Bruno Schulz was a Polish-Jewish writer, painter, illustrator, best known for his short stories that revive the magical reality of Poland’s pre-war shtetl’s. He was born in 1892 in Drohobych, a town of modest size located in western Ukraine, not far from the city of Lvov. He spent nearly his entire life there and was generally unwilling to travel. He viewed Drohobych to be the center of the world and was a acute observer of life there, proving himself an excellent “chronicler.” His writings and his art are both saturated with the realities of Drohobych. His stories are replete with descriptions of the town’s main streets and landmarks, as well as with portraits of its inhabitants. His first collection, The Cinnamon Shops was published in 1934; in English-speaking countries, it is most often referred to as The Street of Crocodiles, a title derived from one of the chapters. This novel-memoir was followed three years later by Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. The original publications were fully illustrated by Schulz himself; in later editions of his works, however, these illustrations are often left out or are poorly reproduced. He also helped his fiancée translate Franz Kafka’s The Trial into Polish, in 1936. In 1938, he was awarded the Polish Academy of Literature’s prestigious Golden Laurel award. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 caught Schulz living in Drohobycz, which was occupied by the Soviet Union. There are reports that he worked on a novel called The Messiah, but no trace of this manuscript survived his death. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, as a Jew he was forced to live in the ghetto of Drohobycz, but he was temporarily protected by Felix Landau, a Gestapo officer who admired his drawings. In 1942, During the last weeks of his life, Schulz painted a mural in Landau’s home in Drohobycz, in the style with which he is identified. Shortly after completing the work, Schulz was bringing home a loaf of bread when he was shot and killed by a German officer. Over the years his mural was covered with paint and forgotten. In 2001 the murals considered destroyed fifty years earlier were discovered. Unfortunately, the discovery was partly destroyed when representatives of the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel secretly removed significant fragments of the murals and transported them outside of Ukraine. The pieces that remained were transferred to the Drohobychina Museum in Drohobych and were presented for the first time in Poland in 2003 as part of an exhibition titled Republic of Dreams. In 2008, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted that parts of the mural were indeed taken from the town deceptively and signed an agreement with the Ukrainian government whereby they would be loaned to Israel for 20 years. Since 2009 they have been exhibited at Yad Vashem.
*Image: Bruno Schulz, self portrait 1920-1922.
Kornel Makuszyński (1884–1953), born in Stryj [now Stryy, Ukraine], writer, journalist and drama critic, one of the most popular authors of children’s books in Poland. During World War I, Makuszyński and his first wife Emilia were deported to Russia. Till 1918, he lived in Kiev, was dramaturg at Stanisława Wysocka’s Polish Theatre and acted as President of the local Society of Writers and Journalists. While in Kiev, he wrote his first novels. After Poland regained independence, Makuszyński settled in Warsaw, there he wrote his most popular books for children and young people. The outbreak of World War II put an end to the writer’s material and artistic stability. Makuszyńskis’ flat in Warsaw, full of works of art, was seriously damaged during an air raid in 1939 and during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. Kornel Makuszyński died on the 31st of July 1953. He was buried at the Cemetery for Persons of Merit in Zakopane.
Tadeusz Konwicki was a Polish writer, screenwriter, and film director, known for his bitter novels about the devastations of war and ideology. He was born in 1926 in Nowa Wilejka, Poland (now Naujoji Vilnia, Lithuania). Konwicki’s father died when he was three, and because of his mother’s deteriorating health, he was raised by extended family members. From 1932 he went to live permanently with his great aunt and uncle in Kolonia Wileńska, in a very religious household, imbued with the atmosphere of the cult of the January 1863 Uprising. A teenager during World War II, Konwicki joined the Polish resistance movement, fighting first the occupying Nazi army and then the Soviets. In 1944 he escaped from forced labor of clearing a forest and went to work in a German army hospital. When the Vilnius Uprising broke out in July, Konwicki joined the partisan resistance. In the autumn, after a period of hiding at a farm near Vilnius, he returned once more to the partisans, which were by then anti-Bolshevik. The group hid in the woods until the end of April. In May 1945, Konwicki and a few friends used falsified documents to cross the new Polish border in order to make contact with local partisan groups, but it became impossible to keep fighting. Konwicki started to work on former German properties in Gliwice, and after a few months, he went to Cracow where he began Polish literature studies at the university. He worked as a reporter and an illustrator for newspapers and periodicals. He served on the editorial boards of leading literary magazines and followed the official Communist Party line. In the summer of 1947, he made his debut as a poet, and then, encouraged by Tadeusz Borowski and Roman Bratny, he wrote his first short story, “Corporal Koziołek and Me.” His first work, At the Construction Site (1950), won the National Prize for literature. He began a career as a filmmaker and screenwriter in 1956; his film The Last Day of Summer won the Venice Film Festival Grand Prix in 1958. By the late 1960s, he had quit the Communist Party, lost his job in the film industry, and become active in the opposition movement. Konwicki’s work is suffused with guilt and anxiety, colored by his wartime experiences and a sense of helplessness in confronting a corrupt and repressive society. He has written over twenty books. Czesław Miłosz wrote about his famous novel, A Dreambook for Our Time (1963), that it is “one of the most terrifying novels of postwar Polish literature.” Tadeusz Konwicki died in 2015 in Warsaw, at the age of eighty-eight.
Olga Tokarczuk, born in 1962, is the author of novels and essays, and is considered to be the most admired writer of the middle generation in Poland. She has won numerous awards and honorable mentions, including the Nike award in 2008, where she was unanimously chosen (this rarely happens) by the judges and the wide reading public. Tokarczuk started writing poetry in her teens. She then fell silent for many years until she returned with her first novel, The Journey of the Book-People (1993), that was warmly received by critics. Since then she has published four additional novels that have received critical acclaim. Olga Tokarczuk is also known as a skilled writer of novellas and short stories, and she is the advocate of the International Short Story Festival that takes place in Wroclaw. She lives in Warsaw, Poland.
Paweł Huelle, one of the prominent Polish writers living today, was born in Gdańsk in 1957. Huelle is a graduate in Polish of the Gdańsk University and has also worked in that city as an employee of the “Solidarity” press office, university lecturer, journalist, director of the Gdańsk Polish Television Center, and, most recently, as a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza. Huelle has found enormous success as a writer and been honored with many prestigious awards. He published novels, poetry books, and three short story collections. His books, and especially his first novel, Weiser Dawidek (1987) – described by critics as “the book of the decade” – have been widely translated. Huelle’s stories are set in various, scrupulously reconstructed places and historical periods – although they remain associated, for the most part, with the author’s home town of Gdansk and its environs. They represent a record of the author’s own adolescence and his search for a mythical genealogy and spiritual roots. It is worth adding that a large part is played on this record by the memory of literary texts, so that at times we have to do with pastiche, allusions, and dialogues with contemporary authors or literary predecessors (critics have pointed out many points of contact with Günter Grass and Bruno Schulz); all which add another dimension to Huelle’s work.
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