Józef Hen is a writer, reporter, screenwriter, director, playwright, and publicist. He was born on 8th November 1923 in Warsaw into a Jewish family (he changed his original name, Józef Henryk Cukier, in 1944).
Pisarz, reportażysta, scenarzysta i reżyser, a także dramaturg i publicysta.
Childhood in Warsaw
He debuted in 1932 in Janusz Korczak’s Mały Przegląd. He shared memories of his childhood spent in Warsaw’s Muranów district in Nowolipie, which was addressed to his grandchildren. By describing the personal and professional life of the writer’s father, who ran a plumbing and water supply company, as well as the functioning of the pre-war tenement house mini-society, the book gives an extremely interesting, colourful and detailed image of the coexistence of Jewish and Polish culture in interwar Warsaw. Hen also used autobiographical material in his other works. The novel Before the Great Pause from the Theatre of Herod diptych uses experiences and observations from his school years, while his backyard fights as a boy resonate in the novel The Battle of Goat Court (often compared to Ferenc Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys).
World War II
During the first months of the war, Hen stayed in Warsaw and survived the bombardment of the city during the September Campaign (these experiences were the basis for the post-war novel Resistance from the Theatre of Herod series). In November 1939, he made his way to the east, initially to Białystok, then to Lviv. During the war, he lost his father (he died in the camp in Buchenwald in 1945), his brother (sent to the camp in Rybińsk, after 1944 he disappeared without any trace) and one of his sisters, Mirka (murdered by Ukrainians near Lviv). His other sister, Stella, survived her deportation to Yakutia; her mother went through the Warsaw ghetto and the camp in Majdanek, working in the ammunition factory in Skarżysko Kamienna. After the war, in 1957, Hen’s mother together with his sister Stella, her husband and her daughter left for Israel and settled in a kibbutz in Tel Aviv.
In the area occupied by the USSR, Józef Hen initially lived near Lviv with his sister, Mirka, working on the construction of the Kyiv-Lviv mainline. In order to register and avoid getting sent back, he enrolled at the Ukrainian Soviet pedagogical school in Dąbrowica. After the outbreak of the war between Germany and the USSR, he escaped, hiding in an evacuation train for Soviet citizens. He intended to join Anders’ Army stationed near Saratov but these plans failed. Arrested by a Soviet patrol, he agreed to be enlisted into the Red Army (on his eighteenth birthday). Stalin’s order of January 1942 to withdraw all emigrants from the front allowed him to avoid the murderous fights in the vicinity of Stalingrad. He found himself in a work battalion, from where he escaped in the direction of Tashkent. He followed Anders’ Army, which he reached just before its evacuation to Iran, but was not enlisted into the army, getting the lowest military category because of his being circumcised.
He then went to Samarkand, where he again entered a pedagogical school which came with a dormitory. There he met his future wife, Irena Lebewal. He had to stop his studies a few months before graduation; saving himself from poverty, he took up a job in a wine and vodka factory. He still tried (against the will of the factory’s management) to join the army. In May 1944, he found himself in the 2nd Polish Army, exhausted and suffering from malaria. He secured a position there thanks to his literary skills. Hen became a war correspondent, and also published his first poem in Głos Żołnierza (Soldier’s Voice) – Łódź Wierna (Faithful Łódź), which he himself, years later, considered to be bad writing, but with stage potential. He founded and ran the regimental Emergency Rescue Service literary theatre, for which he wrote texts with Leon Pasternak and Stanisław Jerzy Lec; afterwards, he was the director of the division theatre. As he was not an officer and his military rank was not suitable for the function, he was sent to the Political Officer School in Lublin, from which he graduated in 1945. When he went to Kraków with the army, liberating Rzeszów, Dębica, Tarnów, and Bochnia, he inadvertently acted as the head of propaganda, being the only one able to speak to the population of the cities occupied by the army. He was awarded the Cross of Valour in 1945. In Kraków, in 1946, he met again with Irena (Rena), who officially became his wife.
Shortly after the war, he was a member of editorial offices of the magazines Orzeł Biały (White Eagle) and Żołnierz Polski (Polish Soldier). In 1952, he edited radio programmes for the army, and beginning with 1953 he collaborated with the Świat (The World) weekly. He completed his military service in 1952 with the rank of captain.
His own war experiences, as well as those of his family and friends, were later described in the novels No One is Calling and The Most Beautiful Years. His book debut, Kiev, Tashkent, Berlin, published in 1947 thanks to Ksawery Pruszyński’s encouragement and with a foreword from him, consisted of memoirs previously published in Żołnierz Polski magazine.
In Poland under the communist regime
The writer never joined the Polish United Workers’ Party. Publishing in the years of Stalinism, he did not declare any affiliation to socialist realism, and even tried to argue with the models it imposed.
This attempt remains unreadable today, and the 1954 novel In a Strange City is perceived today as one of social realism’s mass-produced works, due to the blurring of ideological nuances. The story takes place in a tractor factory, there is a lot of talk about the social background of the characters, and the style of expression is stiff and not very similar to the lively, simple style typical of Hen’s prose. Today the author considers this novel a mistake – ‘surrendering the battle on the enemy’s field’.
In the 1950s and 1960s (after the Polish October of 1956, and before 1968) Hen also wrote screenplays based on his prose. His films of that time included The Cross of Valour and No One Is Calling, directed by Kazimierz Kutz, Adam’s Two Ribs, directed by Janusz Morgenstern, as well as April, Law and the Fist, and The Battle of Goat Court. He also tried his hand at directing, making the TV series Pearls and Ducats.
His 1964 novel Toast (later adapted to film and published under the title Law and the Fist) was heavily criticised by the party members for its lack of a clear stance on ideological and ethical ideas and for its ‘westernised’ (reminiscent of westerns or crime films) style of presenting social and moral problems in post-war Poland. However, Hen continued to hold important positions. In 1964 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and between 1966 and 1968 he was vice-president of the Warsaw branch of the Polish Writers’ Union. Before the events of March 1968 and the outbreak of the anti-Semitic campaign, Hen published Resistance (the second novel in the series The Theatre of Herod, telling the story of civilians’ experiences during the siege of Warsaw in 1939). Later, for several years, he was treated as persona non grata, but the pressure from the authorities did not force him to emigrate. He published several of his short stories in 1969-1972 in Kultura Paryska under the pseudonym Korab (Western, Dajan’s Eye, The Twin; then reprinted in 1990 in the Western collection). In 1976, he was one of the signatories of the so-called Letter of 101, which professed the cultural milieu’s support for the Letter of 59, which itself protested against the proposed changes in the Polish constitution (including the introduction of a provision for a perpetual alliance with the USSR, the leading role of the Polish United Workers’ Party and the condition that respect for the rights of citizens depends on the fulfilment of their obligations towards the state).
He was the vice-president of the Warsaw Polish Writers’ Union again between 1978 and 1980, and later he became its president (he held this position until the dissolution of the union in 1983). Since 1989 he has been a member of the Polish Writers’ Association. He was awarded the Commander’s Cross with the Star of the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1998.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he returned as an author of historical prose. His works showed the multicultural character of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, combining crime, adventure, and romance themes. This includes novels such as: The Cases of Starosta Wolski (1976), whose feature motifs formed the basis for the screenplays for the film Blade Against Blade (1983) and the TV series Knights and Robbers (1984), as well as The Crime, a Folk Tale (1975; later published with the subtitle A Sensational Story of the 17th Century), on the basis of which the historical and adventure series Crimen was created in 1988, directed by Laco Adamika, with Bogusław Linda in the leading role.
Hen was also the author of screenplays for the adaptation of his own novels, as well as Polish prose (mainly Boundary by Zofia Nałkowska and The Boor by Eliza Orzeszkowa). He has also produced scripts for television series directed by Grzegorz Warchoł: The Life of Kamil Kurant (1983), adaptation of three autobiographical novels by Zbigniew Uniłowski (Common Room, Recruiter’s Day and Twenty Years of Life) and the series Royal Dreams (1988) about the times and political activities of Władysław Jagiełło in the Shakespearean style. The role of King Jagiełło was played by Gustaw Holoubek, who spoke about his character as follows:
The script by Józef Hen about the last years of Jagiełło’s reign and his last marriage seemed very appealing to me because it was not just historically accurate – although one can’t find fault with it in terms of historical accuracy – but also humanistic. Jagiełło is presented as a man of great political talent, charming, rich in character, highly intelligent, with a sense of humour, cunning and, above all, as a man with the imagination to build a dynasty.
Hen also co-wrote the screenplay for Jerzy Hoffman’s Army of Valhalla (2003), a modern adaptation of Józef Ignacy Kraszewski’s novel. In addition, Hen personally appeared in the 1993 memoir Man from the Drawer: Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski (1928-1983) directed by Andrzej Kotkowski and Jerzy Sztwiertnia and in the film of his son, Maciej Hen, titled Photographs of my Father.
Michel de Montaigne and other biographies
The biographical essay I, Michel de Montaigne…, published in 1978, marks a new trend in Hen’s work: fictionalised biographies, showing the historical and customary background of the epoch through the life of a central figure. Years later, the writer returned to this type of literature, creating two more portraits: of Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński in his biographical novel The Clown, a Great Man (1998) and Stanisław August Poniatowski in the volume My Friend the King (2003). The first book, which has been reprinted several times, is a yet another return to the era of Hen’s childhood and an attempt to recall the intellectual and moral atmosphere of the interwar period, based by personal memories. The second work is an example of a very personal experience of history (through the fictional figure of the king’s friend, Gaston Fabre), which is very characteristic of the author. It is also an example of the manner in which he animates history with the help of his imagination and emotions. The book was awarded by Warsaw booksellers (Book of the Year 2003 at the Warsaw Literary Premiere) and nominated for the Nike Award in 2004.
In later years, Józef Hen supplemented his autobiographical stories, developed in various ways since his debut – from novels and stories based on themes of his own experiences (No One Is Calling), through volumes of thematically ordered memoirs (Nowolipie Street) – with journal-essays in a free form consisting of notes from readings, reflections, quotations from past notes and reflections on the present day. Some of these notebooks of a contemporary intellectual, a vigilant witness of his times, are: I Fear Not Sleepless Nights (Parts 1-2: 1987-1992, Part 3: 2001) and Journal for the New Century (2009). In 2009, the writer received Warsaw’s Literary Award in the Warsaw Creator category for lifetime achievement. Hen’s autobiographical work is continued in the form of Journal Continued published in 2014 (with his political, cultural, and social observations noted in the years 2008 to 2014). The author received the Odra Award in 2015 for this book. For the next two years, the writer commented in a collection published in 2016 entitled The Return to the Sleepless Nights: Journals – its final fragment was added a few weeks before the book was published. Hen published his thoughts on the 2016-2018 period under the title I, the Corrupter.
Critics on Hen
Hen has a natural ability to formulate the plot in an interesting way. He can skilfully use sensational and criminal themes, both in his stories and novels set during the war (such as April) and right after the war (Toast, Law and the Fist), as well as in the distant past (The Crime). His stories are colourful and extremely realistic psychologically. Hen uses a language that brings to mind the best traditions of American literature: clear, without unnecessary ornamentations. As far as the references to the US culture are concerned, it can be safely said that Hen is apparently attracted to the Western fictional and axiological schema. His writing is also characterised by the constant presence of eroticism, which the writer gives an important, in fact central, place in human life, regardless of biological age. Love themes, presented by Hen without prudery and moralism (which is rare in Polish literature), are present in all his works, and even dominate some of them: Mist (written in 1967-68, published in 1970), The Silent Among Us (1985), Departure of Aphrodite (1995) or Professor T’s Notebooks (2006), in which eroticism is mixed with political themes.
Ryszard Matuszewski summed up Hen’s writing as follows:
Among the authors of various types of novels of customs and entertainment, Józef Hen is one of the best and most ambitious. His longer stories from 'Mist' (1970) or 'Yokohama' (1975) are not devoid of lyrical notes but written with ironic distance and humour and they enjoy a well-deserved reputation.
This opinion places the writer in the vicinity of popular literature – and it must be agreed with if the term is to mean readability and the ability to attract the so-called ‘ordinary reader’. At the same time, however, the selection of topics and the quality prove that this definition should be abandoned if there was a risk that some would consider it degrading.
Originally written in Polish by Paweł Kozioł, July 2011, translated into English by P. Grabowski 2019