“The Greek Sophists argued that the law and religion were deceptions devised by the Strong and the Wise. Contrary to the Sophists, I am of the opinion that the Strong and the Wise are not cleverly deceiving us. For instance; in the beginning, those who defend the State are only those who make use of it. Only later, democracy itself raises an army, and the army makes a nation of the people. It is also the people who, in the beginning, create a certain part of the popular religion. It is not the hereditary aristocracy which devises capitalism. It is not the aristocracy which devises fascism. The people deceive themselves; they let go of their dreams like a child who has ceased to play with them. These dreams are taken up by the wise. Only madness and passion are creative. Wisdom merely refines and exploits. How easy it is to deceive madness! There are those who see clearly amidst this madness. It would be safer to remove such Seers, lest they make the people slaves to their madness. Where do such clear sighted people come from? They are people who no longer burn, who have lived a long time: the rentiers of humanity.” [1]

­-Leon Grucae

“He did not return to his farm. Green pastures bored him. The fields filled him with frightening memories of long days spent milking cows. After High School, he looked like a fifteen year old boy. People would often tell him that, though they did not mean to insult him. It was his second year studying philosophy. In the spring he felt a pain in his right lung. He would sweat in the night. He spent the summer vacation in a sanatorium for students in Zakopane. He remained there for two years because World War I broke out. The food was good. There were many idealistic women surrounding him, pestering him about when he would sign up to join the Polish Legions? He returned to Lvóv just in time for the season of mass executions. His old uncle, Alojzy Gruca, was hung by the Royal Hungarian Honved in Ludvikova Vola. He passed his exams rather quickly. He was hired as a teacher in an all-girls school. He was fired with equal haste. Gruca, now an excise man, is married. Olga, fearful and unable to believe it, put her head on his shoulder, full of resignation. There is Leon, with her, and whatever happens it’s going to be what Leon wants to happen. She asks if he still loves her. She suffered, belittled by the fact that she did not succeed in making him happy on account of the fact that she offered him her own soul as her gift at the altar. When Leon would collect excise taxes, she would sit on a bench near the office. She married a Pole and they told her that he would one day make an issue of it. But he was a man unlike other men. Full of God; she suffered Leon’s suffering. She constantly expected something better of him that would unite them. She would tell him about how she always wanted to be good for someone and then she met him; about how his appearance was the cause of unusual passion within her—a different passion—she would say. She wanted to fulfill his desires. She asked him what it was that he desired. It was then that Leon would tell her of the belittlement of the common man; of men who yearn for what they might have become, and that the world is full of souls denied the chance to fulfill their destinies, and within those souls a new order slumbers—a new order for which the world awaits. A world destroyed by petty greed…She did not know what this new order would look like, but she loved this man who did not think of himself.” [1]

“God created the world in times preceding the craze in favor of mechanization. Upon creating His children, He continued His work of creation. Future creatures of His, no longer meant to be human, merely meant to be tools and mechanisms for human utility, were nevertheless camouflaged in human bodies. The children of God thus required signs to recognize and distinguish one another from their tools. In time, the robots became unsure of things, even falling into rage on account of the errors of God’s creation. Slave rebellions would lead to wars and revolutions: the robots wanted to demonstrate in the streets but somehow always managed to find themselves back in the factories.” [1]

There are reviewers capable of compressing their thoughts on the subject of a 700-page book into one page. There are 700-page books worthy of no more than one-page reviews. Anna Kowalska’s 1936 novel, Gruce: Tales of a Lvóv Family, written with her husband, is not one of them. The book is a forgotten masterpiece worthy of three separate reviews, particularly since it is unavailable in English and rather hard to come by even in the original Polish. This is a pity because Gruce fulfills all the criteria common sense envisions for a great book. It enriches our understanding of the human condition. As a Polish book about Poles, it does so by way of a context that is quintessentially European and Western while at once being foreign to Western Europeans. As a book written by a citizen of Lvóv about the city of Lvóv, it also helps us understand modern Ukraine and the wider political difficulties now plaguing the Russian world. Essentially, Gruce is a timeless work tailor-made for our times.

Originally published as two books in the II Republic of Poland in 1936, it was released again as one thick book in the communist Polish People’s Republic in 1968. Between the first and second printing, the city and nation-state Anna Kowalska was born into were irretrievably destroyed. Gruce is thereby a chronicle of a lost age. It appears to be a self-conscious chronicle of a lost age–all the more so since its deeply pessimistic political content which scandalized Polish readers in 1936 turned out to be painfully realistic in light of subsequent events from 1939 onward. The book was written by Anna Kowalska, a classical philologist and student of romance fluent in Polish, Greek, Latin, French, and German, and by her husband, Professor Jerzy Kowalski, Anna’s teacher. Anna Kowalska was a Christian socialist, and her book presents a socialist analysis of the human condition. That said, Anna Kowalska’s socialism is heavily, if not overwhelmingly, colored by her classical education. As such, abreast the content of the story itself, the book is an esoteric dialogue between socialist methodology and classical political philosophy held under the charitable auspices of Christian faith.

The erudition of the book’s author is not surprising. Lvóv was the cultural and intellectual capital of the Polish nation, even well before the resurrection of the Polish state following World War I. No city in Europe was populated by such a diverse ethnic conglomeration, and nowhere else was it possible to discover so many great minds. Geographers, mathematicians, economists—if they were men of genius—were likely from Lvóv. American conservatives know one of them well: Ludvig Von Mises. Mises embodied the spirit of his city well: He was culturally Polish, politically Austrian.[2] Another important conservative thinker, Henryk Krzeczkowski, the father of post-war Polish conservatism, was himself a native of the Kresy where the story of Gruce takes place. Although not from Lvóv itself, his native Stanislavov was in the culturally vicinity of a city that could be called the Athens of Eastern Europe. Despite losing his home to Ukraine, Major Krzeczkowski could never feel at home in Warsaw or Krakow; he was a child of the river San.[3] At age sixteen, he was drawn to Gruce precisely on account of its scandalous reputation. Eagerly hoping to find the sexual naughtiness sought after by healthy sixteen-year-old boys, the young Krzeczkowski was disappointed to find the story lacking in eroticism. Instead, to his surprise, the scandalous content of Anna Kowalska’s story rested in its pessimism about Poland—so out of place, even traitorous or defeatist in the Poland of 1936.[4]

The young Krzeczkowski had come of age in a Poland that seemed the embodiment of wild dreams and fantasies: free, independent, and strong. Poland in 1936 contained Lvóv, Vilnus, and many cities and lands later lost to the Soviet Union. The II Republic had survived its tumultuous beginnings: It had won a war against the Bolsheviks, and it had weathered a Civil War. By 1936, its dictator, Marshal Piłsudzki, was dead, and the Republic limped along intact, albeit with two constitutions behind it. It was by no means an ideal triumph, but for Henryk Krzeczkowski’s elders, who remembered the days when Poland was not free, the II Republic was a marvelous thing. To question this triumphalist sentiment was scandalous, and as the sixteen-year-old Henryk Krzeczkowski read Anna Kowalska’s Gruce, he found himself agreeing with his elders: what a strangely Cassandric book! Three years later, Henryk Krzeczkowski was a prisoner in the House of the Dead[5], and the II Republic was obliterated by Germany. Its citizens became the victims of a systematic slaughter. As the elder Krzeczkowski would write following the war, “Cassandras are tragic because the future they foretell is irreversible.” [6] Re-evaluating his political views from the perspective of a battle hardened veteran of the Eastern front in Stalin’s First Polish Army, Major Henryk Krzeczkowski concluded that Anna Kowalska had been right in her pessimistic assessment of the II Republic of Poland:

“Thirty years ago, I would have likely been unable to formulate such conclusions… I was unable to bring myself to accept the very threatening conclusions that came from [the Kowalski’s] perspective. Soon enough, I felt the force of these conclusions on my own skin. I felt how accurate the presentiments of literature can be. In the latter years of my sojourn through often unfavorable avenues of life, I learned to respect literature in which pessimism is an act of courage, and not simply obedience to a trend. Such courageous pessimism is not the product of first impressions, nor of personal idiosyncrasies. It is the fruit of hard won knowledge. The measure of the reliability of this knowledge is an honest and uncompromising confrontation of the vision acquired through a conscientious appraisal of the real world with one’s own ideal imagination of that world. This confrontation only makes sense and contains the notion of human dignity within it if it is a confrontation rooted in the Revealed Truth of Creation. Without this dimension; our vision of the world will always be flat and untrue.” [7]

As the III Republic of Poland now enters its twenty-sixth year, the justifications for Polish optimism seem even more abundant than in 1936. Thanks to Stalin’s post-war resettlement programs, the ethnic tensions and divisions which plagued Poland are not a problem in the culturally and nationally homogenous III Republic. Today, Poland’s minorities are truly minor. A pleasant Vietnamese community in Warsaw, a German minority in the West with a constant three-person parliamentary representation, the odd foreigner here or there—the III Republic is not plagued by elections pitting ethnic group against ethnic group. Poland’s divisions are among Poles, rather than among Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Germans. Modern Poland is the most culturally, religiously, and ethnically homogenous state in Europe.

By contrast, Gruce presents the awful burdens of ethnic political strife for a republic. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which attempted to balance the rights of the various ethnic groups populating Galicia, is best represented by the bloodstained Austrian uniform that one of the book’s characters tends to, reflecting “such is the fate of those who put their trust in temporal things.” When war breaks out between Polish and Ukrainian citizens of Lvóv in 1920, its catastrophic results are best illustrated by the destruction of Leon Gruca’s marriage to his wife Olga, and the alienation of their son. Olga, a Russian and Orthodox woman, becomes an outcast in the eyes of Polish Catholics. “I am in trouble because I’m married!” Gruca tells his wife, who understands, takes her son, and leaves.[8] The divisions between families in the book, which appear at first to be mere personal tragedies caused by politics, soon become political tragedies which visibly cause political calamity.

In a sense, this teaching—that the condition of the family as an institution will inevitably impact the condition of the politics in a city and State—is one of the main thrusts of this book. Anna Kowalska is radically aware of the political importance of the family. In her descriptions of economic class divisions in Lvóv, the barometer of economic mobility is family. The conflation of a landed Polish aristocracy rooted in Tsarist times with the emergence of an industrial proletariat appears to inform a kind of static class rigidity. One is either a worker or one is of a good family. Yet the ethnic and religious tensions hanging over the city generate a third class: men like Leon Gruca, his wife, and his son. Leon Gruca is related to the Bratkowski family who are at the center of the book, but who want nothing to do with him and effectively disown him. Their comportment is all the more scandalous because during World War I, Gruca’s family farm made it possible for the Bratkowski family to eat. As Henryk Krzeczkowski notes: “It was not only in the world of Leon Gruca that people had no time to become members of one another’s families, to take up the mantle of the symbols of their common lot.” [9]

The process of alienation from the family which Gruce illustrates is not limited to being a function of ethnic or religious tension. In fact, the Catholic-Orthodox tensions and Polish-Ukrainian-Russian tensions are rather marginal. If they were more pronounced, the book would likely not have earned such a scandalous reputation, since the problem of ethnic and religious tension is not novel. The great bulk of the book focuses on the process of alienation from the family through the person of the protagonist, Malina Bratkowska. Malina’s father and mother die of, respectively, typhus and grief, and she is adopted by her aunts. Malina’s aunts are portrayed as the stereotypical Polish noble, landed, bourgeois-aristocracy. What is meant by this is that they have no noble title, but carry themselves as if they did. They are from a landowning family, but do not actually live on the land nor have a landed estate. They pride themselves on their Polish family name, but hide the fact that it was once Germanic. They live in the city. In point of fact, their relatives, the Grucas, actually live on the land, but are not welcome because as farmers, they also live off the land and are thus lower class. The aunts hate Jews, unless the Jews happen to be rich, in which case they are all smiles.[10] The petty bourgeoisie vices of the aunts eventually drive Malina to move out and seek employment, thus demeaning her by placing her amongst the working classes. Subsequent events bring about an ironic situation wherein Malina lives with Leon Gruca. Their relations are governed by the laws of supply and demand, although technically they are family.[11] Anna Kowalska’s book illustrates the process by which familial and neighborly relations and duties are obliterated under democratic conditions by a mixture of the political economy of 1930s Lvov and the corruption of Catholic morality by bourgeoisie morality. The rights and duties of family members give way to the rights and duties of economic cooperation. Self-interest takes the place of love.

There would be nothing immediately dangerous to the body politic about this state of affairs under monarchy, tyranny or aristocracy, but one is under the impression that the processes Anna Kowalska sketches for us are an immediate threat to Poland’s newly-won republicanism. For under a republican order, Malina, Leon, the aunts, the landed gentry, the working classes, the capitalists, the Catholic and Orthodox clergy, the Russians, and Ukrainians are no longer merely the sum of their stations in the hierarchy of society or economy. All of them are citizens of the republic who ought to be preoccupied by the duty to nurture and perpetuate Polish republicanism. Yet they exist outside of this duty, as if the consciousness of their having been elevated from subjects to citizens had passed them by. Meanwhile, the only people who take up the mantle of citizenship turn out to be base nationalists like Editor Rychlweski and his partisans, of whom Anna Kowalska notes:

“No act will ever gain a man entry into their group. They value words, not action; empty words: ‘I am with you.’ They will attempt to prove that you do not know how to speak proper Polish, that your grandmother was a Jew, that you do not bathe and that you never ate lobster. What will happen if they prove to you that you have never been drunk in your life? They are sure that whoever cannot stand them is certainly a communist or a naïve person. They believe Poland is them. Perhaps they are stupid and dangerous; but if so—then Poland is stupid and dangerous. If they lose Poland, they lose themselves. It is a personal thing; like a father stealing from his son. Poland existed in the past without them, and might well exist in Europe without them, but if it did—it would not be Poland anymore.” [12]

Leon Gruca, meanwhile, having failed to preserve his family under the harsh social pressures of a war-torn city and disowned by his own family, ends up working in a library, where he becomes a voracious reader. This does not improve the general opinion of him amongst self-proclaimed patriots and amongst the bourgeoisie. “It’ll be like before: the Masons, the liberals, the democrats! No thank you, dearest professors! As for Gruca—he’s not for us. I heard from editor Rychlewski: Gruca is a weakling.”[13] When Gruca finally confronts Rychlewski, it turns out that this “weakling” has thought long and hard about present matters, likely helped by his reading of old books:

“Wait; you are a European, aren’t you? You have eaten breakfast with the Guardsmen and His Excellency confided in you that he had roots in the Piast dynasty. You joked with him over wine. Die beste Nation ist die Domination. Didn’t you praise yourself many times? Take a look at the same thing from a non-corporate perspective: there are thirty million people in a sea of millions of others who are rich and organized. Now take a farmer, a worker and any random poor person—because there are too many of them: all they have is the language with which one man communicates with another man; nothing else. This language even reaches you; but no one else. A man from a different tribe will exploit them and blame them, but he will leave their lives to you. You have to live next to them, whether you want to or not. You can pretend to be different; the others will not accept it and throw you right back into your tribe. Now; it all depends on whether you want to be fussy or not. If you are fussy; then do it for yourself so that you don’t have to smell the mess and listen to your own language…what do you need government for? You’re being well taken care of by the banking interests. If there’s a dictatorship; you’re sure to have an uncle well placed in the regime. If the currency crashes, you’re secure because you’ve got twice that much in a foreign bank account. But just look at this great mass of humanity to whom Fortune has restored the possibility for self-government. Even if you and your friends formed a government, it will be more similar to those that came before than it would be to the governments of foreign countries. So don’t be so stubborn in your insistence that if you govern here, Poland will be like England. Who says that these few people are the best people? No—there are better men than them; there are many men who are better than them. Just remember that there can never be more than just a few; and this is why things will never fizzle. They are better because those who rule are always in a minority relative to those who would be able to rule better. This is how it is everywhere. Are you wise about the affairs of ruling? You must still be ruled! For the fate of those incapable of ruling is more important than the fate of your excellence!”[14]

Leon Gruca is slowly becoming a real Polish citizen. His exoteric criticism of his nation-state is the result of a self-conscious civic mind growing in the place of the mind of a subject. That Gruca can advance from subject to citizen is, paradoxically, the function of his alienation from the family structure that maintains the mores of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Lvóv. Yet insofar as the alienation of Gruca from the family is ostensibly politically liberating at the individual level, the same-said alienation is detrimental for Poland as a republic. For the republic cannot be sustained by an alienated mass of proletarians, a minority of philosophers excluded from the rationale of political-economic dialectics and an oligarchical crust of landed families which convey bourgeoisie morality that is politically neutral under monarchy, but politically suicidal for republics which require citizens who think of the common good–not merely tradesmen who think of their own good.

Yet insofar as Leon Gruca is the dark horse of Anna Kowalska’s story, it is the plight of the protagonist, Malina Bratkowska, through which the truly alarming aspects of the Kowalski’s Cassandra warnings become manifest:

“It is a terrible thing to have to love. It is even more terrible to have to love others as you love yourself. To love contrary to the wishes of the object of our love, to love in a different way than the object exists; this means to hate. This is somewhat how her aunts loved Malina…At twelve years old…Oh, the girls Malina loved! Her love fell upon them like a flame, but they were never set on fire by it. Malina would profess her love, and the girls would simply say goodbye, excusing themselves because they had to go to the tailor with their mothers. Everything in them was developing far too slowly. Malina would tell them how perfect they were; they wouldn’t believe her. They never cared for themselves as much as Malina cared for them. It is not true that love is egoism: egoism is useful. Love is painful…There was a poor girl in Malina’s class: Elizabeth. Her father, a proletarian, gave her that name—after the Austrian Empress. One could not blame her for it. Malina came to love the girl’s proletarian condition…Then, a time of great grief combined with joy came upon Malina, for she began to experience the things of youth. Malina began to look upon boys differently. They were weak, easily angered, they required care and motivation…Malina became religious; but not in the way that girls would usually become religious. Those girls would learn religion as if it were an advanced form of good manners; as if religion was something you needed so as to remain in good company even after you died…Malina simply loved God because He gave Man a soul and the freedom to nurture the soul towards excellence into eternity…Such is the God of new passions blossoming in the human heart…She tried to understand God by understanding herself; on the basis of the fact that she was created in His image. The God within Man does not want to be patient nor humble. He wants to be free in order to manifest His greatness…It was then that Malina discovered the un-Godly within her soul: stubbornness and egoism. These things must exist in Man so that religion is not reduced to mere ritual and to save religion from professors of applied religion…She found herself surrounded by a world thick with the need to be transformed into something real; something perfect. A world where there was suffering that was far less symbolic than the suffering and death of Christ on the Cross: the suffering and death of the entire world, of the people who remained unsaved by the Savior. Why had slavery risen again? With whom was the peace of the world made? The Sermon on the Mount had disarmed those who would have gained strength from being cursed. Throughout the world, the Priesthood had attached itself to the Robber Barons, to the Money Changers in the Temple. Heaven was for the donors…The Priesthood had come to openly support the privileges of a small few…They proclaimed that the new lovers of the Apostles were the Anti-Christ, even when they themselves were Christians…They allied themselves to heavy industry against the poor…It was then that the sound of God lost its lyrical power in Malina’s mind and became suspect. God dies in the human heart as soon as the human mind generates a vision of a world better than the one God has made for Man…But could it be that the unpleasant tricks that nature plays on the body were leading her into a trap? Youth is nothing but the belittling necessity that the body imposes on us to love others. We become possessed by the love of a random person who happened to be put into the middle of our day…”[15]

This was youth in Lvóv, 1936. These would turn out to be the fundamental problems that confronted and doomed the II Polish Republic. Of course, there is and always will be a lively debate over the extent to which Poland’s failure in 1939, like all of its earlier failures, was a result of its own vices or of Fortune. Nevertheless, Henryk Krzeczkowski, who found in Anna Kowalsk’a Gruce a mirror image of his own childhood and youth and a sensible albeit radically unconventional explanation for the failure of the II Republic, is not to be taken lightly for heaping such praise on this book. One might argue that in light of Anna Kowalska’s bisexualism, mirrored in the character of Malina Bratkowska, the book’s reputation for scandal was rooted in its lesbian narrative. Given what we know of Mr. Krzeczkowski, however, there is no irony in his proclamation that he found nothing scandalous about the book when he was sixteen years old. In fact, given the extent to which Malina Braktkowska is capable of distinguishing between lesbian erotic passions and the duties of marriage and family between husbands and wives demonstrates that Lvóv and Poland itself, in 1936, were far more intelligent about sexuality and marriage than the present self-proclaimed liberators of human sexuality. This point, along with the broader and more important focus on citizenship and the family, should become clearer in the future reviews of the remainder of the book.

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1. Kowalska, Anna Gruce: Tales of a Lvóv Family, page 56 & page 81-82, 123 [the word “robot” in the original Polish is a play on the Russian word работник, and originally meant “worker.” In some Slavic languages it also means “slave”]

2. Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik, The Cultural Roots of Ludvig Von Mises “Mises was most heavily influenced by his Polish surroundings; not by his Jewish surroundings; but this did not conflict with his loyalty to the Austrian monarchy.”

3. Krzeczkowski, Henryk, A Vacation in Warsaw: “In a sense, the greatest obstacle to loving this city are my memories of the countryside and of my home town… of the sights and panoramas which are so different, so much richer, harmonious and cohesive… memories which force me to still find myself feeling more at home in Budapest, Przemyśl or Zagreb rather than Krakow or Prague or Bratislava, even though the atmosphere in all of these cities is of a kaiserlich und königlich provenance. I still prefer the Bieszczady mountains to the Tatry, and the San river to the Vistula.”

4. Krzeczkowski, Henryk, Troubling Presentiments

5. Bartyzel Jacek, Henryk Krzeczkowski, Kubiak, Zygmunt, Henryk, Dostoievski Fyodor, The House of the Dead

6. Krzeczkowski, Henryk, Troubling Presentiments Krzeczkowski recalls being particularly flabbergasted (at age 16) by page 92, where Kowalska describes the portion of Lvóv “unknown to Poland”—the Ukrainian portion.

7. Krzeczkowski, Henryk, After Thoughts, p.38-39

8. Kowalska, Anna Gruce: Tales of a Lvóv Family, page 85:

“Mrs. Olga could not sleep at night. She fasted; her brothers went to fight in the Ukrainian army. When they were killed, she went mad. She broke the mirror, she wanted to jump out the window. The war ended, the Gruca household calmed down. Leon turned out to be a false prophet. Olga felt terribly disillusioned by him. She did penance for the dead and waited for Leon take her away from her suffering into a new world of joy. If he wouldn’t have the power to do it, he would tell her “let’s you and I take our child and leave this land of hatred. Let us go across the sea where it is possible to love your neighbor.” But Leon remained silent…One Sunday, she wanted to take her son to the Orthodox Church, but Leon forbade it. Her relatives came to her and complained that because of her, the dead brothers would not rest in peace…Olga waited day and night for Leon to say something. But Leon remained silent. One night, he came home angry. ‘I got into trouble for being married…’ Olga went pale…”

9. Krzeczkowski, Henryk, Troubling Presentiments

10. Kowalska, Anna Gruce: Tales of a Lvóv Family, page 44 “They enjoyed the company of the wealthy, the well-born and the moral. A Jew was almost subhuman for them, but a rich Jew would garner the old ladies’ sweetest smiles.”

11. Ibid., pages 50-54

12. Ibid., pages 87-88

13. Ibid., page 120

14. Ibid., page 146-148

15. Ibid., pages 6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,22,

The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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