Stefania Wilczyńska and Henryk Krzeczkowski were divided by thirty years of age, gender, temperament, vocation. What they shared was the experience of the world war, the mill of totalitarianisms, the Holocaust, the Jewish roots combined with a full immersion in Polish culture and identity. What they also had in common was separateness: a tendency to entrust their thoughts to paper rather than friends, a distance to the institution of the family. Was there something more they shared? They were too discreet for us to know that with any certainty. They will remain like pebbles from Herbert’s poem of the same title: “equal to themselves/guarding their borders/thoroughly filled/with sense made of stone”.

What is the source of the intense temptation to juxtapose these two excellent biographies published in Poland last year? Wilczyńska and Krzeczkowski never met, they were not active in even remotely similar areas, and in the Warsaw whirlpool of people and groups it would be difficult to find any common friends: perhaps priest Jan Zieja, the Warsaw combination of Lev Tolstoi with St. Francis and a person about whose peregrinations and conversations we still know too little? But these are just conjectures.

Most of the people who have ever heard about Stefania—Pani Stefa from the title—Wilczyńska (there are not so many of them) really know only two hours of her life: this is what it took to walk on August 6, 1942, from today’s heart of Warsaw, Sienna Street 16, where the Germans had moved the orphanage, to Umschlagplatz, a railway ramp by the Gdańsk Station and a starting point for transports to a death camp. We know nothing more: the timetable for the summer of 1942, produced by the General Directorate of Railways “East,” only specifies that “the empty train headed back from the Treblinka station” at 7 PM. No traces in the lime strewn on the floor of the railway car, no secret messages, no teddy bears: the figure of Stefania melts in the glow and we are left with our despair.

Henryk Krzeczkowski was not presented with an opportunity of sacrificing his life for the lives of his friends. Yes, he was brave, with a masculine or military trait of contempt for adversaries and adversities: he had it in him to abandon his job in the communist military intelligence (this kind of escape can be more difficult than a breakout of a defendant or prisoner), slap down his party membership card, and take the subsequent harassment with a shrug. The best-known episode? Perhaps the calm with which he took the decision of the Communist Party leaders to disband the Europe monthly co-edited by him, which meant the end of the post-Stalinist thaw.

Of course, clipping someone’s biography down to a heroic still frame always means its depletion. The long and busy life of these two could also be cast in bronze: Stefania Wilczyńska started working in the orphanage run by Korczak when she was just 23 and apart from a few diseases and two longer journeys to Palestine she had not abandoned her post for one moment: day in, day out, Sunday or Shabbat, she was always on her feet, with sometimes 70 and sometimes 130 bibs to tie, lessons to do, persistent angina, or incurable typhus. Time for herself, in a room two by three meters, starts at eleven o’clock in the evening, when she can write a few letters brief like Napoleonic instructions.

Henryk Krzeczkowski had plenty of free time and made good use of it. In the Polish culture, still insufficiently respectful of translators, he remains one of the few recognizable ones even when some of their translated works are no longer so avidly read. But this sad fate has befallen very few books translated by Krzeczkowski: the court translator of the State Publishing Institute translated James Fraser, William Hazlitt, and Robert Graves, as well as biographical novels by Irving Stone for fun and entertainment. Already in independent Poland it transpired that under a pseudonym he had translated and published in samizdat a large part of Isaiah Berlin’s legacy and Russia in 1839 by Marquis de Custine (the fact that the censors would not allow these titles to be published says a lot about the limits of Wojciech Jaruzelski’s liberalism).

It is all the more significant that the influence of our two protagonists on the people around them was not constrained to tangible achievements: children brought to adulthood or books listed in every decent biography. They were wise people in the mode of Socrates, although none of them aspired to this title and I very much doubt if they would regard it as an honor: they influenced people through their example and by talking to them. “She gave me such a thing,” said Szlomo Nadel, one of the last surviving pupils of Stefania Wilczyńska, “such a thing… that later I have never been alone.”

Alumni and friends of Krzeczkowski belonged to the intellectual elite of Poland in the 1980s and 1990s: Aleksander Hall, Marcin Król, or Wojciech Karpiński were architects of political breakthroughs leading to freedom and authors of sophisticated essays. They would certainly be able to describe the gifts they had received from Henryk more eloquently than the old and worn kibbutz worker, but they did not try to name them (more about Krzeczkowski was said in a book-length interview by his friend Paweł Hertz, the doyen of Polish essayists and translators). It was only last year that Karpiński, author of many excellent biographical investigations, decided to reveal his many-years-long struggle with the secret of his teacher, publishing reflections-cum-essay modestly entitled Henryk.

The first thirty years of Krzeczkowski’s life could fascinate any scriptwriter, but readers more familiar with the meanders of Polish 20th-century fate may have felt disappointed. From a number of books and monographs we had already known something about the life of Herman Gerner, son of a Polonised Jewish middle-class family from Stanisławów, who on the eve of the beautiful summer of 1939 graduated from high school and after three carefree months was exiled in winter to Kyrgyzstan. Like thousands of others, he was saved by the recruitment to the Polish army of Gen. Berling, subordinated to Moscow, and then for a few years he kept being sent to the worst places possible: courses for officers, General Staff, and finally militarily intelligence. Admittedly, he did not murder people himself, he did not use torture, perhaps he didn’t even interrogate the suspects: extremely brilliant, he took part in operational games, captivating Anglo-Saxon liaison officers, Polish political exiles, and progressive Western intellectuals who in 1947 arrived in Poland for the Peace Congress in Wrocław. But there is no hiding the fact that his colleagues in the canteen and his department were people who remain in the Polish memory as counterparts of Vlad the Impaler or perhaps Hannibal Lecter: the cruelty of the so-called Military Information was legendary, this institution was feared more than the Security Police.

Wojciech Karpiński consistently and regretfully did not write a word about it: nothing about the achievements of the young Herman Gerner (sometimes using an aristocratic name “Henryk Meysztowicz” as his alias), nothing about his disentanglement from these dungeons, nor his transformation into “Henryk Krzeczkowski,” the name under which he entered Polish culture.

Even if we know that the essayist for years writing about Van Gogh, Józef Czapski, or Witold Gombrowicz is more interested in turns of phrase rather than turns of the party line, that he is more interested in analyzing syntactic structures than chains of command, it is impossible not to bemoan this omission. Description of the entanglement and disentanglement of Henryk Krzeczkowski remains a task for another historian, while Karpiński’s dislike for “vulgar political themes,” so ostensibly vaunted, seems to be something frivolous, childish, and incomprehensible: we would look with similar astonishment at an experienced surgeon who suddenly declared that he would not open a suffering patient’s abdomen, because the view of guts made him sick.

Wojciech Karpiński gave us something else instead: long quotes from miraculously surviving diaries and notes, put down by Krzeczkowski primarily in the lean 1960s, when the resident of a small studio cluttered with books had a long time ago ceased to be a “comrade from security,” but had not yet become a legend of humanities and lived a life of a flaneur and a loner in Warsaw under Gomułka. With extraordinary skill, but also with delicacy, Karpiński analyses recurring phrases, the rhythm of alternating depression and euphoria, as well as Krzeczkowski’s games with himself and people around him, such as covering bookplates with his previous name (Herman Gerner) with pages bearing the signature of “Krzeczkowski.” By doing that, Karpiński reveals the efforts of a man who does not give a damn about Gomułka, communism, Military Information, and perhaps even James Fraser, of a man who is close to neurosis in his continual focus on one issue: how to “be himself ” and how to remain steadfast in this fidelity to himself in the face of so many possible paths, temptations, incarnations.

Magdalena Kicińska, one of the most talented reporters of the younger generation with a degree in politics and theatre studies, was faced with a research task which seems as difficult as that undertaken by Karpiński— and approached it very professionally, which meant she discovered a lot. Future students of journalism, even if they remain indifferent to Korczak’s legend, will read her book as a manual on navigating the “sea of ashes:” copies of pre-war academic journals, scraps of reports for the Ministry of Education, a handful of letters, and a few old people in remote kibbutzim reveal very much. They show the greatness of the life of a woman for many years carelessly reduced to “Korczak’s assistant,” merged with the background, who in fact took half a step back into the background, not because of any “misogynous structures of power” or “dominant discourse,” but because the withdrawal and freedom achieved in this way were part of her nature. She behaved in this way ignoring the truth which was alien to her: that “the last shall be the first”—although ultimately her life and death confirmed the truth of this verse from the sermon about vineyard laborers.

I allow myself to be slightly sarcastic, invoking such phrases as “dominant discourse,” clichés of today’s humanities, for I am filled with relief at the thought of the shallows which the authors of both biographies navigated around. Both Wilczyńska and Krzeczkowski descended from Polonised Jewish bourgeoisie, and this “acculturation” took place in the generation of their parents, as it were before their eyes. It would be all too easy to consider the withdrawal and distance of them both as a testimony of previous traumas, as a sign of resistance to “the nationalist narrative of the majority,” and as attempts to conceal, protect, repent their “Jewishness.”

It was not so: they both treated their “dual roots” with a naturalness and openness of truly free people. One of the most moving images from Stefania’s life in the carefree (compared to the Shoah) pre-war years is the moment when in the En Charod kibbutz (where she travelled in the 1930s, reflecting on the possibility and sense of emigrating to Palestine) she sits down with tightly cropped children from across the world and, ignoring language barriers, chooses the Polish anthem as the first song they will learn to sing. For Stefania, who sympathized with the Polish Socialist party, it was as obvious as the participation in the defense of Poland during the Bolshevik offensive in 1920 was obvious for her brother and the participation in the Warsaw Rising was obvious for her sister-in-law. A quarter century later, Krzeczkowski also did not intend to hide his Jewish roots or to blackmail others with them—although it is true that he sometimes went on a rhetorical spree and joked about these jumbled biographies, at the same time leading Król and Karpiński towards re-interpreting and bringing back the Polish insurrectionary 19th-century tradition—the most “arch-Polish” and “noble” under the sun.

Followers of Foucault’s cult of the “Other” and “Otherness” could also take the easy way in another area, trying to definitively resolve the issue of the most personal orientations of both protagonists. In Krzeczkowski’s case it would be less difficult: there are reports speaking about his fascination with other men and about at least fleeting relationships with them. Magdalena Kicińska, both cautious and courageous, does not write anything conclusive about this aspect of Wilczyńska’s life, only asks questions: about the unusual nature of her decades-long collaboration with Korczak, literally and figuratively arm in arm, but which never achieved the stage of personal closeness or perhaps even partnership; about two friendships, very important for her, with younger women; about her loneliness. There would be nothing simpler than to present the educator of generations and the haughty essayist as victims of intolerance, condemned to loneliness or even to banishment for their homoerotic orientation.

Nothing of that kind. Wilczyńska, incinerated in Treblinka, and Krzeczkowski, buried in the cemetery at the Tyniec monastery existing continuously since the 11th century, had all the courage necessary for any possible coming-outs. Their staying apart had not grown out of shame, secrecy, or a sense of inferiority. It was just that “separateness” was given to them in much larger quantities than to most of us—and this is why, when we look at them outside the historic frame, they appear to us like protagonists of Böll or Beckett.

Their biographies, published last year, are valuable primarily because they show that in the most dramatic and epic times—in the interwar period, during the Holocaust, under Stalinism—the individual may focus on something else than a heroic gesture. The most important task for many is what both the eponymous “Pani Stefa” and “Henryk” practiced in their small rooms: working on staying faithful to yourself. As Herbert wrote:

pebbles cannot be tamed they will look at us to the end with a calm and very clear eye

Wojciech Stanislawski

Wojciech Stanislawski is a historian and a columnist. His main topics of interest include Polish intellectual history in 20th century and nation-building processes in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Until 2017 he was the editor of Plus Minus, the weekend edition of Rzeczpospolita daily. Recently he joined the Polish History Museum. In 2016 he published the translation of Solomon Volkov’s Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn.

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