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Ambassadors of the Karski Legacy

Members of the Karski Quartet (from the left): Natalia Kotarba, Julia Kotarba, Kaja Nowak, and Diede Verpoest (Photo: Juri Hiensch) Members of the Karski Quartet (from the left): Natalia Kotarba, Julia Kotarba, Kaja Nowak, and Diede Verpoest (Photo: Juri Hiensch)

Jan Karski died on July 13, 2000. Because of the unprecedented global pandemic, we are honoring the 20th anniversary of his death in a way that does not call for person-to-person contact, does not require masks or extra precautions. We are paying tribute to his extraordinary legacy with special recognition by a group of young musicians, whose respect and enthusiasm for Karski’s honorable stance and deeds have changed their lives, proving Karski is very much present and needed in today’s world.

The Karski Quartet, winner of the Grand Prix at the 4th International “Triomphe de l’Art” competition in Brussels, Belgium, is a multi-national ensemble of artists from Poland and Belgium, conquering the world with their music and their noble mission. Please read an interview by Bożena U. Zaremba with the members of Karski Quartet: Kaja Nowak (violin), Natalia Kotarba (violin), Diede Verpoest (violin, viola), and Julia Kotarba (cello).

Bożena U. Zaremba: How was Karski Quartet created?

Natalia Kotarba: We met in 2014, when, together with my sister, we enrolled in the Royal Conservatory Brussels [Belgium]. It was Jeroen Reuling, Julia’s former teacher, who had a strong hunch that I should meet the French violinist, Philippe Graffin. He was right. Kaja and Diede (who is Belgian) were already studying in his class, and that’s how we met. When I heard Kaja for the first time, I thought that sometime, in the future, I would love to create a chamber group with her. I was also impressed with Diede’s playing and his personality.

Kaja Nowak: It is worth noting that Philippe Graffin has a very strong and distinctive personality and a robust musical spirit. His expressiveness is very inspiring. I think that the compatibility of our temperaments and musical taste came from both how he “molded” us and our previous experience (which influenced our choice of him as our teacher). I was instantly impressed by my colleagues’ musical expression and flair.

Diede Verpoest: I felt the same. Though we never actually played together at the conservatory, I once heard Julia play at a concert with her sister and was so amazed at how they played. At that time, it did cross my mind, too, that it would be wonderful to have an opportunity to play together.

Julia Kotarba: We met again in 2018 at the Festival Resonance’s Academy in Wallonia, [Belgium], organized by another important figure for us, Amy Norrington, a great cellist. It’s a music course for young and passionate chamber musicians. We lived in a beautiful mansion, where there were daily chamber music classes—very intense. It was the first time we played together, and we felt instant chemistry between us.

Did the rest of you had the same sensation?

Diede Verpoest:  Yes, we instantly felt the connection, the energy, and the understanding of what we want in music. The audience also told us then that something special was going on—very intense and powerful. Actually, whenever we play, the audience is always amazed by the energy we create. This is our forte.

Julia Kotarba: I realized that we share the same outlook not just on music but on the world. In the fall of that year, we decided to create a chamber music ensemble and entered the “Triomphe de l’Art” competition. We won the Grand Prix, which came as a complete surprise, considering our group had just been founded. The prize convinced us we need to continue.

Natalia Kotarba: From that moment, our careers quickly took off. We accepted an offer to take part in the String Quartet Studio at the Royal College of Music in Manchester [UK] and started residence at the Queen Elizabeth Music Chapelle in Belgium. Naturally, the concert offers started to come in—

Julia Kotarba: —and we started to feel a greater responsibility. At that time, we also faced the dilemma of naming our ensemble. We wanted a name that would represent who we are and would be meaningful and close to our hearts.

Why Karski, then?

Natalia Kotarba: After winning the competition, we had the pleasure (with Kaja) of helping our professor organize the “Traces” Festival. It was dedicated to composers and other people traumatized by World War II or persecuted by totalitarian regimes. It included a concert dedicated to Jan Karski at the Polish Embassy in Brussels, where we performed music by Polish composers. It was Philippe who put forward an idea of naming our quartet after Jan Karski. After examining the values Karski stands for, we realized how strongly we could identify with them. We thought that our music-making could promote his story.

Where does Professor Graffin’s interest in Karski come from?

Kaja Nowak: Philippe is very much interested in the history of WWII and the Holocaust. He knows a lot and feels very personal about it.

Julia Kotarba: He also told us about the documentary Shoah by Claude Lanzmann and inspired us to learn more about Karski. After WWII, in Poland, Karski’s story was lost to history until the 90s. Our parents knew about him from Radio Free Europe. Professor Graffin was shocked at how many people don’t know anything about him. He thinks his story deserves to be explored and disseminated around the world. We developed a fascination for Karski, who became a role model for us. This is an interesting and unusual choice, because, let’s face it, Karski had nothing to do with the music world. That is why I admire my colleagues for being open to the idea, which they gladly accepted.

Diede, did you know anything about Karski?

Diede Verpoest: No, I didn’t. My parents never heard about him, either. I was a bit skeptical at the beginning, but my colleagues were so persuasive that I decided to read more about him and was impressed by his story. I still don’t understand why he isn’t known universally. I feel I have to represent his name in Belgium.

What elements of his legacy speak to you the most?

Diede Verpoest: First of all, I admire his courage to infiltrate the ghetto and the transit camp. He risked his life so many times, first to gather and then spread the information. And then, some people did not believe him. It’s hard to understand. He later said that his mission was a failure. But he did so many heroic things! Personally, Karski had a great influence on me.  I try to integrate his values, especially compassion, which is extremely important, and, unfortunately, there is so little of it in the world.

Natalia Kotarba: For me, compassion is also particularly important, as well as the equal treatment of every person. Our parents always reminded us of that. In our family, love, equality, and respect for all people were the essential principles, as well as the courage to speak the truth and stand for your values and ideals.

Julia Kotarba: I was impressed by his will to fight and his commitment to the mission. Karski is an icon of humanitarianism. And a citizen of the world—we feel the same.

Kaja Nowak: I cherish his perseverance most. I am also inspired by nonconformism as well as an urge to act and help others. For the purpose of this interview, I refreshed my memory and reread the Story of a Secret State, which made me realize how hard were the obstacles Karski and other members of the Polish Underground had to face and how effective the insurgence was. This is very important today. Those 75 years of relative peace and prosperity have made us somewhat complacent. Still, there are so many causes to fight for, such as discrimination and global warming, which call for our intervention. We need to inform, fight, rally, and try to do whatever we can. 

What elements of Karski’s legacy are particularly relevant today? Did the pandemic make you revise it?

Natalia Kotarba: I think that his legacy is reverberating with an exceptional force. We should support one another and seek the best, collective solutions; we should not be driven by profit or our own ego but by what is good for another human being. Don’t stay detached; reach out to others, ask your neighbor if they need help with shopping, or need to be consoled.

Julia Kotarba: These days, we better notice those who, like Karski, risk their lives to help others. I am mainly talking about the medical staff.

Diede Verpoest: I can find some similarities between this crisis and the Karski story. Doctors and nurses witness the horrors at hospitals, but there are still some people, like the friends of my sister’s, who don’t believe what is happening. It’s amazing. History repeats itself. The whole situation is challenging, both emotionally and financially, because the government is not supporting the artists. On the other hand, the spirit of the times gives me a lot of time to think—about life in general and about how I want to be in control of my life.

Kaja Nowak: I am now reflecting on how the pandemic will affect social and family ties. Europe seemed so small, and closing the borders during the pandemic changed that perspective. I was cut off from my family. I especially think of my mother, who lives alone. Artists are deliberating over the future of art, as they struggle for survival. I also ask myself a question about the purpose of art during such changing times and the role of art during the war. I want to tell a remarkable story about Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a Jewish lady from Wrocław, who, before WWII, was an aspiring cello player and took classes from the best teachers in Berlin. At the end of the war, she was transported to Auschwitz, and the cello saved her life. When, during the tattooing and shaving process at the camp, it was discovered she played the cello, she was placed in the camp orchestra, which played in the morning and the evening when the prisoners marched to the roll-call. Because of that, she had it easier in the brutal camp conditions—she received larger food rations, and she was able to help others, including her sister. We also remember Witold Lutosławski, who used to play illegal concerts organized by the Polish Underground. These examples show how music can be useful. On the other hand, if another war breaks out or another global crisis arises, and nobody will have money, what is it all worth in the face of the lack of basic needs?

Does Karski make you better musicians? Better people?

Natalia Kotarba: I do have a sense of joint responsibility for what we stand for and what kind of people we are. Jan Karski is our compass for how we perceive the world and what choices we make. Personally, I appreciate the fact that I am a musician. It is a challenging profession, but at the same time—beautiful, because I believe deep in my heart that music is not just an aesthetic experience. Thanks to music, we can reach the deep layers of people’s emotions. It is possible only when the message is truthful and sincere. The best compliment we can get is when after a concert, we are told that our music communicated something important or evoked some memories or beautiful emotions. I believe that music has healing powers and can give people hope. Sometimes we forget that the human soul needs to be fed with something true and beautiful.

Kaja Nowak: For me, a concert needs to be a form of katharsis, through which music reaches to the deepest, often suppressed, emotions and thoughts.

Julia Kotarba: One of Karski’s leading mottos was how to act when you can do something good for another human being. Thanks to him, I became more sensitive to injustice, and now, I try to convert fear into courage, action, and selflessness. Let’s face it—we live in a world where many people expect to be rewarded for their help. We can see this in many situations. Sharing something with others without expecting any compensation gives me a lot of inner joy and a sense of mission that can be contagious. For Karski, it was also essential to accept all people regardless of their background, race, or religion. It helps us open to other people, which in music, translates into the cooperation with musicians from all over the world and drawing from various music genres.

Some of you have brushed against jazz, for example, Natalia and Julia, who collaborated with a renowned Polish jazz guitar player, Jarosław Śmietana.[1]

Natalia Kotarba: Indeed. When we were still in high school (I am talking about the years 2005-09), our Mom convinced us to join a jazz band. That is how we met Mr. Śmietana. He was an excellent teacher and musician. We always had a knack for improvisation and playing by ear, but he helped us be more courageous and open to improvisation. He really introduced us to jazz.

Diede Verpoest: I was also brought up with various genres of music, like jazz and folk, although my father is a classical viola player (and my first teacher), while my mother is a cellist with the National Orchestra of Belgium. For me, it is very important to play a broad spectrum of genres. When I play genre other than classical, it relaxes me. The classical music world can get very competitive, especially the violin. People pay so much attention to technique. It raises the level of playing, but it becomes very stressful.

How did playing jazz affect your classical music-making?

Natalia Kotarba: First of all, it helped us communicate on the stage. It also gives space for spontaneity; the creating process happens on the spot. Then, every concert is different and unique.

Diede Verpoest: I feel the same as Natalia. In high school, I learned to improvise and realized how much fun it was. I also took a course in free improvisation while at the conservatory. It changed the way I play [classical music], totally. Improvisation comes from your soul, from deep within and can be very powerful if you really go for it. It also brings you confidence.

Kaja Nowak: I will add that in classical music, spontaneity is very important. Of course, you need to follow the notation, but there are so many possibilities for departures, changes, and interpretations. The best chamber musicians have a talent for spontaneous reaction to what other members of the ensemble are playing.  You need to be sensitive to your colleagues’ slight oscillations. The recording business and competitions enforce perfection, which is hard to reconcile with spontaneity, but we are only a medium, and perfection cannot be the goal in itself. There was an experiment conducted by David Dolan, a pianist whose research focuses on improvisation in classical music. In that experiment, they organized two concerts—during one, the musicians improvised to a great extent, during the other—they stayed faithful to the original notation. The audience were wearing special headphones, and after the analysis, it turned out that the brains of those people who listened to the improvised music were more active. I would still interpret this is a subtle way, i.e., I don’t think we need to throw away the sheet music, just that the interpretation needs to be fresh.

It has been scientifically proven that classical music affects children’s intellectual development or that it can have a positive effect even on people’s physiological processes. You have been talking a lot about the emotional impact. Can music affect us on a moral level?

Julia Kotarba: It was Pythagoras who was one of the first to assert that music could affect the upbringing, that an appropriate rhythm, instruments, or even the right key could influence people’s moral stance and will. He claimed that we could use music to heal our souls and achieve inner harmony, which, in my mind, leads to better relationships and making better choices. On the other hand, our civilization is quite complicated, and music can be used for manipulating people. In Shindler’s List, the Nazis kill people to the accompaniment of Bach’s music, while in The Pianist, a German soldier does not give Szpilman away out of his respect for music and his playing.

Talking about Władysław Szpilman, it is worth noting that he survived thanks to music also because while he was in isolation, hiding, he maintained discipline. In his head, he “recited” music. His father (before he was transported to a concentration camp) used to play the violin, just to get away from the war’s reality[2].

Julia Kotarba: I can easily relate to this. During the pandemic, when I was living by myself, and out of safety, I did not meet with my friends, I often played the cello, just for myself and often simple pieces, to bring back pleasant memories and get away from the flood of thoughts.

Virtually, every Polish family experienced some tragic moments during WWII. Can you tell me stories about yours?

Natalia Kotarba: My great-grandparents had a farm near Kraków. When the war broke out, Germans took over their house. They set up their headquarters there and moved the whole family to the basement. They took their horse and a portion of their food. I know these stories from my grandmother, who is very emotional about those experiences and always has tears in her eyes when talking about them. She remembered how they baked bread for the Polish insurgents and about my great-grandfather’s friend, a Jewish man, Felek Zinger. He had to hide during the war, but at night, he came to the farm, and my great-grandparents gave him food. They did it risking their lives and the lives of their relatives. But he was like a brother to them, and they could not act any differently. One day, Felek did not show up, and they found out he had been shot. Then, my great-grandmother’s brother was also shot by the Nazis, who organized a round-up after young boys blew up a German train transporting liquor. They herded all young men from the neighborhood and shot every tenth one. My grandmother’s accounts and Karski’s story had a significant impact on the development of my personality. My Master’s Thesis, a very important endeavor for me, was about a forgotten Polish-Jewish violinist, Josef Hassid. 

Julia Kotarba: The other grandmother told us how unpredictable those times were—full of fear and uncertainty. But she also recalled that Germans treated them with respect, warned about air raids, and gave children chocolate. Our grandmother was a pretty girl, with beautiful, blond hair, and she gained their trust. Whenever the family needed something, she was sent to the Germans.

Kaja Nowak: I know family stories from my maternal grandmother, too. I grew up with her. People who experienced this terrible period of history either did not want to talk about it as if trying to erase it from their memory (like Karski), or just the opposite—they had a need to share their stories. My grandmother belonged to the latter group. She came from a peasant family, whose members, despite meager living conditions, were knowledgeable and engaged in political life. She was one of six siblings, very smart and ambitious, but a girl, and there was not enough money to provide her with a full education. Her brother was trained to be an officer; he fought during the war and later, in the Polish Underground. He survived the war but was tracked down by the communists. Someone warned him, so he hid in the attic at his parent’s house. When the NKVD[3] squad came to the house and started to beat his mother, my great-grandmother, he could not stand it and surrendered. He was sent [to forced labor] in Siberia, came back after three years, but his health was utterly ruined, and after a few years, he died of tuberculosis. His two sisters died of TB earlier, during the war—Germans forced them to clear the snow off the roads in inhumane conditions: without proper clothing and no shoes. There is a rumor that a German officer was in love with one of them, but of course, such a relationship was out of the question. These recollections were part of my childhood. I also remember the veterans’ annual meetings, where I had to sing war songs. This was because my paternal grandfather was part of the resistance. His sister died while fighting in the Polish Underground (I have my middle name after her).

Diede Verpoest: In Belgium, it was very different than in Poland. When I was still at school, I had to write a paper about WWII, for which I was supposed to interview my grandparents, but they did not want to talk about it. It was only recently that my grandmother told me about her brother, who died on the train to the Buchenwald concentration camp. I never realized how directly the war affected my family.

Is your audience interested in Karski’s story?

Natalia Kotarba: Yes, very much so. Many people are moved. We try to incorporate his story and mission to our concerts, and after the performance, many young people come up and ask questions. This is a wonderful opportunity to promote his legacy. But we dream of something bigger.

Julia Kotarba: We are planning a concerto or a series of concerts combined with a lecture about Karski. The Polish Institute in Paris is interested in organizing a concert at the square recently named after Karski. Besides, when we graduate from our school in Manchester, we would like to hold a concert and a presentation about our hero. The Royal College is very much interested in the project.

I sense a fascinating dynamic in your ensemble—you speak with one voice. Do you have a leader?

Natalia Kotarba: We are all equal. Each of us has a strong personality, but we share one mission and one love of music. We make decisions together. It is not difficult because all members of our ensemble are not only fantastic musicians but also wonderful people. We are friends, and we cherish our relationship.

Diede Verpoest: In chamber ensembles, usually, one person is a leader, especially in older pieces, and then, it is Kaja who is more of a soloist, while the rest of us support the melody. Starting with Romanticism, every voice becomes equally important. I like this idea, though it is not easy to implement. At this point, communication is important because we work with such deep emotions. You have to be mindful of every member of the ensemble. It’s about relationships. You have to work on it to find a unified musical idea and sound.

Kaja Nowak: Indeed, in older compositions, the first violin has most notes to play, so the person whose part is most visible, seemingly may decide about the shape of a phrase. Sometimes those notes require bravura, but sometimes, they are only embellishments to highlight the piece’s structure. The middle voice and bass part can influence the melody in many subtle ways. If done effectively, it can significantly impact the interpretation, though it is often underrated. Bach, for example, loved playing the viola in his orchestras. Anyway, we all share our ideas and comments.

Julia Kotarba: Besides, Kaja has a great oratory talent and often makes an introduction.

What about?

Kaja Nowak: Often, about the composition we are just about to play, but I think it is not necessarily important what I talk about, but the fact that I say something. When the musician takes off their “musician’s hat” and leaves that fixed role to make a connection with the audience, they always react in a positive way. I think they listen more attentively. I remember a morning concert in a small, Belgian town, Knokke. It was outdoors, which we, musicians don’t like because the temperature and humidity always change; the acoustics is not the best. We played with lots of great energy and felt that the audience were alert, but the sun was rising more and more, the instruments went out of tune, and, to make things worse, the wind picked up. The sheet music started to fly around, just like in a cartoon, and people from the first row helped us gather the papers. Ladies lent us their hairpins to put them together [laughs], but the papers were in the wrong order. At that moment, we had to stop, which caused bursts of laughter. It all created a fantastic atmosphere and engaged the audience more than usual. Despite all these calamities (or perhaps thanks to them), they listened very attentively. There was a standing ovation. On that particular day, in Brussels and other cities around the globe, there were protests against climate change, and just before the encore (we prepared a lovely arrangement of a folk melody), I decided to say that if we had not been playing the concert, we would have joined the protest. The beautiful surroundings highlighted the message of those protests, and people were really moved.

On your website, there is this fantastic photo of you all standing in a row with your bows raised to the sky. One can definitely think of some symbolic significance.

Julia Kotarba: I must admit that every time I look at that picture, I get goosebumps. I see a magical message there. The pose represents strength and a kind of readiness to conquer the world.

Diede Verpoest: There is something indeed powerful in us standing in a row with our bows pointing in one direction. It shows that we have the same goal.

Natalia Kotarba: Actually, when I saw the photo, I thought that the bows are like magic wands, with which we want to change the world. My grandfather kept saying, “Keep your back straight and head up.” So, we stay strong but humble and always smiling and facing the light. Besides, we continually raise the bar and are convinced anything is possible.

June 2020

The official website of the Karski Quartet: www.karskiquartet.com

Bożena U. Zaremba is a bilingual essayist, interviewer, and translator. She is the Director of Programming for the Jan Karski Educational Foundation.

[1] Jarosław Śmietana (1951-2013) was a Polish jazz musician, composer, and teacher.
[2] Please read an interview with the pianist’s son, Andrzej Szpilman, in which he talks about his father’s ordeal following this link.
[3] NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was a central body of the Soviet Union’s government and a repression apparatus for the Soviet police.

 Polish version: karski-quartet-wywiad-pl-final.pdf