Henryk Jurkowski: 1927 – 2016 ~ A Tribute
I was watching Roman Polanski’s The Pianist on New Year’s Eve with a few friends who had never seen it before. The Pianist gets my vote hands down for best cinematic portrayal of the Holocaust. My friends were pinned to the spot as Warsaw disintegrated before their eyes. And I was reminded that a friend of mine, someone I knew from my journey into puppetry, had actually been, as a teen, a combatant in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Scarcely four days later I learned that that man had died on Jan 3rd 2016. His name was Henryk Jurkowski.
Born in 1927, Henryk Jurkowski was the grand old man of European puppet history. He was the author of many books on puppetry including Aspects of Puppet Theatre (a good place to start), A History of European Puppetry: Vols. 1 & 2 (expensive but worth the price), Metamorphoses 2nd Edition (Still untranslated from the French.), a recent book on English theatre theorist E. Gordon Craig (Is this translated yet???) and many other untranslated works in Polish that I can only hope find the light of an English day in my lifetime. He also contributed to the World Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre and Encyclopedie mondiale des arts de la marionnette (World Encyclopedia of Puppetry).
Henryk also taught in many puppet and theatre schools in Poland. As well as guest teacher internationally Sevilla, Sofia, London, Stuttgart and Prague and taught courses in France, Spain, UK, Mexico and Russia. Though he was known mostly as an academic he also ventured into puppetry on a creative level as well. Among his works for puppets, some found success: Nativity of the Polish People (1969), Old Polish Triptych (1972: Judith and Holofernes, The Prodigal Son and The Martyrdom of St. Dorothy.
Besides all of that Jurkowski was honored many times for his literally tireless historical work in puppetry and theatre. He was honored with the Polonia Restituta, one of Poland’s highest awards in culture. He was involved in many ways with UNIMA, the international puppetry association, and was President from 1984–1992. Last September a special tribute was paid to him at the International Institut for Marionnettes (“marionnette” meaning all puppets in French) in Charleville-Mézières, during the symposium of the UNIMA Training Commission. Marek Waszkiel delivered the address. (Which can be read in French here.)
But this, while interesting, is not why I’m writing. When I visited him for two days in Warsaw in October 2012 I felt welcomed like an old friend into his humble but stuffed flat. He gave generously of his time as I talked with him and formally interviewed him for hours. His intellectual rigor was, at age of 85, astonishing. We talked and laughed about puppet history. He was quite particular in not wanting the theatre of actors with puppets to be confused with the real puppet theatre. And he gave me a real eye into the relationship between Communism and puppetry. He made me promise to not misquote him. He eagerly wanted to see the final product of Gravity From Above. And he wanted to inspect it. I was dealing with European puppet history. I was on his turf. But he paid me what I considered to be a high compliment. “We are alike.” he said “We were both discovered by the puppets. We are members of the same tribe.” I felt a bit like I had passed an initiation. Here I was talking to the man who may have done more than any other living soul to shed light on the unity of puppet history in Europe and its meaning. I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end of the pool and survived. More than survived, I had actually been swimming in the history of puppetry with Henryk Jurkowski.
In the fall of 2014 I contacted him again and let him know that I was trying to get back to Europe again. I also pointed out my Gravity From Above page, which I guessed he’d never seen before. He wrote me the following note.
Fantastic job you did. Your material is a treasure as a document and as a memory of friends. Thank you very much. … You have all my sympathy and spiritual protection.
It touched me because I knew he was approaching the end of his life and that my pages and photos had brought back precious aspects of the past for him. We communicated a little more, he said I could drop into see him again. Alas it took a little longer than I thought to get back. I was planning on seeing him this year during my 12 hour layover in Warsaw between Prague and Tbilisi. I will miss Henryk as a friend. The world is the less without him. One more connection to the titanic events of the mid-20th Century is gone. I only hope I can be a fraction as giving in my own allotted time.
(More updates on the trip VERY soon.)