Thanks to his literary philosophy, his way of constructing texts and his expressive powers Witold Gombrowicz was one of the most important writers of Polish and world literature in the 20th century. His novels, dramas and diaries are literary monuments because they are rooted in tradition and universal in their effects. In 1963 Witold Gombrowicz came to Berlin for one year at the invitation of the Ford Foundation. During his stay he influenced the city and its literary life.
Witold Gombrowicz accepted the invitation to come to Europe with great delight. During an radio interview with the journalist Tadeusz Nowakowski for “Wolna Europa” in 1963 he remarked: “I had been thinking for a long time about taking a look at Europe. (…) And furthermore I was very curious about Berlin”.
In 1963 Berlin was divided city and West Berlin had been surrounded by a wall for two years. Gombrowicz arrived in this unreal city and immediately called it “the daemonic city”. Indeed demons might probably have driven him here. At first he stayed in the Academy of Arts before moving into an apartment in the Hansa quarter at Bartningallee 11/13 not far from the Academy. From his flat on the 15th floor he could enjoy a glorious view over the city. Since he had been invited by the Ford Foundation he had a lot of time on his hands and enough money to be able to acquaint himself with Berlin and understand the city. Since there were no conditions on how he was to spend his private and professional life Gombrowicz used the time for writing. Tirelessly he pursued his diaries; tirelessly he continued working on his novel “Kosmos” which he had started in two years previously.
But for Witold Gombrowicz a writer’s life was more than just writing. In Berlin Gombrowicz tried to revitalise the tradition of literary meetings just as he had done before in Warsaw in Café Ziemiańska, and in Buenos Aires in the Café Rex . From August to December 1963 he met up regularly with German writers and intellectuals in the Café Zuntz on the Kurfürstendamm. But writers like Günter Grass, Uwe Johnson and Max Hölzer greeted the cosmopolitan Polish eccentric Gombrowicz with cool reserve. The young intellectuals in the city were simply unable to deal with his egomaniac habits, full of contrasts and absurdity. The final meeting in the Café Zuntz took place on 20th December 1963.
Witold Gombrowicz was born on 4th August 1904 in Małoszyce in what was then the Russian Empire. He was the youngest of four children. His family, which belonged to the lesser Polish landed gentry, moved to Warsaw in 1911. Here Witold Gombrowicz completed his grammar school studies in 1922 and his law studies at Warsaw University in 1927. He subsequently lived in Paris where he pursued his studies at the “Institut des Hautes Études” without much success. After one year in the French capital Gombrowicz returned to Poland. As early as the 1920s and 30s he was writing literary texts that were published in a volume of collected texts entitled “Pamiętnik z okresu dojrzewania” (Memoirs from the Period of Maturing“) in 1933. Gombrowicz became famous in literary circles after the publication of his novel “Ferdydurke” in 1938. Shortly before Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 Witold Gombrowicz was working as a journalist on board the cruiser MS Chrobry on its maiden voyage to South America. Here he received the terrible news from Poland that caused him to remain for the rest of the war in Argentina. But it was only 24 years later that he left South America. Once in Berlin Gombrowicz was again very near to his fatherland Poland. But for years the Communist country had been running a campaign to discredit him. The Communist leaders cleverly exploited his stay in the “West” for their own propaganda. They even sent the Polish journalist Barbara Swinarska to West Berlin to conduct an interview with him, which was subsequently falsified and published in a defamatory form.
Even the leading contemporary Polish critic, Artur Sandauer, who had been a passionate fan of Gombrowicz before the war, now wrote about his alleged “fascist tendencies”. These public condemnations wounded Gombrowicz heavily and he postponed plans to travel home to Poland. He was clearly hurt because he wrote in his diaries that during a walk in the Berlin Tiergarten he could sense the smell of the East, of his childhood. He was more than conscious of his proximity to the home he had left a quarter of a century before. He never returned to Poland. On 17th May 1964 Witold Gombrowicz headed for Tegel airport in Berlin, accompanied by his closest friends, the pianist Lissa Bauer, the lawyer Otto Schily, the art historian Christos Joachimides, the artist Zuzanna Fels and Tadeusz Kulik, from where he flew to Paris. From 1964 onwards he lived in Vence near Nice where he married his secretary Rita Labrosse. Witold Gombrowicz died in the south of France in Vence on 25 July 1969.