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Saturday, June 28, 2014

Goetel & Gandhi

Polish writer Ferdynand Goetel’s encounter with Gandhi

Guest Post by Aleksandra Skiba

Ferdynand Goetel (1890-1960)
A hotel owner was surprised and perhaps dismayed when he asked the route to the meeting. 

A policeman shrugged his shoulders and showed him the way. He realized that the event he was so keen to witness wasn’t one that interested these sections of the society.

When he reached the venue, he also realized that his presence there wasn’t entirely welcome. The crowd glanced at him with a mix of suspicion and caution. He could sense tension, but he was determined to see Gandhi. 

The Polish journalist Ferdynand Goetel’s passion for travelling definitely shaped his writing. However, it is difficult to imagine when and how it all started.  As an Austrian citizen living in Warsaw, Ferdynand, a young architect then, was interned by the Russian authorities to Tashkent at the beginning of WWI. He worked there for four years but after the Bolshevik Revolution he decided to escape.

Returning to Poland was not easy.

With his wife, a new-born baby, and a group of desperate Poles, he travelled through Persia, Afghanistan, India and England to reach Poland after a fourteen-month journey. The experiences of that journey resulted in a memoir – Przez płonący Wshód (Across the Blazing East) released in 1922.

The readers loved it. Encouraged by the success of his book, he continued to write and soon became an editor of a travel magazine, a novelist and the President of Polish PEN.

Despite his busy schedule, he continued to travel extensively and had a prolific output of travelogues. In 1930, he visited India again, and three years later Podróż do Indyj (Journey to India) appeared in the bookshops.

In writing that book, Ferdynand observed India through the eyes of the common people. In an interview, he explained that he wrote for his Polish readers who had no access to India in Polish language.

Ferdynand’s simple style of writing was sharp and without adulation. It succeeded in altering the impressions about India and created a more realistic impression about the land.

Of course, one has to look at his writing from the perspective of early 20th century European prism. This perspective is evident in the description of his meeting with Gandhi in Allahabad in 1930.

Neither an Englishman nor an Indian, Ferdynand’s observations of Gandhi are unexpectedly different.

Waiting for Gandhi to arrive, he minutely observed the members of the Congress leadership, comparing their postures and dresses to Roman senators.

That characterization was to prepare the readers for Gandhi’s appearance at the meeting, which the Polish visitor discovered, was in a sharp contrast to the other Congress members. However, Ferdynand was unimpressed. Gandhi seemed like an ordinary clerk or a teacher, a bit weary and looking around absently.

He was objective in his observations, and had the courage to express inconvenient and unpalatable opinions.

He was unfamiliar with Gandhi’s low-key style. He had imagined that he was attending an archetypal political meeting – where other politicians were awaiting their leader, and the presence of a large and restive crowd.

But Gandhi was nothing like a politician. His monotonous and dry voice disappointed Ferdynand. Also, while he was speaking, the loudspeaker broke down, and Gandhi quietly began to spin the wheel.

At this, he couldn’t stop himself from loudly expressing his displeasure. “Madman,” he muttered loudly, in Polish.  Even when Gandhi spoke, Ferdynand observed that the crowd wasn’t attentive.

Ferdynand’s admiration for Gandhi swiftly turned to disillusionment, and he eventually left meeting mixed feelings. His description of Gandhi’s public meeting conveys the disappointment: “I imagined that moment totally different…” or “…and there things which were incomprehensible for me…”

However, there was one fact which could bring his readers a warm feeling of recognizing something well known. The Poles, who regained their freedom after a long break in 1918, noticed the similarity of Indian struggle and sympathized with that.

It is hard to say how much of the writer is contained in that description. He definitely appreciated “the genius of India” and Gandhi’s role but perhaps his European perspective clouded his judgement.

Interesting is his reflection at the end of the book: “I don’t know if I understand the East but I understood and learnt to appreciate Europe. This is the most important result of my journey.”

It seems that the initial aim of his exploration was redirected but finally it brought the knowledge and...understanding.


Ferdynand Goetel, Pisma podróżnicze, edition and preface Ida Sakowska, Kraków, Arcana, 2004.

Antologia polskiego reportażu XX wieku. T. 1, 1901-1965, edition Mariusz Szczygieł, Wołowiec, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2014.

  • Aleksandra Skiba is a librarian at Pomeranian Library (The Central Library of the West Pomeranian Province) in the Polish city of Szczecin

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