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Tygodnik Powszechny and the Postwar Debate on Literature in Poland

Christina Manetti

Tygodnik Powszechny and the Postwar Debate on Literature in Poland

Kraków's Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, founded in 1945, occupied a unique place in Poland's postwar cultural landscape. Because of its critical stance toward traditional Catholicism, the Communists allowed the paper to exist--as proof of their good will towards the Church. At the same time the Church gave Tygodnik its approval, since after 1948 all other authentic (i.e., non-collaborating) Catholic publications were closed. Tygodnik's quasi independent status gave it a unique opportunity to provide a subtly presented critique of both Communism and traditional Catholicism. The paper avoided overt political statements and focused instead on cultural and philosophical matters.

An important debate on literature just after the war aptly illustrates Tygodnik's view of Poland's conservative Catholics and of Communist ideologues. It was an approach that would characterize Tygodnik throughout the entire postwar period, with just a brief hiatus during the height of Stalinism when it was forced to close. In these polemics Tygodnik's writers defended Tadeusz Borowski(1) and Jan Józef Szczepanski who had provoked criticism from both communists and Catholics for their stark portrayals of the demoralization that war brings, even among camp victims and heroic partisan fighters.

Tygodnik writers advocated an approach to literature that would offer a sober critical appraisal of Poland's wartime experience, rather than one that focused on their country's indisputable suffering as a victim. One of the most significant literary debates centered on Tadeusz Borowski's short stories "Day at Harmenz" and "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" published in 1946.(2) It should be noted that Borowski had made his official Polish debut in Tygodnik's 1945 Christmas issue. A total of five of his poems were published in TP.

In his work Borowski showed that victims could also be perpetrators, something that shocked and offended many Poles. Tygodnik's Pawel Jasienica (pseudonym of Lech Beynar) and Stefan Kisielewski were the only writers to publicly defend Borowski from both Communist and Catholic attacks. Significantly, Jasienica and Kisielewski's defense was more a reaction against traditional literary norms than against Communist precepts. As it turned out, however, much the same criticism applied equally well to both the Communist and Catholic camps.

After a number of attacks in the official party press, including the literary journa Twórczosc, Borowski published his own controversial review in early 1947(3) of a camp memoir by the well-known Catholic writer Zofia Kossak-Szczucka.(4) Her book Z otchlani (From the Abyss) had been published the previous year. Pointing to what he considered to be inaccuracies in Kossak-Szczucka's text, Borowski alleged that instead of answering the question "How did you survive the camp?" she invented stories in order to obscure the ignominious truth. Having been in the camp at the same time, Borowski was well aware of how it functioned, and what it took to survive. He wrote the following:

The author of the camp account belonged to a certain privileged caste in the camp (she was in Birkenau during the period when it was possible to protect a person who was supposed to survive), which was recruited from a certain number of Polish women, who thanks to packages, contacts and preferential treatment from the functionaries had a relatively comfortable and safe life in the hospitals and szonungi–rest blocks during ‘43-‘44--they did not go out to work with their commando, they did not get up (in the hospital) for roll call, [and] as patients they were not in danger of being sent on transports. I know these relations from the hospital in Birkenau, where the best places as a rule were occupied by members of the "Polish intelligentsia" who were actually healthy, but who had the right number of packages, while those who were truly ill were crammed into the other worse sztube [rooms] or on the bottom bunks. There was a similar situation in the women's camp. (5)

Borowski criticized Kossak-Szczucka not so much for her decision to avail herself of the opportunity for survival, but rather for what he considered to be her hypocrisy and perpetuation of the Polish "martyrological myth." He wrote: "I just resent--and very much at that--that she did not have the courage to include herself in the story and judge herself."(6) Instead of pointing out the "packages, functions, and relations which in reality secured [certain] Polish women a certain higher standard of living. . . and gave them greater chances of survival," she wrote that "the strength that allowed Polish women to maintain a proper attitude was friends' prayers."(7)

Perhaps most distasteful for Borowski was Kossak-Szczucka's portrayal of the upper class Polish women as somehow inherently superior to the other camp inmates by virtue of their nationality and religion. Borowski noted that she took this to absurd extremes in her assertion that "Polish women were better able to withstand hunger because before they knew how to fast [emphasis in original] during the days set by the Church."(8)

In a counterattack by S. Poszumski in Slowo Powszechne,(9) the ostensibly Catholic daily associated with Boleslaw Piasecki and the PAX group known for its collaboration with the Communists, Borowski's own stories were criticized because he mentioned things that were inappropriate (in Poszumski's opinion) in the context of concentration camps. Borowski noted that soccer games were played as people were gassed, that camp brothels existed, and that people were more concerned with surviving than with "doing good."

In closing, Poszumski stated that Borowski would not have provoked such a controversy if it had not been for his defamation of Catholic writers. The reviewer wrote: "We want to demonstrate that he does not have the moral right to pass judgment and voice objections."(10) Later Poszumski and others expressed the opinion that Borowski should be brought before the court of the [Communist-run] Writers' Union.

Writing in Dzis i Jutro, (11) Stefan Kisielewski, like Jasienica in Tygodnik,(12) also defended Borowski. Kisielewski was most concerned about the narrow-mindedness of such attacks. Kisielewski argued that the scope of "Catholic culture" in Poland should be broadened:

We must understand and realize one supremely important thing, which is that Polish Catholicism after the war has embraced within its scope a significantly broader range of subjects and problems than had been the case in Poland before September [1939]. The reasons for this are simple: the cataclysm of the war undermined or destroyed many worldviews, ideological foundations, and political movements. Because the sine qua non of a nation's existence is continuity of its intellectual life, all eyes¾including those of nonbelievers as well as of the "cathecumens,"(13) and quite often of people who had previously been completely indifferent¾turned to the Church as the only institution which survived unchanged, untouched, and uncontaminated by the cataclysm of war. The Church has today eo ipso become that Ark of the Covenant between the old and the new.(14)

Kisielewski argued that Poszumski and Zygmunt Lichniak, the authors of attacks on Borowski and on Zofia Starowieyska-Morstinowa, another TP writer, were clinging to outdated and restrictive views. Starowieyska-Morstinowa's book was condemned by Lichniak for "not being Polish in its views" because she allegedly advocated a "Parnassian" view of art. The ranks of Catholic writers should be expanded, Kisielewski urged, "so that Catholicism and not someone else becomes the patron of Polish art and culture."(15) The Church had to broaden its horizons if it wanted to play this important role. Thus, Kisielewski wrote, if Starowieyska-Morstinowa's book is "alien" as Mr. Lichniak asserts, something unusual for our country, then in the name of enriching and broadening our culture, should the book be condemned, or rather assimilated and taken advantage of to broaden our horizons a bit? The answer seems clear. If Mr. Lichniak believes Polish culture is something closed and defined, that it should [not] learn anything [from anyone else], then all that is left for us is just to stew in our own juices.(16)

Jan Józef Szczepanski's debut story, "Buty" ("Boots"), published in TP in February 1947, also sparked a lively debate. Like Borowski, Szczepanski showed victims as perpetrators. The scandal it caused was no less than that surrounding Borowski's work, and raised suspicions about the weekly's true allegiances. At that time, TP was officially an organ of the Kraków Curia and Szczepanski was later on its editorial staff. The plot of Szczepanski's story revolved around the moral dilemma posed by a Polish partisan unit that decided to execute an enemy detachment consisting of Kalmyks(17) who had surrendered. The execution itself was not the source of the dilemma, but rather the partisans' motivation as described by Szczepanski. The soldiers, the writer suggested, were obsessed with material gain that would accrue to them if the Kalmyks were executed. It was not even the Kalmyks' weapons they wanted (though we are told that the enemy detachment was well armed), but rather their good boots which the partisans coveted--hence the title of the story. Szczepanski shocked his readers with his juxtaposition of the Kalmyks (shown phlegmatically peeling potatoes), and their Polish captors whose craving for the boots tipped the scales in favor of execution.

Some readers were appalled by this kind of portrayal of Polish partisans. Szczepanski later recalled receiving "more than three hundred letters, scolding [him] terribly. ["Boots"] caused a great furor, [critics claiming] it was blasphemous and unpatriotic, and libeled the Home Army."(18) This kind of reaction was probably what the editor at Twórczosc, Kazimierz Wyka, had been afraid of when he rejected the piece. As Szczepanski pointed out, however, "Turowicz was not afraid of the text, and published it."(19) It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that Turowicz and TP would opt to publish a controversial piece rather than play it safe.

The author of an article in a major Marxist cultural journal, Odrodzenie, took a somewhat different stance. There "Boots" was held up as an example of the "disease" rather than a cure. Szczepanski was dismissed as simply another one of his generation obsessed with his own wartime experience. His critic summed up the whole problem by warning that

those people who are convinced that their lives as writers began August 1, 1944,(20) or the day they went to the woods [to join the partisans] must remember all uprisings and forests come to an end, even in literature. Especially in literature.(21)

Szczepanski cites as typical another reader who accused him of "trying to lower the moral value of the Polish partisan detachments who in their noble struggles fought the German invader for the nation's freedom." Readers resented the tarnishing of what Anthony Smith has called the mythomoteur of a nation.(22) A reader pointed his finger accusingly at Szczepanski, saying, "I am sure that J. J. Szczepanski would bring back a dozen such watches [a highly coveted form of booty] from Berlin, if he had been given the chance. Moreover, taking possession of valuable items from the defeated enemy is the law of war."(23) This was precisely Szczepanski's point, however, which the reader failed to see even as he himself was alluding to it. Although most war literature, and popular reaction, had focused on condemning the terrible crimes of the invaders and occupiers, Szczepanski tried to show the equally terrible effects those crimes had on those subjected to them. The phenomenon of "infection by death" resulted, Szczepanski said, in a devaluation of human life: "A watch, pair of boots, and human life become absolute categories without meaning," as that reader himself had said. Szczepanski, however, realized the importance of discussing the war's events and effects openly, no matter how painful the process might be. He wrote: "Almost all the letters that described ‘Boots' as morally repugnant are protests in the name of a highly dangerous ethic of appearances. The criteria used are ‘what you talk about and what you don't talk about', and ‘what you should and shouldn't do'."(24) The most dangerous thing, Szczepanski argued, is that an "'upstanding person' can with shocking ease be transformed into a person who is morally ‘derailed'." He says that as a soldier in the resistance, he himself witnessed this phenomenon:

The "infection of death," a nihilistic disdain of man by man is not completely the result of war and a bestial [foreign] occupation. In a shockingly large number of cases, the war and occupation only acted as a catalyst for those dangerous forces which are always at hand, much closer than one would expect in theory.(25)

To some extent, Szczepanski specifically blamed the intelligentsia, which traditionally was seen as the country's moral leadership. He noted bitterly that it was often the intelligentsia from the underground leadership that proved most devoid of morals.

On another level, Szczepanski and Turowicz, who wrote TP's response to the criticism,(26) also defended the literary value of "Boots." Turowicz overtly criticized Polish writers for a tendency to look at the national mythomoteurs uncritically. "Legend should not mask the truth," Turowicz wrote, "The medicine against evil is not silence. In Catholic opinion, the convention existed that Catholic literature should be moralistic in nature, and that it should not portray evil in order not to attract people to it." He claimed current Catholic writers have abandoned this model, realizing that "it is more important to portray life as it is, that it is not important what one writes about, but how one writes."(27) [emphasis in original]

Szczepanski, too, made a strong statement for realism in literature, though not the kind advocated by the Party press. He stressed that writing about the war, especially about its morally reprehensible episodes, must be validated by some higher "therapeutic" and didactic aim. While the Marxist critic Kazimierz Wyka criticized Szczepanski for not offering any solutions to this "infection of death" and for suggesting that such solutions do not exist, Szczepanski said that "noting and collecting the symptoms of the disease is necessary if one intends to fight it." He proffered no solution, he contended, because he did not have one; but he contributed to the solution by exposing the disease.

For Turowicz, Catholic personalism is a key part of the solution. "There is only one road to immunity to the ‘plague', and treating those already ‘infected by death': raising people in the spirit of personalism, in the spirit of respect for the noble dignity of each person, in the conviction that the human being is a value in and of itself."(28) Turowicz was responding to the moral damage inflicted by the war, but his words applied equally well to the "new reality." While placing supreme value on the collective, the Communist regime constantly denigrated the value of the individual as a remnant of a "reactionary" and bourgeois past.

It is worth noting that with one exception the letters about "Boots" to TP editors were anonymous. Turowicz found this to be disturbing evidence of the damage done to Poland by the Second World War on the one hand and by the new political reality on the other. "This anonymity," he wrote, "is a very unpleasant phenomenon. For the most part, there was nothing in the letters' contents that would have justified the authors' unwillingness to sign their names--and thus [must be the result of] some defect in citizens' courage, or some habit adopted during the occupation that continues to do damage today."(29)

Issues raised by Tygodnik under Communism continue to be relevant today: the Polish national identity, debates about what Catholic Christianity really proclaims, and Poland's relationship to her past remain very much alive. These themes will undoubtedly resonate once again in public debate as Poland joins the European Union.



1. Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951) was active in leftist youth cultural life during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and was sent to Auschwitz and then to Dachau. He returned to Poland in 1946, and eventually joined the Communist party and wrote according to the strictures of socialist realism. He committed suicide in 1951.

2. The title of "This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" was changed in Poland at the time to the less shocking "Transport Bedzin-Sosnowiec." Several of his camp stories were published in 1946-7 as well.

3. Tadeusz Borowski's critical essay, "Alicja w krainie czarów," appeared in Pokolenie, no. 1 (1947); Kossak-Szczucka's memoir, Z otchlani, was published by Ksiegarnia W. Naglowskiego in 1946.

4. Zofia Kossak-Szczucka also belonged to a prominent noble landowning family.

5. Tadeusz Borowski,"Alicja w krainie czarów," ("Alice in Wonderland") in Utwory wybrane (Wroclaw: Zaklad Narodowy Ossolinskich, 1997), 464-465.

6. Ibid., 465.

7. Ibid., 461.

8. Ibid., 461.

9. S. Poszumski, "Falsz, cynizm, krzywda: wspomnienia z obozu godzace w godnosc i meczennika," Slowo Powszechne, no. 81 (1947).

10. Ibid.

11. Dzis i Jutro was the predecessor of Slowo Powszechne, founded in 1947. Kisielewski contributed to Dzis i Jutro before PAX publications began to be boycotted by noncollaborating Catholic journalists in September 1947.

12. Pawel Jasienica, "Spowiedz udreczonych," TP, no. 40 (1947).

13. The expression "catechumens," or persons aspiring to join the Catholic Church, was used by the Tygodnik group to describe the many people attracted and embraced by them who were often still "searching" and not yet confident enough to accept Catholicism wholeheartedly. One prominent "catechumen" who had converted to Catholicism during the war was the playwright Jerzy Zawieyski.

14. Stefan Kisielewski, "Przeciw ciasnocie," Dzis i Jutro, no. 32 (1947).

15. Ibid. Emphasis added to convey the author's conspiratorial tone.

16. Ibid.

17. Kalmyks are a people of Mongolian origin who have lived in the foothills of the Caucasus since the seventeenth century. They sided with the Germans against Russians in the Second World War. In retaliation by the Moscow government, the entire Kalmyk nation was deported to the Gulag after the war.

18. J. J. Szczepanski, as interviewed by Jacek Trznadel in Hanba domowa [1986], (Warsaw: Morex, 1994), 279.

19. Ibid., 279.

20. The first day of the Warsaw Rising 1944.

21. Kjw [Kazimierz Wyka], "Szkola krytyków," Odrodzenie, no. 4 (1947).

22. Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations [1986] (Oxford, UK and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 58-68.

23. Letter to the Editor, TP, no. 10 (1947).

24. Szczepanski, TP, no. 10 (1947).

25. Ibid.

26. Turowicz, TP, no. 10 (1947).

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid. Turowicz was interested in Emmanuel Mounier's personalism, and he published a number of articles on this philosopher in TP.

29. Ibid.

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