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Culture means respecting great Masters

Poles living in Switzerland know perfectly well that no-one in recent decades has done as much for Polish culture on the Helvetic land as Barbara Ahrens-Młynarska.

“Lively culture is like oxygen, we cannot exist without it” (Wojciech Młynarski)

If it wasn’t for her energy, organizational skills and contact network, as well as perseverance when faced with obstacles and criticism, meetings with people from the Polish world of arts and culture would be scarce there. As it is, their presence has helped to increase the quality of intellectual life in Polish houses under the Swiss sky.

How did this highly talented young National Theatre actress end up in Switzerland? Her emigration is even more surprising, when one considers the fact that she is a sister of Wojciech Młynarski, the Polish star of satirical song; a great-niece of the co-founder and chairman of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Emil Młynarski; and a relative of the world-famous pianist Artur Rubinstein (husband of Nela, Emil’s daughter). For a young débutante, there can hardly be a more favourable background for starting out on a career. But it is difficult to think of a worse first step than emigrating to a country where she has to start at square one, without even knowing how to say “hello” in the local language.

Today great Swiss cities such as Zurich, Geneva and Basel are striving centres of international culture, but back in the 1970s, these were cities where a strict “ora et labora” code ruled. At the same time, life in Poland was economically harsher, but artistically more interesting, as artists were fighting against censorship and politics. Becoming an actor was many people’s dream, but the destiny of only a lucky few. Young Basia was one of these.

In 1965, she graduated from Aleksander Zelwerowicz State Theatre Academy in Warsaw, and Adam Hanuszkiewicz gave her employment in his theatre. In 1966, she was featured on the cover of “Zwierciadło”, a Polish high-end magazine. All in all, she had all the attributes of star, a special allure of someone who will touch the sky.

Her position at the theatre, however, became a trap. She was given a chance to play bigger roles in plays from time to time, but Barbara felt she wasn’t using her full potential. So when an opportunity to take part in the Avignon Theatre Festival arose, she did not think twice. Even though short, the trip turned out to have important consequences for her entire life, especially because of the time spent at Basel.

Since then, Barbara Ahrens-Młynarska has tirelessly worked to promote Polish culture abroad. First in co-operation with the Polish house in Zurich, and since 1986 in her own “Klub Miłośników Żywego Słowa” (“A Club of Live Word Lovers”), where four times a year Polish stage artists, journalists, writers, musicians and vocalists give performances. The couch in Barbara’s and her husband’s (Uwe) house should be called “The Bed of the Greatest.” Legends of the Polish art scene have slept there: Ryszarda Hanin, Agnieszka Osiecka, Irena Kwiatkowska, Gustaw Holoubek, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Stefan Kisielewski, Andrzej Łapicki, Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Ryszard Kapuściński, Tadeusz Konwicki – guests of Barbara’s club, presenting Polish culture to the Swiss Poles.

Ela Binswanger