Poland is a living scandal to the old logical dictate against the coexistence of two opposite and mutually exclusive propositions. To wit:
Because of her geopolitical position, Poland must perpetually be subject to the direct or indirect control of the Soviet Union.
Because of her history, temperament and the presence of the Catholic Church, Poland must perpetually reject the direct or indirect control of the Soviet Union.
To say the least, it is a recipe for political schizophrenia. Poland’s rulers have kept this schizophrenia more or less belted up inside them: within the villas of its Stalinist-era elite; tangling the erratic course of the elite’s successor, Wladislaw Gomulka, who managed to combine the roles of martyr, liberator and tyrant; and now, behind the dark glasses and oddly naked features of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski who, as you may choose, either saved Poland from the Soviet Union, or saved the Soviet Union from Poland.
Solidarity’s three-year outburst was a kind of temporary respite, a weekend parole from the contradiction. Whether foredoomed or not, it was doomed eventually to underline it. But not necessary to reinforce it. Who knows? Battering your head against the impossible is certainly bad for the head, but it may not be particularly good for the impossible, either.
In any event, whatever else these three years accomplished, they let in a great deal of light--not least upon the schizophrenia of Polish power. One of the light-bringers was Teresa Toranska, a young journalist who spent three years probing the memories, the evasions and sometimes the regrets of several leading figures surviving from the Stalinist and the Gomulka eras.
Clearly, as the fascinating interviews collected in “Them” demonstrate, she was a terror. A kind of Oriana Fallaci without a celebrity’s self-consciousness and self-promotion. A one-woman mob ransacking the closets and counting the shoes.
She even managed to find an Imelda Marcos. In the shortest, perhaps the most superficial, but certainly the funniest of her interviews, she accosts Julia Minc, widow of Hilary Minc. He was the third man in the triumvirate--Boleslaw Bierut and Jakub Berman were the other two--who were known as Stalin’s viceroys and enforcers from 1944 to the Khrushchev era.
Julia Minc was given the Polish Press Agency to run. Now, out of power for 30 years, she is like unseated nobility: prickly, rancorous and utterly unreconstructed. When she berates Toranska for calling her “Mrs.” instead of “Comrade,” she could be the legendary Russian, the Paris taxi driver who demands the “Your Excellency” of his grand duke days.
She provides a splendidly Philippine moment recalling her chef who cut up meat to feed her dogs--this, in the hungry 1940s. Or defending Bierut for having the possession or use of nine different villas. “Was he supposed to stifle in three rooms?” And when Toranska asks if Minc would have hired her as a journalist, the answer is: “Certainly not. You haven’t grasped basic things and you ask too many questions.”
But it is not this obliviousness that marks the book’s value; it is the moments of awareness. The centerpiece of the collection is Toranska’s long, chilling in terrogation of Berman, who dined regularly with Stalin, was Bierut’s No. 2, supervised the security apparatus, among other things, and who, as a Jew, would no doubt have been eliminated if Stalin had not died before he could get his “anti-cosmopolite” campaign into full gear.
Berman is stony, bland and seemingly impenetrable. He juggles his awe for Stalin with his admission that the man was a monster; Soviet depredations in Poland with his belief in the Soviet Union as the vanguard of socialism; the twists and turns of the Polish Communist Party--which purged him in 1956 along with the other Stalinists--with his unshakable faith in the party as an institution.
Toranska’s art is to get through Berman’s lizardlike blandness, to touch the suffering, the doubt and the monstrous pride--to make him not lovable, certainly--not even particularly human--but real. He is brought to speak with passion, this destroyed and passionless man, about what is clearly the cornerstone of his self-respect. That is, that he and his colleagues paid and enforced a terrible price in concessions to Stalin, but that they saved the Polish nation from absorption into the Soviet Union or, alternatively, from being shrunk to a narrow strip of territory around Warsaw.
He admits the cruelty used against members of other political groups. He admits protesting only “cautiously” against the Soviet deportation of 40,000 members of the non-Communist World War II Resistance. He admits rigging elections to make sure that the Communists would win. His argument is always that he and his colleagues intervened when they could, occasionally softened Soviet measures, and kept the country alive for better times to come.
Toranska refuses to accept this. She rages, goads, engages in shouting matches. The reader ponders questions and ironies. Would more decency and firmness in the face of Soviet demands have led, in fact, to Poland becoming a Soviet republic? Did the Stalinist Berman and his associates rescue enough to allow the emergence of a Gomulka in 1956, of a Solidarity in 1980? Or, instead, is what they accepted of a piece with the later corruption of Gomulka in the ‘60s or the crushing of Solidarity in 1983?
Here is the Stalinist’s former chief ideologue, Roman Werfel, on the “lesser evil” argument. The rulers could not resist Soviet orders, he says, but they were able to turn a blind eye.
“You couldn’t say no when the whole of the international movement was saying yes, but you could draw the thing out,” he tells Toranska. He notes that some of the leading philosophers associated with Solidarity managed to survive the earlier harsh times “because they were given work translating classical philosophy.” With an elegance matched only by its cynicism, he adds:
“And now Poland has an excellent collection of all the important philosophical works in translation. That was also a case of turning a blind eye. Soviet philosophers weren’t so lucky.”
It is not a question of accepting this. Toranska doesn’t; she indicts and--formidably well-documented--convicts. But this is not a comfortable book; its brilliance lies in its lack of comfort. Hard cases make bad law; they make tragic politics.
Edward Ochab, a transitional figure who held power briefly between the Stalinists and the rise of Gomulka in 1956, tells Toranska of being caught between the rising pressures for freedom inside Poland and the threats by Khrushchev--whose speech to the Soviet 20th Congress had helped set things off--to intervene militarily. Ochab took a hand in making the contents of the 20th Congress speech--still secret--more widely known. He even went to China to appeal for pressure against a Soviet intervention. He maneuvered.
He was no liberal, but he found that his place in the Polish contradiction was located differently from that of his rigid and bloody predecessors. “Politics,” he tells Toranska, whom he addresses as “my wench” and accuses of knowing nothing about anything, “is choosing the lesser evil, holding your tongue and sometimes playing with marked cards.”
Ochab’s cynicism is one pole of the contradiction. Toranska’s outrage is another. Together, they provide no clue to their country’s destiny. But they have provided a devastating, instructive book, as complex in its humanity as in its implications.