Two years ago, I stopped by a newly opened Warsaw art gallery owned by Alicja and Bozena Wahl, the daring and eccentric twin sisters I had gone to art school with in the 1950s. A middle-aged man with graying hair walked into the gallery and caused a flurry of excitement and enthusiastic greetings. "Meet Andrzej Wajda. We have two paintings of his in the current show," said Alicja, pointing in the direction of a wall. I looked at the great movie director's pleasant but rather average results of a venture into another medium.
I thought of that brief encounter one recent evening in Washington, when, deeply moved, I observed Wajda receive an honorary doctorate at The American University amid organ music, prayers and potted palms. The memories of a solemn Catholic holiday ritual in a Polish church with flags carried in a processional and of priests in ceremonial robes flooded my mind.
In the course of his extraordinary speech, Wajda expressed a hope that his work might contribute to the shaping of history by his presenting an honest and truthful version of history as it is lived by ordinary people. Hearing this, I remembered how long ago in Poland I cried watching the young hero of his movie, "Ashes and Diamonds," die on a garbage heap from a gunshot wound.
"Do you still paint?" I asked Wajda during the reception.
"Heavens, no," replied the creator of "Man of Marble" and "Man of Iron."
A Polish university professor on a stint in the United States told me that evening, "Well, well, so you've become a real American woman--well-dressed, well-nourished and well-rested."
A sudden feeling of guilt grabbed me by the throat. I have a sister in Poland to whom these days I send by airmail shoeboxes packed with items she can't find in her stores: deodorants, coffee, shampoo, scouring powder, tampons, tights and gloves for the child, shoes, vanilla extract, pantyhose, dry yeast, flea powder for the cat. . . .
"You must remember there is a bright side to the crisis of the Polish economy," said the professor over a glass of vodka at my house. "Little victories bring enormous satisfaction."
My sister writes: "It has been a great day. I was able to buy a bottle of Yugoslav dishwashing liquid, which made me feel triumphant."
The comfortable American life style I have grown so accustomed to has dulled my ability to rejoice in small achievements, and I am the poorer for it.
Wajda is yet to make a movie about the unsung heroine of the Polish crisis--the working wife and mother who stands in line at 6 a.m. by an "early duty" food store, wearing a nightgown under her coat and slippers on her feet. This woman nowadays works eight hours at her job, stands in line at various shops, cooks dinner, helps the children with homework and falls into bed exhausted. No wonder my baby sister looks older than I.
Cold weather has arrived. The Poles worry about lack of food and clothing. The political climate has begun to harden like the earth in late fall. It seems at this point that only a miracle might extricate Poland from the present crisis, but the miracles are few and far between.
Several years ago, the American Film Institute in Washington showed "The Wedding," Wajda's film adaptation of a famous, late-19th-century play by Stanislaw Wyspianski. My American husband found the complex symbolism of the film impossible to comprehend. "One has to be Polish to understand 'Wedding,'" I consoled him.
In the course of a country wedding of an intellectual from Krakow to a peasant woman, a bunch of peasants with scythes and pitchforks are dispatched to rouse all the farmers and to liberate Poland from the occupying foreign powers. A magic golden horn and a feathered cap will ensure miraculous victory. As it happens, the men go to sleep under the trees and miss the great and only chance. A song reverberates through the final scene, where heroes rotate slowly in a ghostly, spellbound dance:
Fool, you had the Golden Horn,
Fool, you had the Feathered Cap,
Horn toots in the woods,
Wind carries the Cap,
All you have left is a rope.
I believe the undying sense of humor will be the saving grace of the Polish nation. A current joke making the rounds of Warsaw says that the Soviet Union offered to pay off the entire Polish debt to the West in gold. There is just one small requirement: Solidarity must come to Siberia to dig out the gold.