THE PRIVATE POLAND - Reviews
Catholic Herald, 19 September, 1986. Books, p. 6
The Private Poland by Janine Wedel. Facts on File, £12.95
Ancient Polish Art of How to Get By
Noel Clark, former BBC Correspondent in eastern Europe.
This book is the fruit of several years intensive on-the-spot research by a writer unusually well-qualified to penetrate the complex mysteries of Polish society, in other words, to tell us how on earth Poles manage. As a Fulbright scholar, who had sung her way round Poland in less turbulent days with a Polish country music group, Dr Wedel was able to carry out her research, living and working as a Pole among Poles, yet with a foreigner's special access to all levels of society and shades of opinion.
Richly revealing anecdotes, drawn from her own experience or that of friends and contacts, combined with interviews and personal insights, convey the flavour and pattern of life in General Jaruzelski's Poland as she knew it, during and after martial law.
A highlight of this unusual work is her admirable exposition of the ancient Polish art of "how to get by", come hell or high water. Whether your problem is, let's say, as a Polish officer, how to give you daughter the church wedding she wants, without jeopardizing your promotion, or merely how to buy a leather handbag when the manager insists they're all sold out - Dr Wedel has the answer. We are taken into the minds of a population 95 per cent Catholic, shown what they think of a variety of topics and how they survive – some very well - within, yet apart from the framework of a system the majority regard as alien, oppressive, discriminatory and inefficient.
In this confused and uncertain society, reliable information - says Dr Wedel - is the most valuable exchange commodity. For those with access to western currencies, life may be less of a struggle. But for the majority, "getting by" involves ever- increasing reliance on mutual- assistance networks of family, friends, colleagues, or comrades in experience shared, such as wartime resistance, internment under martiaI law 0r underground activity. Wangling, duplicity and lying are a necessary commonplace in the "informal economy".
But the Poles remain at heart a proud and moral people well aware of the damage done to their self-respect by being forced to live each day on two distinct and contradictory levels – public and private. The resultant humiliation of the citizen - starting in school - is the key, as Dr Wedel sees it, to the "socialisation" of East European societies, rather than overt fear of the state.
She may well be right in arguing that Solidarity's real threat to the Communist order – not only in Poland – is the movement's insistence on restoring respect for truth, probity and human dignity.
Things were better by the time Dr Wedel left Poland earlier this year: the atmosphere more relaxed, fewer and shorter queues, more goods available, though some prices had risen sharply. Edginess and desperation had been replaced by "stoic resentment". However, the long-term outlook is gloomy. She foresees a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, a further decline in living and working standards, while “political turmoil, bred in part by economic hardship, will brew for years until it erupts again…”