1924−1939: Childhood in Lwów

Zbigniew Herbert was born in Lwów on October 29 1924, the second child (his sister Halina was born in 1923) of Bolesław and Maria, née Kaniak, Herbert. Though a lawyer by training, his father served in the I Brygada Legionów Polskich [I Brigade of the Polish Legions] during The First World War and defended Lwów in 1918. After the war he worked for the Co-operative Society as a banker, became director of the Małopolski Bank Kupiecki [The Lesser Poland Merchant Bank] in Lwów, and in 1938 became director of the Lwów branch of the Poznań based “Vesta” Insurance Association, all of which assured his family a comfortable livelihood.

During 1931-1937 Herbert attended the St. Anthony No. 2 State Primary School for Boys on Głowińskiego Street in Lwów. The family moved houses several times, finally buying and settling in a grand summer house on the outskirts of Lwów, in Brzuchowice, in which the family spent a happy time until the outbreak of the II World War.

In 1937 the future poet began his studies at the VIII Państwowe Gimnazjum i Liceum im. Króla Kazimierza Wiekiego [King Casimir the Great VIII State Middle and Upper Secondary School] in Lwów.

According to family tradition my male forbearers had English roots and were religious emigrants who in their numerous “fatherlands of choice” married Germans, Austrians, Czechs and Armenians. I underline this fact, as I do consider myself a Polish writer – more so an outmoded patriot – though unable to substantiate this fact genealogically.
I was born in Lwów, a multi-nation and multi-faith city, on Poland’s South Eastern border into the family of a wealthy lawyer and humanist.

(Excerpt from biogram)

I sit on the stone stairs leading up to my home, to our white home, lost amongst the forest trees. An hour before dusk, a moment to ponder. I lean my elbows against my hurt knees and with laborious effort contemplate one question: what were the beginnings, how far in the past of this place?

(Excerpt from a narrative Początek powieści [Beginnings of a Novel])

The gymnasium stood on a hill. It was white a three stories tall building with large windows and a red slanting roof. If it stood out in any way it was by virtue of its stern simplicity. A façade without ornament except at the summit: a bas-relief of an eagle. Under the bas-relief a space, as if for an inscription. Most appropriate would have been a Latin maxim along the lines of: Felix qui potuit cognoscere causas [Happy those who can understand the cause of things. –Vergil], or if anyone asked for our opinion – no one did – Juvenal’s directive to the education of youth: Maxima debetur puero reverential [Maximum reverence is owed to a child. Juvenal].

One entered through a heavy gate. Steps, and at the top of the steps a massive statue of our school’s patron. The plaster-pale king had his left foot set forward, and this seemingly insignificant detail became the material cause of a student custom, not in keeping with the gravity of an educational institution. The left shoe of our solemn white-clad patron was disturbingly black and polished by frequent touches that were supposed to protect us from evil charms, failing grades we called baniaks, and from the terrible wrath of our preceptors. Severe interdictions were of no avail, we devoted ourselves to these magical practices with ignorant peasant stubbornness. In the school a cult reason reigned, but as we know, nothing encourages the growth of occultism more than official rationalism.

From the first my fearful novitiate’s sensitivity registered most strongly not images but olfactory impressions. The cloakroom was down in the vast basement. It was like the kitchen of school odours: dust, leather, damp clothes, and fear. From there one went down a long corridor with a stone floor, and thus over odorous stone, all the way to the classroom, with its smell of varnish, chalk, with its damp blackboard.

(Beginning of a sketch Lekcja łaciny [A Latin Lesson], from the tome Labirynt nad morzem [Labyrinth On The Sea])

1939−1944: Wartime in Lwów

After the occupation of Lwów by Soviet forces, Herbert continued his studies at his old school, reorganised and renamed ‘Secondary School No. 14, for two years. After the invasion of Lwów by German forces on August 31 1941, he attended clandestine classes and passed the baccalaureate in 1944, and thereafter studied Polish philology at the Jan Kazimierz Tajny Uniwersytet [Jan Casimir Underground University]. During the war he worked as a sales assistant at an ironmonger’s store, as well as a louse feeder, at professor Rudolph Weigel’s Institute producing an anti typhoid vaccine. Apart from his own recollections very little is known about Herbert’s conspiratorial war activities. His younger twelve-year old brother Januszek, whom Herbert regarded as having a true literary talent, died in 1943.

On March 26 1944, the family left Lwów for Kraków.

The Second World War, in which I took part as a member of the anti-Nazi Resistance Movement, was the time I consider key to shaping my personality. I believe that it is the war that almost entirely shaped my literary calling as a writer, destined to search for answers to the nature of man, in confrontation with death, his behaviour in the face of total threats, what moral values can and should be saved.

(Excerpt from biogram)

My oldest poem (though one might easily fall foul of mythologizing, however once we are about, let us dig deep) was Dwie Krople [Two Drops]. I see a picture in front of my eyes from 1942. I am running down stairs to a bomb shelter – because we lived on the second floor. On a half landing, between the first and second floors I see a couple kissing; as if wanting to hide themselves in that embrace. It stuck in my memory, and then I noted it down. But did I want to become a poet at the time? God forbid. I wanted to note down something that was very important to me. The style was of no consequence – it wasn’t any kind of note or prose, rather a poem – though it was closer to prose.

(In conversation with Janusz Maciejewski, 1996)