R E C O L L E C T I O N S
A story from behind the Iron Curtain - Małgorzata Wootton
We didn’t know
Whilst many stories on this website provide an account of the tragic and often heroic fate of Polish people who were deported from the Kresy region by Stalin’s troops, my narrative is very different. I have told it from the perspective of a person from behind the Iron Curtain, who was prohibited from being taught at school about this dark period in Polish history.
I was born in the early 1970s in Lublin, the largest city in south-eastern Poland; a city which for a short time was the headquarters to the first socialist Provincial Government of the Polish Republic in December 1944.
In the early years of the socialist era the government introduced a number of socialist policies, one of which removed the crown from the eagle’s head in the Polish emblem. For many centuries the eagle with a crown on its head was the symbol of Poland’s sovereignty. The crown wasn’t re-instated until 1989. Therefore, throughout my childhood I only saw an eagle without a crown in all classrooms at my school.
Fig.1 Polish Emblem
In my year there was a boy whose father was held in prison for many years because of his political views and opposition to the socialist government. The father’s absence at parents’ evenings was not considered to be unusual, as everybody simply accepted this as part of our day-to-day lives, and no questions were asked.
Throughout the school year, the school held a plethora of assemblies in honour of different socialist celebrations, for example the October Revolution and May Day (1st May). Attendance was compulsory and absences were recorded.
My 75 year old mother still remembers, word for word, a few verses about 'uncle' Stalin that all school children in the 1950s had to memorise. My older sister, now in her 50s, can to this day recite poems about Lenin being our ‘captain’ and ‘leader’, which she had to learn in her primary school.
We did not celebrate Poland’s Independence Day on 11th November to commemorate the anniversary of Poland regaining of sovereignty in 1918, after 123 years of partition. It was replaced by the National Day of Poland's Revival, and celebrated on 22nd July - the anniversary of the communist PKWN Manifesto being issued.
As part of the new socialist culture within the Soviet bloc, Women's Day on 8th March was introduced, which each year was celebrated by all women in Poland. With time it became rooted in the Polish tradition. It was a highly celebrated occasion in schools and institutions. Official ceremonies took place across the country; men and boys paid their respects by giving flowers and gifts to their mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, female work colleagues, classmates and teachers. This was a relaxed day at school, with no tests or homework.
Most of the children in my class lived in flats belonging to the local cooperative housing estate (Fig.2 LSM Housing Estate in Lublin). Under Martial Law (1981 to 1983) our phones gave out a monotonous warning “censored conversation” (‘rozmowa kotrolowana’). Our clothes looked identical, with colour choices being grey, brown, navy blue and black. Food and basic goods were rationed (Fig.3 Typical ration book).
Regardless of age and occupation, we all had to do community service, tidying up our communal estates and places of relaxation, study and work (Fig.4 Photo of my father’s community service). Attendance at the 1st May Parade to celebrate Labour Day was obligatory and monitored through schools and work places.
Those who did not take part in any of these activities were considered by the socialist authorities to be suspicious and potentially enemies of the state.
As children in the 1970s and early 1980s, we did not question this daily situation, but learnt to navigate reality and tried to make sense out of it. This was not an easy process as our history books were full of omissions and inaccuracies, which were manipulated and censored by the socialist regime. As a result, we were fed half-truths and a distorted version of Polish history.
In particular, our history books remained silent on the part played by the Soviet Army during the joint invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939; not to mention the massacre of Polish officers in Katyń in 1940 and other events that took place during this difficult part in Polish history.
Unsurprisingly, deportations of thousands of Polish people from the eastern part of pre-war Poland (including Kresy) to Siberia did not feature in any of the textbooks in school.
According to the version of Polish history driven by the socialist propaganda, in 1945 ‘Poland returned to her historical Piast territories on the Odra [sic] and the Baltic, as a result of the defeat of Nazi Germany and on the strength of the Potsdam decisions.’ (Fig.5 Extract from ‘Chronological History of Poland’ published in 1977). This suggested that post-WWII Polish borders were historically ‘correct’, but disregarded the fact that thousands of deportees from Kresy were deprived of their homes they had been forced to leave behind by the Soviet Army between 1940 and 1941. The Poland these deportees knew had ceased to exist.
Fig.5 Extract from ‘Chronological History of Poland’ published in 1977
During the socialist era, Polish history books were peppered with inaccuracies, omissions and repeated references to friendship and mutual assistance between Poland and the Soviet Union. This is a typical example:
“1939 (1 September): Nazi’s Germany aggression against Poland started the Second World War. Poland was the first to offer military resistance to the Nazi invaders. Following the September defeat strong underground forces (the largest among the occupied countries) and regular armies abroad were formed. Poland was left longest under the devastating regime of Nazi occupation, suffered the greatest losses in human life (over 6 million) and the greatest material losses (38 per cent of pre-war assets or 16.6 billion dollars according to 1939 figures). Poland was the only country which never collaborated with the Nazis in any form, and no Polish unit fought alongside the German army. To the Nazi terror Poles replied with a mass resistance movement, one of the strongest in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of patriots took part in the resistance movement in various organizations. Poles fought in France, Norway, Africa and Italy and took part in the Battle of Britain and in countless naval engagements.
In 1943 the Polish People’s Army (formed in the USSR) set out on its victorious road to Berlin alongside the Soviet Army. The Polish Workers’ Party, formed in 1942, formulated its programme of struggle for national and social liberation, by uniting the nation’s progressive forces. Its military arm was the People’s Guard, recognized to become the People’s Army on 1 January 1944.
22 July 1944: On a stretch of territory liberated by the Polish and Soviet Armies, the Polish Committee of National Liberation was formed in Chełm as the first democratic government. It proclaimed a manifesto which constituted the basis for revolutionary economic and political changes (for example, nationalization of industry and agrarian reform). In December 1944 the Polish Committee of National Liberation formed the Provincial Government of the Polish Republic, with its headquarters in Lublin and later in liberated Warsaw.
1945: Poland returned to her historical Piast territories on the Odra and the Baltic, as a result of the defeat of Nazi Germany and on the strength of the Potsdam decisions. The Polish-Soviet treaty of friendship, mutual assistance and post-war cooperation was concluded on 21 April.”
Source Bajca, A. (1977) Poland: A Tourist Guide, Warsaw: Interpress Publishers. pp. 16-17.
Furthermore, this manipulated version of Polish history diminished and belittled the efforts of Polish soldiers fighting with the Western Allies. The main glory fell onto the Polish People’s Army which was formed in the USSR. This Army was branded as the true force behind the liberation of Poland, helping the Soviet Army ‘on its victorious road to Berlin’ (see Fig.5).
We were not told about the courageous people from Kresy who joined the Polish Army (not to be confused with the Polish People’s Army), under British command, to fight the Germans in pivotal battles of WWII: Tobruk, Monte Cassino, the Falaise Gap, and many others.
But we did find out!
However, gradually my generation filled the gaps in our knowledge through family and friends, supported vehemently by the Roman Catholic Church. The latter played a key role in the life of the whole nation, serving as ‘a highly effective vehicle of political opposition’ in Poland during the Cold War (Hann 2006, p.168). The Church’s central place was further re-enforced by the election of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II in 1978.
As a result, I experienced two simultaneous realities, interwoven with double meanings and hidden facts. The official version was promoted at school and in the media such as TV, radio and newspapers. We were constantly told about the supremacy of the socialist project and the collective effort. After so many years, I still smile at the obvious tactics employed by the socialist propaganda machine found in so many pieces of writing from this period.
An interesting and typical example is an article from 1973 entitled ‘Together Means More’ which was published in the newspaper Sztandar Ludu (People’s Banner) (Fig.6 Original article from Sztandar Ludu). This article praised 161 collective agricultural initiatives established in the Lublin area, emphasising their importance in increasing production and overall effectiveness in the region. In reality, the socialist government gave up most attempts to introduce mass collectivisation in agriculture in Poland in the late 1950s. Polish rural production was predominantly based on small scale subsistence farming and private ownership of the land.
The second reality I experienced as a child was the hidden, unofficial one. We ‘gossiped’ and whispered about it. We talked about it behind closed doors at home and in churches. My family discussed the political situation with me openly, but also made me aware that I needed to be careful when speaking to other people. Some of my friends’ parents worked for the ‘Milicja’ (Poland’s military police during the socialist period). I learnt to avoid certain subjects with my friends, but it did not stop us being good friends.
I wasn’t angry or shocked by being lied to by the socialist regime when I started to understand our multi-layered reality. I didn’t feel hatred towards the people in the USSR; on the contrary, I enjoyed meeting Russian people when my dad worked in Russia for a few years. They were friendly and honest. It was the system that was wrong, not the people.
However, we did realise that an official police record could potentially impact on future academic and career prospects. Therefore, I was careful, but not frightened. Many of us circulated copies of handwritten or typed manuscripts, both of uncensored Polish history and literature that was not allowed in socialist Poland.
I still have a photocopied booklet with poems by Czesław Miłosz which we secretly circulated among friends and family. The poem Który skrzywdziłeś ("You who wronged") appears on the first page. We treasured every word in this poem: it was a warning and a reminder – ‘You who wronged a simple man’, ‘Do not feel safe. The poet remembers’ (Fig.7 Photo of the original booklet and translation of the poem ‘You who wronged’ by Czesław Miłosz).
You who wronged
You who wronged a simple man
Bursting into laughter at the crime,
And kept a pack of fools around you
To mix good and evil, to blur the line,
Though everyone bowed down before you,
Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,
Striking gold medals in your honor,
Glad to have survived another day,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.
You can kill one, but another is born.
The words are written down, the deed, the date.
And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,
A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.
(Translation from https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/you-whose-name/#content)
I also have a copy of a book Zapiski Więzienne (Prison Notes) written between 1953 and 1956 by Stefan Wyszyński, Cardinal Primate of Poland. This is a potent account of his imprisonment by the socialist regime, with a clear message of oppression by the system, but also of hope for the future. The year of publication and the name of the publisher are missing in my copy of the book to protect the people behind its publication and circulation (Fig.8 Photo of my copy of Zapiski Więzienne).
Overall, the strongest network of support came through the Roman Catholic Church. From a very early age, I attended classes in religion, weekly masses, seminars, and film screenings organised by our local churches. Things that we could not say at school or work places, were spoken in churches. Often priests paid a price for this. Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko is the most famous martyr of the socialist era, brutally killed by collaborators of the regime in 1984. His murder shook the entire Polish community, and contributed to the speed of change in the 1980s.
Furthermore, the case of Polish identity is often referred to as the symbiosis of church and nation, which ‘reached a new intensity in the socialist period’ (Hann 2006, p.172).
I lived through this period, and still remember the election of the Polish Pope and his first visit to Poland in June 1979. From that moment, we knew that the end of the socialist era was close. We all followed each subsequent visit by the Pope; millions of people attended his masses, and listened to his every word with increased hope and trust in the future. My family still has recordings of all of his preachings in Poland.
A new phrase has been coined to describe people like me. I belong to the John Paul II Generation. The Polish Pope was the only pope I remember from my childhood and young adulthood.
My story started in the 1970s, at the time of socialism with its attributes such as restricted civil liberties, undemocratic governments and extensive censorship that infiltrated all layers of society. Eventually, I experienced the demise of the socialist regime.
How did it all end?
Many scholars agree that forces behind globalisation with its global electronic economy and global media led to the dramatic collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 (for example Giddens 2002).
For me personally, the socialist era ended in June 1989 when I watched the evening news on a state controlled television channel. A well-known Polish actress, Joanna Szczepkowska, who was interviewed during the programme, unexpectedly announced that communism had ended in Poland on 4th June 1989. (Clip from the interview can be viewed via this Youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkuYYu8PL_I) We all gasped, as we could not believe our ears. Towards the end of the 1980s we knew that changes were imminent. However, this was the first time it was officially broadcast on a state controlled TV channel, which used to be heavily censored by the socialist authorities. This was a very liberating experience; hence, 4th June 1989 will always mark the end of the socialist era for me.
My life did not change overnight. The change came gradually. I continued with my education and then work. I had to re-adjust my way of viewing the world, including politics, the economy, social issues and most importantly the parts of Poland’s history that had been removed by the socialist propaganda. I now appreciate what I have, that little bit more.
Bajca, A. (1977) Poland: A Tourist Guide, Warsaw: Interpress Publishers.
Balon, M (2016) 1050-Lecie Chrześcijaństwa w Polsce, Kraków: Rafael.
Hann, C. (2006) “Not the Horse We Wanted!” Postsocialism, Neoliberalism, and Eurasia, Münster: LIT.
Giddens, A. (2002) Runaway World. How Globalisation is Reshaping our Lives, London: Profile Book.
Lublin Housing Cooperative (Leaflet printed in the late 1970s) ‘The New Lublin: The LSM Housing Estates’, Lublin: Lubelskie Zakłady Graficzne im. PKWN.
Wyszyński, Stefan Kardynał (year of publication not known) Zapiski Więzienne, publisher not known.
The website team is immensely grateful to Małgorzata Wootton for writing this article as well as providing all the images. It really is an amazing insight into life behind the Iron Curtain.
Fig.3 Typical ration book
Fig.6 Original article from Sztandar Ludu dated 12th June 1973
Fig.4 Photo of my father’s community service
Fig.2 LSM Housing Estate in Lublin in the 1970s
Fig.8 Photo of my copy of Zapiski Więzienne (Prison Notes) by Stefan Wyszyński, Cardinal Primate of Poland.
Fig.7 Photo of the original booklet and translation of the poem ‘You who wronged’ by Czesław Miłosz
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