Poland's application to rejoin the International Monetary Fund is a news event, but perhaps even more it is an event in the life of Europe and an expression of the idea of Europe, and in this aspect it has an almost unbearable poignancy.

Note that Poland is "rejoining" the Fund. It was there once. Indeed, it was there from the start at Bretton Woods in 1944, as was Czechoslovakia. Both joined without hesitation and were among the "original members." In their brief and unhappy tenure lies the bitter waste of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union itself was at Bretton Woods and was invited to join the Fund and its companion institution, the World Bank. (Permit, please, a digression: Moscow eventually said no, but on a vote to extend its time of reply, one committee member was a holdout, Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa of Nicaragua. He finally switched and he was asked which speech had swayed him. "None," someone there recalls him replying, "I just don't like being in the minority!")

In any event, from 1944 to 1947 there was still some (fading) ambivalence or flexibility in Moscow's thinking about how it would organize liberated Eastern Europe. Into this political gray area came Poland and Czechoslovakia, looking to see how they might combine their obligations to Soviet power with their strong traditional ties to the West.

By 1946, the Czechs had applied to the World Bank for a loan of $350 million, while the Poles, "being a little prouder," as one participant put it, sought $600 million--large sums in those days. This was negotiated down, not easily, to a request for $125 million to rehabilitate the Polish coal industry. Then to $45 million. The terms of repayment became another issue.

At this point the Iron Curtain was lowering. Both Poland and Czechoslovakia showed signs of eagerness to participate in the Marshall Plan (June 1947), but the Kremlin barred that door. This made their Bank-Fund connection both more precious to them and more difficult to pursue.

American relations with both countries were worsening for a host of other reasons. The U.S. government got sticky about granting export licenses for the mining machinery Poland needed. Eugene Black, then the U.S. executive director, passed word that he would vote against the coal loan if it were presented to the board.

Much of this is related by Edward S. Mason and Robert E. Asher in their history of the World Bank. They make clear that Poland, unable to obtain a loan and unable to participate constructively in the work of the Bank and the Fund, stamped out in 1950. As for Czechoslovakia, it was forced out of the Fund (and therefore the Bank) by a hostile Fund board in 1954, bitterly protesting its ouster.

I offer this account for a reason. Often it is suggested that the Soviets compelled Poland and Czechoslovakia to sever their Western ties. Either they had intended all along to communize the borderlands, it is said, or, in the revisionist view, they were reacting to a Western plot--of which the Fund and Bank were instruments--to subvert Soviet power.

The record makes clear, however, that the Russians were neither so single-minded nor so suspicious. They were ready to let the Poles and the Czechs make and keep an international financial connection. The record makes it necessary to ask whether a more subtle Western policy might not have allowed both East European nations to maintain some sort of line to the West through the Fund and the Bank.

Whatever your answer, the basic question remains relevant, and there can be no doubt of the profound value of opening a line now. Czechoslovakia may be a step away, but Poland is there. After three anguishing decades, the idea of Europe--the idea of diverse peoples choosing to associate with each other for a decent purpose--remains marvelously alive in its historic East European haunts.

No one who spends even a bit of time with people from Eastern Europe can doubt that a thread in the very fabric of our common history and culture--one broken a generation and more ago--is being caught up now.

A new gray area is spreading in the region, not totally unlike the gray area that existed in the immediate postwar years. Suddenly Poland has a rare second chance to build a life at once respectful of legitimate Soviet interests and consistent with traditional national desires. This time, to the extent that the choice is ours, we cannot let it down.