The following is based on the speech given by Adam Michnik at the funeral of the historian Bronislaw Geremek, an early adviser of the Solidarity movement and former foreign minister of Poland, who died in a car accident on July 13 at the age of seventy-six.

In the face of despair words are powerless. We feel despair because we have to say goodbye to an exceptional man—and I cannot capture his uniqueness in words. The best I can do is to paraphrase a poem by Wis awa Szymborska: Bronek, this is no way to treat friends.

When a friend dies unexpectedly and tragically, we recall his face, his smile, our past and recent conversations, forever interrupted and unfinished. I hear Bronek’s reflections during the meetings of the underground Flying University in the 1970s and in parish halls, where we discussed the blank spaces on the map of Polish history. I see Bronek in 1982 in jail in Bialoleka, and hear his hoarse shout from behind the bars of the prison on Rakowiecka Street. I see and hear Bronek in the 1980s in Castel Gandolfo, addressing Pope John Paul II and members of the world intellectual elite, and I see him in the enormous chamber of the French National Assembly, explaining the significance of the Polish transformations.

I see him during the meetings of the leadership of the underground Solidarity movement and during the 1989 round table negotiations; I see him in the Diet when he declared the end of the Polish People’s Republic, and on CNN when he announced that Poland had joined NATO. And I remember also dozens of our private conversations, discussions, and arguments conducted over a period of almost forty years.

I also remember one of our last conversations, when Bronek asked me to sign a letter concerning an attack on Lech Walesa, alleging that in the 1970s he was a police informer, “Bolek.” Geremek was the author of a draft of this letter. We read there:

It is difficult to understand the intentions of the people and institutions who have now launched a campaign of accusations and libel against Lech Walesa. The Institute of National Remembrance, supposed to protect national memory, is today engaging in activities that destroy this memory. Today’s memory police resort to the hateful methods of the communist secret services and direct them at a victim of this very secret service. These policemen violate the truth and fundamental ethical principles. They do harm to Poland.1

This was one of Geremek’s last public declarations. I recall these words at his grave and I would like them to be remembered by everybody—including the “memory police.” I also want to recall here the most recent indignities, among them the scandalous article, published in a newspaper immediately after Geremek’s death, which claimed to appeal to Catholic principles. This article was prepared in accordance with classic models of Bolshevik propaganda.2

Geremek easily forgave acts of injustice committed against him. He would certainly also forgive the authors from the Institute of National Remembrance their shameful insinuations against him. But when worthy people were treated unjustly and Poland was being hurt, Geremek was unable and unwilling to remain silent.

Geremek was “one of us,” to quote the words of Joseph Conrad, a writer whom he greatly admired. He was an activist in the democratic opposition and in Solidarity, one of those who fought for Polish independence and for human freedom and paid a very high price for this engagement. He was one of those who wanted to be true to the moral values present in the work of Joseph Conrad and the Polish writer Stefan Zeromski. He remained true to the tradition of the anti-Russian January Uprising of 1863 and the World War I Legions of Józef Pilsudski, to the tradition of the insurgents of the Warsaw ghetto and the Warsaw fighters of the 1944 Uprising, to the values of the 1956 Polish October and the student revolt of 1968, to the values of KOR (Workers’ Defense Committee), the Flying University, the strikes of August 1980, and the Solidarity movement.

Geremek was one of us, and yet he seemed to belong also to a different world. His academic status as a distinguished medieval historian, his international position, erudition, knowledge of languages, his elegant and discrete style, his dignified manner of speaking, his luminous intelligence and sense of humor—all this commanded our respect, admiration, and a touch of friendly jealousy. A conversation with him was a pleasure and one felt it a privilege.

He was the best. Maybe it would be better to say, he was the best in his own way. He was the best differently from Lech Walesa, differently from Jacek Kuron, differently from Tadeusz Mazowiecki, and differently from Zbyszek Bujak—all colleagues from the opposition and the Solidarity movement. But in his way, he was the best and nobody could equal him and he remained such for two decades of free Poland—until the time of his death.


Among the innumerable virtues of Geremek’s rich personality, academic achievement, uncommon talents, and political and diplomatic successes, two determined his life path: care for those who were excluded and concern for those subjugated. He knew that exclusion and subjugation destroy human dignity and degrade humanity. He knew that dictatorships—to cite Thomas Mann—lead to moral shabbiness. He manifested the opposite of such moral shabbiness. He embodied freedom, authentic knowledge, independent thought, the courage of nonconformism, the spirit of resistance, disinterested behavior, and human dignity. He reacted to moral shabbiness with ethical revulsion, but also with fear. He saw it as creating the feeling of uselessness in people who then turn into a resource used by totalitarian movements. He was thus both an idealist and a pragmatist. A democratic country full of degraded and superfluous people easily becomes a victim of violence.

As a child, Geremek witnessed the cruel degradation of those excluded, enslaved, and murdered in the Warsaw ghetto. Miraculously saved from the Shoah, he spent the rest of his life dreaming of the Poland of Zeromski’s “glass houses,” of a Poland without exclusion or subjugation, a Poland of people living in dignity and respecting the dignity of others.

This was the Poland Bronislaw Geremek loved and fought for: a Poland of tolerance, a homeland for all its citizens, without chauvinism and anti-Semitism. He believed that everyone can change for the better; that the good of Polish democracy demands that we nurse the ability to forgive and to reconcile. He wanted a democratic Poland united in solidarity with a democratic and strong Europe. Now that he is gone, we see how much he accomplished for such a Poland and such a Europe. He belonged to the tribe of great Kosmo-Poles, such as Chopin and Paderewski, Adam Czartoryski and Czeslaw Milosz, and—toutes proportions gardées—John Paul II. When times were hard, or virtually hopeless, as they were under martial law in the 1980s, Bronek repeated after Conrad, “One must.”

His historical works about the world of the excluded—The Pity and the Scaffold and The World of the Beggar’s Opera—are treasures of Polish historical scholarship. Geremek was convinced that the history of human societies is a process of the constant overcoming of egoism and broadening of the spirit of solidarity—even if this process is full of failures and breaks. This is why he was a passionate historian, and this is why he never became an ivory-tower scholar.

He confided once that a “sensitivity toward those whom history does not love,” toward the world of poverty and evil, pushed him in his youth toward communism. He described this as a “naive engagement” and a “youthful error.” But this very sensitivity, which told him to become a historian of socially marginal humanity, of the rejected and the poor, led Geremek in August 1980 to the Gdansk shipyard—in order to declare his solidarity with the weaker group, the striking workers. I had a feeling then—he would say—that I was fulfilling my duty.

He knew that the feeling of national identity and pride is a priceless value, and that in Poland, condemned to struggle for independence against foreign invasions and denationalization, they are necessary virtues. But he also knew that in the interwar period, the concept of “Polishness” was used as a tool of aggressive nationalism.

For Geremek, being Polish designated neither a biological community nor a blood lineage. What was important was the history of the nation—whether that history was mythologized or demythologized, apologetic or critical. In relation to the past, Geremek used to say, we make a choice of traditions, and with their help we express our views and options.

In this context, he wrote, I can say that many events lie outside of my tradition: the pro-Russian Targowica Confederation of 1792; the assassination of Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president of Poland, in 1922; the Stalinist terror; and many other incidents in Polish history. And yet a common identity demands that I retain in my consciousness the entirety of history with all its good and evil. We have to remember that acts that we now reject did happen. We have to act in such a way that what was once possible would no longer be possible today. Being Polish becomes a project directed to the future, thanks to the fact that it bears responsibility for the past.

Bronek was proud of his fatherland, of Poland, of its stubborn will to freedom, its achievements, the democratic transformation which, thanks to the compromise reached at the round table negotiations, allowed for a peaceful and bloodless end to dictatorship. He was proud of Poland’s membership in NATO and the European Union, of a democratic and tolerant country, kind to its neighbors and to ethnic minorities. He was proud of a Poland in which nobody aspires to the position of the king of all Polish consciences. He represented such a Poland in the most important political offices around the world and at the most important international meetings and conferences.


But Bronek was also worried about Poland. A year ago, when Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski was still in power, he published, together with Lech Walesa and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a declaration that warned:

A state that we treated as a common good is being treated as a trophy to be seized by the rulers. Freedom and independence, to which we tried to point the way, are not accompanied by a sense of solidarity, especially toward those who are weaker and poorer. Insults and squabbles fill our political stage and ruin the citizens’ trust in the government. Institutions which should protect the law are becoming tools in the hands of the rulers, and we are witnessing serious accusations that they are being abused.

This declaration was accompanied by a dramatic appeal to “cleanse Polish politics of dirt, fury, and hatred.” It is doubtful whether all cause for concern about these aspects of Polish life has disappeared. Today, over the grave of Professor Geremek, we have to ask ourselves this question.

Geremek’s essay on Marc Bloch, the great French historian and participant in the anti-Nazi resistance, is among his most admirable intellectual and moral accomplishments. Geremek drew a portrait of the eminent historian who participated in the drama of conspiratorial work, distributed illegal literature, made analyses of the situation in France, and conducted the secret correspondence of the resistance movement. In doing so, Geremek unconsciously described himself, his own involvement in Solidarity, his conscious choice of courage, risk, sacrifice, and service. And he wrote about himself when he recalled Marc Bloch’s description of him as part of “liberal, disinterested, and humanely progressive traditions of thought.” And he was describing himself as well when he quoted Bloch:

Attached to my country, fed with her spiritual heritage and its history, unable to imagine any other country where I could breathe freely, I loved and served it with all my strength. I am a Jew. I see this as a reason neither for pride nor for shame. I appeal to my ancestry only in one single case: when I encounter an anti-Semite. Nevertheless, I would like to leave just this one honest testimony: I am dying, just as I lived, as a good Frenchman.

When a French journalist once asked Geremek about anti-Semitism in Poland, he replied that he denied the charge that Poles are anti-Semites. I reject this stereotype, he said. He had two messages about anti-Semitism. The first, directed inside Poland, was that we have to fight anti-Semitism and all its manifestations, even those which are marginal. The second, directed to Western public opinion, was that we should not play with outmoded stereotypes.

Speaking at the grave of Bronislaw Geremek, I recall matters which are bitter and difficult in order to reach the truth about a man who can no longer react to the lies and calumnies that Polish demagogues and philistines of all political inclinations never spared him. The Polish Republic rewarded Geremek for his contributions with the highest Polish honor—the Order of the White Eagle. Bronek, you were worthy of this distinction.

I remember when you refused to submit to the new lustration law which, before it was found unconstitutional, would require as many as 700,000 people to make declarations on whether they had given information to the secret police. The Institute of National Remembrance was to assess these declarations on the basis of incomplete and faulty police files. It was a law that brought shame to the parliamentary majority of the time. Speaking in the European Parliament, you observed:

It was said that the lustration law has a moral purpose. I believe that in its present form this law violates moral principles, constitutes a threat to freedom of speech, independence of the media, and the autonomy of academic institutions. It creates a specific “ministry of truth” or “memory police” and makes the citizen defenseless against its insinuations. 3

I am grateful, Bronek, for these words dictated by your civic conscience and your sense of patriotic responsibility for the Polish state. You preserved the honor of all of us, the honor of Polish democracy. It is a great sorrow that fate took you away from us, an unbending guardian of Polish democracy, a great mind, a righteous man with great wisdom in his heart. And my steadfast friend.

About you, Leszek Kolakowski said:

He loved Poland, and that meant all in Polish life and tradition, in literature and social thought, that was open, rational, free of hatred and stupid nationalism—put succinctly, all that he was himself.

There is so much else I would still like to say to you in this farewell. But let me once again reach for Joseph Conrad, a writer who accompanied you throughout your life:

We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends—those whom we obey, and those whom we love; but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,—even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice,—even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees—a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear conscience. All this may seem to you sheer sentimentalism…. But the fact remains that you must touch your reward with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns, in your grasp.

You reach for your reward today with a clear conscience and clean hands. During your entire life you repeated after Conrad: “I shall be faithful.” And you were.

—Translated from the Polish by Olga Amsterdamska and Irena Grudzinska Gross

This Issue

September 25, 2008