Letter from Warsaw

Catherine Lucy Czerkawska

My dear friends, I have been thinking about you and wondering if you were worried about us. What can I tell you? It isn’t good, but it’s better than it was, politically. Economically it is bad, but it was bad before. Now at least we know all about it.

You must have heard and read more about Poland recently than at any time during the last thirty years, though I doubt if you can fully realise what is going on here. For the last half year we have lived with enormous uncertainty. We are all engaged with the new Trade Union, ‘Solidarity’. It keeps us very busy; I never suspected that meetings lasting many hours could be so interesting; that the time could pass so quickly.

You know, although I am a Polish woman, I have never concerned myself much with the majority of my compatriots. I already knew that we were brave. Now, I am convinced that we are a splendid nation. People are being kind to each other, disciplined and sensible. They seem to be putting the interest of the country, the region and even the factory first. We were not so kind to each other before. We did not care. But still, deep inside us there lurked some germ, some fossil of our old selves, and it made us at once a cynical and a romantic people.

It was as if our true selves had been imprisoned for many years. Trapped, like those delicate little fossils inside the chunks of yellow amber I work with sometimes.

You know that as a silversmith I have been living and working in Warsaw for some time now. I am, I suppose, known in my field, good at my work. I have even had one or two official commissions, and that, for someone who has resisted all invitations to party membership, is indeed an achievement. Oh, the invitations have come – once when I was working for Stokowski the jeweller: ‘Be realistic Lilia,’ he said. ‘You must be realistic about these things. It will bring you twice as much work, twice as many commissions.’ Well, I refused. And once, much later, there was a second invitation from the official who commissioned a silver water-set as a gift for some visiting Western dignitary. ‘Why don’t you join us?’ he said. ‘Join the Party.’ One cannot join, you know, except by invitation. He was a handsome man with hard, knowing eyes. I expect he was a realist too. ‘You will get much more work,’ he said.

‘But I have enough work,’ I told him and I remember he made a scornful little sound, pursing his lips together, frowning. ‘Real work,’ he said. ‘Real money. You could be well off with your talent. You should use it.’ But I shook my head politely and nothing came of these offers or my refusals. Nothing good, but nothing bad either, which was a mercy. My father died in the East. In the war. I had no real temptation to join the Party.

Mother is still in the country. She is lucky that at her age she does not realise the seriousness of the situation, as Adam likes to call it. She is, to some extent, isolated from recent happenings, although provisions are scarce there. I try to take her what I can: food, soap powder, shampoo, toilet paper. ‘That is an unnecessary luxury, Lilka,’ she says to me. ‘We did without before, we can do without now.’ ‘But it is more comfortable with, Mamusia,’ I tell her.

Adam has come to live with me. He and his wife are getting a divorce. I am very fond of him but I think I do not love him. He is so young. He lives with me because housing here is such that he cannot find anywhere else to stay until his divorce comes through and even after. Hannah, his wife, has taken a lover but there is no acrimony between her and Adam. In fact, she visits us both here. It is a small flat, this, even smaller now that Adam has moved his books and some of his possessions in. We are high above the city, down a long corridor that always has the same mingled scents of sauerkraut, cigarette smoke and polish. Adam finds it more pleasant to share this small space with me than to share his four-roomed apartment with his wife. ‘She spreads herself everywhere, everywhere,’ he said to me. I find this difficult to believe since Hannah is a small, fragile woman and I am tall, as well as clumsy, but he affirms that it is true. I am clumsy with everything that is not to do with my work. I have my studio in Mokotow now, further out of the city, and there, everything is tranquil, but here it is a different matter. Between my domestic implements and myself there is a continual war. I do my best to smash them; they try their utmost to cut and bruise and burn me. Adam says that this is not what he means and does not mind it, though he is a tidy man by nature and I wonder how long this harmony between us will last. It is perhaps a political alliance: one of convenience for both of us.

Nevertheless, I am proving to be quite a good housewife. In summer I made jam and jellies and preserved fruits. In autumn, Adam bought potatoes and we get eggs from his brother in the country, so we are quite well provided. The worst problem is meat. This is rationed but even the amounts available to us are meagre. Each country has its gastronomic peculiarity, I suppose. Poles have always eaten a lot of meat: perhaps too much, which is why it is so difficult for us now, especially since there is very little fish and less cheese. But with summer coming, we shall have fresh vegetables and fruit.

Economically, we must have reached the very bottom, but this cannot have happened suddenly, although its effect on us, the consumers, was rapid. Quite simply, during the last thirty years we have senselessly expanded industry at the expense of agriculture. So we have a lot of problems. One cannot say that there is poverty, simply insufficiency. There is too little of everything. One must queue. But we must be optimistic too. Besides, we are healthy and don’t care to queue for butter and sweets and such delicacies. With our wartime and post-war experience, we know how to look after ourselves and how to do without things that for others are indispensable.

You know in a few days time I shall be fifty years old, but for most of my life I never realised the strength of the bond holding us all together in this sad little piece of land. I thought that I was a member of an élite group of intellectuals, a hermetically-sealed group, not interested in those outside, the labourers, the farmworkers. And, in the same way, my own group was foreign to those others. We were their ‘outsiders’.

My friends were naturally artistic. There was Jurek, the theatre director, with his experimental plays, thinly disguised political protests that nevertheless attracted no more official attention than if they had been state-sponsored propaganda. Perhaps they knew that the measure of the group’s influence was the breadth of their audience and that was narrow indeed. Then there was Joanna, designing posters, strange, surrealistic, a form of manic protest, but so hidden under layers of artistic metaphor and allusion that none but the most finely tuned minds could sense anything but a vague unease about them. Halina was a photographer travelling about the country, cataloguing ancient monuments, usually churches, for a museum, but she had her own problems. Her life was full of dreadful abysses and mountains of love and rejection and she was always so engrossed in her own emotional turmoils that the outside world only thinly penetrated her consciousness. These were my friends and others like them.

I was fond of them all. We met often, writers, painters, potters, craftsmen and women working on the reconstruction of the old buildings in the city. Our flats were small and comfortable with a few well-chosen antiques bought from the expensive ‘Desa’ shops which specialise in such things. Our parties were civilised. We drank tea and Vodka together and in the summer we went to the countryside to gather mushrooms and fruits, make preserves, work on the land, without really knowing anything of its hardships.

I find myself writing all this in the past although none of it has yet ended, seemingly, for we still do these things; still meet and drink vodka in our comfortable flats; but yes, everything has changed, has shifted into a different perspective. Our topics of conversation are quite different. Nothing is the same as it was, nor will be again.

I will tell you about something that happened to me last year. I was in one of the bigger stores on Marszalkowska. It was early spring and still cold outside. The store was full, as usual, not of goods but of people. Even then, things were not easy here. To get fresh meat one had to queue, getting up early in the morning. Distribution was odd. All the grapefruit in Poland, for instance, might turn up in Krakow, or there might be a sudden glut of bananas in Lodz, although none were to be found elsewhere. Goods like sugar, coffee, even butter, might disappear mysteriously from supermarket shelves, to reappear days or weeks later. It is like that here and has been for some years. If you see something you need, you try to buy it there and then, for it surely will not be there when you return. The shop was crowded, full of hurrying, angry people, and I was hurrying too when I saw the old man. He seemed to be a down-and-out. His face was ashy grey, a haze of stubble about cheek and chin. His clothes were ragged and dirty and he was staggering about making small groaning noises. He had a friend with him, a younger man, cleaner, less haggard-looking, and the friend was pulling at the older man’s arm, trying to get him to come away, to stop making an exhibition of himself. People separated around them. Everybody thought that he was drunk. I did too. Then suddenly, in the little space left free to him, close to a counter selling flannel night-dresses and pyjamas, he swung around and fell face down on the floor with a soft thump. His companion stepped back, abandoning him, moving away into the crowd, but a well-dressed woman in a smart suit and thin-heeled shoes rushed forward and turned him over. There was a small puddle of urine on the dirty tiled floor and where his face had lain, a little smear of blood. He flopped there like some macabre doll, face up, eyes closed, his skin a livid grey-green colour. The woman stepped back, hand to mouth, looking around for help. Standing in the middle of the crowd, I looked up and saw that a policeman was standing on the steps to one of the exits, staring down at us. Then he turned on his heel and walked away, very quickly.

I went home, shaking, convinced that the old man had been dead. When I got to the flat I started to cry and, in spite of vodka and warmth, shivered and wept for a long time. The shock seemed out of all proportion to the incident, for it gave me nightmares full of pity and desperation for weeks after.

You know, when you work with amber, as you polish it, a fine dust flies up all around you and fills the air with the sweet scent of long dead pine forests. You polish the yellow chunks of it and below the surface you can see the little fossilised leaves and insects. We were in amber but it was as if that one event had weakened my golden prison. Soon it would shatter completely.

And shatter it has, during the last six months. Earlier this year, I went to Gdansk for the unveiling of the monument to those who were killed there in 1970 in the demonstrations, and then on to Gdynia. It was important to me, that visit. I shall remember it all my life, whatever becomes of us. I have never seen so many people together in the same place, so many different sorts of people, so full of emotion, so full of integrity.

My dear friends, this letter is untidy, perhaps because I have tried to write too much and too clearly. Nothing is simple but now I shall try to say it all in a few sentences.

We are rich in experience. You know, problems are our speciality. Our young people are splendid. We are all of us very tired, though we continue to be sensible and disciplined. But we have determination and it is possible that a situation may arise in which, irrespective of the consequences, we shall have to act against our better judgment. In the name of higher ideals and right. Lilia.