You Never Know How Fate Will Play Out: An Interview With Józef Hen
#language & literature
default, Józef Hen, photo: Krzysztof Żuczkowski / Forum, center, #000000, jozef_hen_forum.jpg
The author and screenwriter Józef Hen tells us: ‘Life has taught me that many things and matters pass; anger does, too. But I’m really not easy-going by nature. I’ve had too many experiences in life which have taught me that it’s unhealthy to keep bad, toxic feelings stored up inside’.
Marcin Kube: Your most recent diary – ‘I, The Demoraliser’, published in 2018 – shows that you maintain a very active social life. Does the isolation of these pandemic times trouble you?
Józef Hen: Not so much, because, as is, I haven’t left the house for the last several months. During the winter, there were strong winds, and I’m already at this age that I’m at...
MK: You turned 96 in November.
JH: ...in connection with which my children decided that it’s better if Dad doesn’t go out, because he might get blown over. But when this finally ends, I’ll miss our friendly get-togethers at the Czytelnik café on Wiejska Street in Warsaw.
MK: The owner, that is the publishing house, has found a new franchisee-restaurateur, and now there’s a general renovation underway.
JH: We’d get together on Tuesdays at 1pm for meetings organised by Krystyna Kofta. Various people with varying viewpoints – writers, musicians, composers – but we said goodbye to all that in December 2019.
MK: Are you still keeping a diary?
JH: I signed a new contract for the next volume and a few updates with the MG publishing house, which makes me very happy. I had already completed new diaries entitled To You & From You, but suddenly we have this epidemic, another world – and we agreed with the publisher, Ms Ewa Malinowska-Grupińska, that this new world that’s come upon us had to be reflected somehow in the book. So, after the final reflection that closes To You & From You, there’s now a sentence that reads: ‘This is where this book was supposed to end’, and I go on from there to give my observations and thoughts over the next several months. The planned publication date of the book hasn’t changed and the book, now titled Without Fear, should be coming out in October.
A Procession in Isolation: 'Sad Maniuszka' by Maniucha Bikont & Marcin Wicha
MK: Without fear of what? The coronavirus?
JH: Not only that. Because it so happens that in this volume – almost at the very beginning – there’s also talk of struggling with fear during the siege of Warsaw in September 1939.
MK: There’s a scene in ‘Nowolipie’ in which you describe the bombardment of Warsaw on Monday, 25th September 1939. Your whole family was cowering in the cellar, but you were lying in your bed.
JH: I didn’t feel any fear, because I just looked at it as literary material (like I now view my old age). My relatives were mad at me as they sheltered in the cellar which served as our air-raid shelter: ‘And this guy’s just lying there and reading a book!’ I was reading Émile Zola’s Pogrom.
MK: What are you reading these days?
JH: I’m going back to the works of Ksawery Pruszyński.
MK: He wrote a foreword to your debut book in 1947.
JH: That was of tremendous importance for the book’s success and for me, a novice, it was an honour, because Pruszyński was already something of a classic writer. With time, our acquaintance developed into a friendship – and that was at his initiative.
Warsaw 1945: A Guide to a City of Ruins
MK: 13th June 2020 marked 70 years since his tragic death in an automobile accident.
JH: It was a great loss. He was an extraordinary writer, a deep-digging reporter, a penetrating publicist, a man of enormous stature, including physically. He was in Narwik, outside Falaise, and he volunteered for the tank brigade, and he was seriously wounded. Now my granddaughter has to complete her matriculation remotely, so I asked her if she’d be interested in Pruszyński’s Tale about Mickiewicz. She said very much so, so I gave her his last, exceptionally vivid book (there are a few gaps in it that he didn’t live to fill), and I myself returned to his work. I read his Thirteen Tales and Karabela z Meschedu (Karabela of Mashad).
The word ‘tales’ accurately characterises his prose. It’s as if Ksawery sat at a large table with some innkeeper and told stories like you tell over a few beers when you reminisce about people and your own experiences, so it’s a ‘tale’ and not ‘literature’... He doubles down, upon reflection, using certain terms as if they were more accurate than the phrases he had used moments before. ‘I never made up these stories. All the people, all the conflicts are authentic’, he told me. So I said: ‘And “The Bugler of Samarkand”?’ ‘OK’, he admitted: ’I made that one up, but that was the story that Anders took to be for real, and he called for an investigation’, he finished, laughing.
MK: Mariusz Szczygieł included his ‘Bombardment of Madrid’ in 1936 in his ‘Anthology of Polish Reportage’.
JH: Pruszyński went to see the Spanish Civil War on assignment from the right-wing press, but once he got there, his sympathies shifted to the other side. Earlier, in 1933, when he was 23 years old, he travelled to Palestine to observe the Jewish pioneering movement. In his book Palestine for the Third Time, he wrote that, when a war broke out between the Jews and the Arabs, the Soviet Union would not stand behind the Jewish socialists, but would instead side with the Arab nationalists. And when that actually happened in 1967, Jerzy Giedroyc reprinted in Kultura (Culture) Pruszyński’s prophecy from more than 30 years earlier.
Another example of his far-sightedness: he called his very first article in 1932 ‘Sarajevo – 1914, Shanghai 1932, Gdańsk – 193?’. The then 25-year-old reporter predicted early on that the next war would be over Gdańsk. Unbelievable.
A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Reportage
standardowy [760 px]
Ksawery Pruszyński, 1940-1944, photo: Czesław Datka / www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
MK: You were sixteen years old when the war broke out and, in November 1939, not waiting for the conflict to develop, you made your way into the Soviet occupation zone to which your siblings had already fled. Did you manage during that month in Warsaw to start fearing the Germans or weren’t they looking that frightening yet?
JH: No one yet had any sense of the Holocaust coming, although some were already predicting a ghetto. In October, I would go every day to the Wirginia bookstore on Elektoralna Street and read books. On several occasions, I’d run into a German patrol, but I knew one thing: you mustn’t show any fear. I quickly realised that they were most interested in anyone who was a ‘Jude’ – they could have some fun with someone like that. But they didn’t consider me a Jew, because I borrowed a cap from the Collegium high school (we at Kryński high wore ‘maciejówki’, a different sort of cap) – the Collegium cap had white tabs on the visor that formed a cross – and I boldly added to that a leather jacket and then walked confidently along the street. I didn’t look how they imagined a Jew looked.
MK: What did you read in the fall of 1939?
JH: Mostly Proust, but that reading stopped when my sister Stella arrived in Warsaw, disguised as a peasant girl. She was supposed to buy watches, which sold well among the Soviet soldiers. The Germans were still allowing passage across their border, but the Russians, by contrast, had already sealed their border, so I had to get to Białystok with the help of a smuggler. I discuss all that in Nowolipie.
May It Alert the World: An Introduction to the Ringelblum Archive
MK: You’ve often said that people mature quickly in times of war.
JH: In September, I took on the role of caretaker of my parents and my sister Mirka, because my older brother went off to fight the Germans. I remember how Mirka held onto me during the bombing, jabbing her fingernails into my arm. Thanks to that, I felt no fear because, in such moments, a feeling of responsibility for my loved ones took over.
Until the moment of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, i.e. until 23rd August 1939, noone believed that Hitler would start a war, especially since we had a guarantee of support from England. The carefree feeling on that last day on the beach on the River Wisła, which I describe, was natural: there was sun and water, ice cream bars, pickled cucumbers, orangeade – boys exercising on gymnastic equipment and girls singing on the terrace of the Makabi sports club – they were singing for us – all of that summer atmosphere brings tears to the eyes of a reader of Nowolipie when they read the closing sentence of the chapter: ‘And they’re still there now, swaying and singing on a terrace which is no longer there and which yet remains’.
Jerzy Pomianowski persuaded the Italian publisher, partly because of that image, that Nowolipie is a book about the Holocaust. There are no deaths depicted there. But there are living people, regular people, who disappeared, who were exterminated. And that’s why Nowolipie was published in Italian as Via Nowolipie.
Be Strong and Brave: Jews, Sport, Warsaw – Image Gallery
MK: You figure in your memoirs as a passionate film buff. Do you remember the last film you saw in pre-war Warsaw?
JH: It seems to me that it was at the Adria cinema on Wierzbowa Street: Charge of the Light Brigade with Errol Flynn. I saw a lot of movies, but never in the so-called premiere theatres where tickets were more expensive because they showed the newest releases; we went to cheaper movie theatres where they showed films in their second or third time ‘round, like the Adria. To this day, I can name 40 pre-war Hollywood actors.
MK: I’m not going to ask you to name them all now...
JH: Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I run through them in my head.
MK: Before the war, you always went to the movies alone, and you focussed very much on the film. That changed when you met your future wife.
JH: Yes, I started going to the movies with my girlfriend during the war in Samarkand, where I found myself in 1942. There they showed one American film for a long time: The Three Musketeers. I watched it nine times, mostly because there were wonderful songs sung by the movie star Don Ameche in the role of d’Artagnan, who had come to Paris from Gascogne. When I returned from a date with Rena at 11:00 at night through an empty Uzbek street to my little flat, I’d sing d’Artagnan’s song at the top of my lungs: ‘Warwarwar – we hear in old Paris! Warwarwar, look on the mesdames, please.’ The Uzbeks started calling me ‘Warwarwar’. All told, it was a strange life.
Last Days: Warsaw’s Shining Cultural Moment on the Eve of WWII
standardowy [760 px]
Zbigniew Cybulski in 'Cross of Valour', directed by Kazimierz Kutz, 1958, photo: Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa – Instytut Audiowizualny / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl
MK: You describe that period in your autobiographical tale ‘No One is Calling’.
JH: That’s why I, as opposed to the movie critics, have certain problems with the 1960 film treatment No One is Calling. First, there was the experience, then there was the tale, which couldn’t be published for 33 years. I wrote it in 1957. After the success of Cross of Valour, the people from the KADR Film Studio (Tadeusz Konwicki, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and the director Kazimierz Kutz) said: ‘Give us another one’. Because Kutz’s film Cross of Valour based on my stories won the award for Best Film of 1959. At that time, I gave them a typescript of a politically incorrect story. They read it through and said: ‘Listen, that second part, the romance, we can absolutely film. Only the action has to take place in Poland, not in Samarkand, because they won’t let us do that. What we’ll do is we’ll have it take place among returnees from the Soviet Union resettled in Western Poland.’ Let’s change the subject, okay?
MK: Let’s leave that film then, but we won’t leave the subject of the book, because it’s an exceptional work amongst your writings. A lot of time passed before it was finally made available to readers.
JH: In 1966, Ms Teofila Wichowa, the grandmother of the Nike literary award winner Marcin Wicha, was a sort of editor-in-chief of the Czytelnik publishing house. And she wanted to publish No One is Calling, but we decided that it would make it easier to get it past the censors if we first published two memoirs about events taking place before No One is Calling. That’s how Before the Great Pause, a story of my senior year in high school, and then Resistance, about September 1939, were published. Both books were well received, but when Ms Wichowa finally sent off No One is Calling to be printed, that was the moment when the Six-Day War broke out (June 1967) and Gomułka gave his ‘anti-Zionist’ – actually anti-Semitic – speech, and that policy was strengthened after March 1968. The vice-minister of culture, Kazimierz Rusinek, called Czytelnik and order the melting-down of the type plates for my book and also Henryk Worcell’s book and – interestingly! – the fourth volume of Ilya Ehrenburg’s diaries (People, Years, Life), which covered the great Stalinist purges. What’s interesting is that that volume was allowed to appear in Russia, because it was already the Brezhnev era, but it was banned in Poland.
Playing with Censorship: How Polish Artists Dealt with the Communist Regime
MK: It’s interesting that the main character in ‘No One is Calling’, your alter ego, has the pseudonym Bożek, because a boy by that very name is the protagonist of the awful anti-Semitic anecdote that you cite in ‘Nowolipie’.
JH: Yeah, we used to play ball together... What can I say? I just liked the name. That’s why Bogdan Bergen – that’s Bożek – is the main character of No One is Calling and not some Józio Cukier [the author’s birth name].
MK: You recall several other anti-Semitic incidents you experienced before the war. The first situation in which someone let you know that you were worse because you were a Jew was particularly remarkable.
JH: I was standing in the gateway of the Krelman School on Nowolipki Street when a girl my age walked by and said to me: ‘You filthy Jew.’ And then kept going as if nothing had happened. That stayed with me. At the same time, I must say, that, after the publication of Nowolipie, I received a number of letters apologising for that girl’s words.
MK: You also write about Kazimierz M., your physical education teacher, who one day told the whole class (and this was in a Jewish school no less): ‘The biggest flaw of your people is that you criticise everything.’
JH: He was a great gym teacher. He used to take us to the Physical Education Academy in Bielany, which he then referred to as the Central Institute of Physical Education. He was also at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and he came back from there excited about sports camps. In Germany, he finally encountered a ‘non-critical’ society. Our wonderful director Michał Kryński came to an arrangement with him that he would only teach us until the end of the year, but we loved him because he was a tremendous educator who showed us how to do the exercises and taught us wimps how to play basketball.
Pre-War Jewish Life: The Secret Life of Menachem Kipnis
MK: Why don’t you give the full names of Kazimierz M. and several other characters? Mostly those who did or said something improper.
JH: Once a lady asked me: ‘Mr Hen, why do you often leave out people’s names? Do you think they don’t deserve to be in your book?’ I looked at her and said: ‘Ma’am, these people have children and grandchildren. Their grandchildren will read the book and feel ashamed. What for? We have to spare them that.’ And she said: ‘Amazing!’ My son commented about that. He said we’ve lived to see a day when a perfectly simple human gesture is considered to be amazing.
MK: Your capacity for forgiveness is really something quite extraordinary.
JH: Once [former President] Aleksander Kwaśniewski said to me during a conversation that I’m able to forgive and that goodness is evident in that. To which I replied: ‘It’s not that way at all. Mr President, I’ll praise myself: It’s not goodness, it’s good sense.’ Life has taught me that most things and most matters pass – even anger. But I’m really not easy-going by nature. I’ve had too many experiences in life which have taught me that it’s unhealthy to keep bad, toxic feelings stored up inside. I understood this earlier, because I matured early. When I was 18 or 20 years old, I was already at the warfront, after serving in a labour battalion, after suffering poverty and hunger. But later, my world returned to something resembling normalcy and I was gradually able to begin doing silly things.
MK: You stress that, during the war, your life was saved many times by quirks of fate.
JH: At the end of Nowolipie, I wrote about how my father’s workers, who had crossed the Soviet border, upon seeing me, told me that my father was off crying in a corner unable to cope with the absence of his children. So my siblings and I reached an agreement that I would be the one to return to our parents in Warsaw.
MK: Except that you had a dream one night.
JH: Yes, I dreamt that I was in Warsaw and that every single German gendarme had a cowlick and moustache like Hitler. And I knew and understood under psychoanalysis: ‘You don’t want to go.’ So I told my sister that I wasn’t going to go after all. And that dream saved my life, because what would have happened if I’d gone back there? I certainly would have been in the ghetto, maybe in the Jewish Defence Organisation? Maybe I would have ended up on the Umschlagplatz [from which deportations to the Treblinka death camp departed]? Decades later, Kazimierz Brandys, knowing this story, asked me half-jokingly: ‘And what are you dreaming about now?’
Józef Hen on Korczak's 'Mały Przegląd' – Video
MK: Another time, you were saved by lack of money.
JH: Stella didn’t give me money for the journey – we were supposed to meet up in a certain village – and I, after parting company with the smuggler on the Soviet side, I was thrown out of the cottage I was supposed to stay in by the owner, because I couldn’t come up with 2zł to pay for lodging. So I went on a bit further to another cottage where I saw a light on. A woman opened the door. I said to her: ‘Excuse me, ma’am, but all I have is 50gr and a battery for a torch.’ To which she answered: ‘Don’t be stupid. Come in.’ And it was raining then. In the morning, she told me that the Soviets had forced everyone in that first cottage into no man’s land, so they must have gone on to the German occupation zone. The lack of those 2zł probably saved my life. That’s an experience I often share with my readers – you never know how fate will play out, and that which seems to be the worst possible outcome might, in fact, turn out to be the thing that saves your life.
Today, some take that idea farther and say that what I experienced as a civil injustice – when the last recruiting committee for General Anders’ army in August 1942 somewhere in the depths of Uzbekistan rejected me for service – probably saved my life. They observe: ‘We should thank them for rejecting you, because, thanks to that, you’re now writing books and not lying in the military cemetery at Monte Cassino.’
6 Touching Testimonies from World War II Survivors
standardowy [760 px]
The ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto and the St Augustine Church on Nowolipki Street, 1945, Warsaw, photo: Zbyszko Siemaszko / Forum
stacja muranow 3_6585174.jpg
MK: All his life, Aleksander Wat wondered if the Soviet persecutions that plagued him and his wife and son during the war didn’t, in fact, save them from the Holocaust.
JH: Obviously, Stalin wasn’t thinking about saving people. He just wanted them to chop down the taiga. But, thanks to that, a few hundred thousand people were, in fact, saved – amongst them, my sister and brother-in-law, who survived exile to the Siberian River Aldan. If it wasn’t for the fact that some Poles from Volhynia were shipped off to Siberia, they surely would have been murdered by the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army]. But there were also those who were rescued by Ukrainian peasants, amongst them the film director Kuba Morgenstern and a few others whom I knew. Life isn’t as simple as some make it out to be, and human impulses are often unpredictable.
MK: Do you remember your first visit to the ruins of Nowolipie after the war?
JH: There was a sort of path there amidst the rubble, and a street sign was lodged there – here’s Karmelicka Street, there’s Nowolipie. There were no buildings, so I started counting steps along the street. I knew I’d recognise my home, because the entryway was decorated with yellow tiles. And I found some ruins with yellow tiles... I stood there for a moment and then took one tile with me. I lost it in 1947 when I was lying in the hospital in Kraków after an appendectomy, and we learned that we had to move to Warsaw along with the entire editorial staff of Polish Soldier. Then my wife, who was packing us up, came across the broken tile – an odd piece of rubbish to her – and threw it away.
Warsaw 1945: A Guide to a City of Ruins
MK: Where did the kind of life go which once energised the old streets and buildings?
JH: Nowolipie was something special. As a blind reader once told me – ‘You describe things in such a way that I feel like I’m in a small town.’ People knew everything about their neighbours: what they’re making for lunch, what they think, how they behave, whether they’re more or less religious. Even our building superintendent, Jan Śnioch, knew very well when every Jewish holiday would be, because Nowolipie 53 housed almost exclusively Jews of various degrees of prosperity. You knew who was who by the floor they lived on. If people lived on the ground floor, they were in the poorest category. If they lived on the first floor, they were wealthy. If they lived on the fifth floor, they were the poorest of all – there were no lifts in those days.
Today, I have the impression that that sort of life has shifted to the electronic sphere, because Facebook is like a small town with a few tens of thousands of residents: there are acquaintances, there are friendships, there are conflicts, there’s gossip. I don’t deal with all that because, first, I don’t know how and, second, it’s not worth my time.
Writers of Post-War Yiddish Literature in Poland – Image Gallery
MK: Between the 1920s, when you grew up, and the modern times in which your grandchildren are living, there have been changes like something out of the pre-war science-fiction stories of Bruno Winawer, whom you once interviewed as a student.
JH: The changes caused by the spread of computers and smartphones have been extreme and revolutionary.
MK: Today, we live in a world of procedures. In your memoirs, the old world seems less formalised and bureaucratic than today.
JH: I remember that when it came time to pay taxes, my mom would take off her fur stole and go to the tax office dressed more poorly, so she could then weep before the official, who would eventually capitulate and say, ‘Alright, we’ll let you pay in instalments.’ He had the authority to make exceptions and to assess people’s situations on his own.
MK: Your mom also loved to bargain.
JH: Because without haggling, there was just no joy in shopping.
MK: Today, the price is the price and the custom of bargaining has disappeared. Do you look at all these social changes optimistically or with regret?
JH: I try to understand it all. When I need something, I know how to find some basic information on the Internet. But when it’s something that requires more complex skills, I ask my son for help, and he goes, click, click with two fingers, and he immediately knows everything and tells me.
MK: Tadeusz Konwicki used to say that longevity was a curse. Would you agree with that?
JH: I believe the opposite. Of course, if it had to be a life of chronic pain and suffering, I would probably look at old age somewhat differently. But I believe in regeneration, and I commend that belief to others, because when I was 18 or 19 years old – and later, when I was 30-something – I had more problems with my heart than I have now. The world is so interesting and a person lives in it for such a short time. I catch myself sometimes when I see an obituary of someone I knew and it says: ‘lived to the age of 88’, and first, I think: ‘not bad, he lived a long life’ – but then I remember that I’m older than that.
13 Things Lem Predicted About The Future We Live In
contemporary polish writer
contemporary polish writers
world war ii
Interview conducted in Polish by Marcin Kube, translated by Yale Reisner, Jun 2020