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from the June 2018 issue

From “Foucault in Warsaw”

In this excerpt from his literary nonfiction debut, Remigiusz Ryziński looks back on the French philosopher-provocateur's 1950s stint in Poland, which drew the attention of the secret police. 

Urban Legend

Michel Foucault came to Warsaw in October 1958.

He took a position as the first director of the newly founded French Cultural Center at Warsaw University.

It was in Warsaw that he finished his doctoral thesis, later published as A History of Madness.

Yet in mid-1959, he was forced to leave Poland.

The reason was a certain boy.


To this day, no one knows who this boy was.

*          *          * 

The Boys


Waldek put on his best pants, brushed his hair, rubbed some of his father's aftershave on his cheeks, and left the house. It took him and the boys nearly an hour to drive from Saska Kępa, on Warsaw’s right bank, to Okęcie airport. It was evening—warm, because it was summer.

Foucault was waiting in the arrivals hall, back from a short trip to France. Waldek smiled and held out his hand.

He wanted very much to go to France. And here was his chance: a man who came from there!

Waldek was nineteen and looked like a kid. He was just discovering the city and himself—but it was happening so fast, like an avalanche.

He was going to the cafés. He had a lover—Stefan—and a few close friends.

That summer evening, Waldek, Stefan, Jurek, and Mirek went to Okęcie. Later, they were joined by Henryk, whom they called “the Countess.” They went from the airport back to the city center, straight to Rutkowski Street. They threw a party. Wine, vodka, and some snacks to go with it.

This was their group: Foucault; the host, Waldek, with Stefan; Mirek, who was in love with Stefan; and Jurek, single and always in high spirits, the real soul of the gathering. And Henryk too, though he acted mainly as translator. All he wanted was to look at and spend time with young men, that was enough to keep him happy.

Waldek and Michel gazed at each other and exchanged a few words.

Nothing took place.

Waldek’s lover, Stefan, was the obstacle. So was the lack of a common language and Waldek’s modesty.

Some time had to pass before finally, one balmy night, Waldek spent the night at Foucault’s.

That was how it happened.

Like an avalanche.



On April 21, 1962, secret police agent Henryk Terakowski knocked on the door of Waldek’s apartment in Saska Kępa. This operation had been carefully planned. From previous intelligence, he already knew that Waldemar Ś. had: Polish ethnicity and citizenship, an engineering degree, and a working-class social background. On his documents, under “current social position,” was written intelligentsia. For “Party membership”: non-Party. Beyond that: a bachelor, no criminal record, no previous work with other intelligence organs. Terakowski had a photograph of Waldek and a description: boyish looks, a naive expression, auburn hair brushed to the side, an oval face, short stature. There were two options for the terms of recruitment: voluntary and forced. In Waldemar’s case it read: voluntary.

The agent knew Waldek was homosexual. On that basis he had selected him as a possible lure in a case he was conducting on a Frenchman, codenamed “Patek.”

He did not yet know that he had uncovered a much more valuable source.

The Report on Foucault

Before Waldek was introduced in detail to the “Patek” case for which he had been recruited, Terakowski requested he give precise and comprehensive information on persons known to him, particularly homosexuals. He told Waldek to make special note of foreigners.

A few days later, Waldek gave Terakowski a memorandum he had prepared. He wanted to have something to show, he wanted them to leave him alone and in peace, so he considered this first batch of information particularly important. He therefore cast his memory back to 1959 and described the only foreigner he knew at that time: Michel Foucault.

“Probably in the summer of 1959, I learned my friend had made the acquaintance of a Frenchman by the name of Foucault. Because I knew a little French, it was decided I should meet him, which I proceeded to do. At a time when Foucault was to return by plane from Paris, Stefan O., Jurek R., and I went to the airport to welcome the foreigner. (I stress they both already knew Foucault.) Upon greeting him, we all went to his home on Rutkowski Street. In the apartment I also found Henryk R., whom I had known for some time and to whom I was close despite our difference in age. I returned to Foucault’s apartment a number of days in a row. Each day, I found the company I mentioned above, though with small changes, because, as I realized, this foreigner was a homosexual who enjoyed changing his ‘bed boys’ fairly frequently. Despite our acquaintance, nothing intimate transpired between me and Foucault in the course of those days, because of Stefan, who was my friend and in front of whom it was unsuitable to do anything. We were only intimate once Stefan had left Warsaw with Mirek from Mazowsze, since they had met in that apartment and, I felt, were attracted to one another. I then spent the night at Foucault’s and relations took place between us, naturally at my companion’s initiative. I only returned to the apartment another few times, and as a result I did not even know when Foucault had left Poland. I of course found out about it, but only later from friends.”

In a secret police memorandum prepared the day after his meeting with Waldek, Terakowski wrote: “The Foucault referred to in this report is a frmr. French lecturer at WU. Currently the informant maintains no contact with him. However, he knows from acquaintances that Foucault currently lives in Paris with a friend/lover of his.”

That “friend/lover” was Daniel Defert, Foucault’s partner. This Waldek knew from Jurek, who used to look after Foucault’s apartment and knew him best back then.


There is not much that can be said about Jurek.

Perhaps only that he was born, he lived, and he died—prematurely. Someone might recall that he had two successes in life: the “Countess” and Foucault.

Jurek wrote an autobiographical statement when he was applying for work in the performance ensemble of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In it, he stated that in 1958 he had passed the entrance exam to the State Theater College in Warsaw, then dropped out a year later and gone to Gdańsk, where he sometimes performed at the Teatr Rapsodyczny. He was young, good-looking, and loquacious. He had every chance in the world, yet he quickly realized that neither a diploma nor even a stage could guarantee popularity—only the proper contacts could do that.

After returning to Warsaw, Jurek performed at various theaters as secondary characters, replacements, and understudies. In the evenings, he did popular shows at the Adria, the Kameralna, or the Astoria.

But he never made a name for himself in the foreground of the stage.

No theater archive has any mention of him, except one saying he was an understudy for an actor in the chorus.

The opinion of the manager of one of the theaters where he worked: “He made himself known as an employee of middling acting skills.”

Another theater fired him for disciplinary reasons, because instead of acting in the show, he accepted a well-paid, one-off job performing in a program in honor of Lenin’s birthday.

He’d hoped that would be a mitigating circumstance.

It was not.

When the group went to meet Foucault at the airport, it was Jurek who brought the keys to the Frenchman’s apartment on Rutkowski Street. Whenever Michel was away, he would leave the place to Jurek with the refrigerator full. A few times, Jurek had invited guests over and thrown raucous, drunken parties. One event that attained mythical status was an orgy including two prostitutes (women) who were secret-police plants.

Yet Foucault trusted this boy who had no money, no job, who didn’t know the language—whose mind swirled with dreams of a spectacular career, of photos, lights, and champagne.

Yet no grand stage and no champagne ever featured in Jurek’s life. More often, it was gloom and vodka.

There were legends circulating about the holes in the walls of his apartment. These were peepholes drilled through a wardrobe from the living room to the bathroom. They were for spying. When a soldier or laborer came to the apartment, Jurek told them to take a shower, claiming he was very clean and a stickler for cleanliness in others. The boy would go to the bathroom, undress, wash, and behave freely. Meanwhile Jurek would go into the wardrobe and discover the joys of voyeurism.

“It was about emotions,” recalls one witness. “That this soldier would take off his uniform, pull off his suspenders, and climb into the tub naked. That was what added spice to the whole story. As for spending the night, so what? They did their thing, turned their asses to one another, and slept.” 

Jurek was a bachelor, but at the age of twenty-eight he adopted a boy—Maciej.

To this day, this is a great mystery: how was it possible?

The adoption was “complete and entire,” meaning the total severance of any links between the adopted child and his biological family, while his new guardian’s status was indissoluble. Jurek was therefore a father by law—though in life, not so much.

Jurek’s mother looked after the child. The mother, Jurek, and Maciej have all passed away. No one can explain the true story behind the adoption. Jurek’s granddaughter never met her grandfather. Today, she recalls her family saying, “He wasn’t an interesting person.”

“My father didn’t actually talk about his family, and my mom didn’t ask,” says Zuzanna. “It seems he was aware he was adopted and didn’t trouble his head with it. But it’s unclear to us why the family decided to adopt a child and how it was possible. Unless by some accident this Jurek was his biological father? Only then, why would they put off the adoption for three years? My father believed he was adopted around that age because he had flashes of memory from the orphanage.”

Zuzanna knows her grandfather was gay. That wasn’t spoken about at home either. She never thought to dig into the past, although—she wonders—in the end, maybe it’s worth doing?

Today, only one person lays flowers at Jurek’s grave in Bródno Cemetery: an old acquaintance from the Alhambra club, Andrzej. He doesn’t know how all this was possible either.

How was it that solitary Jurek adopted Maciej?

Why was he the one with the keys to Michel Foucault’s apartment?

Was this the Jurek who made Foucault have to leave?

Andrzej, like everyone else, only remembers vodka on the table first thing in the morning, all-night drinking bouts, and peepholes in the wardrobe, through which Jurek used to watch naked soldiers.

The Countess

The closest friend Jurek made was Henryk, nicknamed “the Countess.”

The Countess—born in January 1912—was not an aristocrat in the slightest. He knew many people, visited many people’s homes, and for one reason or other everyone thought the Countess’s blood really was blue. Maybe it was because of his manners, which were excellent. He also spoke perfect French. He wore a morning coat with striped pants and minced around like a dandy. He was the picture of an aristocrat.

There are two types of people who knew him: those who didn’t know he wasn’t a count and those who didn’t how he earned his living.

The Countess’s name and address appear in Michel Foucault’s private notebook from this period. Nothing connected them beyond friendly and free-flowing conversation. Foucault’s everyday life in Warsaw was divided into his daytime professional routine and his evening recreational one. At work in the French Center, he could only talk about philosophy and literature. Meanwhile he was still young and single, interested in young men and madness.

He was on the lookout for evening-time possibilities, but at that time language was an obstacle. He didn’t know how to make himself understood to the boys of the city. So maybe it was Henryk—a Francophile of the old school, a young spirit curious about the world—maybe it was he among Michel’s Polish acquaintances who introduced him to the street life of Warsaw?

In at least one case, this was certainly so.

Henryk was very insistent that his charge, Jurek, should move in good circles. He knew the boy was lacking in talent, but he was handsome and sociable. The authors Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Jerzy Andrzejewski, the composer Zygmunt Mycielski, the poet Paweł Hertz—they each had a young man of their own. So Henryk wanted one too. He introduced Jurek to Michel Foucault and turned a blind eye to their romance, and by the end was only with them when playing the role of translator.

When the two of them were alone, they could understand each other without words.

“He was a personality,” says an old friend of Henryk’s. “People used to bow down before him when he walked into a café or to the bathhouse at Messalka’s on Krakowskie Przedmieście. Which he did often. Because there, the Countess was the queen of the establishment. She was well known, distinguished, and openhanded, so young boys gathered around her who were on scholarships or not on scholarships, or who in any case weren’t earning much or got small allowances. The Countess would always take them for dinner, for coffee—in a word, she helped out. Even so, her relationship with Foucault was close but definitely not physical.”

Little information about Henryk R. can be found in the secret police archives of the Institute of National Remembrance. His passport files only indicate numerous journeys—with his wife and children. Under “profession” it reads: man of letters, which perhaps encompassed most broadly the Countess’s innumerable talents.

According to information from Division VIII of Department II of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, from 1958 to 1971 Henryk maintained “extensive contacts” with employees of the French embassy. He went to receptions and cocktail parties and met privately with representatives of Francophile organizations, doubtless including Michel Foucault.

Many people say Henryk was a wonderful character: loving and admirable, friendly and helpful in every situation. The only competition he had was Karol Hanusz—the cabaret artist known as the king of the Roxana.

Mirek from Mazowsze

The secret police notes on Mirosław cover the whole of the 1960s. That was when Mirek was at the height of his career in the Mazowsze State Folk Song and Dance Ensemble. He traveled abroad, fell in love with Stefan, and thanks to him, met Michel Foucault.

In one photograph, he had a long, oval face, very pale, a long nose, eyes with straight brows, rather thin lips, large ears, a high forehead, his blond hair combed up high.

A romantic type.

Agent “Zygmunt” reported that Mirek was a “very hardworking, conscientious, and dutiful” fellow, which he felt might be surprising given the dancer’s young age. Unfortunately, despite his discipline and hard work, to the agent’s mind he was not suited as a soloist. Perhaps not even for want of talent, but rather due to “the strong competition and his delicacy of character.” In addition, the agent noted, “the boy’s life lacks order and he is politically immature.” On international trips he was “well-behaved and cause[d] no trouble.”

Mirek was so modest and quiet that his male colleagues from the ensemble made fun of him, so by day he preferred the girls’ company.

“He really stuck with the girls,” says Maria Jopek, a soloist in Mazowsze who made friends with Mirosław. “But you could tell there was no more to it than that. We knew Mirek was looking for a different kind of relation.” 

That’s why his marriage to the daughter of one of socialist Warsaw’s few successful capitalists came as such a surprise. It shocked his friends from the Roxana, but no one said a word.

Such marriages were common in those days.

Mirek’s close friend from Mazowsze, Marek Keller—Jerzy Andrzejewski’s lover and today a philanthropist and donor to institutions including the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in Warsaw—adds that Miroslaw was a favorite of Mira Zimińska-Sygietyńska, who took charge of the ensemble in 1957 and became its icon. As manager, she frequently defended him from the aspersions of his colleagues and the schemes of the secret police.

“Mrs. Zimińska was an institution,” says Keller. “Whenever the latest denunciation arrived, she would take the person in question to one side and tear up the paper in front of them, without reading it. And she loved gay men. Nothing surprised her, because in that profession it went without saying.”

In other places, people thought differently. One comment in Mirek’s file is a handwritten note from an agent, asking (we do not know whom): “Can’t we chase these types out of Mazowsze?”

Another agent, “Krzysiek,” noted of Mirek when describing the ensemble’s trip to the United States: “One of the most active homosexuals. He has had a large number of contacts with men in nearly every city. As he left one city, he would obtain contacts of this type to men in the next. He constantly went around with them at night. He would receive gifts and money from them. He made friends with a homosexual through an American producer. [. . .] Politically, he gives the impression of devotion to People’s Poland. Discussing the matter of ‘how things are in Poland,’ he always defends his country. He has had a rather ironic relationship with the Americans. Through F.’s contacts he has caused fear he might stay in the United States or something similar, where he could arrange work for the others. That was my impression, of fear.”

Nothing connected him to Foucault apart from Stefan. He loved Stefan so much that he wanted to throw himself under a train because of his relationship with Waldek. Foucault wasn’t on the boys’ minds at that time, because the three of them were caught in a love triangle.

Many years later, Waldek ran into Mirek on the street. He remembers Mirek had a handsome figure, of course, being a dancer. He was tall, he could be attractive.

“But he was effeminate, you could work out he was a fairy.”

And to Waldek, the most important thing of all was masculinity.

The Boys from the Report

They all met with Foucault:

The Countess, because he knew the language.

Jurek, because he knew the Countess.

Waldek, because he wanted to go to France.

Mirek, because he followed Stefan everywhere.

And Stefan, because he liked a good time.

Apart from them, everyone in Warsaw knew one another. It was a closed environment. They also knew Michel Foucault. People said: that Frenchman, you know. And everyone did know.

From Foucault w Warszawie (Warsaw: Instytut Reportażu, 2017) © 2017 by Remigiusz Ryziński. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Sean Gasper Bye. All rights reserved.

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