Poland: Unkinder, Harsher

September 22, 1991|By KAY WITHERS

WARSAW — Warsaw. -- During my first winter in Poland I got on the wrong bus for the Parliament. A fellow passenger escorted me off the bus, through a park piled with snow-drifts, to the foot of a hill on which sat the Parliament building.

He gestured airily when I thanked him. "No problem," he said, smiling. "I was only going to work anyway."

This was no isolated incident. In those days Poles fell over themselves to be hospitable to a stranger.

This summer I parked my car, for want of another space, near the doorway of a public lavatory, swearing as I tried to avoid a jagged piece of iron in the gutter.

Alas, the public privies have been privatized. An elderly creature, who could have been cast as Madame DeFarge, erupted from the doorway. "You are parked too close to my doorway," she screamed. "You are ruining my business!" And as I tried to remove the lethal iron, she pulled back and delivered a backhand to the breastbone.

Such an exchange is not an everyday occurrence. But it is symptomatic of rising aggressiveness in changed times.

For, strange to say, Communist Poland was a pleasanter place to live -- except of course for opposition activists.

Seven years ago, shortly after martial law, commodities were scarce, bureaucracy was rife, and surveillance, though not ubiquitous, was invasive enough to be irritating.

Then came Gorbachev, rapprochement, the Round Table, free elections and the fall of Communism. With it went security, hospitality, heroism and, to some extent, honor, victims of the free market.

In 1984 there were unquestioned moral authorities. Lech Walesa and Solidarity were international symbols of Poles' indomitable fight for freedom. The Roman Catholic Church was a protective mother sheltering what Poles then believed was free speech.

In triumphantly post-Communist 1991, President Lech Walesa is in many circles a figure of fun, Solidarity has disintegrated into more than 60 political parties (or rather personal power bases), and the Church is increasingly criticized as political clericalism accomplishes what 40 years of Communism did not -- the alienation of the people.

There used to be human solidarity in Poland. The nation was in large part united in its dissatisfaction with the system. Even Communists were unhappy. "My biggest regret is that we party reformers did not have the courage, or the strength, to break away and form an alternative leftist party," said Poland's last Communist prime minister Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski.

"The system failed in productivity and it failed in pluralism," added Roman Malinowski, Peasant Party leader under the Communists.

But if living standards were low, so were prices. If service was appalling, at least no one was frantically rushed. Everyone had a job. Everyone had annual holidays at the seaside, in the mountains. Everyone could afford to entertain. Everyone had access to theater, cinema, the arts. Everyone bought books. Many homes had pianos, and children had music lessons. Nearly every extended family had a garden and wooden holiday hut out of town. People were secure and relatively relaxed.

Now there is a nouveau riche business class of ostentatious consumers -- big cars, boutique clothes, high life. But there is also a huge and growing class of impoverished workers, the intelligentsia, the unemployed.

Few Poles took summer vacations this year. The theaters and cinemas are all but empty. Hospitality, once an article of faith, is minimal: Poles hunker down in front of the TV on Saturday nights, their household budgets in tatters due to rising prices.

"People no longer have time for the theater, for music, for entertaining," said Elzbieta Kofman, a Warsaw office worker. "All they can think about is how to get more money, because life has become so expensive."

The clandestine economy which free market mastermind and Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs sees in Poland is not pervasive enough. And the masses are seething. Angry pensioners recently converged on the presidential palace and ex-hero Walesa, who tried to soothe them, was shouted down.

The political turnoff is massive.

"Poland is developing not like a Western democracy but like a Third World country," Mr. Malinowski said. "There is a nouveau riche elite, opulent, ostentatious. And there are poor masses. There is arrogance, incompetence and corruption. In no developed country can state officials maintain private interests. Here senators, parliamentarians, even the premier, are in private business."

In their despair, some Poles have turned to crime. In 1984 people ran after me to return dropped leather gloves, when you could not bribe your way to a pair in the shops. Strangers knocked to point out the keys left in the lock. Now people invest in stout locks and guard dogs and boards for windows. And police statistics soar just the same.

Some have turned to labor protests. There are almost as many strikes as in Solidarity's heyday, although they are less publicized.

Some aspire to the fast buck of the semi-legal street trade that gives Warsaw its resemblance to an Arab souk.

And some have just given in. "There is a sharp increase of people with symptoms of depression," said psychologist Maria Lehman-Zagorowska.

That old human solidarity is dead, replaced by the abrasive law of the capitalist jungle.

Poland 1991, despite the chic new shops with their shiny new goods and out of reach price tags, is not the friendly place it once was.

Kay Withers wrote from Warsaw for The Sun for seven years ending last month.

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