Globalist Perspective

An American in Poland, Anno 1983: In Gdansk (Part II)

Why was there such a large feeling of helplessness in 1983 Poland?

A Solidarity poster. Read Part I here.

Takeaways


  • Jörn comments that he has seen a lot of helplessness under socialism. People have become understandably apathetic — because they can do nothing to improve their situation.
  • A Polish border guard going through our packages gruffly had told us, "There's enough sugar in Poland." At the same time, he stuffed a package of sugar into his pocket.
  • Gdansk was once "the free Hansa city of Danzig." You see the hanseatic architecture and sense how vital, independent and strong this city once was.

We travel to Gdansk with 15 people in just two buses. There is much laughter and joking, although it got a little too crowded towards the end of 300 kilometers.

We go to see the famous Solidarity monument. On it is inscribed a quote from a poem by Milosz, a Polish poet who now lives in California.

At the top are anchors, which double as religious crosses — four facing in each direction.

At the bottom, statues are emerging from the stone — male and female workers. On the wall facing the monument is a quote from Psalm 29.

This monument was erected in commemoration of the uprising in 1970, when the dock workers protested against the government, which had raised the prices of basic food goods. Twenty people were shot to death by the police. Solidarity was founded in 1980.

We view the Santa Brigitta Church in Gdansk, built between 1374 and 1974. Beautifully renovated, like few churches in Western Europe. The Poles give everything they have to renovate their churches. The altar is modern art, in the form of a flame.

An exhibit about the forbidden Solidarity union stood out in the foyer visible to the secret police, God and everyone else. This illustrates a typical kind of resistance through the church.

Photos of Walesa, the Pope and a drawing of Maximillian Kolbe hovering over his people with the same quote from Psalm 29 that stands near the Solidarity monument.

Gdansk was once "the free Hansa city of Danzig." It was a city-state, like Hamburg and Bremen. You see the hanseatic architecture, the same as in northern Germany and Belgium, and sense how vital, independent and strong this city once was.

The old city hall from the year 1565 is now a city museum. We took a walk through the city at night — the sky was clear and a sickle-shaped moon hung over the old city hall. Contemplating the moon, Dieter asked Barbara, our official guide, where the hammer was.

Jörn comments at dinner that he has seen a lot of helplessness under socialism. People have become understandably apathetic — because they can do nothing to improve their situation. Lots of resignation and alcoholism.

Individuals' wishes may not really exist, according to the state doctrine. Only the stifling commonality. Giving is not so much a matter of sacrifice as of force, and thus lifeless.

Jörn had talked with plenty of pastors about Protestants in Poland — it was an almost hopeless situation. The pastor today is hoarding books that belong to the church because he fears that the State might destroy them some day.

Our mutual friend Stajek, a brilliant young lawyer who has been studying international law at the University of Amsterdam this year (and had studied at The Hague before), stated for the first time that he would not go back to Poland if he did not have his family there.

His brother-in-law, Tadek, who was in prison for more than a year because he had been one of the 11 founders of Solidarity in South Poland, has become resigned and apathetic, and this hurts Stajek very much. Stajek has also lost his former job and will not be allowed to work in Opole any longer.

The Russians have certainly no interest in Poland's social situation improving. It is a very old hatred. Russia has now given Polish authorities the order to diminish contacts with the West to as little as possible. It has been harder and harder to get visas.

A Polish border guard going through our packages gruffly had told us, "There's enough sugar in Poland." At the same time, he stuffed a package of sugar, chocolate and cigarettes into his pocket.

Also, a woman border guard had tried on several pairs of the shoes, but they were mostly too small for her, since they were children's shoes.

On this and on the previous trip, we have been able to see how the simple people live — in the countryside and in the cities.

With that in mind, I was not much impressed when I went past a store in Gdansk displaying chocolate, coffee, perfume — all from the West — and all of which can only be bought with Western money. For a color TV set and for a vacation in another country (in the East), people have to pay a luxury tax. A luxury tax to go to Bulgaria!

April 16, Saturday

We tried to visit a couple of museums, but all were closed, so we went to Stutthof, once a large concentration camp north of Gdansk. In the remaining buildings there was an exhibition, much like, but not as complete as, the one in Auschwitz.

A huge, stone monument was done by a Polish sculptor: faces emerging from the stone, much like the late Michelangelo's. The guide was a Pole who had lived near the camp all of his life.

He jumped right in. There were just a few introductory words about what had happened here, and then he said dramatically, "…but the fascists are still living today."

He then attacked President Reagan, who "sits in his White House and revels and builds missiles." This was more than an opinion — it was a show. Oh sure, he said himself, missiles of any nation are bad — but his emphasis was clear.

One would expect a display like this from most party officials in the East, but he did not stop at that. He was very dramatic, histrionic, as he described German fascism and dwelt on the question of why it had taken the Western government so long to convict war criminals, if they were convicted at all.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a five part series. Read Part I here.

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About Terri Langston

Terri Langston is senior editor at The Globalist.

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