Pro Ethnologia, issue 16, December 2003. Pp. 135-139

To Understand Poland

Joanna Bar

Leszek Dziegiel: Paradise in a Concrete Cage. Daily Life in Communist Poland. An Ethnologist’s View, Kraków: ARCANA, 1998.
Janine R. Wedel: The Private Poland: An Anthropologist Look at Everyday Life. New York: Facts on File, 1986.

Over the past few decades, many autobiographies, diaries and memoirs have been written in Poland. Their authors are usually respected intellectuals, writers and publicists from the second half of the 20th century, among whom we could mention Jerzy Andrzejewski, Marian Brandys, Kazimierz Brandys, Stefan Kisielewski, Tadeusz Konwicki, Leszek Prorok, Marek Skwarnicki, Jan Józef Szczepañski, Leopold Tyrmand, Jerzy Zawieyski. These are the people owing to whose work these important decades have become part of literary chronicles.

During the same period Poland also appeared in many scientific works concerned with sociological, ethnographical and, above all, historical issues. They were written by renowned Polish scientists as well as journalists, politicians (Jacek Kuroñ), and a priest (Mieczysùaw Maliñski).

Among these numerous scientific ethnographic works, which treat of everyday Polish life under socialism, two books, above all, should be recommended to people studying abroad. Their authors concentrate on the problems facing the everyday life of “ordinary Polish people”, especially the everyday life of the average working intellectuals in Polish cities. Their “heroes” are scientists, teachers, clerks, engineers and students in Warsaw and Cracow, where the standard of living is far below their aspirations. The intelligentsia was the social group whose incomes and standard of living were most different from the level of the pre-war period.

The American anthropologist Janine Wedel and the Polish ethnologist Leszek Dziægiel present an interesting picture seen through their own eyes as well as provide their own commentaries on this period. Both books were published in English. This is another important reason why these books could be recommended for reading abroad.

The Private Poland: An Anthropologist Look at Everyday Life is a particularly interesting monograph written by an American anthropologist Janine Wedel, which concentrates on one of the most important historical moments of Poland. The author’s fate was bound with Poland for many years, – during 1977, 1979, 1982–83, and 1985–86. In 1980 her stay in Warsaw was connected with research work conducted in cooperation with the Institute of Sociology of Warsaw University. During the period of nine years of relations with Poland, the author established contacts with hundreds of Poles, both on a social and professional basis. She lived under the same conditions sharing a common roof and table with Polish families, as well as their joy and sadness. Her guides through this harsh reality were people with different educational level and from various professions, young and old, communists as well as members of the opposition.

The author’s aim was to carry out an anthropological research mainly supported by her own observations and opinions. She was not interested in the people’s private lives but tried to analyse the decisions and activities of Polish citizens under the political and economic confusion. By acknowledging the division between the public and private spheres in all aspects of life, she tried to trace the image of Polish society, concentrating above all on the daily interactions of citizens. Her aim was to demonstrate the mutually linked public and private components of Polish life in the political, economic and private spheres.

The decision about arriving to Warsaw directly after the establishing of the state of war was particularly dramatic. The Poles in the USA had anticipated a civil war, a Soviet invasion or both. Because of her former research plans, she was given consent to arrive in Poland as early as in January. She arrived in Poland with coffee, soap, tooth-paste and provided with information to the families of Poles whose members were staying in the USA. In the Polish travel agency in Chicago she had learned that all the letters taken over the border were confiscated – therefore she had to learn all the information about the addresses by heart. Her vision of Poland during the state of war was created by the Western press as well as by the uneasiness of her Polish friends – their image of a campaign of systematic terror or declarations of loyalty, signed to the communistic party by their former friends. She landed in Warsaw into the situation of chaos and fear, concerning the condition of public services and shortage of food supplies. Her first impressions were filled with caution regarding the curfew and bugged telephones.

Politics was the basic topic of almost all conversations in Poland. The Poles were, in general, amazed by the alarm expressed by their relatives from abroad. The situation appeared to be serious but not dangerous. The author’s first weeks in Poland were spent running around, distributing information from friends from the USA. She spent her time by accustoming herself to the labyrinths of dark housing developments, without shops, which lacked electricity in the staircases and lifts. The next weeks revealed two moral codes to her – one related to private life and the other – to public life. Later she learned to lie in order to save hundreds of dollars because of irrational regulations regarding foreigners staying in Poland.

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One of the most interesting topics of her research appeared through the observation of an informal barter system, which had helped people live through the recession, whilst the legal market could not secure the essential necessities for the citizens. The “informal economy” created, in her opinion, an exchange, supported by a complex network of social relations, which required an acquaintance of a detailed etiquette – from the example of buying a battery to the release of a person from prison.

Despite her own opinion about the shortage of goods, she observed that anybody could quickly supply something in exchange for other goods; for example a package from the West or a stolen desk from a person’s own place of employment. The commodities of exchange were things, services and information. The author noticed new phrases previously unknown to her, such as: “na lewo” (on the left), “dojúcie” (connections), “dostaã mieszkanie” (to receive a flat) or “zaùatwic sprawæ” (to handle certain matters); understandably only used among the Poles. The presentation of these activities as well as their rules and the etiquette today seem like an imaginary one of an exotic culture known only from ethnographic monographs in Evans-Pritchard style, dating back to the turn of the century.

There is no place for a detailed presentation of these observations, exemplifications and thoughts, which were included in this work. The range of topics is extremely large. Those discussed include, among others, the cooperative circles of family and friends, the degree of confidence both in social and in private environment, the problems of the role of the Church, that of an independent underground culture, as well as the question of the role of culture and history in the lives of the Poles.

The author did not plan to create a critique of Polish political problems from this period. However, she stated that it was impossible to separate social and political life. She dwelt upon moral problems related to the issue of honesty in the private sphere and the ircumven tion of law in the public sphere. She also stated that this division was imposed on foreigners who were forced to abide by Polish rules as well. The book concludes with a vision of Poland’s future.

The second book, Paradise in a Concrete Cage. Daily Life in Communist Poland. An Ethnologist’s View is not the first and only work by Leszek Dziægiel, which takes up the topic of the everyday life of the Poles in the period of 1945–1989. This monograph is not only a recollection of these times, but also a perfect example of the way in which the events of modern Polish history and the everyday lives of Poles have become a new subject worth of ethnological consideration. Particularly accurate is the author’s reflection that ethnologists today are looking for new topics for research, which are related to modern history and the everyday life of people in contemporary societies. Although many of them “ignore the cultural environment in which they were raised and which has exerted a considerable influence on their intellectual outlook” (Dziægiel 1998: 7).

The author’s intention was to draw attention to the existence of certain cultural phenomena in our everyday life during the last decades “ life, culture of the intelligentsia, broadly conceived academic life, and phenomena related to the quest for knowledge, job-hunting and professional pursuits, forms of entertainment, our world view in the broad sense of this term, disputes and conflicts, political differ ences, tension and frustration... (Dziægiel 1998: 8). And it continues: „There is no reason whatsoever to overlook even the most elementary situations arising from daily life, matters of housing, shopping, diet, ecological problems in the big city, forms of recreation, and issues of snobbery and fashion” (Dziægiel 1998: 8).

One of the aims of this work is to recollect a situation of a permanent shortage of basic goods and fundamental personal rights, including lack of freedom in choosing one’s given area at university or field of employment.

The basic part of Paradise in a Concrete Cage is a collection of ten essays which takes a look at some important topics concerning many aspects of Polish everyday life at that time (including the citizens’ living standards, the indoctrination and propaganda at school and at university, fashion, sports and tourism, transport, communication and official communist stereotypes about Poland’s closest neighbours). The author has concentrated on the problems facing the generation which was raised during the time of the consolidation of communism. He pre sented a type of a “cultural duel” between the authorities and the citizens. The book is based on the author’s personal memories and observations as well as a great collection of publications, including his own.

The book is an analysis of the numerous life spheres present in that time, but, of course, not all of them. The main idea of this book is to provide ethnologists and social anthropologists with some interesting new fields for research and open up the possibility of original compara tive international studies.

The author also suggests analysing some chosen cultural spheres outside Poland. The comparative studies pursued jointly by ethnolo gists and anthropologists from various countries in post-communist Europe may offer a better understanding of Eastern and Central Europe societies.

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