1918/1968 Freedom / Solidarity was a series of debates with outstanding thinkers, creators of culture and public intellectuals organized by Pogranicze during the entire jubilee year of 2018 in the White Synagogue in Sejny and at the International Center for Dialogue in Krasnogruda. 

Their basic theme was the relation of freedom to solidarity. Trying to read the meaning of these two important dates in the history of Poland in the context of contemporary challenges facing Poles, we asked the question of building community connective tissue in an increasingly diverse and divisive society. The guests of debate 1918/1968 Wolność / Solidarność were eminent thinkers, creators of culture and intellectuals: Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Marci Shore, Oleksandr Boychenko, priest Adam Boniecki, Piotr Cywiński, Andrzej Franaszek, Andrzej Jagodziński, Basil Kerski, Paweł Kowal, Jacek Kubiak, Marek Kusiba, Zbigniew Machej, Bronisław Maj, Timothy Snyder, Michael Steinlauf, and Leszek Szaruga.


15.08.2018 (from the meeting with Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Joanna Zach)

Do we still remember that Miłosz wrote My Faithful Mother Tongue in reaction to the events of March 1968? ‘... so I will continue to set before you little bowls of colors / bright and pure if possible, / for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty.’

It is one of those poems that during yesterday's collective reading in the Miłosz’s Manor resounded loudest. Gales and thunderstorms knocked down trees and electricity poles, tore off roofs from houses and flooded farms. Though we had the power restored at the last moment, and some roads remained impassable, it was almost impossible to squeeze in the ‘Song of Porcelain’ Café for the large audience gathered inside. We talked with Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Joanna Zach about Miłosz’s dialogue with counter-culture and about how during the siege of Sarajevo ‘cold are those who once were hot’. And then we read poetry written in those times, such as Written in the Early Morning, To Raja Rao and Incantation, or later ones like To Allen Ginsberg. 

We are in Berkeley of the 1960s where, according to one professor from Sofia, a ‘postoyannyi karnival’ was held, the word was cheap and employed in the service of the noise-producing machinery which Miłosz after Witkacy called ‘The Theosophical Jam Company’, and one had to be on guard ‘because it was easy to get infected with what one was against, this macabre song tune, the song of repugnance for the world’. During a lecture given by a Structuralist who with an intelligent ease effuses words hollowed out from the burden of meaning, Miłosz wishes to shout in defence of the word that is ‘one and only and of  single meaning’, then he turns into a little boy he once used to be and who tried to defend the ‘holy groves or Mount Sinai or Patmos’ and recalls how he threw himself at his playground friend kicking and biting him offended by the words of his song: ‘Mum’s a dishrag’.

It is 1967. Miłosz is coming back from university down Telegraph Avenue. In the background, the Vietnam War is raging. Nobody trusts sages or preachers any more. As he walks he is passed by barefoot girls and long-haired bearded boys with their hair tied with a ribbon Native-American-style. On a poster advertising a happening, he reads: ‘May the Baby Jesus / shut your mouth / and open your mind’. A book by the painter Ben Shahn, born in Kaunas at the end of the last century, known to him in person, discovered in Cody's Bookstore, reveals to him the words of his spiritual brother, Maximus of Tire, an Alexandrian Greek living in the second century AD. The Man of Tyre from D.H. Lawrence’s poem that is to be soon translated by Miłosz, can see a Aphrodite coming out from the sea towards him. He perceives her the way Dutch master painters would - in each detail of her divinity and beauty which are attributes of the human body and earth.  He reads the vision of Our Lady, just like the children of Lourdes and Fatima at the end of his Theological Treaty,  as a sign that ‘God is one God!’ - the one who creates unity.

The words of Maximus of Tire, found in Ben Shan's book, fill him with the joy which makes him write them out in a poem-incantation, a radiant confession of faith ‘of a devotee of the visible things.’ It contains an apology of painting that intertwines with the essence of poetry. This tie becomes so strong that one can suspect that the written shortly afterwards My Faithful Mother Tongue was born from this organic symbiosis of poetry and painting.

The poem opens with a memorable picture of setting little bowls of colors before the mother tongue. Miłosz’s faith comes all from fidelity. And it is not about fidelity to the national tongue, it is about fidelity to the word which is the carrier of the presence of the divine element in the world, and which can be annihilated by depriving the tongue of its order and beauty. Meanwhile, he receives news from Poland. The bowls of words break into pieces. Under the poet's pen, are going to be born verses which will bring pain to the hearts of all those whose homeland is the Polish language. Worth noting is the fact that the bowls, which he will be setting with light and clean colors until the end of his life, are glued together from pieces of a broken Polish jug ...

My Faithful Mother Tongue

Faithful mother tongue,

I have been serving you.

Every night, I used to set before you little bowls of colors

so you could have your birch, your cricket, your finch

as preserved in my memory.


This lasted many years.

You were my native land; I lacked any other.

I believed that you would also be a messenger

between me and some good people

even if they were few, twenty, ten

or not born, as yet.


Now, I confess my doubt.

There are moments when it seems to me I have squandered my life.

For you are a tongue of the debased,

of the unreasonable, hating themselves

even more than they hate other nations,

a tongue of informers,

a tongue of the confused,

ill with their own innocence.


But without you, who am I?

Only a scholar in a distant country,

a success, without fears and humiliations.

Yes, who am I without you?

Just a philosopher, like everyone else.


I understand, this is meant as my education:

the glory of individuality is taken away,

Fortune spreads a red carpet

before the sinner in a morality play

while on the linen backdrop a magic lantern throws

images of human and divine torture.


Faithful mother tongue,

perhaps after all it’s I who must try to save you.

So I will continue to set before you little bowls of colors

bright and pure of possible,

for what is needed in misfortune is a little order and beauty

Berkeley, 1968


10.08.2018 (from conversation with Basil Kerski)

The conversation with Basil Kerski begins with a memorable visit of the leader of the countercultural revolt in Germany, Rudy Dutschke, to Prague in March 68’. The meeting with him at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Charles University that turns into a conversation of the deaf, becomes a symbol of the gap separating the rebels from the West and East at that time. Not only was Dutschke unable to distinguish Stalinism from Marxism, but his talk of bourgeois democracy and the threat of American imperialism reminded the Prague Spring activists too much of the rhetoric of their native regime. Comparing today, for example, the letter of Havel to Dubček from 1969 with the letters and appeals of the leaders of the SDS, i.e. the Socialist Union of Students in Germany, we will be struck by the asymmetry in the substantive level and maturity of both writers. Equally high imbalance can be seen in the difference between the 1965 letter of Polish bishops to their German counterparts with the famous ‘we forgive and ask for forgiveness’, and the extremely small response of the German bishops. Disturbing was also the entry of some of the West German leaders of student movements on the path of provocation and violent confrontation with the apparatus of the state. Dutschke himself quickly withdrew from this kind of radicalism, though at the time following the murder of a student during a clash with the police and guards of the Shah of Iran in 1967, he still disregarded the warnings of his one generation older companion, Jurgen Habermas, against the leftist fascism, as dangerous as the right-wing one. It is also difficult to overlook the fact that it was from this milieu that Andreas Baader, a co-founder of the Red Army Faction, not the only terrorist organization formed after 1968, came from. Added to the picture must be also the naive and grotesque slogans of the type US = SS, showing a broader problem of acceptance by young Germans of an attitude allowing them to feel once again  victims of History, except that now the Weimar Republic was replaced by the providence sent America.

With all this in mind, it would be easy for us to make fun of or discredit the whole contribution of the German counter-culture. However, the conversation with Basil Kerski turned out differently. We had time, attention of the public and the German experience of an immigrant from Iraq who had travelled to Berlin through Gdańsk, went to the same gymnasium where Rudi Dutschke attended and became a student of the Free University created with American aid. So we had a chance not to stop at one-sided criticism. Revealing the long-term consequences of the year 68, their constructive role in shaping of a  Germany with a difference in the new Europe, was the most interesting and the most current, also regarding the Polish context, part of Basil's story. We will not be able to understand the anti-governmental rebellion of young Germans if we do not take into account the extent to which Adenauer's "Bonn Republic" was a continuation, and not a denial of the Weimar Republic. Only the University of Frankfurt dared encourage return of refugee scholars who once left the fascist Germany. Being an emigrant in the 1960s stigmatized negatively the renegades of the Weimar Republic. Nazism was discussed in abstract terms without considering any individual responsibility. In 1966-69, the state was run by Chancellor Kiesinger, who himself had for twelve years dutifully paid the NSDP contributions. One of the first harbingers of change in the attitude to one’s own sense of guilt  - apart from, of course, the Eichmann’s and the so-called Auschwitz trials - was the 1967 book Inability to Mourn by Alexandra and Margareta Mitscherlich. The counter-culture itself was obviously not enough and too shallow and limited to face up to the problem, especially since when asking their parents about what they were doing during the war, the young were more concerned about coming down on the elder generation for their being in league (occupied by a conspiracy of silence) with the Bundesrepublik, rather than an authentic concern for German racism or horrors of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, this is then that the process of settling accounts with the Nazi past, which will deepen in subsequent years, begins. 

The most interesting, however, seems to me the German positivism of the 70's and 80's. Basil talked about it with fascination, regarding himself to be its beneficiary and heir. His teachers at a Berlin secondary school and then at the university - taught him to develop Cosmo-European roots, be responsible for  rapprochement with the world on the other side of the Iron Curtain, sensitive to social and ecological solidarity - a participant and disciple of the counter-culture. They were part of a much broader movement for civic education and organic work in local communities. Those who in their rebellion resorted to violence quickly lost their social support. The tradition of Bildung translated into the realities of modernity became a school of life and civic maturity for those who have sobered up, and allowed them to quickly cut the distance separating them from their peers experiencing real enslavement, like those in Prague. Most of them were forbidden to teach in schools during the first years, but it was being at the forefront of the struggle for a new education, including Church, that became fundamental to them. Daniel Cohn-Bendit - the same ‘Red Danny’ who equalled liberal democrats with the ‘Stalinist bastards’ on the barricades of Paris, captured with instructions to produce explosives and expelled from France in 68 '- returns to Frankfurt, starts working in an alternative kindergarten, then becomes a local government official, establishes a municipal Office for Multiculturalism, and together with Joschka Fischer becomes committed to the creation of the ‘Green’ party, consistently advocating sanctioning of the border on the Oder and Neisse, and then Poland’s and other Central and Eastern European countries’ access  to NATO and the EU ... Today his position seems incontestable, but it did not have to turn out like that. It would not have happened without a radical transformation of Germany in the aftermath of the changes after 1968. The German counter-culture, in its most interesting and far-reaching currents, turned into a "long march through the institutions".

What was I thinking while listening to Basil Kerski’s tale? I was thinking about Poland of the '70s, when Jacek Kuroń was spreading the slogan ‘Do not burn party committees, set up your own.’ A wise strategy for the times of building the democratic opposition. However, after 1989, all committees became our own. We needed a Polish ‘long march through the institutions.’ Any revolution that seriously considers even a partial transformation of ideals into reality, including that peaceful and transformative year 1989, should - not necessarily looking back to Gramsci, from whom Dutschke borrowed this term, or then any other concept from the past - create its own and modern tradition of forming the world for which it was to take responsibility. The continuators of the German counter-culture were very well aware that this forming takes place through education and religion, putting ecology on an equal footing with technology and involving a cultural transformation of mentality. They understood also that the foregrounding of the formation is not only a matter of ideology but also of budget and social prestige of the teacher. Someone might say that I am idealizing and that Poland has more important problems than the social position of the teacher or some organic activities in local communities. So be it. I am of a different opinion about who is truly detached from reality, and therefore I am grateful to Basil for this German lesson on counter-culture.


10.08.2018 (from conversation with Oleksandr Boytchenko)

Only rarely can I have such exciting conversations about borderland as with the inhabitants of modern Ukraine. Their Maidan, just like their literature, shows an extinguishable counter-cultural current. So does our dialogue with Oleksandr Boytchenko from Chernivtsi, which has been going on for years. In his essay Bridge and Ditch, he writes:

‘... the constant presence of the Other on the shared with him common borderline life poses no essential threat to me. Until I try - with the best of intentions - to start a decisive dialogue with the Other as a Ukrainian. Experience shows that here, too, the chances of an understanding (not a fake understanding with an internally felt indifference, but just a real understanding) are very good, provided that our mutual otherness is clearly marked. Representing different cultural communities, me and my Other - let us say, a Pole - will a priori admit the differences between us and then look for common grounds. And unavoidably, we will we find them if we are keen on dialogue and cultural exchange, and not on blurring someone's identity and converting the Other to their faith. And now let's imagine a resident of Donbas, who traditionally votes in all elections for Yanukovych and his pro-Russian party. Is a full-fledged dialogue between me and him possible on the same level? Absolutely not. Because formally we as if have no grounds to treat each other as Others. After all, we would start a conversation from, say, describing ourselves as Ukrainian patriots who want a bright future for their homeland. Very soon, however, it would turn out, though, that we understand both patriotism and Ukraine and its bright future in radically different ways. That would irritate both of us. “If you're not the Other, why are not you like me?” Because between us - despite the obvious civilizational split - there is no border that would defend my values against his values, and his against mine. The very fact of my existence becomes a threat to his identity and vice versa. [...] Here, in Ukraine, against my dreams, I realize that a peaceful divorce with the Yanukovych’s region is a utopia. And without divorcing him, without any attempt to shape national-cultural identity and tolerance towards the Other, Ukraine itself becomes a utopia.’

It is so good that after 50 Per Cent of the Right, the latest selection of essays by Boichenko, Yours, Ours and Others, translated by Natalia Bryżko-Zapór, has recently been published by the Lublin Warsztaty Kultury. It is so good that our conversation may soon continue in Krasnogruda...

04.07.2018 (from the evening with Prof  Michael Steinlauf)

Prof. Michael Steinlauf about 1968: Every new generation looks at the world and sees walls around them. The natural response is to push because the walls are really in your face. In normal times, you soon realize that the walls are stronger than you are, you make your compromises, and you opt to be a responsible individual with a career and a family. But it was us all who were pushing together at the walls and all of a sudden the walls fell. And more. As in Pennebaker's movie Don’t Look Back where, some guy with a microphone comes running over and demands,  ‘What kind of solution do you have? What does it all mean?’, we didn’t know how to answer him. We weren’t leaders, we weren’t anything. We were youth. We shouldn’t have been given that kind of power, and suddenly we had it. We were handed the ball and we had to run with it.


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