Henryk Sienkiewicz

A Writer to Comfort Polish Hearts



To this day Henryk Sienkiewicz is considered as one of the greatest and most influential writers in Polish history. As the author of globally recognized pieces such as “Quo Vadis”, for which he received a Nobel price, and the great trilogy: "With Fire and Sword", "The Deluge" and "Fire in the Steppe", Sienkiewicz made his mark on the world of world literature and proved that even in times of defeat and sorrow there is still a place for hope and pride.


Born in 1846 in a small town as a member of the impoverished noble family, Sienkiewicz didn’t seem to have his future set for greatness. However, all that changed twelve years later when - after some economic troubles - young Henryk, along with his family, left his parent's historic residence and settled in Warsaw. There, he began his education acquiring both first and secondary school diplomas along with a thorough knowledge of Polish literature earned at the Institute of Philology and History.


During his early adult years, Sienkiewicz debuted as a journalist at several of Warsaw's newspapers and worked after hours as a tutor to make ends meet. At that time he also wrote his first novels, some of which - after little social recognition - he unfortunately burned. A career breakthrough came in 1977 when Sienkiewicz published his "Little Trilogy consisting of the pieces: "The Old Servant", "Hania" and "Selim Mirza ". These novels granted him invitations to popular high-class events, artistic gatherings and a considerable amount of capital which allowed him to embrace on his literary passion.


Soon after, Sienkiewicz left his home country and emigrated via Great Britain to New York. Later he traveled further west and lived in California with his newlywed wife, Helena Modjeska. Taking advantage of safety guaranteed by living in America, Henryk Sienkiewicz published multiple political and sociological essays concerning the terror and discrimination taking place in Poland under the Russian occupation. He also supported the American Polonia by publishing articles in local "Polish Gazette". Despite the relative comfort of Californian lifestyle, Sienkiewicz decided to return to his motherland in 1878 in order to contribute to his peoples’ wellbeing. From that time he gave several lectures in L’viv, Poznan and many other major polish cities promoting democracy and the will for preserving national identity.


Throughout the 1880s Sienkiewicz spent most of his time working on his historical novels relating stories of Polish life, culture and struggles during modern era times. It was at that time when he put together his most renown pieces of literature - the Great Trilogy consisting of the novels "With Fire and Sword", "The Deluge" and "Fire in the Steppe". The books were based on three crucial periods of Polish history: The Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648-1657), The Swedish Deluge (1655-1660) and the Polish war with Turkey (1668-1673) respectively. The works glorified Polish nobility along with honorable ideals and expressed Polish patriotism in a time when the country was partitioned and deprived of independence. They carried hope which was desperately needed after the tragic failure of the Polish January Uprising of 1863. Finally they helped preserve the culture and memory of a nation with incredibly rich history.


Immediately after the release of his final trilogy piece Sienkiewicz gained massive recognition from the polish society and established his position as one of the best writers of his time. Along with it came hefty gifts and donations most of which he spent on supporting artistic and cultural clubs and charitable organizations.


Sienkiewicz captured in Africa (Winter 1891)

Beyond his literary and patriotic activities Henryk Sienkiewicz kept his fascination of diverse cultures and continued his discoveries with journeys abroad across all of Europe including Italy, France, Spain and Turkey. In 1891 he ventured even further, when he took part in a safari expedition at the heart of Africa where he wrote "Letters from Africa".


At the end of the nineteenth century he published - "Quo Vadis" and "The Teutonic Knights", the first of which has been, to this day, published in over seventy countries and translated to almost fifty languages. At the age of 59 he became the first Pole to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. The award was given to him for his combined works and at the ceremony Sienkiewicz gave one of his most famous maxims:


"She (Poland) was pronounced dead — yet here is proof that she lives on....

She was pronounced defeated — and here is proof that she is victorious."


Sienkiewicz stayed true to his values even in his later years using his established fame to influence the international society and criticize Poland's occupants (Russia, Austria and Prussia). Among other initiatives. he advocated to Russia's government for reforms and broader Polish autonomy within the Russian Empire. Until his death in 1916, Sienkiewicz put aside his ink and pen to focus on his political activity striving to secure Polish independence.

Sienkiewicz on a bill from 1990

For his undeniable support to the Polish cause in the nineteenth century and perhaps even more important for his literary genius, Henryk Sienkiewicz is still warmly remembered by Poles across the word as the man whose brilliant writing instilled hope in the oppressed hearts in times of need and sorrow. He was a true patriot and an artist in his own league whose legacy will empowered the people of Poland for generations to come.