Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Jerzy Szacki

“Would your scientific career have developed the way it did if you had not travelled? Of course, it wouldn’t have. And besides, when one is in Poland, one has to participate in dozens of gatherings, meetings, the phone rings, letters arrive, and so on, and so forth. A trip is an excellent way to get away from the cares of daily life.”

Considered to be one of the most outstanding sociologists in Poland, specialising in the history of ideas and in philosophy. A member of Polish Academy of Sciences. He received his MA in Sociology from the University of Warsaw in 1952 where he was appointed Professor in 1973 and Full Professor in 1987.

What notions did you have about the West before you went there?

Jerzy Szacki

Jerzy Szacki, Source: Wikipedia

When I went to France in 1959 I was already over thirty and my command of French was rather poor. But France was a country I knew quite well from books. I had got to know it in spite of the fact that I did not live there because I had spent my youth  reading Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński’s books and listening to French songs. I also used to read the French press from time to time. Therefore, leaving for France, I did not feel that I was going to a country that was completely foreign to me. Once there, I used to spend hours walking the streets of Paris, identifying and exploring places I knew well from books and films. It was easy. There were many such places because Paris was not that much different, as yet, from the one before the Second World War.

It was only just starting to change and become prosperous. Generally, Paris was still quite neglected and quite poor. Suffice to say that most Parisian flats had no bathroom yet. Of course, the French were in a much better situation than we Poles, but the standard of living among members of the circles I used to frequent was not that much better than the one in Poland – the difference being though that Parisians still had a lot more possessions (furniture, books, etc.) that survived the war than we did. The main difference between them and us was that they lived in the city that had endured throughout the centuries and this endurance was completely natural to them. No, I did not suffer a shock. Generally, I knew what to expect when I went there.

Was it difficult for a young scientist to go abroad?

That used to vary. One had to have sufficient means and appropriate documents with all the necessary stamps. Somehow one always found the necessary means as there was no lack of various foreign institutions that for one reason or another considered it fit to finance our visits, internships, or lectures, participations in conferences or conventions, etc. I never had a problem with that. There were also perhaps some domestic resources to be used but as is known, they were scarce. I never tried to apply for them so I was never disappointed. Of course, the obtainment of these documents and these permits required some effort as one had to apply for a leave of absence, obtain permission from one’s superiors, fill out appropriate forms, etc., after which one had to take all these to the International Cooperation Office (in my case it was the Warsaw University one) and then all one could do was to wait – for a good or bad result.

The waiting time for a passport was not fixed. Sometimes I received it quickly and at other times the waiting was considerably drawn out. Sometimes one got a passport when a conference or a meeting one was to attend was already over. Because of such problems I was able to explore Rome in 1981 instead of going to France but as I was given a passport too late I decided to use it anyway – not quite legally though – to travel to another country. I had quite an unpleasant experience when in 1982 I was invited to lecture at the College de France. I initiated the appropriate requests many months in advance but I was still waiting for a passport. Time went by and I still had no document. The date for the lectures was approaching. I used to make a phone call every day – no longer to the University but to the Passport Office. I was being endlessly put off. In the end I got a passport in the afternoon of the day before the day of the first lecture and I had to get a French visa from the Embassy only after it was closed. I was handed this visa in the Ambassador’s private residence and somehow I managed [to get to Paris on time]. Travelling was, therefore, not easy – sometimes one had problems; one wasted time and lost one’s temper.

Travels to the West afforded one also an opportunity to see the world of democracy and of the free market economy, didn’t they?

Yes, it’s true. All those living in the Soviet Block were learning about democracy in the West, and from the West. That was natural. After all democracy originated there. Admittedly, one could learn a great deal too, staying in Poland and making use of the opportunities afforded here. One simply had to read not only that which had been approved by the censors. In a large city with a university it was not impossible. Anyway, one was somehow always able to access ‘Kultura’ published in Paris. Since the fifties I used to read fairly regularly Le Monde, and from time to time the New York Times and other publications – and above all, various books published in the West.

Did the West “on paper” as it were – the one glimpsed from books and newspapers – resemble the real one?

Yes and no. The theoretical knowledge is usually full of generalities that one has to correct through direct observation as time and time again one has to realise how much more complex and rich the reality is. So what, if for example, one knew the general rules of democracy if one did not have a chance to observe how democracy was functioning on a day-to-day basis? Therefore, my first longer stay in the US was for me an eye opening experience, even though it was in the rather provincial Mid-West where I saw how little one need be concerned with all the goings on in Washington and with what the Federal Government was doing.

When people had a problem no one thought it fit to go the capital or even write a petition to a Governor but instead people visited their neighbours and together looked for a way to solve this problem on their own, without any pompous speeches about democracy. This for me was the discovery of democracy. I don’t, of course, claim that this applies to the entire US or that this is how it is done in “my’ Minnesota even today but such experiences are extremely important. They are not always positive. Equally numerous were disappointments involving the realisation of how many of my notions about Western democracy were the result of my idealising and the naïve expectation that lifting formal restrictions would immediately change everything for the better.

When applying for a visa did you have to wait in a queue outside a foreign embassy or consulate?

I never had to wait in a queue for two reasons: visa arrangements were for the University to make and in the exceptional circumstances waiting in a queue would be of no help, anyway. In such situations one had to look for someone with connections. For example, I no longer remember who caused it that the aforementioned visa for France was given to me in an irregular manner – “after hours”. Generally, in such circumstances, an acquaintance was indispensable and one would find someone like that – usually, just in time. My situation was not, perhaps, completely atypical.

Did the red tape (present not only in Poland but also the in the West) make travelling very difficult for you?

I had some amusing experiences. During one of my longer stays in France, I had to extend my residence permit by a few days so I went to a Police station. I waited my turn in a queue, and I was given a long form to fill out. The form was difficult to fill out because it required remembering some genealogical details which usually one was not required to give and I had to simply invent them hoping that nobody would check their veracity later. These are trifles, though. And as for the bureaucratic formalities, I think that there is nothing wrong with them because they make us stick to the rules. The only point is though that, first, these rules should not be ridiculous, secondly, they should be binding on citizens and officials alike, and thirdly, citizens should have an opportunity to acquaint themselves with them.

Did who have to scheme, to beat the system, to travel?

I don’t think I ever had to rely on a fictitious Letter of Invitation from a private individual. I had letters of invitation that were as official as they could possibly be as they were issued by various institutions the respectability of which nobody would dare to call into question. Such a letter was, as it were, a guaranteed solution for visa problems that those intending to travel, for example, to the US often had to contend with.

Furthermore, it used to even free one from the need to wait in a queue. Back in the days of communist Poland, the big problem was with a passport that one could not – unlike today – keep normally at home. And further, one could never be sure whether one would get it again, and if so, when that would happen. Thus, once you left Poland on a longer scholarship you would not be that eager to come back too soon even if otherwise you could afford to do so. For example, it was not that far from Vienna to Warsaw. Yet I preferred not to indulge in such trips so as to save myself from having to seek permission to leave Poland again, which, as I knew, was sometimes refused. Anyway, there was no guarantee that permission already given would stay valid throughout the period it was formally to cover. From that point of view, the change that took place in 1989 was dramatic – maybe even more than when the borders were opened following the accession of Poland to the European Union.

What was crossing the border like; did you have any bad experiences with border checks?

Crossing the border was not always easy for me. I have had two, not particularly pleasant conversations: one in the UK and one in the US. Nothing special, mind you! I was simply asked about matters of a personal nature. Questions of that kind should never have been posed at the time of crossing a border. The biggest stumbling block I encountered during my foreign travels though was economic in nature. To put it simply, I had no money.

Did you feel a bit like a second-class citizen abroad?

Yes, I did – to some degree. Of course I managed sometimes to surprise someone that I was from Poland and yet I knew something. I remember one lady in the US who wanted to show me the most beautiful films she had ever seen. She showed me the ‘Black Orpheus’ being convinced that she was giving me a very special initiation. I disappointed her deeply because I knew both the film and the name of its director and I even remembered a few scenes. Amusing missionary attempts were also made by some Americans trying to convince me, for example, that Communism was no good. However, I very quickly accepted the fact that in general the World was not that interested in Poland, and that knowledge about Poland was rather poor. It’s a pity but that’s life. Our knowledge about other countries in Poland is, after all, also quite limited.

What significance did foreign travels have for a young scientist?

It opened us to another world – never mind whether to a better one or not because the very contact with something different, an opportunity to compare is already quite precious. There were also legends about material benefits one could derive from a foreign trip. There was not that much truth to them because even if there was some, it applied only during some periods in the history of communist Poland, and even then, only to some scholarships – they were not all equally lucrative. I remember my first stay in France as a year of poverty. The scholarship I was receiving from a school that was well known for helping Poles was enough to get by on but on a very modest level, especially if one wanted to go every day to the cinema, and sometimes to the theatre as, after all, it was difficult not to want to do that being abroad where seemingly one had an opportunity to catch up. I remember whole long months when I would eat only baguettes and the cheapest sardines, washed down with tap water. At other times scholarships were more generous and one could even afford to buy something for oneself provided that one was quite frugal which I was not capable of being.

I preferred to see this or that instead of saving dollars that were ever so precious then. Money would disappear anyway and that which one managed to see would stay etched in one’s memory forever. But scientific trips are not only about the joy of observing the world, of exploring other cultures, of seeing works of art, etc. They are also about learning one’s profession, and quite often, they are a prerequisite for performing it well, and that at home used to be and still is, sometimes, extremely difficult or even impossible to do. This applies not only to these, ever increasing in number, fields of knowledge that require extremely expensive equipment. Even a humanist does not have it that easy in Poland if he or she wants to acquaint himself or herself with all the more important publications on a given subject he or she is interested in. And there is no shortage of such subjects that are extremely difficult to deal with because in Poland one simply cannot find basic materials. Though, for some time, the day has been saved by the Internet that affords one, for example, access to hundreds of scientific publications without having to leave home, or to on-line bookstores through which one can get the most needed items within a reasonable time, but even that does not solve the problem. Finding oneself in a well-stocked library affords one completely different opportunities. However, there are no such libraries in Poland and we will never have them here.

Would your scientific career have developed the way it did if you did not travel?

Of course, it would not. And besides, when one is in Poland, one has to participate in dozens of gatherings, meetings, the phone rings, letters arrive, and so on, and so forth. A trip is an excellent way to get away from the cares of daily life. In those days, when I started to travel, “getting away” could have been construed literally: there was no Internet and no SMS or E-mail. Making a phone call was an incredibly serious operation. When, during the sixties, I wanted whilst in Paris to call my family in Poland I had to go to a post office, situated quite a long way away from my apartment. I had to order a call and wait several hours to be connected. One was isolated, cut off from all the news. Foreign trips facilitated also taking care of one’s mental health: I felt better when I didn’t have to read Polish newspapers for few months. I was simply a different man. Today, I no longer take longer trips but I notice that even one week away does one a lot of good since it helps to regain a sense of proportion. The very same news that today excite us so much, become often unimportant or simply unnoticeable after only a few days.

Did the friendships established in those days help you in your scientific career?

Some friendships established then still remain. Some I renewed after many years, but anyway, I did not establish many relationships that endured. I could name a few individuals but not many of them are still alive. Some of them influenced the choices I’ve made in my professional life. Generally, I used to establish contacts that were quite casual. Such contacts develop intoa friendship only in exceptional circumstances. One needs to have a personality of a certain kind to do that and I do not have it. I am not that sociable. Nor am I the sort of person to maintain contacts.

Poland started to open towards the West in 1989 and acceded to the Schengen agreement in 2007. Do you find that travelling is much easier now?

In the light of what I’ve said it looks as though I have never had any serious problems with travelling. There is, however, a major difference between the situation we are in today – when I have a passport at home and can use it anytime I want to – and the situation where before each trip I had to submit an application and wait few months, uncertain whether I would get a passport. It is unlikely that I will have to experience again the situation I found myself in just before my first trip to the US: a day before my departure – when I already had a passport and my luggage was packed – some gentlemen from the Polish Ministry of Interior showed up and took me to the police station where I was warned that I may be approached while abroad by foreign intelligence services and that I should therefore exercise caution. I promised to do that and I kept my word. No agent approached me anyway. Unfortunately, the Ukraine and Belarus are today worse off than Poland was in those days. Because at least Poland had had two good periods during which the West was fascinated with Poland: one just after the October 1956 events and the other, at the time of the Solidarity movement. Unfortunately, Europe has no such fascination for the Ukraine or Belarus today.