MICHAŁ KARNOWSKI “We’re all from here. Unfortunately.”


“We’re all from here. Unfortunately.”

Michał Karnowski
Deputy Editor in chief of “Dziennik”

It would be nice to say that those years did not exist. Following the subversive thought once expressed by Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz (referring only to the years of the communist People’s Republic of Poland, the PRL), it would be nice to say that those two dates and those fifty years simply had not occurred. To say that there was a gap in Poland’s history. And that we, as the state and the people, have grasped the frayed ends of the 2nd Republic of Poland, and continue to weave them . This is a tempting idea, one that actually appeared, quite seriously, in public life soon after 1989, reflected in the many attempts to reactivate of old political parties and movements, as well as in efforts to come to terms with the communist past by regarding its heritage as null and void. I must confess that I was also fascinated by this idea. It allows one to feel the breath of Poland’s old greatness, to hear the voice of Tadeusz Gajcy who in the mid of the Nazi occupation wrote in his poem, “Do potomnego” [To My Descendant]:

„Miasto, w którym
do ciebie piszę – stoi ciemne,
choć zwykle słońce liże mury
spryskane pismem krwi daremnej”.

“The city from which
I write to you stands dark,
though the sun licks its walls,
splattered with the writing of blood spilt in vain”

I read this poem for the first time as a teenager soon after the fall of communism. I remember that an overbearing thought passed my mind: Here I am, the descendant, the recipient of the message. We clutch at that broken thread – Poland rises from the ashes. As free people, we can reject the disgrace of the past. We should first punish, and then forget.

However, the longer free Poland exists, the more conclusions we may reach, and the clearer we can see that it is not going to be that easy. We are not from the 2nd Republic. Moreover, we can also see that such an assumption, while convenient, hurts us instead of healing us, as it passes in silence over everything that has created us, everything we have won and have lost, and makes us unable to stand up to the challenges of the future. Finally, such an assumption is false. Because today’s Poland and contemporary Poles, if their roots lie anywhere, it is in the years after 1939 and 1989. Public emotions and the principles that have directed Polish politics up to date, came into being there. So much of our public awareness has its roots in those times: the heroes of our collective consciousness, our traumas and our prides, our language and family memories. All of this is so strong that it has covered the old pre-war elements of national consciousness with new ones, rather than was them away. Today, one can hardly imagine what in the following decades could possibly weaken the experiences of those years.

I belong to what must be the last generation that experienced (albeit only from a child’s perspective) the immensity of the shadow that World War II cast on lives of the following generations. As it was in the US, where the most important person at the family table would be the one who remembered the Great Depression, in Poland it was the one who remembered the war. That was the key story told at my home, and as far as I know, at many other homes of the Polish intelligentsia. However, stories about the war were not stories about war adventures, nor stories about Poland’s history, and to a small extent only stories about national heroism. With time, I grasped that the point of the stories was to provide a basic explanation of the situation. They were to answer the question of where we were, and why we felt so uneasy about the paradoxes of the People’s Republic of Poland. According to these stories, world history was split into two periods: before the war and after the war, divided by the nightmare of occupation. The period before the war was a normal one. It had its ups and downs, but it was ruled by laws grounded in reason. The period after the war was gloomy, bizarre, incomprehensible, and alien. Even in the 80s, to cope with one’s life still meant to go back to 1939, to remember everything around you was an outcome of a great and unjust calamity, and that perhaps it would pass one day.
I recall the following scene: My brother and I spent our savings in an antique shop and bought an old school map of pre-war Poland, with the administrative divisions – voivodeships – marked. When we put it up on the wall at home, my late grandmother, Felicja Piątkowska neé Rogowska, stood in front of it, deep in thought, and gingerly touched the North: - “Here, near Grodno I started out working as a teacher”. Then, she traced a line down to the South and found the town of Stanisławów. That was her second job. She then pointed at the town of Łomża. It was where she got married on July 31, 1939. ”What happened next?”, we asked. She replied, ”War. And then the People’s Republic of Poland. Life had to go on…”. I should add that what happened then was a new home in so called Recovered Territories, in the region of Warmia, reclaimed by Poland after the war.

My grandmother continued to work as teacher under communism, as did my grandfather. Like many others, they tried to carry on the what they perceived to be the essence of Polishness through those difficult and convoluted times. My grandparents tried to educate their students in such a way that they would, at least to some extent, be successors of that beautiful, free and independent 2nd Republic and, to a smaller extent (compared to what the state required), products of the PRL. That was their battle. Did it end in victory? They certainly fought with great dedication. Their fight definitely brought about some results. But on the whole, their battle was lost. That old Poland no longer exists and will never return. The communists, however, lost as well. The Polish citizen of 1989 was not the ideal dreamed about by communist rulers. To a great extent, this was due to passive (and sometimes active) resistance. It was also due to the fact that the system kept underestimating the human nature and was based on a sick and inefficient ideology.

Many factors actually contributed to the final result. After the first period, 1944-1956, when Poles were fighting for their biological survival, they began to fight for a broader scope of liberties. The communist regime softened and began attempts to cajole society — attempts interrupted every few years with brutal repression. Kazimierz Moczarski is a good example of a survivor of war and imprisonment who became a civil rights activist. His latest biography, by Anna Machcewicz, depicts this quite well. It should be noted that a lot has remained from those times. The cultural heritage of the People’s Republic of Poland should be assessed positively. There are two reservations though. Firstly, most of what could be described as valuable was created in parallel or against the mainstream culture of the state. Secondly, this favorable assessment does not apply to material culture, as it was one big disaster (beginning with the architecture, and ending with the industrial design of everyday appliances), with very few exceptions. This is how I like to think about the history of the PRL: a story of creating against all odds, working against the government or in parallel to it, exploiting every crack of freedom to create freely and create free works of art. In this sense it is a success story. Moreover, this perspective takes nothing away from the effort and achievement of those living in the PRL, although that is how many seem to understand it. It simply rejects a common lie that in those time everything was more or less normal. It was not. In no other period in Poland’s history was social enthusiasm so wasted and common efforts so poorly organized, often to the extent of uselessness. These two phenomena: creating against all odds and the waste of people’s efforts by an absurd system paint a full picture of the experience of the PRL.

What remains is, of course, the political layer with June and October 1956, March 1968, December 1970, June 1976 and August 1980. And its conclusion: elections held on June 4, 1989. I think the last one is an important date, but still less important than all preceding ones. That date, in spite of all the accompanying emotions, is the last line closing the period that began in 1939, the period of slavery, or bizarre semi-slavery, under the communist regime. The more time passes since those elections, the more I see them as the termination of that sad period and not as a happy opening of a new era. The first true elections, fully free and focused on the future, in favor of something and not just against something, were yet to come.

The longer we are free, the more we become aware that we will need to discuss what we want to take from those times. We cannot, after all, take nothing. If we wanted to take it all, we would become a post-communist hybrid. We need to make a reasonable choice. In order to do so, we need to make a critical assessment of the PRL.

World War II presents differing issues altogether. Due to external circumstances, such as the recent renewal of nationalism in Russia, the exchange of generations in Germany, and their new (although not yet fully recognized yet) point of view on German responsibility for Nazism, there is not much we can do. In this field our task seems simple: to focus on basic truths, to build our historical policy, i.e. to launch our own true message into international discourse and to fight back all attempts to blur the distinction between the victims and the perpetrators, as Poles have nearly always been war victims.

We have supporters in this venture. The latest book by Norman Davis, ”Europe at War 1939–1945: No Simple Victory” reminds us that nothing about that war was as simple as the West has wanted to see for so many years; neither the victory of the allies, nor the war’s conclusion, especially for the countries of our region. It was with anxiety that I compared the Polish and English versions of this book to check if that truth is expressed clearly, aimed at the Western reader. Fortunately, it is.

We are better at fighting for our truth than we were 20 or 10 years ago. Polish complexes disappear, the supposed toxicity of Poles has turned out to be greatly exaggerated by communist propaganda and the traumatic experiences of those who emigrated to a better world. Even the word “crisis” bears the same meaning in Poland as it does in Germany and France. On the other hand, the drastic shift of Poland’s borders after World War II and 50 years of the sick communist system which preserved some social reactions while distorting others, left us with many marks and scars. In hindsight, after 20 years of freedom, we realize how deep they really are. We realize how much we lost, how much catching up we have to do. The more we become a part of Europe, the less we believe that we have won the war, the less we feel like laughing about the funny circus of the PRL. The years between 1939 and 1989 cannot be deleted, and they were not a void in Poland’s history. We now know that. This is not going to change, but it seems that our perception of this period will become gloomier as time goes by.

This article is one of four essays inspired by the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II and the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism in Central Europe, part of a special commemorative edition of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s 3rd Symphony, “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, published in Blu-Ray format by the National Centre for Culture in Poland.

Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa NarodowegoNarodowe Centrum Kultury