Home of the Brave: The Young Poles

MARTHA GELLHORN, short-story writer (0. Henry prizewinner, 1958), novelist, and war correspondent, has recently returned from a visit to Poland, which she describes in this article.

THE ATLANTIC

BY MARTHA GELLHORN

THE man was tall, very thin, with a fine emaciated face and two round indented scars in his cheek, bullet wounds or worse. Since everyone in Poland looks ten years older than his age, he may have been thirty-five, perhaps younger. He wore something shabby in the way of sweater, windbreaker, grayish trousers. Poor and ugly clothing is routine; what matters is that the clothes seem sleazy and no protection against the cold. Where there are few material signs of position, people declare themselves by their faces and the tone of their minds. This was a man of breeding and education, and of special courage, and he was one of Cardinal Wyszynski’s Catholics.

He said, “Our young people are so against doctrine that it even works against us. They say that they agree with us in some things, we have an ethical sense, we believe in the individual and his freedom and his soul, but then we have dogma too, and they hate dogma. . . . No one, not the young nor us nor anyone, except some very old people who have understood nothing, wants capitalism again; that is over. We want the future, though we are not sure of its form. But that future must make room for and allow the dignity of the individual.”

No label that I knew fitted this man. I told him that he did not sound like any other Catholic I had talked to, outside Poland.

“We are Catholic humanists. We are only concerned with the freedom of the individual in this or any future society. We often feel closer to liberal Communists than to some totalitarianminded Catholics—those who believe in a small ruling group, a strong government, and in telling the people, who are considered as a mass, what to do.”

I had come to see this unusual Catholic to check what I thought I had learned about young people in his country. In something over two weeks in Poland, I had listened at length to forty-eight people, all met by chance and luck; no one selected for me, no one supervised, and I had been guided to this tiny fraction of a fraction by my own special curiosity. I was interested in the young who live by their minds, because I wanted to see what a lifetime of war and Communism had done to their minds. I shall report here only on the intellectual young; the brain workers, not the manual workers.

Nothing and no one in Poland are as expected; and our yardsticks do not apply, for none of us has had to live as Poles have, through twenty merciless years. We belong in different worlds. Seen from Poland, the West seems very far away, an almost insanely luxurious dream. And Poland feels like a dream too, a heroic nightmare. One’s sense of reality is dislocated. One needs a new vocabulary to think with.

Even flat terms that we imagine we can define, like “Catholic” and “Communist,” have not the tight meanings we give to them. There are Communist-sponsored Catholics, the totalitarianminded believers that the thin man spoke of, and active Catholic humanists, supporters of the Cardinal. Then there are the younger Catholics who go to church because formerly it was one way to protest against the regime, and the church is linked to patriotism, and “in hard times, religion is the only way to be free in your soul,” and churches are beautiful, and you are there with friends; but they do not obey any of the rules of the church. As for Communists, there is a type described, always laughingly, as a “real, fanatic Communist” — these are hard to find, and I did not manage to see one; there is someone else described as “very Communist”; and someone milder called “quite Communist”; and there is a “member of the Party,” which does not necessarily mean that he is a true Communist at all. A man might have joined the Party during the war, because the Communist underground resistance was the most efficient against the Nazis; this is a frequent reason and accepted as laudable. Or a man might become a member of the Party after the war, because he had to, to do the work he wanted or to hold his position; not laudable perhaps, but understood. And then there is a massive condition, known as being “communisant.” A graduate student, our equivalent of a man studying for his Ph.D. who consistently fails to write his thesis, explained that “all our young people are communisants. It is not the idea we are against; we see it as more modern than capitalism.”

“Then you are Party members?” I asked.

Four of us were packed into a small hired car at the time, driving through the flat smoky Silesian countryside. “No!” they cried out in shocked voices, “no, no!” The party was “administrative,” and they had nothing to do with that sort of thing.

I TOLD the Catholic with the wounded face about our Silesian outing. In the morning I had hired a soiled hotel car and collected my chums haphazardly in the street. This was in Krakow. My young new friends were free to go anywhere at once; they are always on the move, searching for an odd job, a chance meal, a permission from a government bureau, a book, fun, anything. A student has a stipend of four dollars a month; this is calculated on the real value of the zloty, the black market value, not the pepped-up official exchange. If lucky, he gets food parcels from home, and he does whatever jobs he can find or sells anything he may have, to survive. But a successful grown-up man having two jobs — one would not be enough — might earn thirty dollars a month and support a family, and this is considered very good money not by what it can provide, but simply good money to get. Poverty among intellectuals (all I know about) is universal; there are only degrees of worse and worse.

We were going to an industrial village in Silesia to see a Polish primitive painter whose work I had heard of. Riding in a private car is a treat, and since I was there, with my old-fashioned tendency to eat now and again, I would buy food if we could find it, so it was a real party.

One boy, aged twenty, was studying singing; another, aged twenty-two, was an accomplished scene designer and painter, a senior student; the third was the art-historian non-Ph.D. aged all of twenty-seven, a Pied Piper figure who leads the young to make fun for themselves. They and their friends run a little cabaret in a derelict cellar. Their stage is four battered kitchen tables in a row, scenery is painted on the wall of the cellar, costumes are tacked together out of borrowed odds and ends. If people have money, they pay to see the cabaret; if not, they see the show anyhow. The cellar had been closed for months; the band of young amateurs was suspect because of making political jokes. (At one time they did a strip tease of a statue of Stalin, not tactful but much appreciated.) They had promised to make no more political jokes. Every night now, helpless with laughter, they rehearsed — in their filthy, freezing cellar — a take-off on the Romantics. Romanticism, with its emphasis on lovesickness, mal de siècle, and personal drama, strikes them as high comedy. The cabaret uses their talents and keeps their private hope alive.

In the car, Julek, the Pied Piper, began to remove his various coats. He always wears everything he owns, beat-up turtle-neck sweater, suit, overcoat, because he has no room of his own, sleeps wherever he can find a bed, and carries his property on his person. Suddenly loud warbling cries issued from the singer, while the painter shook with laughter. The painter said, “This is an interesting boy. He shows me now what is the Russian school of bel canto.” Roaring with laughter at Russians is a mad Polish specialty; and the young I saw, who were all absorbed in the arts, laugh like billy-o. Unless they are telling you, with disgust, of the long period when their working lives were dominated by the theory of Socialist Realism, that Pollyanna version of art which makes everything sentimental and over-life-size, a whooping-up propaganda. Officially, until 1956, they had to be taught that Socialist Realism was real art. On the whole they despised and rejected this teaching by pure instinct.

Julek and I looked at the awful landscape, a synthesis of industrial ugliness, and Julek observed, “If you cannot pay people to work, you must use terror. There is no other way. We were all made equal in poverty and that was necessary. Our country was destroyed by the war and hopelessly poor. If only the West could help us to get on our feet, then people could be paid to work; but no, Russia would not allow that. It is so awkward, isn’t it, our culture goes West and our economics goes East.”

“Is it only poverty that makes Rysio [the painter] and Pavel [the singer] seem so discouraged for themselves?” I would have settled for that; you feel poverty as if it were a suffocating smell in the air.

“All the young are in despair, a priori. There is no future for them, and they know it. My life, for instance, is terribly important to me; but I see that it has no importance in the great thing of history. They will shut up our cellar one day, perhaps soon. Official opinion thinks we are reactionary because we make jokes. That is idiotic, but that is official opinion. It will be hard for us because it is easier when you have a little group to laugh together. But we will be stopped, and I understand it. I don’t accept it; I understand it.”

Rysio, in a fury that was close to tears, said, “I am a painter. I do not care whether a private man or a government runs a shop. What difference does it make? I only want to live in peace and paint. But who will ever buy my paintings? Who has money for that? Oh, I would give my paintings, my drawings, all; I have nothing, but everything I have, if only I could go to Italy and look at the beautiful Renaissance pictures.”

“If you had the money and were free, would you go for good?” I asked.

“No. No. I could not ever do that.”

I had asked all the young I saw whether they would leave Poland permanently, if able to, if a living could be earned elsewhere, and each one said: No.

And after this, to my surprise, it turned out that they were communisants.

“It’s not the theory, then, that they object to,”

I asked the Catholic humanist, “but the practice?”

“Ah, the practice. It’s so much better now, since 1956, you can have no idea.”

His smile lighted up his drawn, scarred face. Leon, a newly met journalist friend who had brought me here, and I said good-by and went out into the slimy streets of Krakow. “That’s a good, sane man,” Leon said. I could place Leon, a little, because a few days before he had told me that he was “partyless. I don’t think I could belong to any party, even if I agreed with it.”

“The country seems full of good, sane people,” I said. “And Krakow seems a good, sane city.”

FoR five hundred years Krakow has been a university town and a center of art, but it was founded in the tenth century, and the ancient castle of the Polish Kings and the cathedral where they are buried rise on a hill above the city and the curving river. Herr Franck, a little man with pinkand-white skin and a pursed rosebud mouth, the monstrous Nazi King of Poland, lived and ruled in that castle and thus insulted the Poles’ passionate love of their history. Narrow streets wind from the castle to the market square, with its arcaded town hall and flower stands and pigeons. The reconstructed statue of Poland’s greatest poet stands in this square. The Nazis, determined to destroy the culture of the Poles as well as their bodies, dynamited this monument. All during the Nazi occupation, little bunches of flowers appeared on the dynamited rubble. But for twenty years now the people of Krakow have had no money to paint or refurbish their city, and it is dirty, wornout, like a very old, very tired beauty.

Leon is young by my standards but not by Polish standards, as he is thirty. A man of seventy might have learned how to keep Leon’s tolerant distance from life, by becoming a spectator. However, if you are a soldier at fifteen, in an underground army, and fight a final losing battle for your country, and are afterwards buffeted around Europe alone for eight years, perhaps you become seventy quickly.

“You know,” Leon said, “the truth is that most young people are only interested in politics as it affects their freedom.”

“But politics affects everything,” I said. “Like an incurable disease. It spreads everywhere; it never leaves you alone.”

“We know we have the best we can get, and we are glad of it and only hope to keep it. This much freedom. And perhaps it will get better; maybe if the Russians grow richer. There would be less terror everywhere. . . . People don’t hate the Russians, you know, it isn’t that. The Russians exploited us after the war, and they were always forcing us to love them. That was awful, but they’ve let up. With time, with time, it has to get better. Let’s go and drink some vodka.”

They all drink a lot of vodka and who wouldn’t and why not? The young ones exaggerate how much they drink; they haven’t the money to drink steadily. In plays and stories they use vodka, drunkenness, as a symbol of bitterness and brutality. Drinking to forget, and becoming beastly as a result. This is touching; they are such unbeastly young.

We had a merry time in Krakow. We waltzed and tangoed at what is considered locally a depraved night club for low-class people. It was a big, plain, well-lit room with nursery-pink walls, and looked to me like a respectable dance hall for lower-middle-class families. The band was a delight. The Poles adore jazz, and it is the worst jazz I have ever heard. Cheap vodka is the diet in this dance hall; most of the women were tarts — hefty, scout-leaderish tarts. All the men, as everywhere else, kissed hands. At the end of each dance, with an elegance which would have been fine at Versailles, hands are kissed; when meeting or leaving a lady, hands are kissed. In the muddy street, under the drizzling sky, you see a woman dressed in baggy clothes and a beret and run-down shoes, and her face weary, pale, unpainted, having her hand kissed by a man who looks as if he had just come from a day’s heavy road-building. The way to address waiters is to call softly, “Please, Monsieur.” (“Mister” is not the right translation.) Chambermaids are “Madame.” And even “very” Communists, I am told, cannot bring themselves to say “Comrade,” and they kiss hands too. The manners of the young are glorious, as are their voices; all voices, in fact. By their voices alone, you would say this is a nation of cultivated people. But how did the young learn? These manners, in this desolate mise-en-scène, have nobility and magic.

We went to the theater; everyone goes to the theater; seats are cheap. Krakow is a town of half a million people and has ten legitimate theaters, an operetta company, and a Philharmonic. The first play I saw there was written by a very young writer; it was modern (the characters dressed in blue jeans, floppy skirts), yet allegorical too. And imagination, in the theater, proves an excellent substitute for money. Here, on a tilted, clevery lit stage, furnished only with three symbolic bench swings, we were in the miserable crowded Warsaw room of two young men. Vodka played a prominent part in the plot, which was the story of the denial of love, the heartless treatment of a young girl. The playwright was attacking what he feels to be an attitude of his contemporaries; cynicism and self-hate, born of hopelessness, working itself out as vengeance on the innocent.

The other play was in the Workers’ Theater at Nowa Huta, a modern steel town built in five years on the outskirts of Krakow. One hundred thousand people live in these giant cement sardine tins, and only the theater is graceful, and it is crowded every night. I saw, there, Camus’s allegory against dictatorship, called Siege of the State. The costumes were dazzling in color and shape, made of cheesecloth or cheap rayon stuff; the single dècor was strong architecture; the crowd scenes were as beautiful as ballet. You could hear yourself breathe in that audience. This play, among us, would be considered highbrow and difficult. The workers of Nowa Huta like it best of the repertory, which includes, oddly enough, The Rainmaker and Of Mice and Men. A young woman less than thirty years old directs this theater. I asked if anyone had seen the play in Paris; how did they get their ideas for costuming, staging? No one had seen it anywhere. This fresh, compelling production came straight out of their own heads. And there never was a clearer denunciation of tyranny.

My young pals agreed that the government was quite glad to let allegory past the censor; you can’t have a political quarrel, with a powerful Eastern neighbor, over allegory. And it is entirely true that anyone can say, if not print, film, or act, what he likes. The freedom of speech is terrifying to an outsider, who fears that at some later date, when perhaps things have tightened up, this freedom will be paid for retroactively.

ONE night, after the show, we went to a students’ theater, again a derelict basement which the young had fashioned into a tiny playhouse with their own hands. This play was also an allegory, having to do with prison — “Polish undergraduate Ionesco,” Julek said. The stage was set with ominous spindly black bars, cages, ladders. The theater was a rabbit warren of handmade cement stairs with a small room, not more than twelve by eight feet, at the top. The director, an alarmingly thin boy, sleeps here on a short sofa and also uses his bedroom as the theater office. We sat where we could in this room, the troupe and some other young ones, with a bottle of vodka and time nonexistent.

I don’t know how the talk came to Auschwitz, that greatest of all memorials to dictatorship. A young musician said to me, “But they don’t know about Auschwitz in the West, do they? They don’t believe it?”

“Yes, they do, they do.” Only, of course, I thought, they don’t know, they cannot visualize it, they cannot feel it. You have to go yourself; you have to see the mountain of women’s hair, the mountain of dead children’s shoes, the mountain of pulled-out teeth; you have to pick up a handful of mushy soil near the crematoriums and touch the rotting lumps of white bone in it. A man who had been a prisoner in this place for four years — from the age of twenty-one to twenty-five — guided me over the huge camp. We passed through the execution yard where his father, and tens of thousands of others, had been shot. He led me down narrow stairs to the torture cells beneath and told me in a flat voice what had happened here. There were bunches of field flowers on the doors of some cells, mementos left to the dead. That day I had seen groups of gypsies, nuns, Polish peasants, a few Frenchmen, a few Dutchmen moving silently and with stunned faces around the crude brick buildings. Suddenly, in that dark, empty cellar my guide shivered but said nothing.

On four hundred and thirty-seven acres of swampland (an area smaller than La Guardia Airport), behind this barbed wire, the Nazis murdered four million men, women, and children by hunger, disease, medical experiments, poison gas, shooting, hanging, and injections of phenol to the heart.

No one who has seen Auschwitz will ever forget it. It is a sin that the twenty-eight nations (including our own) whose citizens were killed here do not preserve this prison and raise a noble monument to the dead. Auschwitz should never be forgotten; it is a warning for all mankind.

We stopped talking of Auschwitz because we could not bear it; but still we could not leave the war. The war is always with you in Poland, and even these very young people are incurably scarred by it. One said that they had had such “grave” childhoods, “it is better now to forget.” At ten years of age, he was carrying secret papers for the Home Army in Warsaw, perfectly aware of what the Gestapo did to children too. His parents died in Auschwitz. Another said that as a boy of nine, coming home, he saw German soldiers collect all the people from a big apartment house, line them up against the wall of their home, and mow them down with machine gun fire. “When I was going home,” he said, “just across the street. I remember how afraid I was.” These memories burn in every brain. No one, in Poland, except the very very young, is free of such knowledge. And no one has had ease and safety, in the peace, to heal the memories a little. The wonder of all is the lionhearted gaiety of these people.

Nothing I know of the war is as appalling as what they know and have lived through, but I have my special heroes and I spoke of them: the Polish Corps in Italy. Suddenly a young actor said, “Words. Nothing but words. The Poles are always brave; they know how to die. They die everywhere, especially well in foreign wars. It is very nice for you; you can admire us. It is useless and it must stop. Better not be brave and live; better be like the Czechs and live. There has been too much dying.”

I said that I knew people in the West who believed that nuclear war was preferable to living under a totalitarian dictatorship, a Russian dictatorship obviously. The whole roomful of them, the quiet gentle girls, who need good food and a hair wash and a rest, and the tense, fiercely alert boys, cried out, “No! No! Not ever!” One said, “Haven’t we had enough, in the name of God? Let us just live, no matter how we have to do it. You can do something about life, a little anyhow, or have some fun, if you’re still alive.”

The youngest there, an actor of twenty, with a face like a Botticelli angel, said, “Oh, stop it now. Stop talking about war. We have nothing but war films and war books, and we hear about it from our fathers and our brothers, and we can see what it was, any time we go anywhere. Stop. Talk about the future.”

“Good,” I said. “What about the future?”

“Well,” he said, shy now with everyone listening, and this a matter of such importance, “what is the student theater like in America?”

WARSAW frightened me at once, a haunted city, and I never got over a feeling of dread, depression, an irrational anxiety for everyone. Warsaw was destroyed by the Germans in 1944, block by block, using dynamite, fire, bombs; doggedly, the Poles are rebuilding it. Warsaw looks or feels as if the war had ended last week, not some thirteen years ago. There is the wide weed-grown flat where once the ghetto stood; there are everywhere gaping holes in place of buildings; there are other buildings shored-up, half burned, and slashes and holes from shellfire on peeling walls. There are the skinny new trees.

Poland was defeated by the Nazi and Soviet armies in the month of September, 1939; but conquered Poland remained one of the cruelest battlefields of the war, and six million Polish citizens were killed in the five and a half years of World War II. Statistics are always cold, but perhaps if one compares numbers, the statistics take on their true size: the total of dead and missing of the United States Armed Forces in World War II was 407,828.

In Warsaw, you also remember that you are in a Communist-controlled country, though by all accounts the control now is humane and lenient, judged by what it was and what it is in other satellite countries. Still you do hear the incompetent echo in the tapped hotel telephone; you do notice that people look over their shoulders when talking in restaurants — the secret police are dormant but not forgotten; you feel in your bones, as you would feel a threatening change in the weather, every change in Russian mood or action. This is not an air we have ever breathed; I doubt if we would be strong enough to resist such a climate and stay as healthy in spirit as the Poles.

The Old Town of Warsaw has been entirely rebuilt and is an enchanting seventeenth-century village, with pale-painted house fronts, carved doors, squares, small churches. The Poles needed this lovely reminder of their past, for if man does not live by bread alone, Poles particularly do not.

I met a few young artists who were lucky enough to be allotted garrets in the Old Town as studio homes. They were adorable children, as tidy and domesticated and content with their attics as very old people who have at last retired to their dream bungalows in Florida.

One boy who paints fairy-story illustrations (the complete, determined escape) told me something of his life. When he was eleven, he was orphaned; he did not say (one never asks) how his parents died; they were both thirty-six at the time. His fifteen-year-old brother was deported for slave labor in Germany and never again heard of. An unknown family took him in; he stayed with them until he was fourteen. Then he returned to warsaw alone, frail (he is frail now), and made his own way, working, scrounging, starving, to get an education, to go to the Beaux Arts. At twenty-three, he married. His wife, also a painter, is like a little furry woodland creature, so shy that she cannot speak without blushing, and never in a voice above a whisper. They were married for four years but had no place to live together. Now they have a home, made gay and pretty by their taste, their economies, and their skillful hands. At night they have their evening meal of tea and cookies, sitting together in their garret in a radiance of love. This is such joy, this safety and peace inside four walls, that they think of nothing except how to earn enough to keep what they have. In their lives they have made one trip, for three days to Dresden in East Germany to look at pictures in the museum; they said the pictures were wonderful.

A friend of theirs, a girl who works in a museum, is married to a painter, and is also blessed with a garret, spoke of the destruction of Warsaw; she was twelve years old at the time. “It took perhaps thirteen hours to walk through the city, when the Germans drove us all out. There was a great crowd of people, old ones and sick and wounded and children, and the Germans with their guns standing along the streets and saying, ‘Hurry up, hurry up.’ If anyone fell, they had to be left behind, and families got lost from each other. You could hear nothing except the fires and the sound of burning beams falling from houses.

Happily, in these circumstances, one has no imagination.”

There is nothing cruel, insane, ugly that they have not seen; and it has made them strangely quiet. Another young man in this group, trying to explain their outlook, spoke of the difference between them and les jeunes, which means people younger than themselves. They are twenty-six, twenty-eight, and do not consider themselves young. He said with pity, with impatience too, “The young have complexes which they show.”

These young ones have had enough and more than enough of politics, the wicked mess their elders have offered them. They believe in art and in their love for each other; they are not like old married couples, they are like Hänsel and Gretel clinging together in a hostile world. They are absolutely private individuals and “realists,” as they say. Maybe they feel that having homes, they have more than most and more than they dared hope for, and they hope no further.

ANOTHER DAY I talked with two successful young literary men in the Writers’ Club. Each intellectual craft has its own club, a few modest rooms where you can eat and drink. They wanted to know about good writers in England and America, and I told them what I could, trying to explain styles and characters and plots, and as I talked I saw the novels and stories I was discussing as fantastic carving on cherry stones. I did not miss the polite glaze that came over their oldyoung faces.

The novelist with one arm, who had been deported to Russia as a child for slave labor and had spent his adolescence in DP camps in India and Africa, said that he did not think such works could be published in Poland. “People would not really understand them. You see, we perhaps don’t care so much for purely personal problems. I mean, things you can get over by yourself.”

The young, they said, have learned no ideology: they have learned something else: an interior censorship. There is not only the official censor, but the watchdog inside who tells you in advance what you can get by with. They rebel against this rationed freedom, yet everyone I saw agreed that there is no thought of overthrowing Communism as such. “No one thinks of capitalism again — that’s a past dream — they only think of how to make this better.”

Capitalism is another word that has to be redefined. To the Poles, I think it means lavishness, an unimaginable and even undesirable glut of things not needed. I did not find anyone who coveted our two-toned cars. What they wanted was a room — no matter how small, how bare — of one’s own; and two suits, not just one; and two weeks’ vacation outside of Poland. They envy us what we value too lightly: our intellectual freedom. Our real richness, in their eyes, is that we can have personal convictions and act on them.

I talked often to a man who seemed to me an encyclopedia of human experience. He was born rich and lived a princeling life until he was deported, as a boy in his early teens, to Russia for slave labor. He stayed on, freely, after the war because he wanted to see Russia. (“It’s a fascinating country.”) Still in his teens, he was put in charge of eighty displaced Polish families somewhere at the end of the world, in the hinterland of Russia. When he came back to Europe, he managed to collect what he could of his money and went off to blow it, dazzlingly, in Italy and France. Then he returned to this Polish life which is at once buried and wildly alive. He spends all the money he cannot spare on books, and he knows far more than I do about Western literature.

Above all, I think he wants the West to understand Poland, and he knows how hard that task is. He said, “You Americans don’t understand us. We don’t envy you. We are glad that there’s something young and beautiful and gay and happy in the world. Only we are often disappointed in you. Because you have so much, and you are not à votre hauteur. Not all the time, as you should be. You know, sometimes when I am very sad, I think to myself about English law, and it makes me happy. Just thinking about it. The way they go on, so careful about their law, so respectful of it.”

The Poles love to laugh, and do, and I felt ashamed, for their sakes, because I could not laugh enough. The spectacle of constant bravery does not lead, I find, to laughter; it induces many intense emotions, the simplest of which is awe. But I found one man with whom I laughed at once and steadily, as if some electrical connection of gaiety had been set up between us. He looked irresistibly jolly, for a start, being shortish and roundish, with merry eyes and a face full of loving, laughing kindness. He worked in a small office for a newspaper, and the presses on the floor below shook the building, and the telephone rang all the time, and young people sauntered in and smiled at him and chatted, and you could see he was a benign guardian angel for them. I asked what a girl with enormous dark eyes and a scruffy Sagan haircut had wanted of him, and was told with merriment that she came in to discuss Doctor zhivago.

He said he had a copy, which was a nice surprise, and we agreed that Pasternak’s colleagues, yelping like jackals, were a scandal. “Here,” he said, “we are no longer under the necessity to pronounce ourselves on what we do not understand. It is not much; but it is much,” and he twinkled at me.

He was anxious about the young. “Perhaps they use up all their fantasy in trying to get better living conditions. It is their main great preoccupation. And there have been so many plans and rules, people forget a little how to make their own plans and dreams. Besides, we have not your tradition of private freedom. You are ready to make any sacrifices to do what you want.”

If he liked to believe that, it was not up to me to disillusion him.

“I came here to find out about private freedom,” I said. “I wondered whether the young would talk and think alike. I wondered whether a system, any system, if it’s the only one you know, could make minds operate to order or on a pattern. Now I think we could take lessons from Poland on how to be rugged individualists. But I’m repelled by Communist economics. Do you remember that wonderful line in Doctor zhivago: ‘Man was born to live and not to prepare to live’? That’s what I’ve got against Communist economics. One damned steel mill after another, and no joy for the living. I don’t understand economics. Does it have to be so ruthless?”

“We were very poor, and the war made us poorer. It is not all as bad as you think. Some people are better off than before. Perhaps 70 per cent of the people. Not those like us, but others.”

“I don’t want to argue this with you,” I said. “I want to get the proper Communist point of view on it. It’s too absurd the way I can’t seem to find a proper Communist.”

He found this very funny. “But I am a Communist.”

“You!” I said, shouting with laughter.

“No, no,” he insisted, laughing now at both of us. “I am, really. Honestly, I am.”

This confirmed my one certainty about Poland: no labels fit.