Chapter II


Lublin was an island of organized life in a sea of chaos. The dramatic break-through of the Red Army, sweeping across the eastern third of Poland in July, had taken the city almost intact. The German guards in the city jail had had time to slaughter the prisoners; the jailyard was crowded with relatives weeping over a thousand corpses when the Red Army marched in. There had not, however, been time to destroy many buildings; so this rather stodgy, provincial city of Southern Poland was best equipped of all Polish cities thus far liberated to become a center of government. It had been, incidentally, the first brief capital of the Polish Republic when, after more than a century of partition, Poland was reborn in 1918.

Autos from the Polish Foreign Office met our train and distributed us to our places of abode. A courteous officer approached me: “You will come to the Committee.” I was about to protest that I wanted first a hotel with a bath and a rest But from the looks of respect among my fellow passengers I gathered that "the Committee'' was better than a hotel.

We sped through the streets of a fair-sized, rather down-at-heels city, climbed a slight rise and drew up before an ordinary apartment house in the back yard of two similar houses. When I found myself on the third floor in the home of a Polish teacher, I thought there was some mistake. My escort, however, was assigning me a room here; he was telling the maid to make a fire in my Holland stove and promising that "the Committee" would supply the coal. This building, one of the best apartment houses in town, had been occupied by Germans for five years and was now taken over for employees and guests of the Committee of National Liberation. It was really more comfortable than any Lublin hotel.

Most important of all, there was heat available; it was not too difficult to get fuel for a Holland stove. The larger hotels were unheated; Lublin – cut off by the front from Silesia – suffered acute shortage of coal. My room was also well lighted and furnished with a fairly comfortable couch and a commodious desk. A large round table, now shoved awkwardly against the wall, indicated that this had once been the dining room. My host with his wife and small son occupied the larger room adjacent. Across the hall was a large kitchen with an alcove in which a willing housemaid lived. Employed by the teacher's family, she was ready to do odd jobs for me.

Fearing that I was crowding them, I tried to apologize in all the languages I knew. They understood a few words of Russian and somewhat more of German, which, however, they did not wish to speak. They made it plain that I was “no inconvenience” and that there would be “no rent.” My hostess even got out her best lace-covered bedding as a sign that she was glad I was there. I put this down at first to excessive hospitality, but within a few days I realized that under prevailing housing conditions, and having moved into the building on the heels of departing Nazis and without anybody's permission, they could not possibly hope to keep more than one room. They were really glad when the other was taken by a single, temporary guest and not by a permanent family.

Half a block away stood a large three-story office building, headquarters for the Committee of National Liberation. To enter you presented a pass to a sentry; once inside, you wandered informally into any department you chose, finding a condensed edition of all usual functions of government. A smaller building across the street with a larger number of sentries housed the Polish General Staff. Cottages strung along the block offered dining facilities for the civil and military services. I was assigned to a dining room directly across the street.

This little cluster of buildings on a slight elevation near the center of Lublin – the Committee, the General Staff, the dining rooms and apartments – formed the administrative center of that third of Poland already liberated by the Red Army. In those wintry days of November and December, 1944, they were headquarters for a rapidly growing Polish army, an epoch-making "land reform," and for all those activities of finance, health, education, and policing which we commonly include under government.

Nobody, however, in Lublin used the term "government" except carelessly. Everybody conscientiously said "the Committee." The full term "Polish Committee of National Liberation" – like similar titles in France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria – implied a limited function and a definite term. In Poland they argued that this modest title would make it easier to combine eventually with some members from the government-in-exile in London.

The various departments in the large three-story building similarly were not given the title “ministry,” common in European lands. They were called "resorts," a word implying, as it does in English, a place where you go for a specific purpose. "Health resort" being where you go for health, "school resort" becomes where you go for schools. For finance, foreign affairs, labor, industry, and agriculture, you went to the appropriate "resort." Nearly all of them were located in this single building, where they were getting rapidly acquainted with each other.

In easy walking distance from the Committee buildings were other centers which I soon came to know. Some two blocks down was Cracow Street, the main through highway, leading in both directions to squares where parades and meetings were frequent, to halls and theaters for congresses of all kinds, to buildings used as headquarters for political parties, trade-unions, and administrative activities.

I learned the way at once to the Committee's official newspaper, the Rzeczpospolita, which, with the official radio station, occupied a large building on Cracow Street just across from a small park. The dynamic editor, Borecza, was easily accessible. He proved to be a mine of information and a tireless maker of connections and appointments with anyone I wished to see. The difficulty in dealing with him was that there were commonly at least six people in his office and two more on his telephone wires, all of whom he was handling at once. This was stimulating but exhausting; unless one fought hard for attention, a perpetual-motion chain of other applicants got it instead.

People were coming to Lublin from all over Poland and from many parts of the world. Refugees from ruined towns and villages came for jobs or merely for shelter. Engineers, scientists, soldiers came to offer their services or just to see what this new administration would do. Hundreds of village leaders came with their problems, slept in rows of cots or simply on piles of straw in unheated buildings, consulted the various "resorts" or the political parties, and took short courses to become organizers of co-operatives, of schools, or of land reform. Congresses met, discussed, and passed resolutions. Trade-unions, co-operatives, political parties strove to reorganize the life that had been five years suppressed.

The pain and the chaos came not only from war that had twice swept the country but from the isolation of five years under Nazi rule. Whenever I sat at a press table in any public gathering, people came to me in the hope that, as an American, I might somehow connect them with the larger world.

Four such applicants came in a single half-hour intermission during the trial of Maidanek war criminals in a large and crowded hall. The first was a soldier lad from Vilno who wanted to reach a mother in Siberia and a father who had gone with Anders's army and who might be in Italy or Palestine. The next was a worn-looking Jewish woman who had once been handsome and who wanted somehow to get word to a brother in Tel Aviv that their mother, father, two sisters, and a dozen relatives had been murdered by the Nazis, but that she, with her husband and children, was alive. "Saved by a Polish peasant woman who hid us in her cellar four years."

A stalwart man from Transylvania next begged me to get a postcard through to his village where he had left a five-year-old son. Picked up by the Germans during their summer retreat through Rumania, he had been brought as a slave as far as Warsaw, where the August uprising freed him. He fought two months as a volunteer until General Bor surrendered. Then this Transylvanian swam the Vistula to the Red Army, where they investigated him and turned him loose.

Penniless, in the clothes he swam in, he had only a single thought – to get back to that five-year-old son. When I told him I had no possible way of communicating with a Transylvania village he repeated reproachfully: “But I've left a five-year-old son there,” as if intensity of desire must somehow change these devilish conditions. When he left me, it was clear that he intended to walk all the way home. I only feared that his insatiable homing instinct, like that of a migrant bird, might dash him into a border guard's stray bullet somewhere in the Carpathians.

The fourth applicant that morning was – believe it or not – an American!

Anthony Paskiewicz, a fit-looking fellow in Polish uniform, claimed that he was born in 1919 in New York City. War overtook him in 1939 in Poland and he had been unable to get out. In 1940 he reached the American legation in Kaunas and turned in his passport for renewal but the legation moved to Moscow and then Hitler attacked the USSR. Anthony, lacking documents of citizenship, had been drafted into the new Polish army.

"I don't mind being in the Polish army. I don't mind taking a crack at Hitler from the east instead of the west. I'm only afraid I'll lose my citizenship by fighting in a foreign army. All my folks are in New York. When will there be an American representative in Poland to tend to folks like me?"

Problems of different groups were added to these individual problems. A couple of million Poles were to be transferred from the area that had been Eastern Poland and that had become Western Ukraine and White Russia. Their delegates came to investigate the places to which they might move. Representatives of other groups came across the lines from German-held areas, so that the coming liberation might find the Committee cognizant of their needs.

Three determined Mazurs presented their claim to East Prussia which they had colonized "seven hundred years ago before the Teutonic Knights." Though I met them in Borecza's newspaper office, the delegation was very hush-hush. "We three are alive only because we have lived for five years under false names." They assured me that Mazurs formed one third of the population of East Prussia, that they were a Slav tribe formerly speaking Polish but forcibly Germanized in recent generations. They didn't want to be Germans any more.

"German statistics call all Mazurs German," they added, "but Nazi politics treats them as an inferior race. Even Germanized Mazurs can't get good government posts under the Nazis." These Mazurs hoped that their turn to rule East Prussia had come.

Such were the conflicting problems coming to Lublin. Such was the chaos in which the Committee proclaimed the organization of something called "democracy." In every meeting, by every speaker, the words "a strong, independent, democratic Poland" were shouted like a battle cry. What was the meaning of this democracy?

In Poland, as elsewhere, democracy meant different things to different people. To my good friend Okecki, it was the blazing light of a glorious future.

To cynics – these also were plentiful in Lublin – "Democracy" was just the Committee's new political slogan, and the speakers who voiced it were "just puppets and a bunch of rubber stamps." Their open sneers left at least no doubt of one thing. This democracy, whether or not it existed or ever could exist, was being very freely discussed. Nowhere have I ever heard democracy so continuously analyzed.

A woman whose estate was confiscated in the land reform wrote angrily to the government newspaper: "How can you call it democracy when you take my home away?" Editor Borecza, showing me the letter, laughed at what seemed to him its ultimate absurdity. To him the division of large estates was the sine qua non of democracy, its ultimate guarantee.

In the headquarters of the four political parties – I visited them on purpose – democracy had four different shadings.

In the chilly, crowded office rooms of the Peasants' Party – Stronnictwo Ludowe – an affable, easygoing secretary claimed to represent the "great peasant majority" of Poland. His account of the creditable history of his party was constantly interrupted by friendly additions and contradictions from members who came and went. He admitted that the PPR – Polish Workers' Party – was gaining considerable membership among the younger peasants and especially among the farm hands who got land from the estates. This was to him just "normal, democratic rivalry"; the old Peasants' Party still “represented the peasants.” Democracy here was as friendly, as informal, and as inconclusive as a rural discussion around the stove in the corner store. Except that there wasn't any stove.

Leaving him, I took the wrong door and found myself in a large room carpeted with piles of straw. “Peasant visitors who get to talking after curfew often sleep here,” he explained with a blush.

The small but influential group of intellectuals who called themselves the "Democratic Party" had a very precise taste in democracy. They knew what they wanted – the well-known Western brand. The democracy that succeeded in Great Britain, in America, and that did not quite succeed in France. This group, more than any other, was deeply disturbed by absence of British and American recognition for the new regime in Poland and the consequent lack of these countries' embassies and influence. They didn't exactly object to being rescued by the Red Army – they gave it dutiful toasts and cheers – but they wished very obviously for more representatives of Western democracy scattered around Poland to balance all those Reds!

To the earnest young women at Polish Socialist Party headquarters – called PPS for short – democracy meant the first Christmas party they'd had for their children for five years. "The Nazis wouldn't even let kindergarten babies come together in public. We are so proud of the comradely way they got on with each other at this first party, and of the good socialist home training it shows."

To the upper PPS functionary in the adjoining office, democracy had a sterner flavor. It meant competition with the Polish Workers' Party – the PPR – not only for members but for good headquarters buildings in ruined towns. He was a bit miffed by the way “those inconsistent Communists curried favor with the masses” by cheering the Soviet Union as an ally without demanding sovietization for Poland, but only a lot of popular reforms. He himself expressed covert suspicion of the Soviet Union, which he was willing to accept as an ally, but at arm's length. He hoped that the Red Army, now that it had saved the country, would soon move on to Berlin and be out of the way of the Poles; then the PPS would promote not only a democratic Poland but a Socialist Poland.

“I wouldn't even object to a Soviet Poland,” said one PPS official, to show to what lengths he would go, "as long as it wasn't part of the USSR. We're Western; we want no part in that huge, cold Siberia where for more than a hundred and fifty years our exiled Poles have died." To him the USSR had still to answer for the deeds of the Russian tsars. He would take a Soviet Socialist, but purely Polish Poland, separate, aloof, and alone.

The PPR believed in a fighting democracy. Its big gaunt building, set in a court, was guarded by soldiers with tommy guns. Additional tommy-gunned sentries stopped me on every landing to inspect my documents. The reason for their annoying suspicion of me came out in my discussion with Secretary Weslaw, a mild-mannered man in a large, well-heated office.

“We are the motor in the land reform,” he told me. "One hundred and fifty of our members have been assassinated from ambush while organizing peasant committees." Democracy to the PPR was a costly thing.

Weslaw told me that the former Polish Communist Party was dissolved by the Communist International before the war, leaving scattered Communists but no general organization. Various groups combined in January 1942 into the Polish Workers' Party "on a Marxist basis." "We were born under the terror of the occupation; we organized the first armed struggle with the invaders. Our peasant program is for a democratic Poland and not for a Soviet Poland," he affirmed. When I asked whether the future national elections would follow the Western style of competition between candidates, or the Soviet style of the single slate, Weslaw replied with a touch of irritation that the question was premature. "I can tell you this much. We will certainly fight against having any reactionaries, whether open or hidden ones, on the election lists." He looked at me firmly, defying me to introduce a reactionary.

The PPR had no inhibitions in its cheers for the Soviet Union, "our great ally," and for the Red Army ''that freed our country." It waved them as a banner to rally the Polish people's support. Its gains were rapid among young, energetic fighters, in whom the years of joint battle against Hitler had liquidated the age-long hate of Russia. These new adherents formed perhaps nine tenths of the members around a smaller core of experienced Communists.

For the ordinary Polish citizen the meaning of democracy was that Nazi race slavery is over, that a "man's a man for a' that," and that every citizen must pitch in. It meant energetic peasants organizing committees, coming to congresses in Lublin, going home to divide the land. It meant workers in factories organizing trade-unions, sending delegates to city councils. It meant all kinds of people shouting and organizing for new ideas.

Even the Polish Army called itself democratic, though its officers still commanded and its soldiers still obeyed. A democratic army meant that peasants' and workers' sons could rise to be officers; that the army was expected to defend the citizenry and not to boss it. The prewar Polish Army and especially its officers had formed a superior caste.

Nobody in Poland thought of democracy as confined to voting, but everyone believed in voting, "whenever there was time." I made a point of questioning a cross section of the delegates at a provincial peasants’ congress to determine how many had been elected and on what basis. They came from widely scattered areas, and clearly felt that they "represented" these areas, but they were less concerned with the technique of representation than with getting on with a job. They were peasants expressing themselves in action rather than in analysis.

The first ten I approached had been appointed by local mayors or county bodies; "hand-picked," I was ready to say. But just as I prepared to apply this cynical designation to the entire congress the next ten delegates happened to have been elected at village meetings especially called. Further inquiry revealed that everybody believed in elections, but that there were so many congresses and so many things to send delegates to that "you couldn't hold elections every time." Knowing as I did the complicated tasks confronting the hitherto disorganized rural areas in the heat of land reform, the excuse seemed honest enough.

Right in this peasant congress I received a shock to the whole concept of democracy. A delegate whose clothes and shrewd face were not those of a peasant, and who had been watching my inquiries with amusement, told me that he was an "agronom," sent by the county government because of his technical knowledge. He added: "Democracy from above!"

Taken aback, I asked whether he implied a criticism or whether he meant that there was really a democracy from above. Still with amused detachment he replied that there were "so many kinds of democracy.... There is Western democracy, that most older peasants think they favor; and Soviet democracy, that some of the farm hands want…. I think what we are getting in Poland is a second-and-a-half democracy." The allusion to the "second-and-a-half international" was unmistakable; this man was a sophisticate in the revolutionary struggles of the past twenty years. Yet there was about him something subtly discomforting, as if he jeered at us all. So I asked him straight out what kind of democracy he wanted.

“Me? I'm not for any kind of democracy,” he tossed out. "I'm for the dictatorship of the proletariat!" He thoroughly enjoyed surprising me, so he went on: "I used to be a Communist! But I didn't join this new PPR; it's too milk-and-water for me. Why don't they take us as equals into the Soviet Union instead of keeping us like a Mongolian People's Republic, unripe to be sovietized?"

On the last words his sneer grew deadly. He made the world taste bitter. He was an expert poisoner of anybody's democracy or any faith between nations. What was he doing in this congress of simple people, so hastily organizing their country? Was he poisoning for Hitler, for the London Poles, or merely for pride in his own sophistication? It was hard to tell.

The National Committee of Liberation was organizing a country not only out of the chaos left by the Nazis but out of the ideas of honestly differing people and in the face of all the enemy sneers. It had for its aid, not only the political parties, the administrative "resorts," the congresses of delegates from every kind of organization, but many other institutions, of which I shall here mention only a few.

Eighty men and women from eighteen years to forty were gathered in a "propaganda school" in a large gymnasium. All were in winter overcoats, for it was December and the chill of the unheated room smote to the bones. Some sat on long benches at heavy tables; others stood for lack of seats. Most of them had neither paper nor pencils, for there was a shortage of these. All listened very intently as different lecturers discussed the hopes of the new Poland, its methods of organizing, its differences with the London Poles. I heard a lecture here by Dr. Jendrychowski, Polish Ambassador to Moscow and the newly appointed Ambassador to Paris; he was followed by Dr. Hilary Minc, chief of the reconstruction of Polish industry. Nobody was too important or too learned to bring his knowledge to these eighty men and women from the factories and the farms.

The students applauded loudly when they learned that I was from America. Applause died when I told them that I was only a private person, for they were ready to take a new American ambassador in their day's work. The incident served as introduction to their dormitory that evening. Clustered on iron cots – they were set so close that there was no space in the room for any other furniture – these students told of past sufferings and future hopes.

“The Nazis burned our village twice,” said a buxom red-cheeked girl in a fuzzy white shawl and white sweater. "They burned the house next door with the man, his wife, and two small children; I heard the shrieks. A year later when we had built the village up again they burned it all over. Some of us got away to the woods."

Stanislaw Orlowski, a stalwart man in his thirties, had managed to cross the battle front to Lublin after the Germans burned his home and lined his fellow villagers up for deportation. A young man from Kuchawa village had seen how “many, many died” under the artillery fire of the advancing Red Army, when the Germans forced Polish civilians to replace German soldiers in building fortifications. Josefa Boberska, of Warsaw, told how the adolescent boys of the "Holy Spirit Asylum" were hung in a row from the balcony over the street. "That was when the Nazis shot Father Siemiec and stole the gold vessels."

Wanda Piech, whose red-flowered kerchief covered a childlike face under a crown of gold braids, had been caught as a partisan fighter and put in Maidanek death camp. "But the Red Army was near and its bombs fell all around and in the confusion one of our men cut the barbed-wire fence and eight of us got away."

A young mechanic from the factory town, Minsk-Masowetski, told how the Germans destroyed the power plant and the iron and steel works "by which all Minsk lived." The people met the Red Army with flowers and fruit, and held a mass meeting and set up a municipal government and got machines, “some from Lublin and some from the USSR and some we made by hand ourselves. Already we are turning out farm implements. But we are still in the front lines and German artillery still shells us. This killed several workers last week.”

Rapidly growing trade-unions were another important factor in organizing the country. Three of their leaders came to my room on invitation to tell about their work. Casimir Witaszewski, a lean man in the late thirties with a pleasantly professorial manner, had been secretary of the Lodz Textile Workers before the war; he was now general secretary of the central trade-union body of liberated Poland. With him came Marian Czerwinski and Wladislaw Kuszyk, secretary and chairman of the Lublin Provincial Council of Trade-Unions. As partisan fighters they had come into Lublin during the last days of German occupation and secretly organized factory workers to save the machinery and equipment. In the chaotic hours when the Germans were fleeing from the city, these two men were calling factory meetings, electing shop committees, and setting up guards over the factory property.

“There was no municipal government yet in Lublin,” they told me, “so the workers not only guarded their own factories but elected 'candidates' to a municipal government. We called them 'candidates' because we didn't know how many would be taken or on what basis. We set up our temporary municipal government of twenty-four members ten days before the Committee of National Liberation came to Lublin. We kept adding members from political parties, from doctors, teachers, merchants. Now we have a Lublin City Council of fifty members of whom fourteen are chosen by the trade-unions. This will be our city government until the general elections after the war.”

Industrial workers everywhere in Poland, said Witaszewski, played an important part in liberating their country. They had reason to, for under the Germans industrial workers were slaves. "The bosses sometimes even beat them with sticks. They could not escape by leaving the factory for if caught anywhere without working papers from a German factory owner they would be deported to factories in Germany. Maidanek hung like a final threat over anyone unable or unwilling to work; he could be declared 'useless' and dragged away to death. When the Red Army approached, the Germans tried to destroy not only the factories but the Polish working class. In Praga, the great industrial suburb of Warsaw, they deported the skilled workers until there were practically none left. Elsewhere they killed many workers.

"Wherever the workers survived they organized to preserve precious bits of the industry on which their livelihood depended. The power plant functions today in Zamosc because its workers stole important equipment and hid it so that the Germans could not take it away. The workers in the Stalewawola Steel and Munitions Works dropped all the finest precision machinery into barrels of fine oil and buried it underground, both saving it from the Germans and protecting it against rust."

All this tied up with a visit to a small tannery and shoe factory I had made a few days earlier. The girls there told of the beatings received under the Germans. On the last day of German occupation the workers were taken to Maidanek and forced to dig a deep grave. "We wept all day because the Red Army was coming and we would not live to see it. But the Red Army came faster than the Germans expected and suddenly our guards all ran away. We couldn't believe that we were still to live."

The same girls told how the sewing machines all disappeared from the shoe factory at the time when the residents of the district were helping themselves to all the manufactured shoes. "We thought the machines were stolen and maybe they were. But as soon as we formed our trade-union, the sewing machines turned up in the homes of the workers, who brought them back at the union's call. They just wanted to be sure they had their machines safe, either at home or in the factory."

More than a hundred thousand workers had already joined trade-unions, according to Witaszewski. This was a creditable showing for the eastern part of Poland, which has few large centers of industry. “The workers are very much pleased,” he explained, “because we are organizing only one union in an industry. In prewar Poland the workers were divided into unions split on political lines: Socialist unions, Catholic unions, Nationalist unions, even Nazi so-called unions. Everybody knew that this was a dissipation of the workers' strength. The Germans abolished all Polish trade-unions, of whatever label. Now we organize anew on an industrial union base.”

As I went to dinner after my talk with Witaszewski I was wondering how this National Committee of Liberation managed to finance all its network of congresses, trade-unions, propaganda schools, and government "resorts." Then just as I entered the dining room I got the answer, in a sudden blinding flash. Somebody remarked: "It was tough last August, but when the peasants began delivering food in September, we all began to eat." And I saw that the complex organization of power in Poland was at bottom as simple as that.

The only real values left in Poland when the Germans retreated in midsummer of 1944 were the buildings still standing in some of the towns and villages and the harvest, unripe and ungathered in the fields. Everything else was broken, currency was useless, people were hungry, ragged, and often shelterless.

What enabled the Committee to expand so freely was not money, or foreign recognition, but control of certain housing facilities in Lublin and certain stores of food. When the Committee got some apartment houses and offices, it had an organizing base. When it induced the peasants to turn in food quotas for feeding the cities, its base was stabilized. Shelter and food protected by a Polish army on the Vistula – these were its sources of power.

After this peasants and workers could come to congresses and schools in Lublin. They could come penniless, hitchhiking over a ruined country, ragged, barefoot, without paper or pencils, but they would be housed and fed. Brilliant engineers and famous scientists could offer their services and the Committee could keep expanding to take them in. Always provided – it was a big proviso – they were patriots willing to work for their shelter and three meals in a government dining room.

As long as the Committee could arouse and organize that type of loyalty and as long as the peasants would provide food, the Committee could carry on. Anyone who stayed outside the Committee's sphere, whether through opposition, inadvertence, or lack of organization, could simply keep on living on his savings, his hide, or the black market until the Committee expanded to take him in.

The fate of my fellow traveler Okecki was a case in point. I worried somewhat for the future of this charming old man, who knew everything about roads and nothing about managing his personal life. The Committee gave him a bed and meals in our dining room and he knocked about Lublin trying to find out who sent for him and for what job. He never learned. He began to radiate a desperate, determined optimism; about the tenth day he turned up sincerely beaming. He had found people who knew his capacities, he had been made vice-commissioner of roads and waterways for Poland. He was still sharing an unheated hotel room with five other people as he plunged enthusiastically into work.

“Our younger engineers,” he told me, "have been a bit standoffish towards the Committee but I find that I have some reputation among them. More and more of them are co-operating and seeing things our way." Four months later – but that is another story – I learned that Okecki was governor of the united port of Danzig and Gdynia, building Poland's new outlet to the sea. Somewhere along this triumphal progress – if you care about Okecki's personal comfort – he acquired a three-room flat.

Thus the Committee built its base in Lublin and from Lublin spread across the land. More and more, in the weeks that I watched it, I wondered which of the Poles in London could fit into the kind of building that was here.

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