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Painting out the Past

Helen de Borchgrave

The opening of the first chapter of a transforming visit to Poland in March, 1984.

I was lucky at Heathrow. Piling my suitcase and bulging bags onto the scales, I looked anxiously at the counter-clerk as the indicator bounced into overweight. He smiled kindly.

‘Last week’s plane to Warsaw had difficulty taking off,’ he joked, as he replaced an errant orange, and handed back my holdall. Others were not as fortunate. In the departure lounge reserved for our flight, a bird-like woman with a strong Polish accent said tearfully, ‘They charged me thirty pounds for a sack of tinned food I am taking to my mother-in-law. She is dying.’

Other women also carried coats. Though March had come, several months would pass before memories of the numbing cold of this particular winter faded. It was 1984. Steely Party workers, with pale blue, lifeless eyes, were dressed in new clothes. Heavily made up, the women felt superior: they were going home to dominate. These dull reminders of communist officialdom stood out among the more human, ordinary people – relatives, friends and those with a sense of social responsibility, who were bringing crumbs of comfort and vital supplies in their overweight luggage.

Two things drew me to Poland – Lady Salisbury’s Medical Aid for Poland fund and a Christmas letter from Gdansk. My admiration for the former’s commitment to raising money and taking trucks to Poland was galvanised by the difficulties lightly described by Basia, a student of English who had been allowed out for the summer holidays to look after our two sons eight years earlier. She mentioned intense cold, curfews, shortages. Poland was a lifestyle away from the padded comfort of London. Anger spurred me into action. Travelling to Poland seemed the natural thing to do. Friends filled my suitcase; my husband let me go. Before I knew it, I was transported to a truly foreign land and vastly different cities: Gdansk, Krakow, Warsaw.

Andre Dzierzynski, a Polish artist and BBC World Service contributor, said to me before I left, ‘Going to Poland is a healing experience’. A man of devout faith, whose family lost everything after World War II, as well as twenty-eight of its members, he understood deeper realities and the necessity for mercy, justice and truth.

Beneath the prevailing dread, unanswered questions hovered like wraiths in the artificial air during that two-hour flight. What state was Poland in now, eight months after the repeal of Martial Law? Beside me sat a tall, handsome woman, a genetic specialist, who also drove a lorry regularly to her homeland with medical supplies for children. Mrs Ferguson was flying to Warsaw to inspect an orphanage. She carried serum, and a teddy bear. The diet in Poland was so poor that many children suffered from rickets and anaemia and there were no vitamins or minerals to supplement. I thought of the few oranges and lemons in my bag.

‘Every bit helps,’ she said. I could feel the pain behind her words. ‘I was one of the lucky ones that survived. Did you know eighteen percent of the population died in the war?’ I did not.

‘My father was one of the million or two Poles sent to Siberian labour camps in 1940. When Stalin joined the Allies after Hitler invaded Russia, he granted an amnesty. The deportees were released, and my father joined General Anders’ army and was one of the lucky ones at Tobruk and Monte Cassino.’

‘Why was an amnesty necessary?’

‘Stalin had to justify himself for non-existent crimes.’ She looked round cautiously, then leaning closer, whispered, ‘Don’t forget, Communism as practised is based on lies and deceit. It is utterly corrupt, utterly cruel.’ This intelligent, caring woman – in stark contrast to some of those around us – explained something of the mentality of this subjugated state. She spoke calmly and cautiously, for we were conscious of other ears. Later, I wished I had listened more carefully. In my privileged world, freedom was an inherent part of life; or so I thought then. I did not realise, sitting in that plane, how Poland would change me. I was nearly forty and nearly blind. In Poland, my eyes began to open.

As the plane descended, the grey concrete blocks of post-war Warsaw jutted out of the plain like rectangular rocks. The squat square airport building loomed nearer, taking on the character of a cage. The plane touched down on the tyre-scorched tarmac, and slowly taxied towards the airport terminal crowned with huge letters: WARSZAWA. Young soldiers, clad in pre-war khaki greatcoats and top boots, stood at the foot of the steps gripping rifles, as the passengers alighted, laden like tramps with their fat plastic bags. Some held bunches of flowers. Armed police escorted us from the plane. The first queue on Polish soil began, inevitably, with passport control. It took several minutes for papers to be scrutinised, a blacklist checked, the passport stamped and handed back. A uniformed woman noted down my hard currency, wedding ring and pearl earrings.

Sweating palms and tightening solar plexus revealed the rising tension as we waited for the luggage to go through, then the relief as my suitcase was marked with chalk, as they were in England before automation. Underneath the piles of tights and tea, soap, coffee, chocolate, paper and vitamins were books I had been given by Keston College to smuggle in to publishers in Krakow. It was pitifully little for a nation that lacked everything, yet each gift had been given to me in London; each was a sign that someone in the West cared. This, I was to discover, was what mattered most in this seemingly forgotten land.

I huddled inside my fur coat and took stock. Basia’s letter had arrived barely a month earlier. Reading between the lines, it struck me that this gentle girl, a gifted English teacher, had survived that winter when the temperature dropped to minus thirty degrees without boots. Boots, if they were obtainable, cost a month’s salary. Two university friends had accompanied Basia to England in 1976 – Ewa worked for friends of ours, and Ela pulled pints in a Norfolk pub. Good-natured, hardworking and uncomplaining, Basia had soon charmed us with her ready wit and lively descriptions of life back home. Life had deteriorated sharply since those days when you could at least buy chocolates. Her generation had seen the economy crumble, Solidarity rise, freedom tasted…then Martial Law imposed. Dreams were shattered as Solidarity leaders were interned, innocent people battered or killed, curfew imposed, and tenuous threads with the outside world cut.

A glass wall separated new arrivals from the captive crowd. A sea of faces bobbed about the other side. Then one I recognised swam into view – slim, dark, and pretty, she waved boisterously. I hitched the overcoats over my arm, lifted my bags and staggered through the narrow gate. As it clicked behind me, I entered Poland. Basia hugged me close – East and West embraced.

‘Quickly, Helen, we must take a taxi to the Central Station. There is only one Express train to Gdansk at this time. I have reserved us seats. Thank God you were not delayed.’ She picked up my suitcase and led me through the thicket of humanity, out of the building and into a taxi. As I peeled off layers of clothing, she giggled.

‘This coat is for Daniel. I hope it fits.’

Her eyes widened and tears began to fill them as she slowly took the coat, felt the cloth and began to stroke it, as if she was imagining her husband inside it, feeling warm. We reached the centre of the city, with few cars on its wide boulevards.

‘That monstrosity is the Palace of Culture.’ With pursed lips, Basia pointed to a distorted derivation of pre-war New York.

‘Stalin gave that to the Poles as a gift. We are lumbered with this landmark in the centre of our capital to remind us who is boss.’ Basia sighed. It was, I discovered later, an understated sigh. The station was nearby and, like everything else in post-war Warsaw, rebuilt. The platforms were underground. As we sat waiting on a hard wooden bench, I began to absorb the atmosphere. Saul Bellow’s Herzog was right: Poland can be drab and grey. This country, lying between Germany and Russia, had been a killing ground of two world wars, and now its people lived in poverty despite its rich agricultural land and material resources. The systematic exploitation by the Party continued unabated.

The first class compartment of the express train was spacious, clean and comfortable. Within half an hour it was no longer possible to see the wasting, crumbling buildings that littered the sky line; the pock-marked roads; the dirt and decay which spoke clearly of a people without incentive or hope. When darkness enveloped the sky, an old steam engine hissed and roared by, gushing white smoke upwards. Glimpses of a fiery furnace being stoked up evoked childhood memories. Poland lagged thirty years behind us. I took in Basia’s well-cut tweed suit. Survivors learned to look well turned out even when there was nothing to buy in the shops. During the four hour train journey I plied her with questions, and she answered patiently, with the shade of a smile hovering around the corners of her mouth. She had stayed with us in Chelsea; she was painfully aware how different the world she lived in was. To counteract the constant feeling of humiliation, Poles are extraordinarily generous and kind.

‘How much do you earn as an English teacher? How much was the train ticket? Can’t you buy shoes?’ Neutral questions; no political talk in this public place.

With quiet courtesy, Basia explained. The monthly salary of a teacher of English at the Medical Academy was about £60, the train ticket for two was £20. There were constant shortages, mainly due to incompetent distribution. If televisions, washing machines, soap, loo paper or anything else arrived in a shop, there was an instant queue. Demand was constant; supply intermittent. Goods with a built-in obsolescence in the West were investments, for inflation, officially at 30%, was nearer 90%.

The catalogue of statistics was depressing – how do you live, day after day, under this straitjacket of deprivation? I met many Poles during my stay, from various walks of life. In contrast to Party members, each one seemed filled with courage, patient endurance and inner strength.

In Gdansk, Basia took me to the hostel for scientists, university lecturers, engineers and other intelligentsia, where Ewa and her husband Andrew lived. They had procured me a guest room there for five nights. Wooden sledges made a mountain in the outer hall, prams and pushchairs in the inner. The hostel was eight years old. It had not worn well. Cracks seared crooked paths along the walls, paint peeled, wafer thin curtains clung  limply to plastic rails. Ten families shared a kitchen. Ewa and Andrew had to stow everything away neatly if they wanted space to move around in their tiny bedsit where, in Polish fashion, the bed converted to a sofa. The room was warm and snug. One cost  few Poles forego is heating. Sub zero temperatures may hover through the winter, sleet may follow snow, but inside, especially in State owned buildings, the temperature was high.

‘I teach English to medical students,’ explained Ewa as we sat round a little table eating cold meat and potato salad.

‘The text books I use are written and published in Poland, but sometimes they are not available when the academic year starts. The students have to share copies and cannot take them home. Like library books, they tend to get “lost”. I love teaching. Time spent with colleagues, though, can be tiring. I can’t discuss my feelings, as Party members infiltrate, usually among the administrators.’ Ewa apologised for not providing a more substantial meal.

‘It’s a pity. We Poles love our food.’

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