A Warsaw Diary, 1978-1981

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Brandys remarks that among the Poles the expression “He lies like TV!”—used of any unconvincing person—has acquired the flavor of a folk saying. Daily, on television, Moscow and its puppet regime in Warsaw bombard the Poles with slogans, party lines, rationalizations, and the “news.” To withstand this onslaught, the skepticism of the Poles must run culture-deep. It does, as evidenced by this reflex-action “folk saying.”

Such tough-minded resistance to propaganda cannot have been built up in a few short years, or even decades. Indeed, Brandys uses every opportunity to demonstrate that Poland’s present-day struggle for freedom is the most recent chapter in “the history of a nation that for nearly three hundred years . . . has been in a hopeless position and whose only chance has been the stubbornness of a people offering resistance to save the country from spiritual death.”

Poland is a victim of geography, the prize in a centuries-old tug-of-war between Germany and Russia. The many partitions of Poland have sometimes, as in 1795 and 1865, resulted in its disappearance from the map. Nevertheless, succeeding generations of Poles have clung to the hope, against tremendous odds, of revived national independence.

To realize that hope, they sometimes rose up in direct rebellion and at other times formed alliances with enemies of the partitioning countries. The latter course has usually left them vulnerable, however: Napoleon established the Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, but after his defeat, the territory was returned to Prussia. Similarly, the Poles who joined the Communist Party in the 1930’s and 1940’s, to ward off the threat of German Fascism, later found themselves under the thumb of the Soviet Union. That is Brandys’ own story, as it is the story of his compatriots.

Brandys tells that story with a sense of the past living on in the present. Single sentences of his narrative compact centuries of the history that he can see all around him. Walking in Warsaw in November, 1978, he notes that at one point along the thoroughfare, Europe’s first democratic constitution was signed in 1791; a little ways down this boulevard in 1794, occupying Prussian forces hanged Polish nationalist insurgents; and at still another point in 1863, anti-Russian members of the January Uprising were executed. Brandys’ companion on this walk is fellow dissident writer Adolf Rudnick, who complains that the censors are mutilating his work. As they pass insolent-looking secret police and tearful-looking drunks, Rudnick tells the story of another writer who had to suppress the urge to rush into the Sejm—the legislative building, also on this avenue—and shout, “Gentlemen, when is the next partition?”

Despite his historical perspective, Brandys is vitally concerned with the present. A Warsaw Diary records, as they happened, the events of the four years preceding the declaration of martial law in Poland. It is a time of food shortages and hunger strikes; police raids, arrests, and beatings; rumors of disaster. He shows the reader the reality of degradation at which journalistic phrases such as “growing economic problems” can only hint. From the street crowds he picks out afflicted women tottering on swollen legs, despairing men with terrified eyes, and one old man on crutches returning from the grocery lines, “slippers on his feet and a wreath of ten rolls of toilet paper around his neck.” Absurdly, a street band is playing “Tango Milonga.”

If Brandys’ writing has become a target of the censors (possession of his books in Poland is punishable by one year in prison), doubtless his objective though compassionate reporting is more responsible than his attacks on the state. Brandys, in fact, preserves a mild tone when speaking of the Moscow and Warsaw governments. Through simple descriptions like the above, however, he commits the unpardonable sin of reporting events that, according to the censors, were not supposed to happen. The promise of the totalitarian regime has failed. As Brandys puts it, “The lines have gutted the district, bared the innards of the houses.”

It is because the fabric of lies has worn thin that the specter of total oppression looms—that is the only way the regime can still keep its version of order. Polish society, at the time Brandys is writing, lives in constant tension between an exhilarating hope of freedom and impending political catastrophe. Brandys sees it as his task to tip the balance in favor of hope. He chronicles signs of hope in the life of the streets—in elderly couples holding hands, in a drunk defiantly muttering, “Goddammit, the Russians have come.” He celebrates the courage and compassion of a man whom the police have harassed for years. One day this man comes upon a mob of rebels preparing to burn a policeman alive. Stepping forward, he says quietly, “My name is Adam Michnik. I am an anti-Socialist force.” In the next hour he dissuades his...

(The entire section is 2045 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 22, 1984, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, March 11, 1984, p. 9.

Newsweek. CIII, January 30, 1984, p. 72.

Time. CCXXIII, January 9, 1984, p. 69.