The dreamer of a new Culture
Jerzy Giedoryc in his office (1987)
Jerzy Giedroyc is one of the most famous Polish political thinkers, an author and publisher, and a founder of the "Kultura" Journal which served as a leading hub to develop the independent intellectual life of Polish expats under the Communist regime. Above all, he was a visionary, who dreamed of creating a new generation of Poles, and a nation that is broad-minded, compassionate and pluralistic.
Giedroyc was born in Minsk, formerly part of the Russian Empire, on 27 July 1906 to an aristocratic family. He was a son of chemist Ignacy Giedroyc and Franciszka Starzycka. He started his education in Minsk, then continued in Moscow. In the aftermath of the October Revolution, the family moved to Warsaw, hoping for a peaceful life. It was not long after that the Soviet-Polish War began. Before even graduating from high school, the young Giedroyc joined the Polish Army, and served as a telegraph operator in the headquarters of Military Area in Warsaw.
In 1924 Giedroyc began law studies at the University of Warsaw. Even in his early adulthood he became politically involved, as a founder and leader of various student groups and as an editor of publications discussing vital social issues of the day. He changed his political creed several times, being in turn a right wing nationalist, a liberal and a modernized follower of Jozef Pilsudski’s ideas of Poland as a multinational state of various nations and religions, in keeping with the Polish Jagiellonian tradition and Pilsudski’s promethean idea. This idea assumed the formation of independent republics in alliance with Poland. These were to include, among others, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and Georgia. Such a constellation of independent states might have weakened the Soviet Empire. Giedroyc propagated that exact vision through many societies and publications he was involved in. His professional life comprised a number of jobs in various governmental institutions where his talents of a journalist and propagandist found a good use.
Jerzy Giedroyc, Józef Czpaski and Józef Zielicki (1943)
The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 thwarted all further plans. As a government official designated for evacuation, Giedroyc was ordered to reach Bucharest (Poland and Romania were joined by a number of inter-war treaties). In Bucharest, he was appointed aide to the Polish ambassador, Roger Raczynski, and they set about reorganizing the embassy to cope with its increased wartime role. When, in November 1940, the Polish embassy was wound up, Raczynski asked Giedroyc to remain in Romania and work in the Chilean embassy, which represented Polish interests after Raczynski's departure. He also stayed in touch with the British Embassy. When Romania allied itself with the Axis powers all that activity came to an end.
In the spring of 1941 Giedroyc (with his younger brother Henryk) joined the Polish Army and served actively on several fronts, usually in the capacity of education and press. In 1942 while in Iraq he met the former deportees who managed to escape from the camps of the Soviet Union to join the newly formed Polish Forces. It was there that he met the people who were later to become his key collaborators in the monumental project of his life: the "Kultura" magazine.
In 1945, after the liberation of Europe from the Nazi rule, Poland was brought fresh oppression, this time from the Soviets. Giedroyc was well aware that his return to Poland in those circumstances could only mean imprisonment and the death penalty, but he was unsure how he could organize his life in exile. Fortunately, thanks to the commanders of the still existing Polish Forces he was appointed to the team to form the Literary Institute in Rome, an initiative seen as a way to provide a cultural outlet to Polish writers, intellectuals and their readers trapped in the West. The Institute served both Polish military and civilian needs. In June 1947, the Institute brought out the first issue of “Kultura” (Culture), a periodical that Giedroyc very much viewed as the flagship publication of the new publishing house.
After demobilization of the Polish forces in Italy, the organizers of "Kultura" considered moving to England or France. Finally, its permanent location became Maisons-Laffitte near Paris. As Giedroyc lost most of his family, friends and allies during the war and occupation, he treated Maison Lafitte as his new home, with Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, Jozef Czapski, Gustaw Herling Grudzinski, Konstanty Jelenski as his family.
Giedoryc with his dog Black
His vision was a development of a centre devoted to dissemination of independent thought and literature. The tiny initial team succeeded in collecting funds, setting up a publishing house, winning over impressive collaborators, creating distribution channels and keeping up the necessary administrative machinery as well as vast correspondence .Uninterrupted publication of the monthly magazine "Kultura" and books continued until Giedroyc’s death, in spite of almost insurmountable odds. "Kultura" gathered the best of Polish 20th-century writing on its pages, which was the result of Giedroyc's charisma, patience, stubbornness, and prolific world-wide correspondence. He managed to acquire first-class writers. The Literary Institute became something of a Mecca to all intellectually active Poles, including those from communist-dominated Poland. "Kultura" and its Editor Jerzy Giedroyc were always admired, at times revered, but above all - trusted.
"Kultura" was banned in Communist Poland, with its possession and distribution was treated as a criminal offence. Free Radio Europe took up the task of disseminating the articles and the political philosophy preferred by Giedroyc and many ordinary people risked their freedom bringing copies from their holidays in France. "Kultura", while absent from newsstands and impossible to obtain by subscription, continued to exist as a reference throughout the four decades of Communism and to influence its readers.
Kultura’s perhaps most singular achievement was convincing Poles to accept the loss of the cities of Lviv and Vilnius in favor of a future independent Ukraine and Lithuania, and recognising that these future independent countries together with an independent Belarus would eventually form a cornerstone of Polish independence. Giedroyc's legacy can be numbered in 637 issues of "Kultura", 134 issues of Zeszyty Historyczne (Historical Notebooks) and 512 books published under the Institute’s book-publishing arm, Biblioteka Kultury (Kultura Library). Jerzy Giedroyc passed away in his room on 14 September 2000 while mapping out the next issue of "Kultura" – the 637th – which went to press posthumously.
- Culture.pl. (2006) Jerzy Giedroyc. [Internet]. Available from: https://culture.pl/pl/tworca/jerzy-giedroyc-jerzy-giedroyc (accessed 17 July 2018)
If you want to read more:
- Giedroyc, J. (1999). Autobiografia na cztery ręce. Czytelnik, Warsaw.