Even after I became a naturalized citizen, it took me several years before I stopped having nightmares about being back in communist Poland with no possibility of leaving and returning to the States. I would wake up with feelings of deep dread and hopelessness, and it would take me hours before my assaulted mind could ease into accepting that “it was only a dream.” Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were already free of communism, which had collapsed in 1989, but my mind was not. One part of my mind circled around the gratitude I felt for living in a country where free speech and freedom of the press were considered fundamental rights, a given in a functioning democracy, while another part of my brain couldn’t unshackle itself from remembering.
This second part of my brain insisted not only on replaying my own life, it insisted on remembering history—especially that of my family, and most especially that of my grandfather, who was imprisoned several times for speaking against the communist government of post-World War II Poland. On one occasion he was jailed for a whole month after confiding to the wrong next-door neighbor his innermost thoughts—“Even Hitler wouldn’t do it,” he’d said—referring to the power outages that had lasted for days, making life impossible, especially for families with small children. For this reckless observation, he was imprisoned in a cell with no cot or blanket. He came back home broken, with a cough that persisted for the rest of his life, his lungs unable ever to quite escape that heat-draining concrete floor.
The most indelible part of this memory, for me, is the neighbor—what prompted this man to betray my grandfather? Was he himself compromised, and needing to prove his loyalty? Or was he pulled in by the Spirit of History, unable to distinguish between right and wrong, an obedient soldier on the wrong side? I drew on this phrase in the context of a stanza from “The Spirit of History, Warsaw 1939-1945” by Czesław Miłosz, not to find answers, but to place the neighbor where he might have belonged:
Where wind carries the smell of the crematorium And a bell in the village tolls the Angelus The Spirit of History is out walking. He whistles, he likes these countries washed By a deluge, deprived of shape and now ready. A worm-fence, a homespun skirt is pleasant to him, The same in Poland, in India, Arabia.
If my grandfather’s neighbor was indeed pulled in by the Spirit of History, he became an accomplice, a tool of oppression, a direct reason why the communist regime took hold in a country too weak and too insignificant to be invited to the table during the Yalta Conference, where the heads of governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union determined the postwar reorganization of Europe. That neighbor and everyone like him not only endorsed the unjust decisions of the Yalta Conference, but in his action, he also gave up his country’s right to self-determination. In essence, he agreed to living in Poland under the de facto government of the Soviet Union. A small act of betrayal between two men, one might say, multiplied by millions of similar betrayals, which turned into real and dangerous historical consequences for Poland for decades.
What else, if not individual acts of complicity, like that of that neighbor—or acts of defiance, like that of my grandfather—form the historical waves, the irresistible current of events that shapes the foundation of every human society.
In the first years after the war, Poland was a place where people were rewarded by the government for turning against each other, where snitches benefited from reporting on those who opposed the new political system, foreign to pre-war Poland though it was. Polish citizens who spoke the truth, like my grandfather, were imprisoned, sometimes killed. The causes of their deaths were recorded as lies—heart attacks, pneumonia, typhus, or dysentery. Their families were never notified about executions, but everyone knew. No one was informed about torture, but everyone knew. The truth was hidden, but everyone knew.
My grandfather pretended that he didn’t connect the neighbor with the imprisonment, even though the fatal conversation about Hitler and the post-war government had been private, with only the two of them present. Thirty-five years after the incident, he shared the story with me, when I was old enough to understand what it meant to “be careful” in my own conversations with others, especially the children and grandchildren of this next-door neighbor. He wanted me to be careful, because after all, Poland was still a communist country. Maybe subconsciously he knew that the Spirit of History doesn’t rest, it only moves from place to place.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that my grandfather raised me. I grew up in a house where two families lived, my grandparents on the first floor, my family on the second floor. When I was little, on weekdays when my parents were at work, my grandfather was the first person I saw in the mornings. From him I learned to love the two most important things—reading and long walks. This is how we would spend our days—me beside him next to the rows of books behind glass doors I liked to open just slightly and inhale the most pleasant smell I know to this day, or me holding his hand and walking through wheat fields to the meadow along the river all the way to the enormous water wheel mill where a black grass snake lived. Visiting the snake, standing there in high grass along the river, waiting for him to appear, was my grandfather’s way of teaching me not to be afraid of anything. You have to conquer your fears and love your enemies, he would tell me, years before I could understand what this commandment meant, years before I could recognize it to be life’s most difficult lesson.
When he judged I was old enough he told me a story of his imprisonment by the Nazis and a dream he’d had in prison. It happened in the third week of September, 1939. In the dream his beloved five-year-old daughter, Maria, appeared before him in her favorite white summer dress, and said, “I died but I am okay. Please, don’t worry.” The dream was vivid and realistic; to shake it, he needed to remind himself that Maria was a perfectly healthy child. When he finally came back home, he shared with my grandmother the story of the dream only to find out that Maria died the day before he’d had that dream. I always think that her death and the dream had something to do with him spending his days reading, meditating, and walking.
By the time I was born my grandfather had already retired, although I heard whispers that he was actually forced out. His gentle yet steadfast and unwavering demeanor defending truth, and his reminiscing on pre-war free and democratic Poland, were things not welcomed in post-war communist Poland, where government propaganda permeated every workplace and spies eagerly reported on even the smallest acts of insubordination. I can imagine that for government sympathizers he was a constant thorn, a reminder of their own compromises and complicities, of what Poland had lost during, and even more, after the war; of what might have been, but for the Yalta Conference. My grandfather didn’t fit the easy mold they all wanted to see. It must have been difficult for them to reconcile the person who’d been punished for opposing the communist government with the man he’d been during the war—a hero, who had escaped the Nazi prison (the very same building, incidentally, in which he was later imprisoned by the communist government). How to deal with a person who insists on truth and freedom, when an authoritarian system has rendered truth and freedom obsolete?
I came to understand that my nightmares about being back in communist Poland were just remnants of the past, shadows following me, intent on making me remember difficult histories, replaying scenes in the background of my subconscious mind. In a strange twist, those memories strengthen my profound gratitude for being awarded citizenship in a country that had been a global symbol of hope, freedom, and opportunity for decades.
But over the last four years, I have felt myself slipping gradually into the familiar state of dread and hopelessness I experienced living in communist Poland. It is surprising how easily old feelings can resurface if prompted by events resembling those from the past. My long-held feeling of profound gratitude started to be replaced by deep confusion and even fear.
What caught me off guard was the people, my neighbors next door, my neighbors on social media, my neighbors in the news. Suddenly, armies of underground individuals came out to shout, to betray, and to attack. Their reasons varied. Often it was the unprecedented racism, where bird watchers were threatened for asking someone to follow the rules in a park, or where a jogger could be gunned down in broad daylight. In places of worship, people were murdered by individuals who believed themselves to have been treated unjustly, ignored, insufficiently noticed. A woman was killed, run over by a man ramming his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters. And then there was George Floyd.
When my family arrived in the States, neighbors embraced us unconditionally. Everyone around us was eager to help, to advise, to accommodate. When as a young family we were buying our first house, armies of well-wishing strangers aided our lack of knowledge with patience and guidance. I still remember the man who went out of his way to vouch for us when we tried to obtain our first mortgage. I was still learning about this new country, I knew that, but one thing seemed certain—Americans were exactly the people I’d imagined living in Poland, generous, kind, helpful, strong, united. But the last four years have changed my perception of this country.
The Spirit of History, apparently inescapable, invents its own objects, events, and conflicts, its own impetus to chaos and destruction. “The same in Poland, in India, Arabia.” The same everywhere.
This essay is dedicated to Alex Grzybowski, Stefanie Nellen, and Noam Izenberg, for their unwavering sense of logic.