by Julia Owerko
Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of one of the greatest moments in history – the fall of the Berlin Wall. All eyes were glued to the screens as the symbolic Iron Curtain collapsed marking the end of an era. Even though we couldn’t witness these events, we have the privilege of learning about it through the eyes of our fellow teachers. Warrior News decided to share these stories of ASW faculty and their lives under communist leadership. We don’t always realize how recent these events were until we meet someone that tells us their story.
Ms. Olczak is our current DP Polish teacher. Experiencing the zenith of communist leadership in Poland, her stories are nothing short of breathtaking and inspiring. We sometimes forget how lucky we are to live in a free Poland. This is communist Poland through the eyes of Ms. Olczak.
Going to the store we often get frustrated to have forgotten something. Or better yet, we enter the store for one thing and leave with a receipt the length of our Extended Essays. Grocery shopping in communist Poland was not easy. Ration cards were distributed to every family. Overnight queues were standard and once one was lucky enough to await their turn, getting the products they needed was not guaranteed. Ms. Olczak recalls that there were alternative methods to go about purchasing daily goods. “To get produce we needed to find other ways than just standing in line everyday. We went to local farmers and got fresh milk. There were alternatives. They were complicated and you needed to come up with them on your own, but they were there.”
Resources were scarce in the grocery store, but also in literature and education. Censorship limited access to information and news from the Western part of the world. Upon visiting the British Center Ms. Olczak decided to open a foreign newspaper only to find huge gaps in pages. Articles were literally cut out and removed. Censorship also made it harder to obtain literature. That’s why many households had private printers that would illegally create copies of censored readings. “Our house had a printing machine. The tricky part about was the sound it made – it was very loud and all the neighbors could hear it. Moreover, it was a very characteristic sound, so they knew what we were doing in the attic. But nevertheless no one ever reported my family.”
Getting a copy of a book was one thing. Reading it… a whole other story. Today we complain about small letters, ugly font or long paragraphs and chapters. However, we forget that we are lucky enough to enter a library and be almost guaranteed to find what we are looking for. The case was different for people living in communist Poland. “I remember getting a book and having to read it with a magnifying glass overnight. The letters were nearly illegible, but I had only one night to read it. We had those books for a very short period of time because there were so little copies. I was using my magnifying glass and the light to try to understand what the pages said. And that was completely normal, everyone had to do that.”
Many Poles can recall the frightening moment they found out about the implementation of martial law. December 13, 1981. However, when asked about it, Ms. Olczak laughs. Martial law was initially the suspension of civil rights of all Poles for two years. Poland became a police state with strict control restricting life even more than before. “I remember the moment exactly. And it was a funny one, believe it or not.” A young mother, Ms. Olczak was in the kitchen taking care of her young daughter. Meanwhile, Jaruzelski [the last leader of the People’s Republic of Poland] was on the news announcing that lives were about to be drastically changed and potentially even lost. “I had the TV playing in the background and Jaruzelski was saying something. But I turned it off. Then my daughter went outside with her dad with a sled. When they came back they told me our neighbor told them about the martial law. I thought they were joking.”
1989 marked the fall of the Berlin Wall. But before this November incident, Poland already removed communists from their leadership positions in government in the June elections of the same year. Poland was essentially a non-communist drop in the sea of communist nations of central Europe. Living in Warsaw, Ms. Olczak recalls “people jumping over embassy fences to seek asylum in non-communist countries.” This desperation to escape the communist leadership ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.
The events of November were transmitted worldwide. It became the universal symbol for the fall of communism and that of the Iron Curtain. “The sheer joy that you could see on people’s faces. It’s an experience one will never forget. All the restaurants were open and serving free food. Everyone was dancing. The West and East Berliners embraced each other. Strangers hugging. It was something spectacular, like one giant celebration.”
Poland has come a long way since its communist days. “My mother passed away a few months ago, but I am glad that she got to see what Poland has become,” Ms. Olczak said. “I just hope no one takes this away from us.”