Wojciech Skalmowski on Jerzy Giedroyc, "Tygodnik Powszechny" No 39, 24 September 2000.
"Tygodnik Powszechny" No 39,"FAREWELL, PRINCE"
Krakow, 24 September 2000
Wojciech Skalmowski on Jerzy Giedroyc
On the night of 14/15 September of this year, following a brief illness, Jerzy Giedroyc
passed away at Maisons-Laffitte near Paris. Founder and editor of the Paris-based periodical "Kultura," a publisher of books banned in communist Poland, a natural confidant of the leading lights of Polish culture and independent political thought, he was one of the few universally acknowledged ethical authorities on that foggy border between patriotism, the right of state and (to use Orwell's phrase) regular human decency. For over fifty years his non-codified but clearly sensed doctrine known as the "'Kultura' line" (in the briefest terms: independent, strong but non-nationalistic statehood and harmonious coexistence with neighbors) was a reference point and gauge of all other concepts of Poland and Polishness.
The future "Prince of Maisons-Laffitte," as he was jokingly but respectfully called, hailed from an old Lithuanian family which had a right to this title (the Editor never used it and generally treated these matters lightly), but his direct forebears were not wealthy and became members of the urban intelligentsia in the 19th century. Ignacy Giedroyc - father to Jerzy and two younger brothers - was a pharmacist who settled in Minsk, Belarus, and it was there that "Kultura's" future editor was born on 27 July 1906. His childhood was marked by war and revolution: he attended schools in Minsk and Moscow and then, almost as a "stray child," got a close up look of both Russian revolutions. It was not until 1919 that the family arrived in Warsaw, where he could continue his studies under more normal conditions. He graduated from Jan Zamoyski Gymnasium in 1924 and went on to study law at Warsaw University.
His political temperament awakened early and steered him toward community involvement. This in turn led him to become a columnist while still a student. He needed to earn a living and thus took a full time job in the press office of the Council of Ministers before graduating. From then on, that is, from the late 1920s to the outbreak of World War II, Giedroyc's career developed along two parallel paths: that of government service at a fairly high level (he was a legal counsel in the Agriculture Ministry and subsequently in the Ministry of Industry and Trade), and simultaneously that of intense and overly non-conformist (once he almost landed in the political prison at Bereza Kartuska) journalism, or more precisely editing. Given the circumstances at the time, from his youngest years Giedroyc liked to operate in teams in the interest of achieving greater effectiveness. He would become the leader of these teams almost automatically. He saw both areas of his public activity as complementary. As a civil servant valued by his superiors and very knowledgeable about the labyrinths of state administration he could effectively pursue, or at least inspire, things he considered important and necessary to Polish interests. Editing a highly prestigious political periodical (the biweekly "Bunt Mlodych" [Youth Revolt] which first appeared in 1931 and in 1937 transformed into the weekly "Polityka" [Politics]) that had excellent contributors (including Ksawery Pruszynski, the Bochenski brothers, Stefan Kisielewski) was a way of taking that inspiration to a strategic level, i.e. promoting proposals and general political programs.
Giedroyc's ambitions at the time were not limited to a career as a civil servant and journalist. He was aiming higher and in the late 1930s intended to enter the "Polityka" group in the elections and get them elected to the Sejm. Those around him saw him as the next prime minister. All this "could be said" if not for the fact that anyone who knew him closer, knew very well that terms like "ambition," "career" and similar egocentric categories applied to him in no way. He lived a long life and remained active to the end, and the motivations or even daimonion determining his activities at various times appear extra- or even supra-individual, evoking such terms as "service," "mission," and "duty." The Editor himself would surely have resented these words, because he disliked pompous phraseology. Yet he often underlined that he was surrounded by the ideas of Pilsudski and Zeromski
when growing up, and we should look there for the key to his personality. In other words, Giedroyc's pre-war and subsequent activities seemed to derive from a deep sense of having been granted the abilities of a true statesman, and that use of this gift was simply "what had to be." If only war had not broken out...
Yet it did, and "what had to be" necessarily changed. A civil servant, Giedroyc was forced to evacuate with his ministry to eastern Poland in early September 1939, and then on to Romania after the Soviet invasion. Immediately after arriving in Bucharest, he was appointed secretary to Roger Raczynski, ambassador of the Polish Republic. After the embassy closed, he became something like a Polish chargé d'affaires in the Chilean diplomatic mission (under discreet British patronage). Increasing German pressure forced this last Polish mission to be disbanded in March 1940, and Giedroyc, in extremis, was evacuated by the English to Istanbul. In his Autobiography he writes, "There was nothing interesting to do there,"
so he traveled to Palestine and enlisted with the Carpathian Brigade. As the "soldafon"
(a favorite phrase) of this formation, he fought at Tobruk. Then, as a member of General Anders's Second Corps, he became press chief in the army's Propaganda Bureau, serving in this capacity in Palestine and Iraq (where he first met Jozef Czapski
and the Hertzes - later "co-pillars" of the Literary Institute), and from 1944 in Italy, where he met Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski
after the Battle of Monte Cassino.
At the war's end, Poles in the West, numbered in the hundred thousands, faced disorientation and hard decisions. Poland's independence was an axiom to Giedroyc, so his choice was easy: to continue believing in it and to draw the relevant conclusions, i.e. to do what was possible toward its realization. The Editor never overly valued his poet laureate countryman, but Mickiewicz
issue of the monthly, numbered 636 and dated September 2000). Fifty-three years of continuous activity... Herzen's "Kolokol," which Giedroyc was inspired by and saw as a model to a degree, endured for only ten years but earned a place in Russian history for the ages. So "Kultura" will forever remain part of Polish history.
So much has been written about the "princedom of Maisons-Laffitte," that is, the "Kultura" house in that small town near Paris, and about the tireless (though less "spectacular" than in wartime) efforts of Giedroyc and his handful of collaborator-housemates, that repeating it here seems unnecessary. It is perhaps enough if readers of this brief memoir and farewell devote a moment to reflect on the following: how much poorer would Polish culture be if that Prince had not reigned for upwards of a half-century? Where would Milosz
and many others have printed their works - even assuming they would have produced them all despite lacking the possibility of publication? What would modern Polish political thought have been like (even potentially) if its ideal (or maybe even idealized, yet always worthy of respect and reflection) prototype had not existed in the form of the "'Kultura' line"?
Only great individuals create great works. Jerzy Giedroyc
was among the few truly great individuals that a community produces over entire centuries. His almost sudden death and the close of his near century-long life in the emblematic year 2000 seem to symbolize the end of an age. Maybe we should accept his passing as we did his last princely message: "it had to be."
So perhaps just: "Farewell, Prince..." - through tears, for this parting is painful for many.
© by "Tygodnik Powszechny"
The author, an East Asian scholar and retired professor of Leuven University, published articles in "Kultura" for many years as M. Bronski.
"Tygodnik Powszechny" printed this text in its 24 September 2000 issue following the death of Jerzy Giedroyc. 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.