The Nobel Prize is the highest honour that scientists and writers can receive for their work. Nobel Prizes are awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. Alfred Nobel characterized the Peace Prize as “to the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses"
Polish Nobel Prize Laureates
Olga Tokarczuk – mysticism, feminism and a conservative battlefield
Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 in December 2019, becoming the fifth Polish-language laureate. For decades, she has been the best-selling author in Poland. Tokarczuk gained international popularity after becoming the first Polish author to win the Man Booker International Award in 2018 for Flights (Bieguni).
What is significant about Tokarczuk's works is a unique, mythical tone. Her novels are often puzzling and complicated, as readers face frequent shifts of centuries, places, perspectives, and mythologies. Tokarczuk was born in 1962 in Sulechow, near Zielona Gora, in Western Poland. She graduated from Psychology at the University of Warsaw, where she began to write – publishing poems and some shorter prose writings.
Tokarczuk is considered to be one of the most successful Polish writers in history. She has received numerous awards and distinctions and is an activist and a public intellectual. In a conservatively tuned country like Poland, her views are often seen as controversial, as she is a leftist, a vegetarian, an atheist, and a feminist. Some fundamentalist right-wing organisations accused her of being anti-Christian, anti-Polish and even damaging the country’s international reputation. Currently she lives in Wroclaw, and also in Krajanow near Nowa Ruda, in the Central Sudetes. The landscapes and culture of this area appear in several of her works.
Her works include:
• Journey of the People of the Book
• House of Day, House of Night] (in Polish).
• Final Stories
• Anna In in the Tombs of the World
• Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
• The Books of Jacob,
• and lately The Tender Narrator.
Born: 2 July 1923, Bnin (now Kornik), Poland
Died: 1 February 2012, Krakow, Poland
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1996
Prize motivation: “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality."
Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Bnin, a small town near Poznan, Poland. After a few years, her parents and her older sister moved to Krakow, where she spent the rest of her life.
Szymborska published her very first poem Szukam slowa (I am Looking for a Word) in Dziennik Polski (Polish Daily) in March 1945. Between 1945 and 1948, Szymborska studied Polish literature and Sociology at the University of Krakow. While being at the university, she discovered Krakow’s literary scene and soon became part of it. She was particularly impressed by the work and the person of Czeslaw Milosz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980.
Szymborska was married to Adam Wlodek, a poet, between 1948 and 1954, the couple remained friends after the divorce. In 1952, Szymborska published her first poetry book Dlatego żyjemy (That's Why We Are All Alive) and in the same year, she became a member of Zwiazek Literatow Polskich (the Union of
Polish Writers). In 1953, Wislawa started working at the literary review magazine Zycie Literackie (Literary Life), where she spent almost 30 years.
Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry tries to address the greatest problems of human existence but keeps reminding a reader of ‘here and now’. She uses a simple, personal language that is very different from the contemporary one. Although the reader can see political influence in her work, Szymborska preferred not to think about her work as ‘political’. She said her poems were more about life and people.
During her life, Szymborska published more than 30 books of poetry in Polish, from which more than 10 were translated into English. Other translations included Bulgarian, Romanian, Slovakian, Czech, Hungarian, Hebrew, Danish, Italian, Swedish, and German languages. Szymborska was awarded several prizes, including the Goethe Prize (1991) and Herder Prize (1995), an Honorary Doctorate from Poznan University (1995), the Polish PEN Club prize (1996) and the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. She died in 2012 at her Krakow home at the age of 88.
Born: 4 November 1908, Warsaw, Russian Empire (now Poland)
Died: 31 August 2005, London, United Kingdom
The Nobel Peace Prize 1995
Prize motivation: “for their efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms."
Prize shared with Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs
Jozef Rotblat – Muranów, Liverpool and Manhattan Project
Jozef Rotblat is a distinguished scientist who won the Nobel Prize not for his research but for the cessation of his works: he was the only participant in the Manhattan Project to withdraw due to ethical reasons.
Rotblat was born in 1908, in Warsaw, Muranow district, in a large family of Polish Jews. After World War I, the Rotblat family derived their income from illegally produced moonshine. He started his education in cheder – a Jewish religious school, but he left it as he began to question the existence of God. In 1926, he entered the Free Polish University, and in 1938 he gained PhD at the University of Warsaw. Rotblat left for Liverpool to participate in a foreign scholarship on 30th August 1939 – right before World War II. He intended to leave Poland for a year but eventually stayed at emigration for 60 years.
He became a collaborator of the English nuclear physicist James Chadwick, also a later Nobel laureate. In 1944 he joined the laboratory in Los Alamos in the US, where he was developing the secret Manhattan Project, leading to the creation of an atomic bomb. Rotblat was horrified by the potential consequences of nuclear destruction and eventually withdrew from the project returning to England, where he received British citizenship in 1946.
Rotblat became a leading critic of weapons of mass destruction, emphasising that they endanger the further existence of humanity. Together with Bertrand Russell, in 1957, he founded an international pacifist network of scientists working for nuclear disarmament: the Pugwash.
Rotblat never managed to bring his wife Tola to the UK. She was murdered in a Nazi extermination camp in Belzec. Rotblat's native language remained Polish, and he continued to emphasise his ties with Poland. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, he and the Pugwash movement were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Rotblat died on 31st August 2005 in London.
Lech Walesa: from trade-unionism to Polish Presidency
Lech Walesa is a symbol of resistance to an oppressive communist rule in Poland as well as the first democratically elected president of Poland from 1990 to 1995. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
While working at the Lenin Shipyard (now Gdansk Shipyard), Walesa, an electrician, became a trade-union activist for what he was oppressed and eventually fired in 1976. In August 1980, when a massive protest in the shipyard began, Walesa symbolically climbed the shipyard fence and joined the thousands of workers inside. He was elected the leader of the strike committee that in time led to legalising trade unionism and granting greater freedom of religious and political expression on the basis of the Gdansk Agreement from August 1980. He co-founded the Solidarity trade union whose membership rose to over ten million people and was the biggest social movement in Europe's history. After Martial law, Walesa's activism contributed to establishing the Round Table Agreement and in consequence – the semi-free 1989 Polish legislative election and a Solidarity-led government.
Walesa was born in Popowo, Reichsgau Danzig-West Prussia, in German-occupied Poland on 29 September 1943. He graduated from primary and vocational school as a qualified electrician. In 1969 he married Miroslawa Danuta Golos (later known as Danuta), the couple had 8 children.
For many years he was facing allegations that he was an informant of Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa, the communist security services. He denied being a regular informant but admitted to signing minor documents under interrogation in the 1970s.
Since 1980, Lech Walesa has received hundreds of prizes, honours and awards, including the Time Person of the Year in 1981 and the title of one of Time's 100 most important people of the 20th century in 1999. He has received over forty honorary degrees, including one from Harvard University and Columbia University.
Czeslaw Milosz was born in 1911 in Seteniai, Russian Empire (now Lithuania), but several years later his family moved to Vilnius (then a part of Poland). In 1929 Milosz graduated from high school and started studying law at Vilnius University. In 1930, Alma Mater Vilnenis, a university magazine, published his first poems, and a year later he co-founded Zagary, a Polish literary group. Milosz’s first collection of poetry (Poemat
o czasie zastygłym /A Poem on Frozen Time) was published in Polish in 1933. In 1934, he graduated with the degree of law, and received a scholarship from the National Culture Fund that enabled him to study in Paris for a year. After that, he worked at Vilnius Radio and Polish Radio in Warsaw. During World War II, he remained in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and worked for underground press.
When the war was over, he left Poland to work in the United States as a diplomat for the Polish communist government. In 1950 he got transferred to Paris where he received political asylum and started working as a freelance writer until 1960. During his stay in France, he published several pieces of work, including Zniewolony umysl (The Captive Mind) and Zdobycie wladzy (The Seizure of Power) for which he was awarded the Prix Littéraire European prize.
In 1960 Milosz returned to the United States and started working as a Polish literature lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley. He then became professor of Slavic Languages and Literature. He did not travel to Poland until 1981 when his work started being acknowledged and available. In 1980, Milosz received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but before that he had been awarded several prizes, including Polish P.E.N. Club award for poetry translations (1974), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1976), Neustadt International Prize for Literature (1978), and the “Berkeley Citation” (an equivalent of an honorary Ph.D., 1978). He died on August 14, 2004 in Krakow, Poland.
Wladyslaw Rejment was born in 1867, in the village of Kobielo Wielkie (then Russian Empire); he later changed his surname to Reymont. His family led a hard life in poverty and was known to have taken a very active part in the insurrections against Russia in 1863. When Reymont was six, reading became his passion, and he carried books with him everywhere to read when he could. By the age of nine, Reymont had a thorough knowledge of both Polish literature and foreign literature in Polish translation, and he began to write poems. He dreamed of a free and independent life – full of adventures and voyages.
Reymont moved to Warsaw at the age of 20, but soon was expelled from there after Russian authorities suspected that he had taken part in the strike. During his early 20s, he lived mostly in solitude and poverty, but he kept writing, and finally published six short stories. Later, he was offered twenty-five roubles for a description of the 11-day pilgrimage to Jasna Gora in Czestochowa which appeared in a Warsaw illustrated daily and gained critics’ attention. Between 1896 and 1899 four of his books were published, while he travelled to London, Paris and Italy.
Between 1903 and 1904 he published the first version of Chlopi (The Peasants), but he burned it, rewrote it, and divided it into four volumes for the second publication (1904-09). It was for that work that he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1924. He then wrote a trilogy called Rok 1794 (The Year 1794), published in 1913-18. The last volume of that work, Insurekcja (Insurrection), was written in Warsaw after the outbreak of World War I during the German occupation. In 1922-23 he wrote his last piece Bunt (Defiance). Wladyslaw Reymont died in 1925, a year after he received the Nobel Prize. His complete works were published in thirty-six volumes (Warsaw, 1930-32), his selected works in twelve volumes (Krakow, 1957).
Born: 7 November 1867, Warsaw, Russian Empire (now Poland)
Died: 4 July 1934, Sallanches, France. She died of aplastic anaemia, a blood disease caused by exposure to radiation. In 1995, her and her husband Pierre's remains were placed at the Panthéon, the French National Mausoleum, in Paris.
Marie Curie was the first woman that has been awarded the Nobel Prize, and thus far the only woman who has received the Nobel Prize twice. She was also the first woman admitted to the Academy of Medicine in France.
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1903
Shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel for their joint research on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Becquerel.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1911
For the discovery of radium and polonium by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.
Maria Sklodowska was born in 1867, Warsaw, Poland (which was then part of the Russian Empire), as the fifth and youngest child of well-known teachers. In 1891 Curie left her native country to study mathematics, physics, and chemistry at the Sorbonne (changing her name to Marie), as higher education for women was not accessible in Russia at that time. In 1893, she was awarded a degree in physics, and a year later a degree in chemistry. She tried to return to Poland a year later, but was not admitted to Krakow University because of her gender, so she decided to return to Paris to pursue her Ph.D.
Earlier in 1894, she met a French scientist Pierre Curie (they married a year later), who stopped his own research on crystals and joined her work on radioactivity. In 1898 the Curies discovered two new radioactive elements: polonium (named after Poland – Marie’s native country), and radium (named after the Latin word for ray), which resulted in a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Pierre died in 1906, but Marie continued their work, becoming the first female professor at the Sorbonne University. In 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize, in Chemistry, for, among other achievements, isolating pure radium.
Curie’s work on radioactivity was prominent in the development of x-rays and in treating tumours. During World War I, Marie helped with radiological services, providing x-ray equipment to ambulances. By the late 1920s her health started to deteriorate. She returned to Poland to support the opening of the Radium Institute, whose director was her sister Bronislawa. The Institute opened in 1932, and Marie died two years later from leukaemia, caused by the effects of radiation.
Several of the Nobel Prizes laureates, among them Tadeusz Reichstein, Andrew Schally, Jacek Szostak, Leonid Hurwicz, were associated with Poland. Napoleon Cybulski, Oskar Minkowski, Kazimierz Funk, Józef Babiński, Rudolf Weigl or Ludwik Hirschfeld were nominated for this prestigious award.
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Born: 11 November, 1903, Leoncin, Russian Empire, now Poland
Died: 24 July, 1991, Surfside, Florida, USA
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1978
Prize motivation: “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life."
Isaac Bashevis Singer was born in 1903 to a Jewish family in Leoncin village near Warsaw.
In 1908 his family moved to Warsaw, a flat at Krochmalna Street 10. It was part of impoverished, Yiddish-speaking Jewish quarter of Warsaw. There his father served as a rabbi, and was called on to be a judge, arbitrator, religious authority and spiritual leader in the Jewish community. The unique atmosphere of pre-war Krochmalna Street can be found both in the collection of Varshavsky-stories, which tell stories from Singer's childhood as well as in those novels and stories which take place in pre-war Warsaw.
In 1935, four years before the Nazi invasion, Singer emigrated from Poland to the United States.
Although he spoke Polish, English and Hebrew fluently, he always considered Yiddish his natural tongue. He always wrote in Yiddish.
In his works, he showed religious and philosophical moral problems as well as conflicts between orthodox circles and assimilated Jews. It colorfully evoked the non-existent world of Jews, especially Hasidim in eastern Poland. The masterpieces of literature include Singer's short stories, characterized by narrative, often styling, and penetrating portraits of characters. He was also interested in philosophy, such as Spinoza, Schopenhauer. In his works, often
through the mouths of their heroes, he quotes various philosophical theories. The classic Russian novel of the nineteenth century also had a significant influence on his work. Among the people who had the greatest literary influence on him, he mentioned his older brother, Israel Joshua.
Menachem Begin (Mieczysław Biegun)
Born: 16 August, 1913, Brest, Russian Empire
Died: 9 March, 1992, Tel Aviv, Israel
The Nobel Prize for Peace 1978
Prize motivation: “for jointly having negotiated peace between Egypt and Israel in 1978."
Begin studied law at the University of Warsaw, where he learned the oratory and rhetoric skills that became his trademark as a politician. He became member of Revisionist Zionism movement and its youth wing Betar. His leadership qualities were quickly recognized In 1937 he became head of the largest branch, that of Poland. As head of Betar's Polish branch, Begin traveled among regional branches to encourage supporters and recruit new members. To save money, he stayed at the homes of Betar members. During one such visit, he met his future wife Aliza Arnold, who was the daughter of his host.
In September 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, Begin, in common with a large part of Warsaw's Jewish leadership, escaped to Vilnius, where he was later arrested by NKVD and sentenced to 8 years is gulag camps. In July 1941, just after Germany attacked the Soviet Union, and following his release under the Sikorski–Mayski agreement because he was a Polish national, Begin joined the Free Polish Anders' Army as a corporal officer cadet. He was later sent with the army to Palestine via the Persian Corridor, where he arrived in May 1942. Upon arriving in Palestine, Begin, like many other Polish Jewish soldiers of the Anders' Army, faced a choice between remaining with the Anders' Army to fight Nazi Germany in Europe, or staying in Palestine to fight for establishment of a Jewish state Consequently, General Michał Karaszewicz-Tokarzewski, the second-in-command of the Army issued Begin with a “leave of absence without an expiration" which gave Begin official permission to stay in Palestine.
After creation of the state of Israel Begin political career has started in new country. In 1973 he became a chairman of Likud alliance. In 1977 Likud, headed by Begin, won the Knesset elections. This enabled engaging into Camp David accords leading to the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty with Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat. Under the terms of the treaty, brokered by US President, Jimmy Carter, Israel was to hand over the Sinai Peninsula in its entirety to Egypt. The peace treaty with Egypt was a watershed moment in Middle Eastern history, as it was the first time an Arab state
recognized Israel's legitimacy whereas Israel effectively accepted the land for peace principle as blueprint for resolving the Arab–Israeli conflict. Given Egypt's prominent position within the Arab World, especially as Israel's
biggest and most powerful enemy, the treaty had far reaching strategic and geopolitical implications.
Born: 21 August, 1917, Moscow, Russian Repblic
Died: 24 June, 2008, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States
The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences 2007
Prize motivation: “for having laid the foundations of mechanism design theory."
Hurwicz was born in Moscow, Russia, to a family of Polish Jews a few months before the October Revolution. Soon after Leonid's birth, the family returned to Warsaw.
Hurwicz was grew up in Poland and graduated from Warsaw University. He became a refugee in the United States after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.
Hurwicz's interests included mathematical economics and modeling and the theory of the firm. His published works in these fields date back to 1944. He is internationally renowned for his pioneering research on economic theory, particularly in the areas of mechanism and institutional design and mathematical economics. In the 1950s, he worked with Kenneth Arrow on non-linear programming; in 1972 Arrow became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Economics prize. Hurwicz was the graduate advisor to Daniel McFadden, who received the prize in 2000.