On Assignment in Poland: a Writer's Daring Return Yields a Portrait of Despair

updated 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Since martial law descended on Poland Dec. 13, journalists, strategists and diplomats in the West have scrambled for reliable information about the troubled country. But no observers were more eager for information than Poles living abroad. One of them, Krystyna Bittenek, 30, a free-lance writer who was born in Warsaw and is now a naturalized American, was determined to find out what had happened to her homeland and her friends. Just before the crackdown, Bittenek and her sister, Ania, had done a story for PEOPLE on the lives of three Polish families—a story that was overtaken by events before it could be published. Early this month Krystyna volunteered to return to Poland to update the story. She went as a tourist using her Polish passport. Had she declared herself a journalist, she would not have been allowed in. Krystyna had no guarantee that she would be able to leave the country once she entered. But she chose to go and has returned with this extraordinary report, one of the first accounts of the crisis by a Polish citizen published in the West.

The first step in my return was uncertain. At the Polish Consulate in New York, an official tried to talk me out of going. Even the consulate had been out of touch with Warsaw for weeks, and he was not sure if the endorsement he issued to my passport would be honored. Then he wished me well. "If you do go," he said, "and if you do return, please come back here and tell us what's going on."

In Vienna, preparing to board the Chopin Express to Warsaw, I almost lost my nerve. Well-meaning friends warned that I was a perfect candidate to disappear or be arrested for espionage. I was about to call New York and say I was backing out, but I had no Austrian coins for the phone. The train was about to leave. I decided to take my chances, but twice on the 15-hour train journey I had scary moments. During a thorough search of the train at the Austrian-Czechoslovakian border, we were all ordered into the corridor and our compartments were searched. At the Czech-Polish border, one passenger had his letters confiscated. A suspicious official asked me whether I was carrying another passport. Since I had my American passport hidden away for emergency use, I pretended to misunderstand the question; luckily he lost interest. Two officials who checked my Polish passport argued over whether to invalidate it. Finally one said, "I'm not sure. Let someone in Warsaw worry about it."

I checked into the Victoria Hotel, where only about 50 of the 410 rooms were occupied. Everyone assumes that the rooms are bugged, but some anonymous Samaritan wanted to warn me. When I got my passport back from the front desk, a note ordering the bugging of my room was "accidentally" tucked inside. I discussed this with friends, who agreed it probably was not a stupid oversight, but rather an example of the passive resistance to martial law that Solidarity has clandestinely ordered.

Many of the hotels in Warsaw and other cities are closed down. The authorities haven't given a reason, and rumors spread like wildfire. Most people believe they were intended as emergency field hospitals in case of widespread fighting. Some hotels and at least one grade school that I heard of are being used to quarter the army and militia units. Most restaurants are shut and the atmosphere in those still open is gloomy. Music is not allowed, and the sale of alcohol in them, except for beer, is prohibited.

No one in Poland talks about "martial law." People talk about "the war." They see it as a clearly defined conflict between General Jaruzelski and the Polish people. Poland has the feel of a wartime country. Strolling on Pulawska Street in Warsaw, I passed a line of parked armored cars. Squads of soldiers—armed against whom but us?—patrol the streets constantly. Strictly enforced curfews kill city life in mid-evening. One cab I rode in was flagged down at military roadblocks three times in five minutes for no apparent reason. The soldiers asked a few questions, demanded our documents, and let us go.

The "war," I discovered, is very much a psychological one. The government is attempting to create a breach between the intellectuals and the workers by giving intellectuals preferential treatment in the internment camps and blaming the intelligentsia in the press for the crackdown. The army needs to convince people that it controls their lives. Before the war, people believed that the news they got from Radio Free Europe, at least, was valid. Now the stories on Radio Free Europe are bloody accounts of repression which some people think are highly exaggerated. They believe the government is deliberately spreading misinformation, letting it out to the West so that RFE will broadcast it back to Poland and frighten people even more. One military source says 60,000 people were arrested on the first night of the war; the figure is widely accepted. It is known that children of detainees are taken to orphanages, not given to relatives. People believe that the government has effectively sealed all the borders. I discovered that when I went through Warsaw, visiting friends. They reacted to my appearance—dramatic in the circumstances—with a mix of emotions. A friend of my mother's shook her head in disbelief, saying "No! Why?...Let me sit down." Another viewed me through the peephole of her front door and thought her imagination was running away with her. Finally realizing I was no mirage, she said "You ARE crazy."

Only a Pole free to travel through the city, unlike Western correspondents, could hear the stories of everyday life. Most Poles are silent now, but from those who would talk, I heard about the grim day martial law was imposed. Each time the emergency decrees were broadcast, listeners were reminded that violations could result in punishment up to the death penalty. The radio and television carried nothing but Jaruzelski's speech, the Polish national anthem and some Chopin, repeated unendingly, in a sequence swiftly christened the "Jaruzelski Tango." It enraged people. One man told me how eventually he unplugged his television and threw it into the garbage. "It was childish and ridiculous," he admitted, "but it seemed the only thing left to do." Three weeks later another friend was still carrying the scars of his anger. He had smashed his fist through the television screen in defiant frustration.

The war caught almost everyone by surprise. A young friend grinned ruefully as he told of dismantling his telephone in a vain effort to bring the silent instrument alive. Only when he turned on the radio and heard the "tango" did he realize that for the indefinite future, Poland had uninvented the telephone. A university professor staying in his primitive country cabin was blissfully unaware of the war for 10 days. Driving back to Warsaw, he heard the news first at a military checkpoint.

The darker side of this national trauma seeped out slowly: the deaths of resisting miners at Katowice, unsubstantiated reports that soldiers refusing to obey orders were being executed. There are stories of many suicides in the army and among civilians. I know of one man overcome with despair who walked through a second-story window. He survived. A cab driver told me of the soldier who had broken under the strain. Failing to find and kill his commanding officer, he ran amok in a restaurant, killing a waiter and wounding several patrons.

The imposition of military rule, coming on top of a rapid deterioration in living standards, has shocked and depressed the whole country. People felt the anguish and helplessness personally—and the government has used selective acts of violence to reinforce its image of omnipotence. Close to tears, a woman told me of the arrest and beating of a female Solidarity organizer in Czestochowa. The militia burst through the locked front door and clubbed the fleeing girl with batons. My informant said she watched, paralyzed with horror, until relatives hustled her safely out of the soldiers' sight. One man in Gdansk tried to walk downtown four days after the Dec. 17 riots; the stench of tear gas in the snow was still so strong that he got sick and had to return home. Most Polish radio and television workers were fired. Ordered to pick up final paychecks, they found submachine-gun-bearing militia in charge. Together with most artists and intellectuals, they are now out of work and, under harsh antivagrancy laws, they will face jail if they can't find jobs within three months.

Last fall I had written profiles of three families, and I was eager to see how they had fared under martial law. The one whose position seemed most secure of the three was the family of Wladyslaw Kapler, an educated and ambitious 33-year-old economist. He was a member of the Communist Party and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. He and his wife, Elzbieta, owned a car and an apartment, and even had land and plans to build a house. Now, says Wladyslaw, "an epoch has come to an end." His job with a government trade union office was abolished, and now he is anxiously looking for work. When he tried to explain the war to his 7-year-old son, Rafal, the boy asked: "Will they also shoot children?" (For news of the other two families, see above.)

A chance encounter I had with a vodka-swigging army officer suggests the military also is uncertain how far to go. He complained that soldiers had contradictory orders—not to open fire, but under no circumstances to be disarmed. The army was also receiving extra food, the officer admitted, just as rations for the general population had been cut again. Friends cautioned that unless Western packages are sent through CARE and other trusted agencies, the food will be "detoured" to the army. Aid packages from Communist countries were being distributed to children. One from East Germany included biscuits, clothing and a scrawled note reading "Poland is not yet lost!"—the first line of our national anthem. From Russia came a standard kiddie gift, 23 pieces of candy and a plastic rocket. One morning I stood in line for hours at a shop, waiting to buy a loaf of bread. The same shop was depicted on the news that evening with no lines and crammed with foodstuffs, meat and vodka. They had filmed after the store was restocked.

Sardonic humor and caricature are sustaining the Poles. The morning after Jaruzelski declared his war, a cartoon of him in a Nazi SS cap appeared on a Warsaw wall. "If Jaruzelski were a saint," one man sneered, "he'd be Judas." Solidarity advised its members to stop wearing union buttons to avoid provocation. Possession of Solidarity literature can bring a five-year jail term. Instead, members hector the party commissars in factories with questions that slow down productivity. "Comrade, should I sweep this floor?" they will ask. That settled, they demand, "Should I use this broom?"

Of Lech Walesa there was little hard news. Popular belief has him being held in a genteel, Camp David-like setting in Klarysew, outside Warsaw. I talked with one man who had escaped from a political internment camp. Fifteen hundred Solidarity activists were there, with barbed wire, observation posts and armed guards, he said. A young Solidarity woman activist suffering a crushed hand and shock claimed to have been interned and tortured in another political prison. Sadistic guards, she reported, had deliberately mangled her hand in a door, a common practice at that camp.

News broadcasts on government radio and television are simply not believed. Many Poles have unplugged their sets—the programs are better that way, they note wryly. I found that people think the government is using the news blackout to confuse and terrorize them. For example, I heard rumors, probably unfounded, that Russians are serving in Polish uniforms.

When friends knew I was getting ready to leave Poland, they came to warn me. "You must not go out by train," they said emphatically. "You won't get away with that again." Eight days after my arrival in Poland, I boarded a plane for Montreal.

I'm convinced that no Pole wants the pointless fratricide of a civil war. Yet they will never accept the military rule Poland seems fated to endure. "Another 10 years is going to pass," predicted a fatalistic friend in Warsaw, "and we shall have a few more graves and a few more monuments."

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