Julian Stryjkowski was a writer, born on 27th April 1905 in Stryj and died on 8th August 1996 in Warsaw. His real name was Pesach Stark.
Julian Stryjkowski was born into a Jewish family in Stryj (now part of Ukraine). He carried his mother’s name. His father, Cwi Rosenmann, was a cheder teacher, and his mother, Hanah Stark, took care of the house and children. The future writer attended secondary school in Stryj, where he passed his matura exam in 1925. After receiving his diploma, he stayed at home and earned his living by tutoring, while also being active in Zionist organizations. In 1927, Stryjkowski left for Lviv and began studying Polish philology at Jan Kazimierz University. During his studies, he was involved in translating from Hebrew into Polish, as well as writing reviews and trying his hand at literature. In 1928, he made his debut in the Zionist circles of the Chwila (Moment) magazine with the short story Crossing of Two Trains.
In 1932 Stryjkowski defended his doctorate under Juliusz Kleiner and started working as a Polish language teacher in the Jewish middle school in Płock. He did so for only a year and was fired after being accused of spreading communist ideology among the youth. Stryjkowski was indeed under its influence and after his expulsion from school he took up a job in the department of Jewish culture of the Agroid organisation, which, among other things, helped Jews to settle in the Soviet Union. At that time, or more precisely in 1934, Stryjkowski joined the illegally operating communist party of Western Ukraine. This led to his arrest, and Stryjkowski spent almost a year in Brygidki prison in Lviv.
During the last two years before the war broke out, Stryjkowski stayed in Warsaw. Here he worked in a science bookstore and at the same time wrote for the Jewish magazine Nasz Przegląd (Our Review).
The pre-war period in the history of Stryjkowski’s work can be called a time of searching and discovery. The future author of Głosy w Ciemności (Voices in the Dark) moved in worlds that did not form a harmonious whole. He wanted to break from his traditional religious upbringing in a Jewish home by living by the teachings learned at the communist meetings. He sought independence. He continued to confront his Jewish culture and language with those of Poland and Ukraine. After all, he lived in the Second Polish Republic’s Kresy. He dreamt of a career as a writer, but he could not devote all his time to writing, as he had to constantly look for work to earn a living.
The outbreak of World War II became a turning point in Stryjkowski’s life. He managed to get from Warsaw to Lviv and greet the Soviet Army entering Kresy. In October 1939, he started working in the editorial office of the Lviv-based journal Red Banner. The magazine was under the total control of the Soviet occupation authorities. Stryjkowski worked there in the letters department; he was responsible for proofreading and also published his own texts.
In February 1941, the writer was removed from the journal for making a correctional error. Stryjkowski then moved to the radio and worked as a radio journalist at a Polish radio station in Lviv until June 1941. After the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, he found himself deep in Russia. Through Kyiv and Kharkiv he even reached Stalingrad and then Tashkent. He even stayed for some time in Uzbekistan, doing forced labour. Then Stryjkowski gradually moved closer to the European part of Russia, until he finally settled in Moscow in mid-1943. Here he no longer had to work on the cotton fields, nor sell newspapers at the station. He started to work in the Wolna Polska (Free Poland) weekly published by the Union of Polish Patriots. He published reportages in this magazine and even had his own permanent column devoted to the most important events of the week. He used the pseudonym Łukasz Monastyrski.
This era, which began with the Soviet invasion of Poland, was later presented by Stryjkowski in his 1980 independent story Wielki Strach (Great Fear). The fate of the protagonist is a reflection of the fate of the writer himself, fascinated at first by the communist authorities and then, as he goes through more and more dramatic experiences, overwhelmed by fear and doubt in the imposed order.
In 1943 Stryjkowski joined the Association of Polish Patriots and the Polish Workers’ Party. He became an active member of the community led by Wanda Wasilewska. It was also then that he started working on his great novel, which was finally finished in 1946 – Voices in the Dark. This novel is the first part of a tetralogy, which later included also Echo, Austeria and Sen Azrila (Azril’s Dream) – a series depicting the reality of Galician towns and their Jewish inhabitants just before the First World War. This great series in which Stryjkowski’s great talent was revealed, finished only in the late 1980s, shows the disintegration of the traditional world, the indifference of young people to religion, their aspirations to assimilate with the multinational and multicultural community of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In this complex storyline, Stryjkowski outlined a prediction of the catastrophe and annihilation of Jews during the next war but also captured the last glows of the Austro-Hungarian world, which was becoming part of world history.
In 1946 Julian Stryjkowski finally returned to Poland from the Soviet Union and started working for the Polish Press Agency. In the spring of 1949, he became the head of its Rome branch.
Stryjkowski joined the efforts to strengthen the new political system in Poland after 1945. He joined the party, and in 1951 he published his novel Bieg do Fragalà (Race to Fragalà), which depicted class tensions in the Italian countryside. In 1952, Stryjkowski was awarded the State Prize of the 1st Degree for this book, which was in line with the so-called anti-Bourgeoisie Communist propaganda. However, after the publication of the novel, the writer was expelled from Rome and returned to Warsaw. Here he started a regular cooperation with the monthly magazine Twórczość (Creation). Finally, in Twórczość, he headed the prose department from 1954 to 1978. During this period he also travelled extensively across Europe. His world-view clearly evolved. He became increasingly critical and sceptical of the communist regime. In 1966, Stryjkowski left the party, protesting against the removal of Leszek Kołakowski. In the same year, his newly published novel Austeria was recognised by the Munich-based magazine Na Antenie (On the Air) as the best book of 1966. In 1969 Stryjkowski left for the United States on a scholarship funded by the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa.
In the 1970s, Stryjkowski had already taken a critical stance on the political and cultural situation in Poland. In December 1975 he signed the so-called ‘Letter of 59’, which included a protest against the planned changes in the constitution of the time. In 1979 Stryjkowski was honoured with the A. Jurzykowski Foundation Award in New York. At that time he was already the author of, among others, Przybysz z Narbony (Stranger from Narbonne), Sen Azrila (Azril’s Dream), as well as his 1974 collection of short stories Na Wierzbach... Nasze Skrzypce (Our Violin on the Willows).
At the time, Stryjkowski was already considered to be the greatest Polish-Jewish writer. The world he presented in his books was gone forever. His novels were a grand goodbye to it. Stryjkowski’s prose presented this passing reality in an unusual way, rich in atmosphere, style and literary beauty.
After martial law was imposed in December 1981, Stryjkowski did not support the Union of Polish Writers, which was obedient to the communist authorities, and in 1989 he joined the emerging Association of Polish Writers.
Julian Stryjkowski also received the S. Vincenz Award in 1986 and the Jan Parandowski Award from the Polish PEN Club in 1993.
In addition to his literary work, Stryjkowski was involved in translations from Hebrew, Russian and French. In 1937 his translation of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan was published.
Julian Stryjkowski died on 8th August 1996 in Warsaw. He is buried in the city’s Jewish Cemetery.
- Bieg do Fragalà (Race to Fragalà), Warsaw 1951
- Głosy w Ciemności (Voices in the Dark), Warsaw 1956
- Czarna Róża (Black Rose), Warsaw 1962
- Austeria, Warsaw 1966
- Na Wierzbach… Nasze Skrzypce (Our Violin on the Willows), Warsaw 1974
- Azril’s Dream, Warsaw 1975
- Przybysz z Narbony (Stranger from Narbonne), Warsaw 1978
- Wielki Strach (Great Fear), in Zapis, 14, 1980; London 1980
- Syriusz, short stories, Warsaw 1984
- Echo, Warsaw 1988
- Silence, short stories, Warsaw 1993
Originally written in Polish by Wojciech Kaliszewski, December 2007