Monday, December 22, 2014

Chapter 36 - A Short Trip To Poland: Part 1 - Introduction

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

After almost 15 years away, Alfred decided to make a short trip to Poland. He was concerned about his mother and the family business. His correspondence with her, as well as with friends and relatives in Poland, held discouraging news. While Mira and Maddren continued to work on the manuscript, the time seemed right to scout the situation and see what he and Mira would be getting into when they returned to live there. Alfred and Mira had postponed their move to Poland so many times, one could easily be excused for doubting their desire to return. But they had always planned, and still intended, to do so.

He left New York City on the R.M.S. “Caronia” on August 16. In his trunk, he had his deluxe presentation anthropometer. He surely had read this announcement in his July-August copy of the Bulletin of The American Mathematical Society: “A Congress of Mathematicians of the Slavic Countries will be held at Warsaw, September 23–27, 1929, under the auspices of the head of the Polish government. Professor W. Sierpinski, of the University of Warsaw, is president of the executive committee of the Congress.”(1) Since Alfred was going to be in Warsaw anyway, he would try to attend the Congress and give a lecture on his work, although it was already too late to submit a paper.

The trip across the ocean lasted some seven days. He spent about a week more in London waiting for the boat that would take him to Danzig. In the meantime, he looked up his friend C.K. Ogden. Korzybski recounted, “Ogden took very good care of me in showing me London and all the curiosities.”(2) (I fantasize being in the next booth in a London pub listening to the two polymaths chatting over their pints.) In his short time there, Korzybski also managed to visit some of the old English castles around London.

Peace, if not quiet, prevailed in the port of Danzig when Korzybski arrived there on Tuesday morning, September 3, 1929, after four days on a steamer from London. He didn’t want to get into Warsaw at night, so he spent the day wandering around the town and then took a night train to Warsaw, eight hours away.

Helena Korzybska was waiting at the station with her property manager when Alfred’s train pulled into the station at 7:00 the next morning. She cried when she saw him. Alfred felt restrained, even detached. As he wrote to Mira the following day, “…she tried to do a lot of kissing but I was somehow less of the kissing kind.” The manager took care of the suitcases and trunk and the three of them took a taxi to the apartment house on 66 Wilcza Street:
Three servants were waiting at the door and then started the kissing of the hand. I was forewarned that I have to submit myself to it. I did. Women wanted to carry the big heavy suitcase. I did not let them do it but said that the janitor should do it…Mother prepared for me the parlor, so I will be fairly comfortable. She has four rooms and the furniture of her 4 rooms and my furniture of four rooms so it is terribly crowded. I recognize of course all my things. The servants are fairly long time, the maid is 3 or four years, she had already one baby at my mother’s place, which mother took care of until it died, the manager is 9 years. The other are the janitors but we have not much contact with them. The manager is a kind of a better but no good butler. They all seem fairly good…the girl seems to be really good extremely hard worker and very honest, scolds the manager for mother and scolds everybody except mother. The manager, it is too early to talk. It seems that since I came everybody begins to [behave] better, and a new spirit has entered in all of them. I behave as a family physician, am extremely quiet, and studying, have no special emotions at all. (3)

Except for her gray hair, Helena Korzybska—then in her early seventies—looked much as Alfred had remembered her. He seemed to have first expected to find her physically ill but after a few days he wrote to Mira that she appeared quite healthy (although he did note she tended to catch cold easily and currently had an inflammation in her vocal cords affecting her speech). Otherwise she seemed even more energetic than Mira’s older sisters, who were younger than Helena. However, although he could see improvement in some ways, Alfred found his mother at least as difficult to deal with as he had found her before he left Poland:
She has changed a great deal in the favorable way, “adjustment to reality” which has been pounded into her for so many years [by Alfred in his letters to her?], yet she is as impossibly aggressive as ever and she only matters and her will has any value, her opinion is only right etc. When these things have nothing to do with “reality”. (4) 

He had a word for the behavior of hers he found so problematic—also the term he had used to summarize what he considered Mira’s ‘bad’ habits—“infantile”. In addition, her memory seemed poor. Her meticulous standards of cleanliness had dropped (the dust in the apartment seemed considerable). At this point, she seemed incapable of adequately managing her affairs. Indeed, as he had noted to Mira, there seemed around his mother “...a kind of anarchy, the usual wealthy-poor old woman and everybody trying to get something from such a person left entirely alone.” (5) 

The manager seemed of little help in getting her business straightened out. Alfred found him crude, uneducated, and incompetent. He even owed money to Alfred’s mother. Then there was Alfred’s sister, whom he probably saw more than once during his trip. He had had little contact with her even when he lived in Poland, and now after so many years she seemed like a somehow familiar stranger—a nervous wreck, suspicious of her brother’s intent, though apparently unable to do much herself to help their mother manage the family property.

The property was what remained of the family fortune—about 3/4 of which, he estimated, had been lost as a result of the war. His mother still owned the building on Wilcza Street, some property in suburbs outside of Warsaw, as well as the country estate at Rudnik, where buildings had been destroyed and then rebuilt. Alfred spent three days there and it looked surprisingly good to him, given that it had served as one of the battlegrounds of World War I. As he wrote to Mira, “It looks very cheerful and the trees have grown rather large. It needs money and work and it would be a splendid thing.”(6) At this point none of the property was providing an adequate income. For example, Alfred discovered that while housing was scarce in Warsaw, the government rent control laws limited what his mother could legally collect from her tenants. As a consequence many tenants sublet their apartments to others for exorbitant prices. They were making a profit on their apartments while his mother, the owner, was losing money.

Still, many Polish families had been completely ruined in the war. The Korzybskis at least had something left. Helena wanted Alfred to stay. Korzybski realized he could probably straighten out the mess of family business in about a year. But he couldn’t do it now. He had formulated his work in American English (or his unique version of it) and he wasn’t willing to move to Poland before the book was published. He and Mira had to get the book into print and make a little money first. He hoped they could do that quickly. Then they would come to Poland, and he could sort out the family business—keeping Mother at arm’s length, of course—and get himself established. He could see his work was needed just as much, if not more, in Poland as in the U.S. and he felt confident he would be able to find teaching opportunities. He was getting comfortable speaking Polish again and—preparing for his talk at the Mathematics Congress later in the month—even speaking in Polish about his work.

However, in the meantime, he began looking for some way to provide ‘insurance’ for what he felt was his stake in the family property. He and Mira had given Helena considerable money over the last few years—around 5,000 dollars. Alfred realized Polish law allowed them to consolidate these funds as a loan to give his mother what amounted to a second mortgage. The mortgage document, known as a “hypothec”, would give them some rights in relation to the house on 66 Wilcza. As holders of this “hypothec”, they would have precedence for either purchasing the house or being paid back as creditors whenever the house was sold.

Over the next few years, this may have turned out to be useful. First, Helena married her manager, thus throwing into doubt what Alfred and his sister might inherit when their mother died. Helena also defaulted on her interest payments to the Polish bank that held her first mortgage. At the end of 1932, 66 Wilcza was put up for auction. It’s not clear whether Korzybski was able to use his mortgage to prevent the house from being sold at that time, although he had lawyers in Warsaw working for him. But at any rate, probably as a result of his foresight, his mother was able to continue living there. After she died in 1937, the amount of Alfred and Mira’s mortgage was paid to them out of the sale of 66 Wilcza. This money was deposited for them in a Polish Bank. However, they were unable to collect their money before the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.

After World War II, Korzybski inquired about recovering this money as well as getting compensation for other property he might have inherited. But the destruction of records and the difficulties in dealing with the new Stalinist regime in Poland made getting useful information almost impossible. Most of his friends, including his lawyer, were dead. He never learned what happened to his sister. Alfred had a considerable amount of furniture and other personal belongings he had left in his mother’s place at 66 Wilcza (including the beautiful anthropometer he had brought with him on the 1929 trip). After the war, he assumed that the manager who had married Mother had whatever was left of the estate. All that loss was to come. In 1929, it seemed like a good idea to arrange the mortgage. Before he returned to America he got his mother to sign the necessary documents.

His mother’s condition, that of his sister, and the state of the family business seemed dismal enough. The state of more distant family and friends appeared no cheerier. Indeed, observing his countrymen on the streets, in their homes, and other places he visited, Poland in general seemed like a very sad place. A line he remembered from Zygmunt Krasinski’s work Iridion seemed to fit what he saw in Warsaw—a city filled with “children who cannot smile”. On September 29, near the end of his stay, he wrote to Keyser:
Dear dear Old Man,  
I had such a hectic time day and night that outside of postcards I had no time or head to write. The Poles have done actual miracles and simply I do not understand how they have succeeded in rebuilding Poland out of NOTHING. Poland was invaded during the war three times and left nearly deprived of everything, machines, food, horses, cows, many houses destroyed, etc. We get no indemnity of any sort and so have to build everything with the hardest labor imaginable. We are also hampered by three doctrinal psychologies of the older generation (Russian, German, and Austrian) which seems to be a very serious handicap. They try to eliminate that by changing the older officers for younger who are trained in Polish doctrines. It is an infernal and slow work.  
Outside of these miracles of work and organization the place is a tragic one. No one speak[s] loud, or smiles, children do not smile even, it seems that this war and the hardships have entirely ruined the nerves of the country. It is simply pathetic and once more it is proven that human nerves can only stand so much and no more. My family has been nearly entirely wiped off. Either sudden death (mostly heart) or entirely ruined. We have lost about 3/4 of our fortune but some is still left although extremely badly managed and giving very little income.  
Whomever I touch of my generation or the older generation their nerves are nearly entirely shattered. There is nothing to talk about with them. But they have done wonders of work and organization just the same! I did not realize how sufferings literally annihilate not only individuals but even nations. (7) 

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
1. “Notes”, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, No. 35, Vol. 4 (July-August 1929), p. 583. (accessed 1/26/2011). 

2. Korzybski 1947, p. 272. 

3. AK to MEK., 9/5/1929. AKDA 28.50. 

4. AK to MEK, 9/9/1929. AKDA 28.48.

5. AK to MEK, 9/5/1929. AKDA 28.50. 

6. AK to MEK, 9/18/1929. AKDA 28.44. 

7. AK to C.J. Keyser, 9/29/1929. AKDA 22.316.

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