Joanna Roś

Polish émigré writers: Thinking of Albert Camus

part 1: You have friends whose existence you do not even suspect




The Poznań protests of 1956, June 1956. The newsletter of Radio Free Europe, No. 7 - September 1956.


On July 12, 1956, in Paris, during a solidarity rally with the victims of the Poznań 1956 uprising, Camus's appeal was read in front of the assembly: "We already know the sadness of the conviction that the system of the eastern countries cannot be considered revolutionary and truly proletarian. Our sorrow is sincere: who would be happy to correctly foresee the oppression and misery of millions of people? Today, this cruel truth has exploded, the shards of the myth are still afloat in the air, but we know that this myth has corrupted the consciences and minds of Europeans for years. Even in the light of day, those blind people maintain that night prevails. (...)

The workers from Poznań dealt the last blow to the mystification reigning triumphantly and cynically for such a long time. The fire of the Polish uprising illuminated all the fall and misery of the corrupt revolution.

In the face of this fall, one can no longer speak of blind or naive people. Only partners remained. (...) Freedom or barbarity - this is what ages of history have taught us, this is what the new tragedy teaches us. The choice will not be difficult. We will choose freedom against the old and new barbarism, and we will choose it once and for all, finally, so that even one day of the sacrifice made by the fighting workers of the still oppressed Poland will not be lost (Camus, 1983, p. 203-205)."



The Poznań uprising, June 1956. The Illustrated London News, July 1956.


The rally during which these words were spoken came to fruition thanks to the efforts of the head of the Parisian "Kultura" (a leading Polish-émigré literary magazine), Jerzy Giedroyc, although its organizer was the French trade unions. A few days before the event, a declaration of Western intellectuals, prepared by people associated with "Kultura", appeared in the French press ("Franc- Tireur", 4 July 1956, "Le Monde", July 1956). Camus's voice concerning Polish events had not been forgotten, and two years later in the Kultura "Library" series the Polish translation of The Rebel by Camus appeared (Camus, 1958).

One of the most interesting works of recent years, a devastating judgment of Nazism and Communism - the unanimous opinion about The Rebel expressed by Polish writers and journalists who remained in exile confirms that Giedroyc was right sensing that this essay would become a very important item in the "Kultura Library" series (Letter, 1958, p. 180). Already a few years before the publication of the Polish translation of the work, The Rebel found itself on Giedroyc's list of books intended for the Polish reader. Giedroyc chose The Rebel not only because the essay could not appear in Poland due to its ideological character, but also because he believed in its uniqueness in the context of all world literature (Giedroyc, Jeleński, 1995, p. 86). In Polish magazines published in France and Great Britain (where the Polish government-in-exile was based since 1941), there appeared texts devoted to Camus's essay and reporting his position among French intellectuals after the publication of The Rebel. Other Polish emigration centers, including the United States, also voiced their opinion on Camus's rebellious ethics. Working in the Gallimard publishing house, Camus sent new French publications to the Paris "Kultura" community, which then Giedroyc sent on to the country. He was asked to choose such literary novelties which would affect the awareness of Poles living behind the "Iron Curtain" (Giedroyc, Miłosz, 2008, p. 220, 273, 274; Giedroyc, Gombrowicz, 1993, p. 127).




"After all these attacks focused on your person, I want to tell you immediately why I love you so much and that you have friends whose existence you do not even suspect", wrote Józef Czapski. You are not my master, but you could become a justification of my existence," confided Czesław Miłosz.

 (Letter b, p. 88; Wyka, 2011).

What determined the surprisingly personal relationship of Polish émigré writers and Camus? What allowed them to confess to him a kind of friendly love, to ensure "the relationship of souls"?

For Józef Czapski, Kazimierz Wierzyński, Jan Lechoń, Czesław Miłosz and Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, these elements of Camus's literary output which exposed the practices of totalitarian regimes, as well as regarding the individual's duty towards society, had made him - however pretentious it sounds - an admired writer. Camus was a great writer who did not have to be a literary genius at the same time.


Józef Czapski (...) among the members of the Paris Committee artistic group. Unknown artist,


The reception of Camus's writing among émigrés oscillated around the phenomenon of the unmasking of Communism by Western authors. Commentators who interpreted the dispute between Camus and Sartre for "Kultura", joined in a larger debate on the direction in which Western culture and politics were heading. The controversy caused by the publication of The Rebel in Paris became a chance for Polish émigrés to express their voice regarding the situation of Poland under the communist rule.

Lechoń acknowledged Sartre as a very intelligent man, maybe even more intelligent than Camus, but he thought that there was too much "filthiness" in him (Lechoń, 1992, p. 518). Similarly, Miłosz bitterly watched the "ex-imperialist agent" Sartre acting as a supporter of the deity of history and becoming a new acquisition of Moscow (Miłosz, 1953, p. 115-117). Miłosz had a rather ambiguous attitude towards Sartre and Camus. He valued the first as a creator of a philosophical system, and he felt admiration for the other. It is not without significance that just at the time when Miłosz broke off relations with the authorities in Warsaw, that is, in 1951, there was a campaign in "Les Temps Modernes" against Camus, when Sartre and his environment considered the way in which Camus presented Soviet communism in The Rebel an unacceptable act of betrayal. A discussion on Sartre and Camus's quarrel over Soviet labor camps takes place continuously in Herling-Grudzinski's journals. He does not refuse to name Sartre an eminent philosopher but unequivocally claims that Sartre talked "criminal nonsense" about Communism, whereas Camus did not have to be ashamed of what he wrote about it, holding in his hands a magnificent card of resistance (Grudziński, 2000, p. 98). "I always hated Sartre," Czapski said, juxtaposing the ambiguity of the author of Being and Nothingness and the integrity of Camus who "was not able to lie" (Okruchy pamięci, 2015). Czapski's thoughts are similar to the opinion uttered by Lechoń, Gombrowicz, Miłosz and Herling-Grudziński - that perhaps Sartre was a better philosopher, that maybe he was more effective, but Camus, although less brilliant, amazed people by his conscience and aroused respect. In the latter, Czapski saw a glorious example of a proper attitude towards Soviet Russia, as opposed to Sartre, who did not deny the existence of the Gulag but believed that one should not publicize the dark side of the Soviet Union to protect the French proletariat from despair.


Jan Lechoń. Unknown artist,


For a writer such as Lechoń, after the Second World War, French culture was in a state of both artistic and moral freefall. Such a view was a consequence of the far-reaching changes in French society, which at first could not strongly oppose the invasion of Nazi Germany, and after the war engaged in an intellectual flirtation with the Soviet Russia. Other above-mentioned writers, to a varying degree, subjected the matters of France to a sharp assessment, but they found a personality that they excluded from their angry diagnosis. They witnessed what was happening in Paris when Camus published The Rebel. They were on his side when pro-Soviet critics tried to discredit not only the book but also its author himself.

Miłosz, Czapski, Lechoń and Herling-Grudziński spoke in favor of Camus and his criticism of revolution. The Poles found a certain community of fate between themselves and Camus - the author of The Rebel experienced in Paris that what was common in the East - his struggle to defend human rights was scoffed at. France was one of the countries most susceptible to Soviet propaganda. The Poles emphasized the fact that a large and influential part of the Western elite, living in a democratic system respecting freedom of speech, had done much to block the truth about the realities of life in Soviet Russia and the countries under its dominance. The communist sympathies in France remained intact for a long time, and Camus, with his Rebel, was one of those who contributed to changing the perception of the situation, condemning the crimes of the regime.

The Polish émigré writers had one thing in common - they appreciated not so much the maturity of artistry in the author of The Plague but rather the magnetic moral beauty of his literary productions. They summarized the specifics of his philosophical thought in the following way: "Camus lived like he preached that we should" (Wierzyński, 1995, p. 65). Gombrowicz admitted that he admired his ethics, agreed with it and supported it - yet at the same time observed his affirmation with absolute disbelief (Gombrowicz, 1989, p. 72).

In this series of essays, we will remind the voices of many Polish publicists, novelists and poets thinking of Albert Camus. We will try to explain this element of enchantment with Camus. The enchantment that was more about a man than about a writer.


Next week we will write about:

Polish émigré writers: Thinking of Albert Camus, part 2: Józef Czapski and Witold Gombrowicz.




Camus, 1958: Camus A., Człowiek zbuntowany, translated from French by J. Guze. Biblioteka „Kultury”, Instytut Literacki. Paris 1958.

Camus, 1983: Camus A., Poznań. Przemówienie wygłoszone 12 lipca 1956 roku w Paryżu na wiecu solidarności z robotnikami Poznania, "Krytyka. Kwartalnik Polityczny" 1983, issue 16. English translation: J. Roś.

Giedroyc, Gombrowicz, 1993: Giedroyc J., Gombrowicz W., Listy  1950-1969, edited by  A.  Kowalczyk,  Spółdzielnia  Wydawnicza „Czytelnik”, Warsaw 1993.

Giedroyc, Jeleński, 1995: Giedroyc J., Jeleński K.A., Listy 1950-1987, edited by W. Karpiński, Wydawnictwo „Czytelnik”, Warsaw 1995.

Giedroyc, Miłosz, 2008: Giedroyc J., Miłosz C., Listy  1952-1963, edited by M.  Kornat,  Spółdzielnia  Wydawnicza  „Czytelnik”, Warsaw 2008.


Gombrowicz, 1989: Gombrowicz W., Dziennik 1953-1956, edited by J. Błoński, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 1989.


Grudziński, 2000: Herling-Grudziński G., Najkrótszy  przewodnik  po  sobie  samym,  edited by W.  Bolecki,  Wydawnictwo Literackie, Cracow 2000.


Lechoń, 1992: Lechoń J., Dziennik. T. 2. 1 stycznia 1951 – 31 grudnia 1952, edited by R. Loth, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1992.

Letter, 1958: Letter from J. Giedroyc to G. Sidre, 26 September 1958, Cited in: Ptasińska-Wójcik M., Z dziejów Biblioteki Kultury: 1946-1966, Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, Warsaw 2006.


Letter b: Cited in: Rutkowski K., Raptularz końca wieku, Wydawnictwo „słowo/obraz terytoria”, Gdańsk 1997.


Miłosz, 1953: Miłosz C., Sartre-Camus, "Kultura" 1953, No. 1.


Okruchy pamięci, 2015: Fragments of memory. Recordings with Józef Czapski,  talked Andrzej Mietkowski, "Polish Radio",


Wierzyński, 1995: Wierzyński K., Śmierć Camusa [in:] K. Wierzyński, Cygańskim wozem, Polska Fundacja Kulturalna, London 1995.

Wyka, 2011: Wyka M., Piękny człowiek z ludu, „Tygodnik Powszechny”, 23.12.2011.



The text is based on the doctoral thesis of Joanna Roś entitled Albert Camus in Polish literary and theatrical culture in the years 1945-2000, Faculty of Polish Studies, University of Warsaw, 2018.