“THEM”: Stalin’s Polish Puppets. By Teresa Toranska. Translated by Agnierzka Kolukowska. Harper & Row. 384 pp. $22.95.
What price is Poland paying for its Stalinist heritage? In 1981, during the heyday of Solidarity when everybody was looking at the present or, with fingers crossed, to the future, Teresa Toranska, a bright and persistent young Polish journalist, decided to probe her country’s recent past. For four years she interviewed as many surviving leaders of Poland’s first postwar decade as would agree to talk to her. It was high time for such a project since her potential subjects were already in their seventies or early eighties. The resulting book, originally commissioned by an official Polish publisher who eventually decided against issuing it, became a samizdat best seller in Poland. It has now appeared in the United States in a slightly abridged version consisting of five interviews. Among these are lengthy dialogues with Edward Ochab, who, after a long Stalinist period, presided in October 1956 over the transfer of power to the rehabilitated Wladyslaw Gomulka; with Stefan Staszewski, who, as party boss for the Warsaw region, also played a role in that “Spring in October”; and, last but not least, with Jakub Berman, who, as the man in charge of ideology and security, was one of the ruling Troika (together with Boleslaw Bierut, the party chief, and Hilary Minc, the economist) in the worst years of the Moscow-sponsored dictatorship.
European reviewers of the book have emphasized either its spicy details–Berman dancing with Vyacheslav Molotov in front of a smiling Stalin at one of his late-night parties–or its trivial ones–the brief portrait of Julia Minc, a bigoted and unrepentant old woman who figures in the book in part because she was the economist’s widow and also because she describes how “they,” the rulers, lived in relatively privileged but almost total isolation. But the book is far more interesting than such details can suggest. It contains much valuable material for future historians–notably on China’s role in the 1956 crisis, on Russian methods of control, on Khrushchev’s attitude toward anti-Semitism and especially on the thinking of Poland’s nominal leaders, so mighty and yet so powerless. Indeed, the book contains all the ingredients of a major tragedy, although the reader does have to be aware of certain of its biases and limitations.
The first point to be clarified is that “them” should not be taken as an anti-Semitic reference even though four out of the five people interviewed here happen to be Jewish. It is true that the 3.5 million or so Jews in prewar Poland were an oppressed minority and that many of them were naturally attracted to socialism’s idea of universal social justice. After Hitler’s holocaust, Poland’s Jewish’ community had almost vanished, but many of the leaders who arrived from exile in Russia, where racism had not been a key criterion in Stalin’s purging of the Polish Communist Party, were Jewish. Nevertheless, the ratio of four Jews to one non-Jew in Toranska’s sample is accidental. Some of the leaders had died. Many more–Gornulka, Stanislaw Radkiewicz (the Minister of Security) and General Mieczyslaw Moczar–refused to talk.