Maria Kuncewiczowa was a Polish writer and novelist who was founder of PEN’s Writers in Exile Centre in 1952 and its first President.
Kuncewiczowa, the child of Polish intellectuals exiled to Russia during her early years for their involvement in the 1863 Polish insurrection, was very active in the Polish PEN Club during the 1920s.
Her work often explores the connections between mother and child but also issues of feminism, female sexuality and desire.
In 1938 she was awarded the Gold Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. However, her work was banned during the war years. Kuncewiczowa left Poland in 1939, travelling to Paris and then England. She and her husband emigrated to Chicago in 1956. She returned to Poland to Kazimierz Dolny in East Central Poland in 1969 and remained there until her death in 1989.
Kuncewiczowa was an incredibly effective member of PEN. She was also notoriously assertive, leading to her being labelled “difficult” by other members of the organisation. She was an avid letter writer and never failed to address herself to the International Secretary and various Presidents if she felt that the interests of refugee writers were being threatened.
The first Writers in Exile Centre for German Writers was founded in London in 1934 by Heinrich Mann and others. At the Lausanne Congress in 1952 the new Centre was welcomed into the PEN fold – a completely new idea, this was the first Centre designed specifically not to correspond to a particular nation or geographical location but to offer a catch-all for all of those displaced by war or politics.
Kuncewiczowa had first put forward a resolution calling for a Writers in Exile centre at the 1949 Venice Congress, an idea that was backed by Storm Jameson.
Kuncewiczowa herself outlined to the Congress delegates how this ‘rather unusual’ Centre would work. She explained that each ‘candidate must be someone who would be eligible for membership in a national Centre but who, if he were to return to his own country, might be in a great danger of the denial of his rights.’ She described how the Centre would be modelled on the Yiddish Centre, which was also a PEN Centre that – crucially – not been based on a geographical location. Kuncewiczowa continued that no writer need relinquish their membership to a national centre in order to join the Writers in Exile Centre, as the centre was ‘a spiritual one’, which would provide a home and democratic representation within PEN for all of those displaced by war or persecution.
Whilst writers in exile centres continue to exist – the North Korean Writers in Exile Centre, for example – many writers in exile centres are now tied to national or large regional PEN Centres and provide specific support for any writer in exile in that country. A particularly successful and indeed, partly state-supported, Writers in Exile programme operates as part of the German Centre. There are also programmes and Centres for Writers in Exile in the UK, in Canada and across the world. These branches provide networks offering writers in exile country-specific advice and assistance to continue to work, to build social ties and even to develop professional contacts, just as the PEN Refugee Fund did during the war. They build on a great tradition within PEN of supporting those not only persecuted but forced to uproot their lives as a result of persecution and war.
Kuncewiczowa continued to work with refugees throughout her life and can certainly be credited with shaping PEN’s response to writers in exile from the organisation’s earliest days.