Poland--The Taste of Ashes | The Nation


Poland--The Taste of Ashes

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From your very first encounters at the modernized Warsaw airport you know that you have entered the kingdom of private enterprise. The operator at the money exchange hands me $30 worth of zlotys, though I gave her $40; when I protest, she adds the difference without a fuss. A cabbie offers to take me downtown for 200,000 zlotys, explaining that the cheats in the taxi stand outside will charge more because their meters start at 50,000. When I reply that the radio taxi coming to collect me will cost less than a third of his "reduced" fare, his knowing smile and shrug say, So not all new arrivals are suckers. But you have to try to get on in this world.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Returning to Poland after a year, I wanted to see how the patient was faring after nearly three years of "shock therapy" introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister, and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. My first impression was that things are the same, only more so. The image of Western prosperity is striking. The heart of Warsaw is packed with cars. They may not be more numerous but they are bigger, Western Europe's compacts replacing the tiny Fiats made in Poland. "Marketing is an art" says the slogan at the railway station advertising a magazine called "Businessman". Across the street, outside the Marriott hotel, the bellboys wear pith helmets; inside, the gambling casino is open twenty-four hours a day. The latter is mainly for foreigners, but along the city's two most elegant avenues, New World and Krakow Suburb, the smart shops displaying expensive cars, elegant amber jewelry and other luxury goods cater to the natives; and these stores have customers. The upper crust is visibly rising.

On my last visit I wanted to know how fast this buying spree could produce a capitalist class, so I looked at the new rich [see "Poland's New Men of Property," November 11, 1991]. This time I wanted to know how the rest of the country lives, including the much-faster-spreading new poor. To see them, you don't really have to leave the capital, yet I advise those who still echo the hymns to the "Polish miracle" of Harvard free-marketeer Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk to make a short train journey from the Marriott to the city of Lodz.

Down and Out in Lodz

With foreign capital and the huge czarist-era market for its textiles, Lodz grew like a mushroom in the second half of the nineteenth century to become Poland's second-largest city; its population is 850,000. Its factories are spread haphazardly across the metropolitan area. My wife and I walk along one such proletarian fortress--building after building behind a brick wall--stretching, it seems, for miles. At the end, along Weaving Street, is a grim block of flats for the workers; opposite, next to a lake, is a white gem of a palace, yesterday the home of the manufacturer, today a textile museum. With such a socially eloquent landscape the inhabitants may not require a long refresher course to grasp the nature of capitalism.

Poland's textile capital, however, is not what it used to be. Deprived of the Soviet market and attacked on the home front by cheap imports, Lodz is in crisis. Although restructuring, so far, has led to the closing of departments rather than whole enterprises, unemployment, by official count, has already reached 18 percent of the labor force. The contrast with Warsaw hits the eye. Even in the upper parts of the main thoroughfare, Piotrowska Street, the shops do not have the chic of the capital's. At the other end of this very long road poverty sweats through the walls. The nearby flea market, with peddlers from Vilnius or Kiev, is miserable not only by Western but also by Polish standards. Anka Rozanska, a sociologist prominent in the local League of Women, knows a great deal about this wounded city. Usually, she works with single mothers or distributes contraceptive devices received from France. She has much to say about the growing shadow of the Catholic Church (of which more later), but to hear about unemployment she takes us to the horse's mouth.

The Committee for the Defense of the Jobless, at the end of a labyrinthine courtyard, has two bare rooms and a dozen people inside. Although men are more numerous, it's chaired by a woman, Lucyna Kosterkiewicz. She speaks in bursts, with passion: "Without family or friends we couldn't survive.... Dispersed we're nothing, lower than dirt." Another woman, who used to work in a glass factory, was unable to pay for coal to heat her house. So she ran up a large electric bill and now the Electricity Board is threatening to cut off her power. Couldn't she go to a special welfare office for a subsidy? I asked. She did, she said. It was like going to confession, only they wanted to know about her "riches." A man proclaims: This is no capitalism with a human face. It's a more bloodthirsty variety. There's a black market for labor; employers hire for less than twenty-eight days so they won't have to pay for social benefits. Another man claims that for the jobless it might as well be the guillotine at age 40. Women say economic demise comes even earlier for them, since to get a job "you must be young, childless and have a big bosom." Lucyna raises the tone: "We forget the taste of butter, the smell of ham.... I wrote to [President Lech] Walesa and heard not a word.... Ours is a voice in the desert."

We move from the committee to the employment office, where the jobless must report to get their unemployment benefits (35 percent of the average national wage for a year, eighteen months in depressed areas, and then you go on welfare). Today is men's day, and we see a line of them wearily standing on the staircase and continuing out into the courtyard; it's like an old newsreel from the Depression. The last time I was here was eleven years ago, during a Solidarity-sponsored "hunger march." Anka, who was among the marchers, says in parting, "Today, if we staged a march, the slogan would be less metaphorical."

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