My home country has been receiving of late a great deal of attention in the American press. The wave of interest began with the election of a Pole to the papacy. Until then, a mention of my former nationality at a cocktail party would evoke a statement like, "Hmmm . . . so you come from the country of kielbasa. . . ." Nowadays, I frequently find myself the center of attention, thanks to the pope and Lech Walesa, with his independent workers' union, Solidarity.
Since Poland has become a household word in America, it's important to shed some light on the complex, little-known landscape of the Polish mind. What forces mold the inner worlds of those people inhabiting that faraway place straddling the gray River Vistula?
The postwar generation of Poles, to which I belong, grew up on a peculiar mixture of contradictory beliefs. Instructed in both Marxism-Leninism and the Roman Catholic faith, we developed an ability to travel from one realm to the other without blinking an eye, or selling out our immortal souls. A Polish joke illustrates this point: "Why did the Polish government order that all new churches be built in the round? Answer: So that the Communist Party members couldn't hide anymore in the corners of the church on Sundays."
As a teen-ager, I attempted to sort out conflicting "truths" presented to me by schools, parents and the ever-present church. School textbooks proclaimed the official nonexistence of God, while the church instilled in us the belief in a world populated with saints, devils and angels, where Mary, Mother of God, was the queen and patron saint of Poland.
Family discussions revealed another paradox. My late father, a superb technocrat, decorated with a gold medal by the government for outstanding contribution to a segment of Polish industry, loathed the mismanagement he encountered in the course of his work. "Before the war things were always done right," he would say, lifting his forefinger up to the sky, like a preacher. I dreaded going out with him to restaurants. Confronted with slow service or a fly in his soup, father never failed to make a public scene. "This is scandalous!" he would shout. "In a privately owned restaurant everything would be run very differently. And I can testify to that, because I used to wait on tables when I was young."
Meanwhile, in my social studies class I learned a totally different story about those glorious "before the war" days. Textbooks spoke of the privileged classes, the landed gentry and the wealthy industrialists who often kept their employees in a state of medieval poverty and dependence, almost slavery. I agreed with father's critque of the economy, but argued that the "good old days" were not as perfect as he had described.
As a young child I had ample opportunity to observe the miserable life style of "his" Poland's rural and urban poor. Much later, as a young woman living under the communist system, I experienced the persisting haughtiness of certain Polish aristocrats. I and my comtemporaries did not believe in the remotest possibility, nor the virtue, of a return to the pre-war era. Yet, simultaneously, we were discovering the mind-stifling dullness of the "official" culture spawned by Stalinism.
In art school, socialist realism was a recommended form of creative expression. At the same time, the well-stocked school library offered a panorama of Western art through its collection of outstanding, lavishly illustrated books. We pored over Rembrandt, Picasso, Dali and the French Impressionists. But we earned money on the side by painting huge portraits on canvas of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and others, for display on city buildings during May Day parades. We became adept at writing slogans on long banners:
"Down with american imperialism." "long live the solidarity of the world proletariat." "the polish working class is the strength and unity of our NATION."
On weekends, a group of us would go to the National Museum of Art. We looked at many well-known paintings depicting Poland's turbulent past -- kings being crowned and great battles fought. Poland seemed to have always been attached from the West, as well as the East. Artists depicted bloody uprisings in oil pastel. These vivid images of the struggle for independence imprinted themselves on our minds with indelible ink.
I continued going to Sunday mass and to confession. The priests exhorted us girls to refrain from kissing boys till engagement time, but I found that to be unrealistic. I acquired a boyfriend, who daily quoted Ecclesiastes, while professing to be an avowed Marxist.
The college population of Warsaw, including me, was falling in love with French movies, westerns and jazz. We listened to Voice of American and the BBC, dreaming of visits to faraway lands.
Time marches on, but the ingredients of the paradox remain essentially the same. The teen-age children of my former college dance to rock music and wear blue jeans; after school, they often attend church-run classes on religion. Scientists, artists and tourists travel to Paris, as well as to Leningrad. The Polish mind continues to be an arena where East and West, the material and the spiritual, hope and realism continuously confront each other.
The majority of contemporary Poles have survived the exposure to conflicting ideologies without losing the capacity for logic and critical evaluation. I see the present crisis not only in terms of the economy but also, and perhaps foremost, as a crisis of the mind. The Polish workers are demanding an abandonment of senseless progress and impeding regulations and policies that stifle initiative and block the flow of creativity. The Polish mind wants an opportunity to fully exercise its powers.
I find myself unable and unwilling to discuss with people the possibility of the Soviet Union's intervention in Poland, whatever form it might take. The return of a cultural oppression, as well as shutting the doors on the current renewal of thought, would spell gloom and tragedy for the Polish nation.