On April 13, 1985 the Warsaw police arrested Czeslaw Bielecki, one of the most talented young Polish writers. They were unusually brutal and as a result Bielecki was immediately put in a prison hospital. At first he was accused of “activities on behalf of a hostile foreign organization,” which, according to the present interpretation of Polish law, can mean any émigré organization, such as a publishing house, magazine, or a Solidarity office, and carries a penalty of up to five years in prison. Recently, however, the charges were made more severe, accusing Bielecki of “plotting to change the Polish system by force,” a crime punishable by ten years in prison, and in some cases the death penalty.
At the time of his arrest Bielecki, who is thirty-eight, was the head of one of the largest Polish underground publishing houses, CDN (an acronym for “To Be Continued”) which, since the declaration of martial law in 1981, has issued some forty books of poetry, fiction, essays, and political commentary. With a total circulation of 125,000 copies, CDN was one of the best-organized enterprises of its kind; for four years it managed to escape the police searches that have closed down many other independent publishers. Yet the vicious way in which Bielecki’s case has been handled, and the gravity of the charges against him, suggest that the government was concerned to do more than simply close down one of the most important cultural institutions in Poland.
I have known Czeslaw Bielecki since the early Seventies. When we met, he was gaining a reputation as a gifted architect, as well as a talented graphic artist and writer. He worked as a contributing editor of the professional monthly Architektura, where he published essays on the social and political implications of modern architectural ideas. We collaborated on three plays, in which theater was used as a metaphor for participation and passivity, freedom and control, community and individualism.
At the same time, using the pen name “Maciej Poleski,” he wrote political essays published in the Polish monthly Kultura in Paris, and later in the Polish underground press. Their sober tone and their realistic assessment of the Polish struggle were often compared with similar essays by another Polish dissident, Adam Michnik. Bielecki wrote that Polish resistance should be conceived as a matter of particular tasks and duties, not as the occasion for dramatic statements and romantic sentiments. The sober pragmatism of his views seems to have been particularly upsetting to the guardians of order in Poland.
Very few people outside the circle of his closest associates knew about Bielecki’s unofficial activities. He never sought publicity. As a result, he was much less known, especially abroad, than one might think, in view of all the work he published. Perhaps because of this relative obscurity, the Polish authorities chose him as a victim. The Polish internal minister, General Czeslaw Kiszczak, tried to discredit Bielecki in one of his official statements, saying that Bielecki’s “only link to Poland was the fact that he was born and got his college education there.” Bielecki is Jewish. His family was forced to leave Poland during the official anti-Semitic campaign in 1968. He alone decided to stay. The Polish security apparatus is particularly vicious toward people who make such decisions.
The official Polish government spokesman Jerzy Urban confirmed recently that Czeslaw Bielecki, together with two other prisoners, has been on a hunger strike, and has been force fed, since October last year. His essay “Monologue,” smuggled from the prison in Rakowiecka Street in Warsaw, is a vivid document of the shameful consequences of Polish “normalization.” It begins with Bielecki’s police interrogator talking to him.
For those old hacks in Poland who—according to the Soviets—
have not yet outlived their usefulness.
“You don’t have to talk, but keeping silent won’t help you. We know almost everything about you, and we’ll soon find out the rest. I can keep on coming here for weeks or months on end because I’m in a different situation from you: first, I get paid for this and you don’t; second, I can leave at four o’clock, but you have to stay. I can leave and go out to freedom,” he emphasizes, but then corrects himself: “…to the other end of Rakowiecka Street.”
“Apart from you, everyone is very talkative,” he says. “Can you hear all the typewriters going? Everyone takes care of his own ass. Unfortunately, that’s the way things are. Everyone takes care of himself. That’s the way we’re born, and it’s not going to change.
“We don’t yet have communism, where everything is simply lying on the street and people take what they need. In any case,” he muses in typical interrogatory fashion, “writing isn’t going to change the geopolitical situation. That’s life, whether we like it or not. If Poland lay on the edge of Europe, like Norway or Sweden, then perhaps…. But when you get out of here or some other prison in ten or fifteen years, there won’t be any more publishing houses like Krag or CDN, and you’ll see for yourself. But maybe,” he meditates again, “they’ll get you under Article 124 for spying, and then it could even be the death sentence.”
It’s a long way from here to the brain-washing in the concentration camps of “liberated” Vietnam, I say to myself. There they have group lessons in Marxism-Leninism several times a day to give them a break from Arbeit macht frei. Here it’s just the “normalization” of real socialism. When one thinks about those who paved the way with their own lives, the only decent thing to do is keep silent.
It’s a sunny morning. Opposite me sits a man my age, blond and handsome, with a mustache, heavy eyelids. As usual, he’s impeccably dressed: beige shirt, a nice tie, and a navy blazer with silver buttons—the kind that “cadres” in the East like to wear as much as those in the West. When his own words tire him, he pulls out a book entitled Welcome to Hard Times, and relaxes for a while. It’s hard to see my situation in a heroic light; it’s more like a farce, capable of evoking terror only in the corpse of Yosif Vissarionovich.
I recall the accounts of those who have suffered in similarly banal conditions. I think of the hundreds of thousands of whom not even a shadow remains on paper, and of those who are now making their debut. I wonder how they are being threatened and what they fear as they sit in identical interrogation rooms, converted from the cells of Stalin’s time. When they justify to themselves their willingness to talk, can they see that their one and only motivation—which is so difficult to recognize—is their own fear? Do they know that it is fear that dictates the way they think and makes it senseless for them even to open their mouths? Do they get confused by the location of their own chair, which no longer stands in the corner of the room, but right next to the desk so that a monologue or two might lead, in the most natural fashion, to a dialogue?
To banish my uneasiness I recall my first contact with the “organs.” I was twenty years old. I was taken to a small room in the Mostowski Palace. The sterility of the place, or maybe the need to give myself courage, induced me to comment loudly: “So this is it. A white-painted room, a table and chair, two unidentified people, and a third one who’s innocent and doesn’t know what’s going on. A scene out of Kafka.”
“Everyone says he’s innocent. Kafka who?”
Then and there I knew what was going on.
“As far as I’m concerned, I don’t care whether you spill everything, give us names and contacts, or not. We’ve already got everyone from your group anyway. It’s all over, your outfit is finished; we’ve got the printers, distributors, everyone.” And in a clumsy effort to provoke me, he says, “Even Radio Free Europe says you’re Poleski.” Then he states gravely, “I’d like you to outline your political credo, and we’ll draw up a memorandum for the official record.”
How can the interrogator know that I associate the word “memorandum” with the greatest renegade of the January uprising, Oskar Awejde, who broke down when his dyed hair started growing out in prison. I’m not in any danger from that. It’s no accident that I was wearing a wig when they caught me.
“The charges against you are clear: you have broken the law. Every country has its police, and in every country they catch people who break the law. You broke the law and now you have to pay for it,” he says, presenting to me the charms of a legalistic argument rather than a principled defense of the interests of the Polish People’s Republic. But a minute later he reassumes the role of a functionary in some illegal center for public-opinion research: “Kuron, Walesa, Frasyniuk—I can understand that they can’t do anything else now; they don’t have any way out. But you? Let’s get back to your political views. Explain to me: You’re an architect, there’s so much you could do in your profession….” But he breaks off when he senses in my expression a lack of faith in the professionalism of a ruling group that allows the rest of us only to cultivate our own garden.
“Why don’t you save yourself? You’re like a railway lineman, a lineman who can’t change the direction of the train but who can stop it, who can do something, not just stand there transfixed: unscrew the tracks, throw a log under the wheels….” The interrogator is obviously thinking of the interrogation train; the locomotive of history he leaves to our journalist-rulers. He laughs, and I laugh even louder.
“OK, I’m a cop, but I’d like to help you, simply as a fellow citizen, particularly now that the situation is being normalized. Did you know that they’re supposed to abolish ration cards for meat in the summer? You can’t be a masochist who enjoys sitting here. You could write for Tygodnik Powszechny [an independent Catholic journal], it’s a paper with opposition views too. Polityka [an official weekly] could engage in polemics with you, and everything would be fine. It’s best to be a person of the center. Take some like Passent [a contributor to Polityka], for example. Does he have it so bad?”
“Just the address and telephone number of Maisons-Laffitte in your notebook will be strong evidence for the court. You know, of course, that the CIA is behind Kultura. Actually, I don’t know why they bother to print it, since even I’ve seen piles of it at the flea market,” says the physician of the system as he slides around on the contradictions of his statements, looking for the locus minoris resistentiae, the point of least resistance. “You know, I was at the flea market yesterday and saw not only the Flavius, which we found among your books—would you believe it cost 15,000 zlotys!—but also about thirty copies of Kultura. And no one was bothering the seller!” (And I’ve seen people reading Tygodnik Mazowsze [a Warsaw underground paper] in a commuter train.)