Article - Summer 2022

Polish Lessons

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Four decades ago, a young American found himself in Warsaw during turbulent, extraordinary times

By Thomas Swick | June 1, 2022
Queuing up for takeaway sandwiches (a normal occurrence at the time) near Plac Konstytucji (all photos courtesy of the author)
Queuing up for takeaway sandwiches (a normal occurrence at the time) near Plac Konstytucji (all photos courtesy of the author)

I arrived in Warsaw on a wet September evening in 1980. The landscape was familiar—I had spent six gloomy months in the capital two years earlier—but the situation was new. Hania, sitting next to me in the taxi, looked tired and anxious. I hoped it was not because of our upcoming wedding.

My introduction to Poland had not been successful. I had gone there to be with Hania, whom I had met in London, and who had taken a year off from her studies at the University of Warsaw to come see me in Trenton, New Jersey. An added enticement, for a newspaper feature writer who wanted to be a travel writer, was the prospect of living for a while behind the Iron Curtain. I got a job teaching English and found everything a struggle: the language, the weather, the life drained of amplitude. Still, when my visa was about to expire, I applied for an extension (the power of love) and was asked to become an informer. I declined and, three days later, boarded a train headed out of the country.

That someone with my history had received a visa again seemed to suggest that things were changing. In August, the Gdansk shipyards had given birth to Solidarity, with its electrician-leader Lech Wałęsa, and Poland, in a good way for once, was landing on the world’s front pages.

Hania’s new apartment was in the district of Ochota, not far from the airport. She shared it with her aunt Marylka, who greeted me warmly, and her cousin Elżbieta, who showed restraint. Elżbieta was shy, and keenly aware that there would now be even more competition for the bathroom.

The next day, I maneuvered my umbrella along Opaczewska, a street immortalized in a poem by a Home Army soldier named Jan Janiczek. It led to the spot on Grójecka Street where a group of soldiers and valiant citizens had tried to stop the advancing German army in the fall of 1939. There was a corner bakery, a dim cavity with a worn wooden counter and football-shaped loaves. There was a tiny grocery, across an unkempt park, where cheerless women in dirty aprons shoveled your potatoes off a soil-darkened floor. Closer to the intersection was a string of small shops fronting minimalist window displays. There was no street life—just preternaturally focused shoppers—and there was no complaining, not when you stood in the rain waiting for a tram in the place where brave citizens had died in defense of their country.

At the English Language College on Plac Zbawiciela, I found most of my colleagues from two years earlier. They were welcoming and energized, filling the teachers’ room with intense discussions that veered invariably into Polish. Even the classrooms—where political talk was forbidden—had a crisp, reawakened air.

Within weeks, the school had its own Solidarity chapter. I told Hania of my plan to join, and she immediately vetoed it. If the free trade union were crushed, she said, I would be deported, or worse. She had the innate caution of a child of prison; in the early ’50s, her mother had been incarcerated, while pregnant, for activities against the state.

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