The Polish bookshop in West Berlin
The Polish bookshop was founded purely by chance, but the fact that it happened at all was down to the efforts of a group of enthusiasts among the Polish migrants in West Berlin. The philologist and librarian Wojciech Drozdek, who was one of the co-founders and subsequently ran the bookshop, spoke about its beginnings: “At the time, Adam Zagajewski and Ryszard Krynicki were staying in West Berlin at the invitation of the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). The meeting with them was organized by the most important bookshop at the time, the Knesebeck Elf. There were collections of poetry there by both authors which had been published by the ‘Kultura’ in Paris. My friends and I thought that if they can manage to import these publications, why shouldn’t we be able to?”
To turn this idea into reality we needed a location. Then, ironically, in October 1979, the German bookseller Thomas Stodieck opened its bookshop at Richard-Wagner-Straße 39 in Charlottenburg which had a modest corner with publications by Polish authors. Over time, a Polish bookshop in the true sense of the word developed from these beginnings.
1981, the year in which “martial law” was declared on 13 December, was the breakthrough year for the Polish bookshop. This day triggered a true exodus from Poland. During the state of emergency that lasted a year and a half, the ruling powers at the time were trying to get rid of the opposition activists, who had been stigmatised as troublemakers, which resulted in a lot of these people leaving Poland. Although the borders were closed when “martial law” was introduced, a large-scale campaign against the opposition activists had already begun in March 1982 and they were ultimately released from the jails and detention facilities and forced to leave the country. Many of them travelled to West Berlin.
Within the Federal Republic, the tense political situation in Poland created a lot of interest in the country on the Vistula. Western media reported extensively on the events in Poland, whilst the German population and German charities were fully committed to providing humanitarian aid. This increased interest could also be felt in the Polish bookshop. “It was a place in which you could satisfy your intellectual and cultural needs, a meeting place to which you could come and hang out. But it was also a place of political activity” - recalls Barbara Drozdek, co-founder of the working group Solidarność, the first West German organisation that was well disposed to the Solidarność movement.
At that time, the bookshop quickly become a support centre for Polish opposition activists. Underground documents were smuggled out of the shop and sent out in both directions. Publications in miniature format arrived in Poland in medical deliveries and food transports. In turn, the booksellers acquired records, books and music cassettes from the Poles arriving in Berlin and asked them to bring independent publications published in Poland back with them the next time they could. From its profits, the bookshop financed projects in Poland whose patronage it took over; from 1985, the publisher Pusty Obłok/Przedświt profited from this patronage the most.
With all this going on, the interest that both Germans and Poles showed in the bookshop was not lost on the Polish military mission (Polska Misja Wojskowa) in Berlin, which also included news services and counter-intelligence. For example, in the archive of the Institute of National Remembrance (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej) you can find notes about attempts to make contact with the Polish bookseller along with a detailed sketch of the bookshop. Wojciech Drozdek remembers being visited by two agents shortly after the bookshop opened in 1980: “They were people from the military mission or from the embassy – I’m not exactly sure which. They said that our business activities were incompatible with the status of West Berlin and they would report it to the Americans if we didn't withdraw the Polish books from sale. I told them that there was no censorship in Germany and what’s more that we were in Charlottenburg, i.e., in the British zone, not in the American zone. They were obviously trying to intimidate us.”
The agents, who at the time were mockingly referred to as “missionaries”, were among the regular visitors to the bookshop and attended the frequent author evenings. Authors and artists, such as Adam Zagajewski, Tomasz Jastrun, Krystyna Zachwatowicz, Zdzisław Jaskuła, Andrzej Wajda and many others were able to come together with their readers at the shop. Their travel costs and accommodation in Berlin were often financed by the bookshop’s owner, Thomas Stodieck. In the middle of the 1980s, the bookshop, which continued to sell books and kept up its political activities, became the head office of the Veto publishing house founded by Wojciech Drozdek, which published books including Vaclav Havel’s “Siła bezsilnych” (“The Power of the Powerless”) and Tomasz Jastrun’s “Notatnik amerykański” (“American Diary”).
Thomas Stodieck’s bookshop in Richard-Wagner-Straße in Berlin Charlottenburg still exists today. In November 2019, it celebrated its fortieth anniversary. However, the Polish bookshop that was run on the premises was closed in 1990. The fall of communism in Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the world order meant that the goals set by the bookshop owner had been achieved. Censorship in Poland was lifted and books are now always easy to come by. What remains of the Polish bookshop are the books that were published there and the nostalgic memory of this long forgotten Polish institution in West Berlin.
Monika Stefanek, February 2020
 G. Wołk, Uchodźcy Jaruzelskiego, [at:] Dzieje.pl, https://dzieje.pl/artykuly-historyczne/uchodzcy-jaruzelskiego (retrieved on 7/2/2020).
 Marian Stefanowski, Für Solidarność. Hinter der Mauer - Fotografien / Solidarni zza Muru. Photography, [Exhibition], Berlin - Warsaw 2014.