Chapter X

A Government Is Born

On a New Year's Eve in Lublin in a large round hall with yellow marble columns I saw the new government of Poland born.

Exactly a year had passed since the secret meeting had organized the underground Rada Narodowa in Warsaw. From its beginnings in that hidden flat, the Rada had spread across the country even under the German terror. It had organized county governments – such as that in Radzyn – and prepared a People's Army of many small, far-flung partisan detachments. Its delegates had crossed German lines, reached Red Army headquarters, preparing for the coming battles to liberate the land. When the Red Army – and the First Polish Army of General Sigmund Berling with it – forced the Bug in July 1944, the Rada, still underground in most of Poland, had set up the Committee of National Liberation to exercise openly the emergency functions of government in that eastern third of Poland that was free.

Month by month the new regime was tested in action. Village, city, county, and provincial radas had long been organized. The National Rada had steadily expanded by delegates from new organizations or elected from the lower radas in an ascending scale. It had reached one hundred and five members in the liberated territory, with an unannounced number in the Nazi-occupied area. A stage had been reached in which it was considered desirable to constitute formally a provisional government, since the Committee was doing actual governmental work.

Some simple soldier boys that I met were surprised that this new formality should be needed. "We thought the Committee was already the government. To whom did we take our oath of allegiance?" To the mind of the average citizen the test of all these forms was simply whether or not they worked. Did they bring order out of the chaos left by the Nazis? Did they rally the citizens' support and make it possible to live and work? Did they stabilize the state?

The answers to these questions could not be found in Lublin discussions. Here, as in the days of the New Deal under Roosevelt, one could hear anything: the most glowing hopes, the most intemperate attacks. Nor had national elections yet been able to determine the answers. Two thirds of Poland was not yet freed, and time would be required for the millions of Poles scattered in foreign lands to come home. Yet answers of a very practical kind had been given.

The first one had come in early autumn when the peasants obeyed the decree on food quotas and gave the required amount under order of the local radas without military compulsion. A second answer came when civil servants and industrial workers took jobs in terms of the new food supply, thus stabilizing the routine of life. A third was given when people accepted as legal tender the new regime's money, backed only by future promises and faith. A fourth, when young men took mobilization into the army, which in a few months doubled in size. A fifth, when passes issued by various "resorts" were honored by the meager transport services. Lastly, and in some ways most important, the peasants had answered by parceling nearly a million acres through locally elected committees and tilling the soil on the basis of the new regime's title deeds.

Constitution of a formal government had been delayed six months pending not only this domestic organization, but also agreement with some of the members of the Polish government-in-exile in London. Nothing had come of the many conferences; in fact, the London Poles, after several cabinet crises, had even more reactionary chiefs. It seemed time now to go ahead without them since the internal strength had been proved.

The great offensive that lay ahead also called for a formal government. Everybody knew that the Red Army, with the accompanying Polish Army, would soon break the German defenses along the Vistula and sweep westward to liberate the rest of Poland. The various leaders would at once scatter from Lublin to other cities and provinces where they would have to set up civil authority in all the chaos and with all the disabilities of communication and transport just behind a great front. They needed for this much wider task the authority and coherence of formal governmental power.

The Krajowa Rada Narodowa assembled at ten o'clock on the morning of December 31st, 1944, in a hall of the Committee's Headquarters. Ninety-eight deputies attended. They sat at three long tables radiating from a head table or presidium. Other deputies from German-occupied Poland had crossed the front to bring reports and proposals secretly before the Congress, but they were not exposed to view at the open session.

Marble columns and green potted plants separated the assembly from an outer circle of visitors and press. When the Rada convened the foreigners present were the diplomatic representatives of the USSR and of France – it was the French representative's first public appearance and evoked tremendous applause – and the Soviet press. For the first half hour I was the only American reporter present. Then five other Anglo-American correspondents dashed in by much belated train from Moscow, not taking time even to go to their hotel.

The proceedings were dignified and solemn, accompanied by the national anthem, the formal oath of office by all deputies. Bierut as President of the Rada, Morawski as chairman of the Committee, and General Zymierski as commander in chief made reports. Representatives of the four political parties, of various provinces, and of public organizations gave in short speeches their reasons why it was expedient to constitute a provisional government now. The general tenor was that the Rada now contained leaders from all sections of the Polish people, had public backing, and had shown ability to organize the state.

My eight weeks in various parts of liberated Poland gave me an inside view of the Rada's make-up and enabled me to judge the claims of the various deputies. I saw before me among them many acquaintances, the variety of whose work I knew.

The chief figures supplemented each other rather effectively. Boleslaw Bierut, the quiet, keen theoretician, obviously the chief political brains; Edward Osubka-Morawski, friendly, accessible, effusive, especially expansive in mass meetings of peasants or workers, and apparently easy to get on with; General Rola-Zymierski, the experienced military man; Dr. Hilary Minc, economic analyst with a grasp of Poland's resources.

Then there sat that handsome blue-eyed dynamo of a Spychalski, architect-engineer in Warsaw city-planning, partisan warrior, army man, energetic mayor now of Warsaw-Praga. Near by in vivid contrast was Father Borowiec, the priest who was chairman of the Rzeczow Voveyovstwo Rada, governor of a fair-sized state. And George Strachelski, voyevod from Bialystok, who fought to revive the industries of an utterly ruined city, and had put the land reform through first of all the provinces.

Of educationalists there was Dr. Skrzeszewski, graduate of Cracow and of the Sorbonne, who had brought nearly a million children into school under devoted teachers, some of whom came barefoot across the battle front. And Dr. Waclaw Rabe, once professor of Zoology in Lvov University, now rector of the new Curie State University in Lublin, where professors from four great university cities tried to teach science and medicine from memory since the Germans had destroyed most of the books. And Jan Karol Wende, novelist and poet, now collecting books from the ruins for new public libraries.

Then there was Casimir Witaszewski, once secretary of the biggest trade-union in Lodz and labor member of the city council, now general secretary of a trade-union movement that counted already one hundred and twenty thousand members. And General Zawadzki, at the moment responsible for training the Polish Army in ideals of democratic citizenship. And Edward Bertold whose ability to organize peasant committees had brought him step by step to a top post in agriculture. And Dr. George Morzycki who went from ten years in the Warsaw Institute of Hygiene founded by the Rockefeller Foundation to handle the antityphus fight throughout Poland, and thence to become partisan surgeon in the woods.

The youngest deputy, Helene Jaworska, was a charming girl of twenty-two – she looked seventeen – with a smile as winning and sweet as that of a debutante. To look at her was to want to embrace her, protecting her from the world. Yet she had sat in my room in her captain's uniform and told how she, with three other young people, dropped thermite into German granaries under guise of an evening's stroll and flirtation. She had been the youth delegate to the illegal Rada a year before. She had also struggled more than a day through sewers waist-deep in filth to bring to the Red Army the first exact news of the Warsaw uprising and the disposition of the insurgents. At the moment she was chairman of the Inter-Party Youth Committee, and deputy in the new government.

These are only a few of the strong personalities I happened to recognize. Other deputies had similar claims to leadership among other sections of Polish citizenry. After a day's speeches, they voted unanimously to constitute a provisional government which should hold power until Poland was entirely freed and new general elections held.

The form of the new government included the Krajowa Rada Narodowa, a legislative body whose membership was eventually to reach four hundred and forty-four, and an executive cabinet – what Europeans call "the Government" and Americans call "the Administration." The administration is chosen by the legislative branch and is responsible to it, as in France and Great Britain. Bierut's function, as President of the Rada, lacks the administrative duties and party role of the President of the United States; he presides over all parties without officially representing any of them, like the President of France or the Speaker in the House of Commons.

The choice of New Year's Eve for the announcement of the Provisional Government proved shrewd political timing. Not only was it the anniversary of the first illegal Rada, it was the first New Year's Eve in six years in which Poles had been permitted to hold their cherished parties. The happiness of a hundred formal and informal celebrations, the hopes of a coming year of full Polish liberation, all combined with the cheers for the new Provisional Government. All Lublin was in a cheering mood.

We Anglo-American correspondents went from the solemn Rada session to a theater where thirteen hundred peasants in a co-operative congress cheered the new government. They also cheered President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, the Anglo-American journalists, and the imminent prospects of Poland's freedom. That evening we went to three successive banquets: a government banquet in the marble-columned hall, a peasant banquet-picnic where people stood up munching sandwiches, too crowded to sit down or to dance, and an all-night ball of the army. Everywhere they were eating, drinking, dancing, singing, hailing the coming liberation. The momentum was tremendous.

At the government banquet the irrepressible Spychalski was the center of the noisiest corner. It seems some people from other cities had been saying that Warsaw was so utterly destroyed that it couldn't be used as a capital for ten years. But the delegation from Warsaw-Praga intended everybody to know that their city might be badly battered but was still Poland's capital and very much on the map. So they noisily toasted Warsaw and everything connected with Warsaw.

Next day Spychalski came quietly to my room and gave me the long-desired interview about that first illegal Rada, of which he had handled the technical organization. "Up in Warsaw I was always too busy to talk to you,” he apologized, "but down here there's not so much to do!" Forming a government for Poland was just nothing to the Warsaw mayor's energy!

He talked as he had done the night before. "The Polish people feel Warsaw as their capital. That is why many of us remained underground in Warsaw during German rule. We organized there the first partisan detachments around which the new army coalesced. Peasants everywhere formed bands to fight the Germans, but only when direction came from Warsaw did the movement gain nation-wide scope. That was also why we organized the Rada Narodowa in Warsaw though it was hardest there under the very noses of the Gestapo."

Spychalski laughed at my supposition that New Year's Eve had been chosen so that the illegal assembly could meet under guise of a New Year's party. "Poles couldn't even hold New Year's parties. We chose that time because the Gestapo would be holding parties of their own.

"The delegates came from various parts of Poland. They traveled unarmed lest they be searched and shot. They did not even know the place of assembly. This was known only to me and to one other – he is still 'in conspiracy' beyond the Vistula." (Later this "other" turned out to be Casimir Mijal who, after the liberation, became the first voyevod of the Lodz district.) "We two picked the delegates up one by one and brought them to the apartment between five and seven in the evening, since eight o'clock marked the curfew, after which only people with special Gestapo permits might be on the streets.

"We had arms in the apartment – brought by local people less exposed to risk than the delegates. We were prepared to sell our lives dearly if discovered. There were delegates there from the Peasants' Party, the Polish Socialist Party, the Polish Workers' Party, underground trade-unions, groups of non-party democrats, the Youth Union of Struggle, writers’ groups, co-operative groups, and delegates from partisan detachments of the People's Guard, the People's Militia, the Peasants’ Battalions, and from some local formations of the Home Army. We conferred all night. Next morning we went out, one by one, between five-thirty and seven o'clock when curfew was over but the winter morning was still dark."

That night the decision was taken to weld far-flung partisan bands into a People's Army to co-operate with the Red Army on its arrival, and to organize underground local governments prepared to take power at the moment of liberation. How they organized and built themselves into the life of Poland has been told in previous chapters of this book.

"Are you surprised that in a single year the illegal Rada Narodowa has grown into the Provisional Government?" was my next question.

"No," he replied. "We planned, we organized, we aroused the Polish people, and this is the natural result."

Click here to go to Chapter XI

Click here to return to the index of archival material