Marta Aleksandra Balińska, Ludwik Rajchman. Życie w służbie ludzkości, translated by Maria Braunstein and Michał Krasicki, Wydawnictwo Studio Emka, Warsaw 2012


The Cosmopolitan of Senatorska Street. On the biography of Ludwik Rajchman

As I set about writing this review of the newly published biography of Ludwik Rajchman (a translation of a French original) one of the Polish television channels was airing a Polish-French serial titled Marie Curie. ‘We know so much about Marie Sklodowska-Curie’, I thought to myself, ‘and so very little about Rajchman, her 14 years younger successor among the international elite, an accomplished bacteriologist and the founder of UNICEF’.

It is, incidentally, not only this Polish scientist that is obscured by a lack of historical knowledge. How easily have we forgotten that it was exactly the most tragic period in the history of the Congress Kingdom, the half-century between the January Uprising and World War I, that produced a great number of extraordinary people—enquiring, resolute, combining a love for freedom and idealism with an admiration for science and a vision of a rationally ordered world. It was from the dark classrooms of the russified schools that there emerged numerous future professors of German and American universities, a sizable group of Russian revolutionaries, as well as the founders of the independent Poland and Israel—Piłsudski, Wojciechowski, Ben Gurion.

These men chose different life paths. Some built up the Second Republic, others had successful careers abroad. Many succumbed to the temptation of totalitarianism or the myth of a global revolution. Some died prematurely, like Kazimierz Kelles-Kreuz (a figure only recently discovered in Poland thanks to his biography by Timothy Snyder), or Rosa Luxemburg killed by Prussian officers, or Karol Radek who, after years of serving to cause of the Soviet communism, was eventually murdered by criminal prisoners—‘Urkas—in a Gulag camp. Other outstanding members of that generation were killed at Palmiry, or on the streets of Warsaw’s Wola, or in the Katyn massacre. Only a few lived to see their dream come true—a prosperous, clean Poland, free of illiteracy and with low mortality among the poor.


The Szlangbaums’ tough life

The social milieu that shaped Ludwik Rajchman was far from typical for Polish society of the time. The future scientist’s parents were part of the  Polish-Jewish intelligentsia. They lived on Senatorska street, near the Royal Castle, where they hosted one of Warsaw’s best-known salons. Their ancestors, like the ancestors of the Hirszfelds, the Toeplitz’s, or the Kronenbergs, had come to Poland with the subsequent waves of Jewish immigration to the once so tolerant Rzeczpospolita (or, perhaps, they had settled there earlier and only later fabricated the German genealogy in order to elevate their social status?). They belonged to that group of Jews who toiled tirelessly to amass wealth, engaging in craftsmanship and trade as well as industry or finance. As a rule, many of them would sooner or later also receive Christian baptism and become that part of the Polish intelligentsia comprised of converted Jews.

But conversion did not equal social acceptance. As Peter Dembowski describes, the Lande family, or Rajchman’s cousin, Ludwik Hirszfeld, were still reproached with their Jewish descent for decades to come.[i] This should not surprise us, however, as already in the 1870s and 80s Bolesław Prus considered the assimilation of Jews as a somewhat failed experiment. His views were embodied (in Prus’s most famous novel, The Doll), in the figure of the subversive and cynical Szlangbaum. 1881, the year of Ludwik Rajchman’s birth, was not, then, the most fortunate date of birth for a Polish Jew. The mutual love between Poles and Jews, symbolized by fighting side-by-side on the eve of the January Uprising and by Michał Lande’s death in Warsaw’s Castle Square, was by then history. The ‘Litvaks’, or ‘Lithuanian Jews’, were emigrating from the provinces of Poland directly incorporated into the tsarist Empire, the economic competition between the Polish and Jewish bourgeoisie was gradually gaining momentum and, following the assassination of tsar Alexander II by the Polish nobleman Hryniewiecki with some Jewish participation, a pretext finally appeared, long awaited by many, to initiate a wave of pogroms.


Statesman, idealist, intellectual

Despite these difficulties, the Rajchmans still remained a part of the Polish intelligentsia—that peculiar social group comprised of the descendants of degraded noblemen and Polonized Jews and Germans, who chose a Polish identity at a time when it offered them no benefits. Quite the contrary, this choice would block them from access to attractive posts and career paths in the Czarist Empire.

It is not difficult to apprehend the extent to which Ludwik Rajchman remained heir to that intellectual formation. Until the end of his life he was both a Pole and a Jew in a manner that would escape the imagination of many future nationalists. Until the end, too, he played the role of Poland’s ambassador in the world with a dedication equal to that of Ignacy Paderewski or Artur Rubinstein. His achievements, however, were decidedly more clearly felt by the common citizens than the achievements of, say, Paderewski. After World War I, thanks to the establishment in Poland of the still existing State Institute of Hygiene and a skillful development of relations with the League of Nations, it was precisely Rajchman who contributed substantially to putting an end to the epidemics that plagued the country. Following World War II, hundreds of thousands of Polish children were able to survive thanks to UNICEF that he had founded.

Poland and Rajchman’s relationship to his country deserves, for that matter, a separate monograph. He was a classic ‘idealist statesman’. In politics, for instance, he was clearly an opponent of Józef Beck, but he nevertheless treated him with respect as a representative of Poland. After World War II he acted in a similar fashion towards Rzymowski, Minc, and Bierut. Above all, Rajchman did not judge Poles according to their political views, but according to their intellect. He divided them into ‘clever’ and ‘stupid’. That is why his French home would be open to Stanisław Gajewski, Communist Poland’s ambassador affiliated with Józef Cyrankiewicz’s Polish Socialist Party (PPS), who came from the same intelligentsia background as Rajchman. It was thanks to cooperation with such people that the Polish scientist was able to do so much for his country. It is another question whether he was aware of the extent to which the world of similar idealists was subjected to a process of conscious destruction in the People’s Republic of Poland. After all, the leader of the PPS, Kazimierz Pużak, also a man of Rajchman’s class and mould, was murdered in the Rawicz prison.


Rajchman is always right

It is no accident that the author of Rajchman’s biography is Marta Balińska. She is the famous scientist’s great-granddaughter and her book may be regarded as the repayment of an family debt. Reading it, one can clearly feel that she sees it as her mission to remind the world about a great man that once lived. A mission may be a good thing, especially when it is to bring back to memory a person of such great merit, but it does not necessarily contribute to fair-mindedness. In the case of Balińska’s book, the result is that Rajchmans’s life is analyzed almost exclusively from his own perspective.         

For example, the unambiguously negative image of Józef Beck seems to be little more than a transfer onto the pages of the book of the Rajchman family’s deep-seated dislike of the Polish politician who was responsible for some of Ludwik Rajchman’s problems before the war. In this connection, the author asserts also that there has been only one writer who did not hold a negative view of Beck. That is incorrect. The black legend of the Second Republic’s last foreign minister, widespread as it was in communist Poland’s historiography, has long since been revised. The difference between the consecutive foreign ministers, Zaleski and Beck in the author’s portrayal also appears to stem more from the grudges cultivated in Rajchman’s family than from historical research.

Of course, what redeems the author somewhat is the fact that Ludwik Rajchman’s accomplishments were as outstanding as they have been almost completely forgotten. What is more, thanks to Balińska, we also come to know the ‘private’ Rajchman. Although the author uses lofty words and virtually raises a monument to the memory of her ancestor, thanks to the wealth of information she has collected she makes us realize that Rajchman’s life was a rather complicated one. The son of assimilated Jewish intellectuals he always belonged to a group of people rejected by most of Polish society. At the same time, he was an ethically unwavering figure, but only to the point where the well-being of others (e.g. of Polish or Chinese children) was at stake and where he was willing to compromise and make concessions to achieve his objectives. In Rajchman’s biography we also find a potential for a Thomas Mann-style family saga. The depiction of this intelligentsia family with all its phobias and pleasures, extensive genealogy and a variety of distinctive characteristics would have made for something far more interesting than Mann’s portrayal of the somewhat boring merchants from Lübeck. However, since the family in Balińska’s book serves only as a backdrop for the ‘canonization’ of a great Pole, the more intriguing threads in this story are not fully developed. What also pains the reviewer is the relative absence from the book’s pages of Rajchman’s sister, Helena Rajchman—in herself an interesting figure.


Still time for cool analyses

In spite of its minor shortcomings, Balińska’s book is a work based upon solid use of sources. Let us hope that it marks only the beginning of a Polish discussion about Rajchman. His life and work require additional research. Merciless and objective. I suspect that this will in no way diminish his accomplishments and greatness. It would be worthwhile, for instance, to examine in greater detail his visit to China. A brief mention in the popular monograph by Jakub Polit is hardly sufficient.[ii] China is an example of one of Rajchman’s failures. It did, admittedly, win the war against Japan, but only a few years after Rajchman’s visit it fell into the trap of Maoist totalitarianism. Would Rajchman have approved of the changes that have since occurred in the Middle Kingdom? It is not out of the question. In the end, after seventy years it is now in fact introducing some of Rajchman’s economic designs.

Despite these criticisms, I am glad that it was precisely Marta Balińska that authored the biography of her great-grandfather. In the end, what are slight idealizations in comparison to the passion and pride that emanate from her writing? Those who have been undeservedly forgotten need to be appreciated in exactly that way. Once they have permanently settled in our memory, there will still be time for cool analyses

Łukasz Jasina


First published online in Kultura liberalna,; Reproduced by permission

[i]Peter F. Dembowski, Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto. An Epitaph for Unremembered, Notre Dame 2006 (Polish edition: Peter F. Dembowski, Chrześcijanie w Getcie Warszawskim. Epitafium dla zapomnianych, Wydawnictwo Duszpasterstwa Rolników, Włocławek 2008).

[ii]Jakub Polit, Chiny, Wydawnictwo Trio, Warszawa 2004.