#25 People and Poland: The future of a nation

Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”
― Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

Thinking about Poland has me reaching for my undergraduate dissertation. It takes me back a long way, to the summer of 1989 and the end of my second university year, when I went to the country with my friend Alison to do some research for my geography degree. This was in the wake of the nation’s first partially free and democratic national elections, held in June that year. The elections were part of the post-1985 ‘Gorbachev phenomenon’ of perestroika and glasnost, in the early tremors of the seismic shifts then beginning in Communist Eastern Europe. It was before the historic fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Alison had an amazingly kind and generous family there, who hosted us, entertained us and facilitated valuable connections for my work. Alison herself was my translator, fellow researcher and generally a fantastic companion and invaluable help. I remember conducting interview surveys in the grey city streets of Warsaw and in the open squares of Gdansk, against a backdrop of cranes. We interviewed Communist Party officials and spoke to journalists and to religious leaders of underground groups. Looking back, it seems incredible that we had such access; at the time I suspect I rather took it for granted. At weekends we went walking in the lushly wooded Zakopane mountain region and spent time having fun with Alison’s young cousins. We drank a lot of vodka, ate gherkins at breakfast and explored Warsaw. I remember the contrasts of the traditional old town and the uniformly drab apartment blocks of the residential areas, as well as the unwelcoming blank buildings of the heavy bureaucratic administration.

Despite the political changes, there was still an undercurrent of secrecy, fear and mistrust, like the dense pockets of cold water that gather in a pond or lake. Staying in such a comfortable, family atmosphere, we were largely shielded from this. But as my respondents demonstrated, it wasn’t easy to throw off years of oppression and looking over your shoulder at your colleagues and neighbours. This was still the heyday of hard currency, the value of the dollar soaring against the inflation-ridden local currency, the zloty. So even as poor students, we were privileged, financially, as well as in terms of the easy freedoms we enjoyed. However, despite my British passport, travelling home alone by train after completing my fieldwork I felt frissons of apprehension as I rolled across borders and had my documents examined by stern immigration officials. The iron curtains may have opened but they weren’t yet fully drawn back.

Fast forward over twenty years, and my second trip to Poland was very different. My parents, my sister and I made a long weekend visit to Krakow for the Christmas market. With Poland now a member of the EU, our purchases of crafts and gifts were steeply priced in euros. On my first visit, souvenirs had been limited to Russian dolls, military trinkets and ancient sepia postcards. The local fondness for vodka hadn’t wavered though, I reflected as we watched two genteel elderly women sip shots alongside their cream cakes in a cafe on one of the picturesque central squares.

Confronting the past

Krakow was postcard-pretty but we steeled our nerves to leave it behind to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, now a memorial and museum. It was, of course, harrowing. Walking round the camp, seeing the exhibits and imagining the atrocities committed right here made my soul shiver. The bleak harshness of the buildings and the iconic sights like the gate labelled arbeit macht frei and the heaps of shoes and jewellery stripped from their murdered owners were as hideous as I expected. What was surprising was its size: the camp felt smaller than I’d imagined it to be. This didn’t make it any better: on the contrary, it seemed to represent an almost unbelievable compression of evil. It felt important to see it, but we were all relieved to be able to leave it behind and return to the cosy tweeness of Krakow.

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