Orsolya Zsuzsanna Kovács: Polish Jigsaw. Fourteen Interviews

Friendship. Seemingly a simple matter. After all, it does not require more than two people. Hence friendship is “as simple as ABC”, one would think.

And one would be utterly wrong. Each of us can probably recall the name of our best pals in nursery school times. But probably just a handful of us have managed to keep in contact with them all the way to the present day. It is inevitable that things should evolve so, for one simple reason. The areas of interest, values and priorities of two individuals hardly ever coincide continuously and consistently over several decades. As a young adult or a parent, it may turn out that those whom we felt so close to as a five-year-old or a teen were merely two ships that pass in the night. There is no lifelong warranty on friendship.

Like with all rules, there are exceptions. Friendships sometimes do last a lifetime. Such rare relationships are typically forged through great effort, mutual attention, empathy, and continual and genuine interest not only in the shared past, but also in the dynamic present, and are continuously influenced by changing circumstances. They are also forged by avoiding the easy options of parting ways or disguising difficulties by a fake smile of conflict avoidance, and instead calmly and openly explaining to the other party what we consider inappropriate or, God forbid, offensive in their behaviour. To keep a friendship alive it is essential to cast an account from time to time, and also to put ourselves in the others’ shoes, and see ourselves through their eyes. The presence of all these factors then creates a firm base to avoid risking the friendship through in considerate deeds or statements, and helps both sides make the right choices at decisive moments.

One of the results of this conscious, active attention (and, from the readers’ point of view, hopefully also one of the facilitators of it) is Orsolya Zsuzsanna Kovács’s work Polish Jigsaw. It looks at the current state of unofficial Polish–Hungarian relations, as well as the challenges they could face in the near future. It contains fourteen interviews, with fourteen contemporary (or recently deceased) Polish personalities, each of whom managed to hit a home run in their game, and also had a hand in keeping alive the traditional Polish–Hungarian friendship.

A friendship with a legacy so deeply imprinted in the collective consciousness of both nations that it is proverbial in the most literal sense.1 The interdependence of the two lands is perhaps most concisely captured by the 19th-century Polish publicist and political activist Stanisław Worcell: “Hungary and Poland are two eternal oaks. Each of them shot up a separate and distinct trunk, but their roots widely scattered in the ground are intertwined and knitted invisibly. Hence the existence and vigour of one is the condition of the other’s life and health.” The metaphor is not the visionary product of poetic imagination, but the factual summary of a geopolitical and historical reality that had been present for almost a millennium by the time Worcell put his words on paper. Intermarriage between the Árpád dynasty, the founders of the Hungarian state, and the Polish Piasts was a common practice ever since the dawn of the Kingdom of Hungary. The two nations even shared the same monarch twice during their history: first between 1370 and 1382 when Louis the Great (born to a Polish mother) reigned over the two countries, then two centuries later, during the brief rule of Władisław of Varna. The younger daughter of Louis, Saint Jadwiga, inheriting the Polish throne,2 became one of its most popular monarchs. From 1576 to 1586 Poland again had a Hungarian ruler with Stephen Báthory, considered as one of the most successful ever Polish kings. Both are buried in Kraków’s Wawel Cathedral.

In the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Polish General Józef Bem became a national hero in Hungary too, by demonstrating outstanding capabilities as a military strategist during the defence of Transylvania. Hungary’s fight for independence from Austria was also supported by a Polish legion of more than 2,500 volunteers, led by General Józef Wysocki. Payback time arrived in 1939, when the Hungarian government declined – on the grounds of its long-standing friendship with Poland, and as a matter of “Hungarian honour”3 – Hitler’s request to facilitate the conquest of Poland by allowing the transit of German forces across Carpathian Rus (then re-attached to Hungary). The refusal allowed the Polish government and tens of thousands of military personnel to escape to Hungary and Romania. By the end of that year 140,000 Poles had found asylum in Hungary,4 where a secondary school was opened for them, providing 600 Polish children with the opportunity to continue their studies in their native tongue. The Hungarian support to Poland showed it was possible to walk a narrow path and provide a friendly nation with active support even when the prevailing political situation and short-term interests strongly indicated not taking a stand was the easier solution.

The Kovács interviews – which include the world-famous film director Andrzej Wajda, Nobel-prize winner for peace Lech Wałęsa, ex-Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek, Poland’s Ambassador to Hungary Roman Kowalski, and Stanisław Dziwisz, the personal assistant of Pope John Paul II for nearly four decades – all provide evidence that this heritage has not faded into mythology, but in fact continues to be the basis for a productive, present-tense cooperation.

All the interviewees are – or were – avowed experts in their field. However, Kovács also aims to discover the individual behind the professional, and bring both the speakers and the subject matters closer to the reader. She also reveals several less well known details about the shared experience that grounded the interest and sympathy of consecutive Polish generations towards Hungarians. The reader discovers, for instance, that The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár was a cult children’s book for many Poles and often a first step towards developing Hungarian-friendly sentiments. We also learn how aid packages were put together in 1956 in Poland in support of Hungary during the anti-Soviet Revolution and the subsequent invasion, and how it felt to hide in the attic the legendary Hungarian revolutionary flag with the hole in the middle where the communist coat-of-arms was cut out. Less known is the fact that the first monument paying tribute to the Hungarian Revolution outside of the Western world was erected in 1986 in the Polish town of Podkowa-Leśna by the local priest. The account of the interviewees on the origins of their interest in Hungary also sometimes reveals episodes fit for novels, such as the following story recalled by the late law professor Eugeniusz Piontek: “I visited Hungary for the first time after the Revolution and by pure coincidence I ended up at the place of a Polish–Hungarian couple. The wife was Polish, the husband Hungarian. They met in 1938 on the World Scout Jamboree. It was love at first sight. They maintained correspondence for a while also after World War II broke out, but eventually lost contact. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, the girl served as a messenger between Żoliborz and Kampinos, so she had to sneak her way through the areas controlled by the Hungarian squadron several times. Shortly before the defeat of the Uprising she was captured and escorted to a Hungarian colonel. The girl went pale when she realised that the colonel was no other than her lost love. The colonel hugged the Polish prisoner of war, then brought her with himself to Hungary where they got married.”

Though the interviews are often very personal, they are always professionally carried out, with the focus always on the subject matter. By bringing the speaker closer to the reader as an individual, Kovács repositions the audience for a better acceptance of views and opinions that are sometimes less flattering or not aligned with their presumptions. She translates the myth of Polish–Hungarian brotherhood into tangible, personal reality, preparing the base for the reader to take it as benevolent criticism from a good friend when speakers are highlighting cases of (not necessarily wilful) default or are pointing out such crucial elements of our current reality that might have failed to attract the right amount of focus from decision makers. The interview with Katyń expert and Smolensk crash victim Andrzej Przewoźnik, for instance, clearly demonstrates that the traditional Polish aversion to Russia is not only a heritage defined by historical and geopolitical factors, but is also fuelled by recent diplomatic episodes, such as the discontinuing of the Katyń Case by the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation in 2004 with the claim that it was not a genocide, or when a Military Prosecutor four years later described the murdered as “traitors and spies”. In the light of recent events it is almost shocking to read how the interviewees, throughout the last decade, passionately insist on the need for Ukraine to leave the Russian sphere of interest via an expedited admission to the European Union. The reader can hardly avoid a strong feeling of self-doubt mixed with a pinch of guilt and ponder whether or not the decision makers and intellectuals of our countries have really done everything possible to avoid the current situation when the headlines are not about Ukraine’s progress towards EU-membership, but the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the war in Donbass.

This compilation of interviews is a thoughtful and personal, exciting and wise read that sometimes even allows itself to be touching, and delivers the reader a good number of lessons. A thorough and genuinely honest report on the current status of a friendship rooted in a thousand years of history. A valuable piece of work which ignites the reader’s self-confidence by pointing out that firm historical base and consequent contemporary richness of the Polish–Hungarian brotherhood. It also warns us that the traditional friendship of the two nations is of such value that it should never be compromised or put at risk because of short term interests or lack of interest at all.

(Kovács Orsolya Zsuzsanna: Lengyel mozaik. Tizennégy interjú. Magyar Napló, Budapest, 2014.)

1 The Polish version of the proverb is: “Polak, Węgier — dwa bratanki, / i do szabli, i do szklanki, / oba zuchy, oba żwawi, / niech im Pan Bóg błogosławi., whereas the Hungarian version is as follows: “Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát / Együtt harcol s issza borát / Vitéz s bátor mindkettője / Áldás szálljon mindkettőre.” The English rendition of the proverb would be: “Pole and Hungarian cousins be, / good for fight and good for party. / Both are valiant, both are lively, / Upon them may God’s blessings be.

2 The heiress to the Hungarian throne was Jadwiga’s elder sister Mary.

3 “I would sooner blow up the rail lines than to participate in an attack on Poland”: this is how regent Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya allegedly announced the refusal to the German ambassador, meanwhile Prime Minister Pál Teleki stated the Hungarian position in his letter to Adolf Hitler the following way: “It’s a matter of Hungarian honour not to take part in any aggression against Poland (…) therefore, we cannot afford under any circumstances to transport German troops to Poland on Hungarian railways.” One and a half year later, on 3 April 1941, having been informed about the preparations for the upcoming invasion against Yugoslavia by German troops from Hungarian territory, Teleki committed suicide, which was later praised by Sir Winston Churchill as an act of “a sacrifice to absolve himself and his people from guilt in the German attack on Yugoslavia”.

4 The issuing of the identification cards that gave Polish asylum seekers legal protection in Hungary was coordinated by Dr József Antall, Sr (1896–1974), the father of Prime Minister Dr József Antall, Jr (1932–1993) who, being the first Hungarian Prime Minister after the fall of the Iron Curtain, signed the alliance of the Visegrád Group countries on 15 February 1991 with Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel and Polish President Lech Wałęsa.

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