Jaroslaw Abramow-Newerly on Jerzy Giedroyc, "Kontrapunkt", 28 July 1996.
"Kontrapunkt" Cultural Magazine of "Tygodnik Powszechny", No 7"FROM THE DIARY OF A BOARDER"
Krakow, 28 July 1996
Jaroslaw Abramow-Newerly on Jerzy Giedroyc
I first heard of the editor Jerzy Giedroyc
forty years ago. I was editor of the newly founded student bi-weekly "Od Nowa" ["Re-New"], and our first issue had just come out when a letter arrived from Paris with congratulations and the offer of an exchange. I had not heard of "Kultura" or its editor, but a Parisian editor had heard of me, a newly appointed editor in Warsaw, and that was something.
I proudly read the letter to my staff and energized by praise I set off with such force that we never published issue 2. It was pulled, as was I: my head was to fall for reviving "Re-New". Fired in November by the victors of October, I realized that publishing a magazine was no cinch. There was no exchange with "Kultura", but I still have that 1956 letter that attests to Jerzy Giedroyc's lively interest in the student community.
A year later, my STS colleagues and I traveled to Dijon for the grape harvest. Agnieszka Osiecka smuggled a Marek Hlasko
text out of Poland, promising to deliver it to "Kultura". She set off and returned elated: "They've heard of us and want us all to visit!" As soon as the picking was done, we set off... to be surprised. Instead of an edifice worthy of an enemy institution, we saw a villa like the ones you see near Warsaw, with a large garden and a garden gate. Open. No one standing guard. Instead of personnel, a handful of housemates stood on the front porch to greet us.
- I had more staff than this, - I thought.
The "housemates" were Jerzy Giedroyc and his brother Henryk, Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, and Maria and Jozef Czapski
, who lived upstairs and were just called Marynia and Jozio, but I learned that later.
It Stands to Reason
The sender of the letter was only slightly less gray than today, though barely past fifty then. He stood off to the side, observing us, at times interjecting his favorite phrase (It stands to reason), but mostly listening. They all listened to us. We were stars. The first young people to come out of the Country. They were curious about what we were like. We were on our best behavior. And then the jokes started. We were good at that. After all, we were the Satirical Theatre... Zygmunt Hertz was no worse. Actually, he was better. We had lost touch a bit picking grapes in Burgundy, while he had the freshest jokes from Warsaw so he outdid us. He had friends everywhere. Charming, good, upfront, helpful, he convinced even the most cowardly arrivals from Poland to conquer their fear and, looking about them, to meet him for coffee near the Gare Saint Lazare. People often asked silly favors, used him. He would grumble:
- Some customer, eh? That's the business I do with my dear countrymen. - Yet he couldn't avoid being helpful and always arranged things.
I was a troublesome customer, too. When I went to Paris a second time in 1958 and had nowhere to stay, he simply said: "Come on over. We have a roof and a feeding trough. What's the rush?!" He liked the new phrases coming out of Warsaw and toyed with them. So I became a member of the "Kultura" household. And a boarder. That is important because as in every house, the most interesting discussions happened at the table, where important guests often sat. I lack the space to name all the world's greats who were seen in that small kitchen eating Zofia Hertz's delicious meals and drinking the beverages Zygmunt expertly chose.
We made our own breakfast when we got up. I was the latest riser. Zygmunt was already in the kitchen - bathrobe, cigarette, scanning the morning press. Seeing the obituaries he'd murmur: "Well, well. High season. The boys are advertising a lot. Especially my generation."
Now I understand the painful truth of that joke.
In the next room Zosia was typing away with amazing speed. She retyped texts, proofread, kept the accounts - one might ask what she didn't do. A stack of correspondence and newspapers lay in front of Mr. Jerzy. He perused them attentively, sipping coffee, puffing on a cigarette. Occasionally he would comment or succinctly answer Zygmunt's questions:
- It stands to reason we need to do that...
"It stands to reason" was a command, implying acceptance, logic, irrefutable certainty. To this day I don't see how that quiet phrase (he never raised his voice) swayed the noisiest opponents to his side, moreover, how it prompted action. When I see bosses or stage directors scream at people, I am reminded of Mr. Jerzy's calm. He "managed" things invisibly, yet everything was clockwork. Issues of "Kultura" appeared as dated on the cover - the July issue in July, not in September as was often the case in that age with Polish periodicals with large staffs.
After breakfast Mr. Jerzy would lock himself in his small office where he read, met with collaborators, inspired people. Presenting a new idea, he would carefully select its executor. Now we see the importance of initiatives that seemed like daydreams then. The "Kultura" Library, the "Historical Notebooks" - without them it is hard to imagine recent Polish history. His school of modern political thought and its tenacious support of the "ULB triangle" (Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus) are so relevant today. These concepts were elevated to new heights by the skillful pens of his noteworthy closest collaborators: Jozef Czapski
, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski
, Konstanty Jelenski, Stefan Kisielewski in Poland, and, of course, Juliusz Mieroszewski... I won't mention as too obvious the role "Kultura" played in paving Witold Gombrowicz
and Czeslaw Milosz
's way to world fame.
When going to Paris, Mr. Jerzy walked the rather long stretch to the train station, often carrying a heavy bag. "Kultura" had no driver. Zygmunt had a capped driver before the war. After the war he delivered packages for "Kultura" in a leased taxi - his "gablota" [show ride] as he liked to say in Warsaw slang. Jozef Czapski went to the station by bicycle. Until he turned eighty and switched to a moped.
After dinner, usually prepared by Zosia, everyone took turns washing dishes. Mr. Jerzy included. He would don an apron and proudly go to the sink. Zygmunt made sure I helped him when it was his turn:
- Monsieur! - he cried. - Get washing. No loafing, you lout. Here you go, son, - and obligingly handed me a sponge.
All this is "behind the scenes", a private description, yet that was the nature of my relationship with "Kultura" – very personal. Our bond was one of friendship, mainly with the late lamented Zygmunt Hertz, who looked after me like a son. I owe him much, as I owe many. He was great in his own way, the spirit of the house, at least to me. When I was in Poland, he would always remember me, send letters, presents, delicacies that were hard to get at the time. In gratitude, when in Bulgaria I sent him a bottle of the popular cognac "Pliska". Some time later I received a large package from Paris. Sensing divine western delights, I opened it to discover two kilos of buckwheat groats. I was ready to run to the post office, to complain that the bastards had stolen and replaced my delicacies! Then I saw Zygmunt's card:
- Sending me 'Pliska' to the cognac capital, you boor? So to the kasha capital I send you kasha!
As a connoisseur he was "offended". I was too. A grand but none too tasty joke. I'm not a big fan of groats.
At Maisons-Laffitte Zygmunt would draw me out into the garden to gossip. He was wonderful in conversation. He had lived and seen a lot, knew how to retell it, enriched accurate observations with wit. He loved people and took in their stories. He was the source of a live stream of information for "Kultura", the most valuable information - about life and people. He knew how to pick the essential bits. Important things. He did not believe every story. He was distrustful. "As he leaves communist Poland behind, every swine loses his pig face. He's pure crystal by the time he gets to Paris. The Virgin of Orleans. Squeaky clean," he would say, deliciously drawing out the last phrase.
When Jozef Czapski emerged from his summer studio and joined us at our bench, Zygmunt would cry: "Attention! Major Czapski! Move, you bum. The major would like to sit down!" To which Jozio always responded with his charming, youthful smile: "Oh, Zygmunt, Zygmunt. All you can do is joke" – and the conversation would proceed on to serious topics.
In the evenings Mr. Jerzy liked to water the flowers in the garden. It was a moment of respite, as were his long walks with his dog. He otherwise rarely left the house and generally took no vacations.
Sitting on that bench I would wonder how it was possible that our propagandists in Warsaw saw this pleasant, open home with its beautiful garden as a bunker with underground links to all the world's intelligence organizations. And with a dragon inside it. Saint Jerzy [George]. Watering the roses. They pounded it with the heaviest, Soviet-produced artillery, after some of the brightest minds of the West set the stage with a smoke screen. I watched these attacks against this "enemy center of operations" on Polish state television and was overcome by hollow laughter.
I also thought about this man's power and magnetism that allowed him to bring together such varied personalities and to create his oeuvre with them under one roof. Perhaps the "Kultura" phenomenon lies in that: their home is their editorial office, their editorial office is their home, and the two are hard to separate. Already in Rome, when the Russians were sitting in Warsaw and it seemed only a new war could halt their victorious march, in defiance of Yalta, Stalin, the Allies, our independence activists in London and our regime props in Warsaw, he realized the fight could only be continued with the word as his weapon. The word - not the sword. With "Kultura". Labeled a Don Quixote and a maniac, he fought alone, a handful of close companions by his side. Today we know his weapon proved deadliest to the system.
A few weeks ago he wrote me asking for more detailed information about the new student theatre STS96, modeled after our own STS and founded by journalism, Polish studies and philosophy students at Warsaw University. Forty years had passed since that first letter; I have grayed and long forgotten that I was once a student and an editor. Whereas Editor Giedroyc, as before, continues to carefully observe the student community. Let that be proof of his eternal youth.
Someone recently said that in this century Poland produced three great editors: Mieczyslaw Grydzewski, Jerzy Giedroyc
and Jerzy Turowicz. True in every respect. Yet of this great trio only Jerzy Giedroyc has his editorial office at home, meets with important guests in his kitchen, and remains at the country's center like no other among us though he has not been in Poland since 1939. The next generation of Warsaw politicians attentively listens to his voice. Will they continue to listen so carefully? In the next century?! It stands to reason they will...
© by"Tygodnik Powszechny"
"Tygodnik Powszechny" (TP) published this text in commemoration of Jerzy Giedroyc's 90th birthday in "Kontrapunkt" [Counterpoint], the TP cultural magazine, on 28 July 1996. It appears on www.culture.pl - courtesy of the editors and publishers of "Tygodnik Powszechny" - in connection with "The Year of Jerzy Giedroyc," celebrated in 2006".