During the bleak Polish winter of 1922, the young poet Wladyslaw Broniewski was dreaming of a fantastical romance with a demonic woman; instead he fell in love with a pretty girl named Janina Kunig. Broniewski lived in the elegant prewar city of Warsaw, where he would spend his evenings with a small group of young writers – including Aleksander Wat – who gathered on the upper floor of Cafe Ziemianska. The young poets were, for the most part, Poles and cosmopolitans – "non-Jewish Jews." Broniewski, in this respect, was an exception, an ethnic Pole, of all of them the most tied to the Polish romantic tradition. It was Broniewski who came out of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski's military Legions, who fought against the Soviets in his youth and later became a proletarian poet. He wrote Janina love letters in a language reminiscent of the knights and castles of premodern chivalry. Janina loved him as well, with an affection and concern that would last her entire life. Her greatest, most undying love, though, was for Wanda Wasilewska, who in the 1920s was a promising young leader of the Polish Socialist Party to which her father had devoted his life. She lived in Cracow, where she drank endless cups of black coffee and chain-smoked and wrote poems for a newspaper called Robotnik (The Worker). She was a very tall woman with a large voice in a man's world, and she and Janina would come to mean more to each other than any of the six husbands they had between them.
This friendship between Wanda Wasilewska and Janina Broniewska is interesting in that it stands as a striking anomaly: two women amidst otherwise male circles, and furthermore, two powerful women. After years as a highly visible activist in the 1920s and 1930s, Wasilewska rose to a position of unusual leadership during the war, as founder and leader of the Union of Polish Patriots, as a colonel in the Red Army, and as the Polish Left's personal connection to Stalin. Broniewska, having been the wife of a luminary revolutionary poet in the interwar years, went on to become a prominent journalist, editor and pro-Soviet activist during the war. As secretary of the Warsaw Writers' Union in the Stalinist years, Janina Broniewska became, along with Jakub Berman and Adam Wazyk, one of the dictators of cultural policy. Yet the relationship between these two women is remarkable not only for their having played unusually influential political roles, but for another reason as well: amidst an entanglement of stories of faith and betrayal, here is one friendship that was never betrayed. Today they are despised as renegatki (renegades), traitors who ushered Stalinism into Poland, who sold their homeland to the Soviets. The intensity of such sentiments renders these two women naturally intriguing, yet their story is compelling as well for what it reveals about the gender dynamics of Polish socialism. These are women whose lives were full of contradictions, whose lives were shaped by—even as they themselves shaped—socialist revolution. Their story is at once a story of the possibilities and spaces, as well the limits, for women engendered by a revolution aimed at forging the New Man.
A complicated woman with a passion for fishing as well as cooking, Wanda in particular is most often described in masculine terms, as if invoked pejoratively, oddly enough, by her allies and enemies alike.1 These two "women characters" were among the few in those times who were intensely loyal to one another—by all existing accounts—until the very end. They interest me not because they were representative of "socialist women," but rather because of their apparent singularity, the uniqueness of what was very much a women's friendship in a man's revolution. This is not, after all, an essay on "Wanda Wasilewska and Janina Broniewska as Feminists," of the Bolshevik variety or otherwise—and not only because I have found no accounts of either of them ever having invoking this word. Neither could they be considered articulate theorists of new gender—or sexual—identities under socialism. It could be said that they lived their personal lives as "private feminists," in the sense that the relationships with men and families they created for themselves were nontraditional, yet this was not a publicly-articulated part of their political program. They declined to problematize in public the multivalence of the gender roles they explored in private. To be sure, they were activists as well "in the women's sphere," and Wanda, in particular, was active in organizing women in Cracow in the 1920s and 1930s. Even so, Wanda was mobilizing women for the cause of socialism—as opposed to lobbying socialism to champion the cause of women.2 They themselves crossed gender roles when—and to the extent that—undertaking authority meant becoming more masculine. Ultimately Stalinism—and socialist realism (to say nothing of Polish political culture)—was coded masculine, and for women to become revolutionaries meant assuming certain aspects of masculine personas and in this sense assuming a dual-layered identity.
Wanda Wasilewska died suddenly of a heart attack in 1964; Janina Broniewska traveled to Kiev for her funeral. After her death, Janina, who was to live another seventeen years, wrote, "In my home there remain her books, her furniture, and so, so often I have the impression that she still lives. I know the beating of Wanda's heart, I know her personal affairs. It was proposed to me that I write her biography, but I couldn't do it. She's just too close…."3 Later Janina would emphasize that family members, sisters, do not choose one another, whereas theirs was "a love by choice."4 Janina's memoir of the 1930s, Tamten brzeg mych lat (The Far Bank of My Years), is in fact a memoir of her friendship with Wanda.5
In this respect I would argue further that the relationship between these two women points to the fact that the private sphere, even under communist totalitarianism, and even among communists, was never entirely eclipsed. While there may have been no separate women's politics per se, there was a separate women's discourse, even if it only manifested itself in a separate, more private sphere. Comrades and co-workers in political battle, from their work together on the famous teachers' strike of 1937, to their work together in the Union of Polish Patriots in the Soviet Union during the war, these women were also intimate friends who spoke to one another in a language clearly departing from a communist idiom. The voice in which they spoke to—and about—one another was a distinctly different from that which they used to speak to—and about—others, including the men in their lives.
I know of very few relationships among these circles so moving its undying affection, so persuasive in its claims of loyalty. "I kiss you (in our younger years one would write: a hundred thousand, a million, times)," Wanda writes to Janina from Kiev in 1948, "give a kiss from me…to those whom you meet, without regard to sex…Only don't conclude that I've become nostalgic, on the whole no, it's just that I miss [all of] you. As it turns out, the more we see one another, the worse it is."6 It is among the ironies of their circle and their period that the language of their correspondence is pointedly reminiscent of that of a Victorian-era romantic friendship between women—a genre of both letterwriting and relationship which has intrigued historians of the Victorian era for the past three decades, raising questions about the ambiguous and ambivalent continuum between love, sensuality and sexuality.
I don't wish to ascribe to these women an idealized Victorian-era innocence (either with respect to sexuality or otherwise), yet I do hope that their story can serve partially as an entryway into rethinking the overly simplistic, villianized image of Wanda Wasilewska as a traitor to Poland – the epitome of treason and betrayal. Her crimes against Polish independence in particular, be what they may, in her relationship with Janina Broniewska she proved capable of an unusual, and very sincere, loyalty and human affection. This excuses nothing, of course, but I hope that it does offer another way to understand the complicated personal-ideological-political dynamics of those circles and those times. Moreover, if there was a space in the Revolution for deconstructing (as opposed to simply transgressing) the masculine-feminine dichotomy and embracing the potential multivalence of femininity, I would argue that it reveals itself more in the friendship between these two women than in any other sources which have, until now, disclosed themselves. To go a step further, if we accept that gender can be constructed relationally, and dialogically, then it might be interesting to note that while Wanda Wasilewska might have been masculine to her male comrades, she was always a woman to Janina.
1 See the accounts of Zofia Aldona Woznicka and Jurij Smolycz about Wasilewska's love for fishing and the accounts of Maria Sokorska and Mykola Bazan about Wasilewska's love for cooking in Wanda Wasilewska we wspomnieniach.
2 Broniewska, for example, writes of the poor wives who on Saturdays would wait outside the doors of local bars hoping to extricate their husbands who had just been paid and were spending their money on alcohol, one of their only pleasures in their otherwise gray lives. She has sympathy for both the wives and their husbands, placing the blame rather on the economic system that exploits them. See Maje i listopady (1967), 73-74.
3 Janina Broniewska, "O mojej przyjaciolce Wandzie Wasilewskiej," Prome³ej (March 1975), 6.
4 Janina Broniewska, "O mojej przyjaciolce Wandzie Wasilewskiej," Prome³ej (March 1975), 6.
5 The previous volume of Broniewska's memoirs, Maje i listopady, ends with her meeting Wasilewska. Broniewska writes in conclusion that there is no room in this volume for further discussion about the friendship that would become more important in her life than love for a man: "Nie pomieszcze w tym tomie dalszych perypetii nie tylko owego ‘pisania inaczej' ani przyjazni, ktora wesz³a w moje zycie silniejsza chyba niz mi³osc, ani tego wszystkiego, co narastalo az do wrzesniowej tragedii naszego kraju." Broniewska, Maje i listopady (1967), 242.
6 Wanda Wasilewska to Janina Broniewska, 24 VII 1948, qtd. in Helena Zatorska, ed. Wanda Wasilewska (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne, 1976), 181.
Dr. Shore spoke at an EES noon discussion on March 27, 2002. The above is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report #262.