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Saturday, December 12, 2009

First Day of the Apocalypse

Oh, I don't want to write this post. December 13, 1981. A Sunday, as it is today. Families living on Pulawska Street looked through the frost on their windows that morning to notice the marquee on the Moskwa Theatre, "Last Day of the Apocalypse." But for them it was the first day of the apocalypse. Tanks on the streets. Soldiers on patrol with bayonets, automatic rifles. Martial Law. Poland had declared war on itself. Barbara learned that morning to never leave home again without listening to the news first. She left her apartment early with plans to meet a friend near the city center. She walked only a few blocks to the main avenue in her district before she saw the first shocking signs of war. Armored personnel carriers. A trio of soldiers -- in Polish uniform -- goose-stepping their way past a kiosk selling bus tickets, cigarettes, and magazines. A mother and daughter sitting on the bench at the bus stop, crying softly. A man standing stock still, too stunned to move, to speak. On the bus, Barbara sat alone, near the back, afraid, confused, trying to puzzle out what was happening. A policeman got on after several stops and Barbara asked him, "what is going on?" "I was just going to ask you," he replied. They shook their heads. "I only just got back from holidays," the officer said. "I am going in to the headquarters for the first time in a week." Across town, another friend looked out his window and saw tanks on the corner. More soldiers. More assault rifles. More truncheons. It had been a tense time, difficult confrontations between Solidarity and the communist government led nowhere. There were always fears of a Soviet intervention. But this, Polish tanks on Polish streets, Poland at war against itself, nobody expected this. Friends of mine had happened to have been at the Moskwa Theatre the night of December 12. As they passed through Our Savior's Square later, they saw tanks blocking the side street, Mokotowska. Where the Solidarity headquarters were housed in an old school. But still, it didn't occur to them that this was war. Martial law is our term for it. Polish language lacks an equivalent and simply called the whole tragic mess, "a state of war." Polish troops patrolled the streets, thousands were arrested and interned, it became impossible for Poles to leave the country, telephone connections between Poland and the outside world were severed. Poles turned on their radios and televisions on that early morning, December 13, 1981, expecting to see traditional children's programs but were confronted instead with the somber visage of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, leader of the Polish Communist Party and of its government, announcing the formation of a Military Council of National Salvation. Schools were closed, businesses disrupted, travel within the country was restricted. I woke up that morning in Hyde Park, near the University of Chicago, with plans to meet Polish friends, Fulbright scholars, for a late lunch. WFMT, the classical music station, led with the story, spare on details. Public radio. TV news. Frantic phone calls. No more news. A few days later the newspaper featured a photograph taken in front of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where I had been to class. Tanks. Tanks in front of PAN, the equivalent of tanks blocking all access to Harvard. Professors were among those arrested. Still, no detailed news. What was happening? The state of war lasted more than a year, but the sense of betrayal and mistrust can still be felt. We are betrayed in life by all sorts of people, with varying consequences. Some of the infractions are small, easily repaired. Others more challenging. And then, there are the betrayals that shake the foundations on which we stand. Betrayals of trust that suck at the very center, the core of our being. My Polish friends felt that way about the state of war, about martial law. I felt that way years later about the behavior of a bishop and other church leaders I trusted. It is a life-changer. Not to equate one with the other, but the human impact of betrayal of trust cuts one to the quick. Cynicism, anger, the impossibility of trusting others, disruption of significant relationships of all kinds. Healing and recovering takes a long time. When I was able to get back into Poland in June, six months later, my best friend met me at the airport, "Welcome to our war." It's over. It is over. But the wounds are still with us.