Gross: Good God! Don’t you make yourself sick?
Ballas: Do we make ourselves sick, Mr. P?
(Pillar shakes his head.)
Of course we don’t. When the good of Man is at stake nothing will make us sick.
—VáCLAV HAVEL, The Memorandum,
first performed in the United States in 1968
ON MARCH 8, several hundred University of Warsaw stu-dents, a demonstration so small it could have fit in one of the lecture halls, marched to the rector’s office, demanded to see him, and shouted, “No studies without freedom!” Then they marched through the gated campus. This would have seemed a minor incident on an American campus in 1968, where thousands were marching, seizing buildings, forcing schools to close, but nothing like this had happened in Poland before. Workers’ militia, trained to fend off any attempt at “counterrevolution,” about five hundred of them, arrived by truck in civilian clothes but wearing the red and white of the Polish flag on armbands. They said they wanted to talk to the students, but after a short time talking they took out clubs and in the presence of two hundred police officers chased the students through the campus, beating them while the police arrested those who attempted to flee.
The students were shocked by the brutality and by the unprovoked invasion of the campus in violation of all tradition. After years in which periodic dissident acts led by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski had been able to attract only a handful of other dissidents, the government’s ruthlessness had created a real movement. The following day twenty thousand students marched through the center of Warsaw. Once again they were clubbed by plainclothesmen. Among those arrested were Kuroń, Modzelewski, and their young protégé, Adam Michnik.
Young Polish communists, the children of the country’s elite, made up this new and unprecedented movement. Three of them were children of government ministers. Many had parents who were important Party members. Up until then, an idealistic young Pole, not entirely in agreement with his or her parents, still joined the Communist Party in order to change it, to force it to evolve. Now they were seeing that it was a brutal system prepared to use violence to oppose any change.
The pre–World War II generation of Polish communists had a cynicism that the postwar generation, raised in safety and security, did not learn until 1968. Konstanty Gebert, who was only fifteen years old, joined the protest movement in 1968. His father, who had been a communist organizer in the United States before the war and had returned to Poland after the war to build the new communist state and was serving as a diplomat, was a tough, old-time communist who knew about demonstrations and being arrested. Young Konstanty imagined that his father would be proud of his son, out demonstrating in the streets like a good communist. But that wasn’t how his father saw it.
“My father disapproved that I was a hysterical kid engaging in politics, which was terribly disappointing for me. . . . I was brought up in a communist mentality. So here comes a demonstration that shouts socialism, freedom, independence. I thought it was great. I joined it. We fight the police, whatever. I come back home three hours late. ‘Dad, we fought the police! For independence!’ I was expecting he’d crack open a bottle of vodka and we’d have a great time. They locked me up at home for three days. Exactly what I would do if it happened to my kid. Fifteen years is not the right age for fighting on the streets. But what heartbreak. I thought I’d become one of the boys. Just like Dad.”
Young Poles very quickly did learn that it was dangerous and violent to protest in the streets. But far from intimidating them, this brought them out. The next day, students met to protest the arrests and the invasion of their campus and the closing of Dziady.Students from the Polytechnical School went out into the streets, cheering Czechoslovakia, denouncing Minister of Interior Moczar and his “Gestapo,” and throwing rocks at the police, who responded with tear gas. Traffic police cordoned off the area and plainclothesmen were brought in by truck. They leaped out of the vehicles and once again began clubbing. Other students, demonstrating in a small group by the University of Warsaw campus in front of a church where the heart of composer Frédéric Chopin is buried, were also beaten by plainclothesmen.
On March 11, thousands of students marched into the center of Warsaw to the gray, totalitarian, art deco facade of the Polish Communist Party headquarters. There, with Party officials looking down from a sixth-floor terrace, the police again emerged, pounding young skulls with thick clubs, knocking young people to the ground, beating them bloody, and dragging them away. Some fought back, throwing debris at police. The battle lasted two hours. The few thousand demonstrators were a small number compared to those who had gathered in Berlin, Rome, and other Western cities to protest the Vietnam War, but for a Soviet bloc country it was a startling occurrence, reported as a front-page story around the world.
Outside the university campus, trucks full of plainclothesmen who arrived were greeted by demonstrators shouting, “Gestapo!” In 1968 there was hardly a demonstration from Warsaw to Berlin to Paris to Chicago to Mexico City that did not compare police to the Nazi storm troopers. In Warsaw, these plainclothes shock troops who arrived by truck, the ones the students called Gestapo, were often workers’ militia, who were told that the student protesters were privileged kids who lived in the best apartments and took trips to Paris, all of which was by and large true. Although there were plentiful reports of workers refusing to get in trucks and declining participation in counterdemonstrations, pitting the workers against the students was a successful government strategy. On March 11, before the day had ended, students and militia had battled for almost eight hours on the streets of Warsaw. The government closed factories early for workers to stage counterdemonstrations denouncing the students as “Fifth Columnists.”
That same day, March 11, students simultaneously demonstrated in Gdansk, Cracow, Poznan, Wroclaw, and Lodz, all attacked by police with clubs and sometimes with water cannons and tear gas. Students borrowed some of the techniques they had read about from the American civil rights movement. They staged boycotts and sit-ins. At first many students did not understand that they had to actually sit down in a sit-in.
The government reasoned that Warsaw and bourgeois Cracow had demonstrations because of their large elite student populations. But the strong working-class communist roots of the populations in Lodz and Gdansk made it more difficult to explain demonstrations in those cities. In Gdansk the student demonstrators asked the workers to join them. It was well known that in the United States, antiwar demonstrators were calling out to people to “join us!” The students in Gdansk had no more luck with the workers than did the students in Washington with the National Guard. In Poznan students shouted, “Long live the workers of Poznan,” but the workers did not join the movement there, either.
Jacek Kuroń recalled, “Before the play, we students wanted to approach the workers. But in very shy and timid ways. No one expected such an outburst. And when it came, the government explained that the students were spoiled privileged Jews, children of the elite.”
“In 1968, students had a motto, ‘There is no bread without freedom,’ ” recalled Eugeniusz Smolar, a student activist son of an influential Party member. “Workers thought this a ridiculous slogan—there is no freedom without bread. Bread always comes first. Most of us had never gone without bread. We didn’t understand each other.” For years to come the government was able to contain protest because either the workers did not support the students and intelligentsia or the students would not support the workers.
Demonstrators carried signs and shouted slogans denouncing the Polish state-controlled press, which wrote of the student movement as hooliganism but refused to actually cover the demonstrations or write about the issues. “Lying press” became one of the leading student grievances. A February writers conference that first attempted peacefully to raise the issue of censorship and the closing of Dziady was first mentioned in Trybuna Ludu a month later, at the end of March, after weeks of open protests, sit-ins, and street battles. But the violence was being widely reported around the world. In Vienna, Jan Nowak had only to sift through the daily accounts of Le Monde and The New York Times and other papers in order to broadcast the events in Polish throughout Poland.
In Lodz, Joanna Szczesna was a seventeen-year-old freshman in the university. From a lower-class background, she was a bookworm who had learned of the evils of capitalism from nineteenth-century French novels. She was grateful to be living in a socialist country. “I didn’t think that I wasn’t free. I could say whatever I wanted at the university. In March, a student at the University of Warsaw who was from Lodz came home and said that Warsaw students had demonstrated against censorship, against the closing of a play, and that the police had beaten them up.
“Maybe I lived in the world of my books, but I was shocked,” said Szczesna. “I didn’t read the newspaper except the movie section, but now I looked and it was so different. The newspaper talked of hooligans, adventurers, children of the rich, Zionists. This was unacceptable. It was clear that I should participate. There was something in the air—a kind of excitement.”
She signed a petition and joined a march protesting the arrests of students and demanding the press write the truth. Her mother, Jadwiga, a clerk who had always dreamed of being a social worker, feared that there might be violence and insisted on coming along to protect her. For their defense she carried an umbrella. About one thousand people had joined the march when they were suddenly confronted with workers, some of whom knew Jadwiga.
“What are you doing here!” one of the workers demanded of her.
Jadwiga, umbrella at the ready, answered, “What are you doing here!”
A three-day sit-in was declared. The government cut the campus phone lines so that one part of the university did not know what another part was doing. There was a rumor in Joanna’s part that the rest of the university had given up. But her mother, Jadwiga, arriving with sandwiches for her daughter, had just come from another part of the university, where she had brought sandwiches to her daughter’s boyfriend, and she told her daughter’s group that the other areas were still striking. After twenty-four hours, when students started talking of abandoning the sit-in, it was Joanna Szczesna who made the first speech of her life, insisting that they carry through on what they said they would do and proposing following the sit-in with a hunger strike.
“I was an adult, but I was also a child,” Joanna said. “I wanted to make our parents join us. I knew that if I went on a hunger strike, my mother would attack the Communist Party headquarters.” Someone in the underground heard the speech and asked her to join, and that was how Joanna Szczesna, age seventeen, became a political dissident who would later work with Kuroń, Modzelewski, and Michnik.
The Party said the demonstrators were being manipulated by old Sta-linists. The government would not admit that the demonstrations were spontaneous. According to the Trybuna Ludu, “The events of March 8 did not emerge deus ex machina. They were preceded by long preparation, many campaigns of smaller size and range but in all preparing both leaders and participants for drastic measures.” The leaders they named were Modzelewski and Michnik. But while they and other leaders were in prison, demonstrations around Poland had become a daily occurrence. In fact, they were not being coordinated by anyone. “When I heard I was completely surprised,” said Jacek Kuroń, who was also in prison at the time. “We had had a little contact with Wroclaw, but this was all the universities.” A series of leaders had been elected for the March 8 demonstration, but they had all been arrested. Most subsequent attempts to pick leaders also resulted in their arrests.
Two weeks of demonstrations around Poland followed. Many demonstrators carried signs saying, “Warsaw Students Are Not Alone,” and burned copies of the official newspapers that were not reporting on the movement.
The government may have been caught off guard, but no one was more astonished than the students themselves. Eugeniusz Smolar said that after years of small discussion groups, “it was a surprise to find out these issues were popular. It was a big surprise that so many at Warsaw University rose up, and a bigger surprise that every major university in the country responded.”
It seemed that without discussion many young Poles were questioning their society. Smolar said, “There was something in the air that communism just wasn’t offering the freedom they wanted.” The communist regime had inadvertently revealed itself to its communist youth. Smolar’s wife, Nina, a graduate student at the time, said, “Anti-Semitism was a complete surprise and the violence was another surprise.”
Faced with spreading nationwide protest, the 1967 anti-Zionist campaign raged on in 1968. To many Polish communists, especially Jews such as the Smolars, this seemed to completely contradict their idea of what the Communist Party was. All the communist states had banned the expression of anti-Semitism. Adam Michnik said, “When I saw anti-Semitic articles I had never seen such a thing. It was fascism. It wasn’t allowed. Until then anti-Semitism was an abstract term. I thought in Poland after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was impossible.” Kuroń said, “Before the war I had seen anti-Semitic communists, but never before as state policy.” But to a government desperate to explain the nationwide protest movement, a theory of Zionist conspiracy suited its needs perfectly.
On Michnik’s arrest on March 9, interrogators demanded, “Mr. Michnik, after you are released, will you immigrate to Israel?”
“Only if you immigrate to Russia,” was his defiant response. But he was pressured, told he would be released if he agreed to go to Israel. Poland wanted finally to be rid of its Jews. Gomułka announced that, as had been done the previous year during the Six Day War, emigration passports were being made available for any Jews wishing to go to Israel.
On March 15, an article appeared in the Trybuna Ludu explaining what Zionism was.
It is a fact commonly known that money collection among the Americans of Jewish descent brought hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel. These funds enable Israel to develop its economic potential and its army, to wage aggressive wars against the Arab states [the latest was the third war with the Arabs] and also serve to cover expenses connected with the occupation of the Arab lands. . . . The Zionist leaders are calling for aid to finance the Israeli expansionist policy supported by the imperialist powers, specifically the USA and West Germany. With the help of Israel, Imperialism desires to abolish progressive Arab governments, strengthen its control over Arab petroleum and transform the Middle East into a springboard against the Soviet Union and other socialist states. In justification of the aggressive policy of Israeli ruling circles and pandering to Imperialism, the Zionist propaganda attempts to make world public opinion believe that Israel struggles for its existence and that it is threatened by the Arabs who wish to “drive Israel to the sea”. . . .
But increasingly the word Zionist was becoming code for “student organizer.” The problem, the government insisted, was caused by a Zionist plot, a Stalinist conspiracy. It was overindulgent parents and Stalinist professors, all of whom happened to be Jewish, who had coddled a few devious people such as Kuroń, Modzelewski, and Michnik. On March 26 the Trybuna Ludu attacked professors, singling out the colleges of philosophy, economics, and law—the ideological departments. “These scholars systematically defended revisionist factions, while using their authority and privileged scientific and university position, whenever these factions came into conflict with the state law or university regulation.” Misguided by having received a Stalinist education, these professors coddled dangerous and persistent subversives:
Threatened by sanctions, each time they turned to their science professors for protection. During various sessions and meetings they defended the students with the excuse that “young people must have their fling” and in fact though they spoke ambiguously, the professors were encouraging the students’ political activity. Some professors even defended them in court. W. Brus, appearing as a witness for the defense in the trial against K. Modzelewski, characterized him as . . . “an honest, idealistic man committed to the cause of building socialism and awakening the political interests of the young.” It is difficult to imagine a more clear-cut encouragement to the remaining members of the group.
W. Brus, Wlodzimierz Brus, was one of many university professors of Jewish background who was removed from his position early in March. Now the government began removing more professors and instructors from the faculty, most of them of Jewish origin. Beginning March 12, the government began singling out Jewish students as leaders of the movement. Three highly placed government officials of Jewish backgrounds were removed from their positions and informed that their children were student leaders. Purges, mostly of Jews, followed. Poets, philosophers, and professors of Jewish origin throughout the Polish university system were accused of complicity in the conspiracy, and many were fired. On March 18, Roman Zambrowski, a former member of the Politburo, was found to be one of the plotters of the student movement and was removed from the Party. Zambrowski had no particular tie to the student movement, but he was a Jew and a political adversary of Moczar. His son, Antoni, a student accused of being a leader, had no connection to the movement. It became clear to the students as more and more Jews lost their jobs and more and more students were beaten and arrested that the government had chosen its line on the uprising and the students’ grievances were not going to be addressed.
The other factor that spurred on the spontaneous student uprisings was the events in Czechoslovakia. Polish students carried signs saying, “Polska Czeka na Dub^zeka!”—“Poland Awaits Its Dubek!” Some historians say Dubek was doomed the minute those signs went up in Warsaw. Moscow’s nightmare from the moment Dubek had come to power in January was that Czechoslovakian reform would spark a movement that would sweep across central Europe.
Poles cherish a heroic image of themselves, unshared by and little known in the outside world. One of their self-glorifying images is that of the defiant Pole. According to the Polish version of history, the Czechs allowed German occupation and the Poles resisted. The Czechs accepted communism in 1948 and the Poles resisted. The Poles rebelled in 1956 and supported the uprising in Budapest, while the Czechs said nothing and remained loyal to Moscow. Poles recall the fact that they sent a food shipment to support the Hungarian rebels, but the trucks had to pass through Czechoslovakia, where they were stopped. In the complicated pecking order of central Europe’s national images, Poles say that in 1956 “the Hungarians acted like Poles, the Poles like Czechs, and the Czechs acted like pigs.”
Now the Czechs, whom the Poles had sneered at under Novotny´’s Stalinist anachronism, were becoming the vanguard communist nation, the one to be followed. “It was surprising to see the Czechs ahead of us. They were supposed to be the opportunists and cowards,” said Eugeniusz Smolar.
Neither the government nor the students could fully understand this unorganized movement. The activists, cut off from their leaders, didn’t know what to do with it. “We were just not prepared for either the brutal response of the government or the popular response of the people,” said Eugeniusz Smolar. “We just were not prepared.”
On March 22, with the Western press full of stories of student sit-ins in Cracow, Warsaw, and other Polish cities, and with the Polish press writing only of Zionists, hooligans, Stalinists, and troublemakers, the Soviet public read of Polish unrest for the first time. That same day Tass, the Soviet news agency, reported on the removal of Novotny´ from his second post as president of Czechoslovakia while Pravda, the Soviet Communist Party newspaper, and Izvestia, the government newspaper, reported at length on the “anti-Soviet agitators” in Poland.
Also on March 22, the Yippies—Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Paul Krassner—attended a meeting in Lake Villa, Illinois—a gathering of what had come to be known as the New Left, the youth movements of 1968. The meeting was called by the Mobe, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam. Tom Hayden and Rennie Davis of the SDS were also there. The topic was how to protest during the Democratic Party convention that would take place in Chicago the following August. Blocking the city traffic with a funeral march as Johnson was nominated was one suggestion. An attack on the convention was another. Abbie Hoffman—rebel, clown, and media genius—was, as always, outrageous. He sat through the meeting smoking marijuana and throwing out ideas. One was calling for an end to paid toilets. Another was a gesture on the part of the Mobe in support of Polish student protesters. Neither suggestion was adopted.
On March 24, while sit-ins were spreading to every university in Poland and more and more “Zionist conspirators” were being removed from office, a letter was released from the bishops of the Polish Catholic Church saying that the student movement was “striving for truth and freedom, which is the natural right of each human being. . . .” The bishops went on to say that the “brutal use of force disgraces human dignity.” This letter was the beginning of a new alliance in Poland. Never before had the Catholic Church and the leftist intelligentsia fought on the same side. According to Michnik, this letter caused a radical change in thinking. “Traditionally the Left in Poland is anticleric,” said Michnik. “I was too until 1968. When the Church issued a letter supporting the students, for the first time I thought maybe the Church is not an enemy. Maybe it could be a partner in dialogue.”
On March 28 three thousand students in Warsaw demonstrated, demanding an end to censorship, free trade unions, and a youth movement independent of the Communist Party. It was to be the last demonstration. Eight university departments were closed and one thousand of the University of Warsaw’s seven thousand students were left without a curriculum and told they would have to reapply for entry. Another thirty-four were expelled. “All of us have had enough of mass meetings. There will be and can be no tolerance of trouble-mongers and people of ill will,” the Trybuna Ludu announced.
With almost a thousand students in prison, the student movement was shut down. The government continued to find Zionist ringleaders to be removed from their posts.
The universities were irreparably damaged as many of the best faculty members fled to escape anti-Semitism and were replaced by party hacks. A Pole had only to express desire to move to Israel and show proof of Jewish origin to leave. One man was stopped because he could not show that he was Jewish. His only proof was a paper from the government denouncing him as a Zionist. All but about one thousand Jews left the country, essentially ending Judaism in Poland.
But Eugeniusz and Nina Smolar stayed. “March 1968 was the last time anyone believed the system could evolve,” said Eugeniusz. “People used to join the Communist Party to change it. To do anything, to be a player, you had to be in the Party. After March 1968 people who joined were much more cynical, using the Party as a vehicle for personal advancement.”
Michnik was another Jew who stayed. But he stayed in prison. He was later asked if when sitting in prison, with the university destroyed and its intellectual life silenced, he had thought he’d made a huge mistake. Without hesitation, this small, energetic man jutted out his jaw and said, “I never thought that. Part of my education was the silence of my parents during the trials of 1935. You must always protest against dictatorship. It is what Immanuel Kant called a categorical imperative.”
Smolar said, “The 1968 generation was born of fire. They learned from experience and were active in all the movements that followed.” They did learn to join with both the church and the workers, or, as a writer put it in Trybuna Ludu in unwittingly prophetic language, “The events at the University pointed out that apart from the prevailing naïveté and credulity some students had great potential, were ideologically committed and willing to change the country for the better. We now wait for this capital to bear fruit.”
Joanna Szcesna was only nineteen the first time she went to prison. She amused the other prisoners by reciting Gone With the Wind and the Galsworthy novels. In 1981, when the movement had grown, joined by workers and clergy, to such size that the government declared martial law in an attempt to contain it, Joanna’s mother, Jadwiga, was the oldest woman interned. Joanna said, “I think I was a bad influence on her.”