Zofia Przesmysz, photo by East News
Zofia Przesmysz, photo by East News

Author, screenwriter and writer for radio and televised theatre performances, reporter and broadcast radio editor. Born August 23, 1923 in Kraków.

The Passenger is what won acclaim for Zofia Posmysz. It was the first of four books whose themes were centred around the Nazi death camps (1st edition - 1962). The account of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp from the perspective of the German supervisor, a loyal SS servicewoman who was nonetheless capable of humane reactions, was something new, not just for Polish literature. The novel was translated into 15 languages. It was transformed into a minor film version, based on the screenplay written by Posmysz and director Andrzej Munk, as well as radio broadcasts and televised dramatic performances. On the basis of the novel, (with her knowledge but without any collaboration on her part) Yuri Lukin and Aleksandr Medvedev wrote the libretto for Mieczysław Weinberg's opera The Passenger. It was adapted for the stage as well, both in Poland and abroad.

Zofia Posmysz spent three years as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. During the occupation she attended secret courses and worked in a cable factory. On April 15, 1942 she was accused of distributing flyers for the Związek Walki Zbrojnej (Union for Armed Struggle), and arrested. After 6 weeks on trial in a Gestapo jail in Kraków, she was sent to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau. She survived two months of penal time in Budy, a sub-camp of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and was twice saved from death by the camp doctor Janusz Mąkowski. Later she was assigned less strenuous activities, which gave her a better chance for survival: in the kitchen and stockroom. On January 18, 1945, she was transferred to the Ravensbrueck camp and later to an offshoot of that camp in Neustadt Glewe. She was finally liberated from Neustadt Glewe on May 2, 1945.

After the war, she took up residence in Warsaw. She applied to the University and began Polish Literature studies. She worked as a journalist and was a copy-editor for the publication "Głos Ludu" ("Voice of the People"). She made her debut at the newspaper in 1945 with an article on the SS servicemen of the Auschwitz camp put before the court in Germany. She didn't sign the article with her name but instead her identification number at the camp: 7566. For the next few years Posmysz shunned the Auschwitz topic in her writing. In 1952, she began working for Polish Radio, first in the Education department, later in the news editorial section, and was made director of the department in 1958. Radio reporting at this time was mainly a writing job, rather than recording (there was no equipment for sound recording) and it was read out loud from a script in a studio. In 1959, Zofia Posmysz began to write radio broadcast material of a more literary nature. She contributed to raising this genre of (specifically Polish) radio programmes to a high level of artistry as she collaborated with some of the most brilliant Polish directors and actors. She remained, nonetheless, true to the reporting profession. When in 1960 she was named the co-author and administrator of the team preparing the radio novella on country life "W Jezioranach", she used the method of brainstorming and documenting the topic on-site, much as she would do with a news story.

Zofia Posmysz's first radio broadcast was Passenger from Cabin 45 in 1959 (she took up the topic of prison camps 14 years after her liberation). A year later, also drawing on her personal experience, she wrote several versions of Ave Maria, the story of a girl who hears music for the first time in her life at Birkenau, takes up voice lessons with one of the camp guards and survives because she performs with the camp orchestra. Over the next few years, Posmysz began to take up contemporary issues for her narratives, such as the story of a complex relationship of a pupil and his teacher, which first came about as the radio play Zanim mnie pan pozna ("Before you get to know me"), followed by Szczęście pani Janiny ("Ms. Janina's Happiness") and the screenplay for Janusz Weychert's unsuccessful film Gorzkie głogi ("Bitter Briers", 1966). The radio play Palę Martina Edena ("Burning Martin Eden") was the basis for the screenplay of Julian Dziedzina's film The Little One (1970). It's a story of the tragic fate of a boy who tries and fails to get out of a laborer's hotel to find a better, more cultured life in the city. Inspired by the news and reporting - her own as well as that of others, as the writer explained - she wrote the novels Mikroklimat ("Microclimate"; a doctoral student faces up to the realities of the socialised rural system of the countryside; 1975) and Cena ("Price"; 1978) about a female doctor who wants to cut herself off from her rural ties at any price and ends up paying for it with a family tragedy. In her contemporary writings, Posmysz often analyses the psychological effects of social migration, civilisational transformation and change in customs.

In the works dealing with prison camp themes, which were so painfully close to her own experiences, the author heads towards autobiography. Wakacje nad Adriatykiem ("Holiday on the Adriatic") is an "apology" on the friendship of two female prisoners; the form of a knight's tale is confronted with the reality of the death camp. One of the three stories in the volume Ten sam doktor M ("That Same Doctor M"; 1981) paints the portrait of the kind Doctor Mąkowski, the fellow prisoner who helped her. In her memoirs Do wolności, do śmierci, do życia ("To Freedom, To Death, To Life") she tells the tragic story of female camp guards returning to Poland from the Neustadt Glewe camp through territories occupied by Soviet soldiers. In her 2008 story Chrystus oświęcimski ("Christ from Auschwitz") the writer trails a camp talisman - a medallion made in the Auschwitz workshop and offered with love to the protagonist by a fellow prisoner, Captain Tadeusz Paolone (pseud. Lisowski) murdered for his part in a camp conspiracy.

 

"In Auschwitz I met people who, I have no doubt, were saints. I believe that it is the only subject that is still worth my writing about," averred Zofia Posmysz.

Works:

  • Pasażerka ("The Passenger"), Warsaw 1962, Czytelnik;
  • Wakacje nad Atlantykiem, ("Holiday on the Adriatic"), Warsaw 1970, Czytelnik;
  • Mikroklimat ("Microclimate"), Warsaw 1975, Książka i Wiedza;
  • Miejsce na ścianie ("Place on the Wall") [selection of radio plays], Warsaw 1977, Wydawnictwo RTV;
  • Cena ("Price"), Warsaw 1978, LSW;
  • Ten sam doktor M ("That Same Dr M."), Warsaw 1981, Iskry;
  • Do wolności, do śmierci, do życia ("To Freedom, to Death, to Life"), Warsaw 1996, Wydawnictwo von Borowiecky;
  • Chrystus oświęcimski ("Christ from Auschwitz"), "Wyspa / kwartalnik literacki" nr 1 (5) 2008.

Author: Andrzej Kaczyński, May, 2010