A Note on the History of Psychoanalysis in Poland
by Pawel Dybel
September 7, 2000
This note sketches the history of psychoanalysis in Poland from its beginnings at the turn of the century, through the periods of Nazi and Communist domination, to 2000.
The basis for this article was a keynote address given at the International Conference on Literature and Psychology in Bialystok, Poland, 6-10 July 2000. To give the participants of the conference some information about the Polish psychoanalytic tradition of interpreting literary works, I briefly outlined the history of Polish psychoanalysis.1
Some will be surprised to learn that at the beginning of the twentieth century in Poland, or, strictly speaking, in the territories of Poland which at that time were the part of Russia, Germany and Austria, there were many physicians and psychiatrists who had been deeply influenced by psychoanalytic ideas and practiced psychoanalysis as a form of therapy. There were first of all Polish Jews, many of them assimilated and preserving a Polish-Jewish identity, who were the first messengers of psychoanalysis in the country. Paul Roazen in his monograph on Helene Deutsch called this country, using her own words, "the middle of the world," the country whose non-existence, repression from the surface of Europe's maps did not mean that it--like the Freudian unconscious--did not exist at all.
It was, then, in this non-existent country that such renowned psychoanalysts as Hermann Nunberg, Ludwig Jekels, Ludwika Karpinska, and Beate Rank began to practice the new therapeutic method proposed by Freud. They published their first psychoanalytical articles in Polish, presented their first lectures in Polish, and translated Freud into Polish. Frequently, they participated at the psychiatric conferences in Warsaw and Cracow where they outlined the main assumptions of Freud`s theory. What is interesting is that others, who left Poland in their early years, as for example Helene Deutsch, Eugenia Sokolnicka and Hanna Segal, preserved their Polish identity all their lives. It is worth noting that one of the first articles on Freud`s Interpretation of Dreams appeared in the Polish periodical Neurologia Polska (Polish Neurology) in 1912, at a time when this book was almost unknown in Europe and in the United States. Written by Franciszka Baumgarten, it amounted to an unprecedented fifty pages and contained very interesting observations on dreams of the author's patients in the Jewish hospital in Warsaw.
The most famous psychoanalyst in Poland in the period between the two world wars was Gustaw Bychowski, the son of the well-known Warsaw psychiatrist. In 1939, he emigrated to the United States, where he later made his career in the study of psychoses. Bychowski was also popular in Polish artistic and literary circles, and he lectured regularly in Warsaw and in Cracow on the psychoanalytical theory of art. In 1933 he published a book on the poetry of the Polish romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki, Slowacki i jego dusza (Slowacki and his Psyche). He advanced in it the thesis that the driving force behind Slowacki`s poetry was his repressed incestuous wishes poet towards his mother. You can imagine the shock and indignation this book aroused among respectable university professors at the time. Bychowski was accused of a hideous attempt to denigrate the high spiritual and moral values of Slowacki`s poetry by reducing it to primitive instincts. Today his book is considered a classic. It represents the first significant example in Poland of the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature.
It is worth mentioning that psychoanalysis was very popular within literary circles in prewar Poland. Among others, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, whose work belongs today to world literature, was deeply fascinated with Freudian ideas and even underwent analysis. Psychoanalysis was not foreign either to two other well known Polish writers, Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowski. I would also add to this list such names as Choromanski, Nalkowska, Micinski, all first-rank authors of Polish literature in the pre-World-War II period.
During World War II, with few exceptions, Polish analysts were murdered by the Nazis in ghettos and concentration camps. All their documents, case histories, and memoirs were burnt or destroyed during the ghetto uprising in Warsaw. Nothing was left. Ironically, those analysts who miraculously survived were not allowed to continue their private practice or scholarly work at the state universities, hospitals and clinics. They were forced by the Communist authorities either to abandon their jobs or to perform self-criticism and follow in their theory and praxis the model of Pavlovian psychology. Clearly Stalin's strategy was to annihilate any independent intellectual tradition in Poland while subordinating science, literature, and art to the ideological paradigms of Soviet Communism. In this respect, Stalin simply followed Hitler and brought to an end what the latter did not have time to fulfill. The result was that after the last surviving analysts died in the late 1940s, in the fifties nobody practised psychoanalysis in Poland. By contrast, in Czechoslovakia or Hungary, there were still some analysts who continued practicing underground.
The rebirth of psychoanalysis in Poland began in the 1960s when, through contacts with Czech and Hungarian colleagues, some Polish psychiatrists, such as Jan Malewski, Zbigniew Sokolik, and Jerzy Lapinski, underwent analysis in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In the seventies, those who learned analysis abroad became greater in number because of the liberal passport policy of the Communist authorities in Poland at that time. However, when they came back to Poland, they could teach and practice this type of therapy only in the underground.
It was only after the end of Communist rule in 1989 that new perspectives in the development of a psychoanalytic movement in Poland were opened. The Solidarity movement achieved the political turn in the 1980s and 1990s that allows us to meet in Bialystok and here inaugurate the first International Conference on Psychoanalysis and Literature held in Poland.
1 More detailed information about the history of psychoanalysis in Poland can be found in Pawel Dybel, "Unterbrochene Wege. Die Geschichte der Psychoanalyse in Polen," Psyche 11 (1999): 1160-1187. Return to main text
Received: August 6, 2000, Published: September 7, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Pawel Dybel