Running with the Devil: An Interview with Wiktoryn Grąbczewski
'Many people laugh at me because I paint the devil as a patriot, but it’s not me – these are the local legends.'' Culture.pl in an interview with Wiktoryn Grąbczewski, the founder of the Museum of the Polish Devil, also known as ’Pre-Hell’.
Here’s a 17th-century devil. At that time, he was depicted with wings, but he had to look different than an angel. So he had bat’s wings. Look, here is an original Wojciech Kossak’s print. There were 12 prints, Wojciech Kossak took the 13th, the devil's number! That’s a laced devil made by Łucja Spyra. Here hang Andrzej Mleczko’s drawings. He once visited my museum and was surprised to find out there were no works of his. A few days later he sent me some via courier.
Wiktoryn Grąbczewski, founder of the Museum of the Polish Devil in Warsaw, explains. The Museum is filled to the brim with volumes of renowned Polish ethnographer Oskar Kolberg’s writings.
There are no Polish ethnographic books which don’t refer to Kolberg, he’s the king. I also used various regional monographs, they contain a lot of legends, often stuffed in somewhere at the end.
Wiktoryn Grąbczewski was born in 1929. He’s a trained puppet theatre director and after he finished his education, he was an actor for a short while. Then, he joined the army, where he was in charge artistic activities and the manager of army bands. When he moved to the reserves as a lieutenant colonel, he had the time to arrange his collection and with his wife Zofia, he founded the Museum of the Polish Devil in Warsaw.
In the meantime, he managed to publish two books: Łęczyckie Bajanie o Borucie Panie (editor’s translation: Łęczyce Fables about Boruta the Devil) and Diabeł Polski w Rzeźbie i Legendzie (editor’s translation: The Polish Devil in Sculpture and Legends). The museum’s collections were exhibited in countless museums in Poland (including the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, as well as Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Bulgaria, the USA, Lithuania and Italy.
Filip Lech: You were born in Łęczyca, just like Boruta the Devil.
Wiktoryn Grąbczewski: Łęczyca is a charming town. There’s a castle there which used to be governed by King Casimir III the Great and Boruta the Devil. A beautiful legend tells the story of their relationship:
This was supposed to have taken place early in a spring of the mid-14th century. The king of Poland at the time, Casimir the Great, visited Łęczyca. He was riding along a causeway from Topola to Łęczyca in a carriage driven by six horses, when his vehicle got stuck in the mud so deep that the horses couldn’t pull it out. The wagoner whipped, scolded, begged the horses and finally he tried to pull it out with their personal guard, all in vain. It didn’t budge, the horses' backs were alreadycovered with foam. The king ordered the people to pull it out of the mud. Night was coming, and he was getting impatient and wanted to get to the castle. Bringing help wasn’t easy. Mud was all around them. Only a small blinking light was just visible in the distance. He saw some people by a bonfire in the meadow. They were tar-makers, called borutas by the folk, they worked in forests producing tar from tree stumps. Having heard about the king’s trouble one of them offered his help. The strong Boruta told them to unharness the horses and tied the carriage to himself, dug into the causeway and pulled out the carriage with the king inside. The king awarded the extraordinary feat by giving nobility to Boruta and appointed him the manager of the Łęczyce Castle. After some time, Boruta forgot about his roots and started oppressing the people of Łęczyce, he imposed larger levies than the king ordered him to and hoarded the gold in the dungeons. (as told by Ignacy Kamiński in Oraczew in 1957).
Boruta the Devil frolicked in the bog, some say he still does today. I wanted to see him so badly, but I never saw him… The last time he was seen was in 1939 when he helped the soldiers of General Abraham and General Kutrzeba capture Łęczyca, which was why the manoeuvre was done with such ease. The Polish soldiers were in Łęczyca for seven days but were forced out by the Nazi troops. The story goes that the devil could help them only once. ‘I can only do good once.’ There are many legends about the devil’s patriotism during the war.
You saw the Battle of Bzura first-hand.
Yes, I was 10. I resided at the hospital because my father was a doctor. I saw the soldiers pushing the German forces out: they fought, even using the butts of their guns. Many civilians were killed by the Germans. It was a gruesome sight. When I close my eyes, I see the soldiers laying on in the hospital corridors, there were no free beds. I brought them water, fixed the beddings, I helped them as much as I could.
The Battle of Bzura was one of the few victorious battles during the German Invasion. The local villagers guided the soldiers through the marsh paths – hence the legends about Boruta who helped them.
When did you hear about Boruta for the first time?
Probably immediately after I was born. My mum and grandmothers used to tell me stories about him, but they never used him to scare me. He was a pleasant, kind, helpful devil and a patriot at that. Many people laugh at me, saying that I paint the devil as a patriot, but it’s not me! These are the local legends. I only wrote down a small part of all of them, if somebody took a close look through them, they could surely create a delightful book about Boruta’s patriotism.
Many of the legends you documented concern Napoleonic times. Why was the Little Corporal accused of cooperating with dark forces?
I only just scratched the surface of the matter, a researcher should deal with it properly. Napoleon's successes were too spectacular, he kept on winning, he nearly reached Moscow, he defeated General Kutuzov. Nobody could understand how he had such a huge army. It was only plausible if the devils were helping him. Hitler managed to do the same thing, but Polish devils were never on his side.
How did you acquire your collection?
I approached artists and storytellers. Once I got a new legend with no showpieces I would go to an artist to illustrate it. ’Make me a forest Boruta,’ that’s all I say, I never suggest anything about its appearance.
While in the army, I travelled around Poland as a director of an artistic group. When others rested after the shows I would hop in the car and wander around the region looking for folk artists. I had a list of sculptors from all over Poland in a notepad. I loved talking with artists like Antoni Kamiński, Kazimierz Kowalski (who also wrote down legends), Bolesław Grabski.
How did you know who to approach?
Mostly from ethnographic reviews and exhibitions. I asked artists at the exhibitions if they knew any legends about the devils and if they could sculpt them. Under the communist regime, there were big folk art fairs. Furthermore, folk activists – ethnographers and local representatives helped me. This is how I built my collection. It took around 60 years. Now I only accept valuable pieces. I never sold a devil, even though I was offered a lot of money, at times several dozens of thousands of zlotys.
Did you meet any people who claimed they’d met the devil?
I met maybe three people who did. One man argued with me during an exhibition that the devil is a lot scarier and crueller and he should not be mocked. The devil he saw was menacing, steam pouring from his mouth. I remember very clearly that he didn’t mention fire, only steam. But it was a long time ago, nowadays people don’t see devils. They merely ridicule them.
The other museum of devils is in Kaunas, Lithuania.
The Muzeum na Zamku w Łęczycy (editor’s translation: The Castle Museum in Łęczyca) also has a collection of Boruta’s depictions. The Devils Museum in Kaunas has the biggest collection in the world, and they received all of their Polish pieces from our museum. They overlooked one thing when preparing the exhibition. They didn’t write down any legends about the pieces. In the Kaunas museum, the objects are the focus, in my museum, it’s the opposite. I register every minor detail accompanying my pieces – the legends, their origin. My collection boasts about 1200 objects, unfortunately, not all of them are accompanied by legends. In those cases, I try to pair them with proverbs and legends typical of a given region. Ethnographers accuse me of deception.
Did you get into any trouble because of your passion?
No, I didn’t. The Middle Ages are over. Sometimes debates were really heated… Once I was asked: why popularise the devil? I popularise legends.
Originally written in Polish, Jul 2017, translated by AP, 20 Jul 2017