How the Communists Inexorably Changed Life

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The East German Communist youth organization Free German Youth electing Erich Honecker (third from right) as chairman, Berlin, 1946

In 1947, Stefan Jędrychowski, a Communist veteran, member of the Polish Politburo, and minister in the government, wrote a memo to his colleagues on a subject close to his heart. Somewhat pompously entitled “Notes on Anglo-Saxon Propaganda,” the memo complained, among other things, that British and American news services were more influential in Poland than their Soviet and Polish equivalents, that American films were too warmly reviewed, and that American fashions were too readily available.

But above all, Jędrychowski was annoyed by the clout of Polska YMCA, the Polish section of the Young Men’s Christian Association, an organization founded in Warsaw in 1923 and then banned under the German occupation. In April 1945 Polska YMCA had restarted itself with some help from the international YMCA headquarters in Geneva and a good deal of local enthusiasm.

The YMCA was avowedly apolitical. Its main tasks in Poland were the distribution of foreign aid—clothes, books, food—and the provision of activities and classes for young people. Jędrychowski suspected ulterior motives, however. The YMCA propaganda, he wrote, was conducted “carefully…avoiding direct political accents,” which of course made it more dangerous. He recommended that Comrade Radkiewicz, the minister for state security, conduct a financial audit of the organization and monitor carefully which publications were being made available and what kinds of courses were being taught.

He was not the only one who was worried. At about the same time, the Education Ministry also received a report from leaders of the Communist youth movement, then known as the Union of Fighting Youth (Związek Walki Młodych, or ZWM), who loathed the YMCA even more than Jędrychowski did. The young Communists were irritated by the YMCA’s English classes, clubs, and billiards games. In Gdańsk, they complained, the organization sponsored dormitories and dining halls, and gave away used clothes. In Kraków it had rented a building with a seventy-five-year lease. Though they didn’t say so, all of this was far more than they themselves were capable of doing.

There may have been darker concerns: in the period just after the Bolshevik revolution, a British agent named Paul Dukes had actually used the YMCA in Moscow as a cover for his espionage activities, though not with any particular success. But the Polish Communists wouldn’t have needed to know that piece of history in order to find the Warsaw YMCA irritating. They hated the YMCA because it was fashionable, if there could be said to be such a thing as fashion in postwar Warsaw. The Warsaw YMCA was, for example, the abode of Leopold Tyrmand, a novelist, journalist, and flaneur, as well as Poland’s first and greatest jazz critic. Tyrmand rented a room in the half- destroyed building after the war that was, as he later wrote, “two and a half metres by three and half metres—in other words a hole …

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