I have just returned from a remarkable trip to Dresden, Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow, a trip made all the more remarkable for three commemorative events that took place in Poland while I was there.
Wedged as it is between Germany and Russia, Poland has, over the past two centuries, struggled not only to achieve its independence but also to establish its national identity. For the entire 19th century, Poland was divided and occupied, predominantly by Russia, and did not exist as an independent nation state. The country was kept alive in the minds of its people and the works of its artists. The rebellious and free spirit of the Poles exists today in no small part thanks to the exquisite elegies and lamentations of great poets such as Slowacki, Norwid and Milosz, the sharp and cutting epics and satires of playwrights and novelists like Wyspianski and Witkiewicz, and the profoundly romantic and moving images of artists such as Matejko and many others.
And that rebellious spirit was very much in evidence earlier this month.
March 5 marked the 66th anniversary of the incident that began the infamous massacre by the Soviet secret police of more than 25,000 Poles in the spring of 1940. On that day in 1940, Josef Stalin, among other members of the Politburo, signed a document ordering the liquidation of 14,700 Polish soldiers and 11,000 other Polish prisoners held by the Soviets at Katyn Forest and other locations in Belarus and Ukraine.
The order identified those Poles, representing one half of the Polish officer corps and a large section of the country’s intelligentsia, as “enemies of Soviet power, full of hatred for the Soviet state.” Stalin was determined to seal Poland’s fate forever in the casket of Soviet domination.
On March 5 of this year, the Russian government announced that the murder of those Poles was “not a Stalinist crime.” The subtext of this announcement is that the families of those innocent Polish victims are not entitled to compensation. The massacre was, according to the Russian government, just a simple mishap that war occasionally engenders. Very sorry.
Cover-up and hypocrisy
The Polish media, however, was in high dudgeon. In the newspapers and on television, commentators attacked the Putin government for cover-up and hypocrisy. The Soviet government once blamed this atrocity on Germany, forbidding any investigation into it that might prove otherwise.
Poles now are no longer prepared to take this treachery lying down.
The second event that occurred during my stay was the 80th birthday, on March 6, of the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda. The two leading newspapers, Rzeczpospolita and Gazeta Wyborcza, were full of articles commemorating Wajda’s immense contribution to Polish culture through such films as “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), “The Promised Land” (1974) and “Man of Marble” (1976).
I was fortunate to meet Wajda three times during my stay, the last time, on March 7, for three hours. He is in pre-production for his next film, which will be about the Katyn Massacre of those thousands of captive soldiers and civilians. His own father, Jakub Wajda, then aged 40, was killed at Katyn Forest, and it has taken the director half a century to come around to what must be for him an exceedingly painful project. (Thoughts on Andrzej Wajda, his films, his links with Japan and more about the Katyn Massacre will appear in next week’s Counterpoint.)
The third event in early March was the anniversary, on March 8, of the 1968 mass student demonstration at Warsaw University. That demonstration and its aftermath contributed significantly to the formation of the Solidarity movement. However, to understand the demonstration, akin to those at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, a bit of background is in order.
In the autumn of 1967, the theater director Kazimierz Dejmek mounted a production of the Polish classic, “Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve)” at the National Theater in Warsaw. The play, written by Poland’s greatest 19th-century poet, Adam Mickiewicz, is a celebration of Polish life in all its forms and manners. But in 1967, allusions in the play and that particular production to being under the Russian yoke were unacceptable to the communist government of Poland — particularly one in the hand-wringing throes of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Consequently, police jumped onto the stage of the theater and stopped the production. Theater had until that time played a key role as a vehicle of conscience and truth in Poland. Nothing so blatantly tyrannical had happened on a stage there before.
Students and intellectuals in Warsaw were not to be so easily crushed. Their rebellion took shape on March 8, 1968, on the campus of Warsaw University. Speeches and flyers called for freedom of speech and action against the government. The government answered with a show of brutal force. Club-wielding police attacked the crowds of students. Many were arrested, including Adam Michnik, who spent six years altogether in prison but went on to be the great intellectual force behind the Solidarity movement and editor-in-chief of the influential daily Gazeta Wyborcza.
The government followed not only with a crackdown on intellectuals, but with an insidious campaign of anti-Semitism. They linked, in nefarious suggestion and innuendo, the protest movement to the few Jews like Michnik who were left in the country. This was no simple scapegoating of the usual suspects. Israel had, the previous year, proclaimed a major victory in the Six-Day War, and the Polish government wanted to show its Soviet chiefs that, like them, Poles were allied, in principle, with the Arab cause.
Today, one of the flyers from that demonstration long ago has been enlarged and reproduced in metal. Attached to a wall just inside the gates of Warsaw University, it attests to the courage of the students. It took them two decades, but they won the freedom for which they so determinedly fought.
Is a country that can take for granted its independence better off than one that has had to struggle for centuries to achieve it? The answer is unclear. But one can only admire the Poles for their love of freedom and their willingness to sacrifice everything for it.
On my final day in Poland, while in Krakow, I had yet another reminder of this unflagging spirit.
In September 2004, the city council of Krakow took the decision to rename Central Square as “Central Square in the Name of Ronald Reagan.” But, as reported in the March 8 edition of the Krakow newspaper Dzennik Polski, “Opponents of this change have gathered more than 12,000 signatures to protest and stop this renaming.”
Ah, it’s good to see that the spirit of revolt in Poland is still alive and kicking.
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