The Press Game

The Case of Przekroj1

Wieslaw Pawel Szymanski

The Great Game began with the very first issue of Przekroj: a bit of the lie, or official communist propaganda, and a bit of the truth. From then until now2 it is difficult to precisely delineate the difference between these two kinds of texts: one, information in the proper sense of the word, and the other, disinformation. Let us consider the first decade of Przekroj's existence: 1945-1955, when the differences were more clear-cut. Communist indoctrination was blatant in the News and Commentaries section, but the goal of the editorial policy was much more sophisticated than merely dishing out news in a slanted form. What was attempted was bolshevik indoctrination through the "light" genres: poetry, humor, satire, cartoon, caricature, witticism, anecdote, but not instantly and not through all these genres at the same time. Twice or thrice per issue, somewhere on the last or last but one page, the "bolshevik idea" was cleverly served. I do not have in mind quotations from Lenin or Stalin but rather subtle approval of some section of social reality in Soviet-occupied Poland, or its opposite: mockery and ridicule of those customs and habits which stood in opposition to the bolsheviks. This was apparently deemed potentially more effective than sloganeering in the lead articles because it was taking place in the private and intimate sphere of life. These final pages of the weekly were addressed to the reader relaxing after work and reaching for the funnies and the cartoons on the last page. These were the pages that were supposed to be like friends encountered in the privacy of one's home, while drinking a cup of coffee and being in a good mood. In this atmosphere of psychological relaxation, while readers laughed at the apparently innocent jokes, the "bolshevization" of their thinking was supposed to occur.

One should not of course entirely dismiss the opening pages either. The first three or four pages conveyed the policies of the totalitarian system without beating about the bush. However, fine photography (during the first years of its existence, Przekroj had no rivals in this respect) and a slightly better journalistic style made even these official pages different from the rest of the communist press. One may conjecture that the average reader briefly scanned these pages, looking mostly at photographs, and then immersed himself/herself in the "intimate" section of the weekly. Then, having consumed whatever was offered there, he might return (or not) to the beginning. If he did not, not to worry (or so the Editorial Board might have thought); he would read the lead articles next week perhaps. And he would do so having been to some extent disarmed and amused by the "private" section of the weekly. He was therefore likely to treat the official part much more trustingly and indulgently than would have been the case if he had not been entertained first. The intimate part thus neutralized the reader's potentially critical attitude toward the party line. If one remembers that that second part was more subtly poisoned than the propaganda of the lead articles, and if one takes into account that this process was repeated year after year, over decades in fact, it becomes clear that Przekroj transformed a significant part of Polish society. It prepared society for acceptance, if partial, of the Soviet regime. And it did so in an almost imperceptible way, different from the heavy-handed propaganda dished out in the official party publications.

Two or three days after the "liberation" of Poland by the Red Army, the NKVD guards came to arrest my father. Soon we learned that at the very same time, all Polish judges and lawyers in my provincial town had also been arrested.

I am not suggesting that this entire process was planned in detail by Przekroj's founder and Editor,3 and his Editorial Board. At the beginning, things must have seemed less complicated. The attitude adopted was probably this: "We accept the new reality in its political, cultural and social aspects, and we are going to produce a carefree and amusing periodical, one that will help in this difficult period of reconstruction. Not a periodical for workers or farmers but for those with a certain amount of education. It is better not to call them a class; they might be teachers, doctors, lawyers, white collar workers; not a bunch of gloomy people but endowed with a sense of humor. What? Communist mentality does not admit of a sense of humor? Not to worry. We shall be different, at least temporarily. In time, the communists will find out that they have an ally and not an enemy in us." I even think that perhaps the dream of an alliance was also a later development. This dream was characteristic of the years after the 1947 referendum4 and elections to the Sejm when no one had any illusions any more as to who was in power in Poland. But in Spring 1945, when Przekroj was first launched, the Editorial Board probably did not use the word "communism" much in their editorial discussions. A leftist orientation was the objective. The target readership was that of Wiadomosci Literackie,5 although perhaps less highbrow, more common, readers with a general interest in movie stars (during the first decade of Przekroj's existence, the stars were almost exclusively Soviet; only in 1956 a dozen or so issues featured photos of a more or less disrobed Brigitte Bardot), cinema, theater, literature, social trends, good food, fashions, crossword puzzles. For forty years, until 1989 to be exact, this was accompanied by incessant assurances that we remain in the Soviet Union's brotherly embrace. These assurances took a variety of forms starting with direct lies. Thus in the fifth issue there appeared three photographs under the following heading: "Aleksey Tolstoi, Ilya Erenburg, and Mikhail Sholokhov, Poland's three most popular Soviet writers." This in May 1945, when Poles had entirely different things on their minds, and when Polish readership of Soviet literature was negligible. This lie was probably lifted indirectly from pre-war Wiadomosci Literackie which had displayed pro-Soviet sympathies more and more openly as the 1930s wore on. In support of this hypothesis, I submit the fact that, in the seventh issue of Przekroj, there appeared fragments of Henry Barbusse's book on Stalin, and the editorial comment said that this was the first translation of a book that had appeared in Paris in 1935. In summer 1945 Krakow had no access to the western press, and the most likely source of such information was Wiadomosci Literackie.

Polish intellectuals uncritically absorbed the Weltanschauung of French intellectuals of the 1940s and '50s.

Let us stay awhile with the greatest criminal of the twentieth century. Over the years, Przekroj published several hundred articles and thousands of photographs featuring Stalin, and it marked off scrupulously all the events and anniversaries related to him. Servility was intensified after 1948, when the Polish Socialist Party was absorbed by the communist-run Polish Workers' Party. After Stalin's death, Polish writers, scholars and other members of the "creative intelligentsia" produced a collective dirge that was truly an apogee of sycophancy. This fact is sometimes mentioned by present day commentators; one has to keep invoking it, not in order to mock the (now mostly deceased) professional lamenters, but in order to use it as a warning for the present generation. (....)

The most tragic, the most touching dirge was sung by the finest poet of the 1930s, Julian Tuwim. In issue #414 (10 March 1953), Tuwim wrote: "Our land is vast, but it does not contain a single square kilometer where people would not mourn the death of their beloved brother, defender, teacher, legislator of their consciences: Josef Stalin." Novelist Maria Dabrowska cried out perhaps a bit less sonorously. (...) She wrote: "Stalin's death was such a shock to me. I am still unable to find words to express the anxiety felt during those days when the fate of the Distinguished Patient was uneasily balanced between life and death. We shall fight for the preservation of the peace of which the Great Deceased was such a defender and which he desired to bring to all the working people of the world."

What were the principal ingredients of the Weltanschauung of the French Left in the 1940s and '50s? A secular view of the world (hence anti-clericalism), anti-Americanism, anti-Germanism, and a love of Russia manifested as a total, absolute acceptance of the USSR.

Przekroj's first issue also contains an interesting column by Czeslaw Milosz, then age 34. (....) He wrote: "I am not a tee-totaler and I do not say no to a drink, but it so happens that since the last German soldier left Warsaw and Kraków, I have not been drunk even once. I simply have no time for drinking. Life is short and there is much to do." What is worth a second look here is not the question of whether Milosz's confession was true or false, but rather its goal and function. Milosz subordinates his "privacy" to superior social values. He does not moralize or say that abstinence gave him pleasure or that he adopted it as the result of a dramatic process of decision making. No; he chose it to immerse himself in work ("there is much to do"). Not because he suddenly became very industrious but because reality, or Poland under reconstruction, expected this of him.

In the grand enterprises propped up by grand slogans not only the end counts, but also the beginning. In so writing Milosz helped to prop up the official section of the Przekroj enterprise. He knew what it amounted to: he did not say "liberation" as everyone did at that time, but wrote instead "when the last German soldier left Warsaw." (....)

In the second part of his column however Milosz adopted a private and intimate tone, and said that "True relaxation occurs when three or four people are together at home. (....) Beauty in the details of daily life and in the way one dresses, in furniture, in coffee cups. (....)"

Now here we are talking of a completely different reality. (....) Home and family were the greatest enemies of the communist system, and the system therefore fought them most ruthlessly. One of Milosz's truest poems, "A Song about Porcelain,"[1947] speaks of the destruction of china sets in private homes. (....) After 1945, the cups and saucers or, more generally, entire households of Polish landowners and middle class were nearly totally destroyed. "Chasy maesh? Vodku maesh?"6 These orders roared like a storm throughout the Polish lands in 1945, often accompanied by rapes and shootings. Thus "A Song about Porcelain" is a mourning song about the world that began to disappear with the speed of lighting after 1945, as the Red Army moved through Poland. Today we try to glue the pieces together, but reconstructed objects differ markedly from the original ones.

But to return to that other, false intimacy which Przekroj kindled and through which it insinuated communist views into society. (....) The cartoons attacked the United States first of all, then Konrad Adenauer's Germany, capitalists and bourgeoisie, individual farmers and the intelligentsia. A more subtle method was used by the creator of the Professor Filutek series of cartoons which ridiculed absent-mindedness, sentimentalism, love of tradition and other weaknesses of old-fashioned pedagogues. (....) The goal was to poison the mind painlessly, so to speak. One smiled at the cartoon without perhaps agreeing with its intention. That was fine, by Przekroj standards: to leave the reader in a state of indecisiveness. (....)

The Count Bec-Walski7 series of cartoons (which made its appearance in the very first issue and continued until 1954) is another example of this subtle game. Basically, Bec-Walski said "no" to whatever Przekroj promoted. In a way, he was a pure oppositionist. His physical appearance was not repulsive; he was no primitive fascist with wild eyes and big fists ready to fight every communist in sight. He rather resembled a pre-war medical doctor, of the kind that paid house visits: he was of middle height, somewhat corpulent, with an obvious addiction to the finer things in life; a bon-vivant in fact. He dressed in an old-fashioned way, with a preference for bow-ties and evening jackets. At home he wore an elegant robe of a distinctly fin-de-siecle style. Occasionally, cartoons presented him as a hunter or a landowner who supervised his peasants. He was often accompanied by a dog (a dachshund, of course). (....)

The first Bec-Walski cartoon used the well known (at that time) picture of a Russian female soldier directing military traffic in Berlin. Bec-Walski was shown asking her: "Excuse me, ma'm, where is the Adolf Hitler-Platz?" (....)

The basic ideological scheme of all the Bec-Walski cartoons consisted in confronting the "new and progressive" reality with the backward and traditionalist views of the comical Count. In Przekroj's second issue, Bec-Walski says to a farmer: "Tell me, my good man, where can one purchase a nice country estate?" It should be remembered that just at that time, in 1945, all estates were confiscated and Polish landowners were expelled from their ancestral homes. Speaking of expulsions, on 4 December 1949 (issue #243), Przekroj reported "the outrageous cases of expulsion of Polish immigrants from France." (....) Subsequently, a Bec-Walski cartoon presented a well-dressed and politically correct Polish woman saying to the count: "I would bet that after this, all the scum in Poland will start learning French." To which Bec-Walski answered: "Oui madame, sans doute."

In the 1950s the most popular topic was of course the war allegedly being prepared by the Americans. (....) In a restaurant, the waiter says: "I recommend the 'little doves.'8 Bec-Walski answers: "Again this relentless peace propaganda!" (issue #331 in 1951) Or: seven Bec-Walskis ride children's bicycles: beside a suggestion of the counts' infantilism, one can also read the signs on their T-shirts: "BBC," "Gossip," "Sabotage," "Speculation," "War." The cartoon is entitled "An anti-peace race." (issue #370, 1952) (....) The Bec-Walski cartoons disappeared instantly when the so-called post-Stalin "thaw" was announced. After 1956, the intelligent communists would allow (or at least not forcefully prevent) jokes aiming at communism itself. However, there was a price. Together with communism (or, as it was said in those days, Polish socialism) one also had to ridicule history, Polish identity, the Church and the Deity. The intelligent communists understood that in the final count, this kind of destructive, total laughter was very valuable. It had future potential. It suggested that nothing has any value, that the world of values is an illusion, and only witty intellectuals remain, of the kind featured in the Zielony Balonik, Wiadomosci Literackie, Piwnica Pod Baranami.9

The Polish people have rejected this "Parnassus of People's Poland." It disappeared virtually overnight.

(....) In the enterprise of reading Przekroj from the last page to the first, readers disgusted with communist indoctrination in K.I. Galczynski's Teatrzyk Zielonej Gesi could turn to L.J. Kern's little poems instead. He was quite a phenomenon: he managed to remain apolitical even in the most dangerous of times. I have in mind the poems on the last page; later, when his byline began to appear in middle pages as well, things became different. (....) Thus average persons read Przekroj backward as it were, and with much satisfaction. Mrs. Kowalska, a white collar worker at the Pekao Bank, could thus acquire a notion that she was much smarter and nicer than Mrs. Falczak, while Professor Nowakowski could note that he was much less absent-minded than Professor Filutek.(...) And what happened when all these people, as well as members of Poland's elite, reached the official pages? They did so after being dished out a substantial dose of optimism, gaiety, internal serenity emanating from the last pages. Now they could look at the photographs on pages two or three and skim over the well known faces of President Bierut receiving foreign visitors, Marshal Rokossowski being enthusiastically greeted by the Sejm, Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz participating in the harvest festivities. They could concentrate on the photographs showing saboteurs, wreckers, spies, and class enemies, as they stood accused in the people's court. Having just seen Bec-Walski's "An anti-peace race," the readers could conclude that apparently society still contained such "socially maladjusted" elements. A thought might arise, that the people's justice rightly struck these harmful people. Had the readers not been softened by the cartoons, had they read Przekroj from beginning to end instead of from end to beginning, perhaps they would have been more likely to ask themselves whether the accused were what they were purported to be: enemies of the people. Even those who took their education from Przekroj knew a great deal about reality in Soviet-occupied Poland, about overcrowded prisons, arrests, tortures and murders committed secretly by the state.

Thus I accuse Przekroj of playing a calculated disarming role, putting on the mask of a clown in order better to advance the process of totalitarian subjugation.

(....) In the July 1950 issue (#273), page three features a report on the Fifth Congress of the Polish Writers' Union, as well as Leon Cukierberg's article entitled "Profound Symbolism and Profound Knowledge: on Josef Stalin's Essay about Marxist Linguistics." In the following issue (#274), Henryk Markiewicz returns to the Congress, hails the first Polish novels written in the manner of socialist realism (those authored by Wilczek, Zalewski, and Konwicki), and proudly announces that 82 writers traveled to worksites for inspiration. "The harvest is bountiful: 36 novels (ten currently being written, and 26 in the planning stage), eight collections of short stories, five reports, four volumes of poetry, and two plays." Markiewicz concludes: "Thus the Polish Writers' Union will speed up realization of the task mentioned by Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz: 'By means of each book and each public appearance, Polish writers discharge the proudest and the most joyful task of the nation and of all humanity: the building of socialism, the building of a new society, and the struggle for peace.'"

Slawomir Mrozek did not fall far behind. On the occasion of the Soviet-imposed national holiday (July 22), Mrozek published a report entitled "A New City: about Nowa Huta."10 One half of issue #367 (18 April 1952) is devoted to Boleslaw Bierut on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. Among the articles one notes Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz's "The Man Who Is Dear to Us All."

While "Paris" taught us how to think politically and showed various paths possible to take in a democracy, "London" saved the permanent things such as Family, Home, "Land Where Our Fathers Died," History, Honor.

The year 1953 brought the Memoirs by pianist Halina Czerny-Stefanska who thus reminisced about 1945: "Now came the period of the greatest and fullest flowering of Polish culture which from then on was under the care of People's Poland and its far-reaching assistance." There is some truth in it, except that the price of assistance was not mentioned. In a subsequent (#446) issue, the musician writes the following: "In January 1945, our little and gloomy apartment at Koletki Street was visited by Soviet soldiers. They came because they heard music through the window. They put their rifles in the corner and asked: 'Please, play.' And we played, my husband and I." Many years later, Czerny-Stefanska gave a military recital during the first weeks of martial law instituted by General Jaruzelski. It is hardly surprising that still later, when she attempted to play in the Krakow Philharmonic Hall, this time for the general audience, the public applauded her off the stage.

Toward the end of 1953, Stanislaw Lem began to publish in Przekroj fragments of Magellan's Cloud. In the book edition of this novel [1955], there is (...) a chapter entitled "The communists."

In the meantime, the Bec-Walskis listened passionately to western broadcasts. In the 1940s, there were cases when listening to foreign radio (Radio Moscow excepted of course) brought the death sentence and execution. Yet almost all the Poles listened to the Voice of America, BBC, London Polish broadcasts and, in the 1960s, Radio Free Europe. Thus it is hard to be charitable toward that section of Maria Dabrowska's Memoirs where she criticizes these broadcasts. In March 1950 she wrote: "One evening we turned on the radio to listen to that notorious 'Voice of America.' Two speakers, one with an American accent and the other Polish, discussed the Chinese-Soviet treaty giving it an anti-Soviet spin. [....]11 It is hard to imagine that anyone would take such broadcasts seriously. But the nation's despair is even greater than its stupidity. Thus it clings to the illusion that 'the other side' exists, even though 'the other side' is even more dubious than eternal salvation." (vol. 3, p. 283) Two years later, in mid-1952, Dabrowska commented further: "The VOA to which millions of Polish fools listen as if it were Gospel, exudes decay and defeat. The vulgarity and trivial stupidity of this broadcast bespeak a cultural and political decline of proportions that are hard to imagine. By comparison with the tone and meaning of all that they say, our own lies and propaganda seem mild. This makes me ask myself: 'Is not our night heading for a dawn? And is not their night forever?'" (vol. 4, p. 92)

Let us ponder the opposition which Dabrowska mentioned. On the one side is she and, one gathers, the circle of people close to her: Anna Kowalska and some other writers, intellectuals and university professors. (Dabrowska was not an egotist; if she used such strong language in her Memoirs, she obviously intended to speak on behalf of more people than just herself.) On the other side is the nation ("desperate" and "stupefied") and "millions of Polish fools." One side, much smaller than the other, does not approve of western radio propaganda, indeed denies its validity, whereas the other side, or the mass of people, is under its influence. Thus Count Bec-Walski turns out to be one of the masses, one of the common people. Maria Dabrowska would certainly not allow him in her living room. Dabrowska believed that "the Anglo-Saxons have committed the same crimes that Russians have committed." (vol. 4, p. 25) The Polish nation did not share Dabrowska's opinion, but the broad circles of French intellectuals did. And when they expressed an opinion, Polish intellectuals eagerly followed. Lutetia locuta, causa finita.

"Vodka! Watches!" these orders roared like a storm throughout the Polish lands in 1945.

Dabrowska held similar opinions about Polish emigrants.12 On 18 October 1945 she wrote: "Ksawery Pruszynski13 came today. One feels a strange emptiness while talking to those Londoners. No, I do not at all regret we stayed in Poland. (vol. 3, p. 24) On 30 June 1947 she wrote: "Received a letter from Jerzy and an issue of the London Wiadomosci condemning those emigre writers who publish in People's Poland. Jerzy describes this as an obscenity. This brings relief. I also think that it is not just obscene but impudent of people who should be far more modest. A refusal to shoulder anything except nostalgia does not give one credentials to become judges of the nation." (vol. 3, pp. 81 and 179)

I would not have written so much about emigration and Maria Dabrowska if these topics had not been amply covered in Przekroj; not in reports but in the literary works published therein. (....)

As I was paging over Przekroj's old issues, I noted that on 9 August 1953, it published K.I. Galczynski's poem "A Lesson in Bolshevism." I was taken aback. I did not remember the ending of that poem even though I had written on Galczynski a number of times and knew his work well. Here is the last stanza as printed in Przekroj:

Whoever knows how to give of oneself
All the light, like the sun,
That person is a true bolshevik,
That person is a true communist.

I checked the poet's Collected Works [1957]. Yes, the poem is there but it has one more stanza. Why did Przekroj cut it short? Probably because it was not as declarative as the penultimate one. In my book on Galczynski published in 1972, I never wrote of his "bolshevik" poems, trying rather to argue that his best lyrics were written before World War 2 or, more exactly, in the late 1920s and early '30s. Was I right to do so? Was I justified to pass over in silence all the Zielone Gesi which attacked the Polish intelligentsia, Polish emigration, the myth of the leader on the white horse? What was gained by passing over in silence Chryzostoma Bulwiecia podroz do Ciemnogrodu which poetically develops many thoughts expressed in Dabrowska's Memoirs? Thoughts about the cold war, Radio Free Europe, Polish political emigration. What is more contemptible: support for communist propaganda given by those writers, or making a secret out of it, as I have done?

My gain was that the book appeared; this gave me moral satisfaction at that time. I thought that the reader of Galczynski's poems would follow the direction indicated by me. Perhaps a few readers have. However, today we live in a free country, and one has to say emphatically things which could not have been said then. All of Galczynski's works published in Przekroj, except Zaczarowana dorozka and, partly, Slubne obraczki were deeply destructive.

On balance, I regret I wrote that book.

The communist power structure was incomparably more generous than any royal court in the past. For a quarter-century it invested in writers.

The communist power structure was incomparably more generous than any royal court in the past. For a quarter-century it invested in writers; later, it understood that it was a lost cause. The forms of payment were diverse, primarily apartments, the most valuable commodity in Poland ruined by war; then well-paying editorial jobs, extra payments for writers who were party members, trips abroad, translations into foreign tongues, fellowships, meetings with readers (the scale of payment was very wide here), free vacations, prestigious prizes etc. The communists thus invested in Galczynski via Editor Eile and his crowd. The more political the poem was, the higher was the payment demanded by the poet. "Only poor craftsmen charge low prices" was his motto. Both sides were usually satisfied. (....)

There has been little realization of the fact that the Polish people have totally rejected this "Parnassus of People's Poland." It disappeared virtually overnight. Only when some former prominent tries to help another has-been, does one hear one of those names associated with the artificial Parnassus constructed over forty years of Soviet occupation. Only in school textbooks (which change extremely slowly) does this artificial Parnassus still appear. So far as I know, this is the only case in the history of our country, and possibly in the history of Europe,when society at large repudiated thoroughly what it considered an alien growth: the pro-communist "writers" - and it did so without violence or fanfare. Those who started writing in the late 1970s and early '80s still exist on the lower shelves of bookstores. They share that place with emigre writers and with some difficult translated works.

On 17 November 1957, Przekroj announced on page three: "According to Zycie Warszawy, First Secretary of the PUWP Zenon Kliszko quoted K.I. Galczynski, his favorite poet, at a Moscow rally. The listeners liked it a lot. It is worth recalling that ten years ago, in one of his speeches Wladyslaw Gomulka also quoted Galczynski: 'May city and country matters become united, may our plebeian state grow and flourish.' "

Przekroj had three ideologues who took care of party business, writing about the great anniversaries, congresses and meetings (mainly those of the PUWP), and similar weighty matters: Kazimierz Kozniewski, Andrzej Klominek and Czeslaw Komarnicki (I think this last name was a pseudo). Occasionally, someone else joined this leading troika. In 1955, Klominek published "A Letter to an Anonymous Writer" about the spirit of the Geneva accords, internal emigration and such. (issue #546) This was the time when the iron curtain was ever so slightly opened, a kind of intermission between two periods of the cold war. Klominek wrote: "The fight goes on and will go on. No one is naive enough to assume that the powers which inspired the cold war have ceased to exist or have capitulated, or that they will not seek new avenues of influence, even if they are obliged to give up some old ones. [...] Think about all this, my dear sir, for one can return from any emigration, and much more easily from the internal one than from the actual one." This was not a polite letter. One senses in it a threat made by a self-assured party member, one that felt himself master of the country, promising mercy for total obedience. Incidentally, this letter had nothing to do with the fact that a year or two later some emigre writers and politicians returned to Poland. This was caused by the various diplomats and agents of the system residing in the West.

The Kultura-educated crowd yielded to communist propaganda saying that the world of permanent values would never return.

In March 1957 (issue #621), Jan Blonski published an essay titled "On Emigration without Mythologizing: A Letter from Paris." The article's tone was calm and free of mythologizing, with the exception of one fragment which retains its significance til today. Blonski wrote: "I estimate that no more than 3-5% of Polish emigrants are interested in what the remnants of pre-war Polish political parties do in London. What they do is of no importance, it is really a pastime appropriate for elderly gentlemen." The author contrasted "London" with "Paris:"14 "I think that the position of the Paris Kultura, that is to say, promotion of parliamentary democracy coupled with an acceptance of the present-day Polish political road as the best of the possible, is shared by the majority of Polish emigrants."

This was the first recognition of the fact that there have been two European centers of Polish emigration: Paris and London (the third one being in the United States). Was the distinction symbolized by these two cities valid? It has persisted in Polish minds for over thirty years.

(....) What was the result of the fact that Wiadomosci Literackie was published in 15,000 copies, and Zwrotnica or Zagary15 in a few hundred? Sociologically speaking, the result was that the post-World War 2 Polish intelligentsia was largely left wing. But this does not mean that Polish literature en masse became avant-gardist.

Very likely, Blonski's figures are on target. His generation and mine (as well as two subsequent generations) were brought up on Kultura and the books published by Institut Litteraire in Paris. The London Wiadomosci16 reached Soviet-occupied Poland with difficulty; I do not even remember the time it ceased publication. Yes, politically and culturally we were all educated by Kultura which was smuggled to the country by various means. (....)

The Kultura-educated crowd yielded to communist propaganda that "the white horse" and the general seated on it are myths, that General Anders17 would never return to Poland. At the same time, Kultura's Weltanschauung assumed that a return to People's Poland was possible, or at any case, that collaboration with the regime was possible. Kultura was more open and trusting, whereas the Polish government-in-exile in London ruled out any possibility of collaboration. It broke down only in 1989 when it transferred the insignia of presidential powers back to Warsaw. (I am not entirely certain that they will not find themselves in the Kremlin or in St. Petersburg one day.)

(....) Or to put it another way: Kultura is what the St. Germain's philosophers called existence, London is essence. (...) Since the end of World War 2, virtually all Polish intellectuals chose existence. To opt for essence (or tradition) meant to become a laughing stock, to be regarded as a supporter of ossified conventions. I too would say that no more than three to five percent of today's intellectuals consciously choose a Weltanshchauung based on "essence;" one grounded in being and not in existence, in permanent values rather than in their denial.

Many of the "select company" traveled abroad even in the darkest days of Stalinism, to attend congresses "in defense of peace" and other such attractions.

But while "Paris" taught us how to think politically and showed various paths possible to take in a democracy, "London" saved the permanent things such as Family, Home, "Land Where Our Fathers Died," History, Honor. If I add "God" to this list, those educated exclusively on Kultura will exclaim: "We've got him! So that is what he is about!" I know these intellectual tricks. Besides, I do not intend to declare myself unconditionally on one side or the other. It seems to me that the drama of "Paris" or "London" has been played out ever since we lost independence in 1795.

In Dom we wspolczesnej Polsce, Jan Prokop shows how the archetype of "the Polish home" has fluctuated between the imperative of preserving the permanent things: customs, family ties, history, religion, and protecting against foreign invaders and occupiers; and the necessity of denying "permanence" when one wanted to create new worthwhile things and remain open to experience and the world. Such a situation is characteristic of nations situated at the outskirts of their culture (the antemurale position of Poland), and it is thus incomprehensible to nations of the West. "London" is the Guardian of the Seal and of all values defining the Polish identity; whereas "Paris" is a symbol of movement, action, revolution.[...] The reading of the first symbol is directed inward, of the second, outward. The drama arises when one tries to separate the two in a rigid way. For they are not so much separate as complementary. Their position shifts; one can even say that they replace each other in certain circumstances. Someone who opts for existence only renounces his roots. A universal man, he builds his house on sand. A rigid adherent to essence forgets that the fig tree has to be pruned to bear fruit.

In the light of the above, let us now consider the reasons for the disharmony between Polish intellectuals and the nation. ( I am not of course speaking of the declared servants of the communist regime. These are beyond the pale. I have in mind those who were and are regarded as intellectuals.) Obviously, social background and the ensuing attitudes, privileges which the intellectuals enjoyed under the communist regime, are among the reasons. But one should not look for reasons to the past only. The reason for the disharmony should also be sought in the radically different sources of information which the two groups utilized. "The nation," "the common folk," "the Bec-Walskis," and even "the Filuteks" listened to foreign radio broadcasts and in spite of horrendous jamming, absorbed a certain amount of information from them. In everyday life they barely managed to survive. They were careful not to step on the party members' and the secret police's toes. Often they praised the party in public while in private they hated it and poked fun at it. A portion of these people practised "internal emigration" or otherwise resisted the regime.

In contrast, the intellectuals played a double game. In October 1950 in her Memoirs, Maria Dabrowska noted the following with her characteristic frankness, and at the same time without analyzing the moral aspect of her confession: "[...] at five o'clock I went to the meeting of the PEN Club Board. It was relatively pleasant, as we were in select company: Parandowski, Zawieyski, Wat, Rusinek and Nalkowska, who resembles her own pre-war self when she is not surrounded by party members. We laughed to our heart's content at her story of the dull meeting of the Artistic Prose Section." (vol. 3, p. 353) Dabrowska was generally unable to see the dubious morality of such behavior. On the one hand, she gave her stamp of approval to the horrendous nonsense of official meetings, on the other, she mocked them when she was in "select company." Characteristically, it was always others that were mocked, never "the select company."

It is true that the vast majority of the people behaved similarly. However, there was a difference. For the majority, it was a matter of bare survival. For intellectuals like Dabrowska, the consent was given at a higher level as it were. It was the level of privilege. Parandowski or Dabrowska could afford not to attend the meetings of the Artistic Prose Section of the Polish Writers' Union, aped directly from the Russian model, yet they actively participated in the work of the Union. They were afraid of any risks that might endanger their privileged existence.

The problem of the different sources of information can be expressed in yet another way. The nation listened to foreign radio, but it also knew from its own daily experience what communism was all about. The intellectuals (of the kind I am speaking about here) did not listen to Radio Free Europe much, and they were separated from the nation by their lifestyle. What kind of "personal" contact could there be between the nation and the inhabitants of Aleja Roz18 such as Antoni Slonimski or K.I. Galczynski? The houses in which they lived had liveried and armed doormen who would not allow an accidental passerby to enter without demanding his ID and checking with the inhabitants whether he had been invited?

Who else lived at Aleja Roz? Oh, this is a trivial matter, you say? It was only a matter of providing peace and quiet for a group of creative writers? But this "select company" had to have some opinions, had to acquire some information about the people and their needs. It wanted to lead the people, to help the people. And so it had to have information. Laughter and mockery in "select company" was not enough. So this "select company" also received its knowledge from the West, but not from the political broadcasts listened to by ordinary folk. Polish intellectuals minded very much the opinions of western intellectuals, or more exactly, French intellectuals.

The contacts with western leftist circles took place on several levels. Many of the "select company" traveled abroad even in the darkest days of Stalinism, to attend congresses "in defense of peace" and other such attractions. From Paris, left-wing intellectuals came to Poland, usually in small groups, as invitees of the Polish Writers' Union, the PEN Club, the Ministry of Culture, or even the appropriate sections of the Central Committee (who had to know and approve of everything anyway). There were also big cattle roundups, such as the notorious Peace Congress in Wroclaw in 1948. Western leftist publications (primarily French) were sent to the libraries of approved institutions, and also to some individual members of the "select company." In the 1940s, '50s, and even '60s, this "select company" was formed and molded by the western intellectual Left. Polish intellectuals aped western leftist judgements and uncritically absorbed leftist Weltanschauung. Given the traditional Weltanschauung of the Polish nation, the result was predictable: a complete separation of views. Ordinary people knew that, first, they were enslaved by communism; second, that they were enclaved by Soviet Russia, from where the communists had come. If it weren't for Soviet Russia, the nation would have taken care of its own communists in a twinkling.

What were the principal ingredients of the Weltanschauung of the French Left in the 1940s and '50s? A secular view of the world (hence anti-clericalism), anti-Americanism, anti-Germanism, and a love of Russia manifested as a total, absolute acceptance of the USSR.

In February 1952, there appeared in Przekrój a photograph titled: "The accused accuse: two progressive French journalists, Renaud de Jouvenel and Andre Wurmser." Further text reads as follows: "Three years ago, de Jouvenel published a book titled The International of Traitors where he denounced the treacherous, anti-people activity of the groups of reactionary immigrants from Eastern Europe. Wurmser wrote the Introduction to that book. The demasked traitors declared themselves offended and took the two journalists to court, accusing them of libel. However, during the trial the plaintiffs were further accused."

I dwell on these issues because they are a warning for the present generation.

This must have been a noisy story, for Przekroj wrote about it two more times. (....) It appears that this trial served as the inspiration for Jean-Paul Sartre's play Nekrasov. First performed in 1955 and published in 1956, the play was written during the so-called Khrushchev's thaw. It is a kind of burlesque, a la Moliere, but much worse artistically and much too long. Apparently the author did not know how to conclude his mendacious pro-Soviet creation.

The action takes place in the editorial offices of a large Paris daily of rightist orientation. The daily is losing readers and the editors are desperately looking for scoops. In the editorial offices there appears an international criminal who has been on the most wanted list for years. He turns out to be the only intelligent man among the editors (here Sartre belittles the intellectual acumen of the Right). He declares himself to be the Soviet minister of the interior asking for asylum in France (conveniently, the day before the press reported that the Soviet interior minister suddenly disappeared). The daily immediately begins the publication of the alleged minister's Memoirs containing the information that the Soviet Union plans to invade France, and that it has prepared a list of several tens of thousands of Frenchmen destined to be shot when the Red Army takes over. The list contains almost all the MPs and all editors of rightist journals, with one exception. That "exception" causes further complications etc. etc.

The obscenity of this play consists in Sartre's suggestion that such a situation was absurd. Nowhere, in anyone's commentary or in dialog, did he even allow the thought that the situation would have been more than probable, should the Red Army take over France.

Two or three days after the "liberation" of Poland by the Red Army, the NKVD guards came to arrest my father. Soon we learned that at the very same time, all Polish judges and lawyers in my provincial town had also been arrested. Why should I doubt that what happened in Poland would not happen in France? Were it not for the presence of the American army in Europe, Sartre's cynical irony would have become truth.

Maria Dabrowska and her "select company" believed deeply that it was the Americans who tried to provoke the third world war. Przekroj's cartoons concurred. Almost every issue contained a more or less witty cartoon representing ugly Americans in Uncle Sam's high hats holding bags of dollars in one hand and the atom (later hydrogen) bomb in the other. In this situation, Polish intellectuals did not even ask themselves, "Perhaps the Americans are actually defending Europe against the bolshevik power?"

(...) In Sartre's Nekrasov there is a scene where the police inspector, trying to evoke the feeling of camaraderie in the journalist, says that they both have similar apartments, with similar furniture and accessories. The conversation is meant to suggest that neither representative of the bourgeoisie deserves these luxuries; they should not have been given them. "Yes, says the inspector, our women selected this furniture together with their mothers. We had nothing to say: our in-laws paid for this. Do you like these 1925 chairs?" Reading that passage, I understood anew why I am writing this essay.

Why didn't Sartre, a much revered philosopher and writer, ask himself at that moment, what actually happens in that other situation, when the continuity of generations is brutally, mechanically broken? When in-laws do not buy dining room and bedroom furniture, not because they are poor but because they do not exist anymore, and the young couple has no in-laws?

I can offer here an authentic document. Through its matter-of-fact figures, I see a world that has been moved, contrary to its will, into non-existence; I see the world destroyed by communism. It is a bill for house furnishings which my wife's grandparents gave her future parents.

"Martin Robak and W. Karol Robak, Carpentry and Home Furnishings, Myslowice, tel. 222-75, given on such and such a day of 1930. No. 6.2, two matresses of best materials, covered with damask. No. 7.2, a round armchair, high springs, carved back; No. 8.1, round table 65 cm laid-out, according to offer; 9.2, two square tufted tabourets, high springs. Total, Zl. 2,865. Additionally one chaise-lounge 1.95x 0.75, semi-circled ending, according to offer, Zl. 187. No. 11.2 borders, carved. Zl. 19.38. Additional payment for mattresses, Zl. 183. One kneeler according to drawing, carved like bedroom furniture, Zl. 255. [....]"

I shall stop with this kneeler, adding that out of all these, in our apartment today only "two square tabourets" have survived.

I do not know whether my father-in-law ever used that kneeler. He was a prep school professor, a graduate of Jagiellonian University with a doctorate in philosophy. So possibly he already was an agnostic. But if he ever knelt there, he could be considered a symbol of that double duty of which I wrote earlier, a man who declares himself on the side of the permanent things, of "essences," but is also called to action in "existence." He remained in my imagination as a man dedicated to essences, but he was also a man who, in 1939, put on an infantry lieutenant's uniform to defend his fatherland, family, and home.

I wonder how many such kneelers were there in Polish middle class homes in the 1930s, before the communists came?

(....) The loneliness of death. Death in the Katyn Forest belongs to the strangest and the most tragic because not one cry of the murdered has been preserved. There are no witnesses. The officers probably died in groups. They saw and heard the shots just a few minutes, perhaps a few seconds, before they themselves died. They saw those who fell, how they rolled down the pit. Some of them must have shouted. But there is not a witness to these deaths. All those 14,000 people died in solitude.

The bill which I quoted above should have been destroyed, and the people who used the items mentioned in it, should have lived. But the opposite happened.

What happens if some human or satanic force tears out of the historical logic of a family a certain individual? What are the consequences for the subsequent fate of that family? If the father perished, who took care of the wife and children? Did they live in destitution? Did privation bring in disease? Thus, were the deaths in the Katyn Forest really the end of the murdered men's fate? Weren't those shots in the back of the head the beginning of the subsequent fates of the murdered men's families? Is not my being excessively tired now one of the consequences of one of these deaths? And my helplessness in trying to describe the drama of my father-in-law whom I never met, whose characteristics I can only seek in my grandchild who so far has no idea about death and the different kinds of death?

In 1945, Przekroj published another article by Czeslaw Milosz (issue #2). He said there that Odrodzenie, a literary weekly which had just began publication in Krakow, was very dull because it published articles by members of the elite about other members of the elite. Milosz wrote there about Dygat, Dygat about Przybos, Przybos about Milosz; and thus the circle closed making all the participants happy.

Similarly, in issue #653, Slawomir Mrozek's cartoon is entitled "In little towns everyone knows everyone else and calls him/her by his/her first name." The drawing shows several nearly identical houses with the following signs: "Zbig-Variety Store; Kasik-Traffic; Johnny-Meat and Sausages; Vladek-Notions; City Council-Joe." Milosz and Mro/ek captured the fundamental truth about People's Poland. That institution was one big mafia active on several levels. Enslavement to the mafia was one of the many forms of enslavement in the bolshevik period, but perhaps it was not entirely traceable to the bolsheviks. To live within a certain clique meant to live comfortably and securely.

A mafia may have a prettier name, and its members may even think that they are not a mafia at all, that mafias are unethical. The rule about any such conscious or unconscious mafia-like structure is simple. One has to accept the superior power of some Joe or Johnny; one has to help one another, and one has to share one another's views. These three rules guarantee timely promotions, financial advancement and honor-filled retirement. (...) More on the Polish national character can be found in writers such as Mochnacki, Brzozowski and Gombrowicz.

I myself eventually came to understand the necessity and duty of true solitude. Now that I understand it, I have too little time. Or perhaps that means that I have not yet fathomed the nature of solitude. Who said, "Solitude stands in opposition to the expression, 'this is mine.'" Solitude can take different forms too, depending on the role which one has to fulfill, the work one carries out, and one's profession. The Pope in Rome is the most dramatically solitary; his solitude is the greatest of all. A different kind of solitude is the lot of the retired professor who lives near San Francisco Bay, and still another solitude awaits my dear Tymoteusz, a great poet who, if he could, would have devoted himself to meditations about "diverted light" (as things stand now, he has to engage in a profession which, as he once admitted, he does not like). My own solitude is still of another kind. It manifests itself in the village of Psary, when I tidy up the garden there. Mine is an imperfect solitude, for whenever I look at the train that passes by, from east to west, about half a mile away from my garden, I ask myself whether there perhaps is on that train some acquaintance of mine with whom I would like to have a chat.

W.P. Szymanski is a novelist and Professor of Polish Literature at Jagiellonian University.

1 "Usmiech Sartre'a" first appeared in the Polish bimonthly Arka
[Krakow], Nos. 44-45 (2-3), 1993. It is a fragment of a forthcoming book, Uroki dworu. Translated by permission with abbreviations (as indicated). Abbreviations in the original text are indicated by square brackets. Boldface is the author's. This esssay was written in February 1993.
Przekroj, an illustrated weekly which began publication in 1945 in Krakow. In contrast to the generally grim-looking communist publications, it resembled Life magazine or Der Spiegel in its style, and it was supposedly a carrier of "pro-western" attitudes.
3 Marian Eile.
4Voters were asked to answer three questions: Do they approve of the annexation of former German lands? Do they approve of nationalization of industry? Do they approve of the reduction of the Sejm to one chamber only? The answers were supposed to be "yes" to all three; and not surprisingly, they turned out to be.
5 A leftist literary weekly (1924-1939) edited by M. Grydzewski.
6 "Vodka! Watches!" These orders were shouted out at the local population by Soviet soldiers as they burglarized Polish homes in 1945. The incorrect Russian of the original reflects the Soviet soldiers' attempt to speak Polish.
7 The pun consists in that the hyphenated name, when read together, sounds like the word becwal, or idiot.
8 Polish for cabbage rolls.
9 Zielony Balonik (1905-1912), a Kraków literary cabaret featuring among others Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski. Wiadomosci Literackie, see fn. 5. Piwnica Pod Baranami, a Krakow literary cafe and cabaret continuing the tradition of all-embracing mockery.
10 Nowa Huta is a steel mill built by the communists near Krakow, far away from the coal mining region and without appropriate concern for the possible supplies of iron ore. It has been conjectured that the objective was to bring the medieval city of Krakow into decline.
11 Omission in the original text.
12 See my article in
Arka, #42 [the author's note, Ed.]
13 A Polish writer who returned to Poland after the Second World War, only to leave shortly afterwards.
14 The Polish monthly
Kultura was published in Paris, whereas the Polish government-in-exile resided in London.
Zwrotnica, an avant-garde literary periodical published in Krakow in 1922-23, 1926-27. Zagary, an avant-garde literary monthly published in Wilno [Vilnius] in 1931-34.
16 An emigre publication, not to be confused with pre-war
Wiadomosci Literackie.
17 Having formed the Polish Army out of Gulag survivors in Soviet Russia in 1942, General Wladyslaw Anders evacuated it via Iran to the West. Anders' Army fought in North Africa, Italy, France and on other western fronts.
18A posh residential area in Warsaw.

Return to September 1994 Issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 03/12/03