Requiem for Latin Classes

Jan Kwapisz

With the end of this school year Jerzy Kaczyński goes into retirement. He has been a Latin teacher in the Stefan Batory Gymnasium of Warsaw, Poland, since 1975. With him, Latin classes go. On the one hand, this is quite a typical story: when Latin teachers retire, as I keep hearing from my colleagues at the Societas Philologa Polonorum (“The Philological Society of Poland”), high-school headmasters often jump at this opportunity to get rid of Latin from their curriculum. The episode is thus a symptom of a broader change which is occurring quietly in Polish education. On the other hand, however, the Batory Gymnasium is not just any old school.

This school was a formative place for Polish elites, an institution that the famous Polish poet Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński attended, before his death when fighting as a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. He was then 23. The school was also attended by three Polish scouts – “Zośka”, “Alek”, and “Rudy” – who participated in the activities of the Polish Underground State under the German occupation and who died in their early twenties in 1943. They were immortalized in a novel by Aleksander Kamiński, Stones for the Rampart (translated into English in 1945), and served as examples of heroism for the Polish youth in later decades. Also, more recently, the Batory Gymnasium was attended by the Polish hip-hop artist “Mata”, famous for his song “Patho-intelligentsia”, which describes the life of elite adolescents. The school has carved for itself a place in Polish culture, so perhaps the fact that there won’t be Latin in it any more does matter, after all.

Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński (1921–44) in his late teens (c.1940).

Latin hadn’t been taught at the school from the very beginning, since its foundation in 1918 when Poland regained her independence. From a volume published in 1993, devoted to the history of the school, we learn that Latin was first introduced there in 1933, in the wake of an educational reform, conducted by the then Polish ‘Minister of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment’ Janusz Jędrzejewicz (1885–1951). The goal of the reform was to unify and modernize the Polish educational system, which was recovering from more than a century of the Partitions.

Some pupils were devastated. I’ve read an anecdote by one pre-War adolescent rebel who publicly, in a classroom, expressed his views on how pointless teaching Latin is for those who plan to continue their career in Mathematics, Physics, or Engineering. His Latin teacher, Henryk Popławski, reacted with calm, but he told the young dissident to stay after class. First, he made him examine a wooden door from a close distance and asked whether he could see wood grain. Then, he asked him to look at the door from a certain distance. The rebellious pupil recalls the conversation after half a century:  

“What do you see now?”

“I can see the whole door,” I answered, not knowing where he was heading. And then I heard:

“My dear Purzycki, in the realm of culture it is Latin that gives you such a broad vision, it gives you perspective and allows you to see the whole. Remember it.”

I did remember.

The Stefan Batory Gymnasium, Warsaw, in 1927.

This is how the story of Latin in the Batory Gymnasium began, and even war couldn’t interrupt it. During the German occupation, Popławski was secretly teaching his pupils Latin, even though he would pay with his life, if that was discovered. The Nazi policy in occupied Poland was incomparable to other European countries in that regard: the education of the Polish Untermenschen was strictly forbidden and the punishment was of the most severe sort. Teachers who were caught secretly instructing their pupils were sent to concentration camps – at best. Several thousand teachers were killed.

In such conditions Popławski continued giving Latin classes. An anecdote depicts him telling off a pupil who came late to the Latin class who tried to explain that he had to run from the Germans who were catching people in the street (to send them to forced labor or concentration camps, so-called łapanka in Polish occupation-time slang). Popławski replied that the Nazis are catching people in the street all the time, so it is something to be taken into account when you try to get to school, and cannot be used as a novel excuse. More importantly, neither Ovid nor any other Roman author can be affected by Nazi barbarism. The uncompromising Popławski was killed a few days before the end of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

A secret class during the German occupation of Łopiennik Górny in eastern Poland, 1941. The teacher is Jadwiga Sokirkówna.

Another memorable teacher in the post-war period was Stefan Dancewicz who was called, rather contrary to his character, “Bulldog”. He was a demanding teacher, but was also quiet and gentle. He used to discipline his noisy pupils by saying, “Be quiet: not too much, just a little bit.” He was imprisoned for a time in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz, but survived captivity and lived until 1962.

Even during the Stalinist years Latin was respected in the Batory Gymnasium, as testified by an anecdote about a Latin teacher named Antoni Pawłowski. He caused a dangerous event at school by telling pupils to raise their hands as to whether they wanted to learn Russian or Latin. Russian was obligatory in Polish schools under the Communist regime, officially as the language of our neighboring “friends” and, more realistically, as a form of colonial, imperialist oppression. Not only did Pawłowski dare to ask his pupils the question “Russian or Latin?”, but he added: “I can’t imagine a Latinless educated human being”. Hands were duly raised for Latin.  

Stefan Batory at Pskov, Jan Matejko, 1872 (Royal Castle, Warsaw, Poland). The king of Poland receives the Russian envoys from Ivan IV the Terrible in 1581, who are suing for peace after their defeat in the battle.

This was the heritage that Latin had in a high school named after one of the most celebrated Polish kings, Stefan Batory (1533–86, r. 1575–86) – a prince of Transylvania who had to communicate with his Polish courtiers in Latin. This was the Latin tradition with which Jerzy Kaczyński had to grapple. And he did, boldly and bravely, for nearly half a century. The same could be said of his faculty for generating anecdotes (today we would perhaps say “memeability”). I recall him once addressing us, his pupils, using a common Polish term of endearment, “my little sunshines”, only to add immediately, “though there must an eclipse today.” Witticisms like this one were not always taken as signs of affection.

There were, however, those in whom he managed to plant the Latin germ. He successfully trained several winners of Polish Latin competitions and many of his pupils went on to study Classics at universities. Some of those went on to pursue academic careers, such as the writer of these words. For his part, Kaczyński was long engaged in popularizing Classics in popular journals and on the radio. He also translated into Polish two books by the French ancient historian Pierre Grimal.

Jerzy Kaczyński, Latin teacher at the Batory Gymnasium in Warsaw, during the COVID pandemic, holding a book about medieval knights.

I write these words in Rome, where I’m spending my sabbatical year at La Sapienza University. Usually, I spend the rest of my time in Poland teaching students at the Institute of Classical Philology of Warsaw University. When I’m talking to my Italian colleagues, I often praise their school education system, where the liceo classico still plays a very significant role through its obligatory Latin and Greek. While questioned by some, this model is also passionately defended by others. On the other hand, I hear Italians compliment how Classics is done in Poland. Indeed, I was particularly moved by a recent gift from an excellent Hellenist based in Florence – Enrico Magnelli, who published an edition of a Greek poem ascribed to Lucian (Ocypus) and dedicated it to “friends and colleagues in Poland”. Specifically, he mentions scholars from Poznań, Warsaw, Wrocław and Katowice, and speaks of “una gloriosa tradizione di filologia klasyczna”[“classical philology” in Polish] which not only “proved resistant to the adversities of the past” but will also continue to resist.

The common thread of this dedication by Magnelli and the historic anecdotes I shared above is that Classics is like the rampart of our cultural fortress; learning Latin is an expression of our resistance to philistinism and barbarism. Preserving the heritage of ancient culture in the face of the entropy of history is the core mission of Classics, a process amply illustrated by the toil of medieval monks who copied ancient texts within the walls of their monasteries. It is not an accident that anecdotes similar to those connected to Latin classes at the Batory Gymnasium can be found in various parts of Europe.

CIA reference photograph of Soviet medium-range ballistic missile (SS-4/R-12) in Red Square, Moscow, Russia (1 May 1965).

Oswyn Murray, an eminent ancient historian in Oxford, wrote an essay about his contacts with scholars behind the Iron Curtain. He shares one particular anecdote about teaching Latin during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. He could hear the noise of American B52 bombers circling over Oxford. He says that he continued teaching, in the strong conviction that if this were to be the last day of Western civilization, there was no better way of dying while “waiting for barbarians” than reading Ovid. This is a repetition of the same gesture made by Henryk Popławski, a teacher from the Batory Gymnasium, during World War II. And in the UK of 2022 Latin still remains an important and respected element in education.

While telling those war stories about Latin classes, it is impossible not to mention Classicists from Ukraine. A couple of refugee Latinists from Lviv, who now live in Warsaw, teach remotely their students who have remained in Ukraine. A colleague from Kyiv who didn’t want to leave her country is organizing a summer school there in Latin. These are more than mere heroic attempts to preserve normality in the face of the Russian aggression. Teaching Latin in Ukraine was a symbolic choice in 1632, when the Kyiv Mohyla Academy was founded; the program of education there, in which Classics played a crucial role, was based on the universal system of Jesuit colleges throughout Europe. The choice to teach and learn Latin still remains in Ukraine a conscious gesture, representing the European identity of Ukrainians.

The Mazepa building of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy on Ukraine’s 500 hryvnia banknote.

I am not saying that we should introduce the liceo classico in Poland, with obligatory Latin and Greek for all pupils. But getting rid of Latin from the Batory Gymnasium and other prestigious schools should not pass without any public reaction. If I may speak briefly in a higher register (channelling the Greeks and Romans), if Poland is to remain an integral element of the colourful European cultural mosaic that has been painstakingly pieced together since the foundation of Greco-Roman civilisation, we need to sustain a community of people for whom Classics and its reception in the Latin language (including our own Renaissance and early modern authors) is something familiar.

To put it bluntly: there wouldn’t be any Kwapisz, a Classicist now studying Greek poetry with his friends from Italy and the rest of the world, if there were no Jerzy Kaczyński, a teacher of Latin in the Batory Gymnasium. It wouldn’t even have crossed my mind to study Classics, were it not for my Latin teacher who introduced me not only to Cicero (106–43 BC) but also to a certain Frontinus (AD c.40–103) who discussed Roman aqueducts and to our Polish Renaissance poet, Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), who wrote a Horatian Ode to a Wine Jar. Were it not for my teacher who showed us Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) in Latin classes and made us listen to Mozart’s Requiem Mass (1791), with a medieval Latin text which we were reading together: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine… (“Grant them eternal rest, Lord”).

This is the broader vision of the history of our culture which only Latin can give.

Jerzy Kaczyński on the Pont Neuf in Paris in 1974.

Postscript: The original, Polish-language version of this essay was published last month on the popular science website Pulsar. What was intended as a requiem for teaching Latin in my old school now becomes an elegy for my old teacher. Jerzy Kaczyński passed away on 8 July 2022 after a short and shockingly unexpected illness. We exchanged messages about this essay when I was writing it, yet when it was published the state of his health made it impossible for him to read it.

Jan Kwapisz is Adiunkt (Assistant Professor) in the Institute of Classical Studies at the University of Warsaw, Poland. His main fields of interest are Hellenistic poetry, Greek metre and linguistic games in ancient literature. His publications include an edition of the six extant Greek pattern poems (The Greek Figure Poems, Peeters, Leuven, 2013) and a book on poetic experimentalism in Greek and Roman poetry and its reception in Byzantium and beyond (The Paradigm of Simias: Essays on Poetic Eccentricity, De Gruyter, Berlin, 2019). He is Editor-in-Chief of Meander, the Polish-language Classical journal founded in 1946.