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Zygmunt Wacław Michał Zaleski, family arms Lubicz, was born on 29 September 1882 in Klonowiec Koracz in the Mazovian Voivodeship to a landed gentry family. He was a literary historian, critic, poet, publicist and writer, diplomat, professor of the University of Warsaw, and holder of honorary doctorates from the Universities of Montpellier and Lille. He was professionally, politically and politically active in both Poland and France. Married to Maria Gozdawa-Zdziarska, he had four children: Andrzej, Kazimierz, Roman, and Monika.

He showed great interest in literature and a passion for music, especially for the piano, which he played expertly. Persuaded by his father, he reluctantly enrolled as a student of the Polytechnic Institute in Warsaw, but soon decided to transfer to the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. During his university years, he was a member of ‘Zet’ (Association of the Polish Youth), the Grammar School Commission, and the Association for the Renationalisation of Schools. He believed that the struggle for Polish schooling and language - during the Tsarist Russian occupation of eastern Poland, Russian was the obligatory school language - was the key to the preservation of national identity.

As an active member of the underground movement for independence, he was arrested by the tsarist authorities and imprisoned in the 10th Pavilion of the Citadel prison in Warsaw, reserved for political prisoners.

After he was released in 1905, together with his friend, Jan Purwin, he went abroad to study, first in Berlin and then in Munich and Paris, where he enrolled to study philosophy. Three years later, he returned to Poland to teach Polish literature in schools in Warsaw. Since his activity risked his imprisonment by the tsarist administration, in 1910 Zaleski left the country again and went to Munich. After a short stay in the capital of Bavaria, in December of the same year he travelled to Paris to enrol at the École des Hautes Études Sociales. His graduation thesis was entitled La lutte pour l’école polonaise (The Fight for Polish Schools).

In 1914–1916, he was a lecturer of Polish at the École des Hautes Études Sociales, and in 1916–1922 he taught Polish at the École des Langues Orientales et Vivantes and at the L'Institut d'Études Slaves at the Sorbonne. In 1918–1919, he wrote articles for the periodical Armia Polska we Francji (The Polish Army in France).

His most important work published before the First World War was Dzieło i twórca (The Work and the Creator) – a collection of literary sketches, reviews, and theoretical essays. In 1916, he was elected the president of the Society of Polish Artists in Paris. Before Poland regained independence, Zygmunt Zaleski was actively engaged in the political activities in Paris that supported the Polish cause: he worked with Ignacy Paderewski and Roman Dmowski; in 1917 he joined the Polish National Committee; he managed the Press Bureau of the Polish Delegation to the Peace Conference at Versailles; he worked for the Commission for Welfare of the Polish Office for Civil Affairs in France; and he contributed to the organisation of the Polish Army in France. He co-organised secondary school graduation exams for Polish soldiers. At the same time, he believed that to win a strong position in Europe for Poland, it was necessary to convince the French of the significance of his country by teaching Polish language and culture in France. Most of his active life in France was dedicated to the achievement of this goal.

In 1924, the new independent Polish government appointed him the official delegate of the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Education.

The challenges of the vast range of his activities in Paris led to Zaleski’s perception as a ‘one-man institution’ in France. He managed to launch a network of 10 university language courses, effectively promoting Polish language and culture. At the same time, he wrote numerous books and articles on the history of literature and elaborated on political affairs that were of significance for the future of Poland.

In the interwar period, he was a member of the Local Committee of the Polish Library in Paris, cooperating in this role with Marie Skłodowska-Curie, who was vice-president of the committee. He was also one of directors of the Centre for Polish Civilisation at the Polish Library in Paris, editor-in-chief of the Warsaw periodical Życie Sztuk (Life of the Arts), and professor of literature at Warsaw University.

He sent numerous articles from Paris to Poland, to be published by Przegląd Narodowy (National Review), Gazeta Warszawska (Warsaw Gazette), and Głos Warszawski (Voice of Warsaw). In 1921–1939, his texts were also published on a regular basis by Kurier Warszawski (Warsaw Courier), as well as the French Mercure de France.

France recognised the achievements of Professor Zaleski in the field of cultural and scientific cooperation with Poland: he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour (Légion d’Honneur), and several years later, promoted to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour. The latter ceremony was attended by Mr Raymond Poincaré, the former President of France.

When the Second World War started, Zaleski was in Warsaw. In the winter of 1940, summoned by the Polish government in France, together with his eldest son, Andrzej, he traveled on foot to Slovakia, then Hungary, and finally to France.

After the French surrendered in June 1940, Zaleski was elected chairman of the Polish Red Cross in France, which, under the pressure from the authorities of Vichy France, was renamed Groupement d’Aide aux Polonais (GAP), or Welfare Society for Poles in France. Among those who managed the organisation were three former Polish ministers, and the society cooperated closely with the Polish resistance movement in France. His activity of the time is perhaps best  illustrated by the words of Zygmunt Lubicz-Zaleski himself in 1961, which were published in May 1968 in Orzeł Biały (White Eagle): ‘I remember quite well a discussion we had at the time among supporters of unconditional separation of the two types of activity: the official one by the Polish Red Cross, and the clandestine one by  the secret organisations. Personally, I supported the separation of these roles; at the same time, however, I opted for strong internal cooperation, assuming the priority of an unceasing struggle against the enemy over the social tasks of the Polish Red Cross. A very definite – although, perhaps, somewhat unfortunate – illustration of this subordination of social actions of the Red Cross to conspiracy tasks was the fact that the then-president of the Red Cross was appointed as a liaison who was responsible for transferring money and correspondence from our post in Lisbon (Colonel Jan Kowalewski) to posts in Grenoble. This double activity lasted until the day of my arrest: 19 March 1943.’

He also organised the Cyprian Norwid Secondary School in Villard-de-Lans – the only Polish high school operating legally in occupied Europe – and became its principal. As a result of his activity in the resistance movement, on 19 March 1943 he was arrested. After painful interrogation conducted by the Gestapo in Paris, he was sent to the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald, where he remained  until liberation in April 1945.

In May 1945, Zaleski returned to his empty apartment at rue Boissière in Paris. Physically exhausted by two years of harsh camp conditions, he nevertheless continued to develop his social and patriotic activity thanks to his moral strength:

- He took care of the Polish youth who were forced to emigrate for political reasons.

He was highly trusted the French authorities:  his signature confirming a positive result for a secondary school exam was sufficient to guarantee university enrolment for a Polish emigré.

- He supported Polish secondary schools for political emigrants in La Courtine and later in Les Ageux.

He was co-founder of the Polish Association of Former Deportees and Political Prisoners in France. Until his death, he remained president of the association, which later co-founded the Free International Federation of Deportees and Resistance Internees (FILDIR), of which Professor Zaleski became vice-president. Thanks to his efforts, Polish deportees who became political emigrants in France received direct compensation payments from the German government, after they had been ignored by both the Polish and French governments responsible for distributing this compensation .

Although he struggled with enormous financial problems himself, Zaleski refused to engage in any relations with the communist government in Poland imposed by the Soviets. Together with Franciszek Pułaski, in 1946 he reactivated the Society of History and Literature, a 100-year-old organisation that managed the Polish Library in France, which thus became a centre of culture and thought free of communist influence. Zaleski remained the general secretary of the Society of History and Literature in Paris until his death.

Because of his Buchenwald experiences, Zaleski committed himself ardently to the project of a united Europe, recognising the need for reconciliation and peace; in his publications and speeches before French audiences, he rejected the idea of revenge and humiliation of the defeated enemy. Apart from his political and social activity, he fought to promote Polish language and culture, conducted his own research, and kept writing; he also became an associate member of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences. 

He was a real Renaissance man – a man of many skills and talents, an open-minded man, a man of action. He published hundreds of articles, studies, and essays on Polish, French and European culture, translated dozens of books by French authors, and gave numerous lectures and talks. His literary works include a rich collection of poems.

France honoured Zaleski for his heroism in the resistance movement, for his strength during the brutal interrogations by the Gestapo, and for his resistance and activity in Buchenwald by awarding him some of the country’s highest decorations:

  • The Commander's Cross of the Legion of Honour, awarded by President Réné Coty on 5 December 1957.
  • The Commander with Star (Grand Officier), awarded by President Charles de Gaulle on 31 July 1959.

Zaleski partially documented his life – his sacrifice, creative, organisational and scientific work, teaching, and war experiences – in his Dziennik nieciągły (Non-Continuous Diary) (1904–1925) and Pamiętnik od Grotowic do Buchenwaldu (Diary from Grotowice to Buchenwald) (1939–1945), published in 1998.

He died on 15 December 1967 in Paris.

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