Three photographs of the underground printing premises of NOWa (Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza) [The Independent Publishing House], the first independent publishing house in Poland. Warsaw: [1977–1980?].

Prague: 1977-1980. Original gelatin prints, measuring 23 × 16.5 cm. Very good; one image with light foxing to upper margin. Item #6278

NOWa [The Independent Publishing House], was Poland’s preeminent underground independent publisher; it was not run or regulated by the state and was not subject to state censorship. Established in 1977, NOWa was sponsored by the Commttee for Socal Self-Defense (KOR), forerunner to the more famous Solidarno (Solidarity), Poland’s and the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union and the seat of Polish opposition in the 1980s. KOR provided the startup capital for NOWa which printed most of KOR’s fliers and educational materials. The central demands of KOR were the right to have an independent worker’s union (to self-organize) and to go on strike. Like KOR, NOWa was not anti-communist, instead it wanted to create an independent press that was free of censorship. “The Balck Book of Polish Censorship” (1978) was one of the first major hits of the publishing house, based on the documents of the Warsaw censorship office smuggled out of Poland by one of its employees and first printed abroad in 1977. NOWa was also a leading publisher of banned literature, such as works by Witold Gombrowicz, Günter Grass, Bohumil Hrabal, George Orwell, or Joseph Brodsky.

By 1978, NOWa was able to compete with state publishers in quality and was able to attract famous contemporary Polish authors. This gave contemporary Polish authors an alternative to the state, which helped them curb self-censorship and write more honestly and freely. NOWa’s activities, like those of most non-governmental organisations in Poland, were in a legal grey zone. Publishers faced harrassment and unpredictable short arrests but were not persecuted as harshly as simmilar operations in other Soviet block nations. Siobhan Doucette writes: “NOWa worked on two planes: aboveground and underground. In keeping with the KOR ideal of transparency, NOWa had an open editorial board which came to include Miroslaw Chojecki, Konrad Belinsky, Adam Michnik, Ewa Milewicz, and Grzegorz Boguta. This gave the publishing house a public face, which not only provided potential readers, writers and printers with a point of contact but also the state authorities. Accordingly, NOWa also maintained a silent editorial team to help prevent the confiscation of publishing materials. Most of its printers and distributors also remained anonymous. By 1978 about two hundred people worked with NOWa” (Books are Weapons: The Polish Oppositional Press, and the Overthrow of Communism). Printing was done in different locations that changed regularly, usually houses on the outskirts of Warsaw. NOWa’s visibility made it a primary target during the crackdown on opposition during the martial law and most of its leading activists were arrested. Despite the crackdown, NOWa continued operations throughout the 1980s, and worked closely with Solidarity, publishing many of its serials such as Marzowe Weekly.

The three photographs in this collection capture the anonymous printers, their faces covered with rags. The images show the printing process, done on a printing press that was hand fed. Stacks of publications in the background indicate that this was a large operation. Although the faces of the printers are covered the photos are potentially staged with humor, as one of the printers wears glasses over the cloth that disguises his face. Judging by the clothing of the printers the photographs were taken sometime in the late 1970s and likely printed shortly after considering the light foxing along the top edge of one of the protographs.

A collection of sixteen similar images was featured as no. 879 in the Temmen Monograph (Forschungsstelle Osteuropa Samizdat. Alternative Kultur in Zentral- und Osteuropa: Die 60er bis 80er Jahre).

Price: €825.00