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 extricate itself from the mud and blood. When I heard it said that the people who ruined the machine could not repair it, I argued that it was precisely those who had constructed the machine who should repair it.”
During the Seventies, while Edward Gierek ruled Poland, Brandys finally lost this remaining shred of faith. The Party, its ideology and its personalities, proved incurable. But when he looked about Poland to see where salvation might come from, Brandys fell into a mood of hopelessness. Close to him was a tiny group of civil-rights dissidents and publishers of underground literature, the handful who formed the Committee for the Defense of the Workers, who ran the “Flying University” courses, who held hunger strikes in churches. But they seemed to him candidates for martyrdom rather than—as they proved to be—fore-runners of revolution.
Brandys during this period felt strongly pessimistic about the Polish masses; everywhere he looked he seemed to find evidence of a deep, deliberate, corrupt materialism. It was at this time that Zapis was founded, and began to run fragments of his diary. “Sovietism is a spiritual phenomenon,” he noted in April 1980, only two months before the wave of strikes that were to evolve into Solidarity at the end of the summer.
It is not so much a machine spewing forth a mass society as it is, primarily, a loss of memory: it makes us forget who we are and what we wanted to be…. I see time and again mental and ethical erosion in people, a blurring of their sense of the boundary between good and evil. I’m speaking here of the limp tatters to which we have reduced those ideas and concepts that mankind used to call freedom, happiness, brotherhood.
Buried in this lament for a morally dead nation is a plain nostalgia for those “ideas and concepts” that can no longer be a basis of faith. Brandys wrote as an agnostic, as a homeless socialist, very much as one of those whose God had failed. But around him was a generation in its twenties that had discovered, or was rediscovering, a much older God. In 1968, with the student riots at the University of Warsaw and the onslaught of anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic persecution that followed, an entire tradition of Polish intellectual opposition had been broken—the tradition of the skeptical, unbelieving, generously leftist intelligentsia that had dominated the cafés before the war, had briefly surrendered to Stalinism, and then re-emerged as a critical force—many of its members still Jewish—in the late Fifties.
In the gap left by its destruction, there slowly appeared a very different form of opposition, based on the ancient values of Catholic faith and of the nation but selecting from them the new Catholic emphasis on human rights and social justice, and the idea of the nation as a righteous and responsible community (instead of resurrecting the older Polish chauvinism, which simply identified national independence as the single cause above all questions of morality). For this generation—and most of Solidarity’s leaders were under thirty—the remorse and doubts of Brandys and his contemporaries were irrelevant. They respected him as a writer and as a conscience, and looked eagerly for each installment of the diary, but they saw Poland—especially after the Pope’s visit in 1979—as a sorely oppressed but mature society with the patience and strength required to take its destiny into its own hands.
So the Solidarity revolution of 1980 hit Brandys as a dazzling surprise. For all his delight, he remained surprised, often detached, noticing the discords and absurdities as well as the heroic main theme. This is the value of his record. At times, he surges forward on the wave of national confidence. He speculates that Poland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may not have been a dying polity but—on the contrary—the only healthy society on a continent where the absolutist empires were growing up around it. The hideous climax of the mid-twentieth century could be seen as the inevitable end of “a spiritual illness that afflicted Germany and Russia to the greatest extent and Poland to the least.”
But then, writing in late 1981, Brandys looks down into the street where the worst economic crisis to strike a European country for forty years is taking place: a scene which is anything but one of national rebirth.
All that is infirm and unwell comes crawling out. I see women barely able to walk on their swollen legs, resigned old men with fearful eyes…. A gray-haired, half-paralyzed old man made his way down the middle of the street on metal crutches, slippers on his feet and a wreath of ten rolls of toilet paper around his neck. He moved slowly away from a garrulous line in front of the paper-goods store. The lines have gutted the district, bared the innards of the houses.
Strange but striking parallels occur to Brandys, “the deeper kinship between the histories of the Jews and the Poles. Small, stubborn Judea with its God who tested it so cruelly, a crazy nation that would not kneel down before the superpowers. Its misfortune was accelerated by groups of youths who pelted the Roman cohorts with stones at the gates of the city.” And yet he sees a darker side of Poland emerging alongside the splendor and the hunger: peasant avarice and indifference as the cities starve, lightning-flashes of anti-Jewish madness even within Solidarity itself, petty outbursts of horrible selfishness in the food lines. “The miracle has become a reality, astonishing by the very fact of its existence but, at the same time, morbidly entangled and incomplete.”
Brandys, like many other Polish intellectuals, nurses violently ambivalent feelings about the West. He considers Poland a “Western” nation, and yet shares that extraordinary and utterly un-Western Polish belief that his country has nothing in its history to apologize for. (A sense of guilt about at least some episodes in a country’s history is surely a defining trait of Western consciousness.) But there “has probably been no other country in the history of Europe that has committed so few blameworthy acts against the world…. Between Germany’s schizophrenic power and the deranged void that is Russia, Poland tried to live, a nation that for a long time took seriously mankind’s noble ideas.”
Brandys admits to sharing both the Polish instinctive faith in the West, especially the United States, and the nation’s bitter cynicism about the West’s capacity to understand and assist the Poles. “Does Warsaw always have to believe in the perfection of the West, which does not think about us?” And where is the West’s faith in its own ideals when
if you listen and read carefully, you can hear the West’s faint-hearted recognition of its own biological weakness…they see no values in the world worth dedicating their lives to…the consciousness of impotence is everywhere. They know already, and are preparing themselves to be raped. All that matters now is that rape be not a sexual murder, but that it happens calmly, in some comfortable French bed.
In 1980, Brandys is almost amused by his own fury at the failure of President Carter’s raid to rescue the Iranian hostages. He assumed, in spite of Vietnam, that American military power was invincible, or at least immune to technical failure. “I think I am like many people in Poland in my grandiloquent idea and vision of the United States. They associate America with high-minded convictions in spite of remembering that it was that very country that thirty-five years ago decided to abandon the Poles to Russian domination.”
In the end, Brandys is revealing here the ultimate terror of the Poles: that they will be forgotten. That fear runs high again today. The flow of parcels and trucks with medical aid is slowing to a trickle; the Western press is much more interested in Mrs. Thatcher’s visit to Hungary than in, say, the latest chapter in Lech Walesa’s war of words with General Jaruzelski. A miserable sense of abandonment is closing in. At times, Brandys allows himself frantic outbursts of accusation which seem out of any proportion, beyond justice.
At one point, with an unpleasant sense of surprise, the people of the West received the news that a man from [Poland] had been elected Pope. For it is not we but they who have a besieged-fortress mentality, and it is they who are drawing down the iron curtains within themselves. The very thought that in Poland today something has arisen that is newer and more important than the Western synthesis of Luxemburg-Marxism and anarchoterrorism, or the self-repairing regulators of the Western economies, infringes on their mental zone, for the young neo-Marxists, the bank directors, housewives, and the editors of Le Figaro and the Frankfurter Allgemeine all share a dislike for experiments conducted in an area of strategic importance to the Soviets.
This absurd but absolutely authentic tirade comes from a man who spent long periods living in the West, even in some of the Solidarity months. Indeed, General Jaruzelski’s coup caught Brandys and his wife in New York. The last entry in the diary, on December 13, 1982, runs: “News that martial law has been declared in Poland. All communications cut.”
The Nazi war against Poland, which was to become a European war and then a world war, began in September 1939 with one of the most infamous provocations in history. An SS commando led by Alfred Naujocks posed as a Polish guerrilla squad and attacked the radio transmitter at Gleiwitz, just on the German side of the border with Poland, taking with them several prisoners from a concentration camp who were shot and their corpses left around to suggest a skirmish. The Poles were then accused of an outrageous act of aggression which “justified” the German invasion.
The First Polka is a novel about the “Gleiwitz Incident,” and the last few days of peace in that city. But, more importantly, it is an intimate memorial to a curious frontier culture which has vanished, the world of industrial Upper Silesia, then partitioned—after savage fighting in the 1920s and a League of Nations plebiscite—between Germany and the new Polish state. Today there is no partition. After 1945, Poland moved westward in a huge leap that absorbed the whole of Silesia up to the river Oder. Gleiwitz lost most of its German or Germanized population, which was deported westward, and is today the Polish town of Gliwice. The radio tower remains, a strange old metal contraption like a miniature Eiffel Tower; the river Klodnitz, now the Klodka, still flows through the town. But that special population, neither truly German nor truly Polish but forced to adapt its culture and language and politics to the dominant power on either side of the old border, has gone.
This novel, the first of four volumes but complete in itself, might have been no more than a Heimatroman, that genre of regional novels spiced with dialect which is a German specialty. But it is much more than that, and Bienek himself is far more than a local chronicler. He was born in Gleiwitz (his name shows Polish descent), then worked in the theater in East Berlin before being arrested in 1951 and sent to a Siberian labor camp for four years; he now lives in Munich, in West Germany.
Bienek has written a powerful, rich book, to some extent an autobiographical homage to his own childhood and family but at the same time a marvelously told work of fiction. The boy Andreas is sent to Gleiwitz from Breslau to stay with his aunt Valeska Piontek, and he finds himself in a bewildering, high-spirited group of relations and friends whose German culture is in many ways superficial. They all have Polish or Germanized-Polish names, and season their speech with Slav expressions or borrowed words: his uncle’s study is a “kabinetchik,” a striking event is described as “fantastichnek.” At one level, they are all proud to be “German,” and look down on relations on the other side of the frontier with exaggerated patriotic arrogance. And yet Andreas’s young cousin Ulla believes that to become a truly good pianist she must travel to the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw and kiss the stone over Chopin’s heart. All are of course Catholic, and regard the Hitler regime with fear and passive resentment, which in no way prevents them from considering the Wehrmacht—now massing in Upper Silesia as the war approaches—as “their” glorious army.
This is a landscape of coal mines and factories, of ugly industrial towns built of nineteenth-century German red brick and grimy plaster. Upper Silesia was one of the cradles of the European industrial revolution under the Prussians, and yet its people have suffered from a long period of cultural confusion about their own identity. The sundering of Upper Silesia in 1918–1921, offering the natives a stark choice between Poland or Germany, in no way cleared away these confusions but made them worse. A figure in the novel declares: “It is the tragedy of an Upper Silesian that he is neither a German nor a Pole but simply an Upper Silesian, and that injustice will be done to him in either case.”
Two of the main characters illustrate these disguises. Valeska Piontek, the patient, overworked mother of the family, is proud of her German allegiance and yet has Slav corners in her life: a mad monk who builds brushwood shrines in the forest and is venerated by Valeska, a relation known as “Water Milka” who lives by the river and seeks wisdom from it. These are most un-German spirits of the forest and of the waters. As the war comes, Valeska dresses her Polish maid up in her own clothes, then prays with her, in German and Polish, for all who will die in the conflict, whose first salvos, at the end of the book, can already be heard.
Montag, a Jew who was forced by his father to convert, marry in a Catholic church, and bury all memories of his origins, has been an eminent magistrate in Gleiwitz, a board member of the big steelworks, a city father. But now, having retired early to avoid any unpleasantness with the Nazis, his disguise is beginning to fall apart. At this stage, as a Christianized Jew, he is in no direct danger, but his grasp on this hostile external world is failing. He writes a history of the region, a life of the Silesian politician Korfanty who might have lived as a German but chose to be a Pole, and buries each chapter in a jar in his garden. “And underneath all the Catholic prayers, litanies and credos he had heard, he now pieced together fragments of the Kaddish which he had heard in his childhood through the wall of his grandfather’s room.”
A wild, drunken wedding party in the main Gleiwitz hotel runs throughout the second part of the novel, a sort of transformation and revelation scene—this is a Polish rather than a German literary device—in which the guests throw off their Silesian masks. The drinking and dancing take place in the very hotel where Naujocks and his men come after committing their crime at the transmitter. Meanwhile Andreas and Ulla, bicycling through the September night, have found a quiet place to kiss near the radio station, and they are horrified witnesses as the cars draw up, the SS men in plain clothes spill out, and the helpless prisoners are murdered. Soon the other German radio stations are reporting an attack on the Gleiwitz transmitter by “Polish guerrillas.” And at dawn the next morning, the guns open up. Valeska’s husband, bedridden and near death with tuberculosis, mutters a requiem not only for peace but for his own Upper Silesian people whose long history is now ending: “Always we looked toward the West with yearning, that is true, but our soul, O Lord, our soul has remained deep in the East….”
April 26, 1984