“Someone who wants to be Polish. An act of will is more important than a birth certificate. To be a Pole is not to change one’s national loyalty.”
Juliusz Mieroszewski, „Kultura”
If we had to choose the five Poles with the greatest degree of influence on the fate of Poland, and therefore Europe, in the twentieth century, among them would certainly be Jerzy Giedroyc, the creator and editor of Kultura in Paris and the founder of the publishing house Instytut Literacki (Literary Institute).
The work of Jerzy Giedroyc is so associated with the Paris-based journal Kultura that we often forget about his literary and government work during the prewar years. During his studies in law and history at the University of Warsaw, Giedroyc edited two titles, „Bunt Młodych” (Youth Rebellion) and „Politykę” (Politics). In these first years of his work, his numerous talents were already evident: his work ethic, excellent organization, and, most important, his ability to surround himself with excellent people. In addition to his publishing activities, the young Giedroyc was employed in the Ministry of Agriculture and, before the outbreak of war, he was secretary to the Minister of Industry and Trade.
Evacuated with the government after the Soviet attack on Poland on September 17, 1939, he reached Romania, joined the Brygada Karpacka (Carpathian Brigade) and participated in the Libyan campaign and the defense of Tobruk. There he met Józef Czapski, who suggested he work in the Department of Culture, Press, and Propaganda of the Second Corps.
After the end of the war, convinced of the necessity of long term activity independent of the London government, he began the organizing of the Instytut Literacki (Literary Institute) in Rome, and later in a villa outside of Paris. It was there that the first number of Kultura appeared in 1947. The monthly was edited by Giedroyc in cooperation with Józef Czapski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, and Zygmunt and Zofia Hertz. The most important publicist was the Londoner Juliusz Mieroszewski, the author of the epigraph of this article.
From the beginning, Kultura was the main journal of the Polish emigration and one of the best edited monthlies in the world. It was read by Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Jews, and Germans, everyone who, along with knowledge of the language, also maintained respect for Polish tradition and history. But Kultura was not only about literature. Within its pages could be found the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century confronting and demasking communism on an ideological and philosophical level.
The journal and other publications of the Institute reached Poland through underground channels. These publications were an important part of the intellectual life of the nation and had a real influence on Polish views and attitudes. The publications showed that not all values caved in to the pressure of brute strength. Unfortunately, from 1970 to 1971, Polish authorities caught and condemned seven people to four and a half years’ deprivation of liberty or fines in suspension for distributing publications from the Paris publishing house.
In his politics Giedroyc was farsighted, persuading Poles to remember about the fates of Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. He believed that in the future these nations would become independent and democratic states and union with them strengthened the position of Poland. From the beginning he predicted the downfall of Soviet Russia. He thought that utopian ideology, a bad economy, terror, and intimidation had to end some time. The editor’s foresight proved true. He and his journal survived the Imperium.
Giedroyc himself did not write much, not counting his letters published in book form as „Autobiografia na cztery ręce”. His letters display an individual style, spare and laconic with an ironic tone and humor, as for example in this aphorism: „One should be able to preserve fundamental principles and change views.”
A fundamental principle for him was the regaining of independence for his own country. Not having an influence on the liberation of Poland, he directed all his activities toward the area of culture, caring for his native literature. The volumes of books published thanks to his Paris publishing house confirm this. Numerous authors, not only Poles, who remained in exile or who had been rejected by censors in their native countries, had the possibility to publish their work. The honorarium they received was for them a method of survival and a spur to further creativity. The value of these books was priceless, because they revealed the truth about the crimes in Katyń, about the fates of the people deported to the Soviet republics in Asia, about lives in great poverty and demoralizing work. From Soviet and Polish authors we learned about the nightmarish place on earth known as the gulag (Solzhenitzyn), about how murderous was work in winter and the hunger in the forests of Siberia (Herling-Grudziński). Other publications described the role of the Polish army in the West from 1940 to 1945 or spoke about the activities of the Home Army in Poland. The illegal death sentences of the heroes of the underground came to light. There also appeared the prose and poetry of well-known writers whose intellectual values prioritized the problem of individual responsibility in the formation of the modern world: Witold Gombrowicz, Czesław Miłosz, and Sławomir Mrożek, to mention just a few names.
In the course of fifty-three years the Paris publishing house put six hundred issues of Kultura (7,000 to 10,000 copies each) and hundreds of books into the hands of readers. Such a significant publishing house needed money. Giedroyc did not want to be dependent on anybody, so he derived the necessary funds from his monthly journal and from the editions of books he published. He was surprised himself that he did not lack money. He joked about himself, saying that „he could be a minister of finance in any declining country”.
The full work of the life of Jerzy Giedroyc earned him honorary doctorates from seven universities, six in Poland and one in Freiburg.
In recognition of his distinguished service as a Pole, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland announced a year of celebrations in his name. Conferences, symposia, and exhibits were held. A Warsaw military school opened an exposition with the title „Jerzy Giedroyc: The Prince of Emigres”. The exhibit detailed the life and work of the editor from his birth in Mińsk Litewski to the day of his death in Maisons-Laffitte near Paris. Kultura will no longer be published, according to the last will of Giedroyc.
On the honorary committee for the year of anniversary celebrations were representatives of world politics and culture, from Poland and other countries, and from the Executive Committee of UNESCO. The group included guests from Paris, London, Oxford, Berlin, Brussels, Luxemburg, Vilnius, and, from Washington, Zbigniew Brzeziński, and, from Hamden, Connecticut, Piotr Wandycz.
Dr. Elżbieta Ulanowska
Translated by Sean Martin