Kuncewicz, Maria (1899–1989)

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Kuncewicz, Maria (1899–1989)

Polish author whose essentially autobiographical works, particularly the novel Cudzoziemka (The Stranger), are sensitive studies of alienation and otherness. Name variations: Maria Kuncewiczowa; Maria Kuncewicowa. Born Maria Szczepanska on October 30, 1899 (some sources state 1897), in Samara, Russia; died in 1989; daughter of Róza Szczepanska; married Jerzy Kuncewicz (1893–1984, an author and lawyer); children: one son.

Regarded as one of interwar Poland's most respected writers, Maria Kuncewicz was born in 1899 in the Russian city of Samara, on the Volga, into a family typical of the patriotic Polish intelligentsia of the late 19th century; her father was a headmaster, and her mother a violinist. Although her family moved to Warsaw when she was only two, Maria would remember the sense of otherness that her family felt while living in Russia, to which they had been exiled after the failed Polish insurrection of 1863. Kuncewicz had both literary and musical talents, and studied French philology at the University of Nancy, Polish philology in the University of Warsaw and Cracow's Jagiellonian University, as well as voice at both the Paris and Warsaw Conservatories. For some years, she found it impossible to choose between music and literature as careers, and sang professionally on opera and recital stages in Poland and Germany while continuing to write in her leisure hours. As early as 1918, however, it became apparent to many readers and critics that a major new talent had surfaced in Polish literary life when her first published story appeared in the journal Pro Arte et Studio.

Living in Warsaw at a time in which cultural creativity in some ways rivalled that of Berlin and Paris, Kuncewicz had by the mid-1920s earned a strong reputation as a writer and was taking full advantage of the city. She was in the center of Polish intellectual life. Her daytime work at the office of the Polish section of the PEN Club, of which she was vice-president, enabled her to meet not only most of the nation's leading writers, but many foreign authors as well. By the end of the 1920s, Kuncewicz had published a number of stories which appeared in the collection Przymierze z dzieckiem (An Alliance with a Child, 1927) as well as her first novel, Twarz mezczyzny (The Face of a Man, 1928). In this work, she pursued the ideal of the "Skamander" school of writers, which was to create a "more normal" type of literature in Poland, focusing on the psychological uniqueness of individuals while moving away from any political or nationalistic agenda. These works, which enjoyed critical acclaim, told of women's experiences of love, marriage and maternity. The style was naturalistic, not overly analytical, and contained satisfying doses of lyricism and subtle humor.

In 1935, Kuncewicz published her novel Cudzoziemka (The Stranger, also translatable as The Foreign Woman) in the newspaper Kurier Poranny (Morning Courier). The definitive edition was published in Warsaw in 1936, and a translation into English appeared in 1945. In this novel, considered by critics to be her best work, Kuncewicz presents a subtle psychological portrait of a Polish woman who must confront the otherness of her Russian upbringing. Clearly based on the author's mother (even the name of the fictional protagonist and her real-life mother Róza are one and the same), the novel probes the tangle of emotions of an essentially egocentric woman who has built her life around dreams of an unrequited love. It has been suggested that the Polish heroine, whose existence has been distorted since childhood by the harsh forces of exile and cultural alienation, is essentially a symbol of Poland, and that her lack of inner peace, sharp memories of national defeat and humiliation, and profound lack of personal satisfaction are all reflections of the tragic history of the Polish people.

Despite personal turmoil and the rush toward chaos and war that marked the 1930s, Maria Kuncewicz was often able to find some serenity both in her life and writing. This is best reflected in her 1933 collection of stories, Dwa ksiezyce (Two Moons), which is set in the picturesque town of Kazimierz on the Vistula, a resort that enjoyed a reputation as a haven for Poland's artistic community. Now a highly respected artist, in 1936 she received the Literary Award of the City of Warsaw, followed the next year by the "golden laurel" of the Polish Academy of Literature. Having already won the approval of the nation's intellectual elite, in 1938 Maria Kuncewicz chose to place her art directly into the public sphere, creating Poland's first radio serials, Dni powszednie panstwa Kowalskich (The Ordinary Days of the Kowalskis), and Kowalscy sie odnalezli (The Kowalskis Have Returned). The nation's unsolved social, economic and moral problems were probed in two books of stories published in 1939, in the last months of an increasingly illusory peace: Serce kraju (The Heart of the Country) and W domu i w Polsce (At Home and in Poland).

In light of the tragic events soon to impact on Poland, very likely the most significant book Maria Kuncewicz published in 1939 was Miasto Heroda: Notatki Palestynskie (The City of Herod: Palestinian Notes). On cordial terms with fellow writers of Jewish origins, she was interested in Jewish culture and in the Zionist movement. Invited by the Hebrew branch of PEN to visit Palestine, she took extensive notes, which saw print just weeks before the German attack of September 1939. Her sympathetic comments on the problems and achievements of the Jewish renaissance taking place in Palestine, particularly on the role of Polish-born Jews, remain of historical as well as literary interest.

Maria Kuncewicz fled from German-occupied Poland in the early months of Nazi rule, arriving in Paris in the last days of 1939. After a few months in France, she escaped the Nazi juggernaut once more, finding refuge in England. The United Kingdom was a place of refuge for Polish soldiers, sailors and fliers who had escaped their defeated nation, vowing to fight until the defeat of the hated Nazi occupiers. A small but lively colony of Polish intellectuals flourished in London and several other British cities during the war years, and Kuncewicz quickly resumed her writing and publication in exile newspapers and journals. Her days were filled with her work as head of the Polish Section of the PEN Club in Exile. As early as 1942, one of her novels appeared in print in London under the title Polish Millstones. At the end of the war in 1945, she published an anthology, Modern Polish Prose, designed to introduce the English-speaking world to a largely unknown literary terrain.

Kuncewicz decided to remain in England when the Communists ruled Poland from 1945 to 1948. Concerned about the plight of the world's emigre artists and writers, in 1949 she sent an appeal to the United Nations to create a "world citizenship" status for this particularly vulnerable group of displaced persons. Despite considerable support from prominent Western intellectuals, her proposal was ignored. In 1956, she moved to the United States, where her considerable reputation had already preceded her. Her status as an expert on Polish literature was further enhanced in 1962 with the publication of her anthology The Modern Polish Mind. From 1963 until 1971, she taught Polish literature at the University of Chicago. At the time of her retirement in 1971, she was awarded the Medal of the Kosciuszko Foundation in recognition of her outstanding contributions to Polish and American cultures.

Starting in 1956, Poland underwent a process of considerable intellectual and artistic liberalization, and Maria Kuncewicz began to visit her mother country in the 1960s, living in her beloved town of Kazimierz while there. Upon her retirement from teaching in 1971, she settled permanently in Kazimierz. Despite advancing years, the venerable author remained productive, publishing two volumes of autobiography, Fantomy (Phantoms, 1971) and Natura (Nature, 1975). She wrote in Natura of her never-ceasing search for artistic and human truths: "I did not know then, as I don't know now, the nature of man or rather nature in general with all her hidden layers, fraudulent mimicry and mysteriousness of changes." She looked upon her efforts to create "world citizenship" for intellectuals as a noble failure: "I sift through the yellowed papers, and don't regret that I have amassed this pile of garbage."

Greatly respected in Poland—she received the Wlodzimierz Pietrzak Award in 1969 and the National Award (First Class) on two occasions, in 1974 and 1978—Maria Kuncewicz remained popular with a younger generation of readers, while at the same time literary scholars began to investigate facets of her lifetime achievement. A major personal loss was the death in March 1984 of her husband Jerzy Kuncewicz, who was not only a respected author but also a lawyer, natural historian, philosopher, leader of the prewar peasant movement, and a vice president of the exile Polish National Council in London during World War II. Maria Kuncewicz died in 1989, the year free elections finally ended the Communist regime in Poland. By the end of her long and productive life, her books had been translated into many languages, including English, Russian, Czech, French, Italian, Norwegian, Estonian, Spanish, Rumanian, and Slovak. In her will, she established the Kuncewicz Foundation, the goal of which is to help build bridges of understanding and friendship between the nations neighboring on Poland's borders.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia