My childhood memories from Poland–Part 1

When growing up in Poland (I was born in 1958) I often dreamed of coming to the USA.  Like with all dreams, I couldn’t be sure if it would ever come true.  It did.  In 1989, I came to the land I knew from old Westerns and books.  Within months of this event which changed my own life for ever, something else happened: the communist system, hated and feared, had crumbled, changing for ever the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Eastern Europe.  I little thought that my experience of growing up under communism would become of any interest to people living in the US, in short two decades.

 

I believe that humankind is on a path to a better future.  We sometimes call it progress.  But the journey on this path is not a simple forward motion.  History repeats itself, and quite often at that.  The less we know and understand it, the more likely it is we’ll see it again.

 

Watching two decades of post-communist Poland from here, I understood that the old pack of wolves that had run the country have cross-dressed and successfully chased opportunities in the new political reality.  But not until B. H. Obama was elected to the White House, I realized that the old communist disease (some call it Red Plague) threatens this side of the Atlantic as well.

 

I hope that by sharing some of my memories with you I can help you understand what is at stake in our freedom-loving country, and how to preserve it.

 

One of my early childhood memories is a verse from a kindergarten song: “let the sun always be, let it always be me.”  We sang it in Russian and in Polish, but for some reason the Russian words stuck in my head.  The Soviet Union was our best friend, so we were told, and children singing in Russian made our best friend happy.  The song, with its light tune and an upbeat message, warmed the little hearts, and filled them with hope.  “Let it always be me” sounded almost like a promise of immortality; the old religious superstition, we were told, was going away, and the new reality was going to replace it.  How would the immortality come about?

 

I grew up in the Mokotów borough of Warsaw, Poland’s capital.  Mokotów is beautiful, with lots of parks and gardens, and it has a rich history.  It had an important role during Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  About 15 minutes of walking distance from our apartment, was Soviet Military Cemetery in a beautiful park.  Remains of more than 21,000 Soviet soldiers who died while liberating Warsaw are buried there:  

300px-waw-soviet-military-cemetery-main

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet_Military_Cemetery,_Warsaw.  I learned to ride a bicycle on the big flat area around the main obelisk you can see in the first photograph.  My father would chase me around while holding on to a stick in the back of the bike, when the training wheels were just taken off.  There were no crosses then, only Soviet stars on rows and rows of graves, some with names on them, many without.  I would later practice my Russian by reading a memorial plaque on the obelisk.  I often thought about those young men who sacrificed their lives so I could live and be happy.  Their memories were alive, and the air was full of reverence of a kind which I could not explain.  The soldiers were gone, yet living in our memories, and with “let it always be me” words ringing in my head, I looked around for answers, but cold stones would give none.  Officials on the TV screen who always placed wreaths at the foot of the obelisk during high-level Soviet visits would never mention immortality, lest they came too close to that religious superstition, we were told, that backward nonsense for which there was no place among progressive industrialized nations.

 

Sometimes my parents and I would walk in a different direction from our apartment, and we’d end up in a busy district with two universities and a prison, all around one intersection of two major streets.  The prison on Rakowiecka Street looked ominous, with high walls and a massive metal gate: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mokotow_Prison.  The bad guys were locked up there.  No “let it always be me” for them, that’s for sure!  Outside the prison, on the wall of one of the buildings around it, was a memorial plaque, surrounded by bullet holes carved in the bricks.  That was one of many hundreds of public execution places, where Nazis had killed civilians during the war.  Thank God for the Soviet Union who liberated us from those scumbags!  Oops, I wasn’t supposed to say “God” …  Luckily, I look around and no one heard it, not even the guards at the prison’s gate.

 

God was nearby, however.  A quarter of a mile from the prison, sharing an address on the same Rakowiecka street, is a Jesuit Church of St. Andrew Bobola, a martyr, where I took my first religious education classes.  The priest, kind and soft-spoken, would never mention the great fortune we had of living in such a progressive nation, under the auspices of such a great friend, whose soldiers lay in the nearby cemetery.  He must have been quite absent minded.

 

More than two decades later, I would learn that Mokotów prison was a major hub in the Stalinist system of repression and extermination of political opposition.  A cell was built there, with walls converging at the door.  A small hatch would be opened and death sentence would be read to the prisoner, who would then be shot dead through the same hatch, unable to evade the bullets by hiding in a corner.  The floor would be scrubbed, and the cell would be ready for the next victim.  The body would be buried at night in the fields near what is today the international airport at Okecie.  No one would know what happened.  Once in a while, the government-run media would present an oblique message that “enemies of the people” and “traitors” were chased down and punished.

 

More next time…

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