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Krzysztof Kąkolewski

Krzysztof Kąkolewski, fot. FORUM
Krzysztof Kąkolewski, photo: Andrzej Sidor / Forum

Kąkolewski, born in 1930, was an author of reportages, short stories, novels, aphorisms, and screenplays for films and theatre plays. He died on May 24, 2015.

His father came from Warsaw, his mother from Suchedniów, near Kielce.

I was brought up as someone who should have a butler, at least – he confessed in his biography Potwór z Saskiej Kępy (Monster from Saska Kępa).

His mother graduated from a reputable girls' school. She was well-educated in foreign languages and French literature (which she could read in its original versions).

She didn’t have to wait until Boy-Żeleński translated something.

His father was a lawyer. He died during the defense of Warsaw in 1939. Krzysztof started collaborating with the youth magazine Pokolenie (Generation) while still at high school. He later started studies in journalism, from which he graduated in 1954. He has been connected to such publications as: Sztandar Młodych, Kurier Polski, Świat, Literatura, and the Warsaw-based Kultura. He has been freelancing since 1981.

He taught reportage at his alma mater, the University of Warsaw, for 45 years.  

He has written over 30 books, with a combined print run of up to 1.5  million copies. The most popular among Polish audiences were the reportages: Trzy złote za słowo (Three Złoty for a Word, 1964), Jak umierają nieśmiertelni (How the Immortal Die, 1973), Wańkowicz krzepi (Wańkowicz Invigorates, 1973), Co u pana słychać? (How Have You Been, Sir?, 1975), Baśnie udokumentowane (Documented Fables, 1976), and the novel Notatka (The Note, 1982).

In his opinion, he can consider himself a winner because he has never had a stable job. In 1957, Sztandar Młodych published his short story Mała miłość na stojaka w bramie (A Little Gate-Love, Standing) about the contemporary situation of young people. Władysław Gomułka was said to shout after reading it: 'This vulgar degenerate has to be eliminated from the party!.' The order was impossible to fulfill, as Kąkolewski didn’t belong to Polish United Workers' Party.

He used to have some good friends, but not too many of them, especially not among journalists.

I try to keep away from the unnecessary things: gatherings, associations, politics.

His two great friends were Stanisław Dygat and Melchior Wańkowicz.

To me, living in a collective is what takes courage. Closing up is a certain weakness of mine.

He often felt like a stranger in free Poland. He had been accused of delivering reports from his foreign visits to the communist Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He admited that he met up with an SB member once or twice at a café, because he was stalked by him, but his answer was that he wouldn’t bring any reports – he would only write a reportage. Even though he continued to release new books, they usually went unnoticed. In the times of the PRL they were criticized but also widely discussed.

Like crime stories

In his 100/XX. Anthology of Polish 20th Century Reportage, Mariusz Szczygieł writes that he became fascinated by reportage thanks to Kąkolewski.

I was 11-12 years old, when I saw the cover of Baśnie udokumentowane in a shop window. It was the word Baśnie (Fables) that drew my attention, of course. This book showed me that the world is interesting, mysterious, puzzling. And that it can also be well-described – at the end of the day, Kąkolewski wrote his reportages as if they were crime stories.    

There are two beginnings to this story, as told by its author, Irena Ch. She knows which one of them is real.

This is how the Gestapowski śnieg (Gestapo Snow) begins – it is a story about a Polish woman, who worked for the Gestapo during the Second World War, but tried to prove afterwards that in reality she was working for the Poles’ good.

The critics would complain that Baśnie… were made up of marginal stories, mere curiosities about people with deformed psyches. One person founds a church in his apartment, another one believes that he has been chosen for a secret mission by an extraterrestrial organization. At the time of publishing this anthology, the emphasis was put on writing about the happy life and work of Polish citizens. Mariusz Szczygieł comments:

In my opinion, we can see that they were in fact timeless thanks to this marginal subject matter, revealing basic truths about human beings. You want to know what humanity lacks? Talk to the weirdos.

How Have You Been, Sir?

When the Literatura weekly started publishing interviews with Nazi murderers, later published in Co u pana słychać?, Kąkolewski was under massive fire. On air of the TV programme Forum he was accused of spreading Nazi ideology.  

His interviewees included Hans Fleischhaker – an anthropologist who used to go to Auschwitz to inspect human skulls; Otto von Fircks, Aleksander Dolezalek, and Konrad Meyer, who implemented the Generalplan Ost – a plan for colonization of Central and Eastern Europe; Reinhard Hoenh – a proponent of chemical sterilization of the Slavs; Heinz Reinefarth – the executioner of Warsaw, responsible for suppressing the Uprising. None of them have been sentenced in Nuremberg or later. Thirty years after the war, they were leading prosperous lives of well-respected citizens of West Germany: a professor, a lawyer, a businessman, a member of the Bundestag, not bothered by anyone.

I decided that something else would happen to them in the end.   

He ended up presenting them as real, normal human beings, and not monsters. The criticism towards the book was partially inspired by the fact that the ex-Nazis never apologized for their crimes.

But why would that count – they remained unchanged, it was all about their mindset.

The readers didn’t share the critics’ opinion and the book was re-published several times.

Filling the blanks

When asked once whether a reporter picks a case for a reportage based on what it represents by itself, or based on his individual interests, he replied that normally one looks for whatever his own life lacks. When covering a story, one has the opportunity to fill in certain voids and difficulties.

I went through the war as a child and at the same time I was excluded from it because I was a child. I didn’t partake in the action, in the fight – i.e. the things that interested me the most. My later writing was an attempt to re-discover the war through the stories of others. I am not sure if I would have started writing at all if it hadn’t been for the war.  


Author: Jolanta Grabowska, April 2014, transl. Ania Micińska, May 2014


Marta Sieciechowicz, Potwór z Saskiej Kępy, von borowiecky, Warsaw 2009,
Marek Miller, Reporterów sposób na życie, Czytelnik, Warsaw 1983, 
Mariusz Szczygieł Antologia polskiego reportażu XX wieku, Czarne, Wołowiec 2014,
TVP Historia, Krzysztof Kąkolewski. Errata do biografii (available on, 
Max Fuzowski, Szakal reportażu, Newsweek, 12.06.2010's picture
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Krzysztof Kąkolewski


Krzysztof Kąkolewski
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