Early on the morning of Monday, May 7, Stanislaw Pyas, a philosophy student at Cracow's Jagellonian University who had actively supported a Polish dissident group, was found dead in the stairwell of the tenement he lived in.
Authorities said he had been drinking and fell. Students claimed he was murdered, beaten to death by security police.
The next Sunday, an estimated 2,000 Poles gathered at a memorial Mass where the university chaplain said that Pyas' blood was "shed for freedom, for justice." That evening an even larger crowd, as many as 5,000 strong, marched silently through the downtown carrying candles and black flags.
Retribution came swiftly in Warsaw. Government spokesmen denounced the episode as a "provocation" fostered by subversives backed from abroad. Ten members and sympathizers of the Workers' Defense Committee, the dissent group that Pyas was supporting, were arrested on a "prosecutor's sanction" which means that they can be held for as long as three months without being charged.
Four other memorial Masses were held around the country, the most significant initiated by students from Warsaw University at a large church near the city center. A crowd of many thousands was anticipaetd, but on the eve word went around that the service had been canceled. The information was false, an effort to keep attendance down because organizers feard that another mass rally might lead to violence. The tension still persists with hunger strikes and handbills protesting the wave of arrests.
What does the unhappy case of Stanislaw Pyas show about the current situation in Poland? The answer is complicated and even in some ways contradictory.
If Pyas really was the victim of an excess of zeal by security policemen who had only intened to scare him, his death joins the arrests of such leading dissidents as Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik and Jan Josef Lipski as reflecting the most repressive side of the Polish regime. Such intellectuals have been remarkably successful over the past year in attracting attention at home and abroad to injustices in Poland.
The regime's patience is now plainly at an end, or very nearly so.
Yet it is also true that any mass protest demonstrations, such as the ones in Cracow, involving in this case cooperation between students and the Catholic Church, are remarkable in Eastern Europe. The Pyas affair symbolizes one of the most important political facts in Poland today: the increasing force of public opinion in a population more prepared to express discontent than the people of other Communist countries - and better able to get away with it.
Poles defend their interests vigorously. The idealistic students have openly marched in the street. Private farmers, fearing that collectivization was impending, not long ago cut back sharply on output. And it was the anger of workers over drastic increases in food prices that prompted last summer's widespread strikes.
Many Poles and outsiders living here agree that the result, in a curious way, is a form of democracy.
"The people here do have formidable power," one Western diplomat commented recently. "They can say 'no' and particularly on economic policies the leadership has to respond to them. That is not the way our society operates, but it does have a significance - a kind of negative democracy."
As the continued harassment of dissidents shows, Communist Party leader Edward Gierek and his collegues are ready to react in the predictably repressive ways of an authoritarian regime when the issues are ideological, such as the Workers' defense Committee's calls for liberal reforms. Even on that score, however, Gierek has to reckon with public sentiment.
Observers said, for instance, that there were dozens of plainclothemen on the scene during the Cracow march, during which a defense committee manifesto was passed around, but there was no concentrated effort to break it up. Everyone recognized that interference could lead to terrible bloodshed.
Earlier this spring, more than over 700 students at Warsaw University signed a letter calling on the Polish Parliament to set up a commission of inquiry into allegations that police had beaten workers during last summer's upheaval over food price increases.
Although university rector Zygmunt Rybicki warned that students could expect to be punished with reprimands, expulsion, refusal of passports for summer travel abroad and so on, few reprisals of any consequence have been noted.
Authorities have also been extremely cautious lately in dealing with the church. On the same weekend as the march for Pyas, a far larger crowd, estimated at about 40,000, converged on Nova Huta, Cracow suburb, for the consecration of a cathedral.
A handsome building meant to evoke Noah's ark, it is far more than just a local cathedral. Seventeen years ago, Nova Huta, a vast steelworks town built by the new Communist regime after World War II, was the scene of violent clashes over the absence of religious facilities. The gap was intentional, an effort by the officially atheist state to discourage church-going.
The drive failed, and several years ago approval was finally given for construction. It was purely coincidental that the Nova Huta cathedral opened its doors at a moment of such unrest in Cracow, but authorities must have taken account of the mood in the city in keeping police well out of sight.
Polish sources say that permission has quietly been given to familles who want to teach their children the catechism at home, which in the past was strictly forbidden. The problem seems to be that the decision was approved at the higest levels but has not been implemented lower down.
"Many bureaucrats find it hard to accept that the Communist Party would authorize such a step," a Pole observed, so they resist."
A similar difficulty has developed with intellectuals. Gierek is reliably said to have promised a group of prominent writers recently that work will be measured on literary merit rather than the polical orthodoxy of its author. But writers say that nothing has changed in the attitude of party cultural apparatchiks who can still block, delay or dilute works they disapprove of - and often do.
In yet another conciliatory gesture that met a major demand of the Worker's Defense Committee, in February Gierek ordered amnesites for the 55 workers still in jail for their roles in the disturbances over foodprice increases. Practically all have now been released. There continue, however, to be reports that factory managers and party officials use threats and intimidation tactics against anyone sympathetic to the Defense committee or its aims.
"We wonder sometimes," said a young Pole, "whether Girek tells the people what they want to hear and then instructs party cadre to do the opposite. But that is probably too simple. The real reason is that conservatism is so ingrained throughout our system. It is a mentality we get from our Soviet 'Big brother.'
"The perpetual conflict," he added, "is between our Polish instincts, which I believe to be good for us, and the Russian model that we try to follow. You had only to see those students marching and praying for Stanislaw Pyas to understand just how enormous is the difference between who we are and what the Soviet Union expects us to be."