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Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows


New York Times Magazine - July 30, 1989


A Burned-Out Light Bulb and Other Tragedies

WHEN I LEFT POLAND IN 1981, to attend the opening of my play “Cinders” at the Royal Court Theatre in London, I was sure I would be back in Warsaw in two weeks. It was a period of great hope. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist Party leader, was publicly shaking hands with Lech Walesa, the head of Solidarity.

To everybody's astonishment, a strange creature whose name was democracy, human dignity, or, simply, freedom, was being born in Central Europe.

But eight days later, the tolerance of the system wore out, and on Dec. 13, General Jaruzelski declared martial law. Tanks rolled through the streets. Police opened fire on striking miners. Thousands of people were arrested. Hundreds of others went underground.

Instead of going back to Warsaw, I left London for New York, where I have been living ever since.

Now history has come full circle. General Jaruzelski again publicly banters with Walesa, and the Minister of the Interior, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, good-naturedly shakes the hands of people whom he had put in jail only a few years ago. Television interviews are conducted with individuals whose faces were previously known mostly to the police. “What do you make of all this?” I ask the cab driver on the way from Okecie airport to Warsaw for my first visit in eight years.

“If only we could make ends meet,” he says, sullenly. “By the way, could you pay in dollars?”

THE BUILDING IN THE OLD CITY WHERE MY mother lives has scaffolding around it. Workers half-heartedly pour plaster into the cracks.

“What time is it?” one of them asks, early in the afternoon.

“Good idea. I wouldn't mind having a drink myself,” the foreman replies.

Tawny-colored water drips from our faucet. “It's only corrosion,” my mother reassures me, and fills the teapot. The tea tastes like lead.

The next day, there is no water at all. My mother tells me not to worry, the water truck will make a delivery at noon. And, sure enough, it does.

I queue up in a long line. Most of us are holding metal buckets, but a few have beautiful plastic ones, in shades of red and blue. We ogle these with unabashed desire.

Parallel to us, a line of cars waits to buy gas. The seated drivers look at us with disdain. But our queue is moving faster. The average gas queue is two hours long.

Our upstairs neighbor, a philosophy professor, behind me on the line, tells our downstairs neighbor, a hard-currency dealer, that, according to Marx, history repeats itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce. The dealer is unconvinced. “What are you talking about!” he says. “Within a day, the dollar has jumped 300 zlotys.”

Inflation is rampant. When I left in 1981, the dollar traded (unofficially) for 400 zlotys. On my return it was at 4,000 zlotys. When my visit ended, it was at 6,000 zlotys. In Poland, the dollar is king. Apartments and cars can now be bought only with dollars.

There is no meat or sugar. While their husbands are at work, women with small children queue up for vodka - the prices are supposed to go up the following week. But the longest lines form at Western embassies. Hundreds of thousands of Poles want to leave - some for good; some to work, save money, and then return; some to smuggle goods in and out of the country.

As a result of glasnost, Polish authorities now routinely issue passports. But Western countries routinely refuse to grant visas. Leaving Poland is as difficult now as it was before.

PROPAGANDA HAS ALWAYS CHARACTERIZED elections in the Polish People's Republic as entirely free. When my wife, Ewa, decided to become a science writer after graduating from the University of Warsaw as a chemistry major, the only path led through the School of Journalism. At the entrance examination she was asked to explain why the elections in Poland were entirely free, even though all candidates are nominated by the party.

“I remember coming across such an explanation once,” she said, desperately groping for an answer, “but I can't remember how it went.” When the professor reached for a pen, she groaned. “I am a chemist, sir. I am completely unable to remember things I don't understand.” Her answer evidently amused the professor, and she passed.

From “entirely free” elections of the past to the partially free elections of the present, which I witnessed and voted in during my visit last month, Poland has made considerable progress toward freedom. In four years, the elections are supposed to be free. Simply free.

“What if Gorbachev loses in two years and the Russians invade?” someone asked Jacek Kuron, an opposition leader, at a campaign rally.

“It's a waste of time and energy to think about matters over which we have no influence,” Kuron replied.


One government official said bitterly that if Walesa had been photographed next to a cow wearing a Solidarity sign around its neck, the cow would have been elected.

The people were given a chance to vote against the Communists for the first time since the war, and they did so with a vengeance. In Silesia, an election observer reported, miners crossed out the names of all Communists on the ballot, weeping in joy. The party hard-liners also voted against the Communist ticket, angered at leading party liberals for selling out to Solidarity.

All of Poland, it seemed, sat in front of television sets to watch the election results. In a trembling voice, a Government spokesman said, “The party has taken the risk of democracy and will not retreat from its path.”

Then the Solidarity spokesman, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, spoke, glancing around nervously as if startled by the scale of the victory. In Warsaw, rumors circulated that the Army had been put on alert, that the Russians were deeply concerned, that the elections would be invalidated. They were not. But articles appeared in various newspapers suggesting that Solidarity was able to win only because of American money. In response, I was told, Bronislaw Geremek, an adviser to Lech Walesa, calmly informed a party dignitary that if such attacks continued, Solidarity would denounce the Communists as Soviet puppets. Whatever the reason, the articles stopped appearing, and a day later the dollar jumped another 100 zlotys.

A LIGHT BULB IN MY MOTHER'S LIVING room burns out. It's a tragedy. There are no bulbs in the stores. To illuminate the room, we turn on the television set.

Socialism is a system in which the past cannot be predicted. On the only two available channels, programs are devoted to the removal of “blank spots” from history. The Katyn massacre of 1940, in which thousands of Polish officers were slain and buried in a mass grave, is now being revealed to have been perpetrated by the K.G.B. (then known as the N.K.V.D.), and not by the Germans, as every Polish schoolboy has known for almost 50 years.

“What are they up to, showing the truth,” a neighbor watching with us asks. “They must have an ulterior motive.” It will not be easy for Polish television to gain the confidence of its audience.

WITH BURGLARIES BECOMING more frequent in Warsaw, I wanted to have an extra lock installed on my mother's apartment door. “Where do you live?” the locksmith asks. “Just a few blocks from here,” I say, giving him the address. “It's a little out of the way,” he shakes his head. “I'll pay double,” I offer.

“What do I need your money for, mister? I've been working for 45 years and still have nothing to show for it. One lousy padlock isn't going to make a difference.”

BY 7 EACH MORNING, GAZETA WYBORCZA, Solidarity's official newspaper, with a circulation of half a million, is already sold out. A regular column reports a list of statistics without comment.

Percentage of Poles living in hazardous-waste areas: 35.

Number of Poles employed in distribution of food coupons: 300,000.

Number of butchers: 5,422.

Amount of average retirement pension: 41,600 zlotys a month.

Price of toilet bowl (available only on the black market): 60,000 zlotys.

Price of ladies' sandals: 33,000 zlotys.

Number of cars in Poland: 5 million.

Total length of highways: 120 miles.

Percentage of Polish youth who believe it is possible to become wealthy in a socialist economy through honest work: 5.1.

THE WINDOWS OF THE ELEGANT HOTEL Victoria Intercontinental look out on the Saxon Gardens and on the Monument of the Unknown Soldier, where a changing of the guard ceremony takes place every Sunday. Hard-currency dealers parade daily through the hotel lobby, buying dollars from guests during the changing of the guard of prostitutes and kindly plainclothesmen who maintain order by saying nothing, watching everything and taking notes.

Poles who have already gotten rich and will get even richer dine in the hotel's restaurant. They are the owners of cooperative enterprises that trade with the United States and West Germany, owners of poultry or tomato farms, exporters of decorated Easter eggs and importers of video cassettes. In the period that ended with the advent of Solidarity, many of them had held high governmental or party posts. Astute enough to sense the beginning of the end of Socialism, they used their foreign contacts and other privileges to invest money in the private firms they were officially suppressing.

After a Scotch or two, they shake their heads and criticize the Communists for ruining the country. There are persistent rumors that party hard-liners, especially in the provinces, where their power is virtually unlimited, are now feverishly making profit-sharing agreements with private businessmen in return for price discounts, tax accomodations and other favors.

As I leave the hotel, I bump into a brawny man. I am about to explain that I don't want to sell any dollars when I realize we had been both students at the University of Warsaw. Once the author of a brilliant dissertation on Proust, with a promising career in French philology, he has become a millionaire, importing tampons from the Netherlands. He admires my writing, and he insists on lending me his car.

“But, you don't need it?” I ask. He looks at me in amazement.

“Are you kidding? I have two others. Just drop off the keys and the registration papers with the barman before you leave the country. You can get all the gas you need at my house. I've got a 2,000-liter tank in the garden.”

“Aren't you afraid of living on a land mine?” I ask.

“America has spoiled you, Janusz. Welcome back to Poland!”

MONEY IS NO LONGER UNMENTIONABLE. Everything has become commercialized. One of the opposition leaders told me that when he met with a group of young people a couple of months ago who wanted to chain themselves in front of the Czechoslovakian Embassy to protest the imprisonment of the author Vaclav Havel, they presented him with a budget: handcuffs, $35; steel bar, $20.

In front of the Chinese Embassy, a dozen or so young people are staging a hunger strike.

A silent crowd watches. No one makes jokes here. When the events in Beijing were covered on Polish television, the footage showed a row of Chinese blocking a column of tanks. At first, the tanks stopped. But they started up again. A few Polish soldiers are among the bystanders in front of the embassy in Warsaw. People study them carefully.

I HAD A RECURRENT nightmare for the first few years after my arrival in the United States. I would dream that I had gone back to Poland on a visit. But when I was about to leave, my passport was revoked. I would wake up in a cold sweat. After sharing this dream with my neighbors in the East Village, I realized I was haunted by a typical nightmare of Eastern European emigres. Since I don't yet have my American citizenship, I had to travel to Warsaw on my old Polish passport, which the consul in New York had recently renewed, thanks to glasnost.

“Are you sure I won't have any trouble with it?” I asked.

“Mr. Glowacki,” he said with a smile, “we're living in a new era.”

Unfortunately, this fact was unknown to the clerk at Pagart, the Polish artists' agency, where I went to take care of some old business four days before my departure from Warsaw.

“May I see your passport for a moment?” the clerk asked. And I was foolish enough to give it to her.

Five minutes later she returned with a triumphant smile and informed me that the passport was invalid. I was to report immediately to the Passport Bureau at the police station on Koszykowa Street; they were expecting my arrival.

“But the consul in New York promised me,” I said, perspiring slightly. “The consul has nothing to do with it.” “But glasnost. . . .” “Don't try to scare me with the Russians!” Sobbing discreetly, I found myself on the street without any identification, which is in itself illegal in Poland. But they knew about glasnost at the Passport Bureau on Koszykowa Street. After the Ministry of Culture intervened, they returned my passport, explaining that the clerk at Pagart was still living another reality. “If there are two realities in Warsaw,” I wondered, clutching my passport, “how many realities are there in the villages and small towns scattered all over Poland? How many in Armenia, or Tadzhikistan?”

A WEEK BEFORE THE EARLY JULY ARRIVAL of President Bush, on what he called “a delicate visit,” the sidewalks in front of the Polish White House, the Central Committee headquarters, have been repaired, white stripes at the intersection repainted, traffic lights fixed. All this to convince the United States that the Communist Party is still robust. But when I went into the building with an American television crew that was going to interview a member of the Politburo, there was not a soul to be seen, only empty corridors and offices with silent phones. The well-worn floor, installed during the period of Stalinist splendor, squeaked painfully.

At Civic Committee headquarters on Fredro Street, where Solidarity activists gather, the floorboards are silent, but even if they squeaked, no one would hear them over the din. The place is swamped with people. Phones ring constantly.

The period of “Communist apartheid,” as Czeslaw Bielecki, an underground publisher, has called the era, seems to be over. The red minority, propped up by the police and the Army, can no longer keep the white majority subservient, according to many optimistic observers.

MY MOTHER INSISTS ON COOKING a farewell dinner for me. This means that I must wake at 6 to get on line for pork. The only institution, by the way, where there are no lines is the theatre. At times, theatre takes place in the streets. At the stroke of noon, students begin to gather in front of the Church of the Holy Cross, about 300 feet beyond the meat queue. “Russians go home,” they shout. I want to run over to find out what is going on, but rumors of pork rumble through the line. I don't want to lose my place. Meanwhile, the police arrive, but they are not gassing, clubbing or handcuffing the protesters. Even by democratic standards, their conduct is exemplary.

“You'll see,” foams an elderly gentleman who rents himself for 2,000 zlotys an hour to stand in lines, “they'll start hurling firecrackers at those cops in a minute. That's what they did yesterday. I never thought I'd live to see the day,” he says, smiling with glee.

By and large, though, the mood in line is apocalyptic. The consensus seems to be that Solidarity cannot work wonders and that the parliamentary elections were no more than a final ball on the Titanic.

“Don't worry. It's not over yet. Somebody will bail us out. Look at Barbara Johnson. She's buying the Lenin shipyard,” says the elderly optimist, referring to the Polish-born American heiress's $100 million offer. “One shipyard is not enough,” someone grumbles. “Maybe somebody will just buy the whole country.” “And who might that be?” “Bush, of course. Or Mitterrand. God will never abandon Poland.”

The word is out that there is no more pork in the store. We drift away. The students do, too. They have probably run out of firecrackers.

I AM DRIVING MY BORROWED CAR TO A VILLAGE 13 miles from Warsaw. The moon and weeping willows loom over the deserted road. I am searching for pork.

An orchestra conductor friend of mine has given me an address. Farmers at the brink of poverty have begun to slaughter pigs illegally. A horrendous “oink” pierces the silence. I slow down. Again, promising squeals of pain.

An old woman, bent like an umbrella handle, emerges from a dilapidated farmhouse. She holds a bloodied ax. I give my references. She shakes her head.

“Today, we're slaughtering for diplomats only,” she says, pointing at two black Mercedeses with diplomatic plates.

When I return to Warsaw, the streets are dark and deserted. The only crowd is on Piekna Street in front of the American Embassy. They will be there till morning.

THREE WEEKS LATER, I RETURNED TO THE United States. General Jaruzelski was elected the President of Poland on July 19. Paradoxically, the author of martial law owes his victory to Solidarity. Will this cost Solidarity too much - its credibility?

What next? Wait, gain strength, rebuild union structures, Lech Walesa keeps saying. But who can wait when everything is falling apart? Who or what will hold back a restless people? Lech Walesa, the Pope or the new President of Poland?

Janusz Glowacki, a Polish playwright and novelist who now lives in New York, is presently adapting his latest work, “Hunting Cockroaches,” which ran Off Broadway in 1987, for the movies. This article was translated by Michael Kott.

Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company


Warsaw Scenes | Hamlet | Gombrowicz | Polish Odyssey

Playwright is Free | Stage View | A Tale of Two Moscows


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