Chapter VIII

Land Reform

“In the name of the Rada Narodowa – the National Council of Poland – and in conformity with the decisions of the Peasants' Commission of Radzyn County, I tender you this title deed to land.”

A scattering of applause came from more than a thousand farm men and women huddled in sheepskins and heavy shawls under the bomb-smashed windows of the hall. Some of the faces were rapt, some wistful, some grinning, but most of them looked solemn as if in church. Their eyes were fixed on the tall man in padded winter overcoat who bent forward from the cluster of Polish flags on the stage, extending with outstretched hand a square of white paper. A stocky, middle-aged peasant in sheepskin jacket was worming his way through the audience to receive it.

Vice-Minister of Agriculture Bienick's manner in handing over the title deed combined the simplicity of a dirt farmer with the assurance of a county judge. From a certain deep seriousness it was clear that he felt himself a bearer of history. If the gesture of his roughened hand hinted also at Father Christmas, this may have been due to the scenery behind him, where a backdrop showed a large snowbound cottage at dusk among the evergreens. It was the only stage-set in Radzyn and served for both the Christmas party and the “land reform” celebration.

This was the final act in the great drama that for months had centered the attention of rural Poland. The Committee of National Liberation considered the land reform its brightest achievement. Its spokesmen reiterated in every meeting the claim that at last they were accomplishing the reform which previous governments for twenty-five years had promised and failed to carry through. A land-reform law of a mild nature had been passed in 1919. Its enforcement had been sabotaged by the landed gentry who controlled the Polish Government. The Committee was putting through a much more drastic law in the midst of war.

It was called "land reform." It might as well have been called the agricultural revolution. There were no lynchings of landlords, no burnings of manors, such as accompanied agricultural revolutions in Western Europe. The change was practically bloodless in Poland, done by government decree. For all that it was revolution, confiscation of property without payment, the overthrow of a feudal class which had dominated Polish politics since the Middle Ages.

My own first sight of the feudal land conditions of Eastern Europe dates from 1921. On behalf of the American Friends’ Service I visited a village in what was then Eastern Poland. Ragged, half-starved peasants lived in dirt-floored hovels on the edge of a swamp. Practically every inhabitant shook with malaria. The Friends' Service was pouring in quinine. It was clear that no real help was possible, short of clearing the swamp or removing the peasants.

Behind the village rose healthy wooded slopes – the landlord's estate of thousands of acres. Its owner lived in Paris, coming here for a few weeks' winter hunting with his friends. There was no way for the peasants to move to that healthy land; if they so much as entered its woods for berries or mushrooms, the foresters set dogs on them.

A youth with ragged hair and tanned face who came to Lublin for a short course on land reform described the estate near his home town, Lancut, where "Graf Potocki entertained Goering before the war." "

In Lancut itself there are only small huts," said this young Kowalczyk, "but further out a fine highway leads to the Graf's palace, thirty-seven rooms in a big park and all just for one man. The Graf had seven estates, nearly all the land around Lancut. When they knew that the Red Army was coming, the Germans sent eight trucks to help the Graf take away his fine rugs, pictures, and antique furniture. German soldiers were carrying them out of his palace for two days. Then a big passenger car came to take the Graf himself.

"The people hid, fearing the Germans would drive them west. After the Germans were gone we came out and made a triumphal arch for the Red Army. We set up our council and opened a high school. A peaceful life began. At first the peasants were afraid to take Graf Potocki's lands. The Graf sent a messenger through the German lines to his overseers to threaten us; but workers came from the Stalewawola Steel Works and held a big meeting, and next day we took surveyors and began to divide the land. Afterwards we held the celebration at the big palace. It is now a museum of the Polish people."

Everyone knew that a change in the feudal land relationships was needed. In Poland there was also an international reason for this change. For twenty-five years the border dispute between Poland and the USSR had been complicated by feudal land rights. In the Versailles Treaty discussions a committee under the British Lord Curzon recommended a border on an ethnographic basis since known as the Curzon Line. East of this line most of the population was White Russian and Ukrainian, but the feudal lords were Poles. In 1920 the landlords instigated war with Soviet Russia and seized by force the area which the Versailles Committee denied them. They were still promoting border controversy in 1944. Hence the first step not only to a democratic Poland but to a Poland that could live peacefully with the USSR was to break their feudal power.

Two thirds of the land in prewar Poland was owned by landlords, according to Edward Bertold, chief of the land reform. The great families were of course relatively few, but they were the political leaders of a much larger number of landed gentry whose smaller estates conveyed a similar, if lesser, feudal status. Farms of one hundred and twenty-five acres or more were considered “estates” under the law, subject to parcellation. Under Polish conditions a farm of that size was commonly worked by many families of hereditary farm hands.

“The aim of the land reform,” said Bertold once when I pinned him down for ten minutes, "is to give every farming family at least twelve acres. This may not seem much to you Americans, but only a third of our farming families have had as much as this. We want them to have land enough to support a family, to have it in one piece, and to get machines and selected seed through co-operatives and government credits. Local co-operative food-processing plants will increase year-round employment in rural areas. Beyond that, any improvement in living conditions depends on developing Poland's industries."

The land division was done under triple control: county agents appointed by the government, peasant commissions elected by the villages, and workers' brigades who volunteered from the city to help speed the work.

On a crisp December morning I drove by auto truck to the Podzamcze estate, some thirty miles from Lublin.

We reached the township center by a decent highway. Here we picked up the vuyt or township chief, who guided us over roads axle-deep in mud. Skidding heavily and often, with engine laboring and radiator boiling, we reached a large untidy cluster of houses and stopped by an overgrown building which had served as offices and living quarters for a managerial staff. Families overflowing from the other houses marked them as quarters of farm hands who labored on the estate.

Two thousand acres had belonged to an aged man who died during the war, leaving a young widow. She did not live on the estate and seldom visited it. She lived in Lublin where she owned two apartment houses. Half of the landed property was forest; this had been taken by the government. One thousand acres remained to be divided among the fifty-seven farm hands who formerly worked it and among the needy peasants of three near-by villages.

A group of nine men clustered around a table in an upstairs room. Two had been elected from each village and two by the farm hands of the estate. The ninth, the chairman, was appointed by the county land agent. These formed the commission to divide the land.

I found them checking a list of some two hundred applicants. Every applicant was being thoroughly discussed. The commission had been sitting for a week and seemed likely to continue indefinitely. The land was already surveyed; this technical task was relatively easy. The ticklish job was to decide what peasants should get the land.

An aged man has applied. He formerly possessed twenty acres; he sold them and drank up the proceeds and is landless now. Does he get any more? Certainly not! But what of his innocent land-hungry family? Or the minor son in the Polish Army?

The father of four grown sons puts in a claim. He has only one acre; but once he owned twenty-five, and divided them among his sons. By custom the old man had to give land to his sons when they married; but three of the lads are farming the land jointly and living in the old man's home! Has he really been impoverished?

A capable young peasant claims that he possesses only three acres. His neighbor states that the young fellow's bride brought a dowry – twelve acres in a near-by county.

"You can check it with the township where she comes from,” says the township official accompanying me.

"My God!" exclaims the chairman. "I need help!"

The process seems incredibly complicated. Impermanent at that! In a dozen years these families and farms will change through births, deaths, marriages.

"I shall be a free man now," exclaims a middle-aged farm hand with shining eyes. "All my life I worked for food and wages. Now I shall work for myself."

Despite complicated individual conditions, a substantial listing of families has resulted from the week's debates. Stanislaw, a farm hand with five children, gets eight acres. Janowski, with only two dependents, gets eight, because his son is a volunteer in the army. Wiernicki gets twelve acres, because of his family of eight. There's quite a long list but it is all tentative. They are all promised "more if there should be enough."

The reason for the delay and indecision, I discover, lies in a conflict between the villagers and the farm hands of the estate.

"Our fathers and grandfathers worked this land," declare the farm hands – they are clearly survivors of a feudal past rather than hired hands in the modern sense. “We want our twelve full acres before any land goes elsewhere.” The villagers retort that this will leave nothing at all for equally needy peasants.

A man with dark hair and Jewish cast of face bends restlessly over the chairman. He wears city clothes. He is a mechanic from Lublin, chief of the “workers' brigade.” He has no vote on the commission, no legal authority to decide anything; but his reputation with his trade-union depends on how many estates he can "finish." He is prodding, arguing. "You'll never get done at this rate. You'll be last in Lublin province."

He shoots annoyed glances in my direction. I am clearly interrupting the land reform, for every time I whisper a question everybody stops to answer. The first American ever seen in the township competes as attraction even with the land reform. I prepare to leave with apologies. Then the restless mechanic turns suddenly friendly, eyeing me speculatively, as if with a new idea.

The township chief insists on inviting me to dinner in his town. We gather in a tiny cafe by the light of two tallow candles – the power plant was blown up in the German retreat. Bottles of beer and wine are opened; the hostess finds some sugared crullers to satisfy my love of sweets. Among the guests is a Russian, military commandant of the township. He asks how the land reform is going at Podzamcze and I tell about the debate.

"Those farm hands are a bit grasping," he remarks with concern. "I'd like to give them a talk – I'm a peasant from Siberia – but I'm not supposed to interfere."

Just before we left for Lublin the dark-haired mechanic came in with triumph in his eye. Everybody began to congratulate me, much to my surprise. "It was your coming that did it. It's practically finished now. The farm hands and peasants have reached a compromise. They say that if people come all the way from America to see the land reform, we must do it equally and in a friendly way."

"That was clever of you," I said to the mechanic, for I recalled his speculative look.

"Oh, no," he disclaimed. "The farm hands thought of it themselves." I let it go at that. It was better for the farm hands to think they had thought of it. He was an even cleverer politician than I had supposed.

All this complicated labor at Podzamcze was only one small step in the land reform. It was preceded by an inventory of property, and at least a rough land survey. Afterwards came a checking of lists through the county and provincial land departments. Throughout the process every kind of peasant congress was held to organize mutual aid societies and co-operatives for the indivisible properties, the big barns, the flour mills, the tractors of the estate.

In the provincial land office on a side street in Lublin I listen to the checking of a long queue of complaints. It is very informal; they are all on top of each other. The secretary disposes of an amazing number of people in an hour.

A slow-moving woman in brown kerchief bows to the official and explains that she didn't get on the list because she was visiting her sister in another village when the applications were made. She is a widow and her two sons are slaves in Germany; she owns only two acres of land. The provincial land agent gives her a letter asking the village to reconsider her case.

A solid-looking man asks for land. He is refused, as a chauffeur in a city job just wanting a bit of extra property. Now if he were an artisan in a village, he might have a claim. Not so big a claim as a peasant but perhaps five acres for part-time farm work.

A county land agent hurries in, wanting a "powerful paper" to depose the overseer of an estate. The man drinks and is squandering the livestock. "We have a good, sober partisan to recommend for the post."

"But this is a job for the county. Why bring it to us?"

"They don't recognize our orders. We want higher orders." The provincial agent grunts and countersigns the county agent's paper.

A delegation of six has come from Sedlice. They have finished the land division, but there was very little land. Not over seven acres per family. Poor soil at that and the farms so small!

"Well, what can I do? Create more land?... If we get Pomerania now..."

Some provinces published special newspapers devoted to the land reform. The Land Reform 'Bulletin of Rzeczow province was especially well edited. Technical instructions were mingled with farmers' letters and political exhortation. "How to divide the land" was explained in simple language. The peasants must first take it up with the county representative. They should organize their committee, "seven to eleven citizens, honest and knowing the land... democratically chosen and reporting to the village."

Equally simple and clear were the "instructions to committees." They must inventory the estate and guard against looting. Measuring should be done by a surveyor; if there is no surveyor then by farmers or farm hands familiar with such work. Parcels must be laid out not only accurately and justly but with regard to good farming and the location of roads. Applicants whose sons are not in the army should send them to the nearest draft point. "Who is not willing to fight for Polish land has no right to it." The instructions conclude: "When the entire village recognizes that the division is just, the parceling should at once proceed."

This little bulletin was already promoting a new sense of property. Yesterday the land and the livestock belonged to the landlord. Today, if he as much as sneaks a chicken away to a friend, he may be denounced in the bulletin as a thief. "The lords are squandering the peasants’ property! The police will surely look into this!... The lady of the manor Slocinie has given away livestock to her dependents... The landlord Guminski is carrying away livestock... The lady of Zalesu has given away thirteen head of cattle... Peasants! Can't you find that livestock?"

A picture of the land reform in different districts was easily gained by going to peasant congresses in Lublin and talking in the intermissions to the delegates. Some congresses were on a county scale, some provincial, some national. Some came to organize cooperatives, others to discuss forms of ownership for the big barns and flour mills. One middle-aged peasant from Lomazy township, owner of a twelve-acre farm, told me that there was no land reform where he came from, there being no estates there to divide. "I'm just here to report to our peasants about these new measures. I'm an old member of the Peasants' Party for fifteen years."

Bad management and the world-wide agricultural crisis caused many feudal owners to lose estates even before the war. The Germans had taken over others. A grizzled old man from Serniki township told of the three estates in his township. One was under tenant management; the others, bankrupt fifteen years ago, were administered by a receiver. The Germans appointed new managers, but these had fled. There were no owners to oppose the land reform in this township. Similarly in Szytnik township, according to its youthful delegate, one estate went bankrupt before the war and was under a receiver. The other two had been seized by the Germans and their owners sent to concentration camps, "because they wouldn't take the Germans' orders."

"Many of your farms seem to go bankrupt. Will the peasants handle them better?" I asked.

With typical peasant caution the young farmer replied: "On the whole they will manage better. But the land is in bad shape. It has been for a long time without manure or fertilizer of any kind." None of the peasants saw the land reform as a cure-all. It was a chance to begin.

The comprehensive and bitter story of a township in the Zamosc district was given me by an intelligent middle-aged man named Struzik, the mayor of Skierbieszow township. He sought me out because he wanted to pay tribute to President Roosevelt and to tell me that he liked Cordell Hull's radio speeches. The deep lines in his face and the sincerity of his manner made him an appealing figure. But how was this man of the backwoods so well informed? I learned that under the occupation he had done the dangerous work of "radio-listening," a task which he inherited from his son.

"My son was an educated boy, who understood English broadcasts," he said, with sad pride. "The Germans got him and tortured him to death. I felt that I must carry on his work. I could not do as well as he, for I understood no language but Polish. I listened to Polish broadcasts from London and from Moscow. All the underground organizations of all parties got their news from me. That was why they all combined on me for mayor now."

Zamosc district lies on the edge of the black earth area and is thus especially desirable land. Some German colonists settled there when it belonged to tsarist Russia. This gave the new German invaders an excuse to declare the area a "historic German outpost" and to decree the exile of all Poles.

"They rounded up villagers for deportation in 1940, quite early in the occupation. The huskiest were taken to Germany to work; the rest were just wiped out in death camps. German colonists were brought from Rumania, Bessarabia, Jugoslavia. If they found any Poles left in the villages, they killed them when they came. Only those were saved who escaped to the woods. For of course when one village was deported, the near-by villages took to the woods and hid. Of sixteen villages in my township four, including mine, were deep in woods. Here the Germans could not go so easily because of our partisans. We saved here some of the people from other villages; they are going home now but they are mostly old folks and children. For nearly five years the fighting went on in the woods of the Zamosc area. The best of our young folks are no more."

There had been six estates in the township. The largest was two thousand acres; its owner had been expelled by the Germans and his son killed as a partisan, leaving no member of the family in the area. The next largest, a place of eighteen hundred acres, included considerable timber, a sawmill, a distillery, a briquette kiln, and fisheries. The owner had continued as administrator under the Germans. He was now in jail, while his family had moved to Lublin. Of the remaining owners, one had been deported by the Germans, one had co-operated with them and fled with them, one was on his property at the time of the land reform. "He gave no trouble; he left and now works as forest administrator for a township fifteen miles away."

The smallest "estate," a farm of only one hundred and fifty acres, presented an interesting problem. Its owner, a Pole, had lived in America and had come back to Poland to buy land with the money earned overseas. The Germans drove him out but he hid in the villages. He now claimed his land on the ground that the land reform applied only to "feudal heritage" and not to farms bought "with a man's own savings." Mayor Struzik thought there was something in the argument. The peasants' commission had decided that the returned American couldn't farm so much by himself since he was sixty years old with no son and only a daughter. They left him his home and fifteen acres, somewhat more than a peasant share.

The mayor himself farmed seven acres. He had not asked for more. "What should I do with it? I have only my wife and eighteen-year-old daughter. I am sending her away to school. All able young folks should study because the Germans wiped out the educated ones and we need someone to have the rule in Poland. So if any young people want to study I help them through the township funds."

"Are the people satisfied with the land division?"

"They are satisfied that the land is divided, but they are not satisfied with the amount of the land. In Zamosc the new farms are only seven or eight acres, not enough for a family to live on. We must really get those lands in East Prussia and in the west."

He kissed my hand gallantly in the old-fashioned Polish manner and bade me carry greetings from all the people of Zamosc "to all loyal Poles in America and wherever they may be."

Why start this complicated land reform in the midst of war?

These last days of war were the easiest time for the transfer. The absence of many owners – those killed by the Germans and those who fled with the Germans – made an economic vacuum in which some owners must be found quickly to till the soil. A few weeks' delay would produce new claimants, the previous owners or their heirs. Now was the easiest, least painful time to make the adjustments.

Moreover, there were strong military and political reasons for the reform. Always the landed estates had been centers of reactionary politics. Under the new regime they threatened to become hangouts of terrorist gangs, assassinating civil officials, and army officers. The new peasant owners, on the contrary, were the natural support of the new regime and the natural recruits for the new Polish Army.

The land reform was awakening rural Poland. It aroused energetic support for the new government and produced enthusiastic volunteers for its army. It made millions of peasants statistically aware of the reasons for wanting East Prussia and Pomerania. With all its complexities, therefore, the land reform was not subtracting energy from the war. It was creating new energy for the march on Berlin.

In county after county they came to the formal meetings with the flags and the bands and the national anthem and the Polish soldiers saluting as the title deeds were conveyed. And so I went with Bienick, the vice-minister of agriculture, to the Radzyn celebration, just one among many that went on in county towns everywhere.

We walked through the ruined market place to the little assembly hall in the frost-bound park. A crowd poured into the plain rectangular buildings, erected long ago without benefit of architecture like an early Pilgrim Fathers' meetinghouse. Two Polish soldier boys, complete with automatics, stood like two pillars on either side of the door; as Bienick approached, they snapped to attention. Then somebody must have given a signal, for as we crossed the threshold the strains of the national anthem came to greet us from a band somewhere inside.

Then the seemingly impenetrable crowd parted as by miracle and an aisle led straight to the stage – straight to the white-red Polish flags and the dark green Christmas trees. Saint Nicholas, in the person of Bienick, was about to bestow on the assembled peasants some thirty thousand acres of land.

The county agent opened with local statistics. Nearly 5000 families were getting land in Radzyn County. An average of nine acres was given to 2162 families of former farm hands and landless peasants. An average of four acres went to 2685 peasant families that formerly had less than five acres. There was dutiful applause. Everybody already knew what he would get.

Then they all settled down to endure the long speech that is an inevitable part of such occasions. The men in sheepskin coats and the women in big woolen shawls shivered and wriggled their feet for warmth in the freezing hall. A rising wind blew through the bomb-smashed windows. A woman at the end of a row turned toward the wall and opened her coat to nurse a squalling youngster. Nobody paid any attention to her. They were all peasants and many of them had had to bring the kids.

Their gaze centered more and more on Bienick as he told of Polish peasant struggles for a thousand years. Their fight for land was part of the long, long fight for a strong, independent Poland. Always the lords had betrayed their country's interests for the sake of their feudal privileges. This was the lesson of history.

"There was no serfdom in the days of the Piast kingdom. There were other forms of oppression then." He told of ancient peasant uprisings in those semi-tribal times when the son of a peasant might become a prince. Even then the fight for peasant rights was bound up with the fight for Polish independence. "The lords went to the German knights for help against the peasants. The Teutonic Knights helped put down the peasants under the grandson of Boleslaw.... So the feudal lords grew stronger.

"In the fourteenth century King Casimir the Great wanted the feudal lords' support for his wars. He bought it by giving them the Statutes of Wislica. Peasants were bound to the land and had to work a day or two each week for their lord without pay... So legal serfdom began.... In following centuries sixteen hundred different laws were passed, taking away all human rights. By the Statutes of Piotrkow in 1496, only those of noble descent through both parents could own land or become state officials. This stopped marriages of lords with peasant women since the children could have no rights. Thus the gulf widened between the feudal classes.

"The peasants became serfs. They fled away from the lords. They fled to the open prairies of the east, to the frontier, the Ukraine. The lords followed them with armies, enslaving them and taking more land. The peasants rose up many times. The greatest rising was the one in the Ukraine under Bogdan Khmelnitsky. His free peasants beat the Polish lords by allying themselves with the Russian tsar; thus the Ukrainians came under the Russians who offered more autonomy than the Polish lords would give.

"The Polish lords were not real patriots. Their love was not for their country but for their feudal rights. When the Swedish king took Poland as far as Warsaw, most of the Polish lords joined him to save their privileges. It was not till the Polish peasants came down with pikes from the Carpathians that the Swedes were driven back. King Jan Casimir swore that he would lighten the peasants' burdens because they saved his kingdom. He could not keep his oath because of the feudal lords and so he resigned his throne.

"Great Polish patriots, in the days of the American and French revolutions, wished to make Poland a modern state. The constitution we celebrate was passed on May 3rd, 1791, under the influence of Kosciusko and Pulawski. It freed the peasants from serf duties, making them citizens with obligations only to the state. This constitution never became real. The nobles were angry that they could not hang peasants at will, but only the state could do this. So some of them appealed to Empress Catherine of Russia and she sent an army to help suppress those Polish serfs.

"General Kosciusko took up arms for Poland's independence and for the freedom of the peasants. Only through a free peasantry, he said, could a state be strong. The peasants flocked to his banner; the first Polish peasant who ever became an officer was Glowacki in Kosciusko's army. But twice Kosciusko was betrayed by the Polish lords.

"So Poland was beaten and partitioned. The Polish nobles kept their privileges under the Russian tsars. The Polish peasants lost their hope of freedom. And Poland lost her independence for more than a hundred years."

Coming to modern times Bienick told how the young republic was born from the collapse of three empires in the first World War. "We set up in Lublin in 1918 a people's government, and declared that the land was for the peasants, and education was for all the people.... But again the lords were afraid for their privileges. So Pilsudski seized power and made war with Soviet Russia for the sake of the lords' estates in the east. The Polish people were against this war, but the lords kept them quiet by promises of land.

"Once more they deceived the peasants. The ‘land reform’ they passed sold land at two thousand zlote a hectare. What peasant could buy? Some tried to buy and made first payments. But after 1926 when Pilsudski made himself dictator, the landlords got another law fixing the price of land in gold. Peasants who owed four thousand zlote now found that they owed twelve thousand. They lost the land and all the money they had paid." The nods in the hall showed that the peasants remembered those so recent bitter days.

The speaker drew to his conclusion: "Generations of peasants have awaited this day when your own peasant committees divide the Polish soil. It is not only land that you take. It is the foundation of Poland's strength and independence. Kosciusko said it: ‘Only a free peasantry makes a strong, free country.’ We lay this cornerstone of our country's freedom today."

The worn peasant faces under the sheepskin caps and the woolen shawls were intent. Not even the zero cold was felt as they came from the Piast kings down to the present day. The heads were solemnly nodding, affirming their destiny, that the nine acres received today made them a part of history.

Then a quick ripple of applause ran through the hall as a young officer stepped forward, in uniform, with the Polish eagle on his cap.

“Some people told you that it was dangerous to take this land,” he thrust straight at them. “They said that the London Poles would come and take it away and punish you. But you have an army now and I tell you that it is a new kind of army. The old army was officered by the sons of the gentry; they used it to put down peasants’ strikes. Our new army supports the peasants and protects their rights. In it peasants’ sons can rise to be officers.

"The title deeds you get today are underwritten by the bayonets of our new democratic Polish Army." This was the speech that brought down the house.

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