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Wojciech Siemion

Wojciech Siemion, photo: Michał Kołyga / Reporter /East News
Wojciech Siemion, photo: Michał Kołyga / Reporter /East News

A theatre and film actor and director. A reciter, connoisseur of words, admirer of and expert on poetry. Born on July 30, 1928 in Krzczonów near Lublin, died on April 24, 2010 in Warsaw.

Siemion had often said that the theatre had chosen him and not the other way around. Before becoming a student of the State Higher School of Drama in Warsaw, he studied law at the Faculty of Law and Socio-economic Sciences of the Catholic University of Lublin (1947-1950). At this time, he also attended Eleonora Frenkiel-Ossowska's Drama Studio at the Juliusz Osterwa Theatre in Lublin. It was there - and at several student theatres - that he won his acting spurs. He claimed that he gave up a legal career because of Tadeusz Różewicz's poems, which he discovered at the time.

The head of Warsaw's drama school (PWST), Professor Aleksander Zelwerowicz gave Siemion high marks at his entrance exam. After two weeks he transferred him to year two, and after another three weeks - to year three of the course. Siemion graduated from the PWST in 1951; he later worked as a teacher in the Acting Department. He was also a teacher at the Jerzy Giedroyc College of Communication and Media in Warsaw. He was a huge enthusiast of folklore, researching and popularising Polish rural culture and folk art from the historical eastern borderland tradition. He wanted to make sure it wouldn't be forgotten, that it would be cultivated and developed. Thanks to his efforts, in 1979 a Rural Art Gallery was opened in a period Old Polish manor house in the village of Petrykozy (Mazovia province) which he had had restored and where he lived. This private museum was also an exhibition gallery, concert and theatre hall, and a venue for many cultural events. He invited painters, sculptors, musicians, and actors there, creating an open house teeming with art the whole time.

My peasant origins were never cause of shame for me, Siemion said. There were stories in the family that we were descended from princes kidnapped from Pskov, but the facts point unequivocally to peasantry.
Wprost, 2005

Wojciech's father, Mikołaj Siemion was a country teacher, principal of the school in Krzczonów. He knew Pan Tadeusz by heart. He was the one who instilled a love of poetry in his son - one of seven boys; two daughters died young. He was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

There was a theatre in the village, they would call it a people's theatre today, and besides that, people sang songs all the time, Siemion said in an interview. My grandmother sang, too.
Przegląd, 2003

When I think of Krzczonów, he reminisced, I can immediately see, imprinted on my mind with photographic accuracy, our old family home, and the ponds next to the house, and my grandfather's boat in which we went fishing, and very beautiful old trees that I know aren't there anymore, but they exist in my imagination. I remember the neighbours very well. And Józek who played the trumpet, and Józek Krzysiak who led a fine tune on the violin, and Mietek Robak, a great drummer.
Kurier Lubelski, 2008

Stalinist times arrived. At Warsaw's drama school, Zelwerowicz as its head was forced to set up a communist party cell, and gave this task to the talented student from Krzczonów. For as long as the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) existed, Siemion stayed on as a member. In 1983 he became a member of the national council of the Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth, a communist organization created during martial law. He was a PZPR deputy to the 9th Sejm of People's Poland in 1985-1989. He was a member of the Mazovia assembly (1998-2002, 2007-2010) representing the Polish People's Party (PSL). He was president of the Mazovian branch of the Poland-East Cooperation Association. He was married to Jadwiga Siemion, also a law student at the Catholic University of Lublin and later a respected lawyer, who died in 2004. He was married again in 2009, to Barbara Kasper, an English studies scholar.

Feisty Intellectual

A jovial face, a heaped thatch of straw-coloured hair, and a unique voice with a firm, peasant's way of accenting, though also with a frank and charming tone. His acting was of a truly folk kind. What set him apart from other actors was that he didn't play a peasant, he was one. He was so genuine that audiences almost believed he was a naturshchik. He once said to stage designer Andrzej Stopka, "You know, they always dress me up in such terrible rags, horrible clogs, tatty slippers or gumboots, but just for once I'd like to appear in proper knee-length leather boots". Stopka stood there pondering and glancing sideways, then muttered, "Mr. Siemion, even in knee-length leather boots, you'll still be barefoot to me". Whatever he wore, he was always a Polish peasant.

This was exactly the character that his Corporal Naróg was in Jerzy Passendorfer's Skąpani w ogniu / Bathed in Fire (1963). He complained that he never got to play a higher-ranking soldier. Even so, the characters he played are embedded in the memories of generations of Polish audiences.

He debuted on the silver screen in 1951, as a naval school student in Jan Fethke's Załoga / The Crew. Two years later he played Bronek, member of a folk song and dance ensemble, in Leonard Buczkowski's Przygoda na Mariensztacie / Adventure in Warsaw.

He got his big break on the big screen from Andrzej Munk. In the second half of the 1950s, he appeared in two films by Munk, Błękitny krzyż / The Blue Cross (1955) and Eroica (1957). In his Zezowate szczęście / Bad Luck (1960) he played the loathsome personnel manager, Kacperski. In Janusz Morgenstern's Jutro premiera / Opening Tomorrow (1962) he was Józio the stage manager.

He was unrivalled playing feisty intellectuals, products of social advancement with an underlying provincial sense of inferiority. He gave probably the best portrayal of such a character in post-war cinema - and one with artistic ambitions to boot - in Tadeusz Konwicki's Salto / Jump (1964).

Wojtek Siemion is an actor 24/7. Wojtek is always an actor. Wojtek Siemion likes to recite poems in every free moment. He likes to recite for his friends, for passers-by, even for children, Konwicki recalled. When we were making "Salto", one night Siemion was having dinner at the Journalists' Club in Wrocław. After dinner Wojtek climbed onto the platform for the orchestra and started reciting Gałczyński. He continued the whole evening. The room slowly grew empty. In the end, a dozen or so people were left, sitting at a few tables pushed together. Siemion then stepped down and went up to them. And he recited for them only, for them and no one else, like a gypsy fiddler, moving slowly around those tables. At about midnight one of these people turned to him and said with an apologetic smile, "We're Russian, we don't understand".
Tadeusz Konwicki, "Kalendarz i klepsydra", Czytelnik, Warsaw 1976
'Won't Eat, Won't Drink, Just Talks Poetry'

He always attached great importance to the culture of the word - correct language and a sensitivity to the rhythm of written texts. He popularised Polish poetry as an unparalleled interpreter of the works of Adam Mickiewicz, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Miron Białoszewski, and Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, and also as a writer of books about them, in the Lekcje czytania / Lessons in Reading series. Words held no secrets for him. He was one of truly few people who could extract real meaning from them. He always said he was a servant of poets.

Only poetry lets us create the thing we call national identity, Siemion emphasized. If we want to feel a national unity that is described in the words "I am Polish", we mustn't forget that the main determinant of our identity is language, and this is shaped mainly by poets.
Gazeta Wyborcza, 2002

In 1958-1965 he was involved in the Student Satirical Theatre in Warsaw, the legendary STS. A breakthrough moment in his acting career came with the monodrama Wieża malowana / Painted Tower, directed by Jerzy Markuszewski at this theatre in 1959. His role became legendary. Siemion not only acted in it, he also wrote the script - with Ernest Bryll - composed of texts and songs from Polish folk poetry. In the heyday of engaged poetry, he highlighted the wealth and beauty of authentic folk poetry. In a movingly simple form, he created a show about the ups and downs of the peasant fate; about truths as old as the world: hard work, faithful love, death, and a reward waiting in heaven.

With this show, he initiated "one-actor theatre", a trend to which he stayed faithful till the end. An enthusiastic reception of the premiere, insightful reviews from Jerzy Pomianowski, Jan Kott, Wiktor Woroszylski, and Ludwik Flaszen meant that the public was made aware of the magnitude of this achievement. On posters, he was announced as a reciter, since no one knew what to call this new phenomenon. The show became the cornerstone of one-actor theatre - the term suggested by Flaszen caught on - and a milestone in the presentation of the timeless values of Polish rural culture.

Siemion's most famous theatre roles are those presented at the National Theatre: Józef in Mikołaj Rej's Żywot Józefa / Life of Joseph directed by Kazimierz Dejmek (1965), the Hero in Tadeusz Różewicz's Kartoteka / The Card Index directed by Tadeusz Minc (1973), and in productions directed by Adam Hanuszkiewicz: Osip in Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector-General (1973), Grabiec in Balladyna (1974) and Wernyhora in Sen srebrny Salomei / Salome's Silver Dream by Juliusz Słowacki (1977). He was also memorable in the distinctive episode of the Chairman in Mayakovsky's Cockroach, the last production directed by the tragically killed Konrad Swinarski (1975).

Maria Dąbrowska's journal entry of October 21, 1962 describes her impressions from Historyja o chwalebnym Zmartwychwstaniu Pańskim / The Story of Our Lord's Glorious Resurrection at the National Theatre:

Of course it's hard to imagine this performance without Siemion, who made a masterpiece out of the resurrected Christ (turned into Christ the Little Man of Sorrows). Siemion also plays two farcical parts in the interludes. These interludes were very tempting for Dejmek because they show very clearly the huge strength of social satirical thought, but they sound a little out of place in a 16th-century play, when the beaten and persecuted peasant (Siemion) says he will flee to Zaporozhye to escape the oppression of serfdom (I quote this in my own interpretation, it's actually very 17th-century, because serfdom was only just beginning in the 16th century).
Maria Dąbrowska, Diaries 1958-1965, Vol. 5Czytelnik, Warsaw 1988

The rough little Jesus, created by stage designer Andrzej Stopka to look like a figure carved by the unskilled hand of a plebeian craftsman, fighting against the forces of hell with the power of the artistic Word presented in rhymes, prompted Siemion the interpreter to create another part of this kind. He would return to Wowra - a text about a man carving religious figures in the Beskidy Mountains - many times more in his fruitful acting career. His museum in Petrykozy would simply be a consistent supplementation of his love for works of naïve art.

In the early 1970s Siemion fulfilled his dream of his own poetry theatre. He set up Teatr Stara Prochownia in the Old Town, in Boleść Street in Warsaw. In its 30 years - from 1972 to 2002 - the theatre presented performances featuring more than 800 actors, including such famous names as Irena Eichlerówna, Nina Andrycz, Hanna Skarżanka, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Gustaw Holoubek, Krystyna Janda, and Krzysztof Kolberger.

Siemion was around all the time as this theatre was getting on its feet. He was the initiator and animator of poetry evenings, an actor and director of performances. Already in the early 1970s, Stara Prochownia was described as "an extraordinary phenomenon", "a colourful art stall", and "Warsaw's underground". Today the theatre is run by the Warsaw Cultural Education Centre and called Stara ProchOFFnia. Its focus is the promotion of the work of young alternative theatres.

Siemion also created many roles in Television Theatre productions. These included the Peasant in Ernest Bryll's Mazur kajdaniarski / Handcuff Mazurka (1966) which he directed, the Priest in Stanisław Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding (dir. Jan Kulczyński, 1981), and Gruszka in Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski's Bigda idzie! / Bigda's Coming! (dir. Andrzej Wajda, 1999). For Television Theatre, he directed many shows promoting excellent interpretations of Polish poetry, to mention A chruśniak malinowy trwa... based on the poems of Bolesław Leśmian (1977) and Mironczarnia with works by Miron Białoszewski (1983).

Comrade Maestro

It's hard to ignore Siemion's flirt with power. With a red PZPR membership card, it was easier for him to cross thresholds that were inaccessible to other, even party-affiliated artists.

They say the only artist allowed to see Gomułka was Wojciech Siemion, Ryszard Marek Groński revealed. It's hard to say they were close, though. The first secretary was not an emotional man like Bierut, he wasn't interested in banter with scribblers or comedians. If he met with Wojciech Siemion, it was for practical reasons. The actor, in the pose of a roadside religious figure, gave him lessons, teaching him enunciation and diction (the result is common knowledge). He explained how he should step onto the podium and how to step down, what he should do with his arms after a speech, when to smile, when to pretend to be moved and excited. Why was Siemion chosen? The reason was his roughness and folksiness.
Ryszard Marek Groński, "Puszka z Pandorą", Polska Oficyna Wydawnicza BGW, Warsaw 1991

Wojtek, even though he played his excellent monodramas at the STS, was not really quite accepted by the group, recalled actor and writer Jerzy Karaszkiewicz. He was, as we said then, very much a party member. He even became a member of the PZPR Warsaw Committee. Of course, as a conformist, he had a very good life as a result. He went to all the state and (communist) party banquets, was invited as a guest to the 'White House' and the embassies of brother nations. He shook hands with all the prominent figures, and was good mates with many of them. We were with him at many foreign festivals and everywhere, whether it was Moscow or Parma, he was taken away upon arrival to extra meetings and to do some work on the side. He had great acting talent and combined this very well with a talent for business. He knew how to arrange absolutely anything. The greatest impersonator of them all, Wiesio Gołas, once showed a group of friends, to their great amusement, Wojtek pretending to be a dog, entering the ministry on all fours, wagging his tail and saying bow-wow - petted and stroked by all the female personal assistants, and then coming out with a new voucher for a car in his teeth, offered him by comrade minister with the words 'Here you go'.
Jerzy Karaszkiewicz, "Pogromca łupieżu", Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, Wrocław 2002

That's why he must have completely stunned everyone when, at the festival in Erlangen in 1969, he accepted Tadeusz Nowakowski's invitation.

Tadeusz unexpectedly turned to the as yet quiet Wojtek Siemion: 'Perhaps you would perform in Munich, for us, the employees of Radio Free Europe?'. 'Of course, I'll be glad to', Wojtek replied, to our amazement.
Jerzy Karaszkiewicz, "Pogromca łupieżu", Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, Wrocław 2002

Once Siemion said "yes", they had to go to Munich to prepare the meeting. The author of the text and Stanisław Tym were the first to travel there, with Nowakowski. A huge number of people gathered at the home of one of the heads of RFE's Polish Section.

It made a great impression on me to be introducing myself to the greatest enemies of People's Poland, whom I had only known by their names and voices before, recalls Karaszkiewicz. But the sight of Wojtek Siemion, the dedicated bard of that same people's and (communist Poland) was so funny that we finally stopped being so scared. When it came to the crunch, we thought - wanting to play safe, he'd get the blame. He was adored as an actor at the time. Kazimierz Wierzyński himself wrote a brilliant poem about him, "Siemiony, Siemiony". Apart from being a great actor, Wojtek has a phenomenal memory. I think that if he wanted to recite everything he has learned, a month wouldn't be enough. But you can listen to him without end, too. (...) Wojtek was really falling over himself. At one point he started on the poetry of our great Romantic poets. And suddenly there were all those dashed hopes, regrets, the émigré fate, those reflections that we were so wonderful, heroic and honest, but so cruelly betrayed by everyone. The Hotel Lambert syndrome clashed with the Munich diaspora. "Mochnacki, pale as a corpse, sat down at the clavichord", began Wojtek, and suddenly people were crying all over the room. The performance lasted until dawn. The sun was rising outside when Siemion delivered his final recitation: Juliusz Słowacki's poem "Captain Meyzner's Funeral". I'll try to describe how that night ended. I give you my word of honour that I'm not making this up. Life sometimes writes some unbelievable endings. There was Wojtek, ending the poem. This is the last phrase:
  • But Thou Lord, who from on high
    Hurls Thy arrows on the nation's defenders
    We beg Thee through this handful of bones,
    At least let the sun shine upon our death.
    May daylight appear from the bright gates of heaven
    May we be seen as we perish.
A storm of applause. Our eyes filled with tears. Suddenly, there was a long, sharp ringing of the doorbell. The host opened the door. It was the police at the door. The neighbours had called them. The Poles were being too loud again. They weren't letting people sleep.
Jerzy Karaszkiewicz, "Pogromca łupieżu", Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, Wrocław 2002

In the context of Siemion's 35 years of work as a teacher, in 2007 Maria Szyszkowska demanded that the actor's jubilees be celebrated, ones that his home school in Warsaw kept "forgetting about". She added that he had also written books that were a lesson in how to read our great poets.Professor Szyszkowska writes:

One actor who has remained faithful to himself is definitely Wojciech Siemion. Giving lectures on the philosophy of man and looking for an example of someone living today who is a role model, I have mentioned Wojciech Siemion more than once. There is no question that conformism is what depraves not just the individual but also society the most strongly. In our times, the temptation is particularly great to win our rightful place by reciting correct views. It is shameful that official circles are ignoring such a great artist as Wojciech Siemion. His huge popularity among those who lived in People's Poland is on a par with his artistic achievements. If he is less familiar to the youngest generation, it's only because he was denied access to the media.

A friendly image of Siemion was built also by his modesty, directness of manner, kindness, and friendliness to others. Prof. Szyszkowska mentioned a less well known aspect of his activity as well.

I remember that in the 1970s, when Siemion was director of Teatr Stara Prochownia, he offered space free of charge to the Mental Hygiene Laboratory for Healthy People. This unit was established at the initiative of Jerzy Grotowski and was headed by Prof. Kazimierz Dąbrowski. Its aim was to serve those who suffered from a feeling of being lost and needed help to find meaning in their lives.
Maria Szyszkowska, "Aktor i polityka", in: Trybuna, April 28-29, 2007

Siemion's brilliant mastery of the word meant that his performances were the height of acting. He will remain great in the memory of his audiences for his interpretations of poetry, for the folk refrains which he elevated to the rank of true art, for his unique monodramas, for the museum in Petrykozy.

His last film parts included appearances in Marcin Korneluk's Taxi A (2007), Izabela Szylko's Niezawodny system / Fail-safe System (2008), and Michał Rogalski's Ostatnia akcja / Last Operation (2009), where he played alongside a select cast: Alina Janowska, Barbara Krafftówna, Jan Machulski, Marian Kociniak, and Piotr Fronczewski.

Wojciech Siemion died on April 24, 2010 in Warsaw from injuries sustained three days earlier in a car crash near Sochaczew. He is buried in the Lane of Honour at the Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw.

Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, August 2010. Translation by Joanna Dutkiewicz, September 2010.'s picture
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