Judith Baumel

Human Solidarity. Polish Solidarność

November 11th, 2010

Bifurcation is the word that comes to mind Tuesday night at the Polish Consulate in New York City.  Its celebration of 30 years of Solidarność explores free speech and free elections by noting pertinent mirrorings in modern history.  And yet differences more than commonalities stand out.

The plan is cheering:  Drinks first, lectures later.  First we view “Human Solidarity. Polish Solidarność” the exhibit created by Andrzej W. Tymowski with help from Irena Grudzinska-Gross and Malgorzata K. Bakalarz.  Tymowski  uses  a multi-level, multi-cultural approach to his chronicle of a suppressed people creating  their own future.  He places Solidarność within the international legacy of ever-refracting images of change.

Andrzej W. Tymowski

Andrzej W. Tymowski

The story of Anna Walentynowicz,  the fired crane operator who became the female face of the Gdańsk Shipyard strikes, unfolds beside Rosa Parks: “the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  One thinks of Barak Obama’s recent observation that had Mahatma Gandhi not paved the road, Obama might not be visiting India as president of the United States. One thinks back to Kościuszko in the Continental Army. And forward to the Velvet and Orange and Green revolutionary movements.  One thinks of the Solidarity High Noon poster under which so many Poles voted in 1989.

Anna Walentynowicz, August 1988, photo by W. Górka

Anna Walentynowicz, August 1988, photo by W. Górka

Maybe what I mean by birfurcation is dialectics.

Well-lubricated with wine, we squeeze into our seats for the main presentations. The Poles recount the dramatic events of the 1980s as well as their continuing gratitude to Americans for bringing their struggle out to the world stage and back to them–at a time of complete official censorship, people in Wrocław used Radio Free Europe to find out what was happening in Gdańsk.

Former Times reporter David Andelman, representing the evening’s cosponsor, the Overseas Press Club,  calls to the microphone famous names in American journalism from back in the day.  Dan Rather moves himself to tears.  Bert Quint shows CBS footage.  John Kifner and John Darnton talk about the staff of the Times’s Warsaw bureau.

The American story is the same as the Polish one, but different, shaped by a distance in time and culture.  Speaker after speaker turns the evening, billed as a reunion, into a memorial to the not-so-long-gone days of heroic print and television journalism, to a time when these American journalists mattered.

Maybe what I mean by bifurcation is that in different places the ramifications of the events grew different branches from a common tree.

Polish Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka introduces Henryk Wujec, Konstanty Gebert, and Zygmunt Staszewski who speak of the victory they never imagined would come.

Wujec  recounts the 1976 founding of KOR (Komitet Obrony Robotników, The Workers’ Defense Committee).  He would eventually serve in the Sejm (The Lower Parliament),  but at the time, a post-grad in physics at Warsaw Polytechnic, he was a leader encouraging students to join the movement to defend the workers:  “ None of us was able to live in the communist system.  The thing we knew was we couldn’t do it alone.”

Henryk Wujec

Henryk Wujec

Konstanty Gebert possesses a dazzlingly agile intellect.  A writer in temperament and practice, he has had many careers, from organizing the revival of the Warsaw Flying University, to championing a revival of Jewish identity in Poland.  He works for human rights around the world, and he advocates human complexity. The newspaper he wrote for during early days of Solidarity has become the great Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette).  Gebert founded Midrasz, a journal for and about Polish Jews.

Gebert says “it is good to remember we were young in a hopelessly old, decaying society that intended to stay that way.”   He insists that a citizen who wants democracy needs to know underground printing techniques.  And despite his optimism (“We can not know which act will cause suffering or which will cause change, but we can be sure that not acting will lead to nothing.”),  he confesses pessimism about the internet as a political tool.

Konstanty Gebert

Konstanty Gebert

To receive an underground newspaper, he says, is to receive the information it contains and also to receive the information that “someone is risking his ass to bring it to you.”  The making and distribution of physical newspapers establishes a web of  obligation which builds collective structures.

Commenting on a photograph of a burning communist party building, Gebert frames the “Polish Earthquake” as a lesson in creation.  “Do not  burn down the committees.  Start your own.”

Zygmunt Staszewski,  is now an American engineer and officer of the Polish American Congress.  He tells of the Transport Workers strike in Wrocław, in August 1980.  They slept in buses in the depot. They did not end the strike until their representatives returned from Gdańsk with copies of the 31 August agreement.  “We didn’t believe the Communists.”  Forced to leave Poland after his release from jail, he came to New York and demonstrated outside the consulate.  Staszewski points to the grand windows of the elegant ballroom.  “It was from these windows that the Polish police photographed us on the street below, so they could pressure our relatives back home.”

Polish Consulate In New York, photo by Cliffy

Polish Consulate In New York, photo by Cliffy

There is a general good feeling.  Those who fought so hard from the outside are now on the inside.  The reversal of fortune mirrors the best novel.   Gebert looks at the international journalists and thanks them for an adventure that was “great fun.”  He adds, “and you can’t imagine how happy we were when you all left.  It was fun to live in a normal boring country.”  The bifurcation that comes from always explaining can put a strain on even the best relationships.

Maybe what I mean by bifurcation is just the necessary imperfection of translation.

The imperfect way Solidarity deployed the iconic image of Gary Cooper, and made new meaning from the weapon of a paper ballot.  The imperfect way those iconic blood red letters, a translation and incorporation of the Polish flag,  supply meaning for so many latter-day movements.

High Noon, 4 June 1989, poster by Tomasz Sarnecki

High Noon, 4 June 1989, poster by Tomasz Sarnecki

Two moments illustrate the uneasy demands of translation.

A young Polish consular officer interpreting Wojec’s memories of the hunger strike says the students were “feasting.”  The room erupts with shouts and corrections:  “fasting! fasting!”  This is one of those lovely precious mistakes the human mind makes.  Feasting and Fasting are so deeply connected, paired as their meanings mirror and oppose each other, paired because they sound so similar to the ear, and look even more similar to the eye.  This is what poets mean by rhyme–two things that have enough in common that their difference makes meaning.

Hunger Strikers

And then John Darnton remembers how his Polish translator would summarize problems by saying, if x or y does or doesn’t happen, there will be “cows in the street.”  Darnton heard reporting of potential “cows in the street” often enough to assume it was an old Polish saying,  originating in the deep rural roots of the nation.  He was even tempted to include the phrase in his copy.  Until he heard his translator reading an English-language article about “chaos.”   Not quite false friends and not quite paired opposites, cows and chaos almost make a new meaning but end up pointing to bifurcations in human solidarity.

Comments are closed.