When this story was written in late October, following a travel writers' convention in Poland, there was no clear indication about the final outcome of the Polish labor movement's struggle with its government. By early November there was still no solution and no lessening of tensions. But, for some travelers, the situation makes a trip to Warsaw even more of an adventure -- and more of a discovery.
"Imagine, if you will, a land in which carpetbaggers, swarmed not for a decade or so but for millennia and you will come to understand . . ." -- "Sophie's Choice," by William Styron.
There are no belligerent Confederates emblazoned on beach towels flapping outside tacky roadside gift shops along the routes to the Baltic coast. And naturally no one here sings Dixie -- that loved and hated song -- or refuses to sing it.
But Poland, as the American South has promised and threatened to do, has risen again. Despite the shadow of their Soviet neighbor, the Polish workers, in an orderly and almost polite national crisis, have apparently won their initial struggle for the recognition of trade unions independent of the Communist Party.
Besieged, beaten and joked about for 10 centuries, Poland stirs the sympathy and the memories of a Southerner -- especially a Southerner who feels proud and shameful loyalty to the South's legacy. Poland, a cold, old Communist country, is unexpectedly and ironically, more than other places, like home.
It stirred Virginia-born novelist William Styron with its similarities of profile and soul. From "Sophie's Choice": "It is not alone that forlornly lovely, nostalgic landscape which creates the frequent likeness, but in the spirit of the nation, her indwellingly ravaged and melancholy heart, tormented into its shape like that of the Old South out of adversity, penury and defeat."
Poland and Virginia are kin. Poland and eastern North Carolina are kin.
Polish people and Southerners are alike in pride, in propriety and manners, in defensive dignity, in strong religion, in strong drink, in the ways of coping with defeat and keeping on. We share with the Polish the look of the farmland, and the knowledge that racial crimes enormous in the history of humanity have taken place on this land. We know, with the people of Warsaw, something about rebuilding. We share the value of family, and of keeping our ties with our kin.
It is a country built on a battlefield that Poland shows itself and its Southern similarities most powerfully. For travelers, Poland is no Caribbean vacation. Sunshine and effortless ease are the attractions. It is, instead, a sort of emotional equivalent of Outward Bound. Visitors learn something in this exercise about suffering and survival.
Although about a thousand years of troubles preceded the war that razed Warsaw and built Auschwitz, it is the memories that are only 35 years old that caused a guide at Auschwitz to "take pills for his nerves" when he first took the job. This guide at the deadliest death camp in human history is a chemical engineer who leads tours part-time. The smoke over the city of Oswiecim now is from the chemical and fertilizer industry. There has been no smoke of burning flesh here, where more than four million died, for several decades. But awe of evil is as choking now, on a chilly drizzling day, as a sky of hot smoke.
It is not quiet at Auschwitz. School children and tourists are herded -- talking, walking with echoing footsteps -- through barracks where the still-living lived, to ovens, to the glass case carpeted with wisps and braids of human hair. A black market money-changer approaches an American traveler in a walkway between buildings. It is not quiet. It never was. An orchestra played constantly as the freight-car loads of human cargo disgorged on the platform. Now visitors see here on film what Allied soldiers saw when they entered the camp. Wooden seats slam shut when it's over, and people rise to leave the theater. The chairs make a noise, like the ordinary noises of living, that doesn't touch the real silence here. And walking out again into the daylight doesn't offer the usual comfort of light.
Polish people live with this. There are "museums of martyrology" marked on some maps. There is the entire city of Warsaw, 80 percent destroyed, rebuilt in the last 35 years. The crimes of the Nazis seem to be kept in the forefront of consciousness by Soviet efforts; by comparison, any regime would appear benevolent. But the crimes themselves are of ineffaceable size; the scars are like mountain ranges on the smoothness of the land. And people still feel them, though they are too young to have felt the wounds.
Much of the older generation is still bitter, said Prominska Elzbieta, an anthropologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences. And some of the younger generation is offering now in its own way to "rise again." Elizbieta spoke mostly in English and translated for her husband, Dzierkray Rojalski. Rojalski, also an anthropologist, was an officer in the Polish Underground Army from 1940 until the end of the war. Now he is an officer in the Polish Combatants Organization, a peacetime group that helps veterans and preserves records of that time.
"The feelings of the war are still very strong," she said. "For a lot of people -- everything that happened after that is just gray. Even my husband, who works with Germans in the scientific field, has many difficulties to overcome in unpleasant, very unpleasant feelings to Germans."
The attitude of younger people can be seen in the very existence of the national workers' strikes, according to Elzbieta. The children of those who have suffered so much, she said, have "a complex of not being a hero." They didn't have their chance to be brave, she explained. They are often very political. Now the workers have taken an independent stand and have so far got away with it. "The younger generation would like to show that they are as good as the older generation," Elzbieta added. "They are not afraid of nothing, let us say."
Poland fell to the Nazis in 35 days. The feeling about this fall and others in the history of the country is not of defeat, she said, but pride in "courage and heroism." The Polish resistance was like the barely armed bravado of the Confederacy. Poland sent 400 fighter planes against 2,000. "Everybody knew that the army would be defeated."
Paraphrasing a Polish playwright, a young guide in Warsaw summed up the standard national strategy: "The favorite tactic of the Polish army is to fight with a much stronger enemy."
There is not only the mixed heritage for both Southerners and the Polish of having lost in battle. There is also the matter of bigotry and complicity in crimes of race. In the South, the case is clear. In Poland, it is less easily defined. Nazis built the camps. But anti-semitism was not new to Poland. Jews, particularly merchants, were invited to Poland and protected, after Tartars had devastated large areas of the country. The attitude centuries later, according to Wojtec Popiolek, a tour manager for Orbis, the official government travel agency, was often: "It's our country, and they took over so much."
Relations were always bad with the jewish people," Popiolek said. "They were simply too clever." As for anti-Jewish attitudes now, "It's not anti-Semitism," he said, "but a kind of ironical smile."
In Warsaw, the ghetto where half a million Jews crowded, was not rebuilt after the war, as the city's Old Town was, to look as it had before. There are no dramatic signs of where it was. One boundary ran down the center of a street named Stawki. Now on Stawki Street there are cars and pedestrians, an ordinary flow of traffic past a florist shop and shops of powder and fragrance called Kosmetyka. But there are monuments in Warsaw: a stone at the place where the last handful of survivors escaped the ghetto through the sewers, and another stone at Mila 18, the site of the house where the 25-year-old leader of the ghetto uprising and the resistance died.
The leader that Poland has given the world more recently is a religious leader, Pope John Paul II, born in a bright yellow house in a small southern town called Wadowice. Like the American South, which sent this nation a notably Protestant president, Poland is a strongly religious country -- a sort of Bible Belt of the Communist bloc. It is a predominantly Catholic country, and Catholicism has mixed with Polish nationalism to create a church that people wait in crowds on the sidewalk to enter.
On a Sunday night in Cracow, two cathedral-sized sanctuaries near the center of the city were jammed with people standing in the back. Students in ski jackets and jeans were mixed with old women in babushkas. There was no whipsering and looking around. People faced forward, faces flushed, often with tearful eyes.
"The Church is accepted by the government," said Popiolek, "but it is not allowed to influence state matters. It was too strong not to be accepted."
Krzystof Jasiewicz is an assistant professor in political sociology at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He spent seven months on a fellowship at the University of Florida in Gainesville. During that time, he wandered as far north as North Carolina. gIn the Southern states north of Florida he felt, he said, much at home. What was familiar was "the Southern gentleman."
The cultural values of the Polish nobility of the 17th and 18th century are still very strong, he said. The Polish manor of that period was "very close to the way Southern rich people lived." And so was the manorial sense of privilege and responsibility for lower classes. Still important in Poland now is the kind of conciliatory manner that has grown from this past.
The "obligation to cooperate, the obligation to talk" was evident in the way the strikes were handled and in the wording of the speeches of the leaders, he said. The heritage shows as well in everyday relations: in the way that men treat women and parents speak to children. "I think there is a lot in common with the ethos of the Polish gentleman and the Southern gentleman."
It is a heritage both gentle and brutal that the two lands share -- of racial crimes and nice manners; of pride, God, gumption, and huge defeats. It is an unsettling kind of homecoming that one land can give a visitor from the other.