Saul Bellow in Poland
by Yale Richmond
Saul Bellow came to Poland for three weeks in 1959 as an American Specialist, a State Department program that sent prominent writers, scholars, and other public figures to lecture and meet their counterparts abroad. It was an exciting time in Poland because only three years earlier the country had experienced a revolution which replaced a Stalinist government with one of national communism that sought to renew Poland’s historic relations with Western Europe and the United States. Poland remained a member of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact but had considerable freedom for its domestic politics.
Bellow was going through a divorce at the time and was not in the best of spirits, but he accepted the State Department grant because he thought the change of scenery would do him some good.
In Warsaw, he met with Polish writers at small dinners and informal meetings, and at Warsaw University the future Nobel Laureate (1976) addressed a standing-room-only audience of several hundred in the university’s main auditorium. Bellow’s books were well known in Poland where several of them had been published in Polish-language editions, and Warsaw’s intelligentsia turned out to see him in person.
As embassy cultural officer, I accompanied Bellow to Cracow where he addressed local writers. We took the overnight sleeper and booked a two-berth compartment, with Bellow in the lower and me in the upper. He was reading William Blake, his favorite English poet, and I was reading Bellow’s most recent book, Henderson the Rain King. In a most unusual author-reader encounter, whenever I had a question about the book, I leaned out over my berth and asked, “Saul, what did you mean by this?” All I got in response was a knowing smile.
The reception in Cracow was cooler than in Warsaw, perhaps because political control was tighter. The lecture went off without a hitch but there was no reception afterwards and no chance to talk with local writers.
After Cracow, we made a side trip to nearby Auschwitz where there were no smiles as we toured the extermination camp where so manyJews and Poles had been killed by the Nazis.
On our return to Warsaw, we took an evening train that was fully booked. I escorted Bellow to the dining car where seats were available for passengers prepared to pay the dinner price. After dinner, the waiters asked the diners to leave so they could make preparations for a second serving. Since we had no seats on the train, I asked if we could remain in the dining car, and was told that we could, if we paid for another dinner. And so we dined once more.
A young Polish woman joined us at our table, and we eyed each other with curiosity. After a while, Bellow addressed her, “Vershtest Yiddish?” (Do you understand Yiddish?) She replied in Yiddish, and so, only a few hours after our visit to Auschwitz, in a curious turn of events we encountered a Holocaust survivor who related her experiences in Poland during the German occupation and the situation of Jews in Poland after the war.
Bellow’s visit was part of a broad U.S. public diplomacy effort designed to improve mutual understanding between Poles and Americans. In addition to the American Specialists Program that brought prominent Americans to Poland, it included the State Department’s International Visitors Program that brought prominent Poles to the United States, the Fulbright Program for scholars and students, the fellowships of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, collaborative scientific efforts, and the exchange activities of many U.S. non-governmental organizations. That mix of public and privately funded exchanges helped to reestablish Poland’s historic ties to the West, to show the Polish people that they were not forgotten, and to keep alive the spirit of freedom and independence that emerged triumphant in the Solidarity movement of the 1980s.