Pianist's body returns to Poland but heart stays behind

June 23, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Staff Writer

Fifty-one years after his death, Ignacy Jan Paderewski is finally going home.

The transfer of the remains of the great Polish pianist and statesman from Arlington National Cemetery to his native Poland this weekend will end a long tug of war between the United States and Poland.

The musician -- with his air of mystery, his courtly manner and his great personal magnetism -- was one of the most famous people of the 20th century. Yet he was more than the greatest pianist of his time. In the United States, where women regularly fainted in his presence, he was regarded as if he were a combination of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elvis Presley. In Poland, he was nothing less than a national icon -- a statesman who helped create modern Poland and a humanitarian often compared to Einstein and Gandhi.

"He was one of the greatest figures in our history -- a great example of art, patriotism and love," says Richard Uniwersal, a counselor for the Polish Embassy.

Paderewski's return to his native land Sunday will be celebrated with pomp and circumstance. A solemn Mass on Saturday at Arlington -- where he is the only non-American currently honored with interment -- will be attended by high officials of both Poland and the United States, including Vice President Dan Quayle. And after the body is flown to Poland the following day, the casket will travel around the country until it reaches its final destination July 5 at St. John Cathedral in Warsaw. After another solemn Mass, attended by President Bush and Polish President Lech Walesa, the pianist's body will finally be laid to rest.

But the heart of Paderewski will remain here.

"My heart belongs to America," he told his sister shortly before he died in 1941. In accordance with his wishes, his heart was removed from his body and is entombed at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pa.

When Paderewski died in New York, his homeland was occupied by Nazi Germany. His friend, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, arranged for Paderewski's body to be placed at Arlington until Poland was free. Poland requested the body in 1947, but that request was denied because the Nazi yoke had been replaced by a Communist one. The request was repeated in 1963, but President John F. Kennedy once again turned it down. Last year when Mr. Walesa, the head of the first democratically elected government in Poland since World War II, asked for the body, the United States finally agreed.

For more than 50 years Paderewski's name was identified with the piano, and with Poland. He raised millions for Polish relief during World War I and helped convince President Woodrow Wilson that Poland, which had been carved up by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1796, deserved to be resurrected. He became Poland's first premier in 1919.

But as loved as he was in his native land, he was equally loved in the United States.

At his concerts, thousands of fans regularly stampeded the stage to get a closer look at their idol. On his first American tour, in 1891, he gave 107 concerts in 116 days and attended 86 banquets in his honor.

When he died, his heart was placed in an urn in a cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., and later transferred to the Doylestown shrine, which is run by an order of Pauline priests from Poland and is the most important Polish Catholic site outside Poland. In burying his heart apart from his body, Paderewski was honoring an aristocratic European tradition that signified extraordinary love for a place or a person.

Paderewski's early musical education by his own admission was abominable. He went to the Warsaw Conservatory at 14 as an essentially self-taught pianist, and his teachers despaired of him.

Ten years later, after a series of failures as a pianist, he went to Vienna to see Theodor Leschetizky, the greatest piano teacher of the day. Leschetizky told him he had a great talent but it was simply too late: His fingers could never be trained to do what they should have learned to do when he was a child. But Leschetizky was touched by Paderewski's devotion, and he relented.

Over the next four years, Paderewski was to work 12 hours a day. A Paris debut in 1888 created a sensation. Three years later, the Steinway company asked him to promote its pianos on an American tour.

That first tour created the ongoing pandemonium that came to be known as "Paddymania." His comings and goings were reported in the press and were devoured by the public. Some of its interest was excited by Paderewski's unprecedented earnings, earnings that in the days before income tax far exceeded those of classical musicians today. In 1906, for example, he earned $1.5 million. That translates today to about $23 million -- a figure similar to what Madonna and Michael Jackson earn after taxes.

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