The Manhattan Review
The Manhattan Review
Established 1980

Archive > Vol. 2 no. 1


Philip Fried

from Stanislaw Baranczak and the Generation of ’68 in Poland: An Interview


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MR: You mentioned a turning point in your career. Did you say that in the mid-’70s or early ’70s something happened and you were banned?

B: I think it started earlier, in 1968, when there were student riots in Poland. They were similar to the events in France and West Germany. At the same time, they were very different because our systems are different and the purpose of these riots was absolutely different.

These riots were caused by a censorship decision to ban a certain theatrical performance of a drama by Adam Mickiewicz, our most famous Romantic poet. The censors thought there were some anti-Russian actions, etc. in this performance. Not in the text of the play, of course, but in this performance directed by one of the most famous Polish directors.

MR: You mean material was actually ad libbed, inserted into the performance?

B: No, no, no, it was very funny because they changed almost nothing; they didn’t change anything in the text of the play. Maybe there were some abridgments. But the censors didn’t like certain gestures which were made when the Russians were criticized by the 19th century poet.

It was a very tiny incident in the beginning, but it developed into a dangerous confrontation between the authorities and the people. By “people” I mean this time only intellectuals, because it was a rebellion of intellectuals, March 1968. The workers weren’t involved. It was typically an intellectual concern to fight censorship and the mismanagement of Polish culture.

It was also very complicated because the authorities used the student riots as a pretext to wage a bitter campaign against Jews. Some of the students were of Jewish origin and some of the intellectuals, the writers especially, who joined the students were Jewish, and the authorities used this fact, as they commonly do in these cases.

They found a scapegoat and tried to direct all the bitter feelings against an “enemy,” whom they invented and created.

I’m talking at such length about these events because they were a turning point in my life and in the lives of the whole generation born after the War or in the last years of the War. I mean people who were about 20-25 in March 1968. They were mostly students in the upper grades, or just starting their adult life.

It was a turning point because these people had just entered life and encountered these tragic events at the very beginning. Why tragic? Because we were educated in a socialist system which was full of very lofty words and ideas, such as justice, equality, international friendship, etc. And we sincerely believed in those ideas. But then this socialist system invented the concept of “Jew,” who is supposed to be our “enemy.”

Of course, they didn’t say “Jews” but “Zionists,” a typical verbal shifting. But they were denying all their beautiful concepts and ideas. So we were eyewitnesses to an event very typical for the Communist system, for all totalitarian systems probably: the authorities use lofty words and beautiful slogans, and at the same time they are doing their dirty work. They are cheating, lying, double-crossing, etc. . .