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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 makes no secret of the fact that her literary texts contain distorted biographical details. In that sense, the novel “Niebko” (“Little Heaven”) is her most personal work to date. It describes the complex stories of the families who ended up in the Polish western territories, particularly in Szczecin, after 1945. The protagonist of the novel, Marzena, “patches up the fortunes of her family, and of herself in the process, by telling a story that is somehow familiar. In the story, two family lines intersect, both from the East, both marked by the experiences of the war, the occupation and the resettlement in their regained territories, both trying to find their place in the reality of the People’s Republic of Poland.”[1] Against the background of the displacement, the exodus, and the violence, and by portraying the stories of her forebears, that came from the Polish eastern territories (and were later deported to Kazakhstan ) on the one hand, but on the other hand came from the south west of Germany, settled towards the end of the 18th century in Galicia and lived since then among Polish, Jewish and Ukrainian neighbours, Brygida Helbig magnificently presents a mix of stories and cultures in a country that only seems to be homogeneous. In “Little Heaven” the feeling of alienation comes up once again but with an undertone of hope which grows from the ability of people to adapt again and again to new living conditions. This novel was also commended by the literary critics and in 2014 was among the seven finalists of the “Nike” literature prize.

In 2016, Brygida Helbig’s novel “Inna od siebie” (“Different from Them”), which tells of the writer Maria Komornicka, who decided in 1907 at the age of 31 to burn her clothes, then dress as a man, and then declared that she was a man. Komornicka, who since then has called herself Piotr Odmieniec Włast, refuses to be treated as a woman. However, sex changes are not tolerated in her circles. The author, who had previously been considered talented, has been excluded from cultural life. The family shoves Piotr Włast in a psychiatric institution, before he moves permanently to live with his brother’s family on the family estate in Grabów nad Pilicą [town south of Warsaw on the Pilica river]. “Inna od siebie” made it to the final of the City of Warsaw Literature Prize. The play “Maria K.”, directed by Agnieszka Bresler, was based on this novel. The story of Maria Komornicka or Piotr Włast has followed Helbig for years, ever since she habilitated in 2004 at the Humboldt University in Berlin with a piece of work about the literary work of Komornicka. Her habilitation thesis was published in Germany a year later under the title A Coat made of Stardust. Gender transgression and madness in Maria Komornicka”, this was followed in 2010 by the Polish version as “Strącona bogini. Rzecz o Marii Komornickiej“ (“The Fallen Goddess. About Maria Komornicka“). “By really looking into Komornicka, I understood that it’s time to face up to the past and the reality, to become familiar with oneself, and that one shouldn’t make one’s own feeling of self-worth dependent upon the acknowledgement of others. (...) Thanks to her I have understood my own decisions and my own part in a situation. I have also understood the part of others and in fact of those who find it hard to accept the differentness of others, the reluctance to adjust and the other sensibility.”[2] – Brygida Helbig wrote this in the “Gazeta Wyborcza” about the role Komornicka played in her life. „Strącona bogini” was awarded the Dean’s Prize at the University of Szczecin.

As well as her literary and academic work, Brygida Helbig is also involved in a number of different initiatives. She organises and moderates readings, sometimes in collaboration with the German-Polish bookshop “Buchbund” in Berlin, and she leads literary writing workshops. Academically, she supports the activities of the University of Three Generations/Universität der Drei Generationen/Uniwersytet Trzech Pokoleń in Berlin, which was established with her help in October 2014, and which is a platform for dialogue and the exchange of ideas for both Germans and Poles. Her services have also been recognised by Polonia, Polish communities living abroad. In 2016 Brygida Helbig was awarded the “Golden Owl” in the Literature category in Vienna for her novel “Little Heaven”. The prize is like the Oscar of the Polonia and is awarded to Poles and foreigners abroad who make a contribution to promoting friendly relationships with Poland.

The feeling of being different, the search for one’s own identity, the emigration, as well as the inside, the revolt and the resurrection from the ashes, all of these are familiar to Brygida Helbig from her own experience and are also an unshakable part of her creativity, although the author doesn’t see herself as an exile author. She sees some of the valuable aspects of living and working abroad as being: “a fantastic opportunity to experience foreign culture from within. The enriches us enormously as long as we don’t close ourselves off to differentness and don’t look at the world in rigid, cliché-ridden categories ... After several years of immersing oneself in the local reality, it is no longer possible to retain the typical “Polish” identity. A new identity of the person emerges which, on the one hand, is uprooted but, on the other hand, is at home in two places , even if he only has one leg in each culture.”[3]

 

Monika Stefanek, October 2019

 

[2] Aleksandra Lipczak, Brygia Helbig, “Niebko”. On: Culture.pl. Online: https://culture.pl/pl/dzielo/brygida-helbig-niebko

[3] Brygida Helbig, Tajemnica Piotra Własta (Akademia Opowieści). In: Gazeta Wyborcza, Tygodnik Szczecin, dated 23 March 2017. Online: https://szczecin.wyborcza.pl/szczecin/7,150424,21540446,tajemnica-piotr…

[4] Bronisław Mamoń, Pisarze polscy w Niemczech. In: Tygodnik Powszechny, No. 31, dated 4 August 2002.

Mediathek Sorted

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  • 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 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.
  • Brygida Helbig

    Brygida Helbig.
  • Brygida Helbig with the translator Lothar Quinkenstein

    Brygida Helbig with the translator Lothar Quinkenstein.