Wojciech Tochman (b. 1969) is a Polish journalist, reporter, and writer. He covers stories first hand from the most conflict–ridden parts of the world. He has written for Gazeta Wyborcza and its weekly reportage supplement Duży Format. His books portraying people in critical situations have been translated into into English, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Russian and Bosnian.
Wojciech Tochman debuted in 1987 with a reportage about a school locker room. Two years later, he published his first article in Gazeta Wyborcza, under the supervision of Hanna Krall. In 1981, for the first time, he joined a humanitarian convoy to Bosnia organized by Janina Ochojska, who later became president of the Polish Humanitarian Action foundation. From then on, accounts of the victims of the war and those who have to deal with its trauma became the main subject of his reportages and subsequent books.
He graduated from the Faculty of Journalism of the University of Warsaw in 1993. In 1997, he took part in the international Ryszard Kapuścinski workshops organized by the Open Society Institute. In 2004, he left Gazeta Wyborcza, while still collaborating with its weekly supplement Duży Format. In 2006-2007, he taught at the Institute of Journalism at the University of Warsaw. In 2008, he went to Rwanda to gather material for a book about the Tutsi massacre carried out by the Hutu.
For a period of six years, he was an author and host of the TV programme Ktokolwiek widział, ktokolwiek wie (Whoever Saw, Whoever Knows) (1996-2002). He co-founded the ITAKA Foundation which helps find missing persons and supports their families.
He is the organizer of Klub Heban (Ebony Club), whose members fund 50,000 meals a month for children in Rwanda. Together with Mariusz Szczygieł and Paweł Goźliński, he established the Institute of Reportage with the Polish School of Reportage as one of its departments. Since February 2010, he has hosted, together with Szczygieł and Goźliński, a broadcast called Wrzenie Świata (Boiling the World) on TOK FM radio, dedicated to non-fiction literature. The popularity of the programme and the engagement of the public in the topics discussed by journalists resulted in the creation of Warsaw Club - Wrzenie Świata (7 Gałczyńskiego Street), of which he is a co-founder. Customers can enjoy a coffee, read a book and discuss non-fiction literature with authors writing in that genre .
He was voted the 1998 Reporter of the Year by the readers of Gazeta Wyborcza. In 2002, he was nominated for the Dariusz Fikus Award bestowed by the Rzeczpospolita daily newspaper for "texts maintaining the tradition of literary reportage, with particular emphasis on the coverage of the former Yugoslavia". He received an honourable mention from the Polish Association of Book Publishers for his book Jakbyś Jadła Kamień (Like Eating a Stone). Another book of his, Wściekły Pies (The Rabid Dog), was recognized as the Book of Autumn 2007 by Poznański Przegląd Nowości Wydawniczych (Poznań Review of Publishing News), which was bestowed by Library Raczyński, Radio Mercury and the Polish Association of Book Publishers. Tochman is a two-time finalist of the Nike Literary Award, for Schodów się nie pali (Staircases Don’t Burn) (2001) and Jakbyś Jadła Kamień (2003). In 2004, he was a finalist of Prix RFI "Temoin du Monde" bestowed by Radio France International.
His books have been translated into English, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Finnish, Russian and Bosnian.
Wojciech Tochman is far from calling his profession a mission. On the contrary, such grand words disturb him. To him, the reporter’s role is not to be a wise man, but to wonder about the world and pose questions. This kind of approach seemingly comes from his mentor Hanna Krall, who used to quote her friend Krzysztof Kieślowski as saying: my job is not to know.
Tochman feels responsible for those he writes about, and for their emotions. He is very much aware that there are questions that cannot and should not be asked, because they can open up barely healed wounds, and their tragic past can overtake their present life to the point that their world, rebuild with such effort, falls into pieces again.
We Get To Know The World As Far As People Let Us
This phrase of Ryszard Kapuścinski has served as another guiding maxim to Tochman. It reminds the reporter that, although he signs the text with his name, the content belongs to everyone involved in its creation, meaning to all the people who have entrusted him with their story. In other words, it is a reporter’s imperative to protect his sources, for as he has a wider insight into the situation he is examining, he must sometimes restrain himself from giving out all the information in order not to endanger his informant.
The other side of the coin of the reporter’s job is his own emotional engagement. It sometimes happens that it is impossible for him to take up the task of correspondent for certain subjects which would prove too emotionally exhausted. Since, for the text to be worth something, the journalist must let himself devote all his energy and powers to the subject, and he may encounter some limitations on his part.
When asked about the emotional price he pays for covering the most outrageous human conflicts and their outcomes, he dismisses the question and addresses it to the readers – why have you chosen to read such a book, and how do you deal with such a subject? With regard to the aim of his writing, something that he is quite often asked about, Tochman replies with a sour statement: it is within the world’s power to stop all the genocides. Voters could have disqualified the politicians who did not react properly to the happenings in Srebrenica, Rwanda, and who are indifferent to the war in Iraq. But still they do nothing. That situation makes the reportage worth writing in such a style as to make the reader feel the pain, fear and disgrace that other people experience.
Dark Secrets of the Soul
Tochman’s debut collection of eleven reportages Schodów się nie pali (Staircases Don’t Burn) includes texts devoted to several female characters. Narzeczona (Fiancé) portrays the life of Marta Kucharska, a friend of Edward Stachura; Mówię ci, tam była enklawa tajemna is devoted to the life of Janina Garycka, life companion of Piotr Skrzynecki the creator of Piwnica pod Baranami. The first text of the volume Siedem razy siedem (Seven Times Seven) recounts the story of Himalayan mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz, who went missing in the mountains in 1992. Her mother, Maria Błaszkiewicz, despite the passage of years, still believes in the return of her beloved daughter.
Considered Tochman’s greatest achievement is the book titled Jakbyś kamień jadła (Like Eating a Stone). It covers the period in the Balkans when both sides had already laid down their arms, but peoples’ memories of the carnage were still vivid, and the wounds hadn't yet healed. The protagonist of the reportage is Dr. Ewa Klonowski, a forensic anthropologist who supervises the exhumation of corpses. When the book was published in England, a reviewer from The Times wrote:
The succinctness with which Tochman talks about the horrors of war and its toxic consequences produces a powerful effect, resulting also from his simple style of writing: cruelty speaks for itself, and does not need description or colouring.
In 2005, Tochman published Córeńka (Little Daughter), dedicated to reporter Beata Pawlak who went missing in Bali after the bombing carried out by Muslim fundamentalists. Tochman decided to find her. On the site, the reporter was handed her backpack, where he found a draft of a novel. It tells the story of Matylda, who sets off to find her missing friend Czajka. At first, Tochman thought that the disappearance of Beata Pawlak was invented and planned by her. But eventually it turned out that she had actually perished.
In the reportage from the volume titled Wściekły Pies (The Rabid Dog) Tochman recounts a story of homosexual priest who became infected with HIV. He is sick, but not dying. And he feels lost. However, he addresses God and experiences His presence. The spiritual life of the priest is shown in the perspective of his inner conflict between obedience and disobedience to God.
In another text, Mojżeszowy krzak (The Bush of Moses), Tochman covers the story of high school students from Białystok who went on a pilgrimage to Częstochowa. They didn't reach their destination, as their coach collided with a truck. Nine students were killed. Tochman gives his account from the scene and describes the reactions of the relatives of victims who were in such a state of shock that they were unable to understand what had happened.
The figure of God appears in Tochman’s reportages very frequently because it is present in the lives of people he encounters. In 2010, Czarne publishing house released Bóg zapłać (God Bless You), a selection of the reporter’s texts that examine the different faces of Polish religiosity.
In the near future, Tochman plans to create a trilogy on genocides after the Second World War and its aftermath. After Bosnia and Rwanda, he plans to take on Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge behaved like characters from Orwell's nightmare – they resettled the cities, which they considered as habitats of conservatism and decadence. The population was forced to go through re-education in traditional, self-sufficient communities in the countryside. According to the ideologues of the Khmer Rouge, this was a Cambodian way of introducing the educational and social ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rwanda, Philippines, Jordan
Dzisiaj narysujemy śmierć, (Today We Will Draw Death), published in 2010, is another collection of reportages depicting the aftermath of the conflict in Rwanda that culminated in the 1994 genocide. Tochman went to Rwanda in 2008 to talk to judges, psychiatrists, priests, and soldiers. He interviewed perpetrators serving time, female victims of rape, and child survivors. It is a story about the world after the genocide, a world in which no one knows how to deal with the trauma. In July 2013, Tochman’s book reappeared in public discussion in connection with the recurring questions about the role of the Catholic Church during the genocide.
His subsequent book Eli, Eli (2013) is devoted to one of the biggest problems of the modern, globalized world. Writing about people living in extreme poverty in the slums of Manila, (the capital of the Philippines), Tochman also posed questions regarding the impact of Western tourism on third world countries and ethical challenges which confront the reporters of today. The book is accompanied by photos by Grzegorz Wełnicki.
Tochman’s book Kontener (Container), published in May 2014, was written in collaboration with Katarzyna Boni. It is a report on the conditions of life in a refugee camp in Zatari (Jordan), where hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria have sought shelter.
The eminent reporter Hanna Krall has become the heroine of a biography prepared by her excellent students. Krall consists of two parts: Wojciech Tochman talks to her and Mariusz Szczygieł looks into the drawers of her desk. Tochman describes his writing process:
When I write, I am guided by my own sense of taste. I try to take care not only of the content but also of the form. Which does not mean that what I write about is pleasant, elegant and tasty. The world consists of beauty, but more often of ugliness, suffering and the smell of decay. How do I write about it so as not to get close to the limit of good taste? I think that when an exhumed mass grave stinks, the stench of death must be described. Because it is felt by the heroines of my story who are standing over that hole in the ground and waiting for their murdered husbands and sons to be recognized. Of course, you don’t have to read it later. Because it's foul. I'm not forcing anybody. (Wojciech Tochman, "Workshop")
Roosters crowing, dogs crying
The thematic continuation of his, as he described it himself, "dark triptych" about societies affected by genocides is Pianie Kogutów, Płacz Psów (Roosters crowing, dogs crying, trans. by A.P.) from 2019. This time Tochman presents his readers with a portrait of Cambodia, in which the memory of the Khmer Rouge terror is still alive. Researchers refer to the national trauma as baksbat, or "broken courage syndrome". The reporter focused on one fragment of Khmer society – abandoned and lonely people.
Equipped with the sensitivity known from his earlier reportages, the author addresses people with mental illnesses who are imprisoned in kennels, chained up, locked in cells. Doctors from the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation help such people. They face a great challenge because only 50 psychiatrists work in a country inhabited by 16 million people. Tochman is empathetic towards doctors and imprisoned people, but he also highlights other social problems, such as slave labour in brick factories or the lack of sensitivity and touch in society. As Wojciech Szot wrote:
Tochman is a reporter who is extremely sensitive to pain – the ending scenes of unchaining the ill give a little consolation, and are a metaphor (perhaps too clear) of the struggle for freedom and the hope that although in Cambodia no one has time to deal with the past and the present can be extremely difficult, maybe something will change in the future. "I am already healthy. Before my father came back, my mother opened the padlock, took the chain off my leg and hid it somewhere," Chroep confesses to Tochman.
- Kao da jedeš kamen [Jakbyś kamień jadła], trans. Slavko Santić, Izdavačka kuća Magistrat, Sarajevo 2004.
- Pánbůh zaplat [Bóg zapłać], trans. Barbora Gregorová, Prague: Dokořán, 2013
- Dochtertje. Zoektocht naar de vermiste journaliste Beata Pawlak [Córeńka], trans. Ewa van den Bergen-Makala, Uitgeverij De Geus, 2009.
- Like eating a stone. Surviving the Past in Bosnia [Jakbyś kamień jadła], trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, London: Portobello Books, 2008; New York: Atlas & Co, 2008.
- Kuin olisit kiveä syönyt [Jakbyś kamień jadła], trans. Tapani Kärkkäinen, Helsinki: Like, 2005.
- Mordre dans la pierre [Jakbyś kamień jadła], trans. Margot Carlier, Paris – Lausanne, Les Editions Noir sur Blanc, 2004.
- La vie est un reportage. Anthologie du reportage littéraire polonais, ed. Margot Carlier, Montricher: Les Editions Noir Sur Blanc 2005 (text: Absentia [Nieobecność], trans. Margot Carlier).
- Come se mangiassi pietre [Jakbyś kamień jadła], trans. Marzena Borejczuk, Rovereto: Keller Editore, 2010
- Jakbyś kamień jadła in : Innostrannaja Literatura, Moscow 2004.
- Ouvertyr till livet, ed. and trans. Maciej Zaremba, Stokholm: Brombergs 2003 (texts: Jag väntar under adress: Berlin [Czekam pod adresem: Berlin]; Moder Mejra finner sina barn [Matka Mejra szuka swoich dzieci]; trans. Maciej Zaremba).
- Ти наче камінь їла (Like Eating A Stone), trans. Andrij Bodnar, Kiev, Nasz Czas, 2009.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, November 2010, updated by: AP, November 2019.