Is Poland a Satellite Country?
How come Poland is a faithful US Satellite, having been 47 years a Soviet Satellite? My visits to Poland as from 1977. A comparison of conditions in town Pszczyna in 1988, 1993 and 2001. No doubt a poor country. Nowadays Wealth and Poverty co-exist.
About the Cold War that was. When a man has all his life known of the existence of two antagonistic world systems, communism and capitalism, two politico-military powers disputing full possession of the earth, and suddenly one of them (communism) exists no more, he is justified in asking himself some questions I should say.
It was my case in 1991 and I am still trying to find the answer to those questions. The more so since, in addition, one has been learning as time goes on that with the disappearance of communism which, however we look at it, did constitute an ideal and a goal for many, for ‘los pobres de la tierra’, the only remaining world power, now in its full apparel of ‘capitalism-imperialism’, has turned out to be a devouring monster that has absorbed within its dirty entrails (like the wolf in the Little-Red-Riding-Hood story) all of its former Enemy’s satellites and has loaded their territories with weapons of mass-destruction now pointing directly at the former Enemy… admit, dear reader, that it is like becoming nuts!
It is to be noted therefore, emphasised without fear that the defeated Enemy, once an advocate of the poor, is still hunted down like a wounded beast, still humiliated with shouts and insults of ‘undemocratic!’, still kept out of trade organisations, with commercial and financial embargoes, boycotts. In a word the powers of the free world are still doing their utmost to treat the poor successor of the once big power as they did with the latter when they thought it constituted a threat to the wealthy owners of the earth. Why, since communism no longer constitutes by any stretch of imagination a serious threat to anyone?
More importantly, what caused communism’s demise? Let us try to determine, then, the cause and nature of that metamorphosis. I call metamorphosis all the phenomena we have been observing lately, actually since the nineties, turning a wealthy Europe (inter alia) into the Great Shit in which most of us are at present wallowing. Such a big change may have been seen in history many times before. The difference with today is that we shall not have the time to correct the gross mistakes we are making. We may be destroying the earth, entirely.
It was supposed to be a passage from Cold-War to Pax-americana. And it is a very hot war we are now having everywhere. The spectre of total hot war is hitting us in the face wherever we reside. Racism has been multiplied to the infinite: white against black and brown and yellow and viceversa, black against black, brown against brown and brown machos against brown enslaved women; it is due all or nearly all, this hell, to religion and money. Destruction, poverty, exploitation and… the transportation of victims or cadavers in vessels of great misery from one point of the free world to another.
About the end of communism. I have said hereinabove that communism did constitute an ideal for ‘los pobres de la tierra’, a great hope. I shall add, never mind what others may think, mark my word, that Communism is the only possible outcome. I don’t say that communism will overcome all the difficulties and the earth become a paradise. I am merely advancing an opinion. ‘Look at the world as it is today. If there is a solution, a way out of this misery and this mess… communism is that solution.’ The people’s aspiration for a better world. A better system of society. One must be greatly evil or an idiot to deny this.
When I went to Scotland for family reasons, in the nineties, and wandered through the streets of formerly rich towns, I came across many a brave tradeunionist who told me he had wept when he heard that the unbelievable had happened! He meant the end of the Soviet Union. And contemplating then the ruinous landscape of a formerly industrial centre, I could certainly believe them. The life of those sturdy men had been a continuous struggle for socialism, and nobody would have called them during the struggle ‘the paupers of the earth’ They once used to say that they had never had it so good. All had gone down in a single moment!
And in the communist countries of old? It was early in the summer of 1977 that I crossed the Iron Curtain for the first time. Poland was then a Satellite Country of the Soviet Union. And I found out very early on in the piece that there was no lost love for the Russians among the Poles. On the other hand, I don’t think I found much animosity for the Germans, neither in this nor in other trips to the country. For the purpose of determining the goodness or otherwise of communism ‘in practice’, which was what I wanted to discover, this may not be an important consideration, but I found it most curious, in any case.
There had been German occupation, a great war, liberation by the Red Army and a year or two later the country was proclaimed to be communist. I don’t want to anticipate anything by raising the question whether communism was then and there a good or a bad proposition, or debate with anyone questions about workers’ rights, free elections and so on. Perhaps the reader will agree with me if I say that at this moment (in 2015) all that rubbish about free elections, ‘code du travail’ and workers’ strikes and similar rights is altogether a great humbug, ‘pecata minuta’. Don’t let’s waste a minute on it.
The stranglehold of the Church. More important, if we want to see if communism was good or bad for Poland, is to look at what the Church was doing those years. The Poles were, under communism, great believers. ‘Le Bon Dieu’ looks after us from Above, and we must not be afraid. Indeed, I was surprised on entering communist territory, as it were, that the priests were far more powerful that what I had seen in fascist Spain a quarter of a century earlier. Cardinal Wyszynkski’s homilies were circulated widely and freely, and when the cardinal went abroad (which he did fairly often and without control) he spoke abundantly against the Polish government and communism. In his letters to the faithful, at every visit he did to the Pope, he wrote that here people were rich and the Vatican had given him for the time of his stay a big Mercedes. A Mercedes motorcar!
A poor country where life was more rational than this side of the Curtain. When I went to visit my personal doctor, for a routine visit, before my trip to Poland. ‘And you dare go into the communist zone?’ he asked, in amazement.
I did dare to spend my summer vacation in communist Poland and as it happened I loved every minute of my stay. I liked the people and I liked the time I spent there with my wife among very amiable people. Everything seemed better to me because everything was simpler, clearer, more natural, so true. Life itself was a more essential existence. I mean, nothing was imposed on you as it was in the so-called free world. Things over there were never artificial, so false, so predetermined in every respct. Loyalty! The air was more pure; you moved along the paths of life without fear of tripping up at every instance, taking a false step, being pushed into a hole, head foremost, losing your employment, being cheated; or having people constantly telling you to be more productive, to make more money for the firm. There was not that anxiety, that constant melancholy, nervous depression, drugs. The faces you saw there, then, did not look so haggard, there were no people rushing here and there all the time in anguish.
I can see the reader remarking: but this is exactly the contrary of what we’re being told over here, oppression behind the iron curtain, you must be wrong. No, you should have been there those days. Nobody oppressed anybody. I didn’t see an army, troops, civil guards, policemen, paramilitary forces pointing an automatic rifle at you when you passed by a bank or a ministery. Those things only in the West.
And there is more. I slept better at night and did generally more exercise. You are more human when there is no capitalism. I appreciate, of course, that I was living in the country, but even so, there was something in the air that made life healthier there. In cloudless summer nights you could contemplate the firmament overhead, dotted with stars. Travelling back home, every time we stopped in West Germany for petrol, I found the air around the service station unbreathable. All was involved in effluvia of chemical substances of some sort. We’d had, back in Poland, an existence so close to the earth!
The food was better, more natural and quite abundant (to the surprise, I guessed, of my doctor, when I went back and told him. There was less waste (in glass containers,) for instance. There were, in our Polish friends’ place, home-made jams of all tastes and colours, pickles, jars of wild strawberries and mushrooms, picked freely and abundantly in the woods.
Sitting one afternoon on a large café terrace in the capital, I watched with curiosity a cute blond school-girl, moving about between the tables, pausing for a minute at every table where the clients had just left, and doing something. A man at the next table (who spoke English) noticing I was curiously gazing at the girl, told me that in Poland an empty bottle (soda drink or whatever) had a value, not to be thrown away. After being washed they were refilled. I am not saying, by any means that this is communism, or that I saw communism operating in Poland. What I mean to say is that I did not see in Poland then any of the many laws and practices that are corroding our capitalist western society. Moreover, I agree that Poland was a poorer country than France and perhaps the majority of the countries of the West. The country came out devastated at the end of the war. And yet the country was capable of reconstructing all the utterly destroyed towns and cities. The citizens freely voted for reconstruction. The destroyed cities (all) resurrected entirely as they had been before the bombardments, without any help from abroad. You can compare, say, Gdansk or Warsaw with what the French did with the ‘reconstruction’ of Le Havre, a city thoroughly destroyed by Allied war planes, a place formerly full of architectural jewels like the cathedral. I visited the city many times years after the war. Living quarters everywhere like barracks, a reconstructed cathedral like a leggo-tower. Considering that France was an immensely rich country, owner of an empire, this to me was quite surprising.
Yet western tourists at times saw nothing in Poland save that it was a poor country. Indeed, I got annoyed one day in Poznan with a Frenchman we met shuffling in the streets, when he told me with scorn. ‘Communism doesn’t work. See what a very poor country this is.’ He was repeating like a sheep all the anticommunist propaganda he had heard back home. To boot it all, I learned that he was a cadre in an important trade union, perhaps a socialist.
How did Poland become communist? Poland was a bone of contention between Churchill and Stalin all during the discussions between the three allied powers (the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union) after 1943. The war had started in 1939, and for some years the capitalist countries of the West kept hoping that Hitler would crush communism in the East. Even the British Royal family had its Hitlerites. But it turned out that the Red Army inflicted a complete defeat upon the more than forty Nazi regiments at Stalingrad, the great capitalist powers were pleased to be allied to the victorious Soviet Union. November 28 – December 1, 1943.
Churchill went to Tehran (November – December 1943) to make sure, as he had always done, that the immense British empire would come out reinforced. Personally he had been all his life an obsessed anticommunist, as he himself points out repeatedly in his writings. ‘No one has been a more persistent opponent of communism than I have been for the last twenty-five years.’ He had helped the so-called White Russian Army combat bolchevism until 1924. But in 1943, the noble scion of a very wealthy family of the old Engish aristocracy rushed to pact with Stalin (together with the American Roosevelt), hoping to save the day, always thinking of the English aristocracy and high bourgoisie. His profession was war and conquest.
On the contrary, Stalin came from a very poor family. He was not Russian, but Georgian. A man with an ample mind he rejected narrow nationalisms: his nation was the working class. He became educated entering the institute of the capital (of Georgia) which was a seminary, and got his degrees without entering the priesthood. A cruel man, as recognised by his succesor and the party’s central committee, he would have done anything to save the revolution and for the wellbeing of the working class.
During the discussions between the three allies, the British Prime Minister was still determined to contain ‘the advance’ of communism. And not only in Poland. The allies, he contended; must cause Turkey to enter the war and the Americans must help the Turkish army to reach the Caucasus as a means to help the Soviet army to finish with nazism. He seemed to overlook two important things: that Turkey’s government was (or had been) allied to the Nazis; and secondly, that the Russians neither liked nor needed the Turks. It was evident that Churchill’s objective was to slow up the Red Army somehow.
Let us now revert to Poland, which is the main object of this article. Sir Winston Churchill feared that the Soviet Union would impose on Poland a communist regime, whereas he wanted it to be a capitalist country. This was the main point to be discussed at Yalta (February 1945.) All eastern European countries had already been liberated by the Red Army; but Churchill still tried to keep Poland ‘within the West’ and for that (in the middle of the war) had to curb the advance of the Soviets. The Prime Minister said that there was a Free Polish Government already in London. Moscow did not need to be bothered.
The said Polish Government had been named by the British authorities. In reality, this was an ‘Army’ constituted in exile, and made up by troops that had escaped when Germany invaded the country and converted parts of it into German ‘Lander’. The officers and chiefs thereof belonged to the old Polish gentry, that had in history often betrayed the people, as Wajda shows in one of the films he made when he was still communist.
In his turn, Stalin reminded his two allies that Poland had always been a corridor through which Russian enemies had repeatedly invaded his country, and the kind of government imposed thereon concerned the Soviet Union much more than it concerned the United States and Britain; why should the latter insist on making Poland a satellite of the West?
Churchill tried again, saying that there was already, in any case, some sort of provisional government in Warsaw (the Germans had withdrawn already), and they should leave for afterwards the questiom of organising free elections, etc. Said provisional government, by the way, was not far from being fascistic.
The transcript of the Conference here mentions that Stalin, at this point, burst out laughing, for Churchill had got himself into a mess. ‘Another question (we read) on which Stalin said a word was on the proposed establishment of a Polish Government. Churchill proposed the establishment of a Polish Government then and there, at the Yalta Conference. Stalin hoped that was a slip of the tongue on Churchill’s part: how could a Polish Government be set up without the participation of the Poles and setting up a Polish Government without the Poles?’
During the conferences the destinies of most European countries, east and west, were discussed and, I should say, determined for evermore. And, if the western powers were suspicious that the Soviet Union would ‘impose’ communism on all the bordering countries, and were perhaps justified in being suspicious, it is also true that the West laboured painfully (chicanery) to neutralise Stalin’s repeated demands concerning the Spanish situation (Potsdam July – August 1945.) No, Spain should not have free elections, Churchill insisted. Or what is the same thing, if the Allies crossed the Pyrenees, Franco would have fallen. Churchill would not allow this to happen. The very fascism against which the peoples of Europe and the world fought, with such determination for almost seven years, was supported in Spain by the capitalist powers, Great Britain, the United States and others.
Another thing that proves Churchill’s double-dealing is the way he fought trying to keep the Eastern Mediterranean away from communism, even after the war, fomenting a civil war in Greece, eliminating the commnists in Sicily, etc.
A Satellite of the East. However, Sir Winston Spencer Churchill did not win at Yalta: Poland became a Satellite of the Soviet Union, a communist country for forty-seven years. And that was the Poland I had the pleasure of discovering when I crossed the Iron Curtain in 1977, the Poland I came to know fairly well in successive visits afterwards. For we did go back, Nicky and I, several times after that very successful first summer vacation.
I happened to meet a very nice Pole, Pawel Bialasik, who came to my office in connection with the registration of some patents. He was thrilled to hear that I’ve been in his country and that I liked it very much. As he came some other times, later on, we became acquainted and we even talked politics once or twice. Those days, a man in my position could invite clients (the inventions having been purchased by an American corporation) to famous restaurants like Maxim’s, and discuss (‘working lunches) business in glorious surroundings, for expenses were in part paid by the French Revenue. It was the accepted law and practice, if our accountant knew how to work with numbers.
One day Bialasik, who had in the meantime come to my place and showered my wife and me with presents, for he went back and came out of Poland regularly (and in his country genuine crystal and other fine things of real value cost very little), asked a great favour, he said, getting red in the face and puffing, for he was a very fat individual. He was in a quandary (he explained.) His two children had passed exams at the Alliance Française, got scholarships and needed to live in Paris for a couple of months. Would I and my wife give them accommodation? He offered to pay for it. I said we would be delighted and added that Nicky would not hear of receiving any payment in return.
All this is very complicated and may be difficult for the reader to follow. I shall try to explain myself. Firstly I’ll mention that Pawel Bialasik had a very big account in a Paris bank (as he probably he had in London, Frankfurt and New York.) Today all this may sound strange. But one should bear in mind that when the Cold War lost some of its aggressiveness, the communist world began to trade with our rich western countries. In my Paris office I received communist ‘entrepreneurs’, merchants, holders of patents and inventions rights and even lawyers specialised in these matters, professionals from behind the Curtain. They worked for us, who were representing American transnational corporations. We paid these people cash for their work, and they all had accounts in our western banks. Secondly, communist Poland did have its own laws and regulations (why not?), which were called among us ‘tyrannical’. These regulations were, it’s true, severely restrictive of individual freedom: smuggling wasn’t allowed, and even ‘normal’ trafficking, things in a word which would destroy (for instance) the communist currency. Free trade, free movement, freedom of choice were interpreted there at times as an attack of communist wellbeing. Indeed, was Poland to allow millions of zlotys, say, to fly abroad for the exclusive benefit of what was becoming a privileged class of citizens, helping them to knock about the world with increased frequency and dispose of dollars, pounds, marks and francs, ruining in the process the national currency and destroying in effect the possibility of reconstruction and planning?
Anyhow, I made application to the Polish authorities to let the Bialasik children travel to Paris. And four young Poles came and stayed with us. One of our daughters, who still lived with us, moved into her boyfriend’s flat in Place de la République. The other was in Singapore.
The reader cannot imagine the generosity with which the Bialasik couple (Pawel and Maria) treated us for ever more. Poles are like that. We drove several times to their place, in a small historical town known by the unpronounceable name of Pszcsyna.
Last two visits to Poland, Satellite of the West.
I had been having a nervous depression, having quarrelled with my New York partners, for there were things I refused to do. I was accused of lack of loyalty, which under capitalism is a fault punished quite severely. As I was the manager of the Paris branch of the firm, ‘le gérant´ I took the iniciative of taking my partners to court. The result of a long fight was that I left the law in 1983. My wife being a teacher, we now had more time for travelling, and we did travel, as Sterne would have said, interesting our hearts in everything, with eyes to see what time and chance perpetually was holding out to us. Our last two journeys to Poland were, respectively, in 1993 and 2001.
Piano recital in the Palace of Pszczyna. We had been driving all the way from Düsseldorf. In West Germany the motorways were so numerous and so good that we speeded, like everybody, at a hundred and fifty or more. Not so in what had been the Deutsche Demokratik Republik, where not only the roads were worse in comparison, but were besides cancelled, many of them with a superabundance of bulldozers, trucks and other kinds of machines. As a result we nearly missed a recital by the famous Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter. In effect our friends Pawel and Maria were now very important people in the beautiful town where we had been invited to spend a couple of weeks. He was among other things a politician and she a piano player. Maria had been given four tickets for the performance, which was going to take place in a most magnificent setting, the Pszczyna palace, where the main hall had been transformed into a small theatre for the occasion. Sure enough she had sent us an urgent letter a few days before, where among other things, she said: ‘Make sure you arrive about six or six thirty, not later. There is something at eight which you will adore…’
But we had not counted with the lack of funds of the new Polish regime and the roads in the country were now bad or worse than on our previous trips there. In a word, we almost missed the performance. Our friends were already dressed-up. After a quick shower in a super modern bathroom we all rushed to the theatre. Richter was born in Ukraine and apparently adored Poland, where he used to go very often during the Soviet era. He knew Pczszyna well, as Maria told us. There is no need, now, for me to comment on the performance: wonderful setting, a marvellous player and the best music ever. Rachmaninov…Chopin…
The pianist couldn’t stay long after the performace. Already a very old person, I think he died three years afterwards. But many from the audience did stay, commenting on the pianist’s excellent performance and chatting in addition about economical and social matters. Pawel was glowing with enthusiasm. Several men came to him to ask him questions, which I did not understand. Then they passed to some other group of men and talked again. In the end we spilt out through the frenchwindows onto the area between the palace and the gardens.
It was a splendid summer night which everybody seemed to enjoy. And I became (as my wife would have said) somewhat moody. I was nearly sixty-five, and suddenly had the impression that I was seeing some drama performance, everything seemed artificial. I had crossed in seventy-seven the Iron Curtain back into the Free World so convinced that the Poles were so natural!
There was a tall stooping man, about forty, who had been to Frankfurt to pay his respects to the descendant of the princes of Pzcszyna, the last Junker having left with his family at the approach of the Red Army in 1944. According to what Pawel was telling me, the scion of the family was now a man of fifty, a most respected German banker.
‘You know,’ the tall fellow, who had a very curious turn of mind, from what I was seeing, said. ‘He was very enthusiastic about our proposal. And he will invest millions after he takes possession of the castle and the grounds. No he’s not going to live here permanently. Too important a financier and a politician to give up his German nationality.’
All the men that had come out from the palace hall wore black or otherwise dark suits, with broad American ties or bow-ties. Pawel was really glowing. A centre-right party had been constituted at national level, and he was going to run in it for an important post at the next election. The others came and talked to him, wanting to have his opinion on things. I only understood the odd phrase, but people volunteered to translate: everybody spoke English.
An aristocratic-looking young man in a silk priest’s cassock was talking to a group of women, among which was my wife, for whom suddenly I felt sorry, poor thing. Without jewels, without make-up and wearing a simple ordinary dress! All the rest wore long beautiful robes, displaying an abundance of valuable jewels and expensively made-up. The young ecclesiastic was telling his audience he had learned Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski’s homilies by heart. He also had been in Cracow a pupil of the present Pope who had taught him never to be afraid.
I talked with Dr Swierczyiski, who spoke English well. He was an ophthalmologist whom I had to consult in the past. Head of the communist party after the war, he had become a diehard anticommunist when Walesa and others founded their party in Gdynia in the eighties, and became part of the team. He had been interned for seven years, during the purges. Pawel had told me that strange things had happened: there was a story going around about the ophthalmologist.
As people went away and the groups around the gardens became thinner, I got to know well another important member of the audience. This one was an engineer. He spoke American English and became enthusiastic when I told him I was once in New York. Fat and burly, probably seventy or seventy-one, he spoke of his inventions, for he was the proprietor of about fifteen patents, which he was trying to transfer to an American corporation. Pawel told me afterwards he was an engineer of his speciality, maybe in the entire world and had in his time received the Stalin Prize, a thing he now loathed to admit. He was the least elegantly attired of the lot and he happened to be the wealthiest person in Pszczyna.
In the end I was left with my friend and a crew of relatively young men who came to speak briefly with him, calling him Pan Bialasik and went away. I understood he was solicited as the future governor of some province or other. I got to know later on that he spent much time these days in Katowice, which is a very important industrial city in the south. ‘How much money,’ he asked, half joking, ‘are we going to get from German bankers? There is the rub! Investment. You know, Fernando, I don’t know if you’ve been able to follow. The descendant of the last Junker is the key to all these things. When I say investment, I mean the German automobile industry. I hope he’s going to take possession of the palace and the grounds. I know he’s not going to live here. He is a Frankfurt banker. ‘At least some days every year, you know. Say that he comes every summer. Good investment, I’m telling you.’ He was talking so enthusiastically, red-faced and out of breath. ‘However, I wouldn’t say he’s ready to become a Polish national.’
Poland revisited. In August 2001 we travelled to Poland for the last time. We went directly to Pzsczyna (even there along some new motorways.) Like on other occasions, we stayed with our friends, Maria and Pawel, about a month. We travelled there by car in order to have the opportunity (once established in Pszczynza) of revisiting by road some of the places we had seen in years past, for I wanted to find out, knocking about a little, what the passage from communism to capitalism had signified for the people and specially for the working classes. And I can say now that every trip, every new visit to well-known places was a disappointment.
Thus, in Bielsko Biala, a city near the border with Slovakia, where we had once been to a concert of classical music, the theatre was closed and fallen in decay. Then, in the concert, I had been with people and not with this or that power elite, as under capitalism. There, then, the workers were interested in real art. We went shopping, remembering that we had bought many good things there (for instance, I bought in the eighties in that town a dark-blue sports jacket which I still wear); and I could go on writing about that market town and many other Polish places of the eighties. And now (2001) there was nothing worth buying. Mostly there were imported commodities of very bad quality and not all that cheap for the poor workers of the time, even in the new shopping malls.
In Zakopane, in the Carpathian Mountains, the facilities that had been built for the people to enjoy themselves during the communist epoch, climbing devices (for mountaineering (or skiing, in winter) were now privately owned and privately exploited, the companies demanding (for the tickets) an amount which only the rich and foreign tourists could afford. Anyhow, you could hardly see a worker nowaday in holiday resorts and similar places. In one of these holiday towns, we were the witnesses (unbelievably as this will sound) of a most criminal spectacle: several American tobacco companies were competing along the promenades to grab future clients among the young: in a word, we saw here and there well animated stands (a tobacco corporation) engaging into conversation with every young person passing by, who were handed precious presents in beautiful paper bags: the reader will have probably guessed that, among the presents there always was a little packet with a dozen cigarettes. Sometimes children too were the recipients of such handouts. I could go on for a hour or two describing the new wonderful Poland and the penetration into the the heart and guts of Polish people of the capitalist virus.
My house is my castle. The pretty historical town of Pszczyna I came to love so much the moment I first set my foot there had changed. Our friends were as generous as they had always been, and they did everything to make our holiday a great success. It was not their fault their friend Fernando was so moody.
The old big house had been extended and refurbished, and filled with all the new things money can buy: electronic apparatus and machines, good mirrors, modern kitchen and comfortable bathrooms. Their daughter and her husband, the happy parents of a pretty blond girl now in her teens, occupied the third floor of the reformed property, an extension built in a new modern style. Maria still had her grand piano and the big hall, I was pleased to note, hadn’t changed; all looked like before, with the addition of some oil paintings, done by a famous modern painter. I could hardly believe our friend, when she told us that those portraits corresponded to the two parents and the two children.
She referred to the property as ‘our ancestor’s mansion’, for it turned out that either Pawel or Maria (or both) descended from the ancient Polish gentry. As for the couple’s son, he and his wife (now with two children) had had their new house built across the road, a nice cute property, which they showed us; we visited the study (for the children) with a shelf filled with books which granddaddy had brought from abroad: all the novels of the ‘Harry Potter’ collection were there in English. Everybody spoke English in the family, and some also spoke French and/or German. The mother of these two children was a professor of French at Katowice university.
One day in freeworld Poland. One very fine morning of the beginning of August, 2001, I was alone in the house, perusing one of the novels I found in a big bookself downstairs, one of those you buy at the airport with the name of the author three times as big as the ttitle and I was very bored. Nicky had left with Maria soon after breakfast, and Pawel was not there. The women had gone down town shopping, as they informed me, and I was in my bedroom.
I heard one of the servants buzzing about on the ground floor, possibly the kitchen. Outside, more in the distance, I can hear the cries and calls of the eldest of the grandchildren. She is playing with the dog in the orchard. I’m not overfond of pets; but I found this one, a large Alsatian dog, specially impertinent. I closed the novel and turned my gaze, through the window, at the orchard. The teenage girl. The big animal frisking and barking, and jumping to embrace his young mistress. Had I not hated the idea of being in turn embraced by the monster I would have gone down to talk to the girl. So colourful an orchard, the sun now shining. I recall having helped one summer the parents of the pretty creature, harvesting white cherries, a kind of fruit I had never seen anywhere before.
After a while, I saw the senior servant carrying a tray with refreshments for the girl. And I felt the need to go across the corridor to another bigger room, where there was always a silver samovar full of ‘herbata’, ready to satisfy anybody’s thirst. I served myself a glass of tea and went with it to the window. Again a garden full of flowers and a dark-green hedge plus a railing newly painted black with golden endings on top. It had been raining cats and dogs overnight, but now all was clear. It was almost ten. As for the road beyond the fence, it was the same. Of course, more traffic now. And comparing things and calculating, I was soon lost in thought
… I can see from here the railway station, on my right; I was accompanying my friend Pawel, helping him with the suitcases. He was leaving for a business trip. In reality I wanted to ask him questions about Pszczyna and about the Palace; had it already been handed to the Teutonic Knight?
… the station was the same. ‘Now, my friend, you must agree,’ I said. ‘Was it not one of the things the communists managed very well, covering Poland with a web of railway lines: criss-crossing the whole country? Such a good network. Leaving the question of building highroads for a later date.’
… my friend has been telling me that the train was always his first choice, and that was the reason for my observation. ‘No need you telling me, dear Pawel, I have just driven with Nicky from Görlitz-Zgorzelec and it is horrible. All is worse than before. Good God, what roads! Capitalism’s Number One option.
The traffic down below had considerably increased while I watched. I glance at my wrist. I still have some time. The ladies will still be shopping. Good on them. Supply and demand. Purchase while you can. Money, money, money.
… Pawel has left for Warsaw. Coming back to the house, I see what was intended to be the Pszczyna Youth Amphiteatre. A great communist goal. A most ridiculous affair which in its day made every learned man howl with laughter.
… it showed (it still shows today) the horror and the inferiority of communism. Inefficiency is the word. Lack of brains. The Party is led by uncouth people like Stalin himself.
… I implore Pawel to tell me what happened: the history of the famous amphitheatre. Bad idea, bad realisation, bad composition! The very man who should have done the job, who obtained from the party such a big budget for it.
… but what, tell me! It’ll be easily told, my friend. The head of the region’s communist party caused that loss of millions. Inability or sabotage? You will ask.
… a youth centre was to be built, and it was he that chose the site, saying that youth groups from abroad would arrive there, the station being near. The head of the local section of the Party. Shouldn’t he have known better?
... and the very first day, a great inaguration. Authorities had come from Katowice and all… Well, it makes me laugh. Imagine. The feast began with a choir of twenty children from Bucharest. Nothing doing. Ha! Ha! Impossible to hear the dear children.
I was crying, by the window, looking left, trying to see in the distance the ridiculous amphitheater. I cannot help myself, the thought has made me suffer. ‘But Pawel, tell me’ I asked, feeling so angry on the occasion, ‘had it not occurred to the others?’ ‘Fernando, that is communism. The boss is the boss.’ I weep full of hatred because I think of the failure of an honest attempt at changing the system, making society more just. The very moment the children started singing ¡Que viva España! (little Rumanians singing in Spanish), an express-train passed at full speed. And all the time, what a failure! Trains passing by. Steel wheels clanking and rattling. Carriage banging against carriage, almost continually. A sudden sound of chains. The engine hooting, some alarm given.
Only this I could get from my friend. The guilty person was sent to jail, and lucky he was condemned for sabotage, he should have been punished for treason, sent before the firing squad. Brave communist leader!
Still by the window I remember another horror told me this time by Maria: that she had long long ago seen rows of wretched men and women and even children heading for the town of Oswiecim, nearby.
… the Nazis had built a concentration camp, Auschwitz, just there. ‘We used to see Jews, the communists and the gypsies, taken away by special forces, to be exterminated,’ Maria was sobbing. ‘We were terrified and did not move. You could do nothing. Nobody in Pszczyna dared to say anything.
… even to be seen in the streets in such occasions was dangerous. Oh, the Nazis were bad. We even felt happy when we saw the Red Army arrive after Stalingrad.
At eleven o’clock, climbing down the new staircase, I nearly bump into the younger of the two servants, polishing some ornamental furmiture. She has a beautiful body, I should say, having been a champion long-distance runner not so long ago (I tried to talk to her in my bad Polish the other day: that’s why I know.) She comes from Opole, an industrial town somewhere north of Pszczyna. I have kept the name of the town in my mind because it sounds (for once) like a Spanish name. During communism, she was a worker, but the factory has been bought by the Germans, and things have changed. I just say ‘dzien dobry!’, as I pass by, in order to avoid embarrasing her, the elderly servant having gone, probably shopping.
Shopping, that is what Nicky and Maria are doing. I heard them at breakfast talking. Apparenty there is now a first-class boutique in Pszczyna. Dresses, lingerie… you name it. And I have asked Nicky to make sure she gets sexy Polish underwear for herself.
… of course, she sneered at me. Knowing her I should not have said such a ridiculous thing: let her buy what she wants. I shut up afterwords. Still, what does she expect? Men will be Men! Remember that even in Nojewo we saw the young men under communism ogling the Trois-Suisses catalogue someone had smuggled in from France, and all of them, page after page of ever so attractive girls in microscopic underwear.
Going out into the garden, I am careful not come across the dog: straight down to the big iron gate I go. I get a piece of paper from the top pocket of my jacket, where Nicky had scribbled the thing. I can’t be bothered to learn by heart digital symbols and numbers. The gate has opened, and I am trudging on the road.
Just opposite the road I see our friends’ son’s new house. ‘Capitalism promotes innovation.’ It is evident. Under communism all was drab, sad, colourless, ugly.
‘Capitalism liberates all your energies!’ I shout as I walk left, not daring to step on the public footpath, unpassable because of last night’s rain. ‘Oh yes, my friend, to liberate, that’s what it is: liberate, liberal, freedom of choice.
I have to be careful. The number of cars is increasing all the time. A Volkswagen which has almost crushed me (the bastard!) has just pulled up on the other side to get some refreshment from a stand with a notice: AMERICAN DONUTS.
… on our journey from Zgorzelec to Pszczyna, the other day, we saw dozens of stands or wooden cabins, selling all kinds of imported rubbish ten or fiteen hours, hoping to make piles of money.
‘Free enterprise, of course,’ I say to myself glancing at the fat lady selling the doughnuts. She’s built her stand right in front of that beautiful house. Doctor Swierczyiski lives there, the sworn anticomunist of old. I guess he won’t be so pleased, the big bastard, having this horrible structure barring his view.
… it was Robert Swierczyiski the man who ordered the Pszczyna youth amphitheatre to be built near the railway line. Maria has just told me. Seven years in jail. Bastard ophthalmologist, head of the communist party, an anticommunist, American spy.
Capitalism liberate all your posibilities, eh? Exit-routes for enterpreneurs, eh! Here you have what it means. How d’you feel with this awful vision in front of your window?
I smell grass as I turn left into scrubland; green, wet and unattended; and get worried. Rye-grass. Bad luck, hay-fever. I’ll be sneezing tonight.’ Shouldn’t have come this way. Better the other longer way. All roads lead to Rome… and down town to the palace.
In the past there was an open-air market on this empty chunk of unattended green land. Lots of enterprising free farmers here under communism. Nobody sent them to Siberia for cultivating land ‘uncollectively’ and a great variety of commodities too; producers of meat and sausage. ‘mieso’ and ‘wieprz’, ‘kielbasy’, sausages of all kinds, hues and sizes, all essential things to make you fat; and one hundred home-made jams, beer, wodka, you name it. Now, whoever said that communism doesn’t liberate man? I closed my eyes as I plod on the grass.
… one, ten, fifty, a hundred, two hundred men and women doing business under communism. Capitalism’s unlikely heroes! I see fifty-five or sixty small stands all around. Vendors and purchasers. Not a word I understand when they speak to me and less when they talk among themselves.
… besides I hear many different languages, for many of these free-enterprises come from different points of this side of the iron curtain. Right down to Georgia some of them’ll be going tonight or in a few days, or a month. Free circulation of men and capital.
… though, of course, they mainly are small farmers from the region, bringing their produce in little trucks, utility vans and even big old automobiles: free-entrepreneurs all right. Colourful produce regularly displayed on stands.
… what a glory to see fresh fruit and vegetables, pork and meat and fish and hens and chickens. Free Polish farmers. But the foreigners are sitting on the ground, merchants of another kind. All kinds of machines and electronic gadgets, typewriters, cameras.
… even at times, spread on the ground, guns and machine-guns, and once I saw an old bearded man (a Tartar all right) selling kalachnikof rifles. Crews of gypsies that played and sang. They said they came from Rumania, violins and guitars and other musical instruments. I understood the language.
The road I have to cross to reach the town centre is not so busy as the one I’ve just left. The reason is that there are road works, and accompanying pools of dirt. Oh, I knew, I knew! I shouldn’t have come this way, the more so as I find out that trurning right in order to hit the town-centre I percieve there is another horror.
I look at my watch. Almost twelve o’clock. And my shoes now are covered in mud. Nicky is not going to like this. Specially that the restaurant is a first class-one. ‘Like Maxim’s and La Tour d’Argent.’ We have already been there. On two occasions.
… and this the main commercial street ot the city? Public works. Again capitalistic reconstruction. Oh, these people, they’ve become mad. No wonder the houses look soiled and dusty and ugly, the roadway having been broken up. A narrow ditch, like a war-trench, all the length of it. Consequently both pavements are muddy, two rows of pedestrians, this way and that.
… I hope I don’t bump into the ladies out shopping, for I would not know what to do, joining them in their shopping. Though, well, there’s lingerie about to gladden your eyes: ‘Haute Couture’, the other side of the road. Women are like that. Like that rubbish. And Maria, now. ‘Nicky, you must buy that. Dare be brilliant. New thinking, new possibilities.’
… what an extraordinary amount of television disks sticking out of windows and balconies. Ryzcu Swierczyiski, that is the name. The ophthalmologist’s youngest son. American spies all of them. Dad has provided the necessay capital. My friend Pawel was tellng me his son Alex, at present a mining engineer, may soon join Ryczu. A limited liability company.
… can it be true? two highly qualified young men installing this rubbish, ten or eleven hours a day. Filling the prospect with television disks. Such ugliness in this previously beautiful street.
‘Financing liberates your fears!’ Pawel was saying the other day. Fear? Has not the Pope come to liberate the Poles? Don’t be afraid! Beloved countrymen. Allay your fears joining the Free World.
The ditch that has been cut all along this now dirty street is filled with cables of different colours and thickness. On a wooden plank, cutting across, a young man in overalls is holding the end of a particularly thick cable. A silverhaired workman is holding the other end standing on a wooden bridge. Suddenly something snaps and the senior man falls in the ditch, howling. The young worker brushes past me, going to rescue his fellow worker.
… ‘one must never let the worker down,’ I hear Stalin’s watchword, and I laugh, seeing the silverhaired old fellow down inside the ditch calling for help.
For a small town it can be said that Pszczyna’s main square is of enormous proportions. Five-storeyed houses all around, except for the part where the castle is situated. With two cathedrals. That is Pszczyna for you. The Teutonic Knights. The catholic one is the bigger, for the masses. The lutheran one is smaller, but exquisite. Built enthusiastically by crews of Polish workers for the power-elite.
But I’m still looking at the houses in this main square. For one thing, it was a disappointment the other day. No longer beautiful. ‘Oh yes, Fernando, dear!’ cried Maria. ‘What you dislike is, on the contrary, the proof that capitalism does work. It develops your imagination, the spirit of enterprise, with competition. And you’ll see in a couple of years’ time. It all will have been refurbished, new, colourful and bright. The smart wins. The uncouth gets left behind.’
She was referring to what I had called a change for the worse. I looked at the houses, previously all of a pattern. Now six houses had been renovated, the rest, about two dozen, I should say, are falling in decay. The six had been bought by Polaks living abroad, North America, Cape Town and Sydney. After the war they had escaped, fearing communism. They have returned with their millions. ‘But Maria,’ I rejoined, ‘you’ve just said they don’t have the intention of living here at all. Investment, that is what it all means.’
A fine black Mercedes arriving at the entrance of the very restaurant where Maria will be inviting us in forty or fifty minutes, and an elegant couple climbing out. A black chauffeur has dilligently opened the door for them. As they enter the restaurant a young blond man lying on the ground lifts his dirty cap at the gentleman who gives him some zloty, the price of a glass of wodka.
Not wanting to step likewise inside the establishment to await the arrival of the two women, I cross the square looking towards the entrance of the palace.
… now, what’s that one doing there? a big woman with disorderly hair. She turns out to be a town street-sweeper and she has in her hands a big broom and a square wooden scoop.
… and the woman-worker is simply gathering up dust and dirt in the palace grounds and emptying the scoop in a yellow container. Her pale and haggard face denotes hatred and her hollow look is frightening.
… a sudden gust of wind causes the gathered dust in the scoop to fly about as she stoops over the yellow container and the creature flies into a tantrum. Getting hold of the yellow bucket, she passes the gate and deposits all the dust and rubbish at the very entrance of the castle.
Lofty wrought-iron bars with gold spikes. I have passed into the grounds getting to dirt my shoes again as I trample on the dust the disloyal civil-servant had just deposited.
… two days before we had been visiting the palace. It cost us dear, the two tickets. The Frankfurt banker has taken possession of the castle and the grounds. I could see he has filled galleries and halls with oil portraits of his ancestors, including a large painting that occupies the whole wall (as we mounted the carpeted stone steps from the ground floor) with an oversized Princess Daisy, extremely beautiful with a gold crown of pearls and an exquisite white gown with a long train. The banker’s mother. All the young girls in the city have come to see the Princess, I was told, and now try to imitate her.
I passed the gardens without bothering to look at the flowers, not to tax my mind comparing with the parterre of yesteryears. ‘You are always comparing and criticising, Dad,’ my daughter often tells me. For better or worse we are all alive, and that is all that counts.
What I do note, as I penetrate the park, is that there is no longer a natural forest. It is crossed by a medium-sized road which seems to be full of cars, speeding this way and that, the footpaths are overgrown with grass and weeds. To think they were then always full of promenaders. And of cyclists. This ugly busy road was a cycle-path then. And I realise all of a sudden that I had been walking too much. The Bialasik property is just there. I can see it. We used to enter through that gate, when we borrowed their bicycles from the daughter and her fiancé.
I look at my watch and panic. I start running back to the palace entrance and the main square. ‘Bang, bang! Now surrender!’ I hear children’s voices. Shouting and laughing and shooting with plastic guns. ‘Tra, tra, tra! Bang, bang, bang! a shriek. ‘Poom, Poom!’ They are playing at Indians and Cowboys.
‘Bang! Bang! Some of them are holding strong in the silver-birch forest. A battle of the Wild West, indeed. Six fierce Indians on the grass charging and singing victory. Others, about the same number, on the road, entering the wood and now hiding behind the trees. ‘Boom! Boom!’ ‘Surrender!’ I hear, in English, then: ‘Zagraniczy! Zagraniczy!
A sniper in a giant oak tree, shooting at me, as I pass running by. And running I reach the palace, I pass the wrought-iron gate and reach the main square. ‘Good! I think I’ll manage,’ I breathe as I reach the restaurant’s entrance. A tall skinny young waiter lets me in (I knew him when he was very handsome) and I roil, for he is obviously dying of aids.
As I enter I see the two women sitting at a table on the right. Nicky has seen me and I see her beautiful smile.