JAROSŁAW KURSKI “A Proud Nation Queues for Sausage”


Jarosław Kurski Deputy editor in chief of “Gazeta Wyborcza”
It is not possible to discuss the Polish context of 20th century European history, namely the years 1939-89, without mentioning the city of Gdansk. Just as a droplet of water comprises the whole wealth of the ocean, so does Gdansk incorporate all the intertwined threads without which one cannot grasp history “unleashed”. I am especially privileged to have been born and raised in this place. I come from Gdansk. However, before I came to understand the uniqueness of my hometown, and before I achieved independence in thinking about history, I was, as a child, a victim of communist historical politics. Ever since then, any expression containing both the words politics and history sends shivers down my spine. And so, I remember class trips to Westerplatte, solemn pledges in front of the monuments of those heroes, but I also recall visiting bunkers, which has always kindled my childhood imagination. For us, Major Henryk Sucharski was a hero nearly on par with Hans Kloss from the series “More than life at stake” (“Stawka większej niż życie”) or Janek Kos from “Four tank men and a dog” (“Czterej pancerni i pies”). According to the historical politics of the time Gdansk, had always been Polish, and the world was black-and-white. Poles had always fought the Teutonic torrent, the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Order of the Teutonic Knights, the Prussians, Ulrich von Jungingen, Bismarck and Hitler. We knew who was good and who was bad. Such places as the Polish Post Office in Westerplatte, the Stutthof concentration camp or the place where thousands of representatives of the Pomeranian intelligentsia had been killed in Piaśnica appealed to me by their tragic nature only when, as a young man, I freed myself from the didactic propaganda we were subject to at school and which cast Poles in two types of roles only: heroes or victims. Later on, another factor began to play a role – the mysterious surroundings and a material heritage that was incompatible with Gdansk’s Slavic element. An eerie loop of 20th century history, a loop in terms of location, time and people. Indeed, the water in our flat was heated by a flawless German Junkers boiler, and the valves of the taps and radiators were inscribed with the unintelligible words kalt/warm. I would insert my door key into a German lock, and our mailbox was labeled, for some unknown reason, with the word: Briefe. Right after the war, a man resettled from east of the Bug river moved in on the ground floor. He used his bathtub to keep pigs (probably not knowing its actual use) and, in the morning, he would take his horse out to pasture out in the garden by making him walk down stone stairs (a chip in one of the steps to this day). The gelding would trot over the tomb of an SS officer who had committed suicide just before the Russians arrived. Before that, however, he had killed his entire family. One could plainly see that the ethnic Polishness of Gdansk dated back to 1945. While the Hel peninsula was still defending itself, an ecstatic crowd of locals welcomed Adolph Hitler at the Long Market in Gdansk. Six years later, the Russians burned down “Polish” Gdansk as a German city. Hundreds of thousands of German refugees escaped to the West, and a Soviet submarine sunk the ship “Wilhelm Gustloff”, killing around 9 thousand people. Forced resettlement became the bane of those Poles and Germans who survived the war. Germans, who sometimes wish to forget their own responsibility, refer to this phenomenon as “expulsion”. We talk of a forced repatriation, although we were not responsible for anything. I am the fruit of expulsion. I was born in a post-German hospital in Oliwa’s Polanki, I resided in a district described by Günter Grass in “The Tin Drum”, known as Langfuhr before the war, and now called Wrzeszcz. I am the son of parents resettled by force from the environs of Lwów and from post-uprising Warsaw. I grew up in a flat left by expelled Germans. Gdansk was an excuse for the war of 1939. It has become customary to say that World War II broke out in Gdansk. The Blitzkrieg which took place in Poland was the first military triumph of Hitler. It was also a harbinger of his defeat, although at the time nobody knew it. Europe was preparing for war but the victory over Nazi totalitarianism costs us many years of struggle and a historically unprecedented number of victims.. In 1963, when I was born, there was no indication that Gdansk, inhabited by Pomeranians, Kashubians, refugees from east of the Bug river and from Central Poland, would become the place where the second process would start: this time the bloodless deconstruction of another, communist, totalitarianism. And while the role of Gdansk in 1939 can be historically explained, in the second case, I suppose, one may simply speak of a true miracle. Gdansk, not counting the short post-October period, was in fact a port city and a blue-collar backwater port town. Who could have guessed that for the second time in a few dozen years, in August 1980, the winds of change would blow from Gdansk? I believe that the National Centre for Culture, which asked me to write this essay, was not appointed to preserve a heroic vision of the battles fought by the Polish nation. Director Krzysztof Dudek wrote about “the proud resistance of the Polish Nation to the powers that were trying to destroy us” in the years 1939-89. Lofty and beautiful words, but how much truth is there in them? Are they more than official didactics? More than just mythology? Was there such a thing as the proud resistance of the Polish nation against the forces that drove to destroy it? The longer I live, the stronger my doubts and the greater pessimistic my conviction that the nation as a whole, survival has always been the priority. So it was under German occupation and in the time of the People’s Republic of Poland. Actually, it has always been so. “Soldiers! In view of the general passivity of our society, historical events have surprised the Poles (…). It was necessary for the most courageous and active to take upon themselves the responsibility, the initiative of casting a spark onto the gunpowder”, wrote Józef Piłsudski in Kielce on the 22nd of August, 1914, in an order to his legion. As we know, the spark fell, but there was no gunpowder. When Company I Kadrowa entered Kielce, its citizens were closed their shutters and locked their doors. Hence the bitter lyrics of the Company I Kadrowa march: „Laliśmy krew osamotnieni” [“We shed our blood in solitude”]. And also: „Skończyły się dni kołatania/ Do waszych serc, do waszych kies”. [“Gone are the days of knocking/ at your hearts and at your purses.”] Piłsudski wrote about his legionnaires: “our sabers were small and unworthy of a nation of 20 million”, “no Nation stood behind us, they had not the courage to look the great events of history in the eyes.” Piłsudski knew what solitude meant for a soldier when, by way of special order, he granted veterans’ privileges to the insurgents of the January Uprising. In the Belweder Palace on January 21, 1919, he wrote: “They went (…) with hunting rifles and scythes against cannons and rifles. They made war for a year and remained, as soldiers, an unrivaled model of enthusiasm, devotion and persistence in an uneven fight (…). They lost the war. After their defeat, captivity began to penetrate Polish souls. Poles did not become forced slaves, but turned into people seeking, almost on their own accord, to improve their fate through the protection of their partitioners and of foreigners in general. As soldiers and defenders of the Homeland they have been cast aside, into a remote corner, by their contemporaries, as an object to be forgotten. In 1919 Piłsudski had no intention of lifting Polish spirits through Sienkiewiczesque embellishment and idealization of our fight for freedom. He spoke in the language of Żeromski, using images from “Ravens and Crows Will Pick Our Bones”, where the dead body of a January insurgent is stripped of his effects by Polish peasants. He did not want Polish wounds to scar with a scab of vileness. He would say that one can sometimes do something for Poles but that nothing can be done with Poles, and once summed up the political situation in Poland with the epithet “pierdel, serdel i burdel”. There is nothing revealing in saying that the course of history was changed by individuals, that it was only the elite who were fighting and that the nation adapted to the requirements of the times. The nation did not stick its neck out, was cautious and in some sense acted rationally since it kept its substance, prolonged its existence and ensured the continuity of generations. It do not feel entitled to condemn this approach. But can this be called a proud resistance? No, this is no proud resistance, this is rational opportunism. A few weeks before Jan Nowak-Jeziorański died I had the opportunity to talk to him about the occupation and the two worlds split apart by the Germans – the Jewish and the Polish one. The starting point for this discussion was the appalling scene of a court hearing in Leszno described in his book “Courier from Warsaw”. The weather was balmy, and so the windows on the ghetto side had been opened. The Germans were in the process of gathering another shipment to Treblinka. The animal-like shouts of excited SS officers could be heard: “Los, los, aber schnell!”, the cracking of leather whips, shots from light machine guns, people moaning and crying. In the courtroom on the Aryan side, there was a hearing concerning the theft of a bag of wheat. “Do you recall the mood of the tramway that crossed through the Jewish District, en route to Powązki? There were corpses lying on the pavement, just outside the windows. They were mainly victims of hunger or typhus fever. The deceased were taken away, like rubbish, twice a day by the Urban Sanitation Department. What were the other passengers saying? How did they behave then?”, I asked the Courier from Warsaw. “They were indifferent. You cannot understand it, but I can, a little. At that time everyone was preoccupied with saving themselves and their loved ones. The threat was omnipresent. People said, “Today the Jews, tomorrow us”. This frightful motto was ubiquitous. It is only in the context of these moods that one can understand the indifference. The heroic national phenomenon with which I identify is undoubtedly the Polish Secret State, the Home Army, a kind of unwritten conspiracy of a large part of society against the occupants and solidarity in face of oppression which, however, had its own limits depending on the individual. The first days of the Warsaw Uprising were pure national euphoria. White-collar and blue-collar workers put up barricades side by side. Later on, we would read in soldiers’ journals about the curses hurled them by Warsaw’s civilian population. The nation is a hero only on occasion, and the memory of a tragic sacrifice, like in October ’56, keeps it from falling into Romantic folly. This should not outrage us, as it is natural that many people from among the crowd of millions cheering Władysław Gomułka in Warsaw on Plac Defilad less than 12 years later participated in mass meetings organized in work places under the motto “Zionists to Zion”. Anti-Semitic cleansing was ordered from high up, albeit but with some approval of the lower classes. The party machine held rallies to condemn this, but the social ostracism encountered by those who had just discovered that they had been classified as Jews could not have been orchestrated by the authorities. It was spontaneous. Some went to the train station to see off friends with a one way ticket, others crossed to the opposite side of the street to avoid trouble. Let me return to the topic of my home city of Gdansk. When I was seven I began to benefit from the privilege of my place of residence. First came December ‘70 with shots on the streets, a curfew, the Voivodship Party Committee on fire. My father showed me the charred ruins of the building burnt down by the shipyard workers. The apathy after the suppressed social revolt was supposed to be cured by Gierek’s famous plea, “Will you help us?”. May 1, 1971, at the May Day march, shipyard workers still held a banner honoring those who had fallen, but the nation’s rush for sausage started soon afterwards. I remember the 70s as the triumph of small stability: buying a tiny Fiat 126, awaiting and finally receiving a much coveted 3 bedroom apartment in a block of flats, going on holidays to Bulgaria,or a shopping spree to East Germany, or bringing home some gold from the “Russkis”. Aattend elections and May Day marches – otherwise they may not issue you a passport or they might take back a washing machine voucher, or else cancel your daughter’s apartment savings account. Why put your neck on the line? Minor democratic opposition groups were generally regarded with pity and looked down upon as highly impractical. On December 16, 1977, a circle associated with Bogdan Borusewicz, students of the ministry led by Father Ludwik Wiśniewski, decided to return the victims of the December events to the collective memory. They arrived at the gate of the Gdansk Shipyard at 2.45 pm in hopes that those leaving after the morning should would join them. Arkadiusz Rybicki from the Young Poland movement recalls how “horribly disappointed” he was then: “We were laying flowers at the gate. A river of shipyard workers was flowing out of the gate and none of them so much as stopped. They all turned their heads away, that’s how afraid they were. I was thinking – But this is their holiday. We, the students, remembered, but they did not? This was when I stopped believing that we could ever reignite the memory of December ’70. But as it turned out they remembered in their own way. And when the time came they overcame their fears. I write about the miracle of August 1980 only because this protest, fundamentally social in nature, for a pay raise and the return to work of Anna Walentynowicz, was the spark that ignited the gunpowder. But it had come close to failing, since the August strike had actually ended after the management of the Shipyard fulfilled the social demands and there were only a few hundred people left at the Shipyard to show solidarity with the other strikers. Freedom broke out when the critical mass of the revolt was exceeded and when people saw how numerous we were and that the authorities could not lock everybody up. But our eyes truly opened and we realized that there were so many of us and that they were overwhelmingly outnumbered, during the first pilgrimage of the Pope, a Pole, to his homeland, when he said at Victory Square in Warsaw, “Let your Spirit descend, and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land.” Descend and renew it did. And then there was Lech Wałęsa, a worker, the son of a peasant from Lipno who by the sheer fact of perching on the Shipyard gate – by his mere presence – deprived the supposedly workers’ government of their mandate to rule. Wałęsa was wise to widen the social base of the protest. He kept in the Shipyard the white collar representatives who had come from Warsaw, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Bronisław Geremek, and appointed them experts. He opposed the conservative idea of reforming of the official CRZZ trade unions, but he also refrained from voicing demand number 22: free elections. He was looking for a compromise, but not at any cost, and he was able to risk the whole agreement to speak up for the arrested activists from KOR and other opposition groups. I will always remember him announcing on August 31, 29 years ago from gate II: ”We have independent, self-governing trade unions” and signing the historical agreement with a huge, dreadfully kitschy pen. When asked why he did not join Solidarity Aleksander Kwaśniewski answered once that he did not want to jump on the bandwagon. For many years, I have considered this answer offensive. But was there not actually a grain of truth in it? Where were those 10 million adamant members of Solidarity during all the years of Martial Law? Stefan Chwin wrote about it bitterly in the Sunday edition of Gazeta Wyborcza. How few of us opposed it! How easily we gave in to the rules of Martial Law! ”The resistance of the proud Polish nation” was expressed by lighting candles in windows and listening to Radio Free Europe, alternatively by telling a joke against the regime in trusted company. The groups that were openly in opposition, the trade union structures, underground press – there were incomparably more of them than in the 70s, but not more than a few tens of thousands of people actively involved in printing and distribution. In terms of numbers, this was comparable to the population of Giżyck or maybe Kalisz. Frankly, it is rather low for a nation of 40 million. And finally the Round Table, and with it the memorable date of June 4, 1989, when the freedom of a whole country was regained not by spilling blood, but by casting a ballot. An unprecedented historical situation made it possible for the “proud resistance of the Polish nation” to be expressed by voting for Solidarity on a warm June day. Only 62 percent of people bothered to go vote. Not all of them voted for Solidarity. People preferred to go fishing or go for a picnic, after all – what did they care? But they did vote back in communist times. Turnout in the 70s was above 96 percent and it certainly was not doctored. After Martial Law, fewer Poles went to vote, but the submissive human mass still participated in the electoral farce more actively than they did during the June 4 elections, when the fate of the country was at stake. It was even worse when our place in the family of free nations of the European Union was on the line. Polish prosperity was at a 300 year high point, and the stake of the accession referendum was to seal that process. Keep in mind that the battle was not being fought between the opponents and the supporters of accession, but between those that went and those who could not care less. It was only thanks to an intense campaign and the spreading of voting over two days did our heroic nation manage to win a battle fought against its own laziness. The 50 percent threshold necessary for the referendum to be valid was exceeded by almost 9 percent. Say what you will about the “proud resistance of the Polish nation” in comparison to other nations such as the Germans, Czech or Russians – we have a greater propensity to rebellion and disobedience to imposed authority. However, we do not have to feed a myth saying that the entire nation belonged to the Home Army, rescued Jews, went on strike and belonged to the anti-communist underground, to be entitled to be proud of the history of those 50 years. 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