A Warsaw Diary, 19781981
The First Polka
In 1978, when Polish intellectuals grew tired of playing games with the censors and launched an independent, “unofficial” literature, there appeared the first number of the journal Zapis. Among the mass of samizdat—the smudgy bulletins of opposition groups, the academic monographs cobbled into book shape which looked like volumes of amateur pornography, the typed manuscripts read so many times that the paper had been fingered down to a texture like cotton—there was plenty of good thinking and good writing. But Zapis stood out from the rest—it was a literary periodical, a place for the discussion of cultural and political history, a forum for every sort of argument about the nation’s future. And, perhaps, a confessional.
They say in East Germany that something very curious happens in summer on the special beaches along the Baltic where people are allowed to go naked. The citizens of that most guarded and suspicious society approach one another without introduction, sit down in the dunes, and hastily tell the secrets of their lives, especially of their political lives: their betrayals, their spying, their private hatreds of the regime they serve. Then, without giving their names, they rise and walk away. Zapis had something of the character of a nudist beach, except that those who offered it their lives for examination did give their names and did not walk away into anonymity afterward. In this sense, Zapis began a special work that Solidarity was to carry infinitely further a few years later: the breaking down of artificial barriers between human beings who had been encouraged by a cynical regime to hide their experiences and thoughts and mistakes from one another.
One of the most important and moving features of Zapis was the regular extract from the diary of Kazimierz Brandys, a large part of which is now published in Richard Lourie’s translation. A distinguished middle-aged novelist, Brandys belonged exactly to the generation of intellectuals that had been most acutely humiliated by history. His parents were Jewish; he had been a left-wing but not communist student in Poland before the war, and had witnessed the rabid anti-Semitism and brutality of Polish fascist gangs in the universities. After the war, he supported the new regime, joined the Party, and rose to some eminence in the Stalinist cultural world. His books were published in enormous editions just as he was becoming disillusioned by the system. In the upheaval of October 1956 in Poland, which overthrew the Stalinist leadership and brought Gomulka to power, Brandys became a prominent “revisionist”—or liberal communist.
His disillusion went on growing. From being a privileged and approved writer, he became a critic and protester, a signer of petitions, a victim of censorship, and finally a nonperson whose books and articles remained unpublished. Brandys resigned from his Party jobs, and eventually from the Party itself. For a time, even then, he continued to believe that the Party was still capable of regeneration: “I still had confidence that the Party would …