He met emissaries of Evil and refused to parley with them

“He lived between the two worlds of post-Yalta Europe, having experienced Nazi and Bolshevik extermination, in a Europe that didn’t even realise, let alone accept the truth about what had happened in the East”. It’s Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, whose “Collected Works” – in 15 volumes – have been presented at the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

– Gustaw Herling, an émigré, Polish and Italian writer symbolically returns “from Italy to Poland” with the whole of his works. A writer of two languages, two cultures and two homelands. As he would say of himself: sono Polacco napoletano – recalled professor Włodzimierz Bolecki, the leading expert on the writers’ life and work. Not only is he the initiator of the publication of Grudziński’s works but also the main editor of this monumental edition, coordinating the work of 60 people from the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences [IBL PAN], the National Library [BN] and a number of universities. He is also the author of critical studies of such important texts by the author as “A World Apart”, whose relevance is still being confirmed – alas – by the vicissitudes of prisoners, for example, in Belarus.

In these very days, information has emerged about the unknown fate of Andrzej Poczobut, a prisoner of the Lukashenka regime, sentenced to several years in a penal colony. Parallels with the drama of Gustaw Herling, a young prisoner in the Soviet forced labour camp of Yertsevo in 1940 automatically come to mind. How realistic is the final scene of “A World Apart” when the news of a free Rome, the liberation of Paris is accompanied by the sorrow of an emigrant, whose country falls under a new occupation! It was a Europe of different experiences and different memories, which, incidentally, have sharply divided it ever since – said prof. Bolecki during the celebration.

I want the perpetrators to stand trial

Włodzimierz Bolecki had already been an inquisitive, competent and sensible interlocutor with Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in two major series of discussions, in Dragonea and Naples, conducted stil in the first half of the 1990s, also included in the “Collected Works”. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE It is precisely in “Rozmowy w Dragonei” [“Conversations in Dragonea”] that the author utters the following important words: “I am not bloodthirsty, as my opponents claim. I do not demand that the judges who took part in the so-called kangaroo courts against the Home Army soldiers be hanged on the gallows. I only want them to stand trial and, if they are very old and sick, to simply go home and die in their own beds. But let them stand trial so that the average Polish citizen knows that there is some respect for the law” (“Rozmowy w Dragonei”, Warsaw 1997).

Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (1919-2000), perhaps the most important Polish writer of the 20th century and maybe – if it turns out so – one of the most important European writers, had never modified the above-mentioned views, hadn’t withdrawn these opinions nor had he rendered them relative. He had no understanding or tolerance for intellectual speculation that led the intellectuals – he would portray them in the “Journal Written at Night” – contribute to the Soviet work of appropriating the world. There are regimes, Herling said about the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, which are real emissaries of Evil, its personification. And these regimes existed in our era. “Our century is a century of Evil”, he said of the 20th century – which Włodzimierz Bolecki now recalled.
Professor Włodzimierz Bolecki, the most important expert on the writer’s life and work. Photo: Autorzy Książek w Obiektywie / Wydawnictwo Literackie
Herling-Grudziński, a graduate of a famous secondary school in Kielce, from 1938 a student at the University of Warsaw, immediately after the outbreak of the war, a participant in the early underground movement, soon a prisoner of the NKVD sent to the Yertsevo labour camp, where by means of a hunger strike he forced the release declared for Poles in the Sikorski-Majski agreement, then a soldier of the Anders’ Army, present at the battle of Monte Cassino, awarded the Virtuti Militari. Finally, after the war, the still young writer, with a quick taste of bitterness in his mouth, when Albert Camus “himself”, as the main reader of the well-known Parisian publishing house Gallimard, first expressed his admiration and appreciation for his book “A World Apart”, and then announced the publisher’s decision that it wouldn’t publish the book. – For financial reasons – the writer ironically repeats his words in one of his biographical films.

– When he published “A World Apart” with us in 1958, the Italian communists wanted him to leave our country, demanded that he leave, demanded his departure – as the Italian Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, said in Warsaw – because public opinion in Italy at that time was so dominated by the communists.

For one night and under oath

But “A World Apart” did exist. In Poland too, although until 1981 to a very, very limited extent. It was printed by Jerzy Giedroyc in the Library of “Kultura Paryska”, and during the Solidarity carnival it found its way to the public thanks to underground publishers. It is necessary to remind – and constantly remind – that Gustaw Herling-Grudziński as a writer and publicist was completely banned in the Polish People’s Republic, successive years of high school graduates, nay! students of Polish studies had no idea of his existence, let alone of his work.

Herling-Grudziński was a member of the editorial team of “Kultura (Paryska)” and for this reason he would occasionally go to Maisons Lafitte near Paris for a month. And also for this reason, doubled by his cooperation with Radio Free Europe, his work had no chance in the Polish People’s Republic.

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Not that it wasn’t known. First of all, top party dignitaries had access to it, which was brilliantly captured by Anna Musiałówna, one of the most important figures in Polish photojournalism, in her extraordinary “Z drugiej strony szkła. Autoportret fotoreporterki” [“On the other side of the lens. Self-portrait of a photojournalist”]. Like Herling-Grudziński, she had a childhood connection with Suchedniów – she kept up a charming correspondence with him, and for Christmas in 1993 she sent him a Christmas tree by post. Well, she had access to “A World Apart” thanks to her brother, who, as Zenon Kliszko’s son-in-law, used his collection richly equipped with forbidden books. In 1981, she took “A World Apart” as her main spiritual reading to Spitsbergen, which she later told the writer about.

But that was an exceptional situation, just like the situation of some writers who, as members of the Polish Writers’ Union [ZLP], and probably not all of them, had a certain limited access to “Kultura”, then called “Parisian” by those in the know. Sparing no efforts, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the president of the ZLP, collected its copies, thus expressing his belief in the unity of Polish culture. “Second circuit” books and magazines, as they were then called, i.e. published without censorship approval, also had their own section in the National Library, carefully hidden from the eyes of ordinary readers. The famous IBL library, i.e. that of the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, had a similar section. From all these places, in some unusual – probably as yet undescribed – way, news about these books leaked out, and occasionally some of the books themselves.

For example, you could get, and I remember this situation from my student hostel – almost under an oath of secrecy – one of these books for twelve hours, for one night or, exceptionally, for the whole day.

Only the carnival of Solidarity and the underground publishers founded later, already under martial law, really began to popularize both “A World Apart” and Parisian “Kultura” distributed to the country in miniature copies. Never enough praise for this great work of Jerzy Giedroyc and his crew from Maisons Lafitte, including Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, people completely devoted to Benedictine work for Polish culture.

– He received the first prize in Poland in the middle of martial law, in 1984, from the Kraków underground magazine “Arka”. Back then, in communist Poland, his work was banned, and few people knew about the writer. Today, his “World Apart” is a compulsory reading at school; Today’s ceremony was held under the patronage of the President of the Republic of Poland, and it was attended by two ministers representing the governments of Herling’s two homelands: Poland and Italy – stressed prof. Bolecki.

Journal written by day

The Italian Minister was the guest of the Polish Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, with whom he summarised the completion of work on the fifteen-volume edition of the “Collected Works” prepared at Wydawnictwo Literackie, in collaboration with the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the National Library and with the financial support of both countries. The project also involved the cleaning up and digitisation of the writer’s extensive archive, in which the Polish editors and researchers were assisted by Marta Herling, the writer’s daughter, who was also present at the ceremonial promotion of the “Collected Works”.
The writer’s daughter Marta Herling with the Ministers of Culture of Poland and Italy, Piotr Gliński (left) and Gennaro Sangiuliano. Photo: Autorzy Książek w Obiektywie / Wydawnictwo Literackie
– Today, two worlds are being connected – the life and work of my father, Poland and Italy. This is a milestone in Polish and universal literature, a tribute to my father, and it means a lot to me, she said, not hiding her emotion.

– She emphasized what a great event the edition of all his Italian publications collected in two huge volumes, 1300 pages in total, entitled “Scritti italiani”. The details of this project are explained to TVP WEEKLY by prof. Włodzimierz Bolecki, whose collaborator, dr. Magdalena Śniedziewska, a Polish philologist, Italianist and art historian, did a gigantic job to find all the writer’s texts published in Italian newspapers and magazines in the years 1944-2000. – And he wrote a lot and regularly, to newspapers and magazines, to mention only the Neapolitan “Il Matino” or the nationwide “Tempo presente”, “La Repubblica” and “Corriere della Sera” – adds prof. Bolecki.

– What he wrote for the Italians on a regular basis can even be called a journal written by day, as opposed to the famous “Journal written at night”, published in Polish for years in “Kultura”, said the writer’s daughter, who supported Dr. Śniedziewska’s research. She proudly recalled her father’s first Italian article, published as early as 1944 in the “Aretusa” magazine associated with Benedetto Croce’s circle. – In this article, which can be loosely translated as “The most concise guide to Poland for good Europeans” (translated by Włodzimierz Bolecki – editor’s note), my father appeared for the first time as a publicist and as an anti-communist – emphasized Marta Herling.

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– This is the article that opens “Scritti italiani” – concludes prof. Bolecki, who is also the author of a great afterword about the Jewish roots of the writer’s family, included in the last volume of “Collected Works”, with footnotes that are fascinating reading in themselves. Two volumes of Italian magazines were published by the Italian publisher Bibliopolis and the Polish Institute of Literature, which financed this edition. Someday, hopefully soon, someone will translate it and “Italian Writings” will also be published in Polish. It’s gonna be a treat!

Polacco napoletano

The writer had lived in Naples since 1955, married to Lidia Croce, daughter of the great Italian philosopher and politician Benedetto Croce, author of the anti-fascist manifesto of 1925. And although Herling believed that one had to be born a Neapolitan, he really became one.

– He perfectly understood the character of our city, somehow he was able to blend in with this Neapolitan culture, to the point that he said that he was a Neapolitan Pole or a Polish Neapolitan – emphasized Minister Sangiuliano, who also comes from Naples. And he added that “the figure of Herling-Grudziński is an ideal synthesis of two aspects: it is a Polish-Italian synthesis and a synthesis of the 20th century, with all its tragedies, because Herling-Grudziński fought against the Nazis, but later was a prisoner of Soviet labour camps, and therefore was an anti-fascist, at the same time an anti-communist. In this way, he testified to the value of freedom”.

– For a year and a half, in the camp, he understood the mechanism that turned one of the most terrible experiences of people – extermination and genocide – into the void of oblivion. Living in the West, he was convinced almost every day that the events he witnessed and suffered did not exist at all in the collective consciousness. Nobody knew about them, and worse, nobody wanted to know for decades. Herling-Grudziński saw in this one of the most important social problems – the need to preserve the memory of the crimes committed in the 20th century, emphasized Włodzimierz Bolecki.

– Herling is a witness to the history of the 20th century, and at the same time a writer who constantly asked metaphysical and existential questions, who asked about the essence of Christianity, about the theological relationship between Christianity and Judaism, about the relationship of the Church to social reality – said Prof. Bolecki in his closing speech – Herling is one of the most profound Christian writers in Polish literature, and at the same time a severe critic of the Church as an institution. His criticism stemmed from his identification with Christianity as an essential part of European culture. It was his world of freedom, values, symbolism, and also life. Herling considered the art of distinguishing between good and evil to be the most important compass of human behavior and the assessment of all human affairs. The edition of the monumental “Collected Works” is an event, I do not hesitate to say so, epochal, immortal. It is a return to normality, in which there is no emigrant and domestic literature, no censorship and forbidden books, no hypocrisy and no manipulation of history and culture. And where there is a great moral message in literature that generations are brought up on.

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

The critical edition of Collected Works includes fifteen volumes published by Wydawnictwo Literackie in 2009–2021. The first volume was published on the writer’s 90th birthday, and the publication of the last volume ended the Year of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, established by the Sejm of the Republic of Poland on the 100th anniversary of the writer’s birth. The volumes are provided with footnotes, editorial notes, bibliographies of first editions, reception of individual editions, descriptions of manuscripts, photographs, scans of documents, and indexes. Work on the edition lasted – including the preparation period – nearly fifteen years. The initiative accompanying the publishing project was the organization and digitization of the writer’s archive in Naples by the National Library, financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, finalized with the “Catalogue of the Gustaw Herling-Grudziński Archive in the “Biblioteca Benedetto Croce” Foundation, published by the National Library and available to everyone in PDF format.
Main photo: “Collected Works” by Gustaw Herling- Grudziński during promotion at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Photo: Barbara Sułek-Kowalska
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