Zofia Nałkowska

author: Anna Kaszuba-Dębska, 2012


translated by Scotia Gilroy

Zofia Nałkowska was born on November 10th, 1884, at 21 Krucza Street in Warsaw. Her father, Wacław Nałkowski, was a well-known geographer, a graduate of the Jagiellonian University, author of academic publications in the field of geography, and lecturer in private high schools. Anna's mother was originally from Moravia. She was a teacher in a village school in Galicia, and later a correspondent for The Society of Women Geographers in Washington.

Zofia's parents met in Kraków, where they fell in love and decided to spend their lives together. They went to Warsaw, where they got married in 1881, and three years later Zofia, their first daughter, was born. In 1888 her younger sister Hanna was born, who later became a well-known sculptor. Zofia finished studies in the secret Flying University, in which she studied history, geography, economy and languages. She gained most of her wide knowledge thanks to her own curiosity and self-motivation in learning. She made her literary debut at the age of 14 with the poem I Remember in Przegląd Tygodniowy [Weekly News Round-Up] in 1898. She published poems in the modernist journal Chimera. She was active in womens' rights organizations. She gave up poetry for prose, and in 1906 she published her first novel, titled Women.

In 1904 she married the journalist and pedagogue Leon Rygier, with whom she converted to Calvinism. The marriage failed after only a few years, but they were officially divorced only in 1918.

A turning point in her writing occurred during the period of the First World War. A specific desire to understand the human psyche was revealed in the cycle of sketches titled Characters published in 1922, which she continued writing over many years. She received many awards and distinctions. For her most famous work from the inter-war period, Granica [Border], she received the State Literature Award in 1936. She also won the Golden Laurel Prize from the Academy of Polish Literature.

Zofia was married twice. Her second husband was Jan Jur-Gorzechowski, a fighter in the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party. During the inter-war period he became a colonel in the Polish Army, a commanding officer of the military police and border police, and then a general.

During her life Nałkowska lived in many places: in Wołomin (near Warsaw), Kielce, Kraków, Grodno and near Vilnius. In the inter-war years she worked for the Polish government, in the Department of Foreign Propaganda. For many years she was the vice-president of the Polish PEN Club, was active on the Board of Directors of the Polish Writers' Union, and was a representative in the Legislative Parliament. From 1933 she was a member of the Polish Academy of Literature, an activist in the PEN Club, the Polish Writers' Union, and the Society for the Protection of Prisoners, and co-founder and member of the Przedmieście [Suburb] literary group (1933-1937).

During the years of occupation (1939–1944), she was involved in the literary underground. She helped organize false identity documents for Bruno Schulz and plan his escape from the ghetto in Drohobych. They began a close and intimate friendship in 1933, after having met through a chain of female acquaintances. Schulz brought his manuscript to her through the help of Debora Vogel, who knew the sculptor Magdalena Gross, a friend of the sculptor Hanna Nałkowska-Bick, Zofia's sister, who arranged the meeting. Nałkowska was enraptured by Schulz's text. She gave him full support, and helped him make his literary debut.

In her memoirs, Nałkowska wrote: He was too delicate and weak to rescue me – but the world of his ideas gave me a counterbalance, and some respite (…) He bestowed a great richness upon me in his letters, not only through his odd adoration, but also with his deep and creative thoughts. It was something good that I could take in both of my hands, this valuable understanding that evolves in the connection between two people.

Soon after this, in September 1933, during a holiday in Górki, she wrote:
I'm no longer in love with Mirosław Kreżla, only Bruno Schulz. I saw him in August for two days in Warsaw and here in Górki. I'm surrounded by his letters, which help me come to terms with myself. And his pictures! They do not express great joy, but rather a secret, sad happiness.

After Bruno Schulz's literary debut and the publication of Cinnamon Shops by Rój at the end of 1933, they met in Zakopane. After he left, she wrote:
Bruno Schulz left yesterday and he left behind him a huge empty space, even though he is so small. I correspond to his greatest need, which would seem to be for adoration – I am charming and kind, and I allow him to idolize me (…) When I think about why, amongst all of my recent opportunities, I've chosen Bruno Schulz, this whim seems justified and consistent (…) Not only talent, and a command of words and ideas, but also a sophisticated way of reacting to the world, operating in his own private sphere of reality. Even if the erotic confessions have not all been made, our mental bonds are very taut.

After his return to Drohobych, Schulz sent a specially prepared edition of Cinnamon Shops to Zofia, illustrated with his original drawings and covered in brown silk. This present caused jealousy amongst her other admirers. From the fantastic friendship that developed between these two writers, their affinity of thought and mutual adoration, it is certain that Zofia Nałkowska played a huge part in Bruno Schulz's success and felt great pride as a result of it.