Wieslaw Matuszewski was released last month from an internment camp for Solidarity activists. He spent 86 days isolated from society and for him, Poland seems like a country in a dream world--half strange, half familiar.
The impact of the December military takeover is obvious. The electronics factory in Wroclaw where Matuszewski works seems gripped by a mood of sullenness and apparent apathy. After a fourfold increase in prices, his family has to struggle to make ends meet. People no longer talk openly in public.
Equally important is what has not changed. The Polish nation, says a local priest, is like a chameleon. On the surface, it changes color--but that is merely a centuries-old survival technique. Underneath, it remains the same.
For former internees like Matuszewski, however, adapting even to those surface changes in Polish daily life is a wrenching process. Their experience in the camps has, if anything, left them even more angry and bitter.
Soft-spoken and balding, with a neat gray beard, Matuszewski, 56, still seems stunned by the Dec. 13 martial-law declaration. His pres-ent despair contrasts with the euphoria he felt in September 1980 when he became one of the founding members of Solidarity--the first legally recognized free trade union movement in the Communist world.
"We were on the crest of a wave then. There was just too much happiness . . . too much happiness," he said.
"After 1980, it was we Solidarity members who walked tall in this factory. The Communists seemed frightened. They kept in the background and were careful not to go against our wishes. Well today, the situation has completely changed. It's the party members who are walking tall--and everybody else who is trying to avoid them."
The events of the past four months also have left their mark on Matuszewski's wife, who had a nervous breakdown soon after her husband was detained. She has experienced firsthand the traumas of modern Poland, from the Warsaw uprising against the Nazis in 1944 to the mass postwar migrations and the Stalinist purges in the early 1950s.
The Matuszewskis' story parallels that of millions of Polish families. It is, in a way, the story of Poland itself.
I first met Wieslaw Matuszewski last October during a visit to the Elwro computer plant in Wroclaw. He joined several other members of the Solidarity management board in the factory for a talk about the gathering political and economic tensions in Poland and the growing militancy of the union's rank-and-file.
Eventually the conversation turned to what Solidarity meant for each person sitting around the table. A hush fell. The workers replied in simple, heartfelt phrases, as if talking about something both precious and long-suppressed:
"For me Solidarity means the regaining of my self-respect."
"The feeling that I am not alone and cannot be destroyed immediately by some kind of arbitrary authority."
"The unity of the working class."
"A feeling of pride that, after 3 1/2 decades of totalitarian rule with its stifling atmosphere, we have still managed to give birth to an authentic social movement."
"The conviction that Poland is again becoming Poland."
I didn't make a note of who said what. It didn't really matter. Each person in the room, Matuszewski included, seemed to be speaking for everyone else. Elwro was a Solidarity stronghold, with 5,700 union members out of a total work force of 6,000.
My return visit to Elwro was organized by the Communist Party cell at the factory. A meeting with a very different group of workers was arranged. All spoke strongly in favor of martial law, which, they said, had come as a relief. The forces of anarchy had been defeated and everyday life, while still difficult, was gradually improving. They condemned the "political extremists" in Solidarity.
After the meeting was over, I told the party secretary, Bogumil Krupski, that I would like to talk to a member of the former Solidarity board. He explained that the chairman was on sick leave, some Solidarity officials were still interned, and several others were not on duty that day. But, he added hastily, there was nothing to hide. They would try to find someone.
About 20 minutes later, looking slightly dazed, Matuszewski was brought to the office.
Matuszewski was at home when he heard about martial law. He went immediately to Elwro for a meeting of the Solidarity board, which decided to join other factories in Wroclaw in a general strike.
The strike collapsed the next day. Riot police "pacified" the giant Pafawag heavy engineering plant nearby--and reports circulated that many strikers had been seriously beaten. Frightened and feeling suddenly isolated, the workers left the Elwro plant after police officials threatened to use force.
A week later, Matuszewski was arrested at his home by two plainclothes security men and a uniformed policeman. He was served with internment order number 1498 and sent to a camp in nearby Nysa. In January he was transferred to another internment camp at Darlowek in northwestern Poland.
Conditions at Nysa were spartan and crowded, according to Matuszewski, but much better at Darlowek. The internees were generally well treated by the guards, allowed regular walks and parcels from home. They played Ping-Pong and billiards. Matuszewski spent much of his time laboriously manufacturing tiny Solidarity badges out of West German bacon wrappers.
He made 47 badges in all, distributing them among the other internees. The Solidarity activists held lengthy political discussions and sang patriotic songs.
"It's strange," remarked his friend Jozef Lomecki, who was also detained in Nysa. "The atmosphere in prison was freer that it is outside. There everybody wore Solidarity badges and spoke openly. Outside nobody wears badges any more--and nobody speaks openly."
Matuszewski agreed. "Perhaps it's because people who haven't been locked up still have something to fear. Once you have been locked up, that fear is taken away . . . . We felt much freer in the camps than we do now that we have been released."
As in other camps, the internees were offered passports to the West if they agreed to emigrate. Matuszewski refused. He and his wife speak only Polish and they have lived all their lives here. They don't know what they would do abroad.
Coming on top of other personal tragedies, Mrs. Matuszewski took her husband's arrest very badly. It was three days before she found out where he was being held--a numbing uncertainty that she compares unfavorably to her memories of the way the Nazi occupiers behaved in World War II.
"When my father was taken away by the Gestapo in Warsaw, my mother went to their headquarters in Szucha Street. She was told immediately what had happened to him," she recalled.
During the war, the value of human life was much less. Mrs. Matuszewski remembers how, as a 13-year-old child in Warsaw during the uprising in August 1944, she sometimes had to kick corpses aside just to get down the street. She was wounded three times herself and escaped from the old town through underground sewers.
The fact that Poles were fighting the Germans made this experience, dreadful as it was, somehow understandable. But for someone of Mrs. Matuszewski's generation, the thought of Poles fighting Poles is unbearable.
Shortly after martial law was declared, she found herself face to face with a group of riot police cordoning off the industrial section of Wroclaw. She stared straight in the eyes of one of the policemen, a tough young man. In reply, he pointed his machine gun at her and shouted, "Get out of here, you old goat, or I'll let the whole magazine into you."
Tears came to Mrs. Matuszewski's eyes as she recalled the incident. "The awful thing was that I knew that young man was a Pole, just like me. Of course it was worse during the war, but what else could we expect from Germans? This time, it's our own side."
Like many other families, the Matuszewskis share their two-room apartment with their son and daughter-in-law, who have waited in vain for a home of their own for more than seven years.
Price increases imposed since martial law have meant that the cost of living has shot up dramatically. Mrs. Matuszewski says her entire monthly salary of 4,500 zloties ($56) goes to pay for meat coupons for a household of four. Recently she wanted to buy some underwear but discovered that the price had increased from 104 zloties to 508.
"Our money lasts until the 20th of the month. After that we have to borrow," said her husband.
"I try to think of any unnecessary expenditures that we could eliminate. But there aren't any. We don't drink, we don't smoke, we don't buy new clothes. Practically all of our money goes on food," said Mrs. Matuszewski.
Detergent is rationed to 12 ounces per person per month plus one bar of soap. Last month, the Matuszewskis ran out of washing powder and had to incur the extra expense of sending their clothes to the laundry.
Ironically, Matuszewski's internment eased the family's economic plight. Mrs. Matuszewski received an aid package from a church in West Germany, and on several occasions total strangers appeared at the front door with money. With her husband in a camp, Mrs. Matuszewski had one less mouth to feed.
When Matuszewski returned to Elwro after his internment, he was given a warm reception by his colleagues who were pleased that he had been released. But he also notices that some are reluctant to talk to him. There have been other changes as well.
The Solidarity offices are locked. The union's posters have been scrubbed off the walls and slogans attacking President Reagan stuck up in their place. Plant managers blame Western trade sanctions for production difficulties and shortages of vital components.
Workers' passes are checked carefully by the guards--but an Army major marches straight through the gate with a proprietorial air. Discipline at the plant is enforced by plainclothes police who have their own office in the management building.
The young security men roam round the factory looking for signs of inactivity. If they see a worker wearing a Solidarity badge, they don't tell him to take it off immediately, but jot down his name. The man is later summoned to their office and warned that he may be fired.
In one incident, a secret policeman swaggering around with his hands in his pockets was rebuked by a worker who told him he should be ashamed of himself. The worker was called to the policeman's office and kept waiting for an hour and a half. When finally allowed in, he was told, "Don't be so courageous in future."
In some cases, workers have been laid off--ostensibly for economic reasons, but in reality, many believe, because they are considered potential troublemakers. Two people were fired for collecting money for the internees. At a nearby factory, two entire departments were disbanded after a token strike in February.
The workers' fear of losing their jobs is particularly strong at a time when Poland's economy is in deep recession and the cost of living is constantly rising. To make matters worse, it can be very difficult for a worker laid off for political reasons to find a job anywhere else.
Shortly after martial law was declared, the Communist Party organization at Elwro was dissolved--an almost unprecedented event in a Communist country. Local party officials complained that it had become too sympathetic to Solidarity. All members were summoned before a panel and required to give an account of their ideological attitudes before being issued new party cards.
The result was that party membership at Elwro shrank from 962 in August 1980 to 307 today--less than 6 percent of the total work force.
There have been few protests at the factory since martial law. As Lomecki, Matuszewski's friend, remarked, "Staging a demonstration might do something for your inner well-being--but we understand that it's useless to try attacking tanks with pitchforks."
For all the changes that have taken place in Poland, both Lomecki and Matuszewski said they feel that a lot has remained of the 16 months of Solidarity's existence. The fact that their fellow workers are reluctant to challenge the martial-law authorities openly doesn't mean they have surrendered deeply held opinions overnight. Privately, many express a firm conviction that one day Solidarity will return.
The paradox is captured by Lomecki, a blunt, straightforward man who does not hide what he thinks. "Well, perhaps the workers here don't wear Solidarity badges in public any more," he said. "But I can bet you that each one of them has a Solidarity badge in his drawer at home."
For Wieslaw Matuszewski, martial law represents proof that communism has failed in Poland:
"After 36 years, they have at last shown their cards openly. This proves that the economic and political system under which this country has been run just cannot work. It is their final defeat."