Making molehills out of mountains

January 8, 1999

Ludwik Rajchman (1881-1965) was a polyglot Pole of internationalist bent and institutionalist accent, who spearheaded some of the noblest humanitarian initiatives of this century: the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, the World Health Organisation, and its predecessor, the Health Section of the League of Nations, to say nothing of the National Institute of Hygiene in Poland, relief and reconstruction programmes in China, and the very idea of international public health. "Lulu" Rajchman made molehills out of mountains.

He was also a difficult man to accommodate. His admirers included the polymath Joseph Needham and the polymorph Jean Monet. He could be charming in five languages, as one of his recruits recalled, but he made enemies in many more. In Bagatelles pour un massacre (1937), the anti-Semitic French writer Louis Ferdinand Céline, a one-time employee and friend of the family, offers a phantasmagoric vision of his former boss, "Yubelblat", of the League of Nations: "He was tireless in his pirouettes, his trapeze motionsI furtive colloquia, mysteries, international intrigues... I am reminded of that extravagant animal the ornithorynx, the incredible false beaver with a bird's enormous beak, who never stops diving, nosing around... unpredictably disappearing... Splash! He plunges into India... He's gone! Another time, it's into China... the Balkans... into the world's shadows... He was infinitely suppleI extraordinary to look at, but at the end of those hands, he had claws... and venom, like the ornithorynx..."

For the Good of Humanity is a successful attempt to draw the sting. It is in fact a family portrait - Marta Balitiska is Rajchman's great-granddaughter - first published in France in 1996. The translation, though serviceable, appears to have been trimmed at various points. The author is at once efficient and engaged, inspired by Rajchman's widow, who lived to a vigorous old age. "I have bourgeois skin, but communist spirit!" she would announce, pulling up her Chinese trousers and pinching her calf.

The work is embellished with a preface by Rajchman's compatriot, the distinguished scholar-statesman Bronislaw Geremek, who reflects on his predecessor's commitment to humanitarian issues, his international achievements and his profound attachment to Poland.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

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