When we lived in Poland during 1978-79, its citizens were still under Russian control. Nothing worked. Everyone, except the Communist leaders, was underpaid, resulting in massive inequality. Bribes, fraud, and corruption were normal. No one believed the papers. No one believed anything, even what day it was. Would the supersam (supermarket) be open today? If it was, would there be any bananas? Or sugar? No one had the slightest idea.
But when I look back on that year, I feel twinges of optimism, because it felt remarkably like America today. If a divided Poland can recover from such dire straits, why shouldn’t a divided America?
Poland not only survived, but is now one of Europe’s shining stars. While other countries, East and West, are faltering economically, Poland is slowly but steadily building a strong middle class. It happened fast:
In 1978, in Warsaw, we heard vague rumors of unrest in the shipyards of Gdansk, on the Baltic Coast. In 1979, people whispered that a shipyard electrician named Lech Walesa was leading a revolutionary movement, but no one seemed sure. Back home in 1980, we received a large red and white poster, SOLIDARNOSC: the revolutionary union, Solidarity, had been formed. In 1989 Solidarity supporters won every seat available in the Polish parliament, the first falling domino in the Communist collapse, electing Walesa president of Poland in 1990. By 2004 Poland had joined the European Union, where it’s flourishing.
How did Poland do it, and what can we learn from them? First of all, the Poles were non-violent. They, as much as any people, have seen what violence does. Poland, defenseless on the flat North European Plain, has been invaded by Russia, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Turkey, and Hungary. In my poetry class, the Polish students loved Emily Dickinson’s lines "Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed. / To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need." “We understand suffering,” one student said. “It glues us together.”
To us, at first, Poland seemed defeated. But underneath the rubble, they were joining hands. A solidly Catholic country, their Catholicism seems more familial and political than religious. At a party I asked why so many of the crosses on top of the churches were lit up at night. We thought it might mean, in a Communist country, Jesus lives. “It means,” our host said, “that Poland is still fighting.” When Karol Woytyla (a published poet, among other things) was elected Pope John Paul II, a million people (including us) surged into Victory Square when he visited Warsaw in 1979, while government soldiers lined up in the side streets, nervously holding onto their rifles. But the masses didn’t riot.
The Poles, to us, seemed dignified, generous, kind to each other, and to guests. Piotr Sommer, the fine poet quoted today, helped us navigate Warsaw’s potholes in innumerable ways. The only businesses that seemed to flourish in those days were the kwiaty (flower) stores. We were often invited to dinner and other parties, and everyone brought flowers. The dinners were mostly simple, and included good bread and good vodka — two items in abundance. Their apartments were small, as was ours (“Gee,” our teenage daughter said when we arrived, “I feel like
If we want to regain our country’s soul, we need to be patient and civil, like the Poles. Never give in to despair. Keep a sense of humor (the Poles were mordantly funny) and hang in there, waiting for the right man or woman to lead us.
I’ll end with their typical New Year’s Eve toast (translated to today): Raising vodka glasses, they’d smile and say, “May 2015 be worse than 2016!” They could laugh because they knew they were in it for the long haul. Na zdrowie.
—From “Days of the week” by Piotr Sommer (Things to Translate and other poems, Bloodaxe Books, Great Britain 1991).