The Extraordinary Life of Simona Kossak
Simona Kossak: they called her a witch, because she chatted with animals and owned a terrorist-crow, who stole gold and attacked bicycle riders.
She spent more than 30 years in a wooden hut in the Białowieża Forest, without electricity or access to running water. A lynx slept in her bed, and a tamed boar lived under the same roof with her. She was a scientist, ecologist and the author of award-winning films, as well as radio broadcasts. She was also an activist who fought for the protection of Europe’s oldest forest. Simona believed that one ought to live simply, and close to nature. Among animals she found that which she never found with humans.
The great-granddaughter of Juliusz Kossak, granddaughter of Wojciech Kossak, and the daughter of Jerzy Kossak – three painters who loved both Polish landscapes and history. A niece of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska and Magdalena Samozwaniec. She was meant to be a son and the fourth Kossak – carrying easels and her famous surname just like her ancestors. Instead, she chose a path of her own.
Elżbieta Kossak, the mother of Simona
The mother of Simona, (…) Elżbieta Dzięciołowska-Śmiałowska, was her future husband’s mistress before she became his bride. Neither a wife, nor a fiancee, but a lover. Her affair with Jerzy Kossak developed for years. Kossak, already married to Ewa Kossakowa nee Kaplińska, became involved with Elżbieta, 24 years his junior, in the mid 1930s. It was, as can be assumed, the relation of a teacher and a student. An affair between a boss and his assistant. The love of a woman who had the looks and a man who had the name. And who also had a wife and daughter. Jerzy Kossak’s paintings reveal the story of this affair. In 1935, the future father of Simona painted a portrait of Elżbieta’s father, Wiktor Dzięciołowski. He signed the painting "For the lovely Elusieńka, in memory of her Beloved Father.” He used either the diminutive Elusieńka, or Elżunienka, it is not easy to decipher which today. In the mid 1930s, then, Jerzy and Elżbieta clearly not only knew each other but also liked each other. In 1937, Kossak painted a canvas based on motives from Adam Mickiewicz’s "Ucieczka" (The Flight). A horseback rider holds a naked woman, whose features resemble those of Elżbieta, and a signature reads: "To the very loved Bubuś on the patron’s day." Bubuś (and Bobuś) were the nicknames by which Jerzy would call Elżbieta, when she became his wife.
Jerzy Kossak, the father of Simona
With what did Jerzy impress Elżbieta? His name? Or was she looking for a father figure in a man significantly older than her? He certainly didn’t lure her with money – the Kossaks were largely indebted at the time – or his looks. Jerzy was short and thickset, he didn’t inherit much of his father’s handsomeness. But she "loved him like crazy,” according to the claims of their granddaughter, Joanna Kossak, the child of Gloria and Simona’s niece.
By becoming involved with Kossak, Elżbieta wanted to make history – this is Kraków’s open secret. Simona said the following words about her parents’ marriage:
"My mother was so in love with my father that everything that belonged to him or was his, automatically became hers. (…) They knew each other for a long time, mother had time to become acquainted with father’s tastes and she took them as her own. She embodied the whole household and tradition that reigns in Kossakówka.”
Dziedzinka – either here or nowhere else
"Simona first saw Dziedzinka in moonlight," Ewa Wysmułek remembers. "We decided we would go there at night time. The four of us went down the road with torches: my husband, a hired carter, myself, and Simona. Suddenly, an aurochs stepped out onto the Browska Road. The horse jibbed, we got scared, but we got there. Simona was enchanted with Dziedzinka straight away.” Years later, Simona described the expedition and the encounter with the king of the forest in the following words,
"It was the first aurochs that I ever saw in my life, I am not counting the ones in the zoo. Well, and this greeting right at the entry into the forest – this monumental aurochs, the whiteness, the snow, the full moon, whitey white everywhere, pretty (…) and the little hut hidden in the little clearing all covered with snow, an abandoned house that no one had lived in for two years. In the middle room, there were no floors, it was generally a ruin. And I looked at this house, all silvered by the moon as it was, romantic, and I said 'it’s finished, it’s here or nowhere else!'”
Kossakówka in Dziedzinka
Before Simona went to live in Dziedzinka, the house had to be renovated. The employees of the Białowieża National Park repaired the roof, changed the joists, got rid of the fungus and said that that ought to suffice for five years (and indeed it did). After the renovations, Simona started to arrange her part of Dziedzinka. She plastered walls with wallpaper, washed the windows, placed the sofa, the bench, and upholstered the armchairs that were brought over from Kraków. She brought clocks from Kossakówka, as well as a Turkish dagger, lace tablecloth and window curtains, books, oil lamps, an antique iron, a collection of weapons, ebony jewellery chests, as well as glassware, porcelain, cupboards and an oak bed that she inherited from Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska. She hung a shotgun from the Kossaks’ collection right by the door. And she didn’t care when Jacek Wysmułek said to her: "You won’t make a Kossakówka out of Dziedzinka.” A large tile stove in the old style stood in the corner of Simona’s room, and a large table was placed in its middle – it was her workshop study where she worked by an oil lamp. All the furniture, tablecloths and books came from Kossakówka with Elżbieta Kossak, who came to stay with her daughter. In the summer, Simona divided her own part of the Dziedzinka from that of her mother with a curtain.
"The Paris-Dakar Rally"
The first Kossak rode on horseback and in a carriage, the second rode on horseback, in a carriage, and in an automobile, and the third used the same means of transport as his ancestors. Simona rode a bicycle, the 'komar’ motorbike [the nickname literally means mosquito], a small Fiat aka Maluch, an all-terrain vehicle, a tractor, and she also swept through the landscape on cross-country skis. She covered the trail from Białowieża to Dziedzinka hundreds of times on all these vehicles. The route which some monikered the Paris-Dakar Rally was filled with mud, and it was regularly demolished by cars which carried out oak wood from the forest.
Tomasz Werkowski, a hunter from Białowieża recalls "Once I saw this phenomenon advancing on a komar – wind in the hair, a pilot-cap, rabbit pants, and eye goggles. It passed me by and I had to turn around, because I didn’t know what it was. This was in 1974, the very first time that I saw Simonka.” A couple of private vehicles already started to appear in Białowieża at this time, but none of them belonged to Simona. In the winter, she rode her komar to work, with her hands freezing to the handles. Professor Kajetan Perzowski, a colleague of Simona from her university years in Kraków says, "We were once going across the Białowieża Forest with a friend in a small truck. We suddenly see someone pushing through the snowdrifts carrying a motorbike on the back. It was Simona. We packed her together with this motorbike onto our truck. She thanked us later, heating up a big pot of bigos at Dziedzinka.”
The boar, a one-day old female, was brought by Lech Wilczek and it was thanks to this animal that the two dwellers of Dziedzinka – Simona and Lech – go to know each other better. And they also came to like each other. Prior to this event, Simona thought Lech was too full of himself. He also had a similar opinion about her. When the boar appeared in Dziedzinka, Wilczek asked Simona to take care of her in his absence, and later he started to "lend" the animal out to her. Both later started to sleep with the little boar in their beds. Żabka grew to become an XXL sized boar, and she lived with them for 17 years. "She stood vigilantly by the leg like a dog, she went out on walks, and more and more often she cuddled up to the hosts and demanded to be caressed!,” exclaimed the Kraków-based journalist and a guest of Dziedzinka, Zbigniew Święch.
The Terrorist Crow
People called the crow a tamed villain and a thief. He terrorised half of the Białowieża area. He stole cigarette cases, hair brushes, scissors, cutters, mouse traps and notepads. He attacked people. (…) He tore up bicycle seats. He stole documents, he stole the lumberjacks’ sausage in the woods, and made holes in grocery bags. He clung at the pant legs of men, pulled at the skirts of women, and pricked the legs. People thought that Korasek – because that’s what he was called – was some kind of a punishment for sins. Stanisław Myśliński, who has scars from the bird to this day, recalls "He would even steal the workers’ pay in the woods. He once stole my permit for entering the woods. He pulled it out of my pocket and notoriously tore it apart. He loved to attack people who rode bicycles, especially girls. It was very impressive, he would attack the rider’s head with his beak, the person would fall off, and he then sat on the seat triumphantly, looking the at the spinning wheel”.
Simona’s friend says, "Once he stole my car keys. And Lech [Wilczek] said "Don’t worry, he’ll bring them back.” He took a metal rod and scared the crow "You sonofabitch, you took keys from a friend?!” He and I said to Korasek that if he brings them back, he’ll get an egg, and if he doesn’t he’ll get a blow with the rod. And the crow perhaps understood this, because after a moment, he flew up to me, furious, with the keys in his beak and threw them onto a table!”
Bożena Wajda recalls, "Once, I was walking around the reserve without a permit, and the guard saw me, he followed me to Dziedzinka and started to fill in a fine penalty. When he was handing the print to me, the crow appeared. He took the paper in his beak, flew onto the roof of Dziedzinka with it, and tore it up with his leg, on top of that roof. I had such a laughing attack that, that I couldn’t control myself, the guard didn’t know what to do, and finally just shrugged his shoulders at the whole thing. When I told this story to Simona, I thought she would die of laughter.”
The spirit of the landownership
[Simona’s mother] Elżbieta travelled between Kraków and Białowieża for two years. For the winter, she would return to the hut in Kossakówka. She had problems with her hip and walked with crutches, and moving about Dziedzinka, where the privy was outdoors was a huge challenge. But for this woman, brought up in the tradition of landownership, Dziedzinka must have been a true paradise – life in accordance with the rhythm of nature, frying jams, and five o’clock tea. Life on Dziedzinka did resemble an atmosphere of a manor in the summer – reading by the light of oil lamps, keeping hens, and with time, also spinning wool. On top of that, the chime clocks from Lech Wilczek’s collection resounded every hour. Simona now lived not unlike her grandmother, Mrs. Wojciech Kossak, and probably much like her own mother in her childhood years. Just like them, she also used herbs for medicine and used the words such "subiekt” [subject] and "etażerka” [meaning both a whatnot and a rack]. And just like her mother and grandmother, she paid attention to what kind of company she surrounded herself with. In conversation, she also used the esprit de répartie, witty riposte, in which she was trained since her early years, like every landowner's child. And first and foremost, she did not consume her life, but rather treated it as a task, and at times – as a mission.
A member of the pack
Simona recalled "One day, the pack of my deer, which I raised and fed with a bottle, and which I later followed across the woods for many years, manifested signs of fright, and did not want to go out onto the forest field to graze. And I started to approach the young forest, because this was the direction in which the deer started, their ears raised, and the hair standing up on their buttocks, apparently something very threatening had to be there in the young forest. I crossed about half of this open space and I stopped, because I heard a choir of terrified barking behind me, so I turned around, and what did I see? (…) Five of my deer stood up on their stiffly straightened legs, looking at me, and calling with this bark: don’t go there, don’t go there, there’s death over there! I must admit, I was dumbstruck, and then finally I did go. And what did I find? It turned out that there were fresh traces of a lynx that had crossed the young forest. I went in deeper, and I found lynx faeces, it was indeed warm, because I touched it. What did that mean? It meant that a carnivore had entered the farm, the deer noticed him, then ran and they were scared, and what did they see? They saw their mother going unto death, completely unaware, she had to be warned and for me, I will honestly admit, this day was a breakthrough. I crossed the border that divides the human world from that of the animals. If there was a glass that divided us from humans, a wall impossible to knock down, then the animals would not care about me. We are deer, she is human, what do we care for her? If they did warn me (…), it meant one thing and one thing only: you are a member of our pack, we don’t want you to get hurt. I honestly admit, I relived this event for many days, and in fact today, when I think about it, there is sense of warmth around my heart. It proves how one can befriend the world of wild animals.
With time, more animals appeared in Simona’s den by the house: a doe who approached the window and ate sugar, a black stork for whom Simona created a nest in a chest in her room, a dachshund and a female lynx that slept in the same bed with Simona, and peacocks. Dziedzinka quickly became an experimental laboratory which Simona consequently expanded as a zoo psychologist – with a hospital and a waiting room for sick animals. Here, she healed, hugged, and observed the animal lot together with Wilczek, who photographed them. Here, as a mother she raised moose twins, Pepsi and Cola, washed the neck of the black stork, took the female rat Kanalia into her sleeve (as the animal panicked in open spaces). She would let the befriended doe give birth on the patio, took in lambs with their mother, kept and observed the rats Alfa and Omega, and keep crickets in a glass container. It was here that she checked on weather by observing bats in the basement. The menagerie grew with each year (…).
The battle for lynxes and wolves
In the winter of 1993, Simona commenced her battle for saving the lynxes and wolves of Białowieża from perdition. In an article for the Twój Styl magazine, Alina Niedzielska wrote for example that "A group of young workers from the Mammal Research Plant of the PAN Polish Academy of Sciences came up with the idea of telemetric studies. A wild animal is given a collar with a radio transmitter, so that it would pass out information as it walks about the woods. But the carnivore must first be caught. By coincidence, it was revealed that the researchers set up traps for the wolves and lynxes, which are prohibited by Polish law. Simona Kossak shows the 'research apparatus' that she came across in the forest – heavy metal jaws. It takes two men to open them up. She had just put away a ready typescript when a pack of wolves approached the house. (…) The wolves howled terribly. (…) "It was a gratuitous hymn for saving their lives,” she commented with conviction. "Wolves never approach buildings. They are too frightful. Perhaps they sensed the friendly aura emanating from the hut.” (…)
In 1993, within the strict natural reserve territory, Simona came across two metal jaw traps put up by the Mammal Research Plant team, so she took them with her and refused to give them back. She was accused by the scientist of stealing the research apparatus. The matter was investigated by the Regional Prosecution in Hojnówka and the 2nd Criminal Section of the Regional Court in Bielsko Podlaskie. During the hearing conducted by the Prosecution, in response to the question what kind of a threat such research apparatus in the Białowieża Forest presented to animals, Simona answered:
"In my opinion, it was a lethal threat not only to the animals, but also the guards. (…) Each animal that falls into the trap is potentially condemned to die if the wound to the paws is heavy. With a population that numbers twelve specimen, and including poaching and chance deaths of wild animals, it is a lethal threat to the continuity of the lowland lynx type, whose genetic scope is unique across all of Europe, because there are no more lowland lynxes in Europe. It is a disgrace to the world of science for us to have contributed to this.”
Anna Kamińska – a journalist, author of books, and a television publisher. She wrote for the "Wysokie Obcasy" ("Gazeta Wyborcza") weekly, as well as magazines such as "Uroda Życia", "Zwierciadło", "Sukces" and „Pani". The author of "Odnalezieni. Prawdziwe historie adoptowanych" (The Re-found. True Stories of the Adopted) (2010), "Miastowi. Slow food i aronia losu" (Cityfolk. Slow food and the Aronia of fate) (2011) and the biography of the hippy from Białowieża „Simona. Opowieść o niezwyczajnym życiu Simony Kossak" (Simona. The Story of Simona Kossak’s Extraordinary Life) (2015). In her free time from writing, Anna Kamińska plays the cello.
"Simona. Opowieść o niezwyczajnym życiu Simony Kossak"
Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2015
size: 145 x 207 mm
page number: 336
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, July, 2015
Translated by Paulina Schlosser