An American in Poland, Anno 1983: Return to the West (Part V)

After viewing a country under oppressive Soviet rule, what impressions would an American student take back home?

November 27, 2009

After viewing a country under oppressive Soviet rule, what impressions would an American student take back home?

We visited the Dominican cloister in Cracow, where we meet with a priest who reminds me of Saint Peter, because he walks around with a bunch of keys hanging on a rope around his waist.

He told us that, after Yalta, the Poles had to live with limited possibilities. The following are some examples of his profound thoughts on the situation of his people.

In this socialistic system, he says, people live next to people, but the "I-Thou" relationship is not the same any longer.

Solidarity among human beings, in its purest sense, meant people helping people — without being forced by the state to do so. Yet, the Polish situation is decided in Moscow, not in Poland.

The communists do not desire social peace in Poland. August 1980 had brought a pacifist revolution. Solidarity, the union, wanted a just peace, so that Poles could live like normal people.

General Jaruzelski was the Polish Prime Minister. He brought the mentality of the barracks, thinking that the military could renew a society. This has made people completely apathetic. There is no trust whatsoever in the powerful of the country.

How can any country develop with only apathetic people in the land? As to the food situation, he says that until now, there have been ration cards. Yet the government wants to do away with them.

There are too many zloty in Poland — but there is nothing to buy. The economic situation of various families may vary greatly. An apartment costs from 5,000-10,000 zloty per month.

The feeling is that the Pope's upcoming visit (in June, 1983), if it occurs, will create a difficult situation for everyone: "It is not a political visit, but spiritual and moral." Still, people feel that this pope is also definitely a politician.

We speak of the May 1981 assassination attempt on the Pope. He says that everyone in Poland thought right away that it was the work of Andropov and the KGB. "We are realists," they say. A full system change is not possible, but this system is impossible, and some kind of change is the only way things can get better.

A parliamentary system gives more hope to more people, they believe. Solidarity benefited from the fact that it was formed by young workers, plus it had no one-sided political philosophy.

Officially, there are no more political prisoners here. Actually, there are, but most are forced to do military service, with special units "reserved" for Solidarity people.

We are told about an old Russian tradition following Polish uprisings. The people have to ask to kiss the hands of those in power. Afterwards they will receive an "act of mercy." There is never an amnesty.

In fact, prisoners had to sign a contract of mercy to get leave for Christmas. Many signed — and then did not get the leave. He estimates that 3,000-4,000 people are still imprisoned. He believes the situation will not get worse because, "the Poles are not fanatics."

This is no Stalin-style persecution. Poland is under a police dictatorship. And they are very well-paid police — usually not communists, but opportunists.

On religion, the priest says that to be Orthodox in Poland means to be Russian, and to be Protestant means to be German. This is not true, he points out, but that's how many think.

The Polish government frequently sends out propaganda against the Church. This occurs in East Germany, too. There, it is "good" to be Protestant — and bad to be Catholic. In Poland, it's vice versa.

Help from the West is not always done well (economic help and supply help). For medicines and baby food as well as special dietary needs, the West is the only answer.

One can always buy vodka, and alcoholism has gotten worse since the downfall of Solidarity.

In this system, the people are treated as slaves — and the workers are treated like farmers during feudalism. If one does not want to work, one can be sent to a camp. Mental hospitals are misused in the Soviet Union for holding political prisoners.

"The Polish economy is sick and yet, there is no unemployment," the priest says. Meanwhile, the East European governments announce the unemployment rates in the United States and West Germany almost daily. Two people do here what one person could do there, with time left over.

The underground is still active, but uncoordinated. In Cracow, they had for a moment hoped for the openness of the old Vienna, where races and worlds were to come together and talk with each other to solve problems.

The hope had been — and partially still is — that in the freer atmosphere of Cracow, Solidarity could be more effective. We leave the priest and thank him for his thoughts.

Talking with Tadek

Tadek was one of the 11 founders of Solidarity in south Poland.

He had been employed by an airplane factory before his imprisonment. It is now militarized. Seventy-six of its 2,500 workers joined the new union.

The average income of a worker is 15,000 zloty per month. For workers in Poland to have a standard of living like the workers in the United States, they would have to earn 350,000 zloty per month.

The state debt is overbearing, standing at 29 billion dollars. And for all of the efforts of everybody, the work of the Polish people under this regime has no real value — and, worse, no purpose.

On Friday morning, we went to Cracow's Jewish museum and synagogue. We were all very tired, but I was glad to be able to observe a group of Chassidim Jews from New York having their service in the old Synagogue. They are the Eastern Orthodox Jews that come from the same tradition as Paul Celan, the Romanian-born, German-language poet on whom I am writing my dissertation.

Saturday

We drive toward the border with our VW transporters, but on the way a rock from a poorly-loaded Polish truck fell on Judith and Jörn's windshield. Of course, not even a plastic sheet could be found, so the truck had to be driven all the way back to West Germany with an open-air front.

After the accident, while some of us were waiting alongside the road beside the damaged truck, Dieter asked an old couple of farming people if they would trade their wagon for a VW bus. They laughed heartily, and kept their horse and wagon.

Then, we drove back with our now empty transporters, all the way through Czechoslovakia and on to West Germany and eventually returned to Bonn.

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a five part series. Read Part IV here.

Takeaways

One can always buy vodka, and alcoholism has gotten worse since the downfall of Solidarity.

Poland is under a police dictatorship. And they are very well-paid police — usually not communists, but opportunists.

Solidarity among human beings, in its purest sense, meant people helping people — without being forced by the state to do so.

We are told about an old Russian tradition following Polish uprisings. The people have to ask to kiss the hands of those in power. Afterwards they will receive an "act of mercy."