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The Passing of Bohdan Osadczuk (1920-2011)

October 20, 2011 - Basil Kerski - Bez kategorii

osadczuk_Emanuela Danielewicz_s.jpg

osadczuk_Emanuela Danielewicz_s.jpg

We are saddened to inform that Bohdan Osadczuk, a symbol of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, passed away on October 19, 2011. We are reprinting his portrait by Basil Kerski, which was published in Nowa Europa Wschodnia on his ninetieth birthday.

From Kolomyia into the world

In Poland, Bohdan Osadczuk is esteemed mostly for being one of the main champions of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation and for his many years long collaboration with Jerzy Giedroyc. But his presence in the German language press and in the academic world is often overlooked.

Osadczuk is remarkably cosmopolitan: he speaks and writes three languages, Ukrainian, Polish and German, and is an active participant of three cultural regions, which even today, in the gradually integrating Europe, is a rare thing. In the twentieth century it was dangerous to be a cosmopolite. Even in our democratic societies, with their highly fashionable concept of multiculturalism, it is difficult to be a man without a clear-cut national identity, locked up in simplistic terms of the modern definition of a nation. It is difficult to be an independent man capable of functioning in three cultures. A worldly person is often treated as an alien presence, for he introduces a new perspective, which may undermine the viewpoint dominating in a given cultural area.

Against ignorance

It is also difficult to be a representative of cultures and nations which are called into question, not respected by larger, sovereign nations. It was and is difficult to be a Ukrainian in Germany (and not only there), and a former citizen of the pre-war Poland. Polish and Ukrainian aspirations to independence were often an “obstacle” for great powers in their policy. Thus the ignorance of greater nations deepened the inferiority complex of the two smaller neighbours.

Bohdan Osadczuk has made it into his life-long mission to fight against the ignorance of the great powers and against the inferiority complex of the cultural region from which he originates. He has not succumbed to the pressure of adapting to one of the sides, he has not allowed himself to be imprisoned in the exiles’ ghetto. He has become part of the West German society, preserving a distinct personality often incomprehensible to the Germans. He made yet another courageous choice: most expats choose professions outside the public sphere, where issues of national identity do not matter. Osadczuk went against the current. As a journalist, political commentator, historian and teacher he was and is an important presence in the German public sphere.


Post-war West Berlin was an ideal place for Bohdan Osadczuk. He could combine there his identity of a Ukrainian émigré with an identity of a European democrat. Until 1989, he lived in a cosmopolitan and democratic island surrounded by the red sea of the Soviet Empire, in a place where the fate of Europe was being decided. West Berlin was a city of émigrés, not only from the East. The German political exiles settled here, for example the mayors Ernst Reuter and Willy Brandt, political scientist Richard Löwenthal or columnist Sebastian Haffner. Thanks to them, the city acquired a new democratic character. Together with the Western Allies and expats from southern and eastern Europe they shaped the cosmopolitan ambience of post-war Berlin.

The decision of the post-war German exiles to settle in Berlin now seems obvious, but then it was a difficult choice. Reuter, Brandt or Löwenthal came back to a ruined, devastated city. All of them could remain outside the occupied Germany, make a name for themselves at Western universities and in the media. But they realised that the future of Europe was played out not only in London, Washington and Paris, where immediately after the war the city infrastructure was functioning normally. They understood that you could not bypass unattractive, ruined, dangerous places, full of traumatic experiences, and that you had to rebuild them. The story of West Berlin is a story of people who chose this city in order to defend democracy, and Bohdan Osadczuk is a part of it.

The Third Germany

Joachim Trenkner, a journalist and a German contributor to Tygodnik Powszechny, called the cold-war West Berlin the “Third Germany”. It is true that it was part of the Federal Republic, but the presence of the Allies in the city endowed this West German land with a different legal status. Its most important element was the absence of the West German army in the city. Consequently, Berliners were exempt from military service in the Bundeswehra. This fact attracted thousands of young people from western Landen who wanted to evade conscription. Their presence and a large financial support of the West German government for the city besieged by the Soviets led to a flourishing of youth culture and academic life. The Free University of Berlin, where Bohdan Osadczuk lectured in contemporary history of Eastern Europe, belonged to the largest and most open universities in West Germany. It was created right after the war on the initiative of students expelled from the Berlin University occupied by the Soviets. The project found American support. The Free University hosted the most influential West German institute of political studies, the Otto-Suhr-Institute, an authentic school of democracy, where Bohdan Osadczuk worked with German opponents of Adolf Hitler, outstanding intellectuals such as Richard Löwenthal – a Berlin Jew, friend of Osadczuk, close associate of Willy Brandt, a social democrat, who after the war came back to Germany from Great Britain and joined the struggle against communism in the divided Berlin.

Bohdan Osadczuk became an important figure in the intellectual life of post-war West Berlin. He had come to Germany during the war, not dreaming then that he would spend almost seventy years in this country. In 1965, under a German penname Alexander Korab, he published autobiographical reflections on his Berlin identity. He revealed there that he had intended Berlin to be only a short stopover in his earthly wanderings. He recalled a meeting from the early stages of the war with the Ukrainian painter Roman Turyn, who before the war belonged to the Kapists group in Paris with Józef Czapski. Turyn warned Osadczuk against Berlin – a city of dark, unfriendly facades, where historic buildings looked like gruesome Prussian barracks. He told Osadczuk to move to Paris. Another friend, a Ukrainian revolutionary, whose name Osadczuk does not provide, suggested that during the war and the reign of the Third Reich the totalitarian state had to be studied from the very heart of the empire and that it was easier to survive there. As the Polish saying goes, the darkest place is under a streetlamp!

Osadczuk never reached Paris. And Berlin, where he discovered, as he says, a “German-Slav-French cultural mix,” became an important school of life for him. In this city, he witnessed history in the making and, importantly, learned about the impermanence of empires – the perversion of violence at the height of success and the dramatic, bloody end. The experience of the Third Reich deepened his belief that also the Soviet Empire would not last forever and that only its collapse would offer a chance for Polish and Ukrainian independence.

Journalistic curiosity

I much value my friendship and joint work with Bohdan Osadczuk. I learned a lot from him about the life of the Ukrainians in the pre-war Poland, about the history of the Ukrainian people, about the divided Berlin. Working with him was a great pleasure for me, for Bohdan Osadczuk, a wonderful storyteller, endowed with an almost journalistic curiosity, treats seriously what he does and not who he is. Our joint work on Polska i Ukraina, a book about his life, Polish-Ukrainian relations and Berlin, was satisfying also in another respect: it reveals aspects of Osadczuk’s life and work which had long been ignored in Poland, Germany and the Ukraine. In Poland, Bohdan Osadczuk is esteemed mostly for being one of the main champions of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation and for his fifty-year-long collaboration with Jerzy Giedroyc. But his presence in the German language press and in the academic world is overlooked; while in Germany the reverse is true. It was a great satisfaction for me when an old colleague of Osadczuk’s from Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Swiss journalist Rudolf Stamm, said after reading the book that he and other people from the paper had at last realised that hidden behind the cool, analytical mind of the professor is a huge bundle of experience and various perspectives combined into an extraordinary fusion.


Bohdan Osadczuk – a Ukrainian journalist, columnist and historian. He was born on August 1, 1920, in Kolomyia, in a family of teachers. He spent his childhood and youth in the Kielce region, where his parents had been sent by educational authorities. He was expelled from secondary school when he stood up in defence of a Jewish friend. He passed his final secondary school exams during the war. Then he studied the history of Eastern European countries and the Balkans, international law and eastern languages in Berlin. He received his doctoral degree at the Ukrainian Free University in Munich. Since 1966 until the late 1980s he taught contemporary Eastern European history at the Free University in West Berlin. He contributed to many Ukrainian, Polish and German language newspapers and magazines, including the prestigious Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung. He was editor-in-chief of Widnowa – an émigré magazine of independent Ukrainian intellectuals.

Since the 1950s, under a penname “The Berliner”, he wrote for Kultura of Jerzy Giedroyc. In 1984, he was awarded the Kultura prize of friendship and cooperation. Part of his correspondence with Giedroyc was collected by Bogumiła Berdychowska in the volume Jerzy Giedroyc – emigracja ukraińska (Warsaw 2004). The selection of his essays, articles and documentaries published in Kultura was edited by Andrzej Stanisław Kowalczyk (Sejny 2000). In 2001, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University Press published Wiek ukraińsko-polski: Rozmowy Basila Kerskiego i Andrzeja Stanisława Kowalczyka z profesorem Osadczukiem. An expanded and updated version of this work was published by the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe in Wrocław under the title Polska i Ukraina: Rozmowy z Bohdanem Osadczukiem.

The German edition of his autobiography appeared as Ein ukrainischer Kosmopolit mit Berliner Adresse. Gespräche mit Bohdan Osadczuk (Osnabrück 2004). In 2006 the Pogranicze (Borderland) Foundation awarded Professor Osadczuk the title of the Man of the Borderland. To commemorate this event, the Foundation published a selection of Osadczuk’s essays, articles and interviews from the last fifteen years, edited by Basil Kerski and entitled Niepodległa Ukraina.

On May 3, 2001, the President of Poland awarded Bohdan Osadczuk with the Order of the White Eagle for his work on Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. On the fifteenth anniversary of Ukrainian independence, Osadczuk received the Order of Jaroslav the Wise from the Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

In his introduction to Ukraina, Polska, Świat, Czesław Miłosz described the Professor in the following terms: “Osadczuk is for me an example of youthful energy, not diminishing despite the passage of the years. Always interested in what is going on in the world, he follows political events and provides them with commentaries of an independent journalist, advocate of European integration and Polish-Ukrainian cooperation … he could be an inspiration for these young Poles and Ukrainians who suffer from apathy and lack of commitment. He proves by the example of his life that obstinate sticking to one cause may afford a guiding light in the chaos of historical events … Bohdan Osadczuk belongs to people whose energy is infectious”.

Basil Kerski is the director of the European Solidarity Centre, Editor-in-Chief of the bilingual Magazine Polsko-Niemiecki DIALOG, Editor of Przegląd Polityczny published in Gdańsk.

Translated by Tomasz Bieroń

Image for slideshow

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