Life Under Polish Communism: “There were sacrifices.”

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism in Poland, the History Club is collaborating with Warrior News in a new series to share our teachers’ stories of communist Poland. 

Julia Owerko

“Instead of playing soccer, I chose to spend time with some of my friends in the local store. Or instead of getting a goodnight sleep, on Sunday night, then I would spend some time in the line at night in front of the meat shop so that my mom could buy some meat on Monday morning. (…) There were sacrifices,” recalls Mr. Pan Adam. 

Queues began to form in the afternoon and would last till the morning. If families wanted to buy a certain product they were forced to wait in line overnight. “Because of the economic and political situation, we couldn’t be just regular teenagers. We were preoccupied with the other activities like helping our parents and ourselves to be fed, for example.” 

Families would obtain information about what products would be in store the next day. Getting food required coordination and sacrifice from family members. Logistical planning was key in shopping for groceries, something that today is simple and quick. “When I saw my mother coming after a whole day at school – she was a high school teacher – coming back from school and then not going home but going to a local store to queue, it wasn’t fair. I wanted to help her. And also we knew that butter was delivered at an earlier hour than she was coming back, so if we wanted to eat butter someone had to give up their time and go to the local store and queue.” Today, when we hear that a new cash register is opened we rush with the full cart of luxurious products just to spare ourselves the extra ten minutes. In communist Poland that was not an option. 

However, Pan Adam also looks at the bright side and shares how the experience was a form of community bonding. “I would meet my friends at night right in front of the meat shop and we did not have much to do so we would start telling stories (…) [W]e would also talk to the elderly people or older people and they would tell us stories. And so that was an interesting time because we learned a lot about ourselves and other people that we have met in such circumstances. (…) We were together in this. The old and the young.”

Other goods were also limited. “[I]t sucked. We had shortages, but we wanted to be like the kids in the West. We wanted to listen to music, we wanted to wear the clothes they wore etc. etc. We were just teenagers and teenagers are the same all over the world.” Unfortunately the life of teenagers in communist Poland was different than that which we experience today. “We’ve limited our cravings as kids as well. Not that we did not crave clothes or lifestyles. We did. But we knew that if we talked about it a lot that would cause even more frustration, because our parents were aware of the fact that they could not provide everything we wanted.”

Mr. Pan Adam recalls a pair of white Nikes with blue Nike logos, a time when one of his cravings was actually fulfilled. “I still remember them. These were my favorite shoes that I wore for the next I don’t know how many years. I would patch them. If there was a hole I would patch them myself because [my mom] paid so much, but she knew that I was craving such shoes. It was a surprise, but it cost her. She had to pay in the black market and they were outrageously expensive. There was a kind of a common understanding, we craved less, we articulated our cravings less, so in order to help our parents to get by.” 

“I don’t have a lot of cravings nowadays. There are a few things that I want and I get, but I don’t have this massive drive to possess. Somehow that experience has formed me to not crave a lot, to possess a lot. Because I know that you may have something and then one day or one night you can lose it all. But what you have here and here,” pointing first to his heart and then to his head, “even if you are locked up in a cell, no one is going to take that away from you. Your Nikes can be gone, but what you know and how you feel and how you look at the world will always be yours. And that’s what we really cared about. Not the clothing because we didn’t have access to it. We knew that we don’t have the cars, we don’t have the clothes but if we want to impress people in the West, we can impress them with the knowledge of literature, history and culture.”

Not being allowed to leave the Eastern Bloc meant that Mr. Pan Adam never traveled to the West as a child. However, even though located in the east, Yugoslavia or Bulgaria were destinations for Western tourists as well. These were the places where, during summer holidays, Mr. Pan Adam got to see a sliver of foreigners’ Western life. “You could start asking questions like ‘Why are we driving this Moskvich Russian car and we’re staying in a tent and the French family that lives next to us at the camping site they have this wonderful Citroen DS and a nice caravan?’”

At the age of 19 Mr. Pan Adam traveled to the West for the first time. While telling his story, he still seemed surprised he was allowed to go. “I don’t know if I, as a parent, would allow my kid to do what I did. My parents must have been extremely naive (…). I had no place to stay, I didn’t know anybody there, I only had a letter to deliver, and a 100 dollars in my pocket. And that was all. And I went to England. On my own. And my parents allowed me to do it. And I’m so grateful to them that they’ve done it. Because this trip has changed me. I came back a different person.”

Mr. Pan Adam delivered the letter he was given and rented a room under the address of the letter. Then he worked over the summer cleaning offices illegally. “I think I saved a hundred pounds after three weeks and it was like the first fortune. I came back and was one of the wealthiest students at the University. Because a hundred pounds was a fortune back then.” 

Everyone can learn at least one lesson from Mr. Pan Adam’s story and that is to look at the bright side of things. “I always try to find some positives and there were a lot of positives in these experiences.”

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