Polish-born writer joins A-list of authors after winning the Strega Prize

Helena Janeczek holds her trophy after winning the 2018 Strega book prize, one of Italy's most prestigious literary awards, with her book The Girl with the Leica PAP/EPA

Janeczek is the first female author to win the most prestigious Italian literary award in fifteen years.

Polish-born author Helena Janeczek has won the prestigious Italian literary prize Premio Strega for her biography The Girl with a Leica (La ragazza con la Leica). 

The 54-year-old author is the first woman to win the award in fifteen years, the last time being in 2003 by Melania Mazzuco. 

“The Girl with a Leica” is the story of photographer Gerda Taro, the first female war photojournalist to die whilst on assignment in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. 

Taro, a Jewish emigre from Nazi Germany, was 26 and had just begun to make a name for herself  when she was killed. 

Polish-born Janeczek, who took six years writing the biography, said she was passionate about the story as well as her own Polish roots. 

Her mother had been born into a Jewish, non-orthodox family in Silesia and her father also has Polish origins.

After surviving the war, they moved to Munich and when Janeczek was 19 she left for Italy which has since become her adopted country. In addition to becoming a poet and novelist, she is a respected editor and an influential critic.

Two previous books Lessons of Darkness (Lezzioni di tenebre, 1997) and The Swallows of Monte Cassino (Le rondini di Monte Cassino, 2010) both deal with WWII. 

The first is based on Janeczek’s journey with her mother in the 1990s to Poland and Auschwitz, which was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps. Her mother was a survivor of the camp and Janeczek wanted to retell her family history and their experiences.

The second book tells the story of a group of soldiers, who fought and died from  German gunfire near the Roman Catholic abbey of Monte Cassino. 

The battle was one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of the Italian campaign during World War II. Janeczek protagonists are soldiers from different countries, including Poland, and drew upon autobiographical stories from her own family. 

The novel won the ninth edition of the Zerilli-Marimò/City of Rome Literary Prize, with the judges saying she had used “the battles and the bombings of the abbey, a key episode of World War II, as the stage for a fascinating mosaic of stories and destinies.” 

Italian journalist, writer and essayist Roberto Saviano called the novel “a tattoo etched on the skin.”

He said: “The beauty of her tale lies in its structure, the way opposites converge: the chaos of battle and the silence of the defeated, ordinariness and the heroism of the powerless, carefully guarded memory and impetuous youth, the past perpetually intertwined with the present.”

By winning the Strega Prize, Janeczek joins a long list of literary greats including Primo Levi, Goffredo Parise, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Ennio Flaiano, and Umberto Eco.