Poland: A Culture in Hiding

Poles are united in quiet protest against a system of government that seems at best irrelevant, at worst oppressive.


On the LOT plane between Paris and Warsaw, I try to calm my agitation. After eighteen years and several attempts which were thwarted by various Polish consulates, I am finally returning to my native country. My parents are not in sympathy with this sentimental journey. “What is driving you there?” they ask in exasperation. Many Jews who lived in postwar Poland still harbor bitter resentment toward the country. But for me, exiled at age fourteen, Poland is more simply the land of my childhood. Now I want to check it out; to see what my life might have been had I stayed, to test my memories of a vibrant people, of a rich and warm social climate, and of a quietly beautiful countryside.

It is politics, however, that I am plunged into, with startling suddenness, as soon as I land in Warsaw. The taxi driver launches into a monologue. “You haven’t heard what happened in Kraków yesterday, have you?” he begins. “Our authorities have decided to show us what they can do once again.” His voice has a sardonic edge. “They’ve killed a student,” he tells me. Who is “they”? I want to know. “The police, naturally.” He doesn’t know much more about the incident, but there has been talk of student riots and other repercussions, and phone and plane communications between Kraków and Warsaw were cut off for a while.

Obviously I have come at a moment when the equilibrium of Polish politics, always shaky, is being severely disturbed again. Over the next weeks, people talk of nothing else but the unfolding events, and I have a sense of Warsaw simmering with anxiety, grief, frustration.

On the day following my arrival, over coffee at the Literary Club, I learn of the next episode in the drama: two members of the Workers’ Defense Committee have been arrested. They were arraigned at the train station as they were about to depart to attend a mass for the student killed in Kraków. The young woman who conveys this news is near tears with anger. One of the two arrested is her good friend, and he has already spent several years in jail as a result of his activities in the unrest of 1968. “Let them leave him alone,” Zofia says, “it is enough, it is enough.” I am about to ask her if there is nothing she can do, and then realize the uselessness and the impertinence of the question.

Why did the arrests take place, and what is their significance? The Workers’ Defense Committee is a small group of about twenty well-known artists, scholars, and intellectuals, formed in 1976 following a series of strikes and riots in various towns and cities. The striking workers were protesting rising food prices, and although they were successful in forcing the government to retract the price hike, many people were arrested randomly, some sentenced to as long as ten years of imprisonment without trial, and several subjected to mistreatment which might well deserve to be called torture.

The purpose of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) was to provide legal and practical aid to the prisoners and their families. Members of the committee and their supporters collected money for families deprived of their income; they attended trials and protested violations of due process; they advised the defendants about their legal rights, and they recorded the proceedings of the trials in a bulletin distributed among several hundred interested people. In performing these functions the committee was countering a widespread feeling of helplessness in the face of “the system,” a feeling not surprising in view of the Poles’ recent history.

In the first year of the KOR’s activity, its members were harassed in small ways: they were slandered in the newspapers or in false KOR bulletins; representatives sent to observe trials were sometimes detained or led away under false pretenses. Nevertheless, the committee was tolerated by the government—and this was something new. It marked the first time since the war that a public, non-party group, of a somewhat adversary nature, had been allowed to exist.

The reasons for this unusual leniency are not altogether clear. Perhaps because the flow of information between Poland and the Western news media is impossible to control, it was felt that news of the KOR’s suppression, especially given its prestigious membership, would have got out very quickly. Perhaps Edward Gierek, who replaced Gomulka in 1970 as first secretary, recognized the need for some airing of grievances; the strikes suggested that the level of discontent was reaching an explosive point. If Gierek wanted an instrument for a display of liberality, he could not have chosen a better group than the KOR, which, until recently, avoided ideological pronouncements or criticisms.

But in the last few months, the KOR has issued some statements with decidedly political overtones, most notably on the subject of human rights, and it may have been that potentially dangerous change which led to the sudden shift in the government’s policy toward the committee. The killing of the student was widely interpreted as a means of provoking the KOR to some response, which would then provide a pretext for reprisals. Although the KOR’s response was of the most minimal and dignified sort—the committee asked students in Kraków to use their spring vacation as a time of mourning instead of for the usual celebrations—the reprisals came anyway. The two arrests I heard about were soon followed by seven others. (All of those arrested were later released.) These measures were meant to warn the KOR against further political action, but the warning proved ineffective. Far from being squelched, the KOR has reconstituted itself under another name (since its initial objectives have been fulfilled), and has broadened the scope of its activity. The government surely did not count on this.

There may have been other reasons for the rash of arrests. Their timing suggests that they were staged as a response to President Carter’s human rights campaign. If so, they were probably conducted under Soviet orders as part of a symbolic show of strength, saying to Carter, “Don’t meddle,” and to Eastern European activists, “Don’t count on his help.” On the other hand, the tightening of control may be symptomatic of a Polish power struggle. There are rumors that a conservative, proSoviet faction is gaining ascendancy within the government, and the arrests may have been signaling its arrival.

All of these possibilities are discussed by the people I meet. The level of political awareness is, in one sense, uniformly high. Everybody—a factory worker I talk to on the tramway, a young engineering student, the saleswoman at the corner kiosk—has gone into the matter in some detail, and has done a close reading of the newspaper reportage on the events (general rule: Assume the opposite of what is printed. But not always). And yet, people know that they are basically kept uninformed and, like my friend at the Literary Club, helpless. At this level of power play, the government cannot be fought. The constant talk is not a prelude to action, but an almost compulsive outlet for tension. It is also an expression of solidarity. Poland looks to me like a country astonishingly unified in its protest.

Warsaw’s privileged

A hotel room turns out to be impossible to find in Warsaw. The reception clerk at the Grand, a venerable Warsaw establishment, merely looks at me with pitying sarcasm when I make my query, and says, “A hotel room! She wants a hotel room!” Since I’m not sure whether this is an invitation for a bribe, I call some people whose names I have been given by friends in America, and I am invited to stay for a few days.

The Janowskis are among the privileged in Poland. Irena is a fashion designer and Zbyszek a successful actor. They move in Warsaw high society, take frequent vacations, sometimes abroad, and live in a “villa district”— an area of town left intact during the war, consisting mostly of small singleor double-unit houses, some of them surrounded by tiny gardens. Still, I am surprised at the modesty of their home. There is some gaiety and stylishness— large windows, books, a beautiful porcelain-tiled stove—but the rooms are cramped, there are only four of them for six people, and there is no luxury visible.

The household consists of Irena, Zbyszek, their two adolescent children, a woman who is introduced to me as “Auntie,” and who is the live-in maid, and her son Staszek. Live-in maids are among the many anomalies of life in the Polish Socialist Republic. During the years when I was growing up, there were many of them working in middleclass homes. They were either professional servants, left from a prewar Poland in which the haute bourgeoisie flourished, or rural girls coming into the city without any skills, and willing to work for room, board, and minuscule wages. Their room often turned out to be the kitchen, but it was still the best situation they could hope for. Now— possibly because people in villages are better educated and trained for skilled work—this arrangement is becoming rarer, and it is a sign of the Janowskis’ status and comparative wealth that they can afford to maintain it.

When I arrive, everybody is seated at the evening meal. The food is plentiful and good—several kinds of bread, ham, salami, some fresh vegetables. It is only later that I appreciate the time and ingenuity, as well as money, expended to procure this bounty. To get such food regularly, Auntie has a private agreement with some farmer who sells her his produce “on the side,” before it goes to the official government market.

The table, and the conversation, are presided over by Irena, who is effervescent, talkative, and authoritative. She and the others are curious about that intriguing entity called “America,” which they regard both as fascinating and as rather frightening. Their notions of it are that everybody is well off, but people are isolated and have no family feeling . . . TV programs are all worthless, only trashy books sell well. I keep saying, “Yes, but. . .,” or “That’s not quite true . . .,”and launch into explanations which only serve to convince me that “America” is not easy to explain.

The talk inevitably turns to politics, and here the nineteen-year-old Janusz comes into his own. Janusz’s attitude toward school is a mixture of laziness and indifference (“a victim of a liberal upbringing,” Irena comments), but he has an impassioned interest in political matters, and has carefully collected all the KOR communiqués. He tells me that this interest is shared by a large majority of his peers, who are as discontented with the present state of affairs as are their elders. The prognostications of those who believed that the new generations, raised and educated under the aegis of official ideology, would be indoctrinated into unquestioning assent, turned out to be inaccurate.

The political feelings and opinions that emerge during the conversation match those expressed by everybody I meet. Paramount among them is a deep, bitter resentment of the Soviet Union, which the Janowskis see as the source of Poland’s hardships and unfreedom. “They rob us,” Janusz says. “If it weren’t for them, we could be well off. The Poles are talented. We could build up this country.” The rancor spills over in “Russian jokes,” which are, ironically enough, an equivalent of our Polish jokes. It extends to all countries allied with the Soviet Union, and to all experiments in socialism or communism. The Poles—aside from the most sophisticated or open-minded—find it hard to imagine a non-Soviet version of these ideologies. They have been badly burnt.

On these familial occasions when everybody participates in animated talk, Auntie is treated with affectionate though barely masked condescension. But there is nothing patronizing in the Janowskis’ attitude toward her son, Staszek, who has a university degree and is a successful poet and fiction writer. Staszek is frail, has longish hair, wears blue jeans, and comports himself with a great deal of dignity. There is obviously affection and concern between him and his mother, with whom he shares a room. Earlier in the day, I saw him help her in the kitchen. She, in turn, speaks of him solicitously, and tells me of her hopes that someday he can travel, see the world—“which is so important for a writer.”

Staszek reaffirms what I have heard about Polish poetry. There are many exciting poets; their names are household words; their new works are greeted with enthusiasm, and the supply of their books is sold out immediately on publication. I comment on how different this is from the American poet’s situation. “Yes,” says Staszek, “but in America the writer is not responsible for the conscience of the country. Here he is.” Polish writers have entirely different restrictions, however. Staszek talks with bemused irony about the vagaries of censorship, by which he has been frequently victimized. Every bit of printed word—fictional, scholarly, journalistic—has to be submitted to the Censors’ Bureau and pass inspection at several levels of its hierarchy. Often, censors low on the totem pole are worried about those higher up, and perform their task with fanatical but befuddled zeal. “They see allusions, associations, double meanings everywhere,” Staszek tells me. “They are more adept at finding them than the most seasoned literary critic.”

The haphazard nature of ideological censorship these days reflects a more general confusion about how much freedom can be safely allowed. But moral and aesthetic censorship seems to be intensifying. Profanities and scenes of erotic frankness are deleted from fiction; in poetry, rhyme, regular rhythms, and an accent on the sunny side of life are decidedly preferred. Recently, Staszek received a rejection letter which read: “Dear Sir, we regretfully inform you that we cannot accept your novel for publication. We find that it mocks noble sentiments and tramples on all that is highest in human nature. Sincerely yours, The Publisher.” Like many young writers, Staszek has a novel in his drawer about Poland as he really sees it. He has no particular plans or hopes for it.

After I retire, Staszek goes out to buy a newspaper which contains another article on the recent events. The death of the student is referred to as a drunken accident, and there are nasty attacks on members of the KOR, who are described as provocateurs conspiring with their allies in the West against the interests of the workers’ state. Irena, Staszek, Janusz, and Auntie gravitate to Auntie’s room and discuss the article in some detail. They comment on how the truth has been, once again, distorted. They conjecture that there are only initials at the bottom because the author was ashamed to sign it with his full name. I hear them talking in the tiny room late into the night.

City on a hill

I remember Warsaw only vaguely from infrequent visits when my parents had official business to transact, but as I walk about I note some obvious changes. There is no rubble visible anywhere. The traffic is heavy, especially at rush hour. There is quite a bit of construction going on, mostly of ugly, prefabricated apartment complexes, colloquially known as “anthills.”

The Old Town, reconstructed from almost entire ruin, is Warsaw’s pride, and it is indeed very lovely. Part of it is built on a steep hill facing the Vistula, and from a crenellated lookout there is a spacious, grand view of the river and a poplar-lined promenade beside it. The main part of the town is built around a cobblestone square, and its architecture is an attractive mixture of Renaissance, Baroque, and eighteenth-century houses, churches, and other buildings. This section of the city is inhabited by many artists, architects, and craftsmen who exhibit handmade jewelery, paintings, pottery, and glass. And then there are the coffeehouses, never empty, some of them dubbed “caves,” because they are located below ground and have interiors that look monastic with their low, wide arches.

I wander into a historical museum, and am surprised at its nationalistic character. It is Poland’s feudal and aristocratic past which is celebrated here, and the walls are lined with portraits of kings, queens, conquering princes, powerful bishops.

The new Warsaw bustles and hurries, but charm is not one of its attributes. The breadth of the streets does not compensate for the monotony of the gray buildings with their unadorned façades. I have been told much about the elegance of the Poles, but I see more attempts at chic than the real thing. It is difficult to be consistently elegant when there are so few materials with which to play at fashion.

In doing some casual windowshopping, and in observing people’s lives, I am struck by a sense of scarcity. Although Poland produces more kinds of consumer goods than it did a decade ago (many people have TVs and cars these days), it is plagued by shortages in every area. The most ominous is the protracted and still worsening food shortage. Meat stores are a curious sight with their long, white, completely empty counters; on a fresh produce stand, there are a few vegetables of middling quality, and the only fruit available is apples.

Other commodities, although not as crucial as food, come in little variety, small quantities, and with irregularity. In a bookstore, there are relatively few titles; in a “better quality” clothing store, about ten dresses and an equal number of coats hang on the racks, and their cost makes them inaccessible to most people. Some goods, ranging from dishwashers to Kleenex, come on the market rarely and one never knows when.

Does this situation make the Poles less inclined to consumerism, less concerned with material things? Hardly. The effect of scarcity seems to be the opposite, in fact. People are driven to expend inordinate amounts of time, energy, and thought on providing themselves with basic necessities, and possibly on inching a little beyond the bare minimum. And Poles are tantalized with suggestions of luxury. For example, there is a special category of stores in which imported goods can be purchased with foreign currency only. The existence of these stores is a virtual sanction of the black market, although getting caught is severely punishable. Nevertheless, large numbers of people buy dollars unofficially. A man with whom I strike up a conversation on the tramway tells me, in confidential tones, that instead of buying dollars in Poland, you go to Hungary, where they are sold at much lower rates. There, you change Polish zlotys into Hungarian forints, forints into dollars, and you still come out ahead and have yourself a nice vacation besides. For the ingenious, there are ways to beat the system.

Nothing has changed

Warsaw acts as a kind of buffer zone for me, cushioning me from a too-sudden re-entry into Kraków, where I grew up, and for which I long felt an intense nostalgia. Now, ready to go there, I am worried about finding people whom I have not contacted for many years. But everybody I look up in the phone book is listed, after eighteen years, at the same address. I telephone, am greeted with astonishment and excitement, and the next day, at the train station in Kraków, I am met by four strangely grown-up versions of the children I knew. I take the bouquet of flowers they have brought me, and Tomek tells me that I am to stay with him and his mother for a while. We get into his Polish Fiat, of which he is very proud. Five minutes later, I am embraced by Mrs. Dobrzanska, and, looking round the apartment in which I spent many childhood hours, I am struck by the fact that aside from the television and a gas stove which has replaced the old wood-burning one, nothing has changed.

It is Tomek’s birthday. Two of his friends are there, and we all sit around the table, eating what is obviously a special supper (“On Tomek’s birthday, we still have ham,” Mrs. Dobrzanska says), and drinking vodka. “Drink up, it’s good for you, it’s our Polish medicine,” Mrs. D. encourages in a singsong voice, and more vodka is poured into my glass. We toast each other voluminously, Mrs. D. gets a little sentimental, Tomek and his friends joke.

They are fascinated by the fact that I have done some traveling, and I am forced into capsule descriptions of every place I have visited. Tomek, a computer engineer, is the only one among them who has been abroad—he spent a year in West Germany which, in the boom economic years, provided temporary employment for a number of Poles. But even then, he didn’t see much, didn’t move around. He was there to make money, and he spent his time working hard, and saving even harder.

“So this is how it is, this how we live,” Mrs. D. says, striking a melancholy note. “We never get anywhere. We live for today. What is there to hope for?” She makes a sweeping movement, indicating the apartment. “You see, nothing much has changed . . . My husband didn’t have what it takes to make money, he was a conscientious man . . . And then, they take everything away from us . . .”Tomek says, “That’s enough, Mummy, it’s not so bad,” and kisses her hand affectionately. “Drink up,” she says, raising her glass.

The party finishes with a delicious cake, and after the guests leave, and Mrs. D. makes a fire in the bathroom stove so that I can have some hot water, we all bed down in the single, allpurpose room, managing, through delicate maneuvers, to preserve a semblance of privacy.

A woman’s role

Mrs. D. is intensely aware of social distinctions and nuances of status which often seem imperceptible. The distinctions are based not so much on economic or professional standing as on the old, bourgeois class values. Thus, Mrs. Rapacka is somebody of whom Mrs. D. speaks with slight deference. She is a “lady,” her background is distinguished, she is cultured. Her daughter, Teresa, although she is less professionally successful than Tomek, is regarded, by virtue of coming from a “better” family, with esteem. The prewar hierarchies seem to have survived the leveling effect of communism; and the beliefs and norms attached to them seem to have a firmer hold on people’s minds than the official doctrines of classlessness.

Teresa, who was a close childhood friend, comes with her husband and three children to pick me up. The children introduce themselves with a curtsy. Teresa presents them proudly, as if to say, “This is who I am, this is my accomplishment.” She broods over her family. She has become corpulent, and looks decidedly middle-aged.

We drive to their new apartment, which they acquired only a few months ago. They had lived, since the beginning of their marriage, in one room in her parents’ apartment. Their new home is an “anthill” apartment which cost a staggering sum, and they could afford it only because Robert, a physicist, had a research fellowship from West Germany, and was able to save enough out of it to pay for the apartment—after exchanging the money at black market rates, of course.

Mrs. Rapacka is there when we arrive. Although in her seventies, she is youthful, resolute, and commanding. She throws questions at me like a general debriefing one of his staff, and she talks with animated intelligence about herself. The other members of the family treat her with marked respect. Henryk, her son, an avant-garde composer in his forties, lives in his parents’ apartment, often adjusts his schedule to hers, and is wary of incurring his mother’s displeasure. But he doesn’t chafe under this, and seems to consider it natural behavior.

Teresa seems more worn than her mother. But then, she has grown up in more harassing circumstances. I watch her during the next few days as she runs from store to store to get enough food for dinner (one evening, she comes back with only farmer’s cheese) and tries to control the apartment, in which, on three successive days, the plumbing breaks down, the water is turned off, and the gas malfunctions, and I understand why she is often irritable and without energy to be interested in much beyond her daily tasks.

Nevertheless, Teresa is not fundamentally dissatisfied, and does not question the terms of her situation. The family is both her raison d’être and an untouchable institution. She is a bit baffled by my life, disconcerted by the fact that I am separated from my husband, and disbelieving when I tell her that the separation was partly my decision. Divorce is still rare in Poland, and she can only see it as the destruction of possibilities for happiness. I, on the other hand, find something stifling in Teresa’s existence, and see my greater freedom, which usually seems so burdensome to me, as the breath of possibility itself.

Although Teresa wishes that Robert would help her with housework a little (especially during the school year, when she does full-time teaching), she does not demand much. In turn, Robert, a very intelligent young man, speaks about “a woman’s natural role,” and Teresa does not protest. Altogether, feminism has not made much headway in Poland, perhaps partly because it has been co-opted by official ideology, summoning up those dreary posters on which men and women, dressed in overalls, congregate around a tractor—and overalls, in Poland, do not have overtones of chic. Equal rights have meant, for most Polish women, the right to hold a job and do the housework, and the economic conditions have not been favorable to any more radical rethinking of the problem.

Polish women not only manage the home and oversee the development of the children, but they are respected as moral teachers, purveyors of wisdom, opinion makers. I meet a large number of authoritative, strong-minded women; it does not occur to them that they could be regarded less highly than men as thinking and perceiving beings.

Teresa is very successful in inculcating her values in her children. Lizzy, eight, describes her friends with utmost seriousness as “well-behaved” or “disobedient.” She earnestly wants to impress with her behavior, and crosses herself in front of every church (as does Teresa—who also makes the gesture before starting the car). Lizzy is at an age when her desire to imitate adults may not be surprising, but I notice a willing assent to convention, a relative absence of intergenerational conflict.

Undoubtedly, there are good reasons for better relations between the generations—the virtual unanimity of political disaffection being one of them. Parents are not aligned with “the establishment;”—they represent a cultural heritage which may have all the more credence because it is separate.

There is comfort in receiving a comparatively stable heritage. People question themselves less, enjoy each other more, mature through assimilation into the adult world, and are almost completely innocent of psychiatry. And yet, oddly, I find that I am discomfited by the absence of a generation gap—and I think that I am responding to a lack of choice in the situation. Even for the few who can leave their parental homes, there are not many opportunities to remake lives along different lines, or even to imagine alternatives.

Ornery breed

Robert’s attitude toward “the system” differs somewhat from that of most people I meet. Although he defines himself as “opposed,” he participates, as a research physicist, in work which is important to the growth of Poland, and he wants to feel some commitment to his role. Thus he points to some merits and accomplishments of postwar legislation: poverty has been eliminated, literacy is high, the allinclusive free medical coverage is effective. Robert resents the food shortages as much as everybody else, but the current problems, he explains, are rooted partly in a postwar decision to exempt Polish agriculture from forcible collectivization. Peasants were given a choice of individual or collaborative farming, and most chose the former.

The decision was based partly on an assessment of “national character.” Polish peasants were judged to be too ornery a breed, and too fiercely attached to their land, to submit to largescale collectivization. But by now, the private ownership system has become inadequate on two counts. First of all, it is inefficient. The plots of land are too small, and the individual farmers cannot afford the machinery which would make for maximal yield. The problem becomes aggravated as more young people leave the villages and there are fewer hands to work the farms. Moreover, there may be something inherently unworkable about a partial free-enterprise principle under which farming operates. Although farmers own their own property, they theoretically have only one customer—the state. This customer, for some time, has not been paying enough to make the exchange worthwhile, and the farmers, with capitalist responsiveness to loss and profit, are producing less. The situation is not easy to fix, since Gierek is under intense pressure to keep prices down; nobody wants a repetition of the 1976 scenario.

At the beginning of Gierek’s administration, to make good on his promises of economic improvement, he imported more than Poland could afford and he incurred large debts. These debts are now being paid off partly by exporting desirable products—that famous Polish ham, for example. The word “export” has rankling connotations for the Poles. It drains an already depleted economy, and it deprives them of things they badly need. Thus, when I hear Premier Jaroszewicz announcing that the internal market produced more than its quota last year, but the external market needs boosting, I get angry. I begin to see why several of my friends refuse to read the newspapers or watch television news. The media convey little information, they say, and it makes their blood pressure go up.

A place apart

I walk around Kraków half remembering it, half dreaming it, and I find my way by a kind of sixth sense.

Since Kraków was one of the few important Polish cities to escape destruction during the war, there is almost no postwar box architecture or high-rises. It is a city of low buildings, tree-lined, winding streets, full of unexpected architectural gems. There are parks and a promenade surrounding the Old Town, a meeting place for people who walk with their family or friends, and who pause to rest on benches under poplars and chestnut trees. The main square, filled with flower stands, features several Gothic buildings, including the tower from which the famous trumpeter warned Krakovians of the arrival of the Turks.

The square is alive with people shopping, talking in coffeehouses, mothers taking their children for a stroll, priests in long cassocks, some horse-drawn buggies, a quartet of elderly men who play the accordion, the harmonica, and two violins, and who sing lilting, sentimental songs. At one point I stop, unsure where to turn next, and a toothless old woman in a black scarf approaches me, asking what I am looking for. I tell her the name of the street. “I don’t know where that is, my little darling, I don’t know, my kitten, I don’t know, my little golden one,” she intones lovingly, and for some reason I shiver.

My goal is the synagogue, which I have saved for the end of my tour of Kraków. When I was growing up, the synagogue was a place set apart from ordinary life, a place where my parents took me solemnly once a year, where the quirky and secretive business of being Jewish was communally affirmed. In the courtyard, people met and talked with an air of gravity and shared sorrow.

Now I approach the synagogue with some trepidation, uncertain whether it is still used as a temple. But the courtyard gate is open, and there are four old men in front of the building. Yes, the services are still held on the Sabbath, they tell me—attended by old people, the only ones who have stayed. There are about five hundred Jews left in Kraków. The anti-Semitic campaign of 1967-1968 and the subsequent 1968 emigration virtually finished the Jewish community in Poland (there were 25,000 left after World War II, only 7000 by 1971). I feel strongly the pathos of these four old men left in a place which is now only a place to die—where nothing of theirs will be continued.

I am reluctant to tell my friends about my visit to the synagogue, or what it meant to me. There have been signs that Jewishness is an embarrassing subject; an awkward silence when I mention Israel, a long speech by Mrs. Rapacka reassuring me that she is tolerant of all faiths, a defensive denial of anti-Semitism in Poland by people who should know better. I realize that there is no way to touch this matter without awkwardness. Whatever people’s particular feelings may be, the history of Polish-Jewish relations is too awful not to cause shame. I realize also that, had I stayed in Poland into adulthood, the contradictions of the situation would have driven me out eventually. I recall an incident in which some of my schoolmates turned on me in a pack, because I refused to participate in religion classes which were briefly introduced into Polish schools. But as I was being attacked, some other children came to my aid, and threw themselves into a fight in my defense. What feeling should have been uppermost in my mind—hatred or gratitude?

And, on my return, I still cannot find a single attitude I can adopt toward this question. Collective condemnation refuses to translate itself into individual rejection. Pure outrage is possible only from a distance.

The Marble Man

My friends are eager to take me to the movies and the theater. One evening, after seeing a play which I do not particularly enjoy, I convey my opinion to Irena, whose immediate response is—“But it got good reviews in the West!” The West is the touchstone, the measure.

On the whole, however, Polish theater seems to be in excellent health. The performances I see in Warsaw and Kraków are sparkling and sophisticated and the repertory uncompromising in its quality and difficulty. Political themes dominate. Ironically enough, two of the most powerful and interesting plays— The Wedding by Witold Gombrowicza and The Emigrants by Slawomir Mrozek—were written by playwrights who emigrated in the middle of their careers because of political contretemps.

The most talked-about event of this season, however, is not a play but a movie—The Marble Man by Andrzej

The Marble Man is probably one of the frankest commentaries on the Stalinist era ever made and shown in Eastern Europe. Through documentary filmstrips, still photos, and a fictionalized narrative, it traces the career of a young worker—one of the thousands who were recruited to build Nowa Huta, a showcase industrial town. The protagonist—a young, energetic, and completely disingenuous country boy—is brought to the construction site, housed in primitive barracks, and worked hard. On a whim, he is singled out as an exemplary “workers’ leader,” and his portrait hangs in a prominent place. But he takes his new role too seriously. He agitates for improvements, for better housing, for more hon ?sty. His idealism is punished and Y ands in jail. A few years later—it ae Gomulka period now—he is rehabitated. But, although his friends have planned a welcome celebration, he has almost nothing to say; his disillusionment is almost complete. We next learn from his son, a dock worker in Gdańsk, that he died. The docks were the scene of 1970 strikes in which many people died, and it is clear to Polish diences that the final sequences are an allusion to these events. But the ending is cautiously optimistic: there is a chance that a young film-maker who has made a documentary based on the protagonist’s story will be able to get her film shown, that the truth may not be silenced. Wajda, who also directed such Polish classics as Ashes and Diamonds and The Canal. The film has caused a great furor as the government threatened to ban it. It is being shown regularly however, although there is still a prohibition on favorable reviews of it.

The audience is visibly moved and excited on the way out. “Fabulous,” Mrs. Dobrzanska says, “Wajda has courage.” Tomek has one objection: “Why do we always point the finger at our predecessors and imply that things are better now?”

Hunger strike

Warsaw again. I return to the Janowskis’, whose house now looks like the acme of comfort and elegance.

I hear about a hunger strike staged in support of the arrested KOR workers. It is being held in a church. This is apparently the most active and open show of support for political dissent that the church has yet made.

One day, as I walk through Warsaw’s Old Town, I enter one of the churches, fascinated by the fact that it is full almost to overflowing. I stand in the back and look at the congregation. There are peasant women, men who look like bureaucrats, housewives with their shopping bags, and young people in jeans and tight sweaters. Some are there in the traditional religious spirit which is deeply rooted in Polish culture, and is almost inseparable from patriotic feeling. But many young people flock to the church these days because it is the one institution where they can gather communally outside the aegis of the party. A few months ago, when the first church built after the war was opened in Nowa Huta—the setting of Wajda’s movie—some 150,000 people attended this symbolic event.

When the hunger strike is over, I ask people whether they think it accomplished anything. That is the wrong question. Nobody expected “results” from it. But it is important that it happened, important to register protest, important not to become resigned, not to yield.

I spend my last evening with Julia, a historian of some repute. After a long day’s work, she exudes energy. She makes dinner quickly, puts on a record of songs sung in the lyrical, chanteuse style, talks about literature, her romances, chooses her dress carefully, takes me to the theater—to see a hilarious rendition of Twelfth Night performed by an all-female cast—and laughs exuberantly.

No, a culture, a country, cannot be summarized. But I wonder what happens when an entire culture is forced to live in bad faith. For the vast majority of the Poles, the beliefs, doctrines, and principles which ostensibly govern them are at best an irrelevance to which they have to pay lip service, at worst an expression of an oppressive power. The real life of the culture goes on elsewhere—in places where official authority cannot reach.