Elżbieta Matynia (left) and Jeff Goldfarb, in Lazienki, Poland, 1980. Image courtesy of Elzbieta Matynia

Claire Potter: Elzbieta, let’s begin with when you met Jeff Goldfarb. 

Elzbieta Matynia: Jeff and Naomi Goldfarb came to Poland in 1973—Jeff was on an IREX fellowship, and Naomi attended some studio classes at the Academy of Arts. I had just begun my graduate studies. But we were both interested in the same things – in this new, exciting dimension of social life that was opening up to a younger generation in the early 70s.

Something that made me and my friends think we could do something political–though indirectly–was participating in what was then called the Young Culture Movement. Centered around universities and somehow permitted by a regime that thought this was wise policy, officials believed that students and young university instructors would outgrow it. So meanwhile, let them play in the sandbox for a while till they graduate. 

The Communist regime still remembered the 1968 student protest movement for free speech and how its violent suppression did not work well for the regime’s image. Well, they didn’t know that this sandbox–its extraordinary experimental theater movement, jazz jamborees, visual art production, street happenings–was the emergence of a vibrant if embryonic public sphere. It was soon joined by the more daring clandestine publishing, “flying university” lectures, concerts of protests songs in private apartments.

It was all that, and the young theater movement, that both Jeff and I were interested in. He was fascinated by the way private voices could appear in semi-public spaces and become social ones. Eventually, he saw how this contributed to a gradual loosening of the constraints of the system. And how it initiated people like me into democratic thinking — in fact, a whole generation of what was then called in Poland the young intelligentsia.

We were the lucky beneficiaries of five or so years of a political softening of the system. The government was about to sign the Helsinki Accords, which included a provision on human rights. The Communist Party, with a new First Party Secretary, badly needed financial support from the West and was trying to create a good image abroad. So we were lucky indeed, and in this context, Jeff was able to conduct his fascinating research on independent student theater.

CP: And maybe also because the government didn’t take those activities seriously.

EM: Until the emergence of an entire clandestine publishing movement, the regime thought it had matters under control. Student organizations were indeed allowed to do certain things: theater performances, discussion film clubs, anything that was spoken, but nothing in print. The theory was: “Well, it will go away. Spring will come, and it will go away. They will graduate, and it will go away. They will get jobs, so let them play a little bit.”

And that was the cultural policy at the time Jeff came to Poland. I don’t think he’d come to study what he ended up studying – theater — but he had had a good advisor. As an undergraduate at SUNY-Albany, he had a sociology teacher who had a considerable impact on him. Alicja Iwanska was a war-time Polish émigré, a writer who had come here from London. She was well aware that something rather extraordinary was happening in Poland. So when Jeff went to do his doctoral studies at the University of Chicago, she said: “You have to go to Poland. You have to go to Poland.” 

EM: We met by chance. Jeff had a car, and I did not know any university students or young academics who had a car. I was told there was an American who also planned to go to Lodz for a theater festival, an event that was comparable to our Woodstock. Jeff had a SEAT, which was a Fiat produced in Spain. We packed a lot of people into that car, I don’t know how, but we made it to the festival.

And I think that was when Jeff decided that what he wanted to focus on was this extraordinary form of political resistance through theater. He wanted to focus on thinking and “living in truth” on the margins of the official sphere, where nothing that smelled of politics was allowed. Mind you: Poland was a so-called People’s Democracy, and we had elections, but there was only one Party.

I was interested in all that too, so Jeff and I became very close. And as Jeff had spent some time earlier studying Polish, and I didn’t speak any English, he had no choice but to practice his Polish on me. I was an insider and didn’t realize that someone from the outside could see something that we didn’t, but he did. All of us from that so-called “young Intelligentsia” loved what we saw as an independent culture. We cherished it. We lived through it. But we didn’t see it as a structure. It was our life. It was how we survived.

But the question which had not occurred to us, not yet anyway, was: could one actually write about it? Well, Jeff did. I remember being really sorry that I did not know any English to speak of because I couldn’t read Jeff’s first book, The Persistence of Freedom: The Sociological Implications of Polish Student Theater (1979). 

CP: So Jeff’s dissertation became The Persistence of Freedom?

EM: Yes, and it argued that expressive culture could open up critical spaces for political thinking, that under conditions of unfreedom, cultural spaces offer an experience of freedom, stand for the promise of freedom, and thus become spaces of resistance. 

Jeff invested a whole year in Poland. There weren’t so many foreigners there. For us, travel was limited. We were so locked out of the world that it was an amazing gift for all of us if somebody came. 

A few years later, when Jeff was already teaching at The New School, he came again, and I invited my colleagues and professors over. We were sitting in my cramped apartment, and our questions were not “What’s going on in America?” but: “What’s going on in American sociology?” And if somebody came and brought a sociology book, that was a big deal. 

At that point, things were beginning to move politically: workers were protesting and being badly beaten and imprisoned, and new structures of civic self-defense were emerging, like the Committee for Workers’ Defense (KOR) and other organizations, which western sociologists who came to see us began calling “civil society.”

Jeff maintained his very close contact with Poland while working on his second book.  On Cultural Freedom: An Exploration of Public Life in Poland and America (1982) and The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times (2006) are like bookends around the library of seven books Jeff has written. All of his books are very much inspired, I think, by the massive impact of Poland on Jeff and his experience with a society that was just so completely different.

The fact that Jeff came to Poland at all – given that for the Jews of the world, Poland is a graveyard because of the German Nazi concentration camps–is essential to appreciate when you read The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life (1991). It is a book that Polish scholars like very much because it is about despair. It’s about social crises that lead to despair and a giving up of responsibility. I think Jeff kept in mind how his friends in Poland, although in desperate situations, were trying everything, no matter how difficult it was, not to give up responsibility for what had happened. 

CP: We have talked about how influential Jeff’s work has been to Poland–how did Poland change Jeff?

EM: I think one thing that changed him was seeing how, even in the most limited circumstances, even with full-fledged censorship, one could be creative. Everything performed in public, even in student theater, had to go through the censors. So, how can you actually talk about things in a way that is never direct because you cannot be direct

But that is all the more powerful because it mobilizes others to think with you about it and to find other ways to survive with the help of imagination. After all, you invite people to a performance, something imaginary, something fictional, but more illuminating than the reality around you.  

And this young theater made demands on its audience: these were conceptual art productions, their language was experimental, the dynamics of their body movement were breathtaking, the texts were hardly linear, and the challenge was how to say things that you cannot say without resorting to pantomime or ballet. And how to outsmart the censor? I think Jeff saw how much that made possible when other things were not possible. And that democracy involves people coming together and deliberating in a civil way — despite their differences — to produce fresh political alternatives.

CP: And this takes us back to Jeff’s affinity for the gray spaces in the world, where many things can be true at the same time. When he was a graduate student, the Cold War culture that we had in the United States, in which American democracy was supposed to be the opposite of Eastern European Communism. That was mainly taken for granted. But what Jeff learned when he went to Poland was that you could actually have communism and nurture democracy in the same political space. 

This also helps to clarify why, after 1989, some countries were actually able to establish real democracy, and some countries never have.

EM: That was perhaps the most significant incorrect assumption: that all of the Eastern Bloc was this one solid rock. 

CP: So let’s skip ahead to the founding of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS)–was Jeff involved in the project from the beginning? 

EM: Yes, Jeff’s previous work, especially the Democracy Seminar, provided direct inspiration for the project. It all began with Adam Michnik, historian, writer, and a key political dissident in Poland, receiving an honorary degree from The NewSchool while he was in prison. Since he could not receive it personally, Czesław Miłosz, the Nobel Prize Winner in Literature in 1980 and a friend of Michnik, came to accept the award. 

Two years later, when Michnik was briefly out of prison, New School University President Jonathan Fanton and two members of the Board of Trustees went with Jeff to Warsaw. Poland was in a state of emergency and under martial law. Adam had prepared a lecture and was to give his talk in the private apartment of a respected pre-war Polish socialist and professor of economics. Fanton described it as book-lined, with beautiful artwork on the walls. A lot of people were invited, and American television came from several stations. 

The Polish government turned off the power in that whole section of Warsaw. But NBC Television had an excellent generator. So I know there was a lecture, and I know there was a party afterward. And that’s when Adam asked Jeff: And now what should we do? 

And that’s when the idea for the Democracy Seminars came up: a way for independently-minded thinkers of the region to share ideas about the prospects for democracy with their American colleagues. The Polish meetings took place on a semi-clandestine basis in private homes, with coordination from The New School.

One of the first things we discussed was that many important books were never translated into Polish or other languages. So, with a tiny grant of maybe a few hundred dollars, The New School made possible a translation of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) into Polish. It was printed and distributed through underground channels, carried by students in their backpacks. In the meantime, letters were carried back and forth by trusted people. 

CP: So, you had all these couriers running around between New York and Warsaw with letters and money?

EM: Usually, when Americans went over, not necessarily Poles. The Poles had a much harder time coming, although, by the mid-1980s, things loosened up. I gave my first letter to Poland to a 60 Minutes crew in 1981. They needed contacts: I gave them contacts, and they took the letter. Good stuff!

That’s how we did things. There were no faxes. Phones in Poland didn’t work. They had turned the phones off as part of their State of Emergency. So communicating was a complicated and cumbersome process. Still, it created a sense of trust and understanding that we cared about the same things though we were in different parts of the world. The seminar was then joined by a group of dissidents in Budapest. Soon, we had friends all over Eastern Europe who trusted us.

CP: And so Jeff was integral to that network?    

 EM: Absolutely. Jeff was absolutely integral to the network. Then, after the fall of communism in 1989, the network expanded and could operate more openly. This was when the Ford Foundation gave a grant to the New School to establish the East and Central Europe Program, which later became the expanding Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. And we all began to learn from each other.

Jeff had been instrumental in bringing those issues to the New School, and many things emerged out of it. We established those summer institutes in Krakow and later Wroclaw, where Jeff taught every year. We had a similar initiative in South Africa, where Jeff remained part of our core faculty.  

There was a period when Jeff’s interest in Democracy was very close to his interest in media. He developed an exciting set of courses on the role of media in democracy. He invited young South African academics to co-teach with him. In fact, Jeff nurtured a whole generation of South African media actors, writers, and scholars.

CP: So these stories highlight the fact that Jeff has been changed by the people he meets. He figures out what they’re interested in, why they are interested in it, and why it matters, and then he explores it. That’s very different from some scholars who have a particular agenda that they play out over time. 

But what is the quality in Jeff that caused Polish people to trust him in those early days? 

EM: It was the fact that, instead of going to study in Germany, France, or England… or you know, the Netherlands for that matter, he decided to go to this repressed, uninteresting, and very poor place. And he was really into it. He really wanted to understand things that were not on the surface.

I remember spending an evening talking to many people and trying to explain to Jeff a certain idiomatic Polish phrase. Poles have idioms that are so culturally crucial, and one of them is “Coffee on the bench.” In this very old way, you know, “put your coffee on the bench,” which really means “be honest.”. I think it came from the 17th century when coffee was very expensive, and people were hiding it under the mattress, so to speak.  

Jeff was always facing that “be honest” thing. I just remember that. And he was always trying to understand the place and the people. He went to those performances and was moved and shocked, and inspired. He got it! And people saw this. I think Jeff was not your typical American, visiting here for a week, there for a week. He stayed for a year, learned his Polish, and returned many times.

That connection has never expired, and people he met then still remember him. And, of course, now he has a whole new generation of scholars and students around him. Our movement in Poland was based on this sharing of humanity at the deepest level. It was based on a concern for others, and Jeff became a part of it. People thought of him as a gift, but they also gifted themselves to him. 

Elzbieta Matynia is a Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and Director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).