Jacek Kuroń was one of the most prominent figures in post-war Poland. In numerous political and ideological speeches, both as a dissident and politician, he never forgot about culture – and that distinguished him from other politicians. He was also the author of a number of popular books.
Jacek Kuroń’s ties with culture were both broad and deep –he did everything with incredible passion. He will always be remembered by grateful artists, many of whom continue to mention him in their works. He was a strong believer in the arts.
And some day they’ll finally grab their torches,
They join the march, the ugly and hungry.
‘We want Romeo – the girls scream –
We won’t go back to Kamienna Street.’
‘We want Julia – the boys shout –
Give us Julia, you rascals and thugs’.
They march and roar,
They march and shout,
A ragged cupid floats down the street...
...And then it’s quiet,
And then it’s dark,
And then they go back to Kamienna.
In 1958, Agnieszka Osiecka’
s song Kochankowie z Ulicy Kamiennej
(editor’s translation: Lovers from Kamienna Street), was performed at the Student’s Satirical Theatre as part of the Masquerade Ball
programme and it made a great impression on Kuroń. It was an artistic expression of everything that had been his main focus as a social activist, concerned with the lives of others, their jobs and the conditions in which they lived. He recalled many years later:
I heard that song for the first time when our freedom movement died. Even worse, we surrendered, we ‘overpoliticized’ that October. At some point we figured that Gomułka had such great social support, that we won’t stand a chance against him. And Lovers from Kamienna Street, a song about boys and girls, who dream of true love, but instead they live here on Kamienna Street, where everything is dirty and bad, became a sort of epitaph for our movement. Because one day they go out onto the streets, everything accumulates... a ragged cupid floats down the street... and suddenly the light dims and Ela Czyżewska sings in a monotonous voice: ‘And then it’s quiet, / And then it’s dark, /And then they go back to Kamienna’. I think that many of us thought that it was about everything going on around us. Agnieszka was saying that everyone had the right to beauty. And to this day, for me, this is a song about harming others, about constantly ignoring of human rights.
Jacek Kuroń will be remembered, at least by his readers and people he spoke to, as someone very well-spoken, who always shared his thoughts with great clarity. It is quite remarkable, considering his dyslexia and continuous battles with strict teachers. As an adult, he used to say that his time at school was worse than the time he spent in jail.
The art of argumentation and persuading came easily to him, but only in speeches. Despite his journalistic ambitions, he lacked integrity in writing and need editing assistance. However, in the very sincere correspondence with his wife – despite jail censorship – he proved to be a master of the Polish language (Gaja and Jacek Kuroń’s correspondence was published in Listy jak Dotyk [editor’s translation – Letters like Touch] published in 2014).
It was with grace and sensitivity that he managed to express – despite his somewhat limited vocabulary – his emotional state and growing affection for Gajka (Grażyna, Gaja), the love of his life and future wife. (Kazimierz Brandys wrote in Months: What is such a hoarse bulldozer doing with such a delicate woman?) In Faith and Guilt: To and From Communism, Kuroń wrote:
At night I went to the female staff’s tent, where everyone would gather as I told stories. It so happened, that I always ended up sitting on Gajka’s bed, I would hold her braid – it was the only kind of endearment I would allow myself. I told the stories to everyone, but truthfully, I was thinking only of her. And so it went. [...] There is something that happens between two people when they fall in love – an angel appears, visible only to the ones in love. I felt this angel’s presence, but was too shy to admit it. So I resisted as much as I could. And the only caress was holding that braid. I don’t know whether if you grab someone’s braid, they feel it or not. Gajka felt it, but maybe through something other than her braid.
This and other stories of Kuroń about Gajka read like a modern Song of Songs. In the world of the opponents of the communist regime, the strength of their love, seen not only by their closest friends, was something incredibly rare and special. Grażyna Kuroń was very supportive of her imprisoned husband. As Jan Lityński summed it up: she provided him the comfort of existence. Without her, he would have been helpless.
A chain of people of good will helped Kuroń survive the hard times of harassment and repression. Igor Newerly hired him –on paper – as his private secretary. Others, knowing of Kuroń’s admiration for crime novels, helped him write 3 or 4. He even made some money off of them, however, the ever vigilant government officials never let them be published. Unfortunately, we still don’t know what the titles of the novels were nor the pen name that Kuroń used.
He had more luck with his songs. The album To Nasz Hejnał, Hasło i Zew (editor’s translation: This is Our Bugle Call, Motto and Cry), published in 2003 for the 50th anniversary of the Gawęda Band, features 3 songs with Kuroń’s lyrics: Polujemy na Przygodę (editor’s translation: Let’s hunt for adventure,, music by Andrzej Zygierewicz), Piosenka Odkrywców (editor’s translation: The Song of the Explorers) and Harcerski Posag (editor’s translation: The Scout’s Dowry, music by Jerzy Niedźwiecki).
His song O Potrzebie Busoli (editor’s translation: About The Need of a Compass) is also quite known. Some of the songs even made their way into scouts’ songbooks. Only one, The Song of the Explorers, was published under his real name, the rest hid his identity, although the Polish Society of Authors and Composers dutifully paid his royalties. And scouts used to sing his songs for years, not realising who wrote them. Like Harcerski Posag (translated by the editor):
Your sorrows are our sorrows.
And as you know, we laugh together.
And we enjoy your company,
It may be bad, but at least we’re together.
Refrain: We’ll go hand in hand,
In the rain and in the sun,
In the mud and on the pavement,
And this refrain will follow us.
We’ll go hand in hand,
Straight ahead, all together,
We’ll find new friends,
And new clouds in the sky.
We were brought together by fighting.
The road ahead is getting longer,
The evenings marked with rings of fire,
And our lips covered with dust.
Ref: We’ll go hand in hand...
There will come a day when we part,
We’ll go our separate ways,
But we’ll always have the gift
Of our years as scouts.
Ref: We’ll go hand in hand...
Our meeting has ended,
And it’s time to say goodbye,
But our friendship will last,
And we’ll meet again sometime.
We’ll go hand in hand...
Returning to the Student’s Satirical Theatre, which in the grayness of communist times had the air of an artistic salon, it is worth bringing up the opinion of its actress, Izabella Olejnik:
The Student’s Satirical Theatre was a hatchery of the Workers’ Defence Committee. Both Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik used to hang out there. We would have very complex political discussions, during which I would fall asleep on the couch, but I never wanted to miss any of those meetings. Many Jews would come, especially after 1968. It was overwhelming.
Apart from attending the Warsaw Student’s Satirical Theatre, when he could, Jacek Kuroń kept up to speed on the country’s art life. He was a frequent guest in Kraków, where he had also spent a year living with his parents, when his native Lviv was occupied by the Red Army in the spring of 1945. Years later he was captivated by the atmosphere of the Piwnica pod Baranami (The Cellar under the Rams, also known as the Basement), where he was a frequent guest.
A special civic committee assembled in the winter months to investigate Jacek K.’s entrance into the Cellar under the Rams cabaret. Experts finally concluded, that the suspect must have entered the Cellar through the front door with a valid ticket. This officially ended the assembly. Minutes were taken.
This is a direct quote of a note published in 1985 in the first edition of the Kraków quarterly. Such were the amusements of the time, although not everyone was amused. People of the arts, such as Piotr Skrzynecki, truly valued the Kuroń’s advice.
Another mention of Kuroń can be found in Jerzy Illg’s memoirs, commenting on Czesław Miłosz’s first visit to Poland after winning the Nobel Prize in June 1981: ‘It was unbearable, that patriotic, chauvinistic ‘mug’, inevitable in such situations, naming him a ‘catholic poet’ at the Catholic University of Lublin (which he silently opposed), putting a label on him, which never suited him.’ The poet loosened up only in the company of his friends, meeting with Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik at Tygodnik Powszechny’s editorial office or in Jacek Woźniakowski’s apartment.
The artistic atmosphere of Kraków gave Jacek Kuroń a sense of comfort as well. It was even mentioned in a speech for the 50th anniversary of the Znak Publishing House:
[Bronisław Maj] appeared on stage as Mrs. Lola – the legendary cloakroom attendant at the Writers’ House, who ‘helped Mrs. Szemborska [sic!] with her writing’. It was a great impersonation by Bronek [...]. The Warsaw audience, which couldn’t decode our Cracovian references, was disoriented and wondered why this chatty woman with a rag and bucket was talking about writing poetry. Only Magda Umer and Jacek Kuroń laughed till they cried and slid off their front row seats.
He was just one of the people you just remember. Anywhere he went, it was impossible not to notice him. It was as simple as that.
Kuroń was also immortalised in Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk’s play – Kuroń. Passion according to St Jack directed by Paweł Łysak, the world premiere was held at the Powszechny Theatre 24th January 2017 in Warsaw.
Jacek Kuroń’s visit to the United States was described by Janusz Głowacki in his own original style:
A few hundred steps from my house on 11th, right behind the Ukrainian Community Centre, right of the mosque and left of the Tunnel homosexual bar, just a few steps behind the Polish church, at the intersection of 7th Street and A Avenue, by Tompkins Square Park to be exact, there is a sadomasochist cabaret Pyramids. I always invited my visitors from Poland to go there, scientists, influential politicians and lyrical poets. Everyone was in awe, only once it didn’t work out too well. When Jacek Kuroń entered and saw a middle-aged man with his penis wrapped in an iron chain, which was hung through a rod on the ceiling, being whipped by one of my students from Columbia, who wrote about Auden’s impact on Brodsky, who had this job just to pay for her studies, Kuroń turned around and left. Outside he told me that seeing the handcuffed man, his first reaction was to help him, but then the victim winked at him, at that was just too much.
Sources: Jacek Kuroń, Wiara i wina. Do i od komunizmu, wyd. III poprawione, Warsaw 1990; Agnieszka Osiecka’s song Kochankowie z Ulicy Kamiennej; Zofia Turowska, Agnes. Landscapes with Agnieszka Osiecka, Warsaw 2000; Jerzy Illg, My Znak. On Nobelists, Revels, Friendships, Books and Women, Kraków 2009; Janusz R. Kowalczyk, Returning to My Rams, Warsaw 2012; Paweł Szlachetko, Janusz R. Kowalczyk, STS. Everything started here, Warsaw 2014; Janusz Głowacki, Off the Top of My Head, Warsaw 2014
Article originally written in Polish by Janusz R. Kowalczyk, Feb 2017; translated by WF, Feb 2017; edited by NR, 1 Mar 2017