Józef Hen, writer, screenwriter, author of such books as “Nobody’s Calling”, “Blazen – a Great Man”, “Diary for a New Century”, turned 100 on Wednesday, November 8. Hen wrote almost a hundred books, many of them gaining great popularity and recognition. Some have been made into films. He started collaborating with one of the magazines when he was ten. He made his debut in 1947 with the book “Kiev, Tashkent, Berlin. The Story of a Wanderer”.
Józef Hen, or rather Józef Cukier, was born on November 8, 1923 in Warsaw into a Jewish family of small entrepreneurs from Nowolipie. As a ten-year-old boy, he wrote a letter to “Mały Przegląd” run by Janusz Korczak and started collaborating with the magazine. Before the war, he published 14 articles there, called “letters”, and gained the status of a permanent collaborator. Already at that time he decided to become a writer.
“All scenes in this book are authentic”
After the outbreak of World War II, he fled to the East, his family stayed in Warsaw. The 16-year-old crossed the green border on his own, ended up near Lviv and started studying at a Ukrainian pedagogical school. When the German army approached Lviv, he and other students were evacuated deep into Russia. He worked on the construction of the Lviv-Kiev road, then went to Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In June 1941, he was conscripted into the Red Army, then the Polish People’s Army. Hen described these events in his novel “Nobody’s Calling”.
– Actually, I’m ashamed to admit that I drew so much from my biography in the novel, but all the scenes in this book are authentic, not invented. I didn’t write about some things, I hid them, but I didn’t add anything at all. I really experienced these things, said Hen at a meeting with readers in Warsaw in February this year.
The hero of the novel is seventeen-year-old Bożek, who, like Hen, comes from Nowolipie in Warsaw, who escaped from the Germans to the USSR in September 1939. After wandering, he found himself in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. He wanted to join General Anders’ army, but he was rejected because of his Jewish origin. Bożek is a young and sensitive boy. In the labor battalion near Tashkent, he encounters cruelty and hunger, but also experiences great love. In the closing anecdote, Hen reveals the ending of the love story, which remains unfinished in the novel written half a century ago. After the publication in 1990, when asked by one of the readers if she knew the further fate of the girl to whom Bożek says goodbye on the platform in the last scenes of the book, Hen replies: “Yes, I know. She is the grandmother of my grandchildren.”
Józef Cukier actually wanted to join General Anders’ army, but he was not accepted there because of his Jewish origin. In June 1941, he was conscripted into the Red Army, then the Polish People’s Army. During a meeting with Warsaw readers on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Hen wondered what his fate would have been if he had managed to join Anders’ army. – Assuming that I had not died at Monte Cassino and found myself in the West after the war, I would still have returned to Poland, if only to look for my family. The fate of a Polish writer was clearly destined for me, he said.
The time of mature 20-year-olds. The army and his novel debut
After the war, after returning to the country, he became the editor of the weekly “Żołnierz Polski”, and in those years he also adopted the pseudonym “Hen”. He graduated from officer school and achieved the rank of captain, ending his military service in 1952. His debut novel was the book “Kiev, Tashkent, Berlin. The Story of a Wanderer”, published in 1947. – I was only 23 years old then, but the book received a record number of over 40 reviews. It was a time when 20-year-olds were mature writers – like Tadeusz Borowski and Tadeusz Różewicz, who made their debuts at the same time. This experience of war gave such maturity, Hen recalled.
He wrote reportages, short stories, short stories, historical prose and novels for adults and teenagers. He was one of the few writers from the Polish People’s Republic who made a living only from writing and did not have a full-time job anywhere. He also never joined the party. When he wanted to go to France to work, a security service officer persuaded him to cooperate.
– I didn’t sleep all night wondering how to say no to him. We met in a cafe in Aleje Ujazdowskie. I showed him my ID card from the Polish Writers’ Union, just as he had previously shown me his ID card. I said that it would be best if each of us did what the ID card we had obliged us to do. I will limit myself to writing. In fact, the most important thing was that for me the issue of this trip was not dramatically important, I could have given up – said the writer.
Hen admitted that he seriously thought about emigrating from Poland only once – after the Kielce pogrom. – But then the press published the voices of so many serious and respected people condemning the pogrom that my wife and I decided to stay; we also felt that leaving in such an atmosphere would be a desertion. We were particularly moved by Gałczyński’s letter, which began with the words: “I am writing these words as a former anti-Semite.” It was true, Gałczyński behaved this way before the war, and he was able to admit it – recalled Hen.
He wrote almost a hundred novels and scripts for famous films
He earned, among others: writing film scripts. In 1959, Kazimierz Kutz made “The Cross of Valor” based on three novellas by Józef Hen. Shortly afterwards, the same director adapted the novel “Nobody’s Calling” (1960). The story “Law and Fist” (1964) with Gustaw Holoubek in the main role and the novel “Crimen” (1988) were also adapted to the screen. Hen also co-created the historical series “Royal Dreams” (1988).
Of Hen’s almost hundred books, many have gained great popularity and recognition. They included the children’s novel “Bitwa o Kozi Dwór” (1955), referring to Molnar’s “Boys from Plac Broni”, the war novel “Kwiecień” (1960), the collection of short stories “Krzyż Valecznych” (1964) and volumes of memoirs “I’m not afraid “sleepless nights” (1987) and “Nowolipie” (1991). In 1969, Hen wrote the story “Western” about the March story of his daughter at the Rejtan high school in Warsaw, where the history teacher recommended that students read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” because, as he said, there were a lot of interesting things there, especially about Jews and Gypsies. The story was published in the Parisian “Kultura” under the pseudonym “Korab”. Hen’s cooperation with “Kultura” lasted several years. Another book dealing with difficult issues of Polish-Jewish history is “Pingpongista”, published in 2008 – about the murder of Jewish inhabitants of the novel’s town of Cheremiec by their neighbors.
He was not in a party and was not associated with the opposition
Hen himself sees himself as an outsider who survived the times of the Polish People’s Republic without being associated with either the party or the opposition. He was among the signatories of the letter condemning “Letter 34” written in 1964 by Polish intellectuals against restrictions in culture. On the other hand, in 1975 he signed “Memorial 59” – against including provisions in the constitution of the Polish People’s Republic about the leading role of the party and a perpetual alliance with the USSR.
A unique item in Hen’s oeuvre are fictionalized biographies, including “I, Michael of Montaigne” (1978) – a panorama of 16th-century Europe set against the background of the biography of the famous French writer, and “Błazen – the great husband” (1998) – a story about Tadeusz Boy – Żeleński. In 2003, the novel “My Friend the King” about Stanisław August Poniatowski was published.
“Diary for a New Century”, the writer’s notes from the first years of the 21st century, was published in 2009. – The new century is neither better nor worse than the previous one – it is just completely different, especially for people of my generation. We struggle to adapt. Even though I use a cell phone, I have even mastered the art of sending text messages, which some of my peers admire. I transcribed and edited this journal on my laptop. But in the new century I feel alien, Hen said in an interview with PAP.
“Józef Hen’s attitude restores faith in the true power of the word”
– Being a thoroughly contemporary writer, immersed in our world, not afraid of sleepless nights and looking into the most beautiful years, he encourages us to look for answers in the past, the one that won, the one that lost, the one that was torn apart, stuck together, lost, wounded, orphaned, spit on, separate . He always finds some light, enlightened thought, humanism there. Thus, he goes against fashion and expectations, and also pays for it. For years it actually did not exist, and certainly not as it deserved – said Remigiusz Grzela in the laudation during Hen’s birthday at this year’s Warsaw Singer Festival.
– In a world where everything is reaching a boiling point, where there are so many flashpoints and where it is really burning – in a world where only certainty is uncertain, where a lack of humanism has become fashionable, (…) in a world where authorities become ignorance, the presence and attitude of Józef Hen, (…) a survivor of almost eight decades of the 20th century and over two decades of the 21st century, restores faith in the true power of the word as establishing order and law, ordering, naming, creating a community, and finally also its development – he added Grzela.
In 2019, Józef Hen was a guest of the “Xięgarnia” program:
Main photo source: tvn24