Crafty devil: Meet the 90-year-old ex-soldier who has the only DEVIL museum in the country
“Personally, I don’t believe in the devil,” says 90-year-old Wiktoryn Grąbczewski sagely.
As a life-long collector of arts and crafts representing the Polish iteration of Beelzebub and the founder of Poland’s only devil museum, he ought to know what he is talking about.
Despite his vintage, Grąbczewski is still the hands-on director of the Polish Devil Museum, which he set up over 50 years ago in the basement room of the home he shares with his wife Zofia in an ordinary socialist-era high-rise in Warsaw’s Mokotów district.
“Welcome to the gates of Hell. You can leave your coat over there,” he offers with a friendly smile.
In its humble urban settings, it is certainly one of the country’s least orthodox museums. Neighbours brush past with shopping trolleys while the elderly curators fuss over the comfort of their visitors.
However, this curious museum is not an anachronistic joke. It has a serious side as it offers a fascinating and unique look at how the devil has been portrayed in Polish folk culture over many centuries.
As such, it still has a regular stream of serious-minded visitors, from groups of anthropology students to foreigners who read about it on the internet.
“We had a group from Japan the other day,” Grąbczewski beamed proudly.
The ghoulish museum collection outgrew its dungeon confines long ago, and the corridor outside the Grąbczewskis’ flat which they share with their neighbours hosts the most comprehensive gallery of devil paintings in the country with work by many well-known Polish artists.
Devils peer down from every corner, sharing the space with well-maintained potted house plants.
Grąbczewski’s interest in the devil has accompanied him throughout his life and it grew out of his childhood.
“I’ve been collecting these objects my whole life. My interest started when my Grandmother told me stories about the devil Boruta from Łęczyca where I grew up.”
This well-known, many-versioned legend tells of a young man, Boruta, who pulled King Kazimierz’s carriage out of the mud and earned himself a fortune by doing so. From here, the legend branches into many endings, but they all end up with Boruta becoming a devil.
It is perhaps not surprising that the legend of Boruta so enchanted the young Grąbczewski as it highlights the dual nature of the Polish devil in folk culture, a nature that can be both good and bad.
“He wasn’t evil in the way that the devil is normally portrayed. He was pleasant kind and helpful, even a patriot.”
Born in 1929, Grąbczewski studied to become a puppet theatre director and later went into the army where he travelled around Poland with an army theatre group putting on performances for locals.
“It was a great opportunity for me to build my collection. Wherever I went I visited local folk artists and asked them to create devils based on their local legends. Since then I have never stopped collecting,” he explained.
When he left the army, he had enough devils to open his museum. From that time, the collection has been shown at exhibitions all around the world including in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Bulgaria, the USA, Latvia and Italy.
In 1979, the collection was officially entered on the heritage protection list and the museum still has the seal of approval from the Polish culture ministry.
“All the devils have their own number and they are entered in a register along with where they come from and what legends are associated with them,” he said.
It is perhaps the legends more than the devils themselves that interest Grąbczewski most. One that continues to fascinate him comes from direct personal experience.
In 1939 when he was just ten years old the Battle of Bzura, the largest battle during the German invasion of Poland, was raging around him.
“I was in a hospital because my father was a doctor, I helped bring the wounded water, there were many of them,” he recalled.
The Poles achieved early success in the battle, which superstitious locals credited to the help of the devil, and many of the paintings in the museum depict this legend.
Grąbczewski took us downstairs through a series of heavily secured doors to the heart of his collection – a 15-square-metre dusty room that holds over 1,300 devils. Most are carved from wood but others are sculpted from coal, cast from metal and even put together from old railway engine parts.
There is little room to move and the feeling of thousands of mischievous eyes boring into us is palpable.
The range and diversity of the collection is bewildering. Hitler is there of course, but so is Wałęsa and other nineties-era Polish politicians.
A highlight is perhaps the devil’s violin, an upright instrument with clanging bells and rattles as well as strings that was used to represent the devil in traditional rural Christmas and Easter processions.
The sound is deafening as Grąbczewski smashes its base against the floor to activate the terrifying percussion elements while he thrashes away at the strings with an old paint brush.
Lost in the reverie of his own making, he returns to us with an open, questioning look as if seeking approval for his performance.
One figure that seems out of place is a wood carving of Jesus sitting patiently under a cross at the entrance as if keeping a watchful eye over the ranks of Lucifers.
“It was carved by a sculptor from near Jelenia Góra. I asked him to make a devil for me, but he said no. A few weeks later I received a note that a package was waiting for me at the Post Office. When I saw that it was from him I was really excited. When I opened it I was angry because there was no devil in it! Only a figure of Jesus. My wife pointed out, though, that he was sitting on a devil like it was a chair.”
Asked what the devil means for people today, Grąbczewski whipped back his reply. “People need to put a human face on the evil that exists in the world. That’s who the devil is. He’s not real, but evil of our own making is real.”