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  • Voices of Polish Pluralsim
  • Stanislaw Baranczak (bio)
Between East and West: Writings from "Kultura" edited by Robert Kostrzewa. Hill & Wang, 1990. 273 pp.

As monuments go, Robert Kostrzewa's book falls in a special category: the thing it honors is alive and well. This anthology of writings from the Paris-based Polish emigré monthly Kultura pays fitting tribute to—and makes us aware of—the unique cultural significance of the 44-year-old journal. At the same time, the reader never has the disturbing feeling of being trapped inside a shrine. This is a book to read and enjoy, which makes it the most convincing tribute possible.

To describe Kultura's special place in the modem political history of Eastern Europe, one must resort to paraphrasing Churchill: Never in the field of antitotalitarian resistance was so much owed by so many to so few. There is no shred of exaggeration in saying that Poland could not have become what it is today without this single journal and its editors' indefatigable labor. Since its inception in 1946, the monthly's old and new issues, along with hundreds of books published under the aegis of its publisher, Institut Littéraire, circulated not merely in the West; most importantly, they seeped into People's Poland, as well as neighboring communist countries, transported there by a variety of clandestine means including false-bottom suitcases and special miniaturized editions (hard to read, but easy to conceal in a tourist's pocket).

It is precisely those Polish and other East European readers who find it downright inconceivable that this barrage of information could have been coming so regularly from so few people (the entire staff of the Institut Littéraire has never exceeded eight, including technical assistants, and the monthly itself is taken care of by only two editors). I was told [End Page 176] a lovely story about a journalist from the Soviet Ukraine, a closet dissident employed in the official media, who in the 1970s managed to make a trip to Paris. The first thing he did after making sure that he was not being followed by the local KGB agents was to visit the unimposing single-family house near Paris that he had heard was Kultura's official address. During late afternoon tea with editor-in-chief Jerzy Giedroyc he fidgeted nervously, finally blurting out: "Excuse me, sir, it's so nice to be here and stuff, but I don't have the whole day—could you tell me where your editorial offices actually are?" "You're sitting in them," was the amused answer. "Are you kidding me? Surely you can't pack your 50 people into this living room?"

In fact, 50 people was a rather modest estimate. The work that Giedroyc and his miniature staff have done over the years cannot be adequately expressed even in such imaginary numbers. A better way to describe it would be perhaps for each of Kultura's individual readers to tell his own story of coming under its spell. It so happens that this writer is an exact contemporary of the journal. I may say, then, that my own story reflects the experience of the generation of Polish readers who were bom into a world where both People's Poland and "the Paris Kuttura" (as it was popularly called to distinguish it from the regime-sponsored weekly created later and spitefully given the same name) were established facts. These two facts were, of course, separated by something called the Iron Curtain, which, though invisible, was solid enough for you to squash your nose against. But it was due precisely to Kultura's existence in the West that we tried so often to penetrate the Curtain, until it had so many holes that it could no longer perform its ominous function.

I first heard about Kultura and its so-called Library (the series of books the Institut Littéraire put out alongside its two periodicals, the monthly and the quarterly Historical Notebooks) in the early 1960s. A high school student hopelessly in love with literature, I had just discovered the existence of a hilariously funny writer by the name of Witold Gombrowicz and a fascinating poet...