The Bocheński siblings

100 years of Polish history told through the biographies of four siblings.

Twentieth-century Polish biographies often took various twists and turns. The story of one family—parents and children, brothers and sisters—is particularly rife with contradictions. The paths chosen by close relatives were often wildly different. The legacy they received as part of their genetic testament was surely of some relevance, but it was the circumstances, meetings, twists of fate, aspirations, emotions, and finally the tides of history that pointed the way. These paradoxical family sagas reflected the dramatic intensity of Poland’s history. Most of the time the paradoxes were confined to the private sphere and the divisions played themselves out in the intimacy of the family home. But sometimes they became common knowledge, a topic of public discussion and a pretext for examining Polish attitudes—as in the case of one generation of the Bocheński family.

There were four of them. The oldest was Józef, also known as Innocenty Maria, a name he took when he donned the robes of the Dominican order. He later became a world-famous historian of logic and propounded his own philosophical theories when he began his academic career in economics. Rector of the University of Fribourg and a somewhat eccentric friar, he also made a name for himself as a prominent Sovietologist and uncompromising critic of Marxist-Leninist thought.

The second son of Adolf and Maria (née Dunin-Borkowska), of the Rawicz coat of arms, was Aleksander. He is remembered in Poland primarily as a writer, politician, and man of action faithful to his vision of history and contemporaneity. However, he remains a highly controversial figure when it came to putting this vision into action. Then the only sister was born. Olga has gone down in the annals of history as Olga Zawadzka (after her husband) for reasons wholly different than her brothers, on which more below. And finally came Adolf, the youngest and the first to die. A beautiful biography—rich but unfinished—was brutally interrupted by the greatest cataclysm of the twentieth century, World War.

Brewery Ponikwa Since we have already given some consideration, though not excessive weight, to the family’s legacy, it might be worth saying a few words about the ancestors of this noble quartet. The great-grandfather, Tadeusz Bocheński, also cited in documents under his cognomen, Lannsdorf, was a high-minded patriot and soldier. He fought in Napoleon’s army and distinguished himself in stopping the Russians at Berezina. Although his name was later associated largely with these events, he had other, more diverse achievements. His excellent investment and management skills spawned the most versatile and innovative mining and smelting enterprise in the Polish Kingdom in the first half of the nineteenth century, based in Maleniec. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to take a real interest in working conditions; there was, for example, a doctor permanently employed in his factory. The company survived the partitions and both of the world wars; it then continued to successfully operate as a nationalised enterprise in communist Poland (producing the tools used in the reconstruction of Warsaw). To this day the former factory buildings house the Maleniec Museum of Technology.

The grandfather, meanwhile, was, ironically, destined to be exiled to Siberia following the January Uprising of 1863, even though he was no supporter of military revolt, having supported the anti-Russian rebellion on the administrative level. He also actively continued his father’s achievements as an entrepreneur in partitioned Poland including, as a member of the Agricultural Society, the first institution not to be subjected to the direct control of the tsarist administration. The Society brought together landowners; in spite of its make-up, it advocated changes to the feudal socio-economic structure of the Polish countryside. Yet this initiative could not be separated from the primary issue of Polish independence. Its liquidation by Aleksander Wielopolski in 1861 sparked bloodshed on the streets of Warsaw, which certainly won new sympathisers for the idea of yet another national uprising.

The father, Adolf, was a doctor of economics and an innovator in his estate, while the mother was active in charitable societies, also ensuring that her offspring received a sound religious upbringing. This did not mean instilling in them a superficial, boorish Catholicism. Maria Bocheńska, a translator of the writings of St Teresa of Avila, treated issues of faith and religious practice seriously but with openness. As her daughter recalled many years later, priests from both of the local parishes—one Roman and one Greek Catholic—were always invited for Christmas Eve at the Ponikwa estate. This openness, it seems, underpinned the astonishing religious attitudes of her descendants.

Reared with these values, the Bocheńskis shared social and political interests, a sense of duty to their homeland, a drive to engage in public life, a love of knowledge, literary ambitions, faith and—at least as far as the men were concerned—a fascination with economics. Yet their ways of pursuing these passions were far from the same.

Aleksander Bocheński (1904-2001) Aleksander: a “committed collaborator”

Of all those mentioned above, Aleksander Bocheński was the most controversial, although it is another issue whether he would take the first prize among his siblings when it came to unconventional living. Born in 1904 in Czuszow, he grew up at the family estate in Ponikwa. Having obtained his baccalaureate in Lwow, he went on to study in Belgium, where he became an engineer and, in line with his training, subsequently took a post at the Ponikwa Industrial Plant. It was not his last encounter with industry, but at around the same time he found other, interconnected, spheres of interest to which he would thereafter remain faithful: politics, history and writing (mainly journalism and essays). His work in each of these areas had a peculiar, distinctive and consistent trait— he would continually embrace unpopular political options. First, before the war, he accepted Jerzy Giedroyc’s invitation to contribute to “Bunt Młodych”, later renamed “Polityka”. There he met people who shared his passion for imperial and pan-Slavic conceptions, within the framework of which he even proposed that Poland take part in the partitioning of the Soviet Union as an artificial entity, which, as he claimed, would lead to the emergence of Slavic nation states. It is worth recalling that a similar (in many ways) vision returned after the war in one Polish émigré hub, i.e. in the circle of Giedroyc’s “Kultura” on the outskirts of Paris.

But let’s get back to Aleksander Bocheński. During the “Bunt Młodych” period, his younger brother Adolf shared his political views, as did his brother Józef to a lesser degree. Their ways were soon to part for good, however. Aleksander fought in the September campaign and finished this phase of the war in an NKVD prison. After his release, he went to Krakow, where he became involved in underground activity, but not as part of what posterity typically reveres in the underground. He joined Adam Ronikier’s Main Welfare Council, a charitable organisation aiding the needy in the extremely tough conditions of German occupation. The Council nevertheless operated with the consent of the German authorities and was to some extent financially supported by them. This in itself was already reason enough to formulate charges of collaboration. Indeed, Bocheński had allegedly taken part in negotiations between some political circles in Krakow and the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. As Giedroyc wrote in his memoirs, Bocheński had even previously considered forming some kind of substitute government, dependent on the Germans but, insofar as possible, defending Polish interests.

His actions after the end of the war were seen as equally controversial. The pre-war advocate of “parcelling” the Soviet empire now agreed to cooperate with Poland’s new authorities. He began as one of the initiators of the PAX association, on whose board he sat for almost two decades. From the very beginning, this Catholic stronghold in communist Poland was perceived (both by the party apparatus and by most of the Polish émigré circles abroad) as a conformist enterprise allowing the communists to maintain the appearance of political pluralism. Bocheński didn’t mind. On the contrary, as a representative of PAX he became a deputy in parliament during the tempestuous period of 1947-1952. Nor did he hesitate to take the post of the head of the Okocim Brewery. He continued these forms of engagement, taking posts in different official political and cultural institutions for many years. At the same time, he published essays on Western historiography and translated European thinkers, often those in disrepute among Poland’s decision-makers and generally out of joint with the party’s “cultural policy,” for which he was severely criticised. It is interesting that he continued his intellectual pursuits within a kind of protective bubble, consistently working regardless of the circumstances.

His political career was crowned by a spectacular turn against the expectations and sympathies of the most politically active part of Polish society. When the fever of Solidarity took Polish hearts by storm, Bocheński stood up in support of General Jaruzelski and martial law, joining PRON (the Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth). He also did not hide the fact that he considered most of the activities of Solidarity, a symbol of Central European resistance and freedom, detrimental to the state. Nevertheless, it would be a great over-simplification to accuse him of a lack of political intuition or, even worse, of opportunism verging on treason. In his Autobiografia na cztery ręce (‘Autobiography for Four Hands’), Giedroyc calls Bocheński a “committed collaborator” and this is a very apt designation if we understand it as signifying someone who recognises the absolute priority of political pragmatism and cool assessment of the benefits to be realistically reaped for the nation within a given historical context.

The key to understanding Aleksander Bocheński’s attitude is his most well-known (though not necessarily best) book, Dzieje głupoty w Polsce (‘A History of Stupidity in Poland’), written during the war and published just after. Stefan Kisielewski, who had had a hand in its publication, called it “an apology of Targowica.” This description was not without sympathy—as the two gentlemen were friends—and was delivered with his typical irony. This résumé is perhaps far-fetched, but it gives a good overview of the main claims put forward in the book. The author adamantly rejects the quintessentially Polish emotional and romantic model of patriotism, which saw active resistance and laying down one’s life for the country as the supreme duty. He believed this way of thinking had made Poles start uprisings which were both tragic and irrational, given the enemy’s overwhelming advantage. Instead of building and developing the country, even in conditions of economic, academic and political captivity, we had sacrificed our best minds in battles that were doomed to be lost. He described spontaneous attempts to reclaim independence, mythologised in the collective consciousness of the Poles, as madness and wasted potential that could have been used much more constructively. At the same time, he spoke of a need to centralise and strengthen power and to combat anarchy in all its forms (this is precisely what he believed Solidarity to be), to channel society’s efforts into the economy and to conclude real, advantageous alliances, for example with a strong Russia. In his mind, the only admissible understanding of freedom meant the responsible use of legally defined civil liberties which could be curbed, if needed, to ensure the stability of the state.

It is hardly a surprise that his assessment of history found few supporters. When Bocheński died in 2001, the media reported the fact with some embarrassment. To this day he is condemned and deprecated by the public; he remains an unquestioned authority and role model only for a small circle of conservative thinkers.

Fr. Innocenty Maria OP (1902-1995) Józef: God’s fool

As already mentioned, the title of the most controversial of the Bocheński brothers was perhaps too hastily given to Aleksander. Józef Maria Bocheński, the oldest of the siblings, was an equally colourful figure. The future monk did not initially perceive God in a friendly manner—just the opposite, in fact. After obtaining his baccalaureate in 1920, he joined the legendary Józef Poniatowski Eighth Uhlan Regiment (considered the most “aristocratic” and famed for its courage and insubordination) in whose ranks he fought against the Bolsheviks. In his spare time (as we can infer from his memoirs) he devoted much attention to the fairer sex. His reflections on female attitudes to young men in uniform can, delicately speaking, be described as far from orthodox, even by today’s social standards. After the Polish-Soviet War of 1920 he still felt most at ease in high-born circles unruffled by conventional morality; he read political economics—a very modern subject, which stood in some contrast to his activity in youth organisations of a decidedly monarchist hue.

The great transformation came in 1926. Perhaps because, unlike his younger brother, Józef had supported the government in office during the May Coup and, after it was brought down, was disappointed with the situation in Poland. Or perhaps because of his friendship with Father Jacek Woroniecki, a Dominican, learned moralist, and descendant of a princely family. In spite of his proclaimed agnosticism, he enrolled at a theological seminary and began his novitiate with the Dominicans soon after. Taking the path of spiritual development, he did not neglect to develop his intellectual side. He studied philosophy and theology and finally devoted himself with a passion to the first. From the beginning, he was interested in contemporary analytical philosophy, grounded in mathematical logic, proof and argument. Of course this philosophical current stood in stark contrast to those dominant in church teaching. Bocheński thus had to make compromises. However, he remained true to his basic area of interest and, after many years, he had more freedom to practice analytical methods—although this did not earn him much sympathy in monastic circles. How could it be otherwise, since he considered all Christian philosophy, aimed at proving the truth of religious tenets, a superstition and a waste of time? He claimed that either you believe—and that reason and spirit should be separated because they serve different aims and are subject to different principles—or you don’t. He spent his mature and late years lecturing (for a number of years as rector of the Catholic University of Fribourg, Switzerland). There he was distanced, to a certain extent, from the centre of events at the Vatican, although on several occasions the Church entrusted him with important functions such as that of “Roman censor,” as mentioned by the already cited Kisielewski. As a censor, he added the magazine “Dziś & Jutro”, the press organ of PAX, co-edited by his brother, to the index of undesirable works... Yet more evidence that history has a rather devious sense of humour.

He thus subjected Christian philosophical conceptions to criticism, but he unleashed his powers of logic with even more vehemence to attack the “rotten eggs”. In his vocabulary that meant left-leaning intellectuals, particularly those involved with communist regimes. He also called leftist ideas based on Marxism-Leninism a superstition masquerading as religion, since they were founded upon dogmas and revelations and not on rationality and logic. He derived these conclusions from an in-depth analysis of the subject and earnt recognition as an excellent Sovietologist. He rejected Marxism’s main theses such as the belief in the unlimited power of science, constant and necessary social progress, viewing man as a central and absolute being, and unrestricted human freedom. Therefore, although he had some serious opponents within the Church, to the communists he was an arch-enemy and leftist intellectuals from communist circles had no positive feelings towards him. He presented his thoughts in accessible language in the booklet Sto zabobonów ('100 Superstitions'). It’s a pity that it still cannot be found in bookshops.

Józef Bocheński had a passion for life. Once retired, he travelled the world and got his pilot’s license at the age of 70. He bought an aeroplane and enjoyed aviation. He advised governments and acted as an expert in undertakings that called for tact and related to Vatican procedures, he was a guest lecturer at many universities. He visited Poland in 1987 but did not stay. He returned to Fribourg where he died in 1995.


[...] Finally, we must realise that disputes between our neighbours and us are not the only obstacle to a federation: other nations entering the grouping are in dispute with each other as well. Our neighbours to the North and to the East are in dispute with us. Our neighbours to the South are not in serious dispute with us, but with each other - very much so. If a federation is to have any chance to survival, Poland must come foreward with a broad conception for settlinf affairs of mixed countries and national minorities. If we do not come up with such a concetion, acceptable to all parties, we can say goodbye to a federation. How can we expect voluntaru cooperation between Romanians and Hungarians without a solutions of the questions of Transylvania, Hungarians and Slovaks, and Romanians and Ukrainians, not to mentions our own problems?

Adolf Bocheński, Political Difficulties of a Central European Federation, 1944

[in: Towards a United Europe. An Anthology of Twentieth Century Polish Thought on Europe, ed. S. Łukasiewicz, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland, 2011]

Adolf Bocheński (1909-1944) Adolf: a soldier with the Second Corps

The biography of Adolf Bocheński (b. 1909) is like a notebook in which the first pages are filled tightly with compact handwriting, and where the sentences suddenly drop off, leaving the following pages blank. A graduate of the Paris school for diplomats, he also obtained an MA in Law from Jan Kazimierz University in Lwow. In the 1930s, though still only a youth, he was considered a prominent conservative theorist. He took up difficult, alarming, almost explosive subjects. At the age of sixteen, he had written the tract Tendencje samobójcze narodu polskiego (‘The Suicidal Tendencies of the Polish Nation’), with some help from his brother Aleksander. He was an advocate of Ukrainian independence and peaceful relations between Poles and Ukrainians. He supported Piłsudski but still criticised the Sanacja government for getting involved in the intrigues of various coteries, circles, and interest groups at the expense of the state and society. Like Aleksander, he supported strong and decisive government, even if the authorities were to be unpopular. Here we see a certain common element in the two brothers’ visions: positing the need for a strong leader, a legal and moral authority, who would lead the Poles but, if need be, would force them to obey the law and respect order. But this is a foray into a different subject.

The youngest of the Bocheńskis had also fought the most: first in the September campaign, then in France, followed by Narvik, Tobruk, and Monte Cassino. Sparing himself in none of these places, he was known for his valour verging on bravado. Kisielewski claimed that he wanted to expunge his mistake: in the first paragraphs of his best known work Między Niemcami a Rosją (‘Between Germany & Russia’), published in 1937, he foretold that there would be no great war in Europe for the next 30 years. He was wrong. Was he trying to repent? Who knows. His luck abandoned him at Ancona, when he was disarming a mine. Melchior Wańkowicz described the event in his own words, matter-of-fact and yet emotional at the same time, in Zupa na gwoździu (‘Nail Soup’). Adolf Bocheński was killed at the age of 35. The oft-repeated question in Poland is what else would he have given us had he not taken such risks?

Olga Bocheńska-Zawadzka (1905-2008) Olga: devout & righteous

The only sister grew up in the house in Ponikwa. Afterwards, with her husband, she moved to her native Czuszow where she led a modest and private life. She formulated no contentious political, historiosophical or philosophical theories. A woman of faith, after the war she worked as a religion teacher; she also had her share in developing religion curricula and textbooks. She did not take an active part in ground-breaking events, nor did she wield any political power. Just an ordinary life—but for the lives she saved. During the war she sheltered Jews, risking her life and the lives of her family. Noe Livne, known as Ninka, was a little girl whom she saved from the Lwow ghetto. They lost touch after the war. Nina found her after 50 years. In 1992, Olga Zawadzka (after her husband) was honoured by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations. As a religion teacher, she received a distinction from Pope John Paul II. President Lech Kaczyński honoured her for courageously bearing testimony to the highest human values during inhuman times. She was the last of the siblings to die, in 2008.


Author: Agnieszka Niemojewska

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”