Brygida Helbig

Portrait of Brygida Helbig
Portrait of Brygida Helbig, created as part of the “Polish Party of Germany” project initiated by the “Club of Polish Failures”.

Brygida Helbig (actually Dr Brigitta Helbig-Mischewski, pseudonym Anna Maria Birkenwald, Professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań) was born in Szczecin in 1963. After completing her school leaving examination at the renowned grammar school “II Liceum Ogólnokształcące”, she began studying Polish studies in her home town at the Higher Pedagogical Institute (Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna), the forerunner to Szczecin University (Uniwersytet Szczeciński) which was founded in the 1980s. At barely 20 years of age, Helbig decides to leave Poland mainly for personal reasons. In the early morning of 1 November 1983, she leaves the train at Wanne-Eickel station in North Rhine-Westphalia and settles in Herten in the Ruhr region. She then temporarily up sticks and moves to the Dutch border. In Anrath near Krefeld she attends a language school for late repatriates. She is then able to attend the college for late repatriates in Geilenkirchen, where she completes her German school leaving exam in 1985, before studying Slavic and German studies at the Ruhr University in Bochum. In 1991, one year after her first academic qualification, she is awarded a doctoral scholarship by the Cusanuswerk [scholarship body of the Catholic Church in Germany]. Her doctoral thesis is on Maria Janion [Polish literary scholar] and dedicated to the new-age discourse in the Polish literature of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1994, she is awarded a doctorate at the Ruhr University in Bochum, where she also founded the student literary club “Dichter-Fressen” with Professor Michael Fleischer.

Brygida Helbig’s first literary texts appeared in the mid-1990s in the magazine “FA-art”. The novel “Pałówa”, which was published in Danziger Verlag “b1”, was born out of the fragments of a story about a young woman growing up in socialist Poland that had been published in the magazine. Prior to that, the author publishes poems and reviews in “Kolano” (The Knee), the house magazine of the “Club of Polish Failures” (Klub Polskich Nieudaczników). At the same time, she works in the academic field giving lectures and seminars to students at the Institute for Slavic Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where she is employed until 2005. During this time, she is twice awarded the prize from the Faculty of Philosophy at the Humboldt University in recognition of her pedagogical work. In the years that follow, she works at Karls University in Prague and at Szczecin University as well as at the German-Polish Research Institute at the Collegium Polonicum in Słubice, a branch of the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (Uniwersytet Adama Mickiewicza w Poznaniu, UAM). Her academic texts and works of literary critique in the fields of cultural studies, history of literature, intercultural communication and feminism and topics about gender appear in numerous magazines, for instance in the “Zeitschrift für Slawistik”, in “Teksty Drugie”, “Twórczość”, “Pogranicza”, “Odra”, in the “Anzeiger für slawische Philologie” and in many other periodicals. Helbig also regularly writes radio broadcasts for the Polish editorial team at the Berlin radio station COSMO and she writes for the “Tagesspiegel”, “ZEIT ONLINE” and “Gazeta Wyborcza”, to name but a few.

After the chair for Slavic Studies at the Humboldt University closes in 2005, Brygida Helbig continues her academic work by writing essays and books about exile literature and about the “Club of Polish Failures”, about the crisis of masculinity, about Henryk Bereska, Olga Tokarczuk and other female authors of her generation, as well as about the trauma of the generations in the novels of Inga Iwasiów and Magdalena Tulli, about the autobiographical “post-GDR literature” and about the Polish author Bruno Schultz, and many other creators of literature, with more and more time being devoted to her own work as a writer. In 2005 the grotesque novella “Anioły i świnie. W Berlinie!“ (“Angels and Swine”) is published and makes her famous. In this story from the migrant and campus milieu, which humorously tells the story of Polish immigrants to the Federal Republic, she plays around with classic prejudices and forces the reader to reflect on how it is possible, through unavoidable adaptation, to find one’s place in a world in which one simply ended up and which still isn’t that familiar, even after years of living there. The female version of a “sausage emigrant” was inspired by the novel “Klub Kiełboludów” by Leszek Oświęcimski (“Club of the Polish Sausage Men”). One of the key advantages of Helbig’s novel is in its continuous irony, about which Przemysław Czapliński writes in the “Gazeta Wyborcza” as follows: “Irony overtakes everything: the Germans, our emigrants, the female protagonist, but also the schematic, seemingly banal narrative pattern of the novel. If Helbig as a Pole describes herself and her countrymen as ‘Swine in Berlin’ and if she portrays how these ‘Swine’ demand their individuality, then she certainly doesn’t mean ‘the Polish Swine”. Therefore, she doesn’t adopt the perspectives of others. What she writes, contains a lot of sorrow but also life, as well as a lot of melancholic smiling and courage.”[1]

In a sense, the motif of alienation and revolt in “Angels and Swine” returns with double the impact in Helbig’s “Enerdowce i inni ludzie“ (“East Germans and Other People”) from 2011. This anthology contains satirical stories about the fate of former GDR citizens, so-called “Ossis”, in the united Germany and their attempts to find their way in the new reality. But as it turns out, the Federal Republic of Germany – the country which many have dreamed of and believed that milk and honey flow there – is not as open and sympathetic to the new citizens as it appeared to be from behind the wall that separated the two states. The difference in mentality between East and West does not abate, in fact the protagonists become more and more unsettled by it. What remains is the unprocessed trauma which, in the best case, turns into a limitless nostalgia towards the lost country and the feeling of being disadvantaged by unfulfilled hopes. At the same time, Helbig shows the characteristics of the “Ossis”, who could help to make the world in the West “more human”. In 2012, the collection of stories “Enerdowcy i inni ludzie” was commended by the jury of the renowned Polish “Nike” literature prize with a nomination. Helbig also reached the final of the “Gryfia” literature prize with this book. The Berlin “Teatr Studio am Salzufer" also developed a play based on this book entitled “Pfannkuchen, Schweine, Heiligenscheine” (“Pancakes, Swine, Halos”) with director Janina Szarek.

 

[1] P. Czapliński, Anioły i świnie w Berlinie. Fikcja literacka Helbig Brygida. In: Gazeta Wyborcza, dated 19 December 2005. Online: http://wyborcza.pl/1,75517,3074956.html

 

Mediathek
  • Portrait of Brygida Helbig, created as part of the “Polish Party of Germany” project initiated by the “Club of Polish Failures”.

    Portrait of Brygida Helbig

    Portrait of Brygida Helbig, created as part of the “Polish Party of Germany” project initiated by the “Club of Polish Failures”.
  • Brygida Helbig with Natalie Buschhorn, the translator of the novel “Little Heaven”, and publisher Jörg Becken from KLAK-Verlag in Berlin.

    Brygida Helbig with Natalie Buschhorn and Jörg Becken

    Brygida Helbig with Natalie Buschhorn, the translator of the novel “Little Heaven”, and publisher Jörg Becken from KLAK-Verlag in Berlin.
  • Final of the “Nike” Prize for Literature.

    Final of the “Nike” Prize for Literature

    Final of the “Nike” Prize for Literature.
  • Brygida Helbig.

    Brygida Helbig

    Brygida Helbig.
  • Brygida Helbig with the translator Lothar Quinkenstein.

    Brygida Helbig with the translator Lothar Quinkenstein

    Brygida Helbig with the translator Lothar Quinkenstein.