Contribution to a Lexicon of Famous Poles
Poland is notorious as the most right-wing country in Europe and beyond – perhaps the most right-wing of all countries where the distinction between right and left applies. And there is some truth to such a perception: no political party in the Polish Sejm [the lower house of the Polish Parliament - ed.] would claim a left-wing identity. In the last parliamentary election, roughly three quarters of young males voted for one of Poland’s far-right parties – Catholic, libertarian, and eclectic, respectively – equally hostile to immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, the science on global warming and also something they like to refer to as the “global system.” Such a result is probably a world record, and hardly due to random coincidence in the political game. The polls show that similar views are deeply rooted in Polish society, especially among the younger generation – the least tolerant of abortion and the most hostile to taking in refugees. Sixty per cent of Warsaw high school students questioned in a 2013 survey would not date someone Jewish, and 44% would find it disturbing to have a Jewish neighbor. Ironically, Warsaw is deemed to be the stronghold of Polish liberalism.
Consequently, Polish history as-it-is-now-written comprises uncompromising or indeed ruthless patriots, defenders of the fatherland against both external and internal enemies, pious priests, crafty bishops, belligerent hetmans, loyal peasants, and obviously, many innocent victims of foreign malice, often abetted by traitorous home-grown liberals and leftists. Yet, in spite of the right-wing derision, the latter have been astonishingly numerous. The godless Polish cosmopolitans may not have much of a future, but they do have a splendid past. Here are some notable examples:
Jan Niecisław Baudouin de Courtenay (1845–1929)
– one of the founders of modern linguistics. He notably introduced the concept of the phoneme. Even though he was of distant aristocratic (French) descent, his father worked as a humble surveyor in the town of Radzymin near Warsaw. Jan spent his life traveling between European and Russian universities. He was a devoted pacifist, environmentalist, feminist, and Esperantist. After Poland regained its independence in 1918, he advocated the introduction of Polish language classes in Jewish schools and the introduction of Yiddish into Polish schools. In the first presidential election he ran as a candidate of the national minorities. Having lost, he supported the left-wing candidate Gabriel Narutowicz, who, in the event, was elected president, only to be assassinated by a nationalist after just five days in office.
Joseph Conrad (Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, 1857–1924)
– despite his spoken English being greatly inferior to his native Polish (or even his French), he became a prolific and world-renowned English writer. Of aristocratic and patriotic descent, he was indifferent to the notion of patriotism and remained a committed cosmopolitan throughout his life. He was one of the first and perhaps most prominent writers denouncing European imperialism and colonialism.
Leon Czolgosz (1873–1901)
– a worker and anarchist, a son of Polish immigrants in the USA. In 1901 he assassinated US president William McKinley. He expressed no remorse for his deed. His last words were: “I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime.” Poles had an outstanding record in those glorious times of anarchist terrorism. Twenty years earlier, Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a Polish nobleman and member of the dreaded Narodnaya Volya had slain the Russian Tsar Alexander II.
Felix Dzerzhinsky (Feliks Dzierżyński 1877–1926)
– founder of the Cheka, the infamous Soviet secret police, predecessor of the GPU. He was a Polish nobleman born on the Dzerzhinovo (Dzierżynowo) family estate near Minsk, the capital of today’s Belarus. Despite the fact that the Polish state did not exist at the time, the Polish aristocracy continued to rule over their eastern estates in Belarus and Ukraine, their position protected by the Russian tsars. Seemingly, Dzerzhinsky was not grateful for this service. As a young man, he joined a radical faction of Polish socialists and started his adventurous life as a revolutionary – taking part in conspiracies and agitation, trafficking subversive literature and arms, and experiencing imprisonment and exile. His revolutionary heart was torn between his love for Rosa Luxemburg (her portrait hung in his Cheka office, even though it is far from certain that she would have appreciated this) and devotion to Vladimir Lenin, who was to offer him a job. Dzerzhinsky did not always see eye to eye with Lenin. When Lenin accused Dzerzhinsky of Great-Russian chauvinism, the latter replied: “I can reproach him (Lenin) from the point of the Polish, Ukrainian, and other chauvinists.” Dzerzhinsky was more than a spy chief; within the Communist party, he was personally responsible for interviewing major Russian intellectuals and deciding whether they should stay in Soviet Russia or be exiled. When Dzerzhinsky died of a heart attack in 1926, Trotsky and Stalin themselves, side by side, carried his coffin. In 2005, the Government of the Republic of Belarus rebuilt the manor house of Dzerzhinovo, where Felix was born, and established a museum. Annually, the graduating class of the Belarusian KGB academy holds its swearing-in at the manor. It is important to note that Dzerzhinsky’s appointment as the head of the Cheka was by no means a random choice. The Cheka was initially a Polish affair – two of its closest collaborators, Józef Unszlicht and Wiaczesław Mienżynski, were also Polish. Mienżynski took over the leadership of the organization after Felix’s resignation.
Maria Jaszczuk (1915–2007)
– a lawyer and women’s rights activist. Before WWII, she had been associated with the democratic left, yet during the German occupation she joined the communist-supported resistance. She was a prisoner in Auschwitz. After the war, although never ideologically a Communist, she became active in the state-sponsored Union of Women (Liga Kobiet). After liberalization, and following in the footsteps of Jaszczuk and the Union, she started lobbying for the right to abortion. She defended women’s reproductive rights in Parliament. Curiously, the Communist Party Central Committee had no clear line on this issue. Historically, Lenin’s Russia had been the first country in the world to legalize abortion, yet the country banned it once again under Stalin in 1936. Women activists managed ultimately, however, to succeed – abortion became legal in 1956 – much earlier than in Western Europe, and before fellow socialist neighbors such as East Germany (1972) or Yugoslavia (1977). Jaszczuk lived long enough to see abortion banned by the Polish right after democracy had been established (1993).
Irena Krzywicka (1899–1994)
– a feminist, women’s rights activist, writer and translator. In the 1930s she led an openly polyamorous life, advocated the right to abortion, promoted sexual education, and called for tolerance of homosexuality (she famously compared it to left-handedness). Together with Tadeusz Boy- Żeleński, she opened the first Polish planned parenthood clinic. This went too far even for most Socialists. After WWII, she was active in the Union of Polish Writers and was elected to the Warsaw City Council. She published her masterpiece, an autobiography titled ‘Confessions of a Scandalizer’ in 1992. She is buried in Warsaw’s Lutheran cemetery. In order to get easier access to divorce, she converted to Lutheranism in 1923 before getting married.
Rosa Luxemburg (Róża Luksemburg, 1971–1919)
– a social-democratic politician, Marxist theorist, revolutionary, PhD in economics. Although she may not be considered “Polish” by many of those Poles who have heard of her, she seems to be far more Polish than one of Poland’s favorite greats, Copernicus. Her personal intimate Polish language correspondence not only reveals her strong Polish cultural identity but also, unfortunately, reveals that she shared some Polish stereotypes about Russians and Germans. That did not stop her from being a fervent internationalist and an opponent of the independent Polish state. She believed that it would be detrimental to the working classes and their wages. A co-founder of Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, in 1907 she was forced into exile in Germany. Nonetheless, she had remained a major moral and ideological authority within the Communist Party of Poland until the party was physically purged and formally dissolved by Stalin in 1937.
Casimir Liszinski (Kazimierz Łyszczyński 1634–1689)
– he authored the first Polish treatise advocating atheism, De non existentia Dei. The manuscript remained unpublished but had been handed over to the authorities by a “helpful” neighbor. At his trial, Liszinski claimed that he had planned a second part of the essay, in which he was going to refute the atheistic arguments presented in the first volume, but the court did not believe him. Casimir was executed in Warsaw’s Town Market. One of the Bishops assisting the carnage witnessed the following:
After recantation the culprit was conducted to the scaffold, where the executioner tore with a burning iron the tongue and the mouth, with which he had been cruel against God; after which his hands, the instruments of the abominable production, were burnt at a slow fire, the sacrilegious paper was thrown into the flames; finally himself, that monster of his century, this deicide was thrown into the expiatory flames; expiatory if such a crime may be atoned for. [Walerjan Skorobohaty, Historical Sketch Of The Rise, Progress And Decline Of The Reformation In Poland, Vol. 1, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 1840].
Grzegorz (Hersz) Smolar (1905–1993)
– Polish communist activist who claimed his Jewish identity. He organized a formidable anti-Nazi resistance in the Belarusian Minsk Ghetto after the occupation of the city in late 1941. He managed to mobilize a substantial part of the city’s non-Jewish population and Soviet partisans operating in the area. It resulted in a unique case in Eastern Europe: the Nazi Germans failed to completely isolate and alienate the Jewish community. After WWII, Smolar returned to Poland and was active in Jewish Communist organizations. Until 1968 he was editor-in-chief of the Polish United Workers’ Party official Yiddish-language periodical Fołks Sztyme. That very year he was fired and excluded from the party and subsequently forced to leave the country. He died in Tel Aviv.
Faust Socyn (born Fausto Sozzini, 1539–1604)
– not so much a Pole, as an Italian refugee. At that time, unlike today, Poland was still taking in refugees. He was a radical Protestant theologian who had settled in Poland , where he established a dynamic and intellectually flourishing religious community of Polish Brethren. Despite official religious tolerance, these reformers soon raised concern among the Catholics and fellow Protestants. Not only did the Polish Brothers refuse to carry weapons, but also, more awkwardly, they stood against serfdom and socage, which led some nobles to free their peasants. In 1638 the main intellectual place Academy of Raków was closed (the prtetext was "profanation of a cross"). Twanty years later Polish Brothers were banished.
Jakub Szela (1787– 1860)
– a peasant, serf, and leader of the violent anti-feudal uprising in the Polish part of the Austrian empire in 1846. In 1843, the regional gentry parliament rejected any motion advocating the abolition of serfdom. At the time, socage had reached an outrageous three days per week. The insurrection started on the 19th of February 1846. Peasants destroyed some 500 manor houses and killed well over a thousand of their inhabitants, including women and children. Their cruelty became legendary. Szela personally slaughtered the family of his landlord, who had previously ordered him whipped on several occasions. No Jew or German was harmed during the rebellion. The peasants had only one enemy: their own masters. Following the revolt, Szela enjoyed the protection of the Austrian Imperial government which was alarmed by the Polish gentry’s secessionism. Szela was offered land as a free man in Transylvania. Because of that, he was later portrayed as a traitor. However, it was never clearly explained what exactly he had betrayed.
Of course this short list of remarkable Polish men and women is by no means a collection of role models. Neither is it a catalogue of oddities. In fact, most of the individuals referred to above are not famous and some of the few who are widely recognized are considered ill-famed. Yet their greatness does not lie in any particular features of their character, nor even in their glorious deeds. What they have in common, however, is the intensity with which history engraved itself in their lives. Such history is not the soil in which happiness grows, as Hegel once put it, but at the same time it is anything but a parochial register. It reveals the way in which the periphery holds the right of citizenship in universal history. Yet this universality is a composition of transversals, where univocity can only be imposed politically; when this happens the past becomes less predictable then the future.
Michał Kozłowski is a philosopher, sociologist, commentator, and occasional curator, who works at Warsaw University’s Institute of Philosophy. He is the author of the books Sprawa Spinozy (2011) and Znaki równości (2016). Co-author of the research report Fabryka Sztuki (2014) and the collection Joy Forever (2014). Co-editor of the periodicals “Bez Dogmatu” and “Le Monde Diplomatique. Edycja Polska”. Author of several dozen academic papers and over a hundred magazine essays. His theoretical ambition is to mix philosophy with the social sciences and vice versa. He uses an eclectic method inspired by the works of Marx, Foucault, and Bourdieu, feminist theory, and the ethnographic method.