Melchior Wańkowicz – Poland’s Master of the Written Word
By Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm
Lexington Books, 2013
I was eleven years old when I witnessed a lively and rather agitated conversation that my parents had during supper. With a lot of excitement in her voice my mother recounted how she went to a bookstore after work and came across a famous Polish writer, Melchior Wańkowicz, who had just been released from prison by the communist regime in Poland.
Bookstores in Poland have always been and still are full of readers and the writer was literally encircled by them as soon as he entered the bookstore. Everybody wanted to shake his hand, ask a question or just look at him from a close distance.
I sensed that there was something unusual about this encounter and I could appreciate the thrill of meeting a famous writer but it took me a couple more years to fully comprehend the magnitude of arresting and putting on trial one of the most prominent and most popular contemporary Polish writers just for sending abroad a paper – “Speech-Project” – that was then broadcast by Radio Free Europe. The paper contained material that in the eyes of the communist regime slandered social and political relations in Poland. The “Speech Project” prepared by Wańkowicz followed “Letter 34,” a protest signed by thirty four writers (including Wańkowicz) against a government decision to limit the amount of paper allotted for printing books and newspapers. (At that time book production in Poland was already at the lowest level among the socialist countries.)
The trial of Melchior Wańkowicz became a cause célèbre. Eleven years after the death of Stalin, arresting and prosecuting a seventy-two-year old prominent Polish writer and public favorite was highly odd practice, even by the communist standards of justice. Virtually all western newspapers, including Time Magazine, published extensive commentary about the regime’s ridiculous prosecution of Wańkowicz.
The defense called some renowned and respected Polish writers and intellectuals as witnesses. Alas, one of them, Kazimierz Kozniewski, whom Wańkowicz considered a close friend since before the war, also a friend of the writer’s two daughters, testified against him. Kozniewski was not only a traitor but also a secret agent and one of the most devoted employees of the Security Office and then Security Service in the history of Communist Poland.
The trial lasted three days and ended with a sentence of three years in prison. Facing harsh criticism in Poland and abroad and numerous interventions by famous writers and intellectuals as well as prominent politicians such as Robert Kennedy, the communist regime in Warsaw backed off and freed Wańkowicz.
Obviously, when I listened to my parents’ conversation about the writer, forty years ago, a lot of these facts were unknown since the trial was held in camera and only very general information was provided to the public by the Polish mass media. Many years after Wańkowicz’s death, new evidence and testimonies began emerging and thanks to meticulous work and painstaking efforts by the independent scholar and writer Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm, both Polish and English readers can now appreciate the most recent book about one of Poland’s greatest writers.
Published by Lexington Books, Melchior Wańkowicz – Poland’s Master of the Written Word, is not merely a well documented account of Wańkowicz’s struggle with communist justice system. (Ziolkowska-Bohem had already written a separate book on this subject in 1990 available in Polish only.) It is a captivating although somehow eclectic portrait of a great humanist with a pragmatic approach to life, a prolific hard working writer, bon vivant, thinker, husband, father and most of all a fabulous reporter and storyteller.
The book is not, however, a biography. Each of its eleven chapters can be read separately. I devoured it in no time as I did almost all of Wańkowicz’s books. Yet, when the editors of CR asked me if I could write a review of Ziolkowska-Boehm’s “Poland’s Master of the Written Word” I initially hesitated. Some time ago, while teaching a course, “Introduction to Polish Studies,” at McGill University I asked students (some of them of Polish origin) if they had read or at least heard of the most famous Polish writers: Stanisław Lem, Sławomir Mrozek or Nobel Prize laureates Henryk Sienkiewicz and Władysław Reymont whose books were translated into most modern languages and published in many countries, the answers were not very encouraging.
I decided to read some of Wańkowicz’s books again before sharing my humble opinion with readers of CR on Ziolkowska-Boehm’s latest work and try to assess if the contemporary generation of Polish literature aficionados could relate to them. I firmly believe that both young and older readers would find most of Wańkowicz’s works not only fascinating but probably more appealing (particularly to the Polish diaspora in the USA and Canada), than the books of his famous predecessors.
It suffice to open “Tworzywo” (“Matter”) – Wańkowicz’s reportage from Canada where he travelled 18,000 miles to write stories about Polish immigrants who succeeded in their new country despite numerous setbacks, severe hardship and misery. It almost reads like a fiction but as most of his writings, “Tworzywo” is based on facts. As Ziolkowska-Boehm writes in Poland’s Master of Written Word: “Tworzywo” includes many real events, statistical data, and human histories; in this book, even the cited letters of one protagonist – Bombik – are authentic. We find real conversations, facts, and people at every step.
Aleksandra-Ziolkowska-Boehm is an unrivalled connoisseur of Wańkowicz’s works. During the last two years of the writer’s life she was his secretary and ultimately became his friend and associate. She had unlimited access to his personal archives but also the privilege to participate in his private everyday life. She took full advantage of this extremely rare opportunity that she now shares with us in her excellent book full of interesting, sometimes hilarious sometimes heartbreaking details about Wańkowicz’s life, his entourage and, last but not least, about the origin of some his works.
Here is one example, explaining where the title of my favourite Wańkowicz book comes from: “He also gave the book a final title “La Fontaine’s Carafe.” He chose it to emphasize the diversity and objectivism of his views and opinions. The title came from an anecdote. La Fontaine was once asked to settle a dispute arisen among the revelers gathered in the inn. In the middle of the table there stood a crystal decanter with wine. Sunrays were coming through the window and reflecting off the carafe. One of the revelers said they were reflected red. Another denied, saying they were blue. The third one said they were pink. When asked, La Fontaine went around the table and said that each of the men was right: depending on the side you were looking from, as the sun refracted in the carafe, it showed different colors. What was most important, as he said, was to see all the colors together, to understand there wasn’t just one.”
Melchior Wańkowicz – Poland’s Master of the Written Word comes at a good time. The author of Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the most famous Polish writers in the last century. I am convinced that thanks to Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm latest book, Melchior Wańkowicz will always have plenty of readers.