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//PAPER CLIP BOX// Conversation with Mieczysław Czuma

PAPER CLIP BOX Conversation with Mieczysław Czuma

Conversation with Mieczysław Czuma

Did you take over Marian Eile's desk after he left?

Not directly: before me Mieczysław Kieta sat at it for some three years. I came to Przekrój in early 1973 and was Poland's youngest editor-in-chief, in addition of an all-Poland magazine! Being a Polish philologist I knew who Marian Eile was. Besides, I obviously read Przekrój before, everyone did. It has to be said that at that time, after he left in 1969, Eile was to some extent effaced by the authorities, or at least they attempted to efface him from the Polish people's consciousness. You know, of course, why things turned out like this?

March 1968 and so on?...

That's it, March and so on. I realised, however, that I had to establish a connection with what he had been doing. It became my ambition and my message at the same time: to grasp the context of the old Przekrój. Between us there was Kieta, who did not strive to adhere to Eile's style. I wanted continuity. It is common knowledge that Eile created a magazine-phenomenon, one of a kind between the Elbe and Vladivostok. The thing is, he lived in the times which in their own way were very favourable to him. The Iron Curtain was still going strong and it was enough to make a small crack in it to let in a gleam of light  from the West. This became Eile's religion. Apart from bringing together great Polish authors, he was also aware that his mission was all about smuggling Western civilisation into our country. In his weekly I read Kafka, Sagan, Hemingway, Steinbeck in Juliusz Kydryński's excellent translations. It was enough for him to go to Paris once a year and come back with a suitcase full of books. And then everything was published...

Even the reprints from Paris Match!

Even the reprints, for there was no copyright at that time; no one had any reservations. Thanks to it we could learn about Picasso, Bardot, Wright's architecture, in short – we kept up-to-date with all the news. Eile added some snobbery in the good sense of the word and specific intimacy to it in order to bring those new trends closer and domesticate them. My situation was no longer so comfortable. When Edward Gierek was in office Poland was slowly opening to the West; television was becoming our competition, too. I had to find a slightly different idea for the continuity: I attempted to make a magazine that would accompany the readers in their private way of thinking about the world. I did not want to teach or show the way; this was the domain of the party press. Instead, I focused on creating a cosy, multigenerational weekly, exactly in the spirit of Eile, for both a maid and a granny...

And for anyone from a professor to a charlady?

We would say: for simple ministers and sophisticated charladies.

This is nice.

And we were mostly successful. We lived in austere times, for 1970s and, to an even greater extent, 1980s were like this and we were aware that each of our readers has only one life, which he would like to live in a nice way, despite everything. That is why we alluded to Eile's tradition: we gave tips about what to wear, what to see in the cinema, what exhibition to visit... Basia Hoff was sent on business trips to Paris. She would go to fashion shows with her notebook, draw pictures and then the results were what they were. Then it was said that everyone dresses like in Przekrój, in Paris too!

Who could travel abroad? As for the editorial staff of the old Przekrój, the ones who travelled were the reporter Olgierd Budrewicz, of course, who, as he himself said 'was everywhere' and the editor-in-chief with his deputy Janina Ipohorska. And when your were the editor?

It varied. My situation was good because I was in Krakow.  Eile had already been able to take advantage of it. I had to travel to Warsaw and there I would say in different assemblies that Krakow did not allow me to do this or that; in Krakow, in turn, I insisted that Warsaw did not wish something. Hence, I adopted an evasive strategy and perversely explained to the authorities that serious newspapers like Trybuna Ludu or Gazeta Krakowska must feature serious issues, whereas a magazine like Przekrój can frolic a little. So let Basia Hoff go to Paris, do her business, show what to wear... Zbigniew Rogowski travelled too, even to Hollywood. It was him who conducted interviews with Gregory Peck or Sophia Loren. He would leave for two months, sustain himself thanks to his contacts among the Polish community in the United States and bring back wonderful content. What is more, each of his interviewees, be it even Billy Wilder, would leave a dedication 'To the readers of Przekrój' and that is what earned a reputation for us. Everyone was envious!

And Jan Kalkowski travelled to Bulgaria to get the recipes?

Yes, sometimes. Then he praised Balkan cuisine. Let us start with the fact that I inherited some of the staff from Eile. And so there was Wanda Błońska and Wanda Falkowska, Basia Hoff, Roman Burzyński, Wojciech Plewiński, Lucjan Kydryński, Zygmunt Strychalski, Ludwik Jerzy Kern and Jaś Kalkowski, the author of the column 'One dish' and propagator of various campaigns. Mrs Maria Ziemiańska, a great lady, and Mrs Sarapata, who had been a typist for many years, stayed at the secretary's office. But most importantly I inherited Daniel Mróz. All in all, I believe that it was Mróz who created the formula for Przekrój anew. We had lousy paper, which was terrible for printing photographs, especially the colour ones, since the colours would misalign.

Before there was the so-called tri-colour and the colours misaligned, too.

Well, unfortunately yes. And this poverty had to be turned into an asset. It turned out that a black line on white background worked best. As a result, Mróz changed into a meticulous craftsman and drew thousands of tiny lines on paper, devising a new formula for graphic illustration. When Eile was the editor, he mainly illustrated short stories by Szaniawski, Mrożek...

And Kafka, and Lem! He made vignettes, too!

Well, yes, but when I was the editor he also illustrated texts by Harasymowicz, Stoberski and in the first place he drew cover illustrations.

Those were mainly collages, weren't they?

Yes, the famous Plewiński's cover girls were before my time and they were an attraction in the times when other magazines still compulsorily featured photographs of women workers. In my times a pretty girl on a cover was not anything original any more, that is why we went for collages, partly ironically and partly retro. These were the best years in this graphic designer's career.

Macedoński's drawings were still there as well, weren't they?

Adaś Macedoński, of course – there was a lot of him. This was our golden age: we had a circulation of 760,000 copies and one million during summer holidays. No returns! Eile had much lower circulation numbers. In the 1970s the subscription of Przekrój reached one hundred two countries across the world. Obviously, the Soviet Union came first, then there were the United States, but two copies reached as far as the Samoan Islands and one – Mauritius. One of the reasons for such popularity was that when I was the editor Przekrój was the cult magazine of Polish expats. As you might know, at that time the magazines that were sent abroad were specially edited by the services. They were a kind of brochures which showed how beautiful and wonderful Poland was. Przekrój, on the other hand, was verified on the home market – it was read by a mum in Poland and her daughter in the United States in an unchanged form. This gave us credibility.

And how did you set out to establish a connection with the tradition?

I was still green then and I wanted to find a common denominator with the old editorial staff. I started with paying Eile a visit and proposing co-operation. And he, officially written off, accepted the proposal. He continued to draw his little vignettes, small illustrations. We made use of already existing designs, of course, but he also delivered some new ones. I also paid a visit to Janina Ipohorska, an elderly lady at that time. She agreed to carry on with the column 'Democratic Savoir-Vivre' under the nickname Jan Kamyczek and ran it till the end, until she died. Then the column was taken over by Eile, who also ran it until his death, that is for another 3 years. They were both wronged by the authorities, brutally pushed aside. Thanks to these small tasks they could at least in some way enjoy something they had created themselves. What is more, I brought back some of the satirical columns I remembered from the old Przekrój: Bęc-Walski, Afanasjew, whom I was always very fond of, Eryk Lipiński... I tried to revive the old spirit.

Where did Eile live then?

On the last floor of a tower block in Litewska Street – this is where I used to visit him. We would talk, drink coffee and so on. This was his little flat and at the same time a studio, in which he painted and drew until his last days. Incidentally, I wanted to organise an exhibition of his works, but it was in 1984 and he died at this particular time, so unfortunately the exhibition did not come off. For the tenth anniversary of his death I made a plaque to commemorate him. It is located in Mała Street, on the corner of Felicjanek Street, where he used to live before. I unveiled it with Błoński and Markiewicz, who, after all, had been members of the old editorial staff.

Is it true that everyone was crying at Ipohorska's funeral?

Indeed, it was a very sad ceremony, for everyone realised what harm she had suffered. I happened to give eulogies at both funerals.

Let us come back to your visits in Litewska Street. Did Eile give you editorial advice?

He showed great friendliness towards me, but he did not impose anything on me. He was wise with the wisdom of a man who realises the circumstances he is in and he acknowledged, so to speak, a changing of the guard, in spite of having a snotnose in front of him. Actually, I also knew what game I was playing. Our relationship was based on partnership, not a master – disciple one. At least, this is how he wanted to shape it, for which I much respected him. For example, he gave me this beautiful picture...

It seems that at the end of his life he was mainly occupied with painting and drawing. Did he not have a calligram exhibition?

Yes, but in Warsaw. In Krakow, unfortunately, it did not come off.

As for his later works, his illustrations for Szpilki have been preserved, although that magazine was Przekrój's competition?

Szpilki was all about satire. Here in Krakow, we do not do such scathing satire, the one that kills. We prefer a gentle smile, musing, a pause in speech – we are people prone to compromise, hence the saying krakowskim targiem (split the difference). And that was the difference between the magazine edited by Eryk Lipiński, who was a belligerent man and who actively engaged in ideological matters and the slightly dreamy Przekrój. Actually, I am not in the least ashamed of these warm slippers; we were bourgeois and that is what we meant to be.

There you are, you are a well-known krakauer[1]...

Krakauerologist.

I am sorry. Did not your Przekrój acquire Galician character because of it? Eile himself lived in Warsaw until the outbreak of the war. That is where most of his editorial team came from and he made a magazine in the spirit of the capital, but generally looking up to Paris.

You are right. My affinities remained Galician, but I was well aware of the fact that I was making an all-Poland weekly and if we did feature some local material, it had to be outstanding. So when it came to parallel categories, news from Warsaw, Gdańsk or Szczecin were given priority. As for my krakauerology, it follows from the fact that I was born in Zwierzyniec, the most wonderful place in the world, and for many years my love for this place was put aside: I suppressed Krakow in me. Finally, my love exploded and I turned from an editor into an author and co-author of books and guidebooks to my city.

Let us come back to the moment you became the editor-in-chief. Is it true that the editorial office of Przekrój was located in a flat and that letters from the readers were kept in a bath?

True. It was a three-room flat in Manifestu Lipcowego, now Piłsudskiego Street. The proofreaders worked in the bathroom, the secretary's office was in the kitchen, the graphic designers sat in the hall... The biggest room was allocated as Eile's studio; this is where his famous desk would be. When I joined the editorial staff I made a small revolution: I moved out to a small cubbyhole and the large studio accommodated several fairly decent editorial workplaces.

Today we would say: open plan.

Exactly. I wanted to buy favours with that team, show that I cared. But of course we were cramped still. A year later I managed to get hold of a great office and I moved the editorial office to Reformarcka Street. We got a spacious floor in a beautiful tenement house in Art Nouveau style. Then we were given another floor and we virtually occupied the whole building. The conditions were excellent. I took Eile's desk with me.

It is said that its glass desktop had been replaced several times when Eile banged his fist on it...

I had it upholstered with baize.

A velvet revolution?

You may say so. It is enough to say that I kept the desk, which I worked at till the end, that one picture from him and some trifles: a paper clip box, a Bakelite pencil case with compartments, for he liked such objects. Nothing special, but I have kept them as keepsakes to this very day.

And is it true that in Eile's studio there was an emergency exit, through which he happened to run away from officials?

I do not think the room allowed it. Everything was crammed with cupboards, chairs and desks. Maybe he hid somewhere, but these are probably fables. I find it hard to imagine him in such a situation.

What sort of man was he when you first met?

Already a little withdrawn. His attitude towards Przekrój was like towards a toy which he had constructed himself, but as if were grew out of, left behind. He would attend our various meetings and I knew that he still needed it, that he enjoyed it, but he knew that his active role was over. He did not speak much; he did not boo anybody any more. I would not say he was bitter. It was as if he turned his situation into Olympian, Zeus's wisdom – he looked from a distance.

After all, he was born the same year as Miłosz.

1910, that's right. Kern constituted a generational link between us. Because of his age Daniel Mróz could also play this role, but he held a grudge against Eile – he felt he was treated instrumentally by him and that he could not spread his wings. Anyway, those were some animosities between the artists; it was a question of ambitions. Let us not go into that. Generally speaking, Eile had a nose for people and most of his co-operators spoke with respect of him. However, the one who was the intellectual leader of Przekrój was Janina Ipohorska, an extremely classy person. They made a great duo.

I read some funny stories about the way Przekrój was edited right after the war: first in the editorial office, then, till dawn, in pubs.

Well, yes, the staff would meet at swimming pools, in flats, travel to Jurata together... We also went out of town; we simply liked each other. We continuously hung out together and we were in close relations. Today there are no such relations among members of editorial staff any more – you get an e-mail telling you to write a text of so-and-so many characters, full stop.

Speaking of characters, Eile abridged authors' texts; he liked to cut out the first paragraph.

There is no text which would not be better when abridged – this is an old editorial principle. Immediately after the liberation Eile brought together a wonderful team of authors: Gałczyński, Tyrmand, even Nałkowska, who published her short stories in his magazine. I could not have such

outstanding team, but I had my stars. I managed to get hold of La Fontaine's Carafe by Melchior Wańkowicz – I remember meeting the master in Hotel Francuski, where he let me edit the text and then it came out in series. Professor Krawczuk published his guide to the Roman Emperors in our magazine, while priest Józef Tischner – his Filozofia po góralsku (A history of philosophy in the mountain tongue) even before it was released by Znak. I also inherited a certain principle from Eile: I wanted the reader to reach some conclusions on his own. I did not suggest and ready-made insights or morals. Besides, we published critical opinions straight away. The journalists would take offence, protest, but the reader loved to be wiser than the magazine and we gave him this satisfaction. It was part of the game. We also ran countless little columns, whose co-authors were our recipients: 'Smoke every other one', 'Flowers onto balconies', 'The obese live shorter'...

Eile loved little columns, too... When he was forced to reduce the magazine to sixteen pages he could hardly fit them all...

We, again, had twenty-four pages, so it was easier. Not everything was easier, though. Critical remarks about the magazine being petit bourgeois, trivial, not engaged enough were raised periodically: every time a party secretary changed and the ideological line became more radical. Przekrój was a kind of whipping boy. I remember 2 or 3 witch hunts, when special assessment committees were appointed and the Press Office was alarmed. I was dismissed several times, too. But I endured more than a quarter of a century as the editor-in-chief – I even outlived Eile when it comes to the term of office and I know for sure that there will be no other magazine like this one.

In conversation with Justyna Jaworska

Translation: Joanna Wadas


[1] Krakauer – (mockingly) an inhabitant of Krakow