Fr. Piotr Bączek talks with Joanna Jurgała-Jureczko, an author of the biography of the writer, about life and work of Zofia Kossak-Szatkowska

FR. PIOTR BĄCZEK: - When you met Anna Bugon-Rosset, you were undoubtedly lucky. The daughter of Zofia Kossak is a very credible source of information about the author of ‘The Crusaders’. Was it the beginning of your adventure of uncovering the biography of the writer?

DR JOANNA JURGAŁA-JURECZKA: - Yes, it was somehow in 1993. I was a journalist for ‘Niedzielny Gość’, and there was a season for cucumbers and very little was happening. I thought that I would write something on this writer about whom I knew very little, in fact. Very little was said about her during my studies, there were not any books of hers in the reading list of books at schools or universities. Certainly, I was aware that there had been somebody like her in Górki Wielkie and it was where I met the daughter of Zofia Kossak. Anna Bugnon-Rosset was an excellent person, extremely wise. I often speak about her, as I want the memory about her to remain. I am sure that it was just her mum after whom she took the way of behaving towards people…Mrs. Anna let me participate in tidying-ups done in the building of the museum. It was a previous house of a gardener. The rooms situated upstairs belong to the Kossak family. And I began to experience a great adventure at once. I was a witness of finding a painting connected with the family of Witkacy. Those were the beginnings.

Since those moments you have been doing your research: a PhD thesis, work in the Museum of Zofia Kossak-Szatkowska in Górki Wielkie, writing the biography, a book about the Kossak women. Do people take interest in Zofia Kossak today?

Research centres, like prof. Krystyna Hesja-Kwaśniewicz at the Silesian University systematically deal with the biography and work of the writer. There is a Centre of Culture and Art the Mansion of the Kossak family in Górki Wielkie. Those who arrive in Górki have a possibility to get to know with not only the house of the Kosska family, the place, but also books. On the days of celebrated anniversaries the interest among people is higher. Academic sessions and conferences are organized in bigger centres. A session in the Senate of Poland is envisaged. So, something is happening.

When we hear: Zofia Kossak, we think first – a writer. We know her less as a human being. So, what was the life of Zofia Kossak like?

Surely, not easy. I compare her life to a winding river which changes its direction very roughly. When it seems that everything is going on very well, is getting somehow stable – there appears a radical change, a life bend. In Wołyń, for example, she gets married, has children. A revolution breaks out and she must escape and leave everything. There are lots of such life bends. In one of her letters Zofia Kossak mentions places where she lived. She writes: ‘liquidating one life, organizing and building another one. How many times has one had to move to another place of living?’. Her daughter Anna counted 12 houses. These are houses which Zofia loses. Hence once we published a brochure in the museum entitled: ‘A lost and found home’. Zofia Kossak also loses her close people. In Górki her first son dies. She experiences his death a lot. She places a quotation of St. Stanisław Kostka on the grave: ‘Ad maiora natus sum’ – I was born for greater things. Then there is war and other losses. She acts in conspiracy, saves Jews and is in Pawiak and a concentration camp.
After the war she must leave for abroad. She works physically there, on the farm, in very difficult conditions. She writes very little. In fact it were twelve years of gap in her writing career. It must be a difficult experience for the writer, awarded before the war, and whose works were appreciated and often read.

Are there any complaints about the fate, about God?

Probably not. Once she wrote: ‘How well we pray, by asking God for eternal peace after death. But in order to deserve it, there is no way but go ahead without any complaints’. When she arrives in Górki after emigration, she wants it to be her final place of living – the parish graveyard. She has no strength to look for another home. She speaks about her departing, that she is waiting for a journey by ferry. She is waiting peacefully. She feels that she is experiencing a day before the end. She writes about the forthcoming ‘randez-vous planet’. She feels strangled with politics, the surrounding world (in fact events of March ’68 will come soon). On the other hand she says: ‘One would like to live so, as the times are interesting’. One can see that Zofia Kossak has always had great will and joy about life. I found it a moving moment when I found her notes and the sentence: ‘The end of the work. But life does not end’. ‘The Work’ was written with a capital letter. This is a farewell and even a prophetic sentence. Her Work will end.

- Why does she have the great will and strength to fight with lots of obstacles of the fate?

Zofia Kossak was a very strong woman. Physically petite, fragile but very strong in life. She was strong inside and spiritually. What is more, at that time children were brought up in the spirit of patriotism and life activity, so that they could cope with everything in difficult conditions. It was not true that they lived in luxury. Children were often brought up in a strict way.
Zofia was an example of a person who has deep feeling of dignity. In the film ‘Errata to the biography’ their neighbor Richard Andrews from the emigration times in Cornwall says about the Kossak family. When he was asked after years how he had remembered Zofia Kossak and her husband, he thought for a while and said: ‘Those were very kind people. How to say it…Do you have aristocracy in Poland? I think that they were aristocrats, definitely’. It was unusual that in the people working on the farm that man could see a kind of nobility, sense of their dignity and respect towards the others. This is just aristocracy of spirit.

We speak about Zofia Kossak: a catholic writer. Maybe just faith was the source of spiritual strength for her?

Surely, she considered herself a catholic writer and publicist. But in her biography one can see faith getting mature. As a young girl she lived in the trend of yeoman traditional piety, emotional faith. When she was about 20 years old, she went for Geneva to study arts and she heard a lecture of a French intellectualist there, who radically changed her attitude to Christianity. Since then she had treated faith very seriously, like something which builds her and is the excellent system of philosophy.
Władysław Bartoszewski, who cooperated with Zofia Kossak, said something which raised my reflection. During the Warsaw Uprising on Starówka, there were children of Zofia – Witold and Anna. Bartoszewski met her and asked: - Auntie (she wanted to be called so), where are the children? – They are under the best care – she said. – What care? – God’s care. It was not a game, and she really thought so. She used to say: If we are needed by God, He will save us. For the whole life, difficult and hard life, she really trusted God.

The anniversary of the writer’s death is surely an occasion to recall both her person and her work. After all, we know that in the past there appeared various evaluations of her works and attitude. It proves how unusual person she was….

I always begin work on Zofia Kossak from my going to the graveyard in Górki Wielkie. I get calm there and reflect on everything. My work on the biography and work of Zofia is difficult – not because it is necessary to find materials but because we are still dealing with simplifications and overuses. I am bothered by this attitude. Either her ‘Decalogue of a Pole’ is quoted, or her words about Jews are used, in order to call her anti-Semite. I do not like extremes in speaking about Zofia Kossak.
She never got engaged in politics. She did not get identified with a political group. We cannot say that somebody might have got control of her. She had her own opinions. She cooperated with people but on her conditions.
She respected the human being. If somebody was in danger, she always tried to save him, no matter what political party he belonged to or what his opinion was. In everything she did was authentic, natural, open and sincere, as well as charismatic and witty, joyful, and always thinking positively. She was not able to be on the first pages. She was always herself, a great individuality, and did unexpected things, not allowing for being inscribed in a simple scheme. She was this kind of person and I perceive her in this way.

What you are talking about is clearly seen in the attitude of Zofia towards Jews…

One must consider the fact that she belonged to the pre-war gentry. The Kossak family, like many others, was inscribed into a kind of a trend of thinking about Jews. Yes, Zofia Kossak wrote about how Jews used to settle on our lands and how we had to defend our economy from them. I am asking Mrs. Anna what this ‘anti-semitism’ would be like or what else is attributed to her mother others. She gave me an example: ‘My mother used to say: if you are going to the hairdresser in Skoczów and there is a Polish hairdresser and a Jewish hairdresser – let the Polish one earn’. On the other hand, when during one of speeches a Jewish speaker was being attacked, Zofia wrote an article at once forbidding this behavior. When the extermination of Jews began, she set up Żegota. These are facts proving whom she supported, whether she was anti-semite or not. Certainly, her pre-war statements can be interpreted in a various way. There are also theories: she was anti-semite who saved Jews in order to calm down her own conscience or baptize Jewish children. Once I met an Italian professor Carla Tonini (an author of the book ‘Time of hatred and time of care. Zofia Kossak-Szczucka’) who arrived in the museum with this thesis.
Whereas Zofia Kossak was the first intellectualist who wrote a protest against persecution of Jews. ‘Regardless of what you thought and wrote about them before the war – it is necessary to save them’. Jews, reading this protest, were crying. We should add that Zofia risked her life and life of her children when saving Jews from ghetto. She save thousands of people by Żegota. What more to say?

How to evaluate her work in a literary sense?

She is an excellent writer. Certainly, like every author, she wrote better and worse books. In the magazine ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’ there has recently appeared a harming statement concerning both the work of Zofia Kossak and her life attitude. It was written: ‘the second-rank writer, the first-rank anti-semite’. Whereas neither the first nor the other statement is real. Before the war she was respected, awarded and her works were translated into many languages. She had significant words. ‘The Crusades’ is a book which was assigned for the Literary Noble Prize. Stating the thesis about the second-rate writer is harming.
Everybody who knows literature and reads books by Zofia Kossak, must pay a tribute to her. These are excellent historical novels, perfectly set in the realities of the epoch, and also perfect in a literary sense. She has a great epic ability. After all she was a granddaughter of the artist Juliusz Kossak, a niece of Wojciech. Zofia paints images with a pen in her novels. So, in her works we have a painting-like vision, excellent language, excellent construction – here I mean an epic of crusades, which is highly appreciated by literature critics. Her books were bestsellers.
We must be aware that in communist Poland they were removed from publishing and she had to leave for abroad, otherwise she would have had to be arrested. She thought that she was leaving the country for a short time, but her emigration lasted 12 years. This was a break in her literary biography which she could not make up for. All that made the person and work of Zofia Kossak reminded and restored.

What can Zofia Kossak say to the man of today’s times?

It seems that a good way is to present her literary works and her very interesting life. But it does not concern a simplified biography; either she is presented in a monumental way as anti-semite. Accentuating the extreme is not a good way. What is more – it is harming for such a multi-coloured and multi-thread biography inscribed in the commotion of not easy political history. The biography of Zofia Kossak is an excellent material for a film. I am fully for it as this is a movie biography. It includes surprising turning points, dynamics and everything was written by life. These are ready scenes. It is not necessary to make up anything. I hope that such a film will be made.

Translated by Aneta Amrozik

Niedziela 14/2018 (8 IV 2018)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl