Wednesday, July 07, 2004

A long post that spans such topics as Croatian Rockefellers, the Medicis of Florence, Nobel laureates and Polish restaurateurs

Over the years, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists have left their home countries to travel to places where labs are well funded and opportunities to prosper are numerous (mostly in the U.S.). With respect to men and women of science, today’s IHT describes the phenomenon (here) thus:

The world's scientists are like a flock of flamingos that migrates from briny lakes when they dry up and returns only when the lagoons are replenished.

Not surprisingly, many of the home countries, including Poland, are now trying to woo the successful scientists back to their homeland. In Italy and Croatia large-scale research centers are being established to entice those who have left. And the successful expatriates who have made their wealth abroad are being asked to donate large sums of money to keep the centers competitive with their counterparts abroad.

I find the idea of returning in some way to your base, aligning yourself again with your home country, infinitely fascinating. Radman, a Croatian scientists who heads a 25-person lab in Paris, has taken it upon himself to secure donations from fellow expats for the Mediterranean Institute for Life Sciences on the Adriatic Coast. In the article, I read:

“I'm trying to tempt them to play the role of Croatian Rockefellers or the Medicis of Florence," he said. The sales pitch isn't flowery: "What will you get in return? Nothing. Just the glory."

I think there are two types of success stories out there – the Martha Stewart types who do much to camouflage their heritage, even changing their names to Americanize their image (I suppose the title “Martha Kostyra Living” lacks a certain pizzazz; and in all fairness, she was not born in Poland and so her associations are a generation removed from her roots), and then there is the very large second group whose members cannot or will not break with their past. In it we have the musicians – the Chopins and Paderewskis who left and died abroad, but went back again and again in their work to their homeland (Poland); or, we have the “fathers” and “mothers” of disciplines who returned to Poland in significant ways in their scholarship: there is Florian Znaniecki, author of the “Polish Peasant,” a work that I think, can fairly be described as creating the foundations for empirical sociology; Oscar Lange, who, after a successful career in economics at Chicago, went back to Poland and lay the groundwork for the emergent field of Econometrics; or Marie Sklodowska Curie, who named a newly-discovered element after her homeland (“polonium”).

The last I counted, there were some two dozen Nobel Laureates who are either Polish or of Polish origin. Of course, everyone knows about Walesa, Milosz, Szymborska, or even Singer (all Nobel laureates), but does anyone know that the following are also Poles by birth? – Begin (Peace, ’78), Peres (Peace, ’94), Rotblat (Peace, ’95), Agnon (Literature, ’66 – maybe the fact that Poland was partitioned during his childhood caused him to not think in terms of having a homeland), Grass (Literature, ’99 – he, too, said nothing about Poland in his Nobel prize acceptance speech; even in speaking of his childhood and early influences he managed to skip any references to things Polish) and a host of scientists that are not household names here or in Poland. None of these are significantly focused on their country of birth.

On a less grand scale (and belonging to the group of returnees), I met this winter a Polish-French woman who married a French chef and convinced him to open (along with her) a restaurant in Krakow (even though he speaks hardly a word of Polish). She relocated her family to Poland (she had left the country when she was a child), excited at the idea of riding a wave of success there. She told me she wants to be part of the newest “Polish renaissance.”

It’s all intriguing to me – the story of the returning Pole, in spirit or otherwise, the one who can’t quite let go of the past.

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