Saturday, February 24, 1990. Temperature near 60, skies clear and bright, buds swelling on the trees and crocuses blossoming on the ground. Last October was a cold, ugly month, full of menace and growl. All of us shivered, physically and spiritually. But December and January moderated, and now February as well, and it looks as if the fledgling Solidarity-led government will survive the first winter of this Polish spring. An oft-voiced anxiety had been that a cold winter would increase demand for coal, which, like everything else in Poland, has quadrupled in price these past four or five months, and people would be unable to afford coal, and thus heat, and heat might have to be shut off as well in government-owned flats and businesses, and the new government might be brought down even before it took off. “Faced with repression,” a Czech once told me, “Hungarians eat, Czechs sleep, Poles rebel.” Poles are quick to blame whatever ails them on the government… even a Solidarity government.
But things look to be turning out all right, this spring of 1990. Trucks fill the Central Department Store and Magda Supersam parking lots, selling everything from ladies’ undergarments to, yes there it is, right on top of the uncovered and unrefrigerated wooden tables, cuts of prime pork and beef, producer-to-consumer, at prices below what’s being charged at the meat counter inside.
A warm and well fed people are a contented people, I’ve always said.
But today is not for shopping: today the English, German, French, and Russian faculties of Uniwersytet Łódzki are doing a fund-raiser.
For the government.
“Of course you know about the Prime Minister’s Fund,” someone says. When I say that of course I do not, I am informed: “People began sending him money almost as soon as he became our new prime minister. He is a man of integrity and intelligence, so they thought that he would know what best to do with it. Then he mentioned in one of his speeches that if every Pole contributed something like 200,000 złotych, the debt would be eliminated. Money really started flowing in. Musicians held benefit performances. Artists donated work to be sold at auction. All sorts of things like that. People brought their wedding rings and jewelry to the banks to contribute.”
“No, that’s a different fund,” somebody objects.
Whatever. The fact remains, there is a fund, or funds, to which the Polish people contribute their savings, their gold, their jewelry in the belief that they are helping Poland. It’s hard to know whether to laugh at this innocence or weep in sympathy with this faith.
“How can they be sure the gold and silver gets to a worthy cause?” I want to know.
“That’s the funny thing. There was a similar fund back in 1938, when it became obvious the Germans were up to something and we had better be prepared to fight. Many people contributed a great deal of wealth, most of which never got the chance to be used. It was hidden in Canada or some other safe place across the Atlantic during the war. Afterwards, it was returned to Poland. The silver is still here, but the gold has disappeared. The new government is investigating where the gold went. So there is more suspicion today than in 1938, but people bring in their valuables. And their money.”
“It’s mostly the old ones.”
“Yes, but they bring their rings. Every week or so you see a letter in the newspaper from somebody complaining that the bank is too slow in processing receipts: ‘If people are going to contribute their wealth to the nation, our banks could be quicker in recognizing their generosity, and provide something better than a slip of paper that reads only, “received from Pani Kowalska, one band of yellow metal.’ Of course the banks are suspicious that the yellow metal isn’t really gold, but…”
The receipts puzzle me, since donations are not a tax write-off in any American sense, there being no taxes to take write-offs from. Still, receipts are given for donations, and the Institute has prepared receipts for today’s donations in denominations of 5,000 złotych.
“Translation services in Łódź charge rather handsomely for their work,” Agnieszka Salska tells me. “You can see one of them just down the street from our Institute, on Kosciuszko. Some of our students work for them, as you probably know. We ourselves are frequently asked for help by people who need things translated: letters from abroad, old family documents in German or Russian, business letters. Even movie scripts and song lyrics. Today we are offering to translate anything in French, Russian, German, or English into Polish—or vice versa—with our fees going to the Mazowiecki Fund. If nobody comes, we will just have coffeecake and tea with each other.”
The coffeecake has been baked, as you would suspect, by Dr. Salska herself, Institute Director, mother, wife, scholar, role model, a woman with a hundred things to do other than baking coffeecake for this translation party. But well fed workers are contented workers…
There is also some fuzziness on just where money from the Mazowiecki Fund will go. Some say social welfare programs: children, the poor, the elderly, programs to help Poland’s new class of unemployed. Others think it’s mostly initiative programs, on the old Carnegie God-helps-those-who-help-themselves model. Others are frankly uncertain. But everyone is here, ready to do her or his part for the New Poland.
Mentally I flash back to December, that tentative December just past, lived in the dark fear of Soviet intervention, of collapsed reform, of reinstituted martial law, when the Institute staff had a proper Christmas celebration, in the office: no tree of course, and no exchange of presents, but some boughs of fir and some red ribbons and candles. A special Christmas host—blessed by the Polish Pope himself—was broken and shared among all present, according to the Polish custom of the season. Bottles of Bulgarian red were opened. Krzysztof Andrzejczak had brought carp in aspic, the Americans had bought Oreo cookies purchased at the Embassy commissary, and the British contingent had prepared a figgy pudding. There was poppy seed cake, of course, and very delicious coffee cake baked by the director herself.
An odd lot it was: Professor Witold Ostrowski, 78, not yet retired, who lectured from notes yellow with age and used a metal coat rack as a cane while ambulating around the Institute. Our secretary Iwona, 28, lovely, gracious, full of love looking for someplace to attach itself. Professor Janicka-Świderska, who, legend had it, used her sweater as a cover while wriggling into—or out of—her blouse while lecturing in front of a class of 60. Former members of the defunct Party raised a glass of Christmas cheer with colleagues who had just received personalized Christmas greetings from Solidarity headquarters in Gdańsk. British Council appointment Stephen Romer, the picture of a disheveled Poet in Exile, and American Fulbright Dave Pichaske the picture of a North Country lumberjack. Various other natives and foreigners, all with their own small schemes for holiday vacations and their own even more dubious visions of Life, dreams they were scarcely confident enough to utter, let alone realize. We were all living in “interesting times,” just on the edge of daring to hope. It was a modest but particularly cheery gathering, something out of Dickens, a small moment full of good will among people whose lives had been petty politics and small aspirations. It was, I imagined, the brightest, most hopeful Christmas these people had had in a decade, and the closest I have ever been to the true spirit of Christmas.
And now, here were these same people, doing a benefit for the new Polish government, the same kind of tentative good cheer.
During the high sixties, we had a joke: “Wouldn’t it be something if schools had all the money they needed, and the Air Force had to hold baked goods sales to raise money for another new bomber.” But today Poles are doing the equivalent of a baked goods sale for their new government.
How very remarkable!
Once in my life, and only once, I heard an American—Michael Boedigheimer, a Minnesota professor of accounting, no less—say aloud over lunch in the Southwest State student center, “The national debt in this country amounts to about $5,000 apiece. If I really thought everyone else would do the same, I’d kick in my five grand.”
“What a fine state this Minnesota is,” I thought to myself, and told him that never in a million years would he be called on his offer.
Yet here are private Polish citizens doing their part to reduce the national debt.
“A man of integrity and intelligence”—the phrase rings in my ears. Can I imagine a George Bush Fund? A Dan Quayle Fund? Even a Ted Kennedy or a Dan Rostenkowski Fund? How many Americans, old or young, would donate their wedding bands, or even their talents “for the good of the Republic”?
Yet here are the Poles this fine February day, doing just that.
What a fine city this Łódź is, and what a fine country is this Poland.