Letters from Prison and Other Essays.
by Adam Michnik.
Translated by Maya Latynski. University of California Press. 354 pp. $25.00.
A strange country, Poland. A Soviet satellite state whose current dictator, Wojciech Jaruzelski, cannot, we are told, forgive an American Cabinet member for calling him a Soviet general in a Polish uniform. A country at different times hospitable and hostile to the Jews, which gave the world the current Israeli Prime Minister, his predecessor, and, indeed, the state’s founding father. A Communist-ruled state that is staunchly Roman Catholic and is the homeland of the reigning Pope. Finally, to me, Poland, the land of my birth, is understandably synonymous with the Holocaust. It is the country where three-and-a-half-million Jews lived before the war and only some 6,000 remain; where, poignantly, not a single rabbi is to be found, but where, paradoxically, a Yiddish theater continues to function, though many of its performers—and most of its audiences in Warsaw—are Gentiles.
Incongruously, two of the most visible actors in the Polish drama of the last decade are Jews. One is General Jaruzelski’s press spokesman, Jerzy Urban. The other is a leading opponent of Jaruzelski, Adam Michnik. His letters sent from prison identify him with more precision: Adam, son of Ozjasz (Isaiah) Michnik. Occasionally, a third Jewish name—a ghost from a heroic past—may be briefly sighted in newspapers. Marek Edelman, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and now a physician in Lodz, is known for his sympathies with Solidarity. From time to time he publicly voices his support of Michnik, a son of prewar Jewish Communists and now a leading adviser to the banned trade union.
In between his many arrests, and sometimes while actually in prison, Michnik, a historian by training, a democrat, a Polish patriot, and a self-styled “pagan” (presumably to distance himself from his colleagues, nearly all of them at least nominal and some very devout Catholics, and perhaps from his Jewish background as well), has written widely on political and historical subjects. First published abroad, often under a pseudonym, or illegally circulated at home, these essays now appear in Maya Latynski’s fine translation and with her helpful annotations. I am afraid, however, that these notwithstanding, many readers will be overwhelmed by an avalanche of unfamiliar proper names and “isms” that assume familiarity with Poland’s complex history and rich literary tradition. They are likely to be still further confused by the inevitably disjointed quality of twenty articles written at different times and dealing with a variety of subjects.
Adam Michnik was one of the founders, in September 1976, of KOR, the Committee for the Defense of Workers. In an unprecedented gesture of interclass unity in a “socialist” state, the Committee, which consisted of prominent members of the Polish intelligentsia, offered moral support, economic assistance, and legal aid to Polish workers hounded by the police and courts of the “proletarian” state. It also organized an impressive network of underground courses and seminars (the so-called “flying universities”) which met, as they had during the Nazi occupation, in private apartments, as well as samizdat publication of unauthorized books and journals of every description. When, however, the rise of the Solidarity trade union made it plain five years later that these activities were largely being performed by the workers themselves, KOR decided to step aside. In a spectacular last act, in September 1981, it voted itself out of existence. Many of its ex-members then placed themselves at the disposal of Solidarity, the first free trade union in a Communist country.
Michnik, who is now out of jail, was among those who advised Solidarity to avoid sabotage and military actions. He writes:
Why did Solidarity renounce violence? This question returned time and again in my conversations with foreign observers. . . . No one in Poland is able to prove today that violence will help us to dislodge Soviet troops from Poland and to remove the Communists from power. The USSR has such enormous military power that confrontation is simply unthinkable. In other words: we have no guns.
At the same time, Michnik persuasively argues, eschewing violence and conspiracy may have spared Poland an all-out Soviet military invasion, the more so since the avoidance of such an invasion was also in the interests of the Polish and Soviet authorities. (The former would have been transformed by it into Soviet-imposed policemen, and the latter would have had to endure international opprobrium for what would have certainly been a bloody war on Polish soil.) So far, events have proved Michnik right.
Adam Michnik, then, falls firmly within the tradition of 19th-century Polish positivism, with its rejection of the legacy of romanticism, a movement that in literature as in politics extolled theatrical heroism whatever the price. The positivists, by contrast, urged a path of moderation and unspectacular but lasting progress aimed at containing and if possible reversing the erosion of the Polish social fabric, and firming up the sense of Polish ethnic identity and dreams of eventual national sovereignty. Slow but steady progress, the positivists argued, strengthened the institutions that would act as custodians of the nation’s spirit and values until a truly independent Poland came back to life. History attests that the unglamorous positivists offered the wiser counsel. In the aftermath of World War I, well over a century after the last partition of 1795 and the subsequent occupation of Poland by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and imperial Russia, Poland regained statehood.
Poland’s present-day positivists, Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik among them, are men of courage and integrity waging a difficult struggle against enormous odds, and with only the Roman Catholic Church as an ally, and not an overly dependable one at that. The immediate future is, alas, bleak. As an article by Pawel Morga in the September 1986 issue of the émigré Polish monthly Kultura attests, Michnik had better be ready to endure, in addition to everything else, viciously anti-Semitic taunts from the Communist authorities and, sad to say, from some of his comrades as well.