Zygmunt Bauman giving a talk in Florence, Italy, in 2016 (photo by Michele Monasta, courtesy of Polity Press)

The Man Who Hoped

Reviewed: Zygmunt Bauman, My Life in Fragments, Polity

by Benjamin Balint , 9 November 2023

The edition of fragments written by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman offers an insight into his life in exile, trying to make sense of the Holocaust and modernity, and nevertheless always remaining hopeful.

In September 1998, the winner of the prestigious Theodor W. Adorno prize, Zygmunt Bauman, asked that the award ceremony in Frankfurt begin not with a national anthem but with the Ode to Joy, the hopeful anthem of Europe. In May 2016, at a protest demanding Poland’s exit from the EU, far-right Polish nationalists burned a large photograph of Bauman, jeering as it went up in flames.

A new, posthumously published memoir by Bauman—Polish Jew, prolific sociologist, and both protagonist and interpreter of the 20th century’s convulsions—is a colorful patchwork of autobiographical texts written over thirty years, deftly drawn together by Bauman’s biographer, Izabela Wagner. This chronicle of a soul in relation to society affords a fascinating glimpse into how deeply his personal experiences inflected both his ideas and the controversies they still excite.

My Life in Fragments begins with an account of a childhood in interwar Poland stifled by open hostility to Jews. Despite earning top grades, Bauman was told by a teacher, “You cannot be the best in the class. This place is reserved for a Polish kid.”

Childhood ended a day after Germany invaded Poland. On September 2, 1939, Bauman, 14, fled with his family on the last train leaving Poznań eastward. They settled first in a town in what is today Belarus and then, with the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, deeper into the Soviet interior. Though narrowly spared the experience of living in Poland under Nazi occupation, years of fear and harsh hunger followed. “To this very day,” Bauman says, “I cannot fall asleep if there is no bread in the house.” [94]

At age 18, he fought with the Fourth Division of the Polish exile army under Red Army command. In the summer of 1944, his light infantry unit helped liberate the Majdanek extermination camp near Lublin. “The corpses were still lying around in heaps,” he later reported to a friend. [1] He was wounded by shrapnel in March 1945 and earned a Military Cross of Valor.

At the close of the Second World War, Bauman’s division was folded into Polish military intelligence. He found himself in the propaganda department of the Internal Security Corps (KBW, in its Polish acronym), where he would serve until the end of 1952. My Life in Fragments offers what Bauman calls “the history of my anti-romance with the security forces.” [142] Though he cooperated with counter-espionage agents, as a desk-bound clerk, he says, he mostly wrote pamphlets. “I was kept far from any of the more ‘responsible’ tasks requiring people with nerves stronger than mine and with fewer scruples.” [129] This didn’t prevent unscrupulous Polish right-wing historians, more than fifty years later, from using this affiliation to slander Bauman with allegations that he was complicit in the political cleansing of opponents of the Communist regime. In his book Legislators and Interpreters (1987), Bauman would have a great deal to say about how intellectuals—for all their pretensions to rise above self-interest—become submissive servants of power.

The KBW abruptly dismissed Major Bauman in 1953, after his father approached the Israeli embassy in Warsaw and expressed the wish to emigrate to the newborn Jewish state. A self-effacing accountant and unfulfilled scholar who “fell in love with Judaism”, the father had adopted a Zionism that was, in his son’s description, “heartfelt, life-long, and central to his world-vision.” [46-47]

Eager to play a part in rebuilding postwar Poland, Bauman turned to sociology. “Sociology whispered an alternative to the story that was officially shouted, and so it became an element, however slight and insistently marginalized, of plurality in a forcefully ‘homogenized’ society.” [2] From the beginning, his own brushes with poverty and persecution led him to call for a sociology woven through with moral considerations, with a sensitivity to society’s weakest members.

At the time, lured by the promised disappearance of class divisions, “‘building socialism’ figured high on my list of desires,” he writes. But having spent several years among the Soviets, he confesses, “I should have known better: that their promises did not pave the path to actions, and the path of action was a bloody one.” [124] Even after Stalin’s crimes came to light, he adds, “I still believed that the Polish road… would not follow the trajectory of the Soviet version and would not go astray.” [142] He belatedly came to loath the totalitarianisms “in which every free choice is considered to be a crime against the state precisely because it is free.” [140]

Sketches in Exile

Bauman’s disillusionment preceded his second exile. The Polish People’s Republic came to suspect its Jews—no matter how patriotic their loyalty—as “Zionists” and as internal enemies. Speaking of Polish anti-Semitism in the absence of Jews, Bauman writes: “The suppressed memory of mass murder poisons the consciousness of the nation that witnessed it.” [3] By the time Bauman was appointed a professor in Warsaw in 1964 he had endured years of secret police surveillance.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, Polish leader Władysław Gomułka likened supporters of Israel to “fifth column” collaborators with the Nazis. In a public speech of March 1968, Gomułka singled out Zygmunt Bauman by name. During the anti-Semitic purge in 1968, 13,000 Polish Jews—including Bauman, his wife Janina (a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto), and their three daughters—were stripped of their jobs and citizenship and expelled from the country with little but $5 in their pockets. In the process, authorities confiscated his book manuscript, Sketches in the Theory of Culture. (In 2014, when Bauman was 88, the manuscript he assumed to have been lost forever was discovered in a filing cabinet at the University of Warsaw.) Yet the most precious possessions could not be forfeited. “I smuggled my Polishness out of the country,” he writes, “cheating the secret police disguised as customs officers.” [153]

The now stateless sociologist found refuge in Israel, where he accepted invitations to teach in Tel Aviv and in Haifa. With astonishing speed, he mastered enough Hebrew to lecture in that language. According to a report in an Israeli newspaper, “students took their places in the lecture hall hours before each of his lectures.” [4] Despite this popularity, Bauman felt an “absolute inability to ground myself in an Israeli reality.” [157] On the one hand, he insisted, “I’ll never shed my Jewishness, membership of a tradition which gave the world its moral sense, its conscience, its thrust for perfection, its millennial dream.” [152] He ascribed this creativity to the fact that Jews had been “the first to experience the harrowing dilemmas, ineradicable ambivalence and indeed awesome aporias of modern life.” [5] On the other hand, the new immigrant resisted certain claims made on his Jewishness. “The State of Israel is now that fate to which Jewish identity has given itself (or was given away) as a hostage. Like all fate, it cares little about the feelings of its hostages.” [6]

In 1971, after three years in Israel, Bauman settled in Britain, where he taught at Leeds University and resolved “to end my life as a displaced, exterritorial person and a loyal subject of the Crown.” [152] (His daughter Anna remained in Israel and taught at the University of Haifa. His grandson, Michael Sfard, is today a leading Israeli human-rights lawyer.) However displaced, the émigré resisted pressures to play the part of a “dissident.” “I had no intention of living the second half of my life off the first,” Bauman writes.

Malleable Modernity

Bauman authored some sixty books, published in more than thirty languages. Perhaps the best-known is Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), which insists that the Final Solution was neither a one-off culmination of ethnic and religious hatred nor a continuation of anti-Semitism by other means. He instead followed Hannah Arendt’s contention: anti-Semitism might explain the choice of the victims, but not the nature of the crime. “Being perpetual and ubiquitous”, Bauman writes, “anti-Semitism cannot by itself account for the Holocaust’s uniqueness.” [7] Above all, the Shoah did not represent a breakdown in modernity, an atavistic reversion to irrational barbarism, or an exception to the “civilizing process,” as Norbert Elias called the steady elimination of violence from our daily lives. The Shoah, Bauman says, was instead “a legitimate resident in the house of modernity.” [8] That house is furnished with ethically blind bureaucratic control, pseudoscientific theories like eugenics and “social engineering,” and the efficiencies of mass industrialization, and modern specialized division of labor that distanced the perpetrators’ actions from the victims’ suffering. “It was the rational world of modern civilization that made the Holocaust thinkable,” Bauman said.

Pages of Zygmunt Bauman’s file from the archives of Poland’s secret police (courtesy of the Bauman family archive and Polity Press)

His own field, he lamented, had not yet come to terms with its origins in the same rational culture. “Phrases like ‘the sanctity of human life’ or ‘moral duty’ sounded as alien in a sociology seminar as they do in the smoke-free, sanitized rooms of bureaucratic office,” he said. [9]

Between his retirement in 1991 and his death in 2017, at age 91, Bauman put his mind to other profoundly unsettling aspects of today’s civilization. Beginning with his groundbreaking book Liquid Modernity (2000), he described how the solid structures and institutions that once ordered modern societies are rapidly losing their shapes. Our new order, he said, saturated with fluidity and uncertainty and a multitude of meanings, has melted away the old brittle anchors of identity. Job security is evaporating (“skills keep being devalued and superseded by new and improved skills,” he writes). Emotional and family connections are becoming ever more ephemeral, contingent, and revocable (the subtitle of his 2003 sequel, Liquid Love, is “On the Frailty of Human Bonds”). Civic minded citizens are becoming self-satisfied consumers. Global power is growing increasingly divorced from geographical constraints and from national politics; the market forces “running the world are ex-territorial.” (It has been said that if the political scientist Francis Fukuyama heralded the conclusion of the Cold War as “the end of history,” Bauman announced—just as prematurely—the end of geography.)

Though his life was entangled by evils endemic to nationalist hatreds, Bauman said at the end of his life, “I think of myself as a ‘man who hopes.’” [10] In the end, this hopeful book is both a beautifully narrated memoir and a reflection on memoir.

We live twice… First, living; second, narrating the experience. This second life, for whatever reason, seems more important than the first. It’s only in the second one that the “point” appears. The first is only the preface to the second. [10]

Zygmunt Bauman, My Life in Fragments, Edited by Izabela Wagner, Translated by Katarzyna Bartoszyńska, Polity, 238 p, 2023, €24.90

by Benjamin Balint, 9 November 2023

To quote this article :

Benjamin Balint, « The Man Who Hoped », Books and Ideas , 9 November 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at We will get back to you as soon as possible.


[1Wagner, Bauman: A Biography, Polity, 2020, p. 93.

[2Keith Tester, Michael Hviid Jacobsen, and Zygmunt Bauman, “Bauman Before Exile—A Conversation with Zygmunt Bauman,” Polish Sociological Review (2006), p. 271.

[3Bauman, “Assimilation into Exile: The Jew as a Polish Writer,” Poetics Today (Winter 1996), p. 580.

[4Quoted in Wagner, p. 297.

[5Bauman, “Jews and Other Europeans, Old and New,” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe (Spring 2009), p. 131.

[6Bauman, “Assimilation into Exile: The Jew as a Polish Writer,” Poetics Today (Winter 1996), p. 572.

[7Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, p. 32.

[8Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust, p. 17.

[9Bauman, “Sociology after the Holocaust,” British Journal of Sociology (Dec. 1988), p. 495.

[10Bauman, Making the Familiar Unfamiliar: A Conversation with Peter Haffner, Polity, 2020, p. 118.

Our partners

© - Any replication forbidden without the explicit consent of the editors. - Mentions légales - webdesign : Abel Poucet