Poland Revisited

MARTHA GELLHORN. short-story writer, novelist, former war correspondent, reported her first visit to Poland for the ATLANTIC in March, 1959, in an article entitled. “Home of the Brave.” Here is an account of her second journey to that remarkable country.

AS FOR me, to go to Poland is to stop through the Looking Glass. The people are superb, but there’s also the Red Queen, dressed up as the State now, and I have simple Alice reactions to the State Queen: barking mad and beastly, is what 1 say to myself. The Polish people are used to the Red Queen, and besides are indestructible. They stay sane and make jokes. On my second visit to Poland I thought I learned more, but in the end I was only sure of what I felt. This would be of supreme unimportance except that I imagine that my emotions arc standard, typical, those of anyone of low-average stamina brought up in the Western world and accustomed to such amenities as the lifelong habit of calling your soul your own.

We sat in a charming candlelit cellar in the beautifully rebuilt old town of Warsaw, and it might have been a glamorous restaurant anywhere. The other tables were filled, although this is an expensive place, even on the black-market rate of exchange, let alone on the thieving official rate. I marveled at the girls — fragile pretty creatures, soft-voiced, fair, wearing the new beehive hairdos, modern products of modern hardship who retain a gentleness and grace seldom seen amongst us. The young men looked chipper.

The older couples were neat, dark-clad, middleclass bourgeoisie, you would think, dining out on the cook’s night off. My companions might have been a tweedy English professor and his delicate wife.

My professorial friend has been in prison sometime or other, for one of the new reasons: these have to do with economics and are pure other-sideof-the-Looking-Glass. I listened to a trial in Krakow where eight men were being judged, under the criminal code, for incompetence in their State-owned cooperative. They could easily have been stupid or inexperienced, but that sort of common-sense interpretation of life is not the way the law works. Whether you lose money or make money, you can always go to jail, if the State wishes. Listening to Poles, you would imagine that to go to jail, to have been in jail, is about on a par with our reaction to a bad case of influenza. Nasty, rotten luck, can happen to anyone, nothing to shout about, something to avoid if possible, and obviously no stigma attaches to it.

Self-pity seems unknown among Poles, and this lack imparts a fine astringent tone to their thinking and conversation. They talk about themselves and the life of their country as if they stood several miles away. I was therefore not surprised to hear my friend point out, with detachment, some valuable accomplishments of the State. He said, “This regime gets no credit, even for the good things it does; the people are so against it because it was imposed from the outside.”

At the end of this journey I tried, within my limited knowledge, to draw up a balance sheet in the only terms I understand — which have to do with happiness, decency, dignity — on the good and the bad in Polish life today. Perhaps no Pole would agree with me. They know what I do not: they know what existence is like in the other satellite countries and in Russia. Compared with what others have got, the Poles think they have something resembling real life.

THE State giveth and the State taketh away, and the State gives an amazing amount of what it calls culture. True, the tone of this culture has been so brilliant only since 1956, when the Poles made their national revolution against Stalinism. And true, the State is clamping down again on the rationed freedom and range of the arts. A wise journalist explained this gradually renewed but strongly resented death grip on expression: “I think there are three reasons. The first is economic. We are even poorer than we were a year and a half ago; since there must be saving, some of it must be made on the arts. As to books, we now export more wood because coal didn’t turn out well, so there is simply less paper. The second reason is that Poles have been too successful in the arts. Polish films, Polish painting, Polish books have been too much praised in the West. East Germans and Czechs tattle to the Russians; it is very embarrassing for our government, this unorthodox, un-Communist success. Finally, the regime believes that intellectuals of every kind always have to be kept in their place.”

Throughout Poland, there is an enormous attentive audience for the best work that can be done in the theater, in films, in music, in painting, and in writing. Every little provincial town has its theater and orchestra; companies go on tour regularly to the smaller villages; editions of the classics and of good foreign and Polish writers are sold out in a matter of days; picture galleries are jammed. I would be amazed to find that Alton, Illinois, had a permanent stock company, with a range from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller (and no bilge in between), and played all week, every week, to a crowded theater. But the theater in Katowice, which is a grisly mining town in Silesia, was putting on Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge while I was there, and on a sunny Thursday afternoon you could not get a seat in the hushed house. “Why do they like it, Julek?” I asked. “The public adores it,” he said. “They adore such complicated fantastical problems. It is a nice rest. I think Miller talks too much. Very heavy. The provinces love him.”

And is there any town in America of half a million people, the size of Krakow, which has ten legitimate theaters, one puppet theater, one operetta company, and a philharmonic? While in Krakow, I noticed advertisements for three current plays by Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Shaw. A young friend just graduated from the Krakow Beaux Arts, where he studied stage designing, has his first job as one of the designers for the largest Krakow theater, a whopping place with a huge auditorium. He showed me his sketches for the costumes and sets of the next production, Troilus and Cressida: imposing and imaginative warriors’ costumes, which will be made of silvered cardboard, cheesecloth, dyed horsehair plumes; movable panels to suggest the camp of the Greek army, the battlements of Troy, nothing but painted beaverboard giving a heroic impression of space and power. “It is a very interesting play to the people,” he said, “because of the political allusions.”

This boy earns the equivalent of twenty dollars a month, which means that he lives on scraps, but he is happy because he has the greatest possible luxury, a room of his own. It is a real attic, with a small skylight for air and light, a chair, a table, a cot, a bookcase; and one part of the room is high enough to stand up in. The washing facilities are distant and lamentable. Young Poles have never known even rudimentary ease; for twenty years the main problem has been to eat. They do not think in material terms; our Beatniks would seem luxurious pampered babies to them. The result of never having had money, nor the prospect of having it, is to cherish more fiercely the values of the mind.

So this boy, who does not dream of a better physical existence, dreams of ballet, and notably of American ballet. He eats even less and saves to buy ballet books that are published in New York. They cost a terrible lot, by his starvation standards; he owns four of them. The Poles do not ask favors, they prefer to offer them; pride is part of their bravery. My young friend knotted himself in apologies before he could bring out his one vital request. “Could you ask Mr. Jerome Robbins if he would have me do a set and costumes? I do not want money; I would be happy to give. I wish only to work for him.” Sadly, I had to point out that life did not function exactly like this in America, and also I did not know Mr. Robbins. Privately, I doubted whether at his age, straight from school, he would have the chance anywhere in America to do the work he does in Krakow.

No one believes that the State — in its concrete form, the high Communist bureaucracy — is a devoted lover of the arts. The State merely refuses to waste its money on what it considers junk; the Poles won’t endure being bored; the result of these two different viewpoints is exciting, good art. I think the Polish public is better trained and more eager than we are and wants more from art than we do; and it is nobly served by its artists. In my opinion, the culture — odious word —in its quality, quantity, and availability, is the most laudable aspect of this regime. The Poles would probably say they have wrested their culture from the State, they have made it because it is in them, and that would be true; but the culture is there, and although the State pays misery wages for it, as for all else, still, it pays.

CULTURE rests on, stems from education, and education in Poland is a fascinating mystery. There are twice as many universities as before the war. I have no statistics on student population, but the small city of Krakow alone has forty thousand students of university level. Entrance examinations are the same throughout the country and very stiff; no laggards are allowed to remain in classrooms. And beyond all the formal schooling, the sense of a whole people clamoring for and gulping down education is something you feel as a fact, like the weather. I sought enlightenment; when you want a thoughtful point of view you go to the opposition, the Catholic liberal elite. I put my questions to a man of generally recognized fairness and intelligence. “Why isn’t Communism sowing dragon’s teeth with all this education? If education does nothing else, it teaches people to ask, ‘Why?’ And not only does the State provide so much education, but apparently it permits real education, not the teaching of dogma to parrots. Isn’t this a crazy risk? They’re not going to get a nation of Communists here, anyway, fhey’re going to get a nation of free, liberal intellectuals.”

It should be noted that this man is an honorable anti-Communist and bears no relation to the horrible world-wide crew of professional antiCommunists once headed by Hitler, ably abetted by the late Senator McCarthy, now recently joined by Dr. verwoerd. Many and very nasty people are anti-Communist because they are natural Fascists who see in Communism a power threat to their own repulsive dreams of power, or use Communism as a handy word for smearing all dissenters, This man is pure in his rejection of Communism, and for my part, I stand with people like him who hate Communism because they believe in humanity, one by one, the only way it comes. Peace and dignity, responsibility and freedom are what we want for ourselves, and so for all other men. The genuine anti-Communists know that the end never justifies the means, in terms of human life. We are accountable for the means; the end is always lost or changed in time: the means of Communism, as of Fascism, are inhuman.

His answer astonished me: “Of all the bad things anyone can say about Communism, I do not think you can say that they want to keep people stupid so as to control them.”I asked him to repeat this, I found it so startling, both as coming from him and as an unexpected revelation of hope for the world. “The Communists may have believed that a middle intelligentsia, half educated but thinking itsell educated, would be better prepared to swallow their ideology whole. But of course, so far, this does not work.”

There is little or no material advantage, for a Pole, in being educated, yet educated people are the aristocracy of the classless society. There is also no such thing, and never can be any such thing, as a classless society; men, luckily, are not equal. The Poles are equal enough in poverty, but any bright young Pole would rather be an underpaid intellectual than a better-paid worker.

One rainy afternoon we picked up a young man in a café in Nowa Huta, which is the modern steel town the State has built outside Krakow. This eighteen-year-old was enrolled in the law faculty of Krakow University; his father was a steelworker. He announced that after he had finished law he would like to study philosophy, and after that he would like to become a journalist. I was thinking how cross a normal capitalist father would be, having to pay for all this education, and, besides, quite unnecessary education, as we journalists would be the first to testify. How much does it cost? I wondered. Tuition is fourteen dollars a year. Adding up, generously, we figured that with books, carfare, lunches, some clothes, some spending money, he cost his father sixty dollars a year, which is a lot, a very good month’s wage in Poland.

The young man — delightful soft voice, open face, the usual manners of all classes in this “classless society,” which is to say, perfect courtesy in speech, hand-kissing, innate politeness — seemed unworried by his father’s financial problems. He loves sports, jazz, movies: the international freemasonry of youth. He reads classical drama for pleasure. He wanted to know whether America was as beautilul as he had heard. Then he wanted to know whether people lived very nervous lives there; he had also heard this. (Few Americans would deny that life is needlessly nervous in God’s Own Country; but few of us could take what Polish nerves do, and have to.) Change this boy’s clothes, teach him English, and he would be one of the better-bred, more intellectually alert freshmen at Princeton.

SOMEONE said, “Do you want to see a peasants’ university?” and indeed I did, so off we went, I and three Poles who had never heard of such an institution, although they lived twenty miles from it. We arrived at an old shabby country manor and found that this house sheltered sixty students who come for seven months, farm boys and girls who have already finished their high schools. Throughout Poland there are ten such peasants’ universities, based, we were told, on the Danish model. The couple who ran this school reminded me of the best type of Quakers; in fifteen years they have graduated 2200 students. They have many more applications than they can accept: young men, back home in their villages, send their fiancées to this school, wishing their future wives to have the same advantages they had; alumni bring their children for visits; the local peasants pour in on Sunday afternoons for coffee and cake and discussions with the undergraduates.

The school has no other aim than to set the mind free. It wants to make whole people. It believes, evidently, that truth is beauty, beauty truth, and in a modest way it tries to show students something of the wide world of the mind. After which, the students return to their small poor villages and share this new knowledge, this vision; and they are gladly welcomed by their own kind, as bringers of light. It seems too happily good to be real, but it is real.

For seven months, these boys and girls study dancing, painting, singing, acting; they take courses in geography and history. But above all, they are encouraged to read. Sometimes a student will read fifty books during his stay, sometimes seven; no pressure is exerted. The library is a good one. The students organize almost nightly book evenings, at which one of them reviews what he has read. The schedule of these literary gatherings was tacked on the principal’s wall: Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Hemingway are the foreign authors I remember. One night a student had reviewed a life of Lenin; there was no other indication of politics.

We were treated to a heavenly show of old Polish folk dancing and singing, in costume. When we left, a small group of students were preparing a play for that night; they had dramatized Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther and were about to stage it, with a homemade set, a spotlight, and whatever costumes they had invented and sewed. No one had told them to do this or helped them; the teachers arrive at the evening entertainment as visitors. There it is. I cannot explain it or fit it into any preconceived notions; I only know it exists. My three Polish chums were as amazed and impressed as I was.

A gentle bourgeois housewife teaches English in a Krakow public school, to earn some extra money. She has twelve students, aged eleven to thirteen, and for two hours twice a week they slug away at the job with rapt attention. Within three months they can take simple English dictation without making mistakes. She says it is wonderful to teach them, they are so clever, so eager to learn. What she reports seems to me a sort of miracle; try thinking of it in reverse, our children learning Polish.

The professor from the medical school at Krakow is, as they always politely say in Poland, “over sixty.” He is a pre-war professor, and professors were and are very great people in Europe, and he was accustomed to quite an elegant standard of fife. His university will celebrate its six hundredth anniversary in 1964; it is Ivy League in Poland, a famous center of learning. He doesn’t so much talk as explode with energy; he shouted joyfully that, in his work, it is a thousand times better than before the war. There are now ten medical faculties instead of five, no trouble with politics for the last five years, all the money you want for research, every scientific publication from all over the world, colleagues coming from the West to visit; he himself does not want money, he has time only for work; what is bad is that the young assistants are not paid enough, very bad; and they lack foreign exchange to buy equipment in the West; but there are more students with more chances, and young doctors can go to the country, where they are needed, and make a good living. “We get on with the work,” he roared — marvelous man.

I thought it fine Polish-funny that if you wanted a miner’s point of view in Katowice you searched out your man in a night club. In a vast, ill-lit, dingy hall (standard for popular night clubs), the younger mining set was doing frantic rock-’n’roll and did not look suitable for serious conversation. We found a very correct, nice, pudgy middle-aged man who turned out to be in the engineering section of the mine. He reads technical material in English, German, and Russian, but he is not a university graduate; he is a plain worker.

Perhaps the final comment on education in Poland was made by an old peasant woman who lived in a meadow by a brook, in a log and plaster cottage painted pale blue, with a thatched roof. I loved the looks of this place and the inside of her house, with its big yellow tile stove for heating and cooking, its oil lamps. I thought this was the nearest I’d ever get to nineteenth-century peasants in Russian literature. She was as jolly as a grig; everything was right, her kerchief, her heavy boots, her large wool skirts, her lined face, her small gay blue eyes, her voice like a cackling giggling croak. We brought vodka with us, as a help to knocking on doors and asking personal questions of strangers, and this worked like a charm — not that any private person would refuse to let you in and to answer anything you asked. She wanted mainly and disconnectedly to talk of her sister, who had been in Auschwitz and was always ill, sick with the concentration-camp sickness — terrible changes in the body induced by starvation, which end, by some metabolic twist, as disabling obesity; her sister could not take a job where she had to stay in one room. This old woman’s life can never have been anything but stony hardship, and it is the same now; she would not think it worth while to complain. But suddenly she said, “I can only scratch my name like a hen. Now the children go to school.”

I LOVE and admire the Poles, and for their sake I wish I could report that life is better in Poland, more room to breathe, more hope, and more money. In 1958, there seemed little enough of those commodities, and now it is worse.

“Everyone is sick of politics,” said Antoni. “All they care about is making money.”

“And do they?”

“Oh, no, of course not. There is always less money. And prices go up and wages stay the same, or else, plop, they go down. And many people have no jobs. But there is no unemployment relief, because in a Communist State there can be no unemployment. And the labor exchanges do not find people work. It is a joke, no?

“Since I’m not Polish, the answer is No.”

“Many people are becoming Communists now, just for the sake of a job. That seems to me a big mistake. I think Communists should at least be sincere, don’t you agree?”

A year and a half ago, we talked a great deal about the past war, about Russia, about fear of another war, even occasionally about the Polish government. This time, topic number one was economics, which is the nagging desperate preoccupation of the Poles. When they say they are interested in making money, they mean they are interested in staying alive. People exist who can write intelligently about Marxist economics. To the ignorant outside observer, Marxist economics in Poland seems like a mad doctrinaire system, unrelated to human life or human nature, which is designed to keep people miserably poor. The State, the overall paymaster, does not pay a living wage. And meantime, it hounds the pitiful relicts of private enterprise that have somehow survived. (A miller by a stream: since the last of the Polish Kings, over two hundred years ago, his family has owned and operated an ancient wooden water wheel and ground grain for the neighbors. He is hardly a threat to any economic system. A wiser state — we will skip the idea of a kinder state — would even consider this man and his mill wheel as art objects to be preserved. He is being chevied out of existence by taxes; one small man lost in the countryside, one man with a handsome mourning face who sees the end of his line.)

Communist economics in Poland apparently works like Prohibition in America. Prohibition made the United States a nation of illegal drinkers; Communist economics forces the Poles to be finaglers, cheats, little or big crooks. If a charwoman is paid ten dollars a month for full-time work, she must obviously have several jobs or starve. So she checks in at two or more jobs, works a little, and badly, at each, and lives. If a janitor who shovels coal into boilers all night in the ravaging Polish climate earns sixteen dollars a month, he must obviously steal some of the coal to sell it on the black market, or starve. If you are higher up in the scale of employment, you can rob more from the State, and be caught and go to jail: a visit to the law courts any day will confirm this. “The most honest woman you could ever know,” I heard, “she is in prison for embezzling. She did it for everyone else where she worked, too; she had to help them.” “We are all honest here,” said the peasant woman who rents rooms in her house for vacationing city people; she could not make a living off the farm. “But in the next village, someone robbed the co-op.” “Oh, well,” said the driver of our hired car, “they were only stealing from the State, not from real people.”

Terror changes its face; for the past few years, there have been no political trials. In fact, what use is political rebellion of any kind? The Poles know their catastrophic geography and their ruthless neighbor. Now the State concentrates on money and snoops after any signs of well-being, for legally there should be none. Lawyers, organized into cooperatives, have private practices, with a fixed scale of fees; but they must not earn more than sixty dollars a month. A peasant remarked, “If you wear a pair of good trousers, they follow you to see where you got the money.”A year later, a man is ominously questioned as to how he managed to buy a car for his work. The everpresent, ever-menacing State, which taps telephones, opens mail, searches rooms, follows people, seems turned into a suspicious cash register with an X-ray eye. Those who have nothing must go on having nothing.

I don’t pretend to understand what purpose or excuse there can be for such economics; I only know the atmosphere — anxiety, disgust, hopelessness— and the visible results. Dirt and neglect: oh, the bad food and scruffy rooms, the broken plumbing, the filthy, slow, overloaded trains, the antique planes with the heating out of order, freeze or boil, the shoddy goods at the absurd prices; and why not, why not? I also think that the pitiful drunkenness of the poor — half the ragged cotton-clad farmers in a squalid village pub dead drunk at two o’clock on a Monday afternoon, shabby men reeling dangerously in the dark streets — is due to this antihuman economics. If you cannot earn enough for a decent life and can no longer hope, you can at least get drunk. The State’s solution is to raise the price of vodka, not wages.

When, by some miracle of good sense, a living wage is paid, the effect is of light flooding into darkness. One day we were following the usual custom of knocking on strangers’ doors and were thus let into a flat in Nowa Huta. It was a clean one-room dwelling for a young man, his wife, and baby (plus kitchen and bath; rent $1.72 a month). The young man was a mason; starting here as an unskilled worker at the age of fifteen, he had been employed for ten years in building these vast complexes of gray cement sardine tins and was now earning fifty-six dollars a month. That is more than a judge earns in Poland. He had medals for good workmanship, of which he was shyly proud. He reads six or seven newspapers a day and saves them. He loves the movies (favorites: Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Francis, the “talking mule,” and anything with Eartha Kitt). He had two books out from the lending library: Feuerbach’s Essence of Religion and The Count of Monte Cristo. Once a month he goes to the theater — there is an especially fine one at Nowa Huta; to the movies three or four times a week; he watches and plays soccer. He is a contented man and a hard, competent worker. The State should arrive, in pilgrimage, and study this man and try to learn from him the basic truths about human needs, human hopes, human nature.

THE Communist Founding Fathers and their latter-day disciples either have never heard about human nature or regard it as weak, contemptible, not here to stay. The result is a perpetual war between the State, which does not care for individuals, and the people, who continue to be individuals since they cannot deny their nature and become sheep. The most obvious battlefront in this war is religion. You cannot push your way into any church in Poland on Sunday morning; overflow crowds stand outside the doors listening to distant liturgy and music. Anyone, except the Stale, would realize what the Catholic Church means to the majority of Poles, to each one alone, in his heart. But the State does not learn about people; it only interferes with them. The last stupidity of the State produced a riot. This happened at Nowa Huta, and none of us saw it because the police arrested all journalists who appeared on the scene. About eight hours in the clink for foreigners; no news of what became of foolhardy Poles.

We heard about it within fifteen minutes of its start; all Poland heard about it presently, although nothing was printed in the papers for three days, and finally only a dotty paragraph which spoke of “irresponsible elements.” Nowa Huta is the State’s favorite showpiece; the steelworks are reputed to be first class, and though the housing is hideous, it is habitable, and there are special advantages — the theater, movies, a cabaret, cafés, library, sports grounds, and so on. The peasantry was then uprooted, brought here, taught skilled work, and paid well. Nowa Huta was meant to be an example of the brave new Communist world. The State did not, of course, build a church.

There are 110,000 people living in Nowa Huta, and they collected money amongst themselves to build a church, which must have depressed the State. They had a plot next to the theater; a cross was raised and foundations partly dug. One morning three workmen arrived and began to dismantle the cross. Workers’ wives, in nearbyflats, saw this and rushed out to ask why. The State, the workers said, had decided to build a school here, which was more necessary. The housewives hurled themselves on the unlucky workmen and beat them with bits of the cross; in no time there were 30,000 people rioting. They burned the Nowa Huta city hall, which is standard operational procedure when rioting; the object is to burn all the dossiers. They fought the police and some contingents of the army who were called in. There wasn’t a policeman left in Krakow. Reports from Krakow residents who lived near the military hospital said that there was a heavy traffic of ambulances. Truckloads of workers were seen driving off to jail. Curfew was declared at Nowa Huta. There were excited rumors of a partial strike at the steelworks. After four days, the cross was back in its place. The workers would have their church. People laughed and congratulated each other in the streets of Krakow; this was a victory for human nature.

COMMUNIST countries are prisons in the simplest sense: people are not allowed freedom of movement, to leave and to return when they want to. Since 1956, Poland has been a prison with small doors opening to the West; much better than the doorless prison lands. But the Communist rulers’ attitude toward travel in the open world is not only a total admission of failure — contented people need not be denied the right to roam; it also proves their contempt for human needs, or indifference to them. People cannot bear to be locked up. Maybe they would not be able to travel if they were free to do so; money is a problem everywhere. What eats into the soul is the sense of being trapped.

If a Pole can arrange to be invited by someone, preferably a relative, living in the West who will pay for his round-trip ticket in hard currency and guarantee to support him while he is away, he can, with luck, and after both his and his host’s massive struggles against red tape, get a passport. This may take anywhere from three months to a year and a half. The passport costs from ten to sixty dollars (I have no idea why there is this price range) and is valid for a short period, a few months. And the Poles long to travel in our world; not to leave Poland forever, but only to breathe another air for a while, see another life, learn. They have been jailed for twenty years.

A young painter asked me where I had been since last he saw me. I tried to remember the countries: various visits to France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, all over America. He laughed as if I had told him a magical tale, something between the Arabian Nights and the best joke of the year. He laughed with joy to think that all the countries were there and that someone he knew could actually go to them. He no longer talks of traveling himself.

I heard of a man who had been coping for over a year with the maddening, wearing obstacles put in the way of travel: at last he had his passport, at last he was to leave for Paris, whereupon the police advised him that it would be better not to go. Why? No reason. At this point, sane people go almost insane from the stupid, oppressive frustration of it all. My informant said, “It is not now like eyes burned out or somezing like zat; it is only ze tedium, ze tedium, it sacks ze nerves.”

Every day these people are forced into contact with the deadly, cheap, E. Phillips Oppenheim spy-story mentality of the State. Every day they have to swallow sickening doses of illogical bureaucracy, a bureaucracy which is Kafka mixed with Asiatic deviousness. And what for, what for? What does the State want? Clearly, everyone is guilty until proved innocent (crime not specified). Is the sole intention of all this hateful, invisible controlling to intimidate the Poles? It intimidates me all right; it does not intimidate the Poles.

The enslaving State is itself a slave of the Russian master; and Russian government has relied for centuries on the degrading practices of a secret police. The only long-term hope of the Poles is that the Russian people will demand more and more personal freedom, more human dignity, and so, by contagion, government in Poland might eventually become an open, daylight business.

One night, four of us were having a feast in a room like a stage set: it was an abject-poverty room, a tiny ceil in a dark, dirty, overcrowded flat on an ugly street. There was an iron cot, three folding chairs, a table, an unshaded light bulb, and we were gloriously happy. I haven’t been to such a good party since the last time I was in Poland. Our host, the youngest of the three young Poles, had spent his money, to my anxiety, on lots of bread and butter, some salami, a tin of sardines, withered apples, and vodka. We sat in the cold room, on the hard chairs and harder bed, for five perfect hours, eating, drinking, and laughing.

I almost wrecked the party with an outburst against the State, and I learned much of great importance to me. “ The worst hotel rooms arc supposed to be those with numbers ending in 2,” I said. “It’s so revolting and so pointless; and where are the mikes? And coming back to a hotel in the north and asking for your key, and the brute of a police agent at the desk says you must have taken it with you; but you couldn’t take any room key anywhere in Poland — either it has a wooden turnip attached to it or a ring like a handcuff. Then the second police desk clerk arrives with your key in his hand and says blandly he was just checking to see if the room was still occupied. And never daring to speak anyone’s name on the telephone, not that you have anything to say except ‘Where shall we meet?’ but you’re afraid someday they’ll get in trouble because they’ve talked to you.” I was breathless; I had been at it on a large scale for some time. I saw that they looked uncomfortable. Julek patted my hand and offered me more vodka and another withered apple.

“Police, spying, terror, all that, we are so used to it; no one pays attention to it any more. It becomes a form of entertainment for us. It is much more irritating if you can never get the sort of shoe polish you want.”

The others laughed, the conversation changed, and I stood deeply corrected. I had behaved like someone who comes, for a few hours, to the front, where others live in constant peril, and babbles fear, spreading panic or dismay. This is not acceptable behavior at any front, nor in Poland. What the Poles’ private secret feelings may be I do not know; singly and collectively they are sardonic about the hazards of their lives, always a little more weary, unyielding.

I listened to my friends and thought of all the Poles I knew or had met in passing. I thought of the extreme individualism of this people, which twenty years of different forms of tyranny has not chipped away. Each person owns his mind, and they are original, interesting minds, too.

Bits of conversation, pictures of places float about in my memory: the entrancing barmaid, who looked like a Bryn Mawr Brigitte Bardot, teaching historical fact to a long, lean, foolish young American. He was saying, “It’s better to get any story over with. In a week, who is going to remember Chessman?” “I disagree,” she said. “Don’t you remember the Rosenbergs? People will remember Chessman.” The taxi driver who spoke perfect Italian; his father had been killed by the Germans as a Communist; he himself hates all politics. He wished he could have met in his life Jack London and Hemingway; he had all their books in Polish and Italian. He admired America — “all Poles do” — but he deplored “the war against the Negroes in America. That is not good; that is racialism. America would rise very much in our eyes if they stopped that war.” The student’s cabaret, in a small, vaulted, grimy cellar: I could not understand a word and grasped at snippets of translation, but even with such a handicap it seemed to me wildly, irreverently funny and professional, better than any expensive night-club show I could remember. In the middle, the young performers sang “in honor of our American friend” Tipperary in Russian, to the howling delight of the audience, which continues to regard anything in Russian as automatically, killingly comical.

“Antoni,” I said, “could you ever live outside Poland?”

“No, I would not even try.”

The evils that befall their country have no effect on the love of the Poles for their country, which is unique in the line of passionate patriotism. I think, at last, I know why. The very evils that befall them, and have through the centuries, and most cruelly these last twenty years, feed the love: one loves what is hurt and needs help. History treats Poles almost as specially and nearly as badly as it treats Jews. In another, very different room, a Pole, whom history had flung about from Manchuria to Lithuania to Brazil, said, “If our country were rich and happy, we could all go away. But, as it is not, we will never leave it.”

“Julek,” I asked, “have you ever been bored?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps I have been bored all my life without knowing it. But what are you to do if you are kept waiting for half an hour in a restaurant? Hang yourself?”

Great backhanded compliments can be paid to poverty, suffering, and oppression: if they don’t kill, they sharpen the mind and strengthen the spirit. The sharpened mind is lively, hungry, daring, and singularly free. The strengthened spirit is generous, loyal, grateful for life and for any small chance blessing. A visit to Poland is like stepping through the Looking Glass, but it is a highly therapeutic step. You remember again the splendor of human courage, and you learn humility.

I wonder if this is any sort of balance sheet on what is good and what is bad in Polish life today.