Melchior Wańkowicz was a writer, journalist, and publicist, noted for his travel reports, his work on the battle of Monte Cassino and his reports from the Polish Armed forces during WW2. He was born on September 10, 1892, in Kałużyce, Belarus, and died in Warsaw on September 10, 1974.
Melchior Wańkowicz was born in the family residence in Kałużyce near Minsk. His father, whom Melchior was named after, fought in the January Uprising and died the year his son was born. His mother, Maria (née Szwoynicki), died three years later in 1895.
The future writer left his family home early. After the death of his parents, he spent some time in Nowotrzeby, his grandmothers' residence in Kowieńszczyźna. His early childhood inspired him to write about the fall of the Polish landowner in the book Szczenięce lata, published in 1934. A year earlier he had published the book in successive editions of the Vilnius-based journal Słowo /The Word.
In 1901, young Melchior was sent to Zakopane. There he began his studies, which continued in 1903 in Warsaw, in Gen. P. Chrzanowski Middle School. While in middle school, he took part in the independence movement. In 1905 he took part in a school strike and in 1907 he joined the ‘Future’ Youth Organisation of Secondary Schools (Pet). In 1910 he became the secretary general of Pet in the Kingdom of Poland and edited the illegal youth journal Wici/ Vines. Here, writing under the pseudonym George Lausitz, he made his debut with the article The Polish School in the Life of the Nation.
After his final exam in 1911, Wańkowicz moved to Kraków and studied at the Jagiellonian University and the Institute of Political Science. During his time as a student, he became interested in politics and took an active role in the student independence movement. He joined the Polish Rifle Association, where he was a non-commissioned officer, and later he belonged to the National Youth Organisation Wolny Strzelec/Free Shooter.
After he finished studying at the the Institute of Political Science in 1914, Wańkowicz was drafted into the Russian Army and attached to the Kołomieński Infantry Regiment, stationed in Minsk. He was soon released from the army based on a falsified medical form.
The First World War ultimately shaped his personality. He witnessed refugees seeking shelter from the horrors of war. As a representative of the Central Committee of the Citizens of the Kingdom of Poland for the evacuation of Poles from the territory of Russia, he witnessed first hand the terrible losses people suffered as a result of the war.
In 1916, Wańkowicz married Sofia Małagowski, and in 1917, he joined the First Polish Corps of Gen. Joseph Dowbór-Muśnicki, formed in the Mogilev region. At the start of 1918 Wańkowicz fought the Bolsheviks as a soldier and was awarded the Cross of Valour. In May 1918 he took part in a revolt against an agreement with the Germans. He was brought before a court martial but was acquitted.
In 1919 Wańkowicz acted as a wartime correspondent for the Warsaw Gazette. In 1920, he became the head of the propaganda department of the Borderland Guard. In Warsaw Wańkowicz continued law school and in 1923 he received his master’s degree from the University of Warsaw. Shortly after graduation he began work as the head of the Press Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A year later, in 1924, he founded the Publishing House Rój, of which he was co-owner and editor-in-chief until 1939.
He made his literary debut just after the First World War. In 1919 he published Tales of Wladyslaw Pasika the Soldier in the journal “Government and Army”.
In the interwar period Wańkowicz devoted himself to journalism and literature, publishing, among others, in the Kurier Warszawski / Warsaw Courier, Wiadomości Literackie/ Literary News and Kurier Poranny / the Morning Courier. He was also active in other areas, for example, he was an advertising consultant for the Polish Sugar Union and famously coined the slogan “sugar strengthens”.
He published a series of reports from Poland and abroad. For example, his travel report to Mexico from 1926-1927 was published in the Warsaw Courier. From 1930 Wańkowicz was a member of the Warsaw PEN club. In 1936 he was awarded the Silver Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature(PAL). The award was given due to Wańkowicz’s ability to attract readers with his colourful travel reports. In the final years before the war, the writer lived in Warsaw with his wife and two daughters, Krysia and Martha. They lived in the famous “Domeczek” on the ‘Journalist’s street’ in the Żoliborz district which he described in his book Green on the Crater.
When the Second World War broke out, Wańkowicz worked as a wartime correspondent. But even before the fall of Warsaw, fearing arrest for his book On the Trail of Smętka, Wańkowicz escaped to Romania. There he quickly began work again within the Polish refugee community. He gave lectures, wrote articles and published under pseudonyms in the Kurier Polski / Polish Courier and the Dziennik Polski / Polish Journal in Bucharest. In 1940 in the Dziennik / Journal he published a series called The Exile…. In Bucharest he released a book about the start of the war in Poland called Those First Battles under the pseudonym George Lausitz.
In the summer of 1940 Wańkowicz found himself in southern Europe and in September of that year he and other Poles were evacuated by the British to Cyprus, from where in 1941 he moved to Palestine. Throughout this time he remained a writer, reporter and journalist. Under the pseudonym George Lausitz he wrote for the Dziennik Żołnierza / Soldier’s Journal, Wiadomości Polskie/ The Polish News and Głos Polski / The Voice of Poland.
From 1943, Wańkowicz was a wartime correspondent for the 2 Corps and travelled across the Middle East. In May 1944 he took part in the battle for Monte Cassino and was awarded the Cross of Valour for the second time.
After the war, Melchior Wańkowicz did not return to Poland. His older daughter, a soldier of the “Parasol” Battalion of the Home Army, died in the Warsaw Uprising. “Domeczek” was ruined. Warsaw did not exist. In 1947 the writer moved to London. There, he worked with Wiadomości / The News and Dziennik Polski /The Polish Journal. He wrote columns and reports under the name Adolf Czybygdyby. His work caused a stir in the fresh Polish immigrants and his relations with local Poles deteriorated. When, in 1947, he published a collection of his controversial columns in Rome titled Kundlizm, certain Polish journals broke off relations as a sign of protest.
Soon after the war Wańkowicz began work on The Battle of Monte Cassino, his most significant and well-known book. It was published in three parts between 1945-47 in Rome. In this book Wańkowicz exemplifies the men who fought for General Anders at Monte Cassino. At the same time, Wańkowicz started work with the press in Poland. He was published in Przekrój, Wiadomości Literackie /Literary News, and in the communist Słowo Powszechne. This cooperation lasted until 1949. It was in that year Wańkowicz moved to the United States. In the US he not only continued his literary work, but also taught Russian and even worked as a manual labourer on a farm. Wańkowicz still worked as a journalist, writing columns and giving lectures. In 1956, he became an American citizen. That same year, for the first time since the end of the war, Wańkowicz visited Poland. During the ‘thaw’ in communist brutality, Wańkowicz weighed up the possibility of returning to Poland for good. From 1957 he began working with the state media. His articles, reports and essays appeared in the Przegląd Kulturalny/Cultural Review, Kierunki/Directions and the Tygodnik Powszechny. In the latter, Wańkowicz stirred up interest with his pieces Africans in the USA and The American Woman.
Wańkowicz finally returned to Poland in May 1958. In Poland, he continued his work as a journalist, giving lectures and appearing on radio and television. In the early sixties, Wańkowicz travelled across the American continent gathering materials for his new book.
Wańkowicz’s characteristic style of writing was evident in everything he wrote, from his short stories to his reports. Wańkowicz was one of the masters of the spoken tale, a style of writing with roots in the culture of the Polish gentry. The author was a brilliant storyteller, as can be seen in his book Crafts. His stories were always full of anecdotes, digressions and direct references to the reader or listener. The spirit of the old Republic of Poland is also always evident in his books. Even when the author pokes fun at the good old days and stresses their anachronism, the spirit of the old Republic never diminishes in strength. On the contrary, it is reinforced. Throughout his whole life, Wańkowicz remained true to his roots in the Kresy/Borderlands of Poland.
In 1964, Wańkowicz signed the famous Letter of the 34 addressed to the communist leaders of the time, protesting against censorship. As a result of this, the communists began to persecute the writer. He was accused of slandering Poland and working with Radio Free Europe. He was put on trial and sentenced to three years in jail. Wańkowicz spent five weeks under arrest while the authorities wanted him to ask for a pardon. When one was not forthcoming, Wańkowicz was given a suspended sentence. Ultimately, he never went to jail.
In 1970, after several years of trying, Wańkowicz regained his Polish citizenship. His membership of the Polish PEN club was also returned.
Melchior Wańkowicz died on the 10 of September 1974 in Warsaw. He was buried in Powązki.
Author: Wojciech Kaliszewski, December 2007, translated by A. Sikorski, June 2014
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