“Absolutely secret, absolutely necessary,” said Andrzej Bernhardt at the steering wheel, driving me from one side of Maisons-Laffitte to the other. “It was very dangerous. Anything might happen.”
Compared to the hustle-and-bustle of Paris, this little berg, about half-an-hour away from the Paris Étoile, is sleepy and comfortably suburban. It was not always so.
When Polish poet Czesław Miłosz defected in 1951, he was immediately whisked to the Kultura headquarters here, in Maisons-Laffitte, for protection. Kultura, founded in 1946 in Rome by Jerzy Giedroyć with associates Zofia and Zygmunt Hertz, had become the intellectual and cultural bastion of the substantial Polish émigré community, a circle that included (and published) Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Witold Gombrowicz, Marek Hłasko, Jan Kott, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Józef Czapski, Konstanty Jeleński, and Bogdan Czaykowski.
“Kultura was observed by Polish agents. It was quite delicate to keep him inside. Very difficult for everybody,” said Andrzej. “He tried to stay involved – but not even the postman could not be allowed to see him inside.” Hence, he couldn’t go into the garden, or be seen at a window. He had survived the destruction of Warsaw, and Nazi and Soviet occupation, only to find himself imprisoned outside Paris, albeit in an elegant mansion.
During Miłosz’s time in Washington as a cultural attaché for the Communist government, the writer and painter Józef Czapski, another critical figure in Kultura, had approached him. If Miłosz should ever change his mind and decide to jump ship, Kultura would protect him, he told the poet. So here he was, without his family or any means of making a living.
“It’s exciting but difficult to explain today,” said Andrzej. “How can you explain the reality of the 1950s?” How indeed? It was a time when, for half of Europe, the written word could be its own kind of atom bomb, and its writers were dangerous cultural ninja.
We arrive at our destination, across from the small town’s park. This was the site of the original Kultura, which ran a publishing house and monthly literary journal of the same title, and operated as a sort of Polish kibbutz.
“He was in a difficult position in France, where nothing like Free Europe existed – in fact, the French Foreign Office was cultivating their prewar friendship with Poland as a means of discouraging a revivial of an aggressive Germany,” wrote former diplomat John Foster Leich in An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz. “Commenting on Miłosz’s defection in Paris, I remember Burke Elbrick, the head of the Polish desk at the U.S. State Department, saying that ‘only a Pole would be so careless to defect in France rather than the United States, where he would have had a much better and safer life.'”
The influential Kultura may have provided an island of calm for the poet, who was denounced by the Parisian intelligentsia who were universally left-wing and pro-communist – but Kultura was no idyll. Zofia Hertz recalled that, in the 1960s, French President Charles de Gaulle was approached by the Polish authorities and asked to “liquidate us, arrest us, yet he didn’t, De Gaulle came to us and did not listen to them.”
What was Giedroyć like? Wojiech Sikora, Kultura’s president, hands me a brochure for the Giedroyć centenary in 2006. “He was rather solitary. He hated crowds. He used to work a lot, he was lonely. But he took care of ordinary people – in Poland and France as well. Everywhere where he knew someone.”
“He hated all the manifestations of Parisian life, the high life,” Wojiech continued. “He lived and worked in the same place. He used to work till late at night. So many letters to answer, so many books to read.” He typed all his own letters, on a manual typewriter.
Andrzej added, “He was very simple, in a way. Not very sophisticated. Someone very easy to communicate with.” Needless to say, he was a Polish patriot.
Kultura moved to its new digs on Avenue de Poissy in 1954. The new house is capacious but still homey, wooden, stuffed with offices and walls of books – an intimate space, as well as a public one. A small wooden cross is above the front door, Polish style.
Although the building is empty today, except for my two hosts, they tell me that scholars and students regularly visit and work – sometimes staying a day, sometimes for weeks. In the final issue of Kultura in autumn 2000, Zofia Hertz and Henryk Giedroyć wrote, “We would like to preserve our house, which is always open for everyone, not as a museum but as a center teeming with life and work.”
And so they have. The Cold War is over, and now Kultura serves as an archive. The empty stables adjoining the house include 150,000 letters to and from Giedroyć. “Every day people come from Poland and ask what one should do, what he thinks,” Hertz recalled – and the evidence is here. Over a thousand of the letters are exchanges with Miłosz. The Warsaw publishing house Zeszyty Literackie has issued two volumes of the letters, but they otherwise remain unpublished … and many of them are not yet inventoried, or chemically treated for preservation, and so on. Eventually, they will be digitized as well.
Moreover, Giedroyć and Kultura collected all kinds of documents about Eastern Europe – 180 meters of them. “Letters but not only,” according to Andrzej. That’s in addition to 100,000 books.
“Taking care of our archives – that’s become our basic vocation. Now we are trying to organize it in a professional way,” he said.
They also gave me a xerox of Miłosz’s 11-page essay “Nie” [No] from the May 1951 Kultura (it has never, to my knowledge, been translated into English). Although Miłosz had asked for political asylum in February, 60 years before my winter appearance on the Kultura doorstep, he did not hold a press conference until May 15, perhaps to coincide with the article’s appearance.
According to the account in the Manchester Guardian the next day, the press conference was a précis of his 1953 landmark book, Captive Mind:
Mr. Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who for the last four years has been Cultural First Secretary of the Embassy in Washington, and had recently ben appointed to the Embassy in Paris, explained at a press conference today why he has broken with the Communist regime in Poland.
His statement was the more interesting because he obviously had for a long time a lively sympathy for the regime and has not much admiration for the West. He summed up his reason for leaving by saying that “Socialist realism is systematic lying.” The writer, under what he called “the New Faith,” communism, was a highly valued member of the community …
“I am here because I have conquered in myself historical fatalism, which is a serpent. An intellectual who lets himself look perpetually at historical fatalism behaves like a fascinated rabbit. Do not believe that historical necessity can be a standard of individual action for a man. Even if this necessity exists I know that my duty is to act against it for I know that the New Faith brings a great misfortune to humanity.
“I do not know any greater misfortune for man. The principal interest of the New Faith is not the economic organisationof society but the creation of a new human type by killing in man what, for lack of a better term, one may call metaphysical being.
“The New Faith is the most perfect incarnation of demoniacal thought history has seen. In front of it there is a bad world divided by eternal contradictions, but a world which is nearly human. I belong to that world and I am going to serve its cause. It is not true that the West is an ichthyosaurus with a small brain, as has been described in Communist propaganda. But it is true that its intellectual potential is at present asleep. The spirit of America is still asleep. The victory of man over this human demoniacal force is possible but not before the West has given man a social system which assures him bread and the excitement of collective effort without all the lies of the new faith.
There were other published letters from Miłosz in the Kultura files – open letters to Polish friends, still explaining his decision, and explaining and explaining and explaining again.
But it’s only a handful among thousands and thousands of letters, manuscripts, documents. Over the years, Kultura published more than 500 books and more than 600 issues of Kultura. That, too, is only a fraction of its legacy, and that of its founder. According to Miłosz, “It was even said sometimes that Giedroyć had overthrown communism in Poland.”
Tags: Andrzej Bernhardt, Bogdan Czaykowski, Burke Elbrick, Charles de Gaulle, Czeslaw Milosz, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Jan Kott, Jerzy Giedroyć, John Foster Leich, Józef Czapski, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Konstanty Jeleński, Marek Hłasko, Witold Gombrowicz, Wojiech Sikora, Zofia Hertz, Zygmunt Hertz