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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Leaping into history

Ready, set, GO! I landed in Poland just as Lech Walesa leapt over the shipyard fence and Solidarity was being born, in the late summer of 1980. No one yet dared to dream that within the decade communism would be done for. Gone. Kaput. And I had no idea that Polish history – and history-making – would become a life-long passion. I arrived in Poland, a graduate student, expecting to study history and ethics for several months in Warsaw, then return home enriched, but not completely transformed. Instead, I was hooked, fascinated and enthralled by the story of a people that lost everything, over and over again, yet managed to get up every time, again and again and again, to re-create their national culture and institutions and their personal lives out of literal mounds of rubble and ruin. And now they were about to risk everything to attempt it once more. How can you walk away from that? I found the Poles’ story compelling on a personal level, as well. My name, Erickson-Pearson, reveals my heritage as the daughter of Swedish immigrants, with not one drop of Polish blood in my veins, so this is not my story. Yet, on that first visit in 1980 and again over the years, and especially most recently, I discovered in the Polish experience many important parallels to my own. How to resist evil and survive betrayal? How to get back up again after deadly violence? How to deal with a difficult past? What to remember, what to forget? What to forgive, and when and how? How to rebuild, when to take risks? Whom to trust, and how much? How to tell the difficult and unwelcome truth, and when? How to stand up to bullies and indifference? On that first trip, I was stunned to discover the extent to which I could identify with and respect the Poles’ dilemmas and courage. My fascination with Polish life was fixed. “To choose what is difficult, all one’s days, as if it were easy; that is faith.” __W. H. Auden I inscribed the poet’s words as a caption to the photograph I’ve kept on my desk, of Polish friends who were never free of the burden to make consequential, agonizing decisions. Their cunning, cleverness, creativity and courage inspired me at work and in my personal life. How do you do that? I wondered and marveled at their resilience. Over time, I found Polish poets, artists, and writers who spoke with eloquence and power even more directly to my soul. No matter what else was supposed to be happening in Warsaw and the rest of Poland during the fall and winter of 1980-1981, the daring-do of a young electrician named Lech Walesa and his brave band of steel-workers, journalists, doctors, students, captivated everyone, as they stood toe-to-toe with the iron might of Soviet power. It was a seminal moment for Poland. Public impatience perfectly corresponded with the political maturity of the post-war generation’s anti-communist dissident leadership and the time was ripe for decisive action. Sympathy for the striking workers was almost universal and, for the first time in the communist era, serious support and active collaboration between the workers and intelligentsia created a perfectly unsettled situation, ripe for change. A propitious moment, indeed. The real problem, of course, was not in Poland but next to it. The times were as dangerous as they come. Earlier outbursts of frustration in Poland and in other Soviet satellites had been threatening to the Soviet Union’s aging, imperious and unimaginative leadership, and had been met with a violent response. One needs only to remember Budapest, 1956, and Prague, 1968, to know how disastrous it could be to challenge Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. But, in the late months of 1980 in Poland, the danger was more acute than ever before. The daily news featured two distinct, but absolutely related threads: what Solidarity said and did, and, ominously, what the Soviets were threatening. Polish citizens and visitors like me had to rely on sub-texts and rumors, street stories and underground news sources for most of the real information – about all sides. The heavily censored public press was thwarted in its efforts to describe Solidarity’s proposals and, more surprisingly, also in its presentation of the bellicose posturing of the Kremlin’s commissars and the paralyzed, scared-out-of-their-wits activity – or inactivity – of the Soviet-sponsored, Soviet-restricted Polish government. The looming question on everyone’s mind throughout the dizzying fall was not if, but when the Soviets would crack down and invade. It seemed as if the Kremlin was giving the Poles just enough rope to hang themselves. As the glorious autumn gave way to an early winter, speculation and fear about the imminent Soviet reaction rose to a fever pitch. More than half a million battle-ready Soviet soldiers paced impatiently on the Polish border, awaiting orders to invade, as I crossed the frontier from the USSR back into Poland on the frosty night of December 6, returning to Warsaw from a week’s study trip to Moscow and Leningrad. Forced to leave the train in the middle of the night, at Brest, the border station, I was stunned by the sight of troop transports and trains standing ready to take tanks and an overwhelming military force into Poland, an invasion force prepared to turn Poland into an armed camp, beaten into submission yet again. But that is not what happened. The troops stayed on the Russian side of the tracks, the “creeping revolution” continued and, a miserable nine years later, the Polish government was the first in Eastern Europe to hold free elections and shed its Soviet-style Socialist strait-jacket. Not that anyone noticed. When the Berlin Wall came down in November, 1989, twenty years ago, the world watched, transfixed as this enduring and imposing symbol of separation, desperation and despotism crumbled before our eyes, allowing the surge of stunned East Germans to rush through to freedom. Twenty years. It’s been twenty years since the Poles took up their pencils on June 4, 1989, and, ironically, on the very same day of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, in a much less dramatic and almost unreported scene, Polish voters quietly went to the polls to mark their ballots in the first free election in Soviet bloc history and elected its first non-communist government. The enduring impact of the Poles’ initiative is still evident every day throughout Eastern Europe, as the unimaginable occurred over the next few months and a peaceful, even “velvet” revolution changed history. The mighty Soviet Empire imploded. No tanks, no guns, and, most fearsome of all, no bombs. The Poles’ action – and the tacit sanction of the USSR and its remarkable leader, Mikhail Gorbachev -- emboldened East Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, and others throughout Eastern Europe, and even the citizens of the Soviet Union itself, especially in its western, Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and by the end of that year, a new era had dawned. June of 1989. Twenty years. Twenty years of a free market economy, democracy, a free press, re-integration into the European mainstream, recovery from the stifling dictates of Soviet-imposed Communism. Twenty years of shoes, great shoes, Jimmy Choo’s, Manolo Blahniks, no less. Twenty years of fresh, top-grade beef. Twenty years, an entirely new generation, of forth-right public debate. Twenty years of vacation trips to the French Riviera, Hawaii, and Carnivale in Rio. Twenty years of chaos, deliriously normal chaos. Twenty years of freedom. And French fashions.

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