Short Memory

Barbara Sulek talks to Jacek Trznadel(1)

Barbara Sulek: How did it happen that Robert Glinski's much-advertised film, All That Is Most Important (based on Paulina Wat's Memoirs), depicts hardly any well known Polish communists?(2)

Jacek Trznadel: The biographies of Mr. and Mrs. Aleksander Wat(3) are not of prime importance, but they do illustrate a problem. In Kwartalnik Filmowy [Film Quarterly], Mr. Glinski wrote recently: "...we used to be in a which history always influenced our attitudes and interests. But now a generation has appeared which will be ahistorical. In the future, history will be of less and less importance to individuals."(4) What Mr. Glinski seems to promote is general amnesia: we were born yesterday and live in an earthly paradise. There has never been any history. Glinski proudly points out that there are young people in America who do not know who Stalin and Hitler were. If so, I daresay they are modern barbarians.

Glinski's movie deals with Lviv [Lwow, Lvov(5)] under Soviet occupation, and then it follows the Wat family as it was deported to Kazakhstan during the mass deportations in 1940. The movie starts with a scene in the editorial offices of Czerwony Sztandar,(6) a Soviet-sponsored newspaper which employed Mr. Wat. Someone is reading MolotovŐs speech given in September 1939, and Mr. Wat is presented as criticising its anti-Polish tone; then he leaves the room in anger. This is a falsification of history and apparently is meant to put a positive spin on Mr. Wat's doings - of which Wat, incidentally, spoke truthfully in My Century.(7) Had Mr. Wat dared to criticize Molotov thus, he would have been arrested. Besides, he was far from indignant at what was going on, and was one of the signatories of a letter to Stalin thanking him for the new partition of Poland.

Glinski's film presents Lviv under Soviet occupation as an idyllic city until "THEY" reached for the writers.(8) Yet long before that happened, Lviv was divided into two cities: the communist collaborators who descended upon Lviv fleeing the Germans, and the decimated Polish patriots. All this belongs to history and it did not have to be presented, but since Glinski decided to return to those times, he should not have falsified them.

In that movie, Poles are shown as miserable creatures, stealing food from Mrs. Wat, rejoicing upon receiving a Soviet passport. These episodes do not appear in Mrs. Wat's Memoirs, they were made up. Also, the reason that Mrs. Wat was disliked by Poles was falsified: she was disliked as a member of a communist's family. Instead, the movie alleges anti-Semitism. This is really an anti-Polish movie. In contrast, Mrs. Wat's Memoirs are not anti-Polish.

BS: Wasnt the fate of the Wat family exceptionally mild, by comparison to the situation in "Polish" Kazakhstan which was hushed up over the past half century?(9)

If history ceases to matter - there is no collaboration and betrayal, no responsibility, no moral accountability, and no crime. There is no punishment either. Thus we reach the perennial philosophy of violence: let the victim embrace his executioner , and the earthly paradise will begin "in two weeks."
JT: The Wats' deportation was part of the internal fight among the communists, whereas the majority of other deported Poles were punished for their loyalty to Poland. Let us consider for instance an unpublished manuscript-memoir written by the widow of one of the Katyn victims. She together with her children went through the hell of Kazakhstan and was obliged to accept a Soviet passport at the very time when the Katyn murders were discovered in 1943. The fate of such patriots, who constituted a crushing majority of the deportees, has not been shown; only the fate of communists.

One such Polish patriot was Kazimierz Wiecek who recently died at age 96. Wiecek was the last living representative of the Sikorski government. He was sent to Alma-Ata and is mentioned in the Wats' books in a mendacious way. He told me about these lies with tears in his eyes. His polemic with the Wats' Memoirs appeared in the London periodical Puls. I spoke about it in my book Ocalenie tragizmu [Saving the Tragedy]. Wat writes that Wiecek behaved in a "despicable" manner at some Soviet-run meeting, and he accuses Wiecek of financial improprieties. Similar accusations were levelled at the Sikorski government representatives by Soviet prosecutor Andrei Vishinsky. However, Aleksander Wat's original notes from that meeting have been preserved, and there he speaks of Wiecek's "courageous" stand! Incidentally, Wiecek received a letter of appreciation from the Polish Prime Minister Sikorski for his performance on Soviet territory.

BS: So why did you not take all this into account when you worked with Mrs. Wat on her Memoirs?

JT: At that time, I knew nothing. In the London edition of Mrs. Wat's Memoirs, Puls and I acted in good faith. But I did lodge a protest when the Czytelnik Publishing House was about to put out the second edition. Since Mrs. Wat refused to remove those lines in which she defamed Mr. Wiecek, I requested that my name not appear on the title page of the Czytelnik edition. I have heard that Czytelnik is being sued over that matter [of defaming Mr. Wiecek].

I acted so to do justice to the old man who loved Poland. Thanks to Wiecek, Wat got a job in the Sikorski government mission in Alma-Ata, where he recovered from his illness. Wat's so-called London passport, which he coveted so much and which he finally received (it enabled him to leave the USSR), was signed by Wiecek. Thus perhaps not only he but his entire family owes to Mr. Wiecek their survival. And yet they both malign this man. Let us not forget that the majority of the Sikorski government representatives were eventually killed by the Soviets, and that at the point when he agreed to accept his job Wiecek was already a "graduate" of the Lviv prison, of the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and of the Mariinsk gulag. Wiecek survived because he was evacuated to Iran.(10) He returned to Poland after World War II to discover that he had not been forgotten by the KGB: he was arrested and spent years in communist prisons in Soviet-occupied Poland.

I am not denying to either Boy-Zelenski or to Aleksander Wat a place in the literary Pantheon; I merely want to say, for the record, that at a certain point they collaborated with the occupying power.
BS: After World War II, Aleksander Wat also returned to Poland and collaborated with the government of [Soviet-run] People's Poland.

JT: At the time when Wiecek was in prison, Wat enjoyed Jakub Berman's protection(11) and was treated with great leniency, as a sort of showcase mini-dissident. He frequented Party gatherings and President Boleslaw Bierut's receptions, although he did not belong to the party. In 1948 he was editor-in-chief of the publishing house Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy. Did he publish only belles-lettres? Hardly. In 1948, this publisher put out a most terrible book about the second trial of WIN containing prosecutor Zarakowski's speeches, with an Introduction by Roman Werfel.(12)

In Wat's book, he admits that regaining independence by Poland in 1918 was for him a meaningless episode. What interests me here is the intellectual and ideological attitude illustrated by such admissions. This attitude (regarding the situation in Poland between the two world wars) is also displayed by Czeslaw Milosz, Wat's interlocutor.(13)

BS: How did Mrs. Wat view this communist episode in their lives? You talked to her about it, did you not.

JT: She was not too critical of her husband's pro-communist activities and her own former beliefs. This is why [in her book] Aleksander Wat's sparrings with the police [in Lviv] resemble a western: they are presented as both heroic and amusing. And yet, his activities there were simply a collaboration with a foreign power. This atmosphere of amused toleration in regard to the Lviv collaboration is promoted by other contemporary Polish intellectuals as well.

BS: It is very politically incorrect to invoke these matters today and, as was the case with Jozef Mackiewicz,(14) many people feel terribly offended by a mere mention of them.

JT: Yes. At the most recent meeting of the Institute for Literary Research in Warsaw, an allegation was made that Tadeusz Boy-Zelenski(15) and other intellectuals collaborated with the Soviets in Lviv. This was countered by an assertion that there was no collaboration. It was also said that Poles should, like the French, allow writers of very diverse political persuasion to reside in their literary Pantheon. I am not denying to either Boy-Zelenski or to Aleksander Wat a place in the literary Pantheon; I merely want to say, for the record, that at a certain point they collaborated with the occupying power.

BS: Your book, Hanba domowa [Domestic Disgrace] analyzed various aspects of collaboration and treachery. Was this book a result of your work on Mrs. Wat's Memoirs? Did these Memoirs raise the questions which you then pursued in your book?

JT: I began working on both books at the same time, shortly before martial law was declared in December 1981. I was then teaching at the Sorbonne, and I developed an interest in an area that has been neglected in our historiography. After World War II, many books appeared describing Polish attitudes toward the "external" enemy, i.e., the Nazis. But only emigre writers could speak about the Soviets as well. In a poem about martial law which I wrote, "Lekcja o literaturze polskiej" [A Lesson on Polish Literature], I spoke of a matter of paramount importance: "the self-enslavement of Poles." I was interested in the problem of betrayal and self-betrayal as presented in the Polish Romantic drama. The concept of "domestic disgrace" comes from the same period, it is a citation from C.K. Norwid.(16) The present refusal to acknowledge this concept is a refusal to accept a part of Polish history. Not only movie producers like Mr. Glinski but also professors of literature issue a call to amnesia today.

BS: Domestic Disgrace has recently appeared in a French translation (Les Editions du Cerf). Will the French be willing to seek in this book the truth about Polish intellectual and historical processes?

JT: France continues to cultivate the spirit of the European Left. It is true that the Left gave something to France, but it also deprived it of a great deal, especially recently. For years, Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski was unable to publish his A World Apart(17) in French translation. The same happened to Jozef Czapski's The Inhuman Land.(18) The politically correct periodicals in France are the leftist periodicals, such as Le Monde or La Liberation.

Of course I remember and appreciate President Mitterand's brief encounter with generosity, when he said in his New Year's speech on December 31, 1981: "We must abandon Yalta!" But such brief and emotional moments should not dissuade us from talking soberly about Polish problems and interests, including ideological interests. It therefore has to be remembered that in western countries one observes an enormous and disproportionate cult of Russia and of things Russian. This is true of France as well.

Incidentally, the French have not squared accounts with their past either. A recent book by Bernard Henri Levy, Adventures with Freedom, is somewhat parallel to my Domestic Disgrace. It deals with those Frenchmen who displayed sympathy either to national socialism or to Soviet totalitarianism.

But Poland exists abroad as well. The West is home to a Polish left-wing lobby, and that includes some individuals who left Poland in March 1968. Some of our emigres try to help overcome post-communism, others do not. Leszek Kolakowski fights, and not by pen alone, against the Krakow bimonthly Arka(19) which is among the most important intellectual periodicals in present day Poland. He goes so far as to advise western intellectuals not to cooperate with that periodical. I would venture to say that Arka's consistently anti-communist stance is the reason.

BS: When people such as Wat ceased to be communist, what did they become?

JT: I shall give you a generalized answer (Kolakowski was only a specific case). Some were totally converted, and some were not. Some of them wrote serious books and then made sad gestures denying the truthfulness of these books. Perhaps this has something to do with the psychology of old age when one ceases to fight and adopts a pseudo-solidaristic attitude. One of the myths which such people cherish is the story about the bad practice and beautiful ideology of communism. Communist ideology was never beautiful! Adam Michnik(20) wrote that communists were like Prometheus... But this is only a neo-Trotskyite myth!

BS: But if they really believed they were like Prometheus?

The West is home to a Polish left-wing lobby....some of our emigres try to help overcome post-communism, others do not.
JT: Madam, I have written this and I shall repeat it to you in a brutal fashion: the Nazis also believed that humanity was degenerate, they were the pure race and only the future world, totally Germanized of course, would be truly beautiful. There is no reason to treat communism less harshly than nazism, since it has claimed even more victims than Hitler. BS: Who are the former communists today? Are they the people without an identity?

JT: Their identity is circumscribed by a certain mythical universalism which treats with indifference such earthly basics as freedom of a specific nation, its sovereignty, the historical identity of a social group. Their ideals have been de-materialized, and so they love to invoke the ideals of democracy and other lofty slogans. But only as slogans and not as concrete values. They see themselves as "Europe" or "the world," without any specifics.

BS: The communist Mieczyslaw Moczar said once: my homeland is the international proletariat...

JT: ...all the way to the Iberian penninsula and beyond... But those people I spoke about abandoned such dreams, even as they continue to despise history and national identity. Thus we return to our starting point. If history ceases to matter - there is no collaboration and betrayal, no responsibility, no moral accountability, and no crime. There is no punishment either. Thus we reach the perennial philosophy of violence: let the victim embrace his executioner, and the earthly paradise will begin "in two weeks." This last phrase is from Adam Wazyk's ironic poem which seems so remote now but is in fact still relevant.(21) Not everyone has changed. Fortunately, not everyone suffers from amnesia either.


1 Barbara Sulek is on the Editorial Board of Tygodnik Solidarnosc, the official weekly of the Solidarity trade union. Jacek Trznadel is a Polish poet and scholar. This interview appeared in Tygodnik Solidarnosc, No. 32(255), 6 August 1993.

2 The movie deals with the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939 and its aftermath. After the invasion, Polish communists joined the Soviets while Polish patriots joined the underground. Mr. and Mrs. Wat joined the Soviets.

3 Aleksander Wat was a Polish communist writer. Paulina (Ola) Wat was his wife and a lesser figure on the literary scene. Trznadel helped her edit her recently published Memoirs.

4 What Mr. Glinski seems to advocate is a view similar to that of Francis Fukuyama. In The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Fukuyama suggests that with the advent of global democracy, history would cease to matter because humanity's problems would now be solved by internationally-minded democratic leadership, rather than being dealt with on a piecemeal basis according to some relative concepts of "justice" and "injustice."

5 Lviv (Ukrainian), Lwow (Polish), Lvov (Russian).

6 Czerwony Sztandar, a Polish language communist periodical established by the Soviets after the closing-down of independent Polish publications in Lviv.

7 Moj Wiek; Pamietnik mowiony (1981). 2 vols. The book consists of Wat's monologue recorded by Czeslaw Milosz in Berkeley, CA, during Wat's stay there. Aleksander Wat, My Century: the Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual. Tr. by Richard Lourie. Foreword by Czeslaw Milosz (Berkeley, CA: U. of California Press 1988).

8 A number of editors of Czerwony Sztandar were eventually arrested and deported.

9 A large portion of the 1.5 million Polish deportees were sent to Kazakhstan where conditions of living were infernal. Among the little known books that describe them, we recommend Jan S. Kowal's My First Survival, or My Life in Poland and in the USSR , reviewed in the SR, Vol. XIII/2(April 1993).

10 When the Germans attacked the Russians, the latter softened their attitude toward Poles and allowed inmates of the gulag to volunteer for the Polish Army which eventually was transferred from Russia to Iran and then fought on the western front.

11 Jakub Berman was a member of the Soviet-installed Politburo in Poland (1948-56). He was responsible for ideology, education and culture, as well as for matters of security and foreign affairs. He was a deputy Premier in 1954-56. Expelled from the Party in 1957 for "mistakes," he was never formally charged with any crimes and instead became editor of a major publishing house Ksiazka i Wiedza. According to Teresa Toranska's book "Them," Berman was responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Poles imprisoned, tortured and executed for belonging to the anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet underground in World War II. Berman died in 1984 in his bed, and is considered a prime example of Polish tolerance of the communist felons who ruled Poland in 1945-1989.

12 WIN, Wolnosc i Niezawislosc, an underground movement in Soviet-occupied Poland formed in 1945. It strove to regain Polish independence but was crushed by the communists in 1947. Roman Werfel was a communist party propagandist.

13 Wat dictated his Memoirs to Czeslaw Milosz. Milosz also wrote the Foreword to Wat's work. See Fn. 6.

14 A Polish emigre writer whose books made allegations about collaboration with the Soviets of various groups and individuals in Poland.

15 A popular Polish translator from the French and author of cabaret-style poetry and prose.

16 A Polish poet (1821-1883).

17 Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski, A World Apart, tr. Joseph Marek ( New York: Roy 1951). Jozef Czapski, The Inhuman Land, tr. Gerald Hopkins (London: Chatto & Windus 1951).

18 Starobielsk was one of the three Soviet concentration camps in which 14,000 Polish officers were interned (before being secretly executed). Czapski was one of the survivors.

19 Poland's foremost conservative periodical.

20 Founder and editor in chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a mass readership newspaper in Poland.

21 Polish communist poet who in 1955 wrote "Poemat dla doroslych" [Poem for Adults] hailed as initiating the period of "thaw" in party-sponsored literature.

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