|Jul/Aug 2006 Nonfiction|
In June 2005, I've returned to Poland. On a warm evening in a Warsaw park, a man sitting in front of me sips beer under a huge market umbrella. He hasn't changed much since I last saw him almost thirty years ago, when he took pictures at my wedding.
The man, whom I'll call Mr. T, is talking and gesturing with his disfigured hand. He draws the stumps of his index finger and thumb through his reddish beard, scrutinizing me through the inch-thick lenses.
"Can you identify all these people for me?" he asks, tossing a bunch of pictures next to my beer mug.
Sure. Look at me, the young bride. And here stands Mom, not old at all, and so lovely. See my school friends—the girls dolled up, the guys handsome with their jackets and ties? The rest is easy. Everybody else in those photos is dead. From the prominent members of not-yet-existent "SOLIDARITY," to my gay friend, they all died while their pictures were held as "evidence" at the Headquarters of Warsaw's Secret Police.
During my student years I wasn't interested in politics. But my mother always liked to know what was going on in the world. Like so many others, Mom didn't believe the information provided by the government-controlled Polish press, so she listened to the BBC and The Voice of America. My father passed away in 1965 when I was twelve years old. My mother, like most Polish people, didn't trust the existing government, and she disliked the communist system forced upon Poland by the Soviet Union after the Second World War.
Studying in my room, I couldn't help overhearing some of the broadcasts of foreign radio stations. One day, I learned about The Gulag Archipelago by the Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Both my parents had been socialists. They were also Polish patriots. They hated the iron claw the Soviets had held Poland in since the end of the war. So like most Poles, I grew up hating the Russian State, which had the history of occupying Poland for centuries. Any book written by a Russian dissident would be welcome not only in my household but in many Polish homes. Needless to say, such publications as Solzhenitsyn's were unattainable and forbidden in communist Poland.
As the daughter of Oskar Lange, a world-famous economist and a vice-chairman of the State Council, even after my father's death I belonged to the privileged class, to the so called, "Banana Kids"—as children of the Communist Party high officials, we had access to exotic fruit not available to other citizens. Personally I didn't feel any different from others and disliked the dubious status. The only benefit I enjoyed was the government's yearly permission to visit my half-brother Christopher, my father's son from his fist marriage, an American citizen temporarily residing in Great Britain.
In 1973 Christopher, his English wife Kathleen, and their baby daughter had already moved to the United States, where my brother had accepted a professorship in Biophysics at the University Of Rochester, in upstate New York. Fortunately, by that time I had many friends in England willing to send me the official invitation necessary for me to obtain a passport.
When I arrived in London in June 1973, I immediately bought The Gulag. I read and reread it during my summer vacation and determined to smuggle it back to Poland.
I was staying with Kathleen's sister, Carol, and her husband, David. When I told them about my idea to smuggle The Gulag into Poland, they were shocked. David said to me, "I doubt you could succeed. From what you've told me, they always search your luggage at the border crossing!"
"I intend to hide the book in my rucksack filled with dirty clothes from the pony trekking camp. I'll be returning to Poland the next day. Trust me. It'll smell so bad that custom officers won't search it."
"Once I took a book binding class," David said. "I'll feel much better, if I change the cover on The Gulag for you." He walked up to a bookshelf in their small living room and extracted a dark blue paperback with gold letters.
"I think I can spare this one."
My Book of Mormon was born.
In the fall of 1973, a new student joined the Organic Chemistry Lab. Mr. T had been, as someone told me, one of those "perpetual" students every university had.
I soon discovered Mr. T was brilliant. He was also very strong-willed, pig-headed, and sure of himself. He had an opinion about everything. Unfortunately such attributes as an independent spirit and an inquisitive mind weren't helpful to a student in the rigid communist school system.
Mr. T would call my house asking for me. If my mother answered the phone, demanding who was speaking, Mr. T would say with indignation, "What do you mean who's speaking? It's me, Mr. T," implying how could she not recognize him!
Mr. T befriended me and often invited me for a quick walk in the park sandwiched between the chemistry campus and the Marie Curie Cancer Institute. While we talked, he photographed me. He was a dedicated photographer and even despite the modest means available in Poland in those days, Mr. T's snapshots of me were and still are the best pictures I have.
Camera in hand, Mr. T often told me of growing up in the northeastern part of Poland, full of clear lakes and dense forests that hid Prussian legends and mines from the war. Once he found an old, rusty missile with many corroded screws that begged to be opened.
The explosion had taken Mr. T's thumb and index finger, and his eyesight, but he lived. After many years and numerous surgeries, doctors restored part of his vision. He could distinguish shapes through the inch-thick lenses. Thankfully, they didn't destroy his curiosity, his inquisitive nature, or his passion for photography.
Mr. T was always busy discovering something, and making improvements to the existing things. He found a way to develop Kodak color films without the original formula, to print pictures and letters on tee shirts, and to copy large number of papers in a short time.
At the end of summer '73 I returned to Poland with my Book of Mormon. Despite my warning about the foul smell of the contents of my rucksack, the custom officer insisted that I open it. I did.
I had hidden the book in the abyss of my clothes stinking of horse sweat and manure. I'll never forget the expression on the face of the custom officer when, stepping back, he pushed away my luggage, waved his hand, and barked, "Take it! Take it and proceed further! Fast!"
During the first few weeks after my arrival home, most of Warsaw's intellectual elite had read The Gulag, known now as The Book of Mormon. I also wanted my own generation to get a chance to read the story that had shaken me to the core. Not everyone knew English, but there were a few who did. They could discuss the book with their friends and spread the information.
On one of our walks in the park with Mr. T, I told him about The Gulag, and asked if he would popularize The Book of Mormon in the dorms, where he lived.
A few weeks later, The Book of Mormon returned to me and began its journey around Warsaw provoking anti-government feelings among its readers. I had no idea at the time that it had changed Mr. T's life!
On this June evening in 2005, we're drinking beer in the park suspended on the edge of the Vistula river's high banks. Twilight envelops us along with the distant Combat Engineer Monument commemorating Warsaw's liberators. Colored lights like fireflies brighten the invading night. 1973 seems a distant past in my memory, but I notice from his expression that it's still very close and real for Mr. T.
"Did you know that the Secret Police searched my dorm room for The Gulag?" he says, looking at the distant river disappearing in the dusk.
"...find it? No. Fortunately, I already returned the book to you."
"So nothing happened!" I exclaim relieved.
"Not really. The Militiamen only arrested me and took me to Secret Police Headquarters. They interrogated me for several hours."
"That's awful! I'm so sorry. I never realized I put you in danger."
"It's OK," he assures me. "This first time was my baptism of fire. I got to know their various methods of persuasion. They didn't break me. They never found out the source of The Gulag or where to look for it. Meanwhile, I discovered who had betrayed me."
I don't ask the name of the traitor because I know he will never tell me. But I feel guilty for what I did. He must have guessed something because he says, "Hey, cheer up! Can I get you some ice cream? Chips? Anything?"
From the corner by the grill, a friend of mine from grade school waves to me and starts playing guitar. The sounds of flamenco drift in the evening air, surprising and foreign. Out of place.
"To my friend from America!" the player announces, looking toward me.
Mr. T orders another beer.
"The visit to Secret Police Headquarters made me see Poland from a different perspective," he tells me. "From then on I got involved in the opposition. It was just being born at the time. Later I joined KOR and SOLIDARITY."
I wish my friend would switch to some Polish song. I like flamenco but not here. Not now.
KOR or Committee For Workers Defense was founded in 1976 as the first-ever democratic opposition to Poland's communist regime. It came into being after the government's violent suppression of the strike by the tractor plant workers who protested against the rise in meat price. SOLIDARITY was the first independent trade union in the Soviet Block. Jacek Kuron was the creator of KOR and the godfather of SOLIDARITY, founded in 1980, after the strikes of the Gdansk shipyard workers. An electrician, Lech Walesa, led the strike. In 1981 Walesa was elected SOLIDARITY'S chairman. In 1983 he won a Nobel Prize, and in 1990 he was elected President of the Republic of Poland.
During that time Mr. T spent many years in an underground printing shop, turning out leaflets and communiqués, publishing the latest news of strikes, and gatherings, church meetings, of police brutality, or recent arrests. Always full of new ideas, Mr. T improved and made innovations to the printing process.
"I worked mainly underground," he says, munching on potato chips. "It was great fun! Sometimes my contact failed to come, and I had to do the hawking myself." He grins, exposing cigarette-tarnished teeth. "Often, instead of sleeping at Jaga's, I would end up at the Secret Police Headquarters. Then all the illegal press was lost..." His voice trails off and I know he's very far away, twenty-some years away.
"Poor Jaga," I say, remembering the former ambassador's widow who had died of cancer a few years ago. Mr. T stayed with her till the end, taking care of her better than her sons. He had been hiding in her house for many years. She treated him like one of her own and he never forgot it.
"Jaga was a cool lady!" He brightens up at the memory of a good friend. "You know that just before she died she toured South America? She knew she was dying, but she still went..."
"...because that's the way she was," I finish for him.
For a while, we sit in silence, remembering. Suddenly the sounds of flamenco fit our memories of Jaga. Evidently, they also match Mr. T's mood because he says, "This guy's playing is not too bad."
"Jaga worried if I didn't come home," he says. "She knew they must have caught me again." He scrutinizes me from behind his thick lenses but in the dim light I can't see his eyes.
"You know, the S-O-Bs always punched me on the head and in the face, to break my glasses," Mr. T whispers, subconsciously covering his eyes with his forearm.
Darkness descends under the umbrella on the high riverbank. Mr. T lights up a candle in the glass holder that stands on the table. Light zephyr from Vistula makes the flame bop, hop, and skip. From the barbecue mouthwatering smells reach us: roasting sausage, pork chops, tripe, and a traditional meat dish made with cabbage and wild mushroom.
Mr. T lifts his beer-mug to mine. The glass mugs click against each other with clear, ringing sound.
"To the world without S-O-Bs!" he laughs.
"To The Brave New World."