LIFE UNDER A MENACE
When I left my Belgijska Street home I lodged with my new friends from the forestry department in the huge student hostel located at Narutowicz Square. It was an eight storied structure housing a few thousand young men, an almost ideal place to become lost in a crowd and in an emergency it was possible to leave by a ground floor window. My arrangement with the hostel was semi-official: for a small price I managed to obtain the certificate of registration required by law and granting me free entrance to the hostel but it did not designate a specific room.
My studies on SGH proved to be much more interesting than I ever expected them to be. There was a fascinating group of first rate professors which in those days could only be found in a private and independent institution. One of them was a famous law professor, Pietka whose lectures on the spirit of law were even attended by medical students, yet in daily life he had trouble crossing the street. Among the others was the perpetually gloomy economic history professor Grodek, the rector of the school, at whose exams one had to talk on a given subject until he interrupted by pointing his finger at the next person. The elegant Prof. George Loth, one of the only two Poles invited to the Princess Elizabeth's engagement party, constantly smoked Cuban cigars manufactured in the plant he owned.* His pet peeve as a professor of economic geography was the annexation of Polish petroleum resources by the Soviets. Professor of political economy, Edward Lipinski, not yet replaced as president of the huge Bank of National Economy, for lack of time in his busy schedule often tested students in his chauffeured limousine on the way to the bank. He was always very polite and never failed to have the examined students driven back, but he expected male students to wear a jacket and tie in his presence. I must also mention professor Skrzywan with whose recently published "Ramowy Plan Kont" (Framework for Uniform Accounting) I soon became intimately involved. It was a select group of "Reactionaries" who were tolerated for a while because they were still needed. SGH was at that time the only higher learning institution to which Karl Marx and his dialectic materialism (or whatever that intellectual nonsense was called) had not yet received access. 114 I did not have the opportunity to graduate but what I learned there was very helpful in the future.
Notwithstanding the difficulties caused by the loss of a permanent place to stay - being homeless was getting to be a permanent state in my case - I did not stop working for living. However I terminated my employment in the Land Office and for gainful employment started utilizing my freshly acquired knowledge of accounting. In a country where the State exercised strict control over the economy, there was a great need for accountants. State run enterprises managed mostly by people whose only qualification was Party membership, as well as small businesses still in private hands, both needed accountants to keep them out of trouble with State controls. With very few exceptions I was employed as a kind of consultant rather than a permanent employee which suited me fine - the less places my name appeared on paperwork the safer it was for me, though to trace somebody in the Kafka-esque bureaucracy created by the regime in power was next to impossible. 115 Certainly Internal Security would not waste its time on such a hopeless task. To keep track of people they intimidated friends and neighbors to spy for them, using some very simple methods successfully employed in Soviet Russia. They would for instance call to the UB a suspect's friend, neighbor, co-worker, or family member, let him cool his heels for hours and then interrogate him about his activities present and past, asking the same questions in different ways, a standard police method designed to confuse. They would present him with certain recently observed facts and questions: he was seen talking to such and such a person - what had they discussed? or, he was seen buying something for his wife - where had he got the money for it?. This convinced the poor man he was under surveillance and that even the meaningless details of his behavior were known. Usually, to make a stronger impression, they would keep the fellow overnight in the cellar and the next day after another interrogation, they would tell him that though he deserved to be jailed 116 they would let him go free this time but only when he had signed a commitment to observe the real suspect and report periodically on his activities. This devilish method calculated not so much on extracting incriminating information as on terrorizing and corrupting society to the point that there would be no trust left even within families, only an all permeating fear. That kind of activity was more visible in smaller towns and villages than in large urban centers, but it existed everywhere however inconspicuously.
I worked briefly for a newly organized cooperative textile store and then for a small private company engaged in importing to Warsaw anything that could be pried loose from so called Regained Territories 117 and sold for a fast profit, while greasing the palms of greedy officials who authorized the looting. 118 I was their man on a railroad siding receiving the wagon loads of mostly asphalt and dispatching it to waiting processors. There was a service building containing a small office with a couch and a stable where the draught horses were kept. I had the use of the office and spent many a night there, though instead of using the shabby couch I would sleep on the straw under the horses where it was warm during wintry nights with no bed bugs to worry about.
I was not some kind of nihilist or a paranoid crank. Despite periods of political thaw with a pretense of an active opposition party in sejm** somehow I knew that my case was still open, that they would come to get me some night. I just did not want to make it easy for them. Perhaps it was an instinct for self-preservation, an intuition or ability to observe facts and draw conclusions. In the end I was right just as my evaluation of the economic situation in the Country was correct. Almost everyone I knew expected the economy, ravaged by the recent war, to gradually improve in time, but the opposite was true. This was due partly to bureaucratic bumbling, partly because the Marxist socio-economic reforms introduced to agriculture and food production never made any economic sense, 119 and were used mainly as a means of controlling the population. In towns this was done by having people so busy striving for the bare necessities of life which were always in short supply, that there was no time nor energy left for rebellious thoughts. In the countryside farm workers were given land, but they had no agricultural experience having never farmed on their own, and small family farms were made completely dependent for supplies on state run cooperatives. More successful farmers, the "Kulaks", the real producers were destroyed by excessive taxes. 120 Slowly but unmistakably the Government was pushing citizens towards total dependence on its services be it for employment, food supplies, subsidized housing, rent control, 121 fertilizer and farm machinery or health services. The trade unions became Government enforcers. After all the state belonged to "workers and peasants"; the few attempts to strike were met with machine guns and these were unreported in the censored media. All this grew insidiously, slowly enmeshing the unsuspecting or overburdened citizens.
Having no fixed address it was difficult to remain presentable, clean shaven and with laundered clothing, but it was a small price to pay for some peace of mind. I would not feel safe tied down to a specific address especially as people I knew were suddenly disappearing. A few were released from the UB Koszykowa street complex but refused to talk about it. Of the remainder, some were executed with a pistol shot in the back of the head in a bunker of Mokotowska St. jail while others eventually received long term sentences served in jails in Wronki or Rawicz.
The years were passing by. Of my half a dozen wartime friends Lech Ratajski married followed soon by Marian Wintoch. Zbyszek Kordyasz had been married a few years, Jurek Ratajski had a fiancee, and Zbyszek Wojcieszek dropped out of sight searching for his family during the dying weeks of the war. It was only I who seemed to drift without much purpose, studies rather sparsely attended, and hardly a prospect for the future. I took on various jobs. I was a driver for a social agency, then kept the books of a cooperative meat products plant. This last job pleased the girls, friends of mine, living in the female students' hostel on Gornoslaska Street to whom I would usually bring all the fine cold cuts I received as part of my salary. I also looked after the books of a student monthly magazine, and still remember its editor Lusia with whom I was hopelessly in love for a while.
Since my return from Czechoslovakia there were two worries often on my mind: What happened to Zdzisiek Strzalkowski and Grazyna. I had planned our escape from the train as well as possible under the circumstances and did not reproach myself about it. Nevertheless as the oldest in the group and at least morally in charge I felt in some sense responsible for what may have happened to them. It was not easy to tell the worried parents of Zdzisiek that the last time I had seen their son was moments before our jump into darkness from the moving train, and that he had not kept the agreed rendezvous. Luckily, after many months and by a very roundabout way I heard he had reached the American side and was doing well. But there was still no news about Grazyna; I did not know her real name, only that she was originally from Warsaw. And then, one sunny day, walking down Marszalkowska Street I nearly collided with her as she walked in the opposite direction. For a moment we both just stood there looking at each other without a word and then, joining our hands as if afraid of losing each other again, we walked down the crowded street.
Her name was Maria Zakrocka, she had a tiny room in the Zoological Museum on Wilcza Street where she worked. She had not been able to jump from the train because, by the time her companion had managed to open the door, the Czech gendarmes, alarmed by our escape, were upon them. On the Polish side of the border she was re-arrested and placed in the UB jail. During numerous interrogations she was repeatedly beaten resulting in permanent injury to her lower spine. In the end they released her during the amnesty coinciding with the arrival from London of S. Mikolajczyk.122 Her former comrades in arms from the war years helped her to find work and a place to live. We saw each other quite often; she was a friend, confidant, someone to talk to. After my brother was arrested she would become my only link with Mother.
In November and December I often worked as an escort for live fish transportation performed that time of year. The Territorial Fish Marketing Board sent specially equipped tanker trucks to the, now state owned, fish farms to bring all the commercial size carp to central pools in Warsaw. 123 The job of the escort was to help the driver and check the weight and quality of the fish while loading. Most of the escorts were students. The pay was poor, but an experienced escort could usually negotiate sufficient allowance for weight losses during transportation to be able to sell some fish on route before unloading at the destination. The whole trick was to rightly estimate how much one could sell on the black market while still delivering the declared weight and leaving some fish at the bottom of the tank for the unloading workers and the poorly paid office personnel. One special case was the Christmas Eve delivery when I had to "organize" over a hundred kilo of carp for all the office and warehouse workers, so that everyone had a traditional fish for the Christmas Eve family supper. Most of the people running that outfit were alumni or students of ichthyology *** on SGGW, some of them my friends. One of the engineers there owned a small restaurant managed by his wife. They had a problem with bookkeeping required by the Government. I was asked to help them with their problem. Soon I was keeping the books for a string of restaurants. The job did not pay much in cash but I had free meals at any time of the day or evening in different parts of the City. One thing lead to another, and soon, being already an expert in the restaurant trade, I was offered a consulting contract to organize the books for the Territorial Marketing Board's large, newly opened restaurant and fish store. That institution with a staff of over seventy, a few excellent chefs among them, promoted the consumption of fish. It was located in one of the best spots in the City, on the site of the once expensive cabaret "Paradis”. The service, excellent food, drinks and prices did not inspire any socialist feelings and were certainly not designed for the masses. It was aptly managed by the dispossessed owner of a string of large restaurants, but no one knew how to adapt capitalist reality to the socialist system of book-keeping that had to be done according to the freshly approved "Framework for Uniform Accounting" published by my professor. It was quite a challenge. In about three months I had organized it so that even the lunch of each employee was easily calculated and recorded. I trained two students for normal bookkeeping operations, taught management how to allocate specific expenses, and led the institution through the audit with flying colors, to the great relief of the manager. As requested by the auditors, I prepared an extensive memo to the territorial head office requesting clarifications to the financial policy of the restaurant and store. It was a rather slippery subject and the manager nervously cosigned it. In a nutshell the problem was that we were not permitted to show losses despite the fact that our main function was being an official propaganda outlet not just a capitalist luxury restaurant. On the other hand showing any profit was against the most holy principles of Karl Marx. Somehow I managed to word it in such a way that the Director of the Territorial Marketing Board, who incidentally was a graduate of the same school I was attending, was very happy with it - it saved him the trouble of writing it himself - had it retyped over his name and took it immediately to the regular mee-ting of the territorial KC (Central Committee) of the Communist Party where all the decisions were made. I was satisfied with the pay. Soon after I was asked to do similar organizing work for the new luxury restaurant belonging to the Association of War Disabled Ex-Service Men. With the "Fish" restaurant I kept a rather unofficial connection long after completing my assignment. Whenever I found myself in need of overnight shelter I would knock on the back door and the night watchman would let me in to sleep on the large desk in "my office". In the morning there would be a large plate of scrambled eggs and good coffee prepared for me by the first chef to arrive.
At that time I became involved in activities of Caritas Academica an organization performing charitable works among undergraduate students . My involvement started with doing their accounting for them and helping run the store stocked with gifts of medicaments, canned foods and clothing sent by Catholic Charities in the USA. While working there I met and joined a very interesting group of young people closely associated with the pastoral activity of Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, a Primate of Poland. 124 Besides the work of dispensing the American gifts to the needy students we had activities like a "Day of Silence" which was a spiritual exercise in self reflection, or a more socially minded overnight stay in the country for discussions with time to enjoy the nightingales singing. Occasionally in conjunction with some religious action, the Cardinal, dedicated to chaplaincy among undergraduate students in Warsaw, would come to St. Anne's church to celebrate mass and share breakfast with our group. From the first day of his new office, by celebrating his Ingress ceremony at St. Anne's church, he made clear the importance he attached to work among the young. To them his door was always open. He was himself a great scholar and university professor and wrote extensively on social problems and the value of human work.
The years were passing by. The small hope raised by deputy prime minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk and his minority Polish Peasants’ Party (PSL) disappeared when under threat of being arrested Mikolajczyk and some of his associates with the unofficial help of Great Britain escaped the country in October 1947, a mere nine months after supposedly free elections . For the first time since 1939 we had nobody to count on. So much for the country that Winston Churchill once called " An Inspiration to the Nations". The only good which was realized from Mikolajczyk's visit was the return of a few thousands of our deportees from prison camps in Siberia. Poland was run by known Soviet agents; the man in charge of the armed forces was a Soviet marshal Konstantin Konstantinovich Rokossowskij and there were masses of Soviet soldiers permanently stationed in Poland.
Occasionally I met some of the people with whom I had been jailed: Marysia, who was arrested with me, Hanka, Koszucki formerly from Kaluszyn now an owner of two small businesses producing carbonated soft drinks. For a while I worked for him, looking after the books of those plants.
With time my brother moved to Warsaw to finish his studies at Warsaw's Polytechnic. He started working as a custodian at the same Museum of Zoology where Grazyna was employed. She was of course instrumental in his employment there. He also inherited the little room she had been occupying while she moved in with a couple of her girl friends. I did not particularly consider it fair but Grazyna was like that. She always put others first and never complained.
My oldest friend Marian Wintoch finished
his studies in Krakow and moved to Warsaw. His brother in law had
just organized a cooperative producing drafting instruments 125
and found him a job there. Warsaw already contained a large colony of people
from my town including Staszek Wachalski and Jurek Jezewski both recently
returned home from Siberia, as well as a few others. I did not keep close
contact with them. For social life I would frequently visit one of the
two hostels for female undergraduate students where one could usually spend
a pleasant evening in the mixed company of friends.
114 Before the end of the decade the Government took over and converted SGH to the (Marxist) School of Political Sciences.
115 Franz Kafka, a turn of the century Czech novelist. Some of his works painted a nightmarish fantasy of government bureaucracy.
116 In totalitarian societies there are no defense attorneys with habeas corpus and bail money. The "presumption of innocence" and trial by a jury of ones peers are institutions held in deep contempt. Everyone is guilty if the state says so. A public trial is performed only when it may present some propaganda value.
117 Lands, formerly German, between the rivers Oder and Nysa and the old Polish border given to Poland in compensation for the territories annexed by Russia. The term "Regained" refers to the historical fact that those lands once belonged to Poland.
118 The slang name for that kind of operation was “Szaber"-"sz" reads like "sh" in English. When war ended the Russians removed all the industrial machinery and railway stock and took it home unprotected and rusting on the way. They also took all the livestock left behind by the Germans and herded it on foot losing most of it on the way. Szaber took care of the remainder.
119 And after nearly thirty years of Soviet experiment the leaders in the Kremlin were well aware of it .
120 During the drive to collectivization in Russia the Kulaks were considered the enemies of state and ruthlessly destroyed.
121 Private rental property was not expropriated, instead its owners were obliged to keep it in good repair, pay excessive taxes and charge very low controlled rents. There were standards established designating how much living space a person was entitled to, and many families would have a stranger assigned to live in their home with them.
122 Now mainly the figurehead Deputy Prime Minister in the so called Government of National Unity.
123 Fresh water fish farming was quite common in Poland. Most of the landed estates, now nationalized, had large areas of natural or artificial ponds under cultivation. Before the winter freeze all the fish had to be shipped out or transferred to the special deep ponds.
124 Archbishop Wyszynski was not yet appointed Cardinal. His appointment came in the early fifties together with Canada’s P.E. Leger. Wyszynski whose Primacy encompassed the thousandth anniversary of Christianity in Poland was for a long time held in house arrest by the Communist regime. He did not bend under pressure and lived to see his pupil Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. His Ingress or installation as Primate of the Catholic Church in Poland, following his predecessor August Cardinal Hlond, was a great national manifestation in Warsaw. Despite the Communists offering a variety of free entertainment to the youth, thousands of students with many university professors filled all the available space near St. Anne's church to welcome the new head of the Church in Poland. He was the right man for his time.
125 Cooperatives were
acceptable as socialist forms of enterprise.