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A diary from Poland, continued
What follows are more excerpts from Professor Jane Curry’s diary from her year in Poland:
The good old days?
There is no agreement on the past. The old days seem better and better because so many have forgotten what they did not have in their disappointment over what capitalism and democracy proved to be. The Solidarity trade union museum begins not with their decade-long fight against communist rule but with a model of an empty grocery store with an abacus cash register and a special machine to show people if the eggs they were lucky to find were old or not. For those who were dissidents, the how and why are easier to see. They knowingly challenged the system and broke the law. They got punished. But, in the end, they won--the old system is gone. Most of them have no real interest in punishing their old jailers.
For most people, though, the victory is not so clear. Capitalism has not brought them what they expected. Many have a lower living standard than they did in t he communist era or, at least, feel poorer. The people who many see as making “big money” in the new system are the men and women who were in the old establishment. They got training, experience, and connections because they went along with the communist system.
The focus is on betrayal. Communism was a intricate system of tattling. The secret police recruited willing and unwilling agents; kept files on what they said and who they reported on; and used that information to decide who was an enemy. It was the opposition community the police most needed to infiltrate. Now, as the secret police files are opened up, people learn that their husband, friend, or colleague—people they trusted—were reporting on them. Many have elected not to find out, to leave their files untouched. Most, when they do find out, feel no better for it. Instead, they and the society learn from these revelations that you can’t trust others, or yourself for that matter.
The Heart of Poland
May 1… Today the Poles, against their wishes it seems, joined the European Union. Its something the leaders wanted to prove, I’m not sure what. Getting in certainly has not helped the political leadership—it has the lowest public approval of any Polish government; the corruption and nepotism scandals are daily fare in the press; and opponents to the European Union are likely to win the first elections for the EU parliament. Whether or not membership works for the economy or to open the borders finally, Poles are never going to conform to EU standards.
They are a society of co-dependents. When I say I am interested in something or that my children or friends want, the immediate response is “I can help… I know…” Family is as expandable as the terms “aunt” and “uncle”—after all, Polish kids learn their teachers, their neighbors, and their family friends are all “aunts” and “uncles”. Poles learned, from living with shortages and inexplicable rules, that, if you don’t help each other, you won’t get anything. A guest in the house, a birthday… no one I know stints on the food or the presents. In this system, rules are made to be subverted.
They are also a society of interveners. In the old days, people stopped us on the street because my children did not have hats on or they were walking on their shoelaces (we took our own supply in so they could ruin a pair or two). That’s still the case. When I sat in the hospital coffee shop bereft that my friend’s leg had to be amputated, there was a tap on my shoulder: “I saw you at Cardinal Dulles’ talk. What’s wrong? What can I do?” An overstretched doctor sat down and help was on the way.
They are also a society of talkers. When I interviewed former communists so that, down the road, researchers could hear their stories and explanations, they made time. They told me not just what they did but how it fit into Poland’s history and what else was going on. Busy parliamentary deputies and government ministers made time for me, even if it was during breaks in parliamentary meetings. Only former censors turned me down for interviews—with them it was not a matter of time but embarrassment, it seemed. Almost every subject is up for discussion. Classes and discussions run overtime. Students ask for explanations of how the American system works. And, then they listen, determined to get all the intricacies.
Finally, they are a set of characters. Friendship overrides politics, or did until martial law in 1981. The national heroes are not cookie cutter people who live by the rules. They are the Jacek Kurons and others. They are not conventional. They wear what they want and live to the max. They are outspoken and argue for their causes with abandon. Polish dinners are equal proportions of food, disagreement, and mutual support. Their doors are open and they are ready for action. People are judged not for who they are or what they have but what they have done in their lives. Behind the scenes, childhood friendships and individual humanity matter and always did far more than anything else.
The foreign community gets swept up in all this. Fulbrighters who speak not a word of Polish are also invited and treated. Foreigners from diplomats to ex-pats just living here, no matter what their nationality or countries’ policies, form communities and help each other.
Well, I’ve waxed nostalgic about Poland (and the rest of Eastern Europe). Watching my kids elect to come back here this year, pick up childhood friendships and go on while they seek out the old and very not luxurious food and treats I used to be able to get them makes even more nostalgic.
Remembering the Uprising
…Today is the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. It’s been a three-day event that has engaged Warsaw. There are throngs of Polish scouts standing at attention, walking through the various battles, and escorting the survivors. The survivors of the uprising have come from all over. Most were the same age as these scouts when they fought the Germans with too few weapons and homemade bombs. For this celebration, all the old questions have been set aside of whether the Uprising made sense, whether it was worth the deaths of 300,000 young fighters and civilians trapped in the city and the Germans razing Warsaw to the ground. They and their fallen comrades are now heroes, everyone is asking them about what happened, and their losses are being recognized.
I saw another thing today about suffering. When the International Church invited ambassadors to join us for a service in honor of the Uprising, it was the ambassadors from South Africa, Nigeria, and Angola who came. They all bore the scars in some way for repression and civil wars in their countries. And, yet, they were the first to bring flowers and light candles at the monument to the Warsaw Uprising.
The Bitter End
…Fifteen years after the euphoria of communism’s collapse, things seem to be going from bad to worse here. Today’s government has less popular support than any previous government. People have little faith that their lives will improve and even less in their politicians. The level of corruption is on the rise—or, at least, the government seems much more corrupt than ever before. The hospital system can’t afford medicines like pediatric chemotherapy. And, life cranks on.
Poland joined the EU last week. Ten years ago, it was a big deal. Today, many people see it as “what has to be,” not something good for Poland. Posters have gone up all over the city of pigs encouraging people to vote responsibly for the EU parliament and not stink up the situation more. Most people expect the winners will be people who see “being part of Europe” as dangerous for Poland.
Do the Poles want to go back to what they had? No, they value the freedoms they have. Poland has always thought of itself as “in the West.” A whole generation of young people wants to go to Western Europe to work and be educated. But, they also look on their government officials’ corruption and the poverty in their country with real fear that it will spread further, that their decisions can’t be trusted. These are the people that are bringing Poland into the European Union.
Professor Curry’s most recent book, The Left Transformed, was published this year and is scheduled to be updated and republished in Polish.