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Poland Rewrites History

When the strikers in Gdansk met to assess their victory over the government last August, they discussed not only practical questions about how to organize their new union but also the need for a “new history.” “They wanted to know how Poland got to be the way it is. They wanted hard facts, the whole truth,” explained Bronislaw Geremek, a medievalist, who has been a key adviser to Solidarity from the time it came into being in the shipyard of Gdansk.

The hunger for history, “true history” as opposed to the official version, stands out as clearly as the bread lines in Poland today. The Party newspaper in Cracow, which took up muckraking after the Gdansk strike, is now running a series, “Blank Spaces in the History of Poland.” Everywhere streets are being renamed “May Third” in honor of the constitution of 1791. The official celebration of May 1 paled into insignificance beside the festivities on May 3, Poland’s prewar national holiday, which was revived this year and produced an outpouring of speeches about constitutions, democracy, and national sovereignty. As a Russian invasion put an end to the constitution and precipitated the second of the three eighteenth-century partitions of Poland, the speeches seemed to concern the present as much as the past.

No more Targowicas,” read a banner carried in Warsaw on the new May Day. Targowica, a common pejorative in Poland, derives from the name of a group of renegade noblemen who invited in the Russians in 1792. A banner in a recent demonstration for rural Solidarity celebrated Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish hero of the American Revolution, who led an uprising against the partition in 1794. The peasant carrying the banner seemed to have a firm grip on eighteenth-century history. When asked about the events of 1794, he said that a few weeks ago the men of his village had gone to a demonstration with their scythes fixed as bayonets, exactly as their ancestors had done when they rallied to Kosciuszko.

The eighteenth century also seemed to hover over the strike last August. At the height of the crisis, a Party official warned the country on television to step back from “the brink of a catastrophe that recalls the events of the eighteenth century,” while Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski stood before the Black Madonna in the holy shrine of Jasna Gora and instructed the faithful to “remember with what difficulty it was that we regained our freedom after 125 years.”

Such remarks carry a great deal of weight in a country that seemed, during a two-week visit in May, to be as obsessed with its past as it is worried about its present. The Poles cannot separate the past from the present and consign it to history books, because the regime has ruled so much of it out of bounds. It returns to haunt them, nonetheless, and it will not be laid to rest until the government permits an open confrontation with the past along with openness in every other sphere of public life.

The partitions of the eighteenth century illustrate the tendency to telescope the past and present. They belong to current events in Poland, because the Poles see their history as a constant struggle against partition, partition from the East as well as the West, right up to the present.

A weak state with no natural boundaries, Poland was carved up by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772, 1793, and 1795. It survived only as a culture in the nineteenth century, thanks to its poets and its church. After being re-created as a national state by the Treaty of Versailles, Poland barely escaped destruction in the war defending itself against the forces of Bolshevik Russia in 1920. In 1939, a secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, so the Poles were partitioned once again soon after World War II exploded from the post office of Gdansk. They still feel divided today, because their culture and religion attach them to the West, while the Soviet empire binds them to the East. They inhabit the most explosive point in a partitioned Europe.

But they seem determined not to take history lying down. The most common joke now going around Warsaw could have been told at almost any point during the last two hundred years. “Question: If the Russians attack from the east and the Germans attack from the west, who do we fight first? Answer: the Germans. Business before pleasure.” The most common question asked of an American is: “Why did you sell us at Yalta?” To the Poles, Yalta represents the culmination of a whole history of partitions.

History obsesses the Poles not merely because it seems to repeat itself but because it, too, is divided. Officially, history conforms to the Party line. Unofficially, it clings to the taboo. A film shown every day in the Warsaw Historical Museum shows German troops leveling the city after the uprising of 1944. Finally the Soviet troops liberate the rubble, having been detained on the east bank of the Vistula, as official history would have it, by overextended lines of communication. According to the accounts that circulate by word of mouth, the “liberators” let the Germans do their dirty work for them, in order to encounter no opposition when they extended their empire to the west. That version is generally accepted in the West, but nothing could be more heretical in Communist Poland—except perhaps talk of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which often accompanies it in the historical discussions that have sprung up everywhere since the Gdansk strike.

The heresies accumulate as the talk turns toward the present. A few blocks away from the Historical Museum, the Solidarity branch of the photographers’ union mounted an exhibition entitled simply “1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980.” It showed shots of the riots that have punctuated postwar Polish history, marking shifts in power from Gomulka to Gierek to Kania. To American eyes, accustomed to seeing street violence on television, the photographs looked mild. Blurred figures threw stones and ran from the police in vaguely urban settings. The Poles drank it in. They crammed into the exhibit and stared and stared. Having come face-to-face with the blank spaces of their history, they could not get enough.

Someone had written “Bandits” under a photograph of Gierek and other members of the Politburo. A visitors’ book contained a host of similar comments. One read, “Next time Katyn.” For the regime, the massacre of 10,000 or more Polish troops, mainly officers, in the forest of Katyn is the greatest taboo subject in Poland today. According to official history, the Germans killed the troops after capturing them in 1941. According to discussions held in hushed tones with glances over the shoulder, the Russians did the killing while grabbing their share of the Hitler-Stalin partition in 1940.

Which version to believe? The Poles debate the evidence. How many of the names on the list of victims published by the Nazis can be verified? How sound is the American monograph Death in the Forest by J.K. Zawodny, which circulates underground? Is it not significant that the families of the prisoners stopped receiving mail in 1940, not 1941? Most Poles seem to have drawn their own conclusions. An official guide showing an American around a church pointed to a series of memorial plaques on the wall. “Katyn,” he said. The visitor did not get it. “The date, the date,” he repeated and then lapsed into a prudent silence. The plaques read “Katyn 1940.”

The emotive power of a date may be hard to understand for someone who has not experienced the disparity between official and underground history. May 3 can bring moisture to the eyes, 1940 can produce a firm set in the jaw, because those dates are not supposed to exist historically. The regime has also tried to keep its repression of the Gdansk strike in 1970 a nonevent. But the strikers of 1980 forced it to let them build a huge monument to the dead of 1970 at the main entrance to the shipyards. It towers over the workplace, a pillar of steel twisted into three crosses at the top, its base covered every day with fresh bouquets of flowers.

Flowers mark the scars left by history everywhere in Poland. Six million Poles died in World War II, almost 20 percent of the population. Hardly a family escaped untouched, and many of the survivors know where and how their loved ones died. They leave flowers on the spot. They hang red and white ribbons on plaques to the Resistance. They burn candles in streets and churches, where memories are sharpest. How could the Poles forget the past? They walk around in it every day.

Official history has an explanation for the devastation. The war and its aftermath are to be attributed to oppression and revanchism from Germany. But there are limits to the hatred of Germans, even in Poland. The Poles know that Willy Brandt sank to his knees on the site of the Warsaw ghetto, weeping, and that they cannot talk openly about Katyn.

The contradictions between official and repressed history can be played out in gestures. Flowers commemorate the Poles who fought partition as well as the dead from World War II. They lie by the plaque to Kosciuszko and the statue to Adam Mickiewicz, the nationalist poet, in the market square of Cracow. They are thickest at the crypt of Josef Pilsudski, in Cracow’s Wawel cathedral. The crypt is lit by candles from the faithful and adorned with school badges deposited by children. Yet Pilsudski remains something of a nonperson in official history. After taking command of the newly reborn Poland in 1919, he led the war against Russia in 1920.

The most sacred site in Warsaw is probably the tomb of the unknown soldier. It is where Solidarity demonstrations usually end and where visits from foreign dignitaries usually begin. But the laying of a wreath on the tomb does not express sympathy for the USSR, because the soldier was killed while fighting the Bolsheviks under Pilsudski; so the Poles take special pleasure in watching Soviet ambassadors execute that gesture.

They also enjoy the ironies and ambiguities that make their history deviate from the Party line. The official version has militants rising in Warsaw to support the Russian revolution of 1905. But students in the university will tell you that their predecessors rose against Russification, because lectures could not be given in Polish during the occupation of the nineteenth century. When the members of Solidarity march through the streets, they change the words of a traditional hymn from “God keep Poland free” to “God make Poland free.” They do not need to tamper with the national anthem, because its refrain, “March Dabrowski,” is a call for liberation which echoes from 1797, when Polish patriots hoped that the Polish legion under General Henryk Dabrowski would leave Napoleon’s forces in Italy in order to free them from the partitioning powers.

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