How do you know you belong to a community? The answer is simple: funerals. Elżbieta Czyżewska was what kept my little New York community together. Perhaps every person who so radically departs from your circle turns out to be indispensable, especially in exile. But I doubt that while she was alive, we knew it was on her shoulders that such responsibility rested. That role – of mini-Atlas – was not one she would choose for herself. She was an individualist and ironist as well. She would have laughed at the high tone of my sentences.
After her death, in many articles and interviews, she was remembered differently by men and women, by Poles in Poland and Poles living abroad. As usual, the commemorative declarations said more about the speaker than about Elżbieta herself. Many of her in-Poland professional colleagues proved least generous, with a common shrug: what was she thinking, she, an actress, when she was leaving for abroad? In their reminiscences, her life is presented in a Hollywood-like style as a story of early success followed by frustration and decline. Her decision to leave Poland would be an unreasonable gamble that did not pay off. It was a logical punishment for a serious transgression.
This, of course, cannot be her image for her fellow exiles (I use the word exile though it is gone out of fashion, and rightly so, to describe people who left under the previous regime, with no hope of returning.) Actresses or not, we all struggled with difficulties, perhaps greater perhaps lesser, but most certainly somewhat similar to those faced by our contemporaries who did not emigrate. Yes, her professional frustrations were numerous, and she did not repeat the easy career she had in Poland. The reason for these frustrations is not to be found in her accent and cadence of her speech, though that would certainly limit the range of her roles. She was extremely talented and serious about her work, and her professionalism would have overcome these obstacles had she not had a debilitating dependence on alcohol. Those of us, who knew her in that second, American part of her life, would witness the epic fight with which she conquered that dependence. And could not but admire her for it.
But I do not want to describe her American life in terms of her fight against alcoholism. To that fight she lost many years in which she could not blossom in work. But work she did, then and later: she performed in movies, TV serials and in theatre, and was frequently present at cultural events that required reading of poetry or other texts. Such events, when linked to anything Polish, were simply unthinkable without her. Her voice and her very presence preserved and prolonged our continuity.
It is difficult to say if, staying in Poland, she wouldn’t have had to fight against addiction or would have had a satisfying working life. But she did leave, most probably because a role into which she was slotted early in life was not totally fulfilling. The famous dance scene from (her generous friend) Andrzej Wajda’s Everything for Sale [Wszystko na sprzedaż] shows her resistance and alienation from the milieu she was to walk away from. The same attitude may be read from her earlier movies by Skolimowski, Identification Marks: None [Rysopis] and Walkover [Walkower]. These were the movies that had the greatest influence on me when I saw them in Warsaw’s discussion film club “Zygzakiem” in the 1960s. She was for us, high school or college students, a model of independence, more, of irreverence and insubordination. And such she remained.
In New York, she functioned in more than one community. She had American friends, who remembered her with love and awe, praising her language mastery, hard work and stubborn risk-taking. She had Russian friends, exiles like herself, for whom she was a glamorous link to the Polish movies of the 60s and 70s. A Ukrainian poet wrote a beautiful poem about her, an eminent American playwright wrote a play for her. They were all New Yorkers and she was also a New Yorker through and through. So, in opposition to the success/decline tale, I would describe her life as of a story of a strong, very talented, very intelligent, unusually independent woman, fighting valiantly and honorably to measure herself against new circumstances, to build a new life. She loved the city she lived in, and became part of it; she worked whenever she could and worked very well; she searched for the spiritual meaning of life with seriousness few of us possess. Her life was a life of quest and plenitude, of heartbreak but also of great intellectual pleasures. Every conversation with her, her every reading or theatre role, however small, was an event. She should be remembered not only as a great actress, but also as an unusual person who choose her life for herself and lived it with dignity and courage.