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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The role of Bohdan Lepky in the rapprochement between the Ukrainian and Polish cultures

22 June, 2004 - 00:00

Being the envoy of your nation’s culture and spiritual achievements in other countries is a high and noble mission — a rare, if not unique, vocation. Few individuals, even outstanding ones, are capable of carrying out this mission. Shining examples of this are rare: the German writer Heinrich Heine loved French culture and devoted his entire life to familiarizing his compatriots with its achievements; the Frenchman Stendhal maintained very close creative ties with the history and culture of Italy; the Russian Ivan Turgenev and the Spaniard Pablo Picasso with the intellectual heritage of France, and the Georgian David Guramishvili with that of Ukraine.

All the more precious for us then is the creative legacy of those Ukrainian artists who over the span of many decades proved that simple and most universal of truths: that common human values and the Olympian heights of the spirit, rather than wars, bloodshed, discord, and enmity, knit nations together and are the undeniable and everlasting triumph of the future. The figure of Bohdan Lepky (1872-1941) occupies a special, even exclusive, place in the history of Ukrainian-Polish cultural ties. This prominent writer, scholar, public figure, and patriot spent a considerable part of his life “under the sign” of Poland and its culture, in close contact with the talented artists of this fraternal neighboring nation. Lepky’s heritage is an especially precious page in the history of Ukrainian- Polish spiritual relations because it is a striking manifestation of their still untapped humanistic and creative potential. It should be noted, however, that the talent and merits of this true classic of our culture have not yet been duly appreciated in independent Ukraine.

It seems symbolic today that the future writer was born on November 9, 1872, in the picturesque Podillian village of Krehulets, in the same house where the famous Polish insurgent Bogdan Jarocki, hero of the national liberation struggle, once lived. Accordingly, Poland and the unbreakable spirit of its people captured, albeit symbolically, the boy’s imagination. Bohdan’s father, the parish priest Sylvestr Lepky, was an extraordinary person. A true Ukrainian patriot, graduate of Lviv University in theology and classical philology, author of literary works published under the pen name of Marko Murava, he always cherished a profound and sincere respect for Polish history, language, and culture, and managed to instill this respect in his children, including his sons Bohdan and Lev. Whenever Lepky the Younger, in the twilight of his life, recalled his father, he referred to him as “my harshest critic.”

At the age of six Bohdan was sent to a “normal school” in Berezhany, with Polish as the language of instruction. The boy went right into the second grade because he had uncommon aptitudes even at this early age. Later, still in Berezhany, Lepky attended a grammar school (naturally, a Polish one, as required by the educational system). Although the grammar school in Berezhany was far away from the main cultural centers (even inspectors from Lviv would come just once every few years to scrutinize the “teaching process”), the young Lepky had good memories of it, not in the least because most of the young Ukrainians and Polish students were noted for their ethnic tolerance, mutual respect, and openness. Especially venerated in the grammar school were the names of Taras Shevchenko and Adam Mickiewicz: there were annual recitals in honor of the two great poets, as well as regular concerts by Ukrainian and Polish choirs. Stage productions and concerts with both Polish and Ukrainian repertories were usually attended by young Ukrainian and Polish audiences.

After completing grammar school in 1891, Lepky was admitted to the Academy of Arts in Vienna, but he soon realized that literature was his true vocation. He then studied at Lviv University, from where he graduated in 1895 and returned to “his” grammar school in Berezhany as a teacher of the Ukrainian and German languages and literature. The writer’s “Polish period” as such began in 1899, when Cracow’s Jagiellonian University launched a series of lectures on Ukrainian language and literature and offered a chair to Lepky. At the time he did not know that Cracow was destined to become his second homeland for many decades until his death in July 1941. This was the city where he not only worked but also found lifetime friends among Polish and, naturally, Ukrainian intellectuals.

At the turn of the twentieth century Cracow was a city seething with artistic, literary, and intellectual life, both Polish and Ukrainian. For Cracow’s Ukrainian community Lepky’s house at 28 Zelena St. was a kind of “cultural headquarters,” where one could encounter Kyrylo Studynsky, Vasyl Stefanyk, Viacheslav Lypynsky, Mykhailo Zhuk, Mykhailo Boichuk, and other prominent figures of Ukrainian scholarship and culture. As for the Polish artists with whom Lepky maintained close creative cooperation for many years, at least three should be named: Kazimierz Tetmajer (1865-1940), an outstanding poet and prose writer, and author of the historical novel Legend of the Tatra Mountains Stanislaw Wyspianski, a talented playwright; and Wladyslaw Orkan, a gifted poet and a wonderful human being (Lepky left behind some interesting reminiscences of him, with extracts cited below).

Among the things that aroused the deep respect for Lepky on the part of Cracow’s Polish and Ukrainian intelligentsia was his authorship of a brilliant Polish translation of The Lay of Ihor’s Host (1905) and the famous poem Cranes (1910) known to Ukrainians throughout the world as the song (“You see, my brother, my friend, a gray string of cranes soaring high into the sky...”). The history of this poem is very interesting. The poet said that a performance of a Stanislaw Wyspianki play prompted him to write this poem: “In the fall of 1910, in Cracow, I was walking home after viewing a theatrical production of Wyspianski’s drama Noc Listopadowa. The withered leaves rustled beneath my feet, and the departing cranes were trumpeting high above me. The poem seemed to be coming out by itself, without my knowledge or effort. My brother Lev Lepky set it to music.”

Wladyslaw Orkan was Lepky’s good friend of many years’ standing. Shortly before his death in 1936, Lepky wrote Three Portraits, a book of memoirs in which he relates his encounters and creative relationships with Ivan Franko and Vasyl Stefanyk and reminiscences extensively about Orkan. This is how Lepky described his Polish confrere: “Slender, lean and very elegantly dressed, so much so that the contemptuous title of “peasant writer,” which Stefanyk bestowed on him was hardly deserved. A black quaintly knotted necktie, a Panama hat and gloves in one hand, and a walking cane in the other. His bearing is light, even nonchalant...There was something childish and something Mephistophelean in his enigmatic smile! Orkan shook my hand firmly — not officially and coldly, but somewhat sympathetically and friendly.”

The fragment of Lepky’s memoirs that deals with Orkan’s attitude to Ukraine and its history makes for very interesting reading. The Polish poet rated Ivan Bohun and Dmytro Baida-Vyshnevetsky above all the others (he even called the latter “a true daredevil Cossack fellow”). Lepky quotes his Polish friend, who remarked the following about Henryk Sienkiewicz’s famous novel With Fire and Sword: “Ogniem i mieczem is not a simple thing, but I take a somewhat different view of those times. You shouldn’t look at it from one side only; you should take the other side, too. You must also understand and heed the voice of the common people, because they are also human beings with a soul and a heart.” That Orkan’s love of Ukraine was not superficial but sincere as attested by the anthology of Ukrainian poetry that he published in Lviv in 1911 after many years of hard work. An entry from Lepky’s memoirs, dated 1902, states: “I recently visited Orkan in the mountains. He lives at the top like an eagle. Every morning the sun comes to talk with him, and every evening the winds come to visit him. Splendid. We talked all night long and almost two days more, and we reached the conclusion that humans can survive!”

May this thought of two friends — a Ukrainian and a Pole — show the way for us, too. Bohdan Lepky died on July 21, 1941, in Cracow and was buried in the local Rakowice Cemetery. Meanwhile, every autumn cranes fly over the old Polish city that he loved so much.