Józefina Szelińska

author: Anna Kaszuba-Dębska, 2012


translated by Scotia Gilroy

Józefina (Juna) Szelińska was born in 1905 in Brzeżany, in the Tarnopol Voivodeship. She was the daughter of Zygmunt Szeliński, a lawyer, and Helena Szelińska. Her parents converted to Catholicism and changed their last name from Schrenzel to Szeliński. She spent her childhood in the family home in Janów. She attended junior high school in Lwów, and then art history in the Polish Studies Department at the University of Lwów, under Professor Juliusz Kleiner. She received a PhD in 1929.

On September 1st, 1930, she began teaching at the Private Teaching Seminary for Women in Drohobych and the Henryk Sienkiewicz Private Co-educational High School. Alfred Shreyer, one of her former pupils, recalls that she was a very warm, caring teacher with motherly qualities, often embracing the students and stroking their heads. She became friends in Drohobych with Stefania Czarnecka. During her university days in Lwów, one of her acquaintances was Professor Arnold Spaet, a translator of German literature. She also made some of her own efforts at translation.

While staying in Drohobych in 1932 or at the beginning of 1933, her work colleague, Aleksander Kuszczak, introduced her to the teacher and painter Bruno Schulz, who asked Józefina to pose for a portrait. During these portrait sessions some mutual feelings and a deep intellectual understanding grew between them. Bruno did many portraits of Juna, with both pencil and pastels. Years later, Józefina recalled:
A short time later Schulz visited me. I knew absolutely nothing about him. Only later I saw the dancing couples he had painted in the halls of the high school, and two pictures in the museum in Lwów: a self-portrait and a figural composition (…) The first time he visited me he gave me the impression of being very young, younger than me – and I was 27 at the time. I was amazed when he told me he was 41 years old. I couldn't quite believe it. From that moment some sessions began, during which he put away his pastels and we talked. He admitted bashfully that his book would be published, and that he was being helped by Zofia Nałkowska. He brought out Rilke, he read some of his poems in an unforgettable and eloquent voice that was mysteriously different from all typical forms of recitation (…) These meetings at my house and then our walks through the meadows behind the house, in the birch forest, gave me a foretaste of something miraculous, inimitable experiences which so rarely occur in life. It was the sheer essence of poetry (….) He found in every person some kind of animal resemblance. "And what kind of animal do I remind you of?" I asked with curiosity. "An antelope." "And you?" I asked him. "A dog," he answered.

She was tall, slender and elegant, with black hair pulled into a bun, large hands and long legs. She had an unusual intellect, and surrounded Bruno with warmth and offered him a sense of security. He wrote: She, my fianceé, helps me participate in life. With her mediation I am a human being, and not merely a lemur or gnome. She loves me more than I love her, but I need her more in order to live. With her love she redeemed me when I was almost completely lost in a remote no-man's-land, in idle fantasies. She restored me to life and to earthly existence. She is the closest person to me in this world.

In 1934, Józefina lost her job in Drohobych and was forced to return to her parents' home in Janów. Meanwhile a passionate and voluminous correspondence blossomed between her and Bruno, who wrote in a letter to his friend Tadeusz Breza: Juna is bored in Janów and longs for Warsaw.

They wrote to each other continuously while she spent time at her parents' house, on vacation in Jastarnia and when she received, with the help of her friend Tadeusz Szturm de Sztrem, a job in Warsaw that she had been desiring, though it did not end up fulfilling her career ambitions. She worked in the Central Statistical Office. This job was meant to enable the engaged couple to live together. They attempted to legalize their union. In 1935 they spent their holidays in Zakopane, spending time in the artistic and literary community there, visiting Witkacy, Gombrowicz, Wittlin and Harenda at Maria Kasprowiczowa's villa.

Bruno got engaged to Juna, and for his Catholic fianceé he left the Jewish Community on February 8th, 1936. He was not baptized, however. He tried to arrange a civil wedding ceremony in Katowice, where the law was more liberal and inter-faith marriages were allowed, but he needed to obtain an official temporary residence registration in the Silesia region, which unfortunately ended up being impossible.

They worked together on translating Franz Kafka into Polish and their book was published by Rój, but Juna was not given credit as a translator.

They rarely spent time together. Once in a while they took trips together to Zakopane, or met in Warsaw during Schulz's short holidays. Because of this, Juna fell into a state of depression and some misunderstandings arose between them. Bruno wrote to the Brezas: She is a total hypochondriac and plagued by groundless fears.

He had to decide whether to move to Warsaw, which he was unable to do because he felt inseparably linked to Drohobych. Juna wished to live together in the capital, and took an office job that was intellectually beneath her, a boring and tedious job that stifled her, but which provided enough material support for both of them. Bruno explained his indecision by his obligation to take care of his ill sister, her son and his cousin. Finally, no longer able to withstand the situation, at the beginning of 1937 Juna attempted to commit suicide by swallowing a large number of sleeping pills.

Thankfully she was rescued. Bruno came to Warsaw and took care of her. After leaving the hospital, Juna left Warsaw and went to her family home in Janów to convalesce. Their marriage plans ended at this time and they broke off their engagement.

During the German occupation, Józefina gave Polish lessons secretly in Warsaw, and later hid in Laski. After the war she settled by herself in the north of the country, as far away from Drohobych as possible.