Commentary Magazine


Poland's Peculiar Dictatorship:
Gomulka Between Popular Feeling and Soviet Power

When I visited Poland in December 1956, its atmosphere was electric with hopes and fears, uncertainties and expectations. For most of the seventy or eighty thousand Jews still remaining in the country at the time, it is true, there were more fears than hopes. But for the millions of Poles, it seemed that a new epoch of freedom, both individual and national, had dawned. Poets and writers expressed the nation’s feelings in a language once again vivid and vital. Students again laid enthusiastic claim to being the heirs to the national traditions of freedom. The peasants, still the biggest and most powerful social group in Poland, shook off the nightmare of the Soviet-style kolkhoz. And the workers plunged energetically into erecting a network of factory councils, believing that they had at last found the way to industrial democracy. The Church, the spiritual home of 90 per cent of Poland’s population, at one stroke regained not only her old prestige, but most of her extensive privileges, of which the most important was the teaching of the catechism in virtually all the state schools. But above all one felt then that a nation with a heroic and sad history had, under incredibly disadvantageous political and geographical circumstances, fought and won a victory for freedom against one of the greatest power concentrations known to human history.

That was Poland after the “springtime in October” of 1956. How is it now, in 1959? Has the country lost everything it won in its brief period of freedom? Or has the Gomulka regime established a new type of Communist state in which party dictatorship is able to march more or less hand in hand with individual freedom?

And what about the Polish Jews? Have they taken advantage of the much more liberal emigration policy of the present Polish regime and all left the country? Or have some stayed, making up their minds to stick it out, to prolong, even if only to a tiny extent, the long, often painful, but also proud history of Polish Jewry?

I tried to find the answers to these questions when I went to Poland once again this past spring.

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I flew into the Warsaw airport on March 3. The main purpose of my trip was to report to my papers on the congress of the Communist party (Polish United Workers’ party) which was scheduled to start a week later. What struck me at once during the ten-kilometer drive to the Bristol Hotel, situated at the heart of Warsaw, was the complete absence of any outward sign that the first congress since 1954 of Poland’s sole political party was about to begin. Since that time the Stalin myth, built on so much suffering and terror, had crumbled throughout the whole eastern empire, and in Poland more than anywhere else. The Polish “bloodless revolution” in the autumn of 1956 had brought to power Communist victims of the former regime, with Wladyslaw Gomulka at their head. Among other things, the congress about to take place had the task of legalizing the near-coup of October 1956. It was also meant to demonstrate how securely established the new leadership was among the party’s activists. And, of course, a party congress would serve as the forum for important statements on the country’s political, economic, and cultural developments.

Under the Communist system, a party congress is always the occasion for a great outburst of propaganda, as well as a kind of political entertainment. But there were neither flags nor slogans, nor anything else to catch the eye of the people hurrying through the city’s streets, to remind them that an important chapter in the national history was being written. I did see one large poster, the day I arrived. It bore a picture of Sholem Aleichem, and announced, in Polish and in Yiddish, a meeting to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

The people themselves showed, so far as I could see, not even a flicker of spontaneous interest in the Communist party congress during the whole nine days it was in session. On the morning of the third day, I went to watch the men who rule Poland drive up to the entrance of the Palace of Culture, where the congress was being held. Hundreds of people passed by on the sidewalks opposite the palace. I was the only one—except for the police—who stood and watched Gomulka and the others alight from their powerful black Mercedes automobiles. Not one public demonstration or meeting of any kind was scheduled, during the period of the congress, that would have made it possible for the Warsaw population to participate, even passively, in what was after all an event of some political significance. I left Poland ten days after the end of the congress. Everybody was busy then—not with politics but with preparations for Easter. All the churches, of which there are many, were filled to overflowing.

How explain this strange phenomenon of a Communist party not seizing an obvious opportunity for a self-glorifying political demonstration? The party has, after all, not only the power but the whole state apparatus at its command to assemble the people and make them listen to its propaganda. Why did not Gomulka show his visitors right then and there that he, among all possible Communist dictators, is the most acceptable to the non-Communist-minded people of Poland? Why did he (personally, as I was informed) decide against allowing the presence of the foreign non-Communist journalists at the congress, even for a single hour, though he knew that they had come especially to report on the congress, and that whatever he had to say about Poland’s present and future policies would consequently get a very much diminished coverage in the world press? To explain it, as some highly placed Communists did to me, only as a part of Gomulka’s inherently conservative disposition, his shyness whenever he is confronted with people in the flesh, is, in my opinion, to misunderstand the Polish leader and underestimate his powers as shrewd tactician.

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However uninspired in its details, the congress was motivated by a single underlying idea: to draw a curtain between the stormy days of October 1956 and the country’s present political apathy. There were nine days of endless speech-making, but not once any mention of the time, little more than two years ago, when a manifesto was in print, ready at an hour’s notice to be distributed through the streets of Warsaw and broadcast over the radio, calling on the Poles to resist by every means any external interference in the affairs of their nation. That was the day when Soviet tanks were taking up positions in the suburbs of Warsaw, Poznan, and Cracow, when Soviet divisions based in Eastern Germany crossed the Polish frontiers, and when a Soviet plane landed on Warsaw’s military airport, depositing on Polish soil the substantial figures of Khrushchev, Molotov, Mikoyan, Kaganovich, and Marshal Konev. Nobody at the congress was moved to recall that terrible moment when the threat of a massacre hung over the Poles, potentially ten times as bloody as the one which a few weeks later was to strike their cousins the Hungarians. Neither did anybody trouble to repeat Gomulka’s stern indictment of the former regime for having created an economic situation which had brought starvation to the towns, and such general misery that to. protest against it hundreds of Poznan workers in 1956 paid with their lives. Not a word was uttered about the terror of the infamous security police, of which Gomulka and his wife and their friends were themselves among the victims. Nor did Gomulka or any of his friends, despite the well-known Communist passion for such academic argument, take the occasion to defend their purity of political practice and theory, which had so often been attacked by Communists in high places. (Who can tell whether, at some time in the future, the same accusations, privately still repeated by the Czechs, the East Germans, and the Bulgarians, will not become the basis of a new inquisition?) For the moment, Jerzy Morawski, Gomulka’s young lieutenant, was delegated to pass over these fateful events with the simple remark that “there was a misunderstanding on the question of a right deviation in the party. . . .”

When Adam Wazyk wrote his now famous “Poem for Adults” in 1955, he prayed “for the bread of truth.” Returning to power in October 1956, on a wave of revolutionary and national enthusiasm, Gomulka promised to tell nothing but the truth—no matter how bitter. In the first months he kept his promise. But he soon discovered that even his Communist regime, however more liberal, could survive in Poland only if the long arm of Soviet might were permanently to deprive the Poles of their freedom of decision. This is the greatest of all the truths about the Polish situation, and Gomulka uttered it once only, on the eve of the election (January 20, 1957) that returned him to power in defiance of the leadership of the other Communist countries, and against the opposition of the Polish party apparatus. He said then: “To cross out Communist candidates is to cross Poland off the map of European states.” Gomulka no longer dares speak that truth. His six-hour opening address on the first day of the congress was full of half-truths—and some out-and-out lies too obvious to be believed even by party members.

Gomulka is far from being an intellectual giant. The Western world is a closed book to him. But he knows his people. He knows that he has lost the active support of the majority of the Polish nation, which was his for the asking in the autumn of 1956 and the months that followed. It was bound to be. Gomulka’s bridge to the people was the liberal intellectuals of his own party—writers, university teachers, journalists. They saw in the events of October the first great step in the direction of a social democratic regime, and in this vision they were supported by an enthusiastic, revolutionary-minded student youth. Then, too, the most enlightened among the workers longed for the rebirth of independent trade unions, and a chance for active participation in running the state-owned factories. All these elements hoped, above all, for an end to the Communist party dictatorship.

Gomulka, to save that dictatorship, had to crush these hopes. He had to discard his allies of 1956, and seek support in the only organization that would give it to a Communist leader, the narrow, reactionary, and often brutal party apparatus. Gomulka understood where he had to turn to get the levers of his power—and he did what he had to do. But in so doing, he blocked most of his channels of communication not only with the country as a whole, but also with the non-Communist forces in Poland that are socially and politically radical. Gomulka is aware of his present isolation. But Gomulka is a fanatical Communist. And—as I was told by one of his political associates—Gomulka believes his is a dictatorship of the proletariat which will in years to come mold a new generation that will share his political and economic ideas.

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But if Gomulka is determined not to give up power or share it with anyone, left or right, neither does he want any return to the former regime of fear and terror. If he cannot win the active support of any considerable group of the population, if the overwhelming majority are anti-Communist, then let them be politically uninterested, inert, even if it means complete indifference to what he, Gomulka, proclaims to be in their interest. This explains the absence of the slightest effort of the regime to make the people—or even just the people of Warsaw—take any notice of what the fifteen hundred men and women gathered at the Palace of Culture were doing or saying.

National apathy is the condition for a non-terroristic Communist regime in Poland.

Every authoritarian regime thrives on a perverted complex of masochism. It is bound to feel the presence of enemies everywhere—inside its own garrison and outside the citadel. Fear thus becomes the moral basis for dictatorship, for intellectual terror, and for the material corruption which keeps spreading among the top ruling clique. At the congress, Gomulka attacked three main enemies. The enemy inside the party are the “revisionists, poisoned with social democratic ideas.” Outside, among the citizenry, the enemy is the Roman Catholic Church. And in the world at large the enemy is, of course, the capitalist imperialists—of which the U.S. remains the obvious symbol, and Western Germany the spearhead.

In fairness to Gomulka, one must point out that these fixations of his are not altogether a matter of charging into windmills. During my twenty-four days in Poland I conversed—sometimes intimately—with dozens of party members of high standing. If I say that out of these only one, an editor of an important party newspaper, was a 100 per cent totally dedicated Communist, it may sound unbelievable. It is a fact. The party members whom I spoke to, men and women, were activists—journalists, political workers, civil servants, writers. All of them belonged to Gomulka’s “internal” enemy. They were revisionists, people longing for a system that would harmoniously unite the economic needs of a country going through the processes of industrialization, with the aims of social justice and political and individual freedom. The fact that I am a member of the British Labor party gave rise, on every occasion it was mentioned, to genuine and sometimes moving expressions of sympathy—I particularly recall one such incident in the office of the Workers’ Council of Zeran, the country’s largest automobile factory. There I was told that “while we [in Poland] talk about workers’ rights and welfare, in Britain and in the Scandinavian countries they have been achieved.” It is true that at this moment there exists no organized revisionist wing in the party itself; but aside from the paid members of the party apparatus (there are about 10,000 of them) the intellectually alive members are as revisionist as they ever were.

The Church continues to be very strong among the peasants, and of course still has a good deal of influence in the towns. I was informed by one of the leading Catholic writers (one of the nine Znak deputies in the Sejm) that in his opinion the head of the Polish Church, Cardinal Wyszynski, underestimates the growth of agnosticism, which is everywhere the natural companion of urban life. It is still true that the majority of the Polish students are loyal to the Church—but not 100 per cent. The workers, who only yesterday as peasant boys and girls attended church services every Sunday, have become less regular churchgoers now. On the other hand there has taken place among the Catholic intellectuals a significant liberal turn, clearly evident in the few periodicals they are allowed to print. My half-day visit to the Cracow office of their weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, convinced me that the once monolithic and “Spanish” Polish Catholic Church now has a strong liberal “revisionist” wing of its own. This includes not only lay Catholic intelligentsia, but also influential bishops, and is looked upon with friendly tolerance by Cardinal Wyszynski. I venture to say that the prospect for the emergence of a liberal Poland on the day that authoritarian rule ceases to exist in Eastern Europe is now probably better than ever before.

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How do the remnants of Polish Jewry fit into this complex political, economic, and intellectual scene?

The first thing that must be noted is that while the Jewish emigration is undeniably slowing down, it still continues. Many of my Jewish friends, whom I saw and spoke to in the winter of 1956, were no longer there on my second visit. Together with their families, they had left the country.

There are no exact figures available for the number of Jews who have emigrated in the last thirty months, or for those who are still in Poland. During this period some fourteen or fifteen thousand Jews, I was told, have returned to Poland from Soviet Russia. No less than eleven thousand of these repatriates went on farther—to Israel, to South America, to Western Europe and Australia. If they were able to leave Soviet Russia at all, it was because the Polish government had insisted, in the face of Russian resistance, on having included in the repatriation treaty paragraph 19, which granted Jews who could claim Polish citizenship as of August 1939 the right to return to Poland (a right denied to Ukrainians, Belorussians, and other non-Catholic former Polish citizens). But the majority of these Jews had ceased to have any ties with the Poland that emerged after 1945. It is not likely that more than a few of the four thousand Jewish repatriates who are still in Poland will make their permanent home there.

There are, in addition, some thirty-five thousand Jews who either never left Poland (surviving the Nazi occupation by hiding or assuming a non-Jewish identity), or who returned to Poland immediately after the war from exile and camps in Soviet Russia or in Germany. Some came back from France, Britain, and other Western countries—mainly they were of extreme left-wing persuasion. Many of these latter Jews are completely Polonized and bring up their children as straight Poles (though minus the Roman Catholicism). When the Stalinists in Poland reverted to outright anti-Semitism, in 1954, 1955, and 1956, and purged the Jews from the army, the higher civil service, the economic life, and the party apparatus, many of the completely Polonized and fellow-traveling Jews experienced a painful psychological shock. By the end of 1956 they were the most panic-stricken members of the whole Jewish community. A great many of them left for Israel—though it would seem that they are not entirely happy there, according to the letters I have seen written by them to friends in Poland. Recently, the exodus of this group from Poland has largely been stopped, one of the reasons being the new policy of the government in refusing foreign passports to those who have worked in secret state establishments (police, army, defense production) during the last two years.

Yet when the Association of Polish Journalists gave a reception for the foreign journalists who were in Warsaw to report on the party congress, the percentage of Jews among our hosts was considerable. Jews are certainly prominent on the staff of Trybuna Ludu, the party’s central organ. They are also quite numerous still in the higher strata of the civil service (heads of departments, etc.) and in the industrial management group; there are still many Jewish poets and writers, and at some universities a substantial number of the sociologists and economists are Jews.

In the party itself, there can be no doubt that the percentage of Jews, especially in the top leadership, has very much diminished during the last two or three years. At the congress there were Jews in the party delegations from Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow, Kielce, and some other districts, and one of the four main speeches was made by Roman Zambrowski, who is a Jew. Apart from him, however, among the more than eighty speakers who participated in the debates at the congress (these were not real debates, but simply prepared and censored statements of loyalty to the party line) only one, as far as I could make out, was a Jew.

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A few weeks before the delegates to the congress assembled, an anti-Semitic leaflet, produced on a hectograph, circulated among the party activists, especially in and around Warsaw. I did not see it, but was told about it by three separate delegates. It was signed by an anonymous “honest delegate,” and its authors, according to my informants, belong to a group of Polish Stalinists whose leader until very recently was a certain Pawlak, the former secretary of the Warsaw County party organization, who was removed from his post by Gomulka. The leaflet called on party members to elect as delegates to the congress “trustworthy comrades” who would defend the regime against “imperialist agents.” It urged also that they should not vote for Jews, or members with Jewish wives. Zofia Gomulka is of Jewish origin, and so are the wives of several other prominent party leaders. The leaflet was branded by party members of my acquaintance as a foolish product of extreme Polish Stalinists, who are suspected, by the way, of being employees of a secret Soviet state organization. Jewish party members, on the other hand, assured me there are no indications of anti-Semitism inside the party. The fact that Zambrowski, the only Jew elected to the party’s Politburo, received one of the lowest votes, need not necessarily be taken as any proof of latent anti-Semitism. He also happens to be one of the less attractive and less popular personalities among the Polish Communist leaders.

Among the thirty-five thousand more or less settled Jews remaining in Poland, only a very small proportion belong to the already assimilated and privileged group of those who earn a good living. The majority are workers, artisans belonging to cooperatives, small government employees, teachers, etc. One task this larger community has set itself is to insure the survival of what is left of the Yiddish cultural tradition in Poland. The government, I was told, is very generous in helping toward this end, with contributions of money, accommodations, etc. I have already mentioned the nationwide Sholem Aleichem festivities which, organized by mixed Polish-Jewish committees, were government-subsidized. The Yiddish State Theater receives a government subsidy of three to four million zlotys yearly. Another four million zlotys (roughly $160,000) yearly of state subsidy goes to the Jewish “Cultural Association” (Communist-controlled) which, among other activities, maintains clubs in twenty-six towns where there are Jewish communities, and has published between fifteen and twenty books in Yiddish every year; it has close to three thousand subscribers.

The community, of course, continues to receive help from international Jewish organizations. The Joint Distribution Committee, active once again since 1957, is helping to recreate a Jewish cooperative movement in Poland—twelve such cooperatives are already in existence. The ORT has been doing a very good job, teaching new trades to the Jewish repatriates from Soviet Russia, or to those Polish Jews who lost their jobs as army officers or civil servants and have to make their living in some other way.

Generally, I was assured by the Jews I talked to (including some Israeli diplomats) that there is no overt anti-Semitism at the present time in Poland. I myself saw no signs of any during my stay there. Yet I was also informed that most of the Jews, and especially those who live outside Warsaw, are going ahead with plans to emigrate. Some two to three hundred Jews leave Poland every month.

Poland in the spring of 1959 was much less exhilarating than Poland in the closing months of 1956. There was less freedom to publish unorthodox opinions, and political apathy had replaced enthusiasm. Yet it is still a country where the severest critique of Communism can be openly voiced—and applauded—without fear of the consequences.

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