Fall 1996, Volume 13.3
False Dawn in Warsaw
Jadwiga Lukanty-Nkosi (Ph.D., Poznan University, Poland) is currently living in Cambridge. Her essays and articles on political events in Eastern Europe have appeared in many Polish academic journals. "False Dawn in Warsaw" is part of her recently completed memoir provisionally titled On the Other Side of the Moon.
I always hated the dirty, gloomy, and hopeless November days in Warsaw which justified even suicide. The streets and squares, littered with leaves sown by the strong autumn winds, looked ugly. Grey facades of identical buildings. Poor quality goods in the grocery windows. Small cars parked on the pavements. On one such day curiosity about political events, broadly commented upon by the Solidarity publications, drew me out of my home.
The Warsaw streets were crowded with multicolored umbrellas moving in rhythm with the jaunty steps of pedestrians, whose depressed faces were lost in thought; their lips pressed hard, often turned down like small horseshoes. If by chance someone's face smiled, the umbrellas turned a half circle, then paused for a moment, waiting for their owners to satisfy their curiosity. "Must be something wrong with him. He smiled at me. How strange!" After maybe a mumbled rude comment, the umbrellas resumed their skipping movement.
Often careless drivers splashed dirty water on pedestrians waiting to cross the street and people jumped back, brushed their clothing and cursed the careless drivers. Rude treatment seemed to be easier to accept than the unexpected smile on a passer-by's face. At least it was more familiar.
With relief, I turned from busy Marszalkowska onto quiet Mokotowska street where the Solidarity headquarters were located. Solidarity inherited its offices from the Teachers' Extended Education Bureau located in the huge grey building constructed during the Stalin period. The entrance was surrounded by small 126 Fiats that appeared to be scattered about on the pavement. I had to make my way between cars that blocked the entrance. Stepping on an unstable flagstone, the dark thick mud splashed over my blue trousers. I paused for a second in the lobby before entering.
The wide steps led to several small rooms which more or less looked the same: desks were covered with piles of brochures, posters, books, reports, applications, used and unused papers, among which a lot of cigarette butts were heaped in multicolored plastic ashtrays. Most of activists were chain-smokers and the aroma of different kinds of cigarettes prevailed in the place. In the long corridor where publications were sold, some wooden chairs without upholstery stood in a line along the wall marked by peeling plasters. The walls were mostly bare except for a poster pasted next to the entrance, a clenched fist with a thumb thrust between two fingers which signaled contempt. We called it "figa." In Polish this symbol illustrated unfulfilled promises that the Party had made to society.
The newest publications lay on the two tables, their crude black print sharply contrasted with the yellowish low-quality paper on which they were printed. These publications were produced hurriedly without covers and with pages stapled together, but their external appearance was not important to us; we were hungry for their information inside.
The atmosphere in the Solidarity offices possessed the freshness of spring air and the hope of early morning. Everyone ready to settle yesterday's debts, believed in tomorrow. In Solidarity's offices we talked in a different way, using simple language instead of communist jargon. The change of language was the most profound symptom of those times and struck me even more than any political concession given by the Party to the nation. People here were more critical but also more sincere; we could speak openly and truthfully. Solidarity had already a certain kind of openness introduced before Gorbachev's glasnost was articulated officially.
Joining Solidarity couldn't be called a particular act of courage on my part. I did it only after its membership had exceeded the number that could be locked up in prisons. It was already after the strike in the Gdansk shipyard, and after Solidarity had obtain its legal statues. In a cozy cafe at Montparnesse in Paris, I had celebrated the historical moment of Solidarity's registration in the Polish Supreme Court. The Party's acceptance of the dockyard workers' demands and the creation of an independent trade union turned over a new page in our history. We were still uncertain of how long the Party would allow Solidarity to act legally, but it had extraordinary moral meaning to us, even if it would last only a few days.
My vacation in Paris seemed to be child's play compared to the sensation I was now experiencing in Warsaw. Days were too short and nights passed too quickly. Discussions, films in the Journalist Clubs, and reading stacks of illegal publications took up our time. But, most important to us was to feel that we could think and write in different ways, that it was now possible! Decidedly, we believed that the time for changes had come, and changes would improve our lives. But we were not certain of what we would like to change, what we really wanted and what we could expect. It was a time of great awakening. Universities, cafes, churches and homes resounded loudly with political discussions. We lived on top of an active volcano. The political fever crept into overcrowded buses where an innocent remark or a complain provoked a vivid political discussion. Even the endless standing in lines assumed the character of political meetings. At that time we had to stand in line for everything, for meat, soap, wash powder, sugar, tea, flour and rice, which disappeared from shop shelves at lightening speed. Our life became nervous, exciting, sometimes a bit hungry, but full of hope.
Churches, where Sunday sermons turned into political demonstrations, opened their doors to the political opposition. New programs, criticizing the communist past, attracted crowds to the theaters. The cabarets in the cafes Nowy Swiat and Pod Egida enlightened our minds more successfully than long propaganda speeches. New slogans, written by anonymous authors, appeared on buildings almost every night. The letter "S", twisting like a small snake, became the most dangerous one in our alphabet. Its appearance on the walls caused alarm among the Security Officers. It was rubbed out with a tenacity equal to its painting. Sometimes a lower or upper part of this small snake was visible beneath a fresh coat of paint to remind passers-by that the symbol of Solidarity was still there, hidden, but alive.
From time to time the police confiscated illegal publication being sold near Warsaw University. This action was ineffective because new boxes of the same publication waited to replace those which disappeared into the police cars. There was a certain kind of competition in inventing ways to ridicule the police. We were less and less afraid.
In my Institute we kept silent only when the chairwoman of our department approached us. She still eavesdropped on us and wrote long, anonymous reports to the Party, to the director, and perhaps to God. The professional meetings in my Institute took a different course. We started to revise history. Often I was ashamed that I, as a historian, didn't know some historical facts or out of cowardice I had followed others, like a sheep in a herd, in the interpretation of history. To be honest, there were many reasons to be ashamed. Suddenly the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of influence between the Soviet Union and Germany, which had been so long kept a secret, was revealed to the public. Recalling the enthusiasm with which I had watched "Before the Storm" on Polish television, I felt quite uncomfortable. This propaganda television drama had blamed the Western powers for breaking negotiations with the Soviet Union at the beginning of their last war. Also we started to talk loudly about crime committed at Katyn which had weakened the Polish Army to the point of no longer being able to protect Polish borders and rebuild new divisions. The Party propaganda had tried to make us believe that Germans were responsible for the mass execution of the Polish officers at Katyn and for their secret burial in the Soviet forests. But no Pole could believe those lies.
Then too, we recognized the "fraternal help" given to Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the troops of the Warsaw Pact as unjustified aggression when it was claimed that socialism was threatened.
It looked as if we were beginning to rewrite history which, until now, seemed to be only a rough copy full of blank pages dotted with ink spots and decidedly without footnotes.
Sometimes we behaved like children testing the limits of their parents' patience. We couldn't believe the Party had became so permissive. Then demonstrations and strikes became too much for the Party. Soon the storm of protests sweeping across the whole country alerted the Party, which was not prepared for such lawlessness in the nation, to the new subversions.
And yet, and yet, at the time, society didn't believe that the Party would move so far as to impose martial law or to invite Soviet military troops. It seemed such a risky step to take. The authorities must have known that hostility would replace the love we had been encouraged to show for the Big Brother.
During one of the endless discussions in the Old Cell, a student club, I proposed to discuss the eventuality of martial law so that we would be ready for any emergency. A murmur of dissatisfaction ran through the room. It didn't discourage me. "Can't you see that the Party is permitting us to go ahead because it is in a deep crisis? Any moment it can recover from this crisis and again secure its position." I began to draw on the analogy between the military intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Communist Party was losing its leading position, and the situation in Poland. People in the room grew impatient and began to shift in their chairs. Losing confidence, I could hear my own voice as if it were coming from a person standing next to me. "Listen, the Party is losing the last points of support. The moment seems critical. I am sure the communists will not give up their power easily. It is exactly what happened in Czechoslovakia."
From the far end of the room, a woman's husky voice cut a path through the heavy cloud of cigarette smoke. I couldn't see her in the barely lit sale. "History doesn't like to repeat itself. Now we have 1981 not 1968. You forgot that Poland is not Czechoslovakia. The Russians know that we will fight. And this is a big difference."
"All the same. There is not much of difference between then and now except a passage of thirteen years," I argued, convincing no one, and barely audible above the hum of voices.
Another voice, seriously irritated, sounded closer and clearer.
"Let's not waste our time for women's hysteria and their naive speculations. Better we concentrate on the real point of our meeting." The man emerged from the smoke and walked toward the small podium in front of the audience. He was tall and very slim. His loose black cardigan and black velveteen trousers seemed to be one size too big for him as if he had lost ten pounds after buying his clothes. His small head, with thick hair cut short, resembled a poppy on a long steam. When he appeared in the front of us loud applause resounded in the room. "Let him speak! Let him speak!"
The speaker raised his hands like Saint Peter blessing a crowd and the gathering calmed soon. "Solidarity is an irresistible force. Ten million members. It is not the handful of protesting people in Hungary in 1956 or in Czechoslovakia in 1968. This is ten million against one and a half million of the Communist Party members. Even for some Party members it is time to take a cold shower, particularly for those who became Party members for career reason, rather than out of commitment to the communist ideology." An ironical smile made his face look unsymmetrical, while one side remained serious with the slightly tightened corner of his mouth, the other was deformed by stretched and turned up lips. This smile did not brighten his eyes, they remind watchful, but added a special meaning to his words. "Frankly speaking I don't trust these half-communists. They appear to be like bunch of radishes. Personally I do not like radishes. They are supposed to be red but you have to bite them to see their white interior. I am afraid that these half-communists can form a fifth column and try to devour our movement from inside like a cancer secretly devouring an ill liver before causing death." For a while he paused as if he was becoming tired, poured some water from a carafe into a thick glass and drank it in one gulp. When he stopped talking silence descended the room. The listening faces expressed approval of his words. It was apparent that the speaker had taken control over the meeting, and had become an authority and an oracle at the same time.
"Go ahead," someone from the back of the room urged him. The speaker moved his gaze around the room and began to speak very quickly. His words, pronounced almost separately, sounded as if cut by a sharp knife. "Democracy, political pluralism, abolition of the Communist Party monopoly of power, all these have to be our priorities. It is a time for action. Action! Now!"
Again he paused allowing his words to settle into people's minds, and then went on in low voice, "We have to organize a referendum. We have to ask the nation as I ask you now: Who wants democracy? I am serious. Please raise your hands if you like democracy."
The forest of hands brightened the dark room: some pink and waxy, others big and hairy swollen from hard work, some small with polish nails and delicate, covered with the silk of young skin.
"Who supports one party system?" The burst of loud laughter gave answer to his question. "In such a way we are going to ask the nation. Also we should ask ourselves how much we love the Soviet Brother. I think that it is high time to divorce him."
Once again I rose from my seat and shouted desperately, "Your program is catchy but unrealistic. Do you think that the Party will allow us to do that?"
"It has to," he spoke in earnest. "We will force it."
"Hey you, who are you?" a stentorian man's voice resounded on my right side. "Why are you so frightened? If you are scared why didn't you stay at home and knit a sweater for your husband instead of getting involved in politics?"
I felt that the ground was being cut from under my feet. I was defeated. For the remainder of the meeting I sat in silence with my head dropped.
In this atmosphere of optimism we lost the capability for realistic assessment of the situation. We didn't notice when the stop sign appeared on our way. It happened immediately after Solidarity proposed to organize the referendum on the future of Poland. The nation was to be asked the two provocative questions: What system did we prefer, one party or pluralistic? And did we like to be submissive to the Soviet Union? Additionally, the Solidarity leadership sent a memorandum inviting all socialist countries to join the Solidarity movement. In this moment the Party started to recover its equilibrium.
On December evening, I was invited to friends' home to discuss some political issues. We talked and drank red wine far into the night. I hurried to catch the last tram home because I didn't have enough money for a taxi. Tram number 7 was almost empty. Only a drunk young man, wearing blue jeans and a black leather jacket, slept in the corner mumbling something to himself. I took a seat behind the tram operator. Reflected in the oval mirror hanging above the entrance door, his face bore the expression of someone dreaming about the warm body of his woman and a supper which she had cooked for him. He seemed already to be there, sitting close to his wife in the warm circle of a lamp lightening the kitchen table.
In the streets there was no traffic. In the wintertime, life in Warsaw died at about ten o'clock. We passed poorly lit shops, the main railway station, and some international hotels. For a short moment, the Palace of Culture emerged form the darkness in sharp illumination and then the street blacked out again. The monuments covered with fresh snow assumed a ghastly look in the light of the neon lamps. The tram stopped next to the Party Central Committee building. I was astonished to see all of the windows in this huge building glowing with bright lights. I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to midnight. "Mischief is brewing." This thought flashed through my mind and I felt a sharp pain in my heart. "Is history going to repeat itself? Is it possible that my projection, so unpopular, was correct?" I thought with anxiety rather than with satisfaction. I couldn't take my eyes off those threatening lights.
Absorbed in my thoughts, I returned to my small room in the Polish Academy of Science hostel. This place was deservedly called a slum. We lived in very small rooms, which didn't exceed seven to nine square meters. A kitchen, a bathroom and a toilet were used in common. Under the dirty gas stove, rubbish overfilled a big container. In the bathroom, babies' diapers were drying as were women's underwear. We had to wait for a flat for fifteen, sometimes even twenty years, so some couples had children regardless of the situation. Under such conditions doctoral theses, books, and articles were written.
The windows of my room looked into the busy street. Through a badly fitted balcony door, snow drifted into the room. It was cold, the lights I had seen sparkling in the Party windows obsessed me. I took a shower with the hope that I would wash off all of the day's tension. I liked that moment of cleaning my body and absolving my soul. Without judging, I recollected events which had happened during the day as if I were watching a documentary film running through my mind. This time I could see nothing but the shinning windows of the Central Committee.
I was anxious. I tried to read but I couldn't follow the words. I looked through the window. The silver glow of the moon spread over sleeping Warsaw. All of the windows in the opposite side of the building were dark except one which belonged to a couple of lovers. The soft warm light was sifting into the night. Those unknown lovers had become an inseparable part of my life. Every night, I watched the same erotic scenario. In the warmly lit room, a man awaiting a girl made the bed and smoked a cigarette. The girl was slim and had long straight hair. Their bed was placed in the unexposed part of the room, but their creeping shadows appeared on the opposite wall and joined in a loving embrace. I was a harmless observer, like a bird sitting on the window sill or like a domestic cat.
"They have already made love," I murmured emotionlessly and went back to my bed. I ate all of the sweets left on the bedside table with a nervous greed and eventually fell into troubled and restless sleep.
When a loud knocking on my door awoke me, I had a feeling that I had slept only a few minutes. I jumped from my bed and opened the door with shaking hands. In the doorway was Walerka, my neighbor, who liked to go to bed in the small hours. She was a tall, nicely shaped woman of thirty.
Our friendship had started with her swearing when Walerka was moving into the neighboring room a year before. All day I heard a hammer knocking at the wall. She was hanging her collection of small pictures. From time to time loud screams of "damn it" broke the knocking. When we met, we quickly formed a friendship that was full of mutual respect and discretion with regard to each other's private lives. Without talking, we knew almost everything about each other. The thin walls didn't allow for much privacy so I knew when Walerka made fresh coffee, typed or has a new boyfriend.
"Do you know what has happened?" Her voice was unnaturally high. The corners of her small full mouth turned down. Her tired face expressed strange feelings; she looked like a person who didn't know whether to cry or to swear. "They've done it!" She cried. My knees became suddenly weak. "Martial Law?" Walerka nodded gravely. "Turn on the radio," she said, still retaining her high voice.
It was six o'clock in the morning. I turned on the radio, The voice of Jaruzelski, the leader of the Party, resounded in a dramatic tone. He spoke in a painful manner like a father who was being forced to punish his own children. He talked about patriotic duties, social order, and the Party's responsibility. He entrusted the judgment of his decision to history. Then all radio stations and television lapsed into silence. It was the thirteenth of December 1981.
I couldn't sleep anymore. After two hours of rolling in my bed, I got up. I ate my breakfast standing up in the dirty kitchen. Then I walked to the city. The streets were empty. The beams of the rising sun sparkled in the fresh snow and the temperature had dropped below zero. With clenched fists, ready to fight, I walked toward the main street in Warsaw. My flowing tears froze halfway down my cheeks. Near the Ponitowski Bridge and the National Museum I saw heavy shapes of tanks and military vehicles.
I walked on with anger, repeating with obsession the words of the Polish poem, "My motherland is vulnerable and my hands are unarmed." The military vehicles broke the silence of the streets, deserted of public and private cars. Immediately after Jaruzelski's speech, the telephones were disconnected. Taxis, trams and buses waited for permission to resume their work. At the corner of Marszalkowska and Swietokrzyska streets, a small group of people gathered around an advertising poster. I joined them. A short man with bushy eyebrows red loudly the Government memorandum.
"Bloody hyenas!" They did it after all." A man, who looked like a worker, commented on the short man's reading while spitting through the gap of his missing front tooth. He carried his ungloved hands in his pockets. "To hell with them," a woman wearing a well-cut woolen coat cried. Dressed in silky tights, she stamped her feet to warm her legs. Her High heeled shoes were sunk into the snow. She wiped her red nose and eyes with a big kerchief. "How am I supposed to go to hospital?" She sobbed. "Yesterday I left my father there with a heart attack." Nervously she rummaged through her handbag and found a cigarette. "I will get you a match." The tall man made a quick gesture. He struck a match and, sheltering the flame in his cupped palm, lit her cigarette.
After a few minutes, three policemen armed with batons and guns approached us. The shortest of the three ordered in a coolly professional way: "Citizens, please separate. Gathering in the street is not allowed." His little pig eyes, long nose, and thin mouth looked malicious.
"This is government information. They want us to read it," the tall man pointed out. The same policeman replied in a dry voice which was trying not to say any more than necessary, "Do it one by one."
"What?" The woman asked incredulously. She still seemed not to understand. Anger flickered on her face. She shrugged her arms and threw the end of her cigarette into the snow, then snorting, walked away. The aroma of her good cigarettes still floated around the advertising poster. The tall man looked behind him and again at the policemen. He stood for a while in indecision and then waved them side, spat, and followed the woman. The short man turned up the collar of his jacket and wordlessly walked away with firm, quick steps.
My soul revolted against this treatment. I wanted to respond but managed to stop the impulse. Crushed with grief and humiliation, I walked along the streets until I reached Solvation Square where the beautiful baroque church was hidden by facade of Stalinist architecture. The streets were growing lively as I approached Solidarity's headquarters. The steps around the building were crowded; people conversed nervously in small groups. The entrance door was guarded by four men with white and red bands on their right arms. Their faces were red from cold and emotion. Some young men rushed to the entrance door and exchanged hand shakes with the guards before they disappeared into the building. Through the opening door I could see a big puddle of water leaking from radiators broken during the previous night. Papers, brochures, posters and books were scattered around and some of them were curled, torn and swelled from dampness. Legs of the overturned chairs were sticking up. This destruction was left in the wake of the brutal police search during the night.
Every half hour the door opened and someone passed out leaflets with information about the situation in Warsaw and other towns. The crowd waited for news and directives. A tall man with wild white hair and a black scarf around his neck read loudly from the leaflet: "In all towns the leadership of Solidarity was arrested. To this moment, we don't know where they are. Walesa has been arrested, too." His quiet but strong voice swayed the crowd. To reinforce his words, he sometimes raised his hands, small and delicate like those of a woman. "But we will continue this fight. Our movement has now gone to act in underground."
The news became worse and worse. In desperation I picked up some of those leaflets and started to distribute them to the growing crowd and to the drivers who had the courage to take their cars into the streets. Some of them had closed their windows and some of the people were walking around with their hands deep in their pockets to show that they didn't want to touch the leaflets. I was enraged and I wanted to fight. Fighting was better than idleness.
A sudden movement alerted me to disturbance behind me. I turned back and saw that the riot police had formed a ring around the crowd. Two water cannons were blocking the entrance to the street. A voice was shouting repeatedly into the loudspeaker: "Citizens go home! Forming crowds is not allowed!"
The tall man I had seen earlier near the entrance was now adjusting the collar of his jacket as if it were beginning to pinch his neck while shouting something which I couldn't hear. All the time people moved like a river in flood. Just then two gas canisters landed next to my feet, hissing loudly as they rolled around me. The strong smell was burning my eyes and nose.
Suddenly a jet of cold water splashed against the flagstones of the pavement, against people's bodies. In front of me a man claiming to be looking for his wife, lost his balance as he tried to raise himself on tiptoe. I jumped over the man and tore away down a passage between two buildings, crossing into a small yard. I shot through the gate into a small alley which stank awfully of urine and eventually got out on the other side of the building into a quiet street. Here there was no traffic, no people, no police, still I didn't stop running. Finally I reached a small park, a place immensely peaceful, where I was able to recover my senses. The trees were covered with thick snow. Two children skated on the sheet of a frozen pond. It was such a contrast to my recent experience that I had the feeling I had entered Disneyland. Hard to believe that a few blocks away a battle was still going.