The life of Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017), a sociologist and public intellectual who personally confronted and repeatedly surmounted some of the most convulsive forces of the 20th century, including war, nationalism, racism, and forced migration, is the all-too-timely subject of Izabela Wagner’s big, new, expertly researched book, Bauman: A Biography, which has just been published by Polity Press.
For all of the obstacles and injustices Bauman faced during his long, complex life as a Jew in Poland, the Soviet Union, Israel, and England, there are lessons — about resilience, ingenuity, courage, and an unsinkable will to survive — to be gleaned from his story.
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Wagner, herself a Polish-born sociologist with strains of Jewish ancestry, also has a background in music — in eurhythmics, or the teaching music through movement pioneered by the Swiss composer-educator Émile Jacques-Dalcroze. After leaving Poland, she earned a doctorate in sociology in France, where she also became a French citizen. Today, she is a dual national affiliated with universities and research centers in Poland and France.
“I am not a Baumanist,” Wagner recently observed by e-mail, writing from her home in Italy, where she has been sitting out the pandemic crisis.
Noting that her new biography developed out of an earlier interest in the careers of sociologists, she explained, “I never worked with Bauman’s approach [to sociology]; I’m a field worker. I’m fascinated with his life — there are such controversies surrounding it — and with his generation’s experiences. When people change countries and the language in which they work, it can be very difficult to become successful in a new place, but Bauman managed it amazingly well.”
Toward the end of his long career, she pointed out, her subject was “like a rock star” in such countries as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, and Argentina. She first interviewed Bauman in person in England, in 2013; her biography evolved out of that encounter.
Wagner begins Bauman’s story with a reminder that the Treaty of Versailles of 1918, the most important accord leading to the end of World War I, re-established Poland as an independent, multi-ethnic nation following a long period of dominance by neighboring powers. By the time Zygmunt was born in Poznań, in western Poland, in 1925, Italians were cheering on Mussolini, and anti-Jewish bigotry among Poles was omnipresent.
Never mind, Wagner writes in the book, that “Jews had lived on Polish soil for over 1000 years [where] the majority considered them ‘outsiders,’ ‘others’ — less than full members of Polish society.” In the aftermath of the “Great War,” mobs in Catholic-majority Poland carried out pogroms in towns with prosperous Jewish populations.
Bauman’s father, Maurycy, had operated textile stores but was ill-suited for business; as “a book lover and a dreamer,” Wagner writes, he later worked as an accountant, playing down his past as a capitalist merchant after Communists took over Poland. Zygmunt’s mother, Zofia, who came from a bourgeois Jewish family that owned a construction business, was gregarious; her pluck and resourcefulness would play a large role in the Baumans’ survival. (Maurycy amd Zofia had a daughter, too.)
In elementary school, Zygmunt’s classmates bullied him. Later he recalled that he never took part in sports, because “they would kick me instead of the ball […] not just because I was a fat boy, but because I was a Jew.” Intellectually gifted, he passed tough exams to win a place in a gymnasium, or high school for future professionals and academics. There, he and other Jewish students occupied their classroom’s “ghetto bench.” Despite deserving top scores for his schoolwork, a teacher told him, “[Y]ou understand very well that, with your origin, it is impossible. You cannot be the best in the class. This place is reserved for a Polish kid.”
Wagner explains that, throughout his life, Bauman’s sense of personal identity as a Polish citizen was undermined by his “master status” as a Jew. This term, coined in the 1940s by the American sociologist Everett Hughes, refers to the primary identifying characteristic, with strong allusions to race, imposed on an individual by society, indelibly determining how he or she will be viewed and treated.
Adolf Hitler’s troops invaded Poland in September 1939, igniting World War II and launching the Nazis’ campaign to “Germanize” the Poles. They were vicious, killing teachers, Catholic priests, and other presumed Polish resisters. They deported thousands of others to concentration camps in Germany. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “It is estimated that the Germans killed between 1.8 and 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II [and] murdered at least three million Jewish citizens of Poland.”
Responding to Hitler, Soviet military forces moved into Polish territory from the west. As Wagner writes, “With no puppet government, and most Polish leaders fleeing to London [to set up a government-in-exile], the Soviets and Germans simply enlarged their territories, making Poland disappear from the map of Europe.”
The Baumans made their way west, by train and on foot, trading their few portable possessions for food or shelter. Their risky, clandestine effort to enter Soviet-occupied western Poland was almost botched when Zofia insisted on going alone to speak with a German officer in a border town about travel permits; years later, Zygmunt recalled, “My mother’s beauty was always Slavic rather than Jewish.” Apparently, she successfully employed her charms, for when the Baumans miraculously reunited in the Soviet zone, they were able to continue trekking west.
Over a relatively short period of time, they first settled in what is now Belarus, then moved deeper within the Soviet Union, where Zygmunt perfected his Russian, finished high school, educated himself at the university level, and worked in a lumberjack settlement before heading to Moscow. There, he hoped to join Polish forces fighting on the eastern front in the Soviet Union’s “Great Patriotic War” against the Germans, which began in June 1941. Instead, he ended up as a militiaman directing traffic in the Soviet capital.
Eventually, though, Bauman fought with Poles within the Red Army, made his way back to Poland, and became an officer administering political training. Following the war and his homeland’s entry into the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc, he became an officer in the KBW, Poland’s secret service, a tenure that would later come back to provoke controversy. A believer in Communism’s potential to create a just society, Bauman never gave up his socialist idealism.
However, in 1953, Bauman was dismissed from the KBW after his father, a Zionist, contacted the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw to inquire about immigrating to the new Jewish state. Zygmunt landed on his feet, becoming a student and later a pioneering teacher in the field of sociology at the University of Warsaw, only to be forced out of the school — and Poland — in 1968 in the Communist regime’s crackdown on freedom-of-speech student protesters. The government’s purge expelled some 13,000 Poles of Jewish ancestry from the country and stripped them of their citizenship, including Bauman, his wife, and their daughters.
The Baumans traveled to Israel, then to the United Kingdom, where Zygmunt spent the rest of his career in the sociology department at the University of Leeds, now teaching and writing in English, and earning attention for such books as Modernity and the Holocaust (1989) and Liquid Modernity (2000), in which, as a way of avoiding conventional critiques of so-called postmodernity, he coined the term “liquid” to refer to the interconnectedness and unpredictability of contemporary social, cultural, technological, economic, and political forces. Such late-career theorizing made him something of a guru for anti-establishment crusaders, however fuzzy it sounded.
Wagner points out that her book offers a record of her subject’s life, not an analysis of his copious — and verbose — writings and musings (Bauman sorely needed some good editors). Wagner notes that, during his Poland years, Bauman often had served as a conduit, making foreign ideas accessible to Eastern Bloc intellectuals at a time when Western thinking was off-limits in the Communist world, and that, in general, he was not an original-data-collecting, hands-on-ethnographer type of sociologist. (“I am an old wolf and I work alone,” he told Wagner in 2013.)
In Poland, he had been interested in the character of the governing elite, a research topic he really could not pursue. After all, in a world in which Marxism had a determinist, doctrinaire answer for everything, who needed “experts” specializing in analyzing society anyway.
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Ultimately, Wagner notes, Bauman’s “communist engagement” did not allow him to “los[e] the stigma of being Jewish.” Still, he always knew what he was up against. In an unpublished history of his family that he wrote in the 1980s, Bauman observed:
The Poles did little to endear themselves to the people they refused to admit into their tribe. […] Yet if I did what they wanted me to do, I would confirm the very principle of tribalism, the tribal right to reject and to persecute… […] And who is more obliged to challenge the principle of tribalism and hatred than I — a Jew and a Pole?
Bauman: A Biography by Izabela Wagner is published by Polity Press.