Hanna Krall is a journalist and reporter, born in 1935 in Warsaw. She is the author of the celebrated reportage Shielding the Flame / Zdążyć przed Panem Bogiem.
Childhood | Career beginnings | The Polityka Weekly | Shielding the Flame | Martial law | Tor Group and Kieślowski | Metaphysical reportage | An Exceptionally Long Line | Pink Ostrich Feathers | Bibliography
She writes about people who want to be with her and with whom she wants to be. As she says, they entrust her with their lives hoping that she’ll understand these lives. At the same time, she admits that sometimes the fates of these people are too complicated for her.
She has included episodes from her own life in her reportages several times. These episodes were written in the third person perspective. She couldn’t write them in the first person perspective - she wasn’t able to.
There are at least two official dates of her birth. The date given most often as Krall’s birth is the 20th of May, 1935. She was born into a Jewish family. Her parents, Salomon Krall and Felicja Jadwiga nee Reichold, were clerks. During the war the girl was hidden on the “Aryan” side. She lost all her close relatives and she herself miraculously evaded death, having been rescued from a transport heading for the ghetto.
I wouldn’t exchange my childhood for any other. It prepared me for the entire rest of my life - thanks to my childhood, I understand something about this world. Thanks to my childhood, I know what fear is, I know what courage is. And I don’t get shocked easily. I would be incomparably more stupid if I hadn’t experienced all of that. Besides, all children come out of war wiser and more mature. In order to survive all of them had to be wise: Polish and Jewish children… - admits Hanna Krall (Krzysztof Ogiolda, The Brain is an Overrated Organ / Mózg to jest przereklamowany organ, Nowa Trybuna Opolska - newspaper, 2.11.2001)
From 1951 to 1955, she studied journalism at Warsaw University. She wrote her first text during the fourth year of her studies, at a seminar lead by Marian Brandys. This text was a reportage about a courtyard in Targowa Street in the Warsaw district of Praga. This courtyard was located in the back of the Różycki Marketplace. Goods were stored there legally and illegally, and women cooked tripe soup and dumplings which they sold in jars at the marketplace. Marian Brandys read the text and he stated: “Too much form, my friend. Simplicity is nobler and doesn’t grow old”.
During her studies Krall also attended a seminar on theatre criticism lead by Jerzy Pomianowski, who is an essayist and great translator of Russian literature. He told his students to see the play Julius and Ethel / Juliusz i Ethel by Leon Kruckowski, which is about a married American couple accused and convicted of and executed for espionage for the USSR and for passing nuclear secrets. Later during class, the seminar attendees discussed this propagandistic play. They believed in Kruczkowski’s message that the Rosenbergs were innocent.
Pomianowski stood with his back toward the window. He said: Why are you sure that the pair was innocent? Maybe it was otherwise? Maybe they did what they were accused of? Maybe they believed that they’ll aid communism and bring peace to the world. I thought: he’s right. Why should I believe them? Maybe it was all completely different? That was an important day in my life… - reminisces Hanna Krall (Bartosz Marzec, Writers Consolidate the World. A Conversation with Hanna Krall / Pisarze scalają świat. Rozmowa z Hanną Krall. Rzeczpospolita – newspaper, 9.03.2007).
After her studies, she began to work for the newspaper Życie Warszawy. In this periodical her friend from the editorial office printed a reportage about Tarnobrzeg. The text included the following sentence: “The earth here will cover your arm with dust, and a shovel’s handle shall make this earth ring into the depth with a rock”. This sentence seemed most appealing to her and she wondered if she would ever be able to write similar words. Today, she says that she would die of shame if she wrote something like that.
In June 1956, she went to Poznań with a friend from the editorial office. The friend was to write about a trade fair and Krall, as an intern, was to help him. She arrived on Wednesday and took up residence in a private lodging. The next morning, the landlady woke Krall up, telling her that a strike had started - something Krall associated only with history. She ran into the street. She saw a workers’ demonstration, people's joy. Afterwards, she witnessed lynching in action and troops being sent into the streets. She saw tanks and she heard a gunfight. She says that the next day she returned to Warsaw as a mature journalist.
Hanna Krall became a brightly shining star when she joined the team of the weekly Polityka. Mieczysław Rakowski, the editor-in-chief of this periodical, hired her there. He had met Krall in Moscow, where she was staying with her husband Jerzy Szperkowicz, a correspondent for Życie Warszawy. Back then she was travelling across the Soviet Union and writing reportages which formed her book debut titled To the East of Arbat / Na wschód od Arbatu (1972). The space made a huge impression on her – she had been flying for six hours and it was still just the beginning of her journey. She liked Russia because of its great literature - Babel, Chekhov, Platonov.
Polityka was considered the best Polish weekly of the time - some said that Polityka was the best magazine between the Elbe river and Vladivostok. In March 1968, Polityka was the only periodical apart from Tygodnik Powszechny that didn’t participate in the anti-Semitic witch-hunt. Rakowski gave the green light to uncompromising journalists. He opened Polityka to Michał Radgowski, Anna Stroińska, Ryszard Kapuściński and Danuta Zagrodzka.
Hania was exceptionally talented, she was interested in unpopular things, being allergic to harm she cared for individuals. She noticed everyday problems with unusual ease – said Mieczysław Rakowski (Bartosz Marzec, I Hear These Few Words / Słyszę te kilka słów, Rzeczpospolita, 11.10.2003).
Krall believes that one should write having a single, concrete reader in mind. She wrote for Michał Radgowski, considering what he’d say when he’d finished reading it. She was later told that this method was wrong, that one should write with a sleeping traveller from a railway station in Koluszki in mind. She argued that not every sleeping traveller has to read her texts.
She says that in Polityka nobody was forced to write lies. Politicians came and went but the Krall's situation remained unchanged.
I went somewhere, I listened, I looked around, I came back and I wrote. Except that then there was a censor who knew better – how to write, what the place that I came back from should be like. Basically: I was allowed to write and the censor was allowed to edit, ruin or block the publication of my writings – reminisces Krall (Jacek Bińkowski, an interview from the movie The Reportage Workshop Presents: Hanna Krall / Pracownia Reportażu przedstawia: Hanna Krall, 13-14.04.1987).
In 1976 the publishing house Odra issued her most famous book – a reportage about Marek Edelman. The story of the creation of Shielding the Flame is astonishing. The reporter went to Łódź to write a text about a factory, but it turned out that there was nothing of interest on site. Therefore, she decided to go to a café, where she opened a newspaper and read that Professor Jan Moll had conducted a pioneering heart surgery. She became interested and decided to go to the clinic to find out what this breakthrough was about. The professor explained to her what an acute bypass operation was and advised her to go to Doctor Marek Edelman, who would correct any mistakes. She wrote the reportage, went back to Łódź and that was how she met Edelman. Back then, she didn’t know anything about him except that he had been one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They decided to meet at the Grand Hotel. Edelman read the text and he couldn't find any mistakes. The coffee hadn’t been finished so it seemed appropriate to talk about something.
I was wondering what to speak about and I started by saying that my editorial office, or Polityka’s editorial office, is located in the former area of the Warsaw Ghetto. “You were in the ghetto, right?” – I said. “I was” – he replied. "I work near Anielewicza Street. Did you by any chance know this Anielewicz personally?”. "I did”. I asked: "What was he like?”. "He wore a boy scout uniform, played a drum and liked to command”. I couldn’t believe my ears… I thought: "He’s speaking about the legendary leader of the Uprising, about his commander… He tells what it was like, he doesn’t care at all about the right things to say. If there are more such sentences in him…” (Helena Zaworska, A Game of Bright and Dark. A Conversation with Hanna Krall / Gra w jasne i ciemne. Rozmowa z Hanną Krall in: It’s Well That I Lived. Conversations with Writers / Dobrze, że żyłem. Rozmowy z pisarzami. Muza, Warsaw 2002).
Willy Brandt, who was a member of the anti-Nazi resistance and Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, wrote the following about the reportage that was the result of this meeting:
I didn’t interpret Hanna Krall’s Shielding the Flame as a book about dying, I see it rather as a book about life, for life. It’s a warning to stand up against destruction, not to lose faith in life, to retain the will to live (Willy Brandt, the foreword of the German edition of Shielding the Flame).
The Central Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party considered her reportages "depressing". A censor blocked the publication of the reportage A View from a Window on the 1st Floor / Widok z okna na I piętrze which was to be printed by Polityka. Krall made the First Secretary of the Regional Committee in Radom the hero of the text. In 1976, he conducted talks with striking labourers from one of the windows of a committee building. At that time, the stockpile of the book The Happiness of Marianna Głaz / Szczęście Marianny Głaz was ordered to be destroyed. During martial law, the censors blocked the publication of the collection of reportages Hay Fever / Katar sienny, which was to be issued by the publishing house Wydawnictwo Literackie, as well as the novel The Subtenant / Sublokatorka. This book was to be issued by the publishing house Znak. The first of the latter two books was published underground, The Subtenant was put out by the Parisian publishing house Libella in 1985.
She left Polityka in December 1981, after martial law had been introduced. The editor-in-chief didn’t conduct a verification, he let the journalists decide. She tried to stay, she even thought of agreeing to work in the technical department, or as a proofreader, but she realized she couldn’t do that. On the 14th of December, on Monday, a serious man dressed as a civilian came to the editorial office. He had a bunch of keys and was locking the rooms. Jan Bijak, the prospective editor-in-chief of Polityka addressed him as "Mr Colonel". The journalists began to say goodbye. They knew they wouldn’t come back to work at this magazine. Hanna Krall said later that she began to cry with Danuta Zagrodzka and that they both cried into the lapels of Bijak’s jacket.
She was crying into the right one and I was crying into the left one, which was even logical. We were crying into different lapels, about different issues. She was crying about Solidarność and in me the soul of a member of the Union of Polish Youth, which had once believed in socialism, was crying. On the 14th of December, at 13:00, in the corridor of Polityka, I was crying about a myth, a dream (Jacek Bińkowski, an interview from the movie The Reportage Workshop Presents: Hanna Krall 13-14.04.1987).
In the novels The Subtenant and Windows / Okna (1987) she made use of techniques which she employed earlier in reportages. The plots of these novels were based to a large extent on the fates of real people.
The Subtenant especially proved to be an acute presentation of many important problems of the past 50 years. Krall referred to her own memories (starting from the times of her wartime childhood spent hiding in Warsaw) and to the later journalistic observations of the surrounding world, especially to those observations that concerned the most tragic complications of human fates that occurred during the Stalinist era (Małgorzata Czermińska, in: Grażyna Borkowska, Małgorzata Czermińska, Ursula Phillips, Polish Writers From the Middle Ages to Contemporary Times / Grażyna Borkowska, Małgorzata Czermińska, Ursula Phillips, Pisarki polskie od średniowiecza do współczesności. Przewodnik. Słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk 2000).
After the reportage Shielding the Flame was published Krzysztof Kieślowski called Krall. He asked whether they should meet. "We should” – she agreed. That was how a twenty-year-long friendship started. One day, Kieslowski asked her if she by any chance knew of a noble communist. “Of course”, she replied, “Szczęsny Dobrowolski”. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising, whom General Bór-Komorowski honoured with the Virtuti Militari Cross for taking the Warsaw YMCA building. After the war Dobrowolski was a prisoner of the jailhouse on Rakowiecka street. He left that place with battered kidneys and feet and without his teeth, but he still thought highly of the idea of socialism. She told Kieślowski about this and that was how Blind Chance / Przypadek was created. Szczęsny is called Werner in this film and was played by Tadeusz Łomnicki. The director later called this film a description of the forces that influence human fate and push a person in one direction or another.
After Krall left Polityka she began to work for the Film Group Tor, of which Kieślowski was a member. She reviewed scripts and proposed topics. Stanisław Różewicz, who once was the director of Tor, reminisced about her in this manner:
Hania has a hunger for life, meetings, conversations. She likes to talk but she likes to listen even more. Hania knows how to listen. Sometimes she gets enthusiastic too easily, sometimes she overrates certain works and their authors. It’s as if she wanted everything to be alright. That’s interesting, because after all she knows reality, she’s embedded in it and isn’t delusional (Bartosz Marzec, I Hear These Few Words, Rzeczpospolita, 11.10.2003).
She says that for decades she had been writing about Poland, and that the non-existent Jewish world drew her in slowly, gradually. She didn’t take up the topic of Shoah out of personal reasons. She noticed the remains of the world of the Eastern European Jews thanks to Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher of religion. In the middle of the 80s, Tales of the Hasidim / Opowieści Chasydów guided her on a journey through old Jewish towns: Izbica, Kock and Warka. She didn’t know the reality of those places and she didn’t try to hide this from the readers. Both she and the readers of her texts learned about the past, tradition and culture of Polish Jews thanks to the heroes of her reportages. In the text Salvation / Zbawienie she wrote the following about her professional experiences: The work of a reporter taught me that logical stories without mysteries and blind spots, in which everything is understandable, are sometimes untrue. Things that can’t be explained in any way really happen.
In the reportage An Exceptionally Long Line / Wyjątkowo długa linia (2004) she called on the words of Józef Czechowicz, a poet and catastrophist from the interwar period : “There are no coincidences. Everything is linked and makes sense”.
This sentence is the key to understanding her works. The poet Ryszard Krynicki calls such books by Krall as Shielding the Flame or Evidence for Existence / Dowody na istnienie (1995) metaphysical reportages, as they address ultimate issues.
On the other hand, Ryszard Kapuściński, a long term friend of Krall and a careful reader of her books once stated:
Hanna Krall’s great topic is the fate of a person caught up in the cruelty of history, caught in the crushing mechanisms of history, degraded and annihilated by history. At the same time this story isn’t some awful abstract, but has the form of a concrete relation between two human beings. Most often, but not always, Krall’s story has the form of a relation between an oppressor and a victim. In this transposing of the abstract into the concrete, this consistent exemplification emphasizing that concrete people were murdered by others, not by “daemons of war” or “historical turmoil”, I see the uniqueness and distinctness of Hanna Krall’s view (Ryszard Kapuściński, a fragment of the reading on the occasion of awarding Hanna Krall the Samuel Linde Prize, Göttingen, 18.03.2001).
Kapuściński used to point out that Krall collects lots of data. He emphasized that she asks hundreds of questions - about how someone was dressed, what stood on the table, what one could see through the window. He argued that all these details made the portrayed world legible, true and more real. In his opinion, thanks to the adoption of a human perspective, Hanna Krall’s writing, which is thematically submerged in the past and devoted to the memory’s struggles with forgetting, faces the future and is directed toward young generations.
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a German literary critic of Polish-Jewish origin whose opinion could ensure the popularity of a book or ruin a book's chances for success, said:
Hanna Krall reports everything and doesn’t comment anything. This author is so sparing that compared to her Hemingway is almost a chatterbox. (…) Here there are no good intentions, here there is a testimony to exceptional intensity, here it really is shown what happened there… That’s what’s most important in Krall’s writing, no sentimentalism, no mercy, just a hard story about what had happened. This is shocking and moving (Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Literary Quartet, ZDF TV, reprinted by Polityka, 1996, no. 11).
Krall thinks that people usually tell stories badly – chaotically, incoherently and with long, complicated sentences. However, in the end, she hears a few words that were worth the trouble. She explains to apprentices in reportage-writing that writing consists in removing everything that is superfluous and giving the right rhythm to that which is indispensable. After editing, the text should be intense – she teaches – and it also should be a text which the reader can accept as his or hers.
The book An Exceptionally Long Line, which is sometimes called a mini-novel, turned out to be a breakthrough in her creative work. This is the tale of a 16th century Lublin tenement house which resembles a universe. The history of this house – Krall suggests in the beginning - may have started in the 4th century, when Helena, the mother of the emperor of Byzantium, went to Jerusalem and found wood from the Holy Cross. This wood later came into the possession of the Dominicans that resided near this house.
How did the reporter find this topic? At first she heard a love story which was reminiscent of a courtyard ballad. A certain widower had a lover. He died of tuberculosis, and the woman shot herself on his grave. They were buried together.
Over time Krall learned more and more about the inhabitants of the tenement house: the poet Franciszka Arnsztajn, her doctor husband and her son who fought in the Legions. Krall also learned about Józef Czechowicz, who was friends with Arnsztajn. Almost all of the inhabitants of the tenement house died – in Majdanek, in Sobibor or during the "liquidation" of the ghetto.
For the first time, Krall hadn’t written about an individual, but about the community of the fates of many people. Having the Holocaust in mind, the reporter said:
This fate wasn’t the result of singular behaviours and decisions. Judgment was passed against the whole nation, against the good, bad, cowardly, courageous, smart and stupid (Bartosz Marzec, There Are No Coincidences. A Conversation with Hanna Krall / Nie ma zbiegów okoliczności. Rozmowa z Hanną Krall. Rzeczypospolita 19.04.2004).
In 2009, Krall published Pink Ostrich Feathers / Różowe strusie pióra – a story about the things people have told and written to her over the past 50 years. This book is also kind of a self-portrait.
The book consists of notes which the reporter’s daughter would leave on the table when running off to participate in a student strike; of a telegram from Krall’s husband sailing on a trawler along the coast of Africa on the day that Khrushchev fell from his pedestal; a letter from a hospital written by Michał Radgowski (“Urban wrote that he would like to give Radgowski the courtesy of participating in Radgowski’s funeral”); a letter from Santa Monica written by Jan Kott before an operation (“There’s a 20% chance that I won’t live through it and God is powerless when it comes to statistics”); a letter from 1969 from Wierszyna in the Irkutsk Oblast which was written by Natalia J., the hero of the reportage A Piece of Bread / Kawałek chleba (“The kholkhoz members of Wierszyna have even better lives now”); a written record of a conversation with Włodzimierz Lubański, who was a striker for the Polish national football team; a written record of a conversation with Jan C., a former land owner, who lost all his assets after the agricultural reform.
A strong impression is made by a conversation with a certain elderly lady about the reporter’s grandson, his girlfriend and the couple’s planned wedding. Thanks to Hanna Krall every sentence of this conversation is surprising. She captured the rhythm of old-timers’ storytelling. She placed the accents in such a way that words and silence became equally important. A text about love was created, in which images of a non-existent world were called upon, a shadow of a loved one appears, memories come back to life.
In Pink Ostrich Feathers, the reporter’s friends appear, including Marek Edelman, Father Adam Boniecki and Krzysztof Kieślowski. The latter said that “it is important to take the side of those who are sad because they have lost something and those who are sad even because they haven’t lost anything”.
The reporter took those words to heart.
Krzysztof Kieślowski is an important character also when it comes to Biała Maria / White Maria, publihed in 2011. In the 1970s Krall told him and Krzysztof Piesiewicz a story which they turned into the eighth part of the famous Decalogue. Many years later the author decided to tell the story as it was, not through a linear narrative, but a series of leaps in time and space.
Maybe what this book is about, are different states of dispersion, a growing intensity of vanishing: instead of sets of souvenirs, only slivers remain; instead of a well-ordered story we have an entanglement of fates, told with no particular order; instead of authentic voices -narrative hypotheses - wrote Przemysław Czapliński (www.instytutksiazki.pl).
For the last few years Dowody na Istnienie publishing house has been republishing Krall's most important books. In 2014 a second, revised edition of To the East of Arbat from the early 1970s came out, and in 2015 - the collection Six Shades of White from 1978 (as Six Shades of White and other stories). These texts, placed among the greatest reportages of the PRL, are described by Dorota Masłowska:
ORDINARY, UNIMPORTANT, NOT TAKING YOUR BREATH AWAY!!! Even though life stories of the protagonists of Hanna Krall's unique collection of reportages are just that, one reads them in a fever.
Non-kings from Łódź, non-actresses from Zagłębie - their grey days, little loves and non-spectacular crimes have been captured by the author, who achieved - thanks to he linguistic and sociological mastery - sort of a literary triple dimention.
With each sentence Hanna Krall proves that grey is a mixture of the wildest colours.
In December 2009 Hanna Krall received the highest honour of the Polish Journalists' Association - the Journalist Laurels. The same year she was awarded with Władysław Reymont literary prize. In 2014 she received the Gold Medal of Merit for Culture Gloria Artis and Juliusz Tuwim Literary Award for life achievement.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, October 2009, updated in 2011
Translated by: Marek Kępa