Jerzy Kosinski was once to Poland what Simon Wiesenthal is today to Ukraine. Jerzy Kosinski was the grand calumniator of Poland; Simon Wiesenthal is the grand calumniator of Ukraine. The Poles have been successful in discrediting their grand calumniator; the Ukrainians are too timid to attempt to discredit Simon Wiesenthal. The present web page is dedicated to understanding Jerzy Kosinski, to congratulating the Poles, and to giving courage to Ukrainians.
Who was Jerzy Kosinski? Jerzy Kosinski was born Jerzy Lewinkopf to Mojzesz (Moses) Lewinkopf and Elzbieta Lewinkopf (maiden name Elzbieta Wanda Weinreich). Six significant dates in Jerzy Kosinski's life were:
1933 born in Lodz, Poland
1959 entered USA on a student visa
1960 published The Future is Ours, Comrade, under pseudonym Joseph Novak
1968 won the National Book Award for The Painted Bird
1982 veracity challenged in Village Voice article, "Jerzy Kosinski's Tainted Words"
1991 committed suicide
Biographer James Park Sloan
I quote from two sources by the same author. I quote below from two sources, both written by James Park Sloan: (1) the magazine article, Kosinski's War, The New Yorker, October 10, 1994; and (2) the book, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography, Dutton, United States, 1996. The first source provides the first two excerpts below, which by themselves present the chief features of the Kosinski story. The reader interested only in a broad outline need not read beyond these first two quotations. The second source provides a number of further excerpts which serve to flesh in a fuller picture. The analogy to Audie Murphy in the above title was taken from p. 227 of this second source. Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier in WW II who went on to become a movie star, and played himself in the autobiographical war film, To Hell and Back.
Who is James Park Sloan? The dust jacket of the Sloan book informs us of the following:
|JAMES PARK SLOAN is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a prize-winning novelist, and a widely published short story writer and critic. He knew Jerzy Kosinski for over twenty years before Kosinski's death.|
Jerzy Kosinski's "Painted Bird" was celebrated for its "overpowering authenticity":
"Jerzy was a fantastic liar," said Agnieszka Osiecka, Poland's leading pop lyricist and a familiar
figure in Polish intellectual circles.... If you told Jerzy you had a Romanian grandmother, he
would come back that he had fifteen cousins all more Romanian than your grandmother ... and
they played in a Gypsy band!"
According to Joanna Siedlecka ..., Kosinski's wrenching accounts of his wartime experiences
were fabricated from whole cloth. ... Siedlecka contends that Kosinski spent the war with his
family — his mother, father, and later, an adopted brother — and that they lived in relative security
Right from the start, Kosinski wrote under duress — an impecunious young man, particularly situated to be of use to clandestine forces, he could leapfrog to advancement only by cooperating with these forces. Thus, his first book, the Future is Ours, Comrade (1960), was published under the pseudonym Joseph Novak, and appears to have been sponsored by the CIA:
Czartoryski recommends Kosinski to the CIA.
Between Kosinski's penchant for telling more than the truth and the CIA's adamant insistence on telling as little as possible, the specific financial arrangements concerning the "book on Russia" may never be made public. Indeed, full documentation probably does not exist. A number of facts, however, argue strongly that there was CIA/USIA intermediation on behalf of the book, with or without Kosinski's full knowledge and understanding. One major piece of evidence is the name of the original titleholder on the Doubleday contract: Anthony B. Czartoryski. A further clue was the address to which communications for "Czartoryski" were to be delivered: the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America at 145 East Fifty-third Street.
As for the book, not only its instant acceptance but its quick production would remain a mystery for many years. How could a graduate student at Columbia — struggling with his course work, engaged in various side projects as a translator, and busy with the details of life in a strange country — how could such a person have turned out a copy that could be serialized in the editorially meticulous Reader's Digest in less than two years?
All in all, the book is everything an American propaganda agency, or the propaganda arm of the CIA, might have hoped for in its wildest dreams. In broad perspective, it outlines the miserable conditions under which Soviet citizens are compelled to live their everyday lives. It shows how the spiritual greatness of the Russian people is undermined and persecuted by Communism. It describes a material deprivation appalling by 1960s American standards and a lack of privacy and personal freedom calculated to shock American audiences. The Russia of The Future is Ours is clearly a place where no American in his right mind would ever want to live.
Byron Sherwin at Spertus also checked in with his support, reaffirming an invitation to Kosinski to appear as the Spertus award recipient at their annual fund-raiser in October, before 1,500 guests at Chicago's Hyatt Regency. He mentioned a list of notable predecessors including Arthur Goldberg, Elie Wiesel, Philip Klutznick, Yitzhak Rabin, and Abraham Joshua Heschel himself; the 1978 recipient, Isaac Bashevis Singer, had recently won the Nobel Prize. Kosinski was deeply moved by this support from Sherwin and Spertus, and its direct fallout was a move to make Spertus the ultimate site for his personal papers, with Sherwin serving as coexecutor of his estate. At the same time it accelerated his movement back toward his Jewish roots. In his greatest moment of crisis, the strongest support had come not from his fellow intellectuals, but from those who identified with him as a Jew.
The book was doing reasonably well in England and France, better certainly than in America, but the German edition was an out-and-out hit. For a Germany struggling to shuck off the collective national guilt for World War II and the Holocaust, its focus on the "Eastern European" peasants may have suggested that sadistic behavior and genocide were not a national trait or the crime of a specific group but part of a universally distributed human depravity; a gentler view is that the book became part of a continuing German examination of the war years. Perhaps both views reflect aspects of the book's success in Germany, where Der bemalte Vogel actually made it onto bestseller lists.
The Warsaw magazine Forum compared Kosinski to Goebbels and Senator McCarthy and emphasized a particular sore point for Poles: the relatively sympathetic treatment of a German soldier. Kosinski, the review argued, put himself on the side of the Hitlerites, who saw their crimes as the work of "pacifiers of a primitive pre-historic jungle." Glos Nauczycielski, the weekly publication of the teaching profession, took the same line, accusing The Painted Bird of an attempt "to dilute the German guilt for the crime of genocide by including the supposed guilt of all other Europeans and particularly those from Eastern Europe."
Kosinski returned to New York on April 14, and only two weeks later received the best news of all from Europe. On May 2, Flammarion cabled Houghton Mifflin that L'Oiseau bariole had been awarded the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger — the annual award given in France for the best foreign book of the year. Previous winners included Lawrence Durrell, John Updike, Heinrich Böll, Robert Penn Warren, Oscar Lewis, Angus Wilson, and Nikos Kazantzakis. New York might be the center of publishing, but Paris was still, to many minds, the intellectual center of the universe, and Kosinski had swept the French intellectual world off its feet. Any who had doubted the aesthetic merits of The Painted Bird were now shamed into silence. The authority of the "eleven distinguished jurors" was an absolute in New York as in Paris; Kosinski's first novel had swept the board.
Kosinski had used his time fruitfully, Strzetelski argued, in spite of his impaired health and "the accident (combustion of his right hand) which made him unable to write during almost the whole 1959 Spring Session." It was the first and last mention in the file of the injury to Kosinski's hand, which had not impaired his ability to produce lengthy correspondence.
Unlike Kosinski, Krauze took the discipline of sociology very seriously; he was deeply committed to his studies, and it troubled him that Kosinski was so blithely dismissive of its rigor and of the hurdles required in getting the Ph.D. By then Kosinski was busy looking at alternative ways to get approval of his dissertation. One of them involved Feliks Gross: he proposed a transfer to CCNY, where he would finish his doctorate under Gross's supervision. In Krauze's view, Kosinski had simply run into a buzzsaw in Lazarsfeld, his Columbia supervisor, a man who could not be charmed into dropping the rigor of his requirements. Gross too promptly grasped that Kosinski was trying to get around the question of methodological rigor; he politely demurred and excused himself from being a part of it.
[H]e had neglected the necessary preparation for his doctoral qualifying exam, the deadline for which now loomed.
Kosinski did well enough in spoken English, to be sure; his accent and his occasional Slavicisms were charming. But writing was a different matter. He was, quite simply, no Conrad. In writing English, the omission of articles or the clustering of modifiers did not strike readers as charming; instead, it made the writer appear ignorant, half-educated, even stupid. Conrad wrote like an angel but could not make himself understood when he opened his mouth; with Kosinski, it was exactly the other way around. Which might not have been such a handicap had not Kosinski been a writer by profession.
On June 22, 1982, two journalists writing in the Village Voice challenged the veracity of Kosinski's basic account of himself. They challenged his extensive use of private editors in the production of his novels and insinuated that The Painted Bird, his masterpiece, and Being There, which had been made into a hit movie, had been plagiarized from other sources.
In its protagonist, its structure, its specific events, and its conclusion, the book bore an extraordinarily close resemblance to [Tadeusz] Dolega-Mostowicz's 1932 novel The Career of Nikodem Dyzma, which Kosinski had described with such excitement two decades earlier to his friend Stanislaw Pomorski. The question of plagiarism is a serious one, and not susceptible of easy and final answer; ultimately the text of Being There resembles the text of Nikodem Dyzma in ways that, had Dolega-Mostowicz been alive and interested in pressing the matter, might have challenged law courts as to a reasonable definition of plagiarism.
The letter had been riddled with such errors that, in her view, its author could not possibly have been the writer of Kosinski's award-winning novels. Over the years she had picked up literary gossip about Kosinski's supposed "ghost writers" and had decided that such gossip was altogether plausible. In early 1982 she shared her opinion with Navasky, and made him a strange bet. People well enough situated in America, she bet him, could get away with anything, even if their most shameful secrets were revealed.
At the same time, there was a dilemma to be resolved. By that time he had regaled the entire Polish émigré circle and much of Mary Wier's New York society with stories of his catastrophic and solitary adventures during the war — the wandering from village to village, the dog that had leaped at his heels, the loss of speech, the reunion at the orphanage where he was identified by his resemblance to this mother and the mark on his rib cage. What if conversation got around to those wartime experiences? What, God forbid, if someone casually asked her where the adult Kosinskis had been during the war? The question had come up, and he had managed to get away with vague answers. Sweden, he sometimes said. It was a big country. Some Poles must have escaped there. Maybe they had gotten there by boat.
But then, she added, she suffered from the innocence that he was not with them at that time. Writing, of course, in Polish, she spaced the letters — Y O U W E R E N O T W I T H U S. The double-spacing might well have had the character of emphasis, but in the context of all that is knowable of the Kosinski family during the occupation, one must conclude that this most remarkable statement was, instead, delivered with a symbolic wink.
There is, of course, a powerfully Oedipal undertone to this constellation of affinities [...]. That this is not mere conjecture is made clear by a conversation Kosinski had with Tadeusz Krauze, who was by then in New York as a graduate student in sociology. To a shocked Krauze, Kosinski unburdened himself of the revelation that he would like to have sex with his own mother. Before Krauze could respond, he added, "I would like to give her that pleasure."
Toward the end of the meal he suggested that the two of them go to Chateau Nineteen, an S-M parlor with which he seemed to be quite familiar. She agreed on condition that she not be required to participate or remove her clothes. Once they were there, he moved comfortably among the patrons, chatting as if at a country-club tea. He was particularly friendly with a man who worked in the jewelry district, who was busy masturbating as they spoke.
Meanwhile, matters had come to a crisis in the affair with Dora Militaru. He insisted that she profess her love for him, and when she refused, he hit her repeatedly. Dora broke off the affair. Their relationship soon resumed as a friendship — in January he would grant her his only TV interview, for Italian TV, undertaken within two years of the Village Voice episode — but his physical assault ended their relationship as lovers.
On the long straightaway crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, he opened it up to 120, pure exhilaration for a boy who had been told always to do things carefully, legally, and correctly. A little farther along they found themselves stuck on a two-lane road behind a slow driver. As a man who would one day drive Formula One race cars, David was astonished at the fluidity and skill with which Kosinski finally got around the recalcitrant ahead of him — and entertained mightily when Kosinski then slowed to a crawl and used those skills to prevent the car from passing him. He was more than a little shocked, however, when Kosinski persisted with the game in the face of an oncoming truck, causing the other car to run off into a ditch.
Kosinski looked at the young man severely. "You know, the very first time I saw you I got the feeling you were going to die young," he said. "In the past twenty years I've had the same feeling about several people and each time I've had it, they died. Of course, I could be wrong this time."
As part of the class, the Yale undergraduates were required to write about their own deaths. To stimulate their thinking, Kosinski brought in members of the Process Church of the Final Judgement — a group of Satanists who arrived dressed in gray. They saw themselves as having some sort of tenuous link with Charles Manson's Helter-Skelter family. Proselytizing in Kosinski's Yale classroom, they urged the students to "accept and embrace evil within themselves." This notion was uncomfortably close to Kosinski's own claim to Krystyna Iwaszkiewicz that he could achieve revenge upon his enemies because of a pact with the Devil [...]. The classroom episode took an unexpected turn when a young Jewish student went off with the Satanists, prompting an exchange with the student's parents over the pedagogical appropriateness of this classroom activity.
One day, when the three couples had planned to have dinner in the city, Rose Styron arrived first and was persuaded to be his accomplice in a prank. Kosinski would hide in his apartment on Seventy-ninth Street, and the others would look for him. They came, looked, failed to find, and began to grow cross; Sadri was ready for dinner, and didn't find the prank so funny. Kosinski finally unfolded himself from behind the cabinets in his darkroom.
Marian Javits, in particular, was charmed by him, and she continued to be his friend even after his stories and eccentricities had become familiar — this despite the fact that one of his eccentricities had to do with her dog. Lying in bed recovering from a leg injury received while riding, she was startled when her dog ran furiously across the room, dripping urine. A moment later Kosinski appeared at the door. Later a friend told her that Kosinski had been observed abusing the dog in a way that would engender such behavior.