The Lessons of My Childhood in Communist Poland are Relevant Again
Danuta Hinc on Propaganda, Martial Law, and Protecting the Truth
The liar’s punishment is,
not in the least that he is not believed,
but that he cannot believe anyone else.
–George Bernard Shaw
In March, when Donald J. Trump tweeted that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had illegally wiretapped Trump Tower before the election, I quickly concluded that the claim was absolutely false. I wasn’t alone in my thinking, of course, but what unsettled me to the core was the realization that followed: What if no one holds him accountable for making this accusation? What if this is the new normal? What if, years from now, no one will remember what life was like before Trump? What happens when we forget the language of truth?
I grew up in communist Poland where newspapers like Głos Wybrzeża, Dziennik Bałtycki, and Trybuna Ludu were read by the general public to predict what was being omitted or distorted. The white space of the paper, its silence, held the truth.
For example, if the papers started publishing recipes of how to turn noodles into one hundred delicious meals, everyone knew that soon meat would become scarce in stores. Television—with Channel #1 and Channel #2—was another apparatus of the communist regime, and we watched it, again, to deduce the truth. One winter in the 1970s, a popular program titled, “Zrób to sam,” “Do it yourself,” aired an instructional segment on how to make a Christmas tree from a broom, and we knew immediately that Christmas trees would not be available, which meant that we needed to organize expeditions into the woods, where under the cover of darkness we would cut down the trees ourselves. No one considered this stealing. After all, in communism everything belongs to everyone.
On December 13, 1981, when the General of the Military, Wojciech Jaruzelski, declared Martial Law in Poland, I was a sophomore at King Sobieski High School in Wejherowo. For the occasion Jaruzelski was wearing his dress uniform and eyeglasses with dark lenses. These tinted glasses were his signature, but also a topic of numerous jokes about his dishonesty: clearly, out of shame, he couldn’t bring himself to look anyone in the eye.
In his stern, monotone voice, he assured the public that implementing Martial Law was the best way to protect the country and its citizens. He announced the formation of Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego (WRON), the Military Council of National Salvation, and presented a long list of newly implemented restrictions, including a strict curfew between 10:00PM and 6:00AM, seven days a week.
I watched the address with my parents and my sister in our living room. Together we did our best to read between the lines. What was he really saying?
Jaruzelski began with a General Proclamation:
Addressing the necessity for increased protection of the fundamental interests of the state and citizens, in order to create the conditions for the effective protection of peace, and public order, and the restoration of social discipline, and to safeguard the viability of national and state administration; acting on the art. 33 sec. 2 of the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic— State Council introduced Martial Law.
Afterward—after Jaruzelski had listed additional restrictions and finally signed off—I announced to my family that I wanted to write an essay for my high school, in the Golden Book, about what I’d just heard. The Golden Book was a record of events for my class, Class of 1984. My job was to record in it field trips, holidays, important anniversaries, winter and spring breaks, concerts, and anything else worth remembering. The artwork that accompanied the writing was also my responsibility.
My parents unanimously condemned the idea. They didn’t want me to take the risk. We argued. They reminded me what the communist regime had done to our family: that my maternal grandfather had been imprisoned shortly after World War II for criticizing the new regime, and that the imprisonment cost him his health; that my father would never be able to count on a promotion, even though his engineering skills were indispensable to the company; that my mother was harassed regularly at work for refusing to join the Polish Communist Party—that she was lucky not to be fired; and that one of my mother’s brothers, uncle Jerzy, after engaging in subversive activities during his years in college, was sent to serve in the army—in the special unit reserved for troublemakers.
“Remember,” my mother said to me, “what uncle Jerzy told us?” Cadets in his unit nearly died from exhaustion, and several committed suicide. “Many sweated in blood, like Christ in the garden of Gethsemane,” she said. Still, I persisted with my claims; I argued that we all needed to fight for what was right, precisely for those who sweated in blood. At the time I was 16 years old.
The next day, as a compromise, my father allowed me to use his car to go to discuss the issue with my best friend and classmate, Krystyna. He wanted me to listen to her advice. “Co dwie głowy, to nie jedna,” he proclaimed, “Two heads are better than one,” and he made me promise that I would think very, very hard before writing anything. I promised.
When Krystyna opened the door she hugged me tightly. We spent the day discussing the specific rules of General Jaruzelski’s address—which took up the entire first page of the morning paper. We were trying to figure out what it meant, and if there was a safe way for me to write about it.
The Proclamation outlined all activities that were strictly forbidden and laws that were to be enforced immediately, but there was much more communicated between the lines. When Krystyna and I read that “all public gatherings, manifestations, and marches were forbidden,” we knew that people had taken to the streets in major cities, maybe even all over the country, and the regime’s media—newspapers, TV, and radio—weren’t reporting on it. When we read that “all kind of publications, and public performances were forbidden,” we knew that the underground press was doing well, and that the regime had tried to disrupt the flow of banned books. “Workers’ strikes and protests are forbidden” meant that the communist regime was afraid of the self-governing Labor Union “Solidarność,” and that the movement was gaining strength and influence. And when we saw that all citizens would now be required to carry identification (children 13 years and older had to carry their school IDs), we knew it meant a stronger milicja, police presence—and possible arrests based on anything or on nothing at all.
The biggest challenge was introduced by mandatory censorship of letters and parcels. This meant unprecedented hardship in communication. The only safe way of disseminating information and underground press would be in person, which presented challenge in itself. Suddenly, funds and time became of pressing importance.
Krystyna and I combed through the text of the General Jaruzelski’s Proclamation as if it were a message sent in code, and we were certain that similar meetings and discussions were happening at that exact moment all across the country. Still, we couldn’t agree on a safe way for me to write about it, but when I was leaving Krystyna’s house the next morning (I stayed overnight, because of the curfew), I wasn’t ready to give up.
At home the next day, looking for insight, I examined my grandparents’ library, and then my own books and piles of papers and clippings. But it wasn’t until dinner, when my eyes wandered to our calendar on the kitchen wall, that I was finally struck with inspiration.
This calendar, which included all 12 months on its single page, had been drawn in the shape of a penguin. After dinner I took it down from the wall—my mother didn’t object; she had another—and cut out the dates at its center, leaving only the penguin-shaped outline, which I then glued onto a new page in the Golden Book.
In the space where the calendar parts used to be, I wrote a short and simple text: respectfully, avoiding criticism or sarcasm, I said that I hoped Martial Law would end soon.
Afterward I showed it to my sister. She had two comments. First: the penguin’s feet looked exactly like General Jaruzelski’s famous tinted glasses. Second, that I should not show it to our parents. When I tried to argue that the penguin’s feet didn’t necessarily look like Jaruzelski’s glasses, she said that everyone—literally everyone in Poland—would see it that way. She was right. It was the reason I’d used the calendar in the first place.
When I brought the Golden Book with the new penguin page to school, the other students clamored around the desk on which I proudly displayed it. No one mentioned General Jaruzelski’s name, but everyone understood. My classmates laughed and whistled. Nice work! They said to me. I felt elated. My penguin message was understood exactly the way I intended.
The trouble started when our homeroom teacher came in. He laughed too, looking at the page, and then he tucked the Golden Book under his arm and left the classroom. Later, I learned that he’d taken it to the principal’s office, and that the principal had announced an emergency all-faculty meeting during the lunch hour. I didn’t realize I was in danger of being expelled, even as my math teacher, on his way out of the meeting in the principal’s office, said to me as we passed each other in the hallway, “You didn’t mean it this way, right?”
“Of course, I didn’t mean it this way,” I answered.
He smiled and nodded. It was one of those exchanges in which we didn’t have to say anything else; my math teacher and I both knew precisely what I’d meant. The penguin cutout was a joke, a parody of General Jaruzelski. It was a silent white space on the page that held the truth of the message. General Jaruzelski was the penguin, an animal that lives in the cold and walks on short legs—clumsy, half-blind, and inhuman: the opposite of graceful. We, the dissidents, knew we would outrun him one day. And we hoped soon.
Days later, I learned from this same math teacher that my Russian Language instructor, a fierce and determined woman, had insisted during the meeting that I should be made into an example and expelled immediately. She was one of the two teachers in my high school who belonged to the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (PZPR), Polish United Workers’ Party—the despised Communist Party. Luckily for me, my math teacher had spoken up in my favor. In the end I was not called to the principal’s office for fear that the conversation would put more subversive ideas into my head. In other words, everyone was to pretend, going forward, that no one knew what everyone knew.
Later that week, I traveled to Gdańsk to see a friend. I was returning a book she needed for one of her upcoming exams. It was a cold winter evening, and I was running late. I had only ten minutes left until curfew, and I knew that it would take at least 20 to reach my friend’s apartment. I tried to run, but in a heavy winter coat and boots I couldn’t move quickly enough.
When I reached the residential area, where my friend lived, it started to snow. Slow, fat flakes drifted under the street lamps. For a moment the world felt enchanted. I stopped in my tracks. I was in the middle of a courtyard, surrounded by dark communist-era apartment buildings, and suddenly I couldn’t believe my eyes:
In the windows above, people were displaying their TVs. The curtains were closed behind the TVs (separating the TVs from the rooms they were in), and the screens were all turned to face the courtyard. On each screen was the same image: General Jaruzelski, speaking again—a televised re-run of his earlier proclamation. His lips were moving; dozens upon dozens of General Jaruzelskis’ lips were moving, talking to the night, to the falling snow, to the courtyard, and not talking to the people in the apartments.
These people were publicly rejecting General Jaruzelski’s message and they were united in their rejection. No one had to explain why the TVs were in the windows. We all understood. It meant we didn’t support General Jaruzelski. It meant we knew he served the Kremlin. We knew he lied. Over the next two years, others rejected Martial Law in many different ways. Some were discovered, and punished.
The message I composed for the Golden Book that year was important, apart from the image of a penguin and his feet representing General Jaruzelski’s tinted glasses, because of one sentence: “I hope Martial Law ends soon.” When I read the sentence today, it seems innocent, benign. It seems not to carry any subversive meaning. But I know that in the General Jaruzelski’s Proclamation context it was explosive. “I hope Martial Law ends soon” meant: I know the Martial Law was not implemented to protect Poland and its citizens. It meant: I know, we all know, you are lying.
Today, whenever I come across Donald Trump’s latest lie—The New York Times keeps a complete list, updated frequently—I find myself asking: What should we do to protect the truth?
I’m afraid that displaying my television in the window won’t do the trick. Protesting in the era of perpetual entertainment and advertisement presents a difficult set of challenges. Simply keeping up with what is unfolding every single day leaves little room for anything else. And how productive is it to have a discussion with someone who disregards logic and reality?
But when I feel like I’m losing hope, I try to remember the lessons I learned growing up: I repeat to myself that the truth is always singular, and lies are always plural. The truth is rooted in reality and defined by a set of circumstances. Lies are rooted in imagination and can change at any time. The truth is aligned with logic; it is verifiable. Lies are forced to maneuver around the only version of reality that exists. This is what I tell myself: the truth always comes out as long as someone keeps asking questions.