Thursday, May 14, 2009
Cape Town? No, Warsaw. Why Poland?
South African Airways flight 0207 took off about an hour ago for Dulles. I'm not on it. In fact, I've never been on a South African Airways flight. But it's not for a lack of trying. Thirty years ago I was bound and determined to take my anti-apartheid fervor to Cape Town and volunteer in the resistance movement. Do you know how expensive it is to fly to South Africa? And how poor I was, a graduate student, working part-time in a tiny, airless closet of a room at the hospital transcribing on a manual typewriter the information written on Emergency Room intake forms, illegible handwriting most of the time, listening all day to Bob and Betty on talk radio. No Cape Town for me. But soon, another option was presented. Poland. Poland? To be honest, I'd not given the country much thought. The Soviet Union, absolutely! East Germany, yes! But Poland. Hmmm. Frankly, it was the promise of getting to go to Moscow and Leningrad as part of the Polish study period that got me on a LOT Polish Airlines flight to Warsaw in the late summer of 1980. I wasn't sure I'd ever get excited about Poland but I was interested in Marxism and Soviet / Russian history and culture. And, importantly, the price was right! Well, as things turned out, Lech Walesa vaulted over the shipyard fence in Gdansk right about then and the unstoppable momentum and dizzying dangerous excitement of Solidarity got rolling and I was hooked. Still am. Those first months were exasperating and exhilarating and my new Polish friends joined me to their cause, their stories, their families, their improbable hopes. Let's set the record straight: the end of communism began in Poland. And now, twenty years later, I want to tell you about it. Yeah, yeah, everybody remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a huge moment for all of Europe. But, earlier, and unnoticed, as usual -- the poor Poles get no credit, in the Spring of that same year, 1989, Polish citizens made the first decisive move into the new epoch. June 4, 1989. The first free elections in the Soviet bloc. The Poles went to the polls (haha) and elected non-communist representatives to Parliament, winning every contested seat. The first non-communist government in Eastern Europe! That is when the wall came down. Poland's non-violent revolution (okay, Gorbachev, too) made possible the momentous events that followed: the hordes of Hungarians seeping through the borders into Austria, East Germans in tiny Trabants flooding the roads to freedom via Czechoslovakia, and then, as we know, the day, November 9, 1989, when the concrete wall itself was demolished. Unbelievable. But it happened. And now, my Polish friends' children have no memories of communism, of the way it was. Poland is part of the European Union and NATO, for god's sake. Starbucks is there. And every gourmet food you can imagine. I fly in and out with no more effort than if I were going from LA to Boston. Stay at the Sheraton if I'm flush, or in a modern apartment with eighty cable channels, a microwave, and high speed internet. And walk past the palm tree every single day. My daughter is on that flight from South Africa back to the States this morning. It is her life's dream she's pursued the past several months, ever since she was a regular, in her stroller, with me at the weekly anti-apartheid demonstrations at the South African Consulate in Chicago. The world is much smaller (and I am much richer) and I'm glad she's got her passion. Because I've still got mine: Poland. Where you'll find a palm tree at -- where else? -- the corner of Jerusalem Street and New World Avenue. Come with me and find out why Poland matters!