Q&A: Wojciech Jagielski
The Polish long-form master and Kapuscinski heir talks about children in war and the fate of journalism
[Later on] I knew that he was reading my stories. He was not a guy who would say, “Yes, great,” but he would call you and he would tell you that, “I read your story.” If he didn’t call, it meant that it was a very bad article.
It would be the saddest thing if we lose this history of our foreign reporting in Poland. For a journalist like Kapuscinski, it was one of the only ways even to write about our own country. In Poland he would be censored if he would write about the miners from the south or poor peasants from the northeast. He was writing about Ethiopia but we knew that he was writing about us.
This is one of the reasons that I decided to join a wire service again. I was fed up with the situation and saying OK, the media are bad, but I’m part of the media, but I’m not one of them. Working for the wires, it gives me the comfort of some pure thing.
You mentioned In Cold Blood, which is an interesting example, because you feel how so many aspects of Capote’s psychology animate the book, which makes it very clearly a work of literature, even if every fact in the book is also true.
There is nothing on the first page that says its pure fiction or is based on true fact. It says, In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. If I report as a journalist it’s in a newspaper, and it is written according to the rules of a newspaper. If I write a book, it’s a book, and I think there are different rules in a book. I don’t create the characters out of thin air, but I would be naïve or cynical if I would say that all the dialogues are 100 percent true.
It’s hard to verbalize that sometimes. What makes this poem a Sestina, and this poem a Haiku? Well, there are rules to the Haiku. If it has this many syllables, this many lines, then it’s Haiku and it’s not a Sestina. In practice, I select certain lines and descriptions from my notebooks and not others because they have a dramatic purpose in the story that has been taking shape in my mind as a result of my experiences. All of those things have a relationship to reality, right? And yet, who can define exactly what that relationship is? It’s always my own subjective reality, which another person might have experienced very differently. One thing that makes it nonfiction and not fiction is that if you decide to sympathize with the villain of my piece, you can go meet with him yourself and try to prove that my story was wrong.
It’s me, a journalist, who selects the personalities, the scenes, the drama. It’s all done by me. The book should tell about Uganda, about the small children, their experience, my experience with them, my previous experience in Africa. That’s what’s important, not that Samuel was Samuel and Nora was Nora. You can forget about Samuel and Nora, but I hope that you remember the main idea of the book.
Listening to you, a Polish writer, talk about children and war, brings to mind for me the great Polish national hero Janusz Korczak, the Jewish educator and theorist who cared for the orphans of the Warsaw Ghetto. Did his example affect your own interest in the experience of children during wartime?
Janusz Korczak was mentioned in my education not as a pioneering psychologist and a fighter for children rights, but as a father figure for the orphans who went with him to Treblinka. We didn’t learn about his ideas. I was taught of the courage of Janusz Korczak who was not afraid to die with the children. But I wouldn’t call it courage; it’s the consequence of his choices and his clear ideas about how children should be brought up. There was nothing cynical in his life, nothing opportunistic. In Poland, in the Catholic faith, we have the saints. I think that Janusz Korczak was a fantastic person who could be proclaimed a saint. He lived like he taught, which is very rare.
The percentage of the Jewish population of Poland that was wiped out during World War II was something like 96 percent. It was a terrible and unprecedented murder that was carried out by the Nazi killers with the approval, and even the participation, of some Poles. So, it is easy for Jews today to reduce the entire Jewish experience in Poland to one idea, which is that the Poles were terrible anti-Semites. But Polish Jews were also Poles. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel prize-winning author, was a Jew who wrote in Yiddish, but he was also a Polish writer from Warsaw. There were thousands of Poles who were very happy when their Jewish neighbors were taken off to the Nazi gas chambers and who gladly helped the Nazis. But Poles also hid thousands of their Jewish neighbors while risking the certain deaths of their own families.
There’s no such a thing as a society of heroes. The real relations are among neighbors. If I can live with my neighbor, whether he is black or a Jew, or a Russian, I will live with them. You need to remember about our own experience and our own history. For 200 years we didn’t have our own state. There was no Poland. We were under occupation of Russia, Germany—and so on. We had only 20 years of independence before Second War started. Twenty years is nothing, it’s a second. So, yes, there were also politicians who were talking about the “true Poles.” And the people who are not true Poles, what does it mean? I don’t know. Maybe I’m also not in the category of the true Pole.
The history is very complicated. I come from the northeast of Poland; I was brought up in small town at the border. You heard the name Jedwabne?
You grew up in Jedwabne?
It was very close. In my small town we have a shop when we were buying sport shoes, all these things. We called it Bognitzki. Bognitzki’s a Polish name for synagogue—and that building used to be a synagogue. There were no Jews in my town when I was growing up, but it was the border between Germany and Poland. When Second War started, this part of Poland was taken by Russia, so the fronts were moving back and forth, and back and forth.
So, when I talk now with these people from my place, I ask them how they feel about what happened at Jedwabne after the war. It was a strange situation. Before the war, the government was Polish, the people who were living in the cities were the Jews, and the poor people in the villages were Poles. Everyone was envying the others. The Jews from the cities, they didn’t want to have anything in common with the Polish villagers. The villagers were envying the Jews, and the government, well, they have to deal with this entire situation. The Poles were always suspicious that the Polish Jews were more Jewish than Poles, that they did not care about the Polish state. Then the Germans came, and they were against the Jews, and then the Soviet army came, and the Jews supported them. The enemies were becoming friends, the friends were becoming enemies, and I know from all my trips and from all reportages that I wrote that nothing is simple.
Poland has a very rich and very tragic history, and everyone who lived in Poland shared some of this tragedy. I’m very sorry for all the people who suffered because of our history. But I’m strongly against accusing from this great distance, because it’s too easy.
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