovanni Kobler with a facsimile of his signature
‘Fiumano’ (‘Citizen of Rijeka’). A photograph of Giovanni Kobler .

We turn now to some images of Rijeka and the Bay of Kvarner past and present. In one such a photograph (below) the memory of old tradition of fishing is preserved. Tuna-fishing was an important source of income in the city and the ‘tunera’ – wooden poles used as observation points for spotting the schools of tuna fish coming up the coast of the Bay of Kvarner – used to be a familiar sight, but are now long gone, as reflected in Marko Grba’s poem.

A wooden 'tunera' lookout pole over the water in Rijeka


Stare tunere kod Bakarca
(Prema razglednici M. Clementa Crnčića)

Od Kostrene, malog mjesta velikih obitelji kapetana,
Uokrug zaljeva Bakra,
Mjesta škole kapetana,
Koji je i Halley od kometa
Premjeravao za potrebe brodova Kraljevske mornarice,
Pa do tunera bakaračkih,
I još dalje prema Kraljevici,
Gdje se kovala urota zrinsko-frankopanska,
Plivale su, do ne tako davno, tune:
Moć i ponos Jadrana.
Ne plove više –
I ne vrijede više tunere,
Spomen zanosu Jadrana.

Old Tunera poles near Bakarac, Kvarner Bay
(After a motive by M. Clement Crnčić*)

From Kostrena, a small town with widely known families of seafarers,
Around the Bay of Bakar,
The place of a well known school of seafarers,
Which bay the famed Halley of the Comet
Gauged for the needs of the Royal Navy fleet,
All the way to the old Tunera poles of Bakarac,
And farther still, towards Kraljevica,
Where the plot of Zrinski and Frankopan was forged,
Until not so long ago, tuna were swimming:
The pride and might of the Adriatic.
They sail no more –
And the Tunera poles are of no worth any more,
But as a memory to the rapture that once was the Adriatic.

(Poem and translation © Marko Grba)

* Menci Clement Crnčić (1865-1930), Croatian painter, graphic artist and co-founder of the Academy of Fine Arts


Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre
The Ivan Zajc Croatian National Theatre, built 1883-85 in the typical 19th-century style of architecture in Rijeka (photograph by Marko Grba)

Rijeka City Library
The Rijeka City Library, housed in Palace Modello built in 1885 (photograph by Marko Grba)

 

VIIII_Sveučilišna biblioteka
Rijeka University Library, housed in the former School for Young Ladies built in 1887 and converted first into the Scientific Library in 1948, then into the University Library in 1979 (photograph by Marko Grba)

X_Riječki Korzo sa zastavama EPK
Korzo, Rijeka’s main promenade decorated with red and white ‘Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture’ flags (photograph by Marko Grba)


XI_Ičići2
A view of Rijeka in the distance across the Bay of Kvarner from Ičići a popular beach near Opatija (photograph by Marko Grba)

Milan Grba, Lead Curator of South East European Collections & Marko Grba, poet and PhD student at the University of Rijeka

References:

Jakša Ravlić, Rijeka. Geografija, etnologija, ekonomija, saobraćaj, povijest, kultura. (Zagreb, 1953). Ac.8967/23

Günther Tutschke, Die glagolitische Druckerei von Rijeka und ihr historiographisches Werk (Munich, 1983) 11879.aa.2/169 

Wendy Bracewell, The Uskoks of Senj (London, 1992) YA.1994.b.2298. (Limited preview available from Google Books)

06 August 2020

Gianni Rodari, the logic of fantasy (part 1)

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Photograph of Gianni Rodari

Gianni Rodari. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is the first blog post in a two-part series to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Italian children’s writer Gianni Rodari (1920-1980). You can read part 2 here

Gianni Rodari (1920-1980) is regarded as the father of modern Italian children’s literature and we celebrate his fantastic contribution to literature and education in the year of his triple anniversary. 100 years since his birth, 40 years since his death, and 50 years since his “Little Nobel”, namely the Hans Christian Andersen Writing Award, his books are still inspiring all sorts of cultural events in Italy. Last March, for instance, his iconic Favole al telefono triggered “Pronto, chi favola?”, a free storytelling service on demand set up spontaneously by actors to uplift children at home during the COVID-19 lockdown: every day from 4 to 8 pm, an actor rings a child to read over the phone one of the 70 fables included in the book.

Cover of Favole al telefono

Cover of Telephone Tales with an illustration of a child sitting on an arm chair while on the telephone

Front covers of Favole al telefono illustrated by Bruno Munari (Turin, 1962) F2/0682, and its English translation Telephone Tales (London, 1965) X.990/103

In Italy Gianni Rodari needs no introduction, but English translations of his books are few and readers in the UK are not familiar with his delicious children’s stories. Although the British Library’s acquisition policy for purchasing foreign material generally excludes children’s literature, the library fortunately holds 40 works by and about Rodari. This presence underlines the international recognition gained by the author and helps to track his legacy through translations, adaptations and critical writings. Half of our holdings, consisting of criticism on Rodari’s intellectual contribution, might serve teachers and educators as an inspiring toolkit. An interesting surprise is the existence of four musical scores inspired by Rodari’s texts, one in Italian and three in Russian. This illustrates his huge popularity in the Soviet Union, a country where his books met with massive success thanks to several translations and adaptations for schools, and that Rodari visited often between 1952 and 1979. He commented on the Soviet educational system in Giochi nell’URSS. Appunti di viaggio (Turin, 1984; YA.1990.a.3048). On the other hand, a report of his journey to China in the 1970s is available in Turista in Cina (Rome, 1974; X.709/25245).

In regard to Rodari’s fiction, the British Library holds some Italian and English first editions of nursery rhymes, fables and short stories. The most recent publication is a bilingual collection (Italian/English) Tales to change the world (Lincoln, 2008; YK.2010.a.169). Among the first editions there is also a Russian one, Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla? (Moscow, 1954; 12843.p.54), including two poems translated by children’s writer Samuil Y. Marshak

Cover of Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla?

Gianni Rodari, Chem pakhnut remesla? Kakogo tsveta remesla? (Moscow, 1954) 12843.p.54 

Before introducing three of Rodari’s cult stories, a brief remark on his style and preference for extremely short literary genres (aphorisms, limericks, nursery rhymes, poems, fables, etc). A supreme love of words (in sound, script and meaning), a musical ear and a witty irony are key elements in his writing, always aiming to select the exact word. His surrealist approach to linguistic invention has been compared to those of Raymond Queneau, J.M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll. Rodari’s graceful pen mastered nonsense, parody and puns to perfection. He also believed that the best literary form to educate children with courage and intelligence was the fable.

Front cover of Il pianeta degli alberi di Natale

Front cover of C’era due volte il barone Lamberto

Cover of Mr Cat in Business

Front cover of Tales told by a machine

Front covers of Il pianeta degli alberi di Natale (Turin, 1962; F2/0681), C’era due volte il barone Lamberto (Turin, 1978; X.908/85349, illustrated by Bruno Munari), Mr Cat in Business (London, 1975; X.990/7133), and Tales told by a Machine (London, 1976; X.990/8338)

Cipollino

Italian and Russian children share a common literary hero in their childhood memories, Cipollino (‘Little Onion’), the vegetable protagonist fighting for social justice in Il romanzo di Cipollino (1951, retitled Le avventure di Cipollino in 1957) and its sequel Le avventure di Cipollino 2 – Cipollino e le bolle di sapone (1952). The book was an immediate success in the Soviet Union thanks to the Russian translation and various adaptations including a ballet (Chipollino; Moscow, 1977; g.1548.v), and a cartoon. Being published by communist publishing houses, it was no wonder that the book had difficulty circulating in 1950s Catholic Italy. The British Library holds one of the late anthologies Le storie (Rome, 1992; YA.1994.a.15779), where Cipollino’s story is in good company with five others (Piccoli vagabondi, La Freccia azzurra, Gelsomino nel paese dei bugiardi, Atalanta, Il giudice a dondolo).

La Freccia azzurra

Cover of The Befana's Toyshop

Front cover of the English translation The Befana’s toyshop (London, 1970) X.990/2455.

Freccia azzurra is a toy, a blue train, that little Francesco wishes to have as a gift from the Befana. In Italian folklore the Befana is an old woman who rides a broomstick and delivers sweets or presents to good children and a lump of coal to bad ones, entering through the chimneys on the eve of Epiphany. This tradition is much loved by children and is the second most longed-for holiday after Christmas. The tale first appeared as a serial in the children’s magazine Il Pioniere, then was published as Il viaggio della Freccia azzurra (Florence, 1954) and later retitled La Freccia azzurra (Rome, 1964). In Rodari’s story, the toys come alive and escape from their toyshop in order to reach poor children’s houses. The book inspired an animated film carefully crafted by director Enzo d’Alò in 1996, with stellar contributors such as actor Lella Costa and the Nobel Laureate Dario Fo providing the voices, and Paolo Conte and Miriam Makeba the soundtrack.

A pie in the sky

Front cover of A pie in the sky

Front cover of A pie in the sky (London, 1970; X.990/2913) 

The phrase “pie in the sky”, meaning “an unrealistic enterprise or prospect of prosperity”, is borrowed by Rodari in a surrealistic and hilarious way: the image of the metaphor is transformed into an actual gigantic pie flying above Rome. That is why Rodari’s tale La torta in cielo (Turin, 1966) sounds better in its English translation. In one of the interviews in the documentary Gianni Rodari, il profeta della fantasia, teacher Maria Luisa Bigiaretti explained how Rodari worked with her pupils at a primary school in Rome in order to co-create this story starting from the title-metaphor. The chimeric pie, which suddenly appears in the sky, is actually an atomic bomb that only brave children will be able to deactivate. Written in the Sixties during the nuclear war fever years, this pacifist tale aimed to present a difficult problem to children in order to open up a debate in the classroom and prompt their alternative solution to war.

Rodari believed that every children’s author has a duty to be as close as possible to his little readers so as to write stories with which they can connect and have an enjoyable learning experience. Reading must be a personal enriching pleasure above all, as Rodari stated: “La lettura, o è un momento di vita, momento libero, pieno, disinteressato, o non è nulla” [Reading is either a moment of life, a free, full and disinterested moment, or it is nothing (my translation)].

In Omegna, Rodari’s birthplace, the town council is keeping alive his legacy with a literary festival and a theme park, the Parco della fantasia Gianni Rodari, where children and their families are able to meet Rodari’s tales and heroes at any age, getting involved in one of the most exciting adventures that is literature.

To be continued

Ramona Ciucani, West European Languages Cataloguing team

Further reading:

Pino Boerio, Una storia, tante storie: guida all’opera di Gianni Rodari (Turin, 1992) YA.1995.a.529

Francesca Califano, ‘Political, social and cultural divisions in the work of Gianni Rodari’ in Mary Shine Thompson and Valerie Coghlan (eds.), Divided worlds: studies in children’s literature, pp. 149-158 (Dublin, 2007,) YC.2008.a.8892 and m07/.33327

Bernard Friot, ‘Quel che io devo a Rodari’ in Andersen 365 (Genoa, 2019) https://www.andersen.it/quel-che-io-devo-a-rodari/

Ann Lawson Lucas, ‘Blue train, red flag, rainbow world: Gianni Rodari’s Befana’s toyshop’ in Beyond Babar: the European tradition in children’s literature edited by Sandra L. Beckett, Maria Nikolajeva (Lanham and Oxford, 2006) m06/.36134

Donatella Lombello (Padua University) on Gianni Rodari in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cx1eo9rAUXQ

Pietro Macchione, [et al.], Storia del giovane Rodari (Varese, 2013) YF.2013.a.19948

Giulia Massini, La poetica di Rodari: utopia del folklore e nonsense (Rome, 2011) YF.2012.a.26928

Il mio teatro: dal teatro del “Pioniere” a La storia di tutte le storie, [testi teatrali di] Gianni Rodari, a cura di Andrea Mancini e Mario Piatti (Pisa, 2006) YF.2006.a.37288

Gianni Rodari, Telephone Tales (translated by Anthony Shugaar), to be published in September 2020

M. L. Salvadori, ‘Apologizing to the Ancient Fable: Gianni Rodari and His Influence on Italian Children's Literature’ in The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 26, part 2, 2002, pp. 169-202; 5221.742000

Patrizia Zagni, Gianni Rodari (Florence, 1975) X.0907/36.(100)

21 July 2020

Inheritance Books: Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

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This post is part of our 'Inheritance Books' series with the Americas blog, where 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 explain why they're important to us. This week, we hear from Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator of East European Collections. 

What my predecessor Dr Christine Thomas left for me was unprecedented: in a small Slavonic book, offered to the British Library by a rare books dealer, she recognised a copy of the first dated Slavonic Primer (Azbuka C.104.dd.11(1)) printed in Lviv in 1574. It was not just another copy – it turned out to be the second surviving copy of this book. The second in the world, and nobody had known about its very existence! Before the British Library acquired this book in 1982 on Chris’s recommendation, only one surviving copy had been recorded at Harvard University Library. A facsimile edition of the Primer had been published just several years earlier, and therefore Chris could match the items and could not believe her luck.

Of course, to be completely honest, this wonderful curatorial success story has been a constant source of melancholy envy for me. On the other hand, it was a real present from Chris, as it provided me with a wide variety of creative opportunities. I can proudly report that I followed in my predecessor’s footsteps by writing an article and a couple of blogs promoting and interpreting this collection item and co-organising a conference Revisiting Ivan Fedorov’s Legacy (UCL SSEES-British Library, 2014). In the digital environment it was only natural that, as part of the conference outcomes, the Primer was fully digitised and is now available via the BL catalogue. During the lockdown, when I suddenly had more time on my hands, my colleagues suggested a tool that can cope with OCR, and I decided to give it a try. This is a new and exciting skill to acquire and I am really enjoying the project. I hope the text will be available alongside the images very soon.

Screenshot showing work on the Primer in Transkribus

Working on transcribing the Primer using Transkibus

One of my memorable acquisitions is linked to one of the strengths of our collections – Russian futurist and constructivist books. There was no mystery or drama associated with this acquisition, although the story is quite sad, like many stories that originate from the period of early Soviet history.

The Soviet propaganda journal USSR in Construction (P.P.7500) is probably quite well known, not only among those who have a special interest in Soviet history. The style of the journal was visual and cinematographic, and became iconic among designers. Not only were photographs ‘constructed’ using photomontage as a major tool, but some of the issues were really ‘assembled’ containing, for example, pieces of fabric, aluminium foil or vinyl disks.

I acquired a set of the magazine that was a ‘little brother’ of the famous USSR in Construction project. This Soviet art-illustrated monthly magazine has a long and peculiar title Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov (‘At the Construction of Machine Tractor Stations and State Farms’; HS.74/2243). It did not have international editions in various languages and was quite short-lived: 1934-1937. However, despite this, full sets are extremely rare in library collections.

Eight front covers of Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov

Front covers of Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov.

The magazine covered just one sector – Soviet agriculture. It specialized in promoting the achievements of state farms and collective farms and stood out as a separate edition of the magazine USSR in Construction. Magazine photo essays advocated ‘the best examples of honest work on the farm, the best examples of organizational activity in the MTS and state farms, and the best achievements in raising agriculture, culture and life of the collective and state farms’. Seven issues were designed by El Lissitzky.

The bold and powerful covers by talented artists and designers, and the essays written by gifted journalists and writers tell lies about life in the Soviet Union. The lives of these artists and writers tell a more truthful story about this time:

Semen Borisovich Uritskii (chief editor) – arrested in 1938 and executed in 1940;
Petr Petrovich Kriuchkov (author) – executed in 1938;
Artemii Bagratovich Khalatov (author) - executed in 1938;
Boris Fedorovich Malkin (member of the editorial board) – executed in 1938.

Na stroike MTS i sovkhozov has been already researched and cited, but certainly lends itself to further enquiries.

Further reading:

Christine Thomas. 'Two East Slavonic Primers: Lvov, 1574 and Moscow, 1637'. eBLJ, 1984. https://www.bl.uk/eblj/1984articles/article2.html

Ivan the Terrible, primers, ballet and the joys of curatorship https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2014/05/ivan-the-terrible-primers-ballet-and-the-joys-of-curatorship-.html

Classroom curiosities https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2013/11/classroom-curiosities-.html

E. Rogatchevskaia. ‘“A Beautiful, Tremendous Russian Book, and Other Things Too”:
An Overview of Rare Russian Books from the Diaghilev-Lifar Collection in the British Library.’ Canadian-American Slavic Studies (2017, 51:2-3) https://brill.com/view/journals/css/51/2-3/article-p376_10.xml?language=en

Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters Under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley, 1997) YC.1998.b.1122 (Limited preview available)

Margarita Tupitsyn, Matthew Drutt, El Lissitzky, Ulrich Pohlmann. El Lissitzky: Beyond the Abstract Cabinet: Photography, Design, Collaboration (New Haven, 1999) LB.31.b.17233 (Limited preview available)

Victoria Bonnell. “Peasant women in Political posters of the 1930s” In: Public Sociology at Berkeley, 2nd edition (1997) https://publicsociology.berkeley.edu/publications/producing/bonnell.pdf

Erika Wolf, ‘When Photographs Speak, To Whom Do They Talk? The Origins and Audience of SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction)’ Left History, Vol 6 No 2 (1999) ZA.9.a.9420 https://lh.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/lh/article/view/5382/4577

17 July 2020

The Gilbert White of Bohemia? Aleš Pařízek

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As we prepare to celebrate the 300th anniversary tomorrow of the birth of Gilbert White, whose Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has proved so popular that it has never been out of print since its first appearance in 1789, we may wonder whether a similar figure – both priest and naturalist – ever emerged in Bohemia. In fact, there is a close parallel in his nearly exact contemporary, Aleš Pařízek, whose accomplishments ranged from composing and performing music to drawing, painting and illustrating some of his own books.

Portrait of Aleš Vincenc Pařízek

Portrait of Aleš Vincenc Pařízek. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pařízek was born on 10 November 1748. Although his parents were not wealthy, he received a good education, and in 1765, aged 17, he entered the Dominican order and was ordained to the priesthood in 1771, serving in Prague as a confessor, preacher and monastery librarian.

When a new teacher training college was established in Prague he studied the Socratic method, attended lectures on pedagogics, and was appointed to conduct catechism classes at the parish school of St. Aegidius. He subsequently taught history, calligraphy and natural history at the college, and in 1783 became head of a new high school in Klatovy. By the time of his death on 15 April 1822, he had risen to become dean of the faculty of theology at the University of Prague. His works in both Czech and German include a book of prayers in Czech for children (1789) a concise history of the world for young readers (1782), handbooks on religious education for parents and teachers, and a manual of Czech orthography for schools in Bohemia (1812). Here, however, we consider the Kurzgefaßte Naturgeschichte Böhmens, zum Gebrauch der Jugend (‘Concise Natural History of Bohemia, for the Use of the Young’), published in 1784, of which the British Library possesses a first edition.

Frontispiece of Pařízek's 'Kurzgefaßte Naturgeschichte Böhmens...'

Frontispiece of Aleš Vincenc Pařízek, Kurzgefaßte Naturgeschichte Böhmens, zum Gebrauch der Jugend (Prague, 1784) 973.a.14

Pařízek explains in the preface that his aims are twofold: to provide young people with information which may be of practical use in their future careers, but also to inspire them with wonder at God’s creation and the natural history of their homeland (the word ‘patriotic’ frequently recurs).

From the outset Pařízek emphasises that this is not a work of scholarship, and that details of specific types of teeth and claws, for example, would only render it dry and tedious. It is divided into three sections on the minerals, plants and animal life of Bohemia, with an appendix on a creature found far beyond its borders – man – noting the similarities between humans and other living creatures. In keeping with his intentions, Pařízek explains the useful properties of different types of minerals, plants and timber, possibly foreseeing that his juvenile audience might adopt careers as mining engineers or physicians.

As the book was written in German, it seems likely that it was aimed at the educated middle classes, and this may explain a curious feature of the third section, in which domestic animals are given much more coverage than the wildlife of Bohemia. Presumably, Pařízek was envisaging his readers becoming estate managers or gentleman farmers; he devotes considerable amounts of space to diseases which may affect livestock, explaining that poor husbandry is generally to blame (keeping animals in dirty stables and sties, or driving cattle to pasture when the ground is frozen), rather than the activities of witches and suchlike, as ‘foolish and superstitious’ people believe. His statements are supported by practical observation, but his scientific objectivity is not always unblemished. While he devotes a lengthy paragraph to the praises of the faithful dog, ‘almost indispensable to the household’, he dismisses the cat in a mere four lines, stating that although it is ‘crafty, cunning and false’, it is useful for driving away mice, rats and toads. Clearly Pařízek was no cat-lover.

Illustration of amphibians from an 18th century German book

Frontispiece from an 18th century German book by the painter, naturalist and entomologist August Johann Rösel von Rosenhof. Historia naturalis ranarum nostratium... (Nürnberg, 1758) 458.f.12.  

Turning to wild animals, Pařízek describes many species which are still found in the region today or, like the lynx, are making a comeback. He notes that the bear is usually peaceable except when disturbed, and that the wolf, though so fierce that sometimes it does not even spare human beings, normally only shows itself in especially harsh winters. Plentiful details are provided of ‘red game’ (various species of deer) and ‘black game’ (boar), and the reserves where they are protected for hunting purposes. Birds, fish and insects are similarly described, and if we might raise an eyebrow at the lip-smacking relish with which the author evokes the ‘delicious’ or ‘extremely tasty’ nature of certain types of fish such as salmon or trout, this may be forgiven when we recall that as a devout Catholic he would have consumed these regularly on Fridays or fast-days.

His awe and reverence for God’s creatures, however, appears limited when he considers certain amphibians. Describing the toad (included in the section on quadrupeds), he dismisses it as ‘much uglier than the frog’, covered with yellow and green warts and spots all over its body. The equally luckless frog is ‘a small, naked amphibious creature, of a somewhat disgusting appearance’, although he comments that, unlike toads, ‘some of them are eaten by us’.

Yet even these less appealing beings have one attribute which might startle many theologians – a soul. Although man is ‘the masterpiece of creation, and the noblest and most splendid creature on the whole earth’, he shares an immortal soul with other living creatures, distinguished only by the fact that while the human soul is endowed with reason, those of animals are not. They do, however, have the power to feel emotions such as affection, sorrow and pain, and the underlying message to the young reader is that all sentient beings deserve humane and respectful treatment.

Just four years before Pařízek’s death, the National Museum in Prague had opened its doors, displaying magnificent collections of mineral, plant and animal specimens as well as antiquities, coins and medals. We may imagine how many visitors, and possibly contributors, had first had their love of natural history kindled by reading Pařízek’s little book.

Susan Halstead, Subject Librarian (Social Sciences), Research Services