The Present is History

by Julia Owerko

Empty shelves, queues to the supermarket and restrictions limiting our day to day activities. Sound familiar? That’s because we have lived in this kind of reality for a few months now. No school, no gatherings, no life beyond a computer screen and other forms of supplements to the life we once called ordinary. 

Store shelves, March 12, 2020. Photo by Sung Hyun Kwon.

But imagine this for a second: imagine that this, but a thousand times worse, is the only reality you have known. You want a pair of new sneakers? Just like in young Mr. Pan Adam’s reality, your mom needs to buy them on the black market. You want butter? You’re going to have to stand in the queue in the middle of the night to qualify for the store’s supply. In the words of our fellow high school history teacher, “We were just teenagers and teenagers are the same all over the world. But 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. And we wanted to do it ourselves.” 

As we carefully experience an ease of restrictions and a transition into a hygienic and careful version of our previous reality, we observe another similarity to 1989 Poland. The 2020 Sejm and Senate have been dancing around the calendar trying to decide when to hold the Polish presidential elections. The stakes are high considering the domination of the PiS party in Poland over the past few years. With PiS already having a majority in the Sejm (one of the two parliamentary houses in Poland’s legislative branch) while also tightening their control on the Polish justice system and elections, a second term for Andrzej Duda would mean their power could continue to grow. 

Store shelves in communist Poland. Photo by http://www.wp.pl.

This isn’t the first time that elections will dictate the course that the Polish democracy will take. Exactly 31 years ago, Poland held the first parliamentary election which allowed the participation of Solidarity. On June 4 Poland held the first round of voting. These elections are regarded as the first democratic elections of the Eastern Bloc. Solidarity won all the seats in the Sejm that it was allowed to run for, plus the 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate. Ultimately, June of 1989 was the end of communism in Poland, the first domino to push other communist nations to fall. Ms. Olczak recalls people “people jumping over embassy fences to seek asylum in non-communist nations.” This ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989. 

Today, we have the privilege of obtaining a perspective of what life was like without absolute freedom. I am scared of checking my social media feed because of all the events that have been happening. Although it may be hard and heartbreaking, this is a wake-up call. We could open our history books or ask our teachers and parents about life without freedom. About what it is like living in fear. My heart aches as I watch and read the reports about police brutality in the US. History does repeat itself. 

In November, I interviewed Mr. Pan Adam about the horrible death of Marcin Antonowicz. The Covid-19 pandemic allowed us to experience a fraction of the difficulties that our parents and teachers experienced on the daily basis. The presidential elections this year, yet again, will decide Poland’s fate. History is a study of patterns and as we finish this year off, I want to encourage all my friends and peers to open up their history books and read. Learn out of respect and for experience because this isn’t the first time, nor the last, that we can and could have learned from the past. 

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