Seventy-five years since the establishment date of the People’s Republic of Poland
By Mark Wegierski
The founding date of the People’s Republic of Poland (Polish acronym: PRL) was considered to be July 22, 1944, when the so-called Lublin Manifesto was issued. The PRL in its foundation and early years was a savage imposition of Soviet Communism on an unwilling Polish nation. Over a 100,000 Poles died resisting this imposition, during a vicious conflict that raged until 1949.
However, the death of Stalin in 1953 led to an eventual liberalization of the regime in 1956, during the so-called Polish October. Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had actually been briefly jailed by the Stalinists in the earlier period, became First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party (Polish acronym: PZPR) – the main Communist party. He inaugurated the period known as “The Thaw”, essentially “polonizing” the regime, and moving it away from the harsh and grinding totalitarianism of the Stalinist period.
As a result of the disturbances of the 1968-1970 period, Edward Gierek came to power as First Secretary of the PZPR. He inaugurated a period of cultural and economic liberalization, that, even decades later, is sometimes dubbed “the golden years of Gierek”. Gierek used Western loans to build up the economy, with Poland becoming the tenth greatest industrial power in the world. There was also a quickening of culture, with a world-acclaimed Polish cinema and theatre. Gierek also initiated a major outreach to Polish communities abroad, notably in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Young Polish-Americans and Polish-Canadians were encouraged to travel to Poland and assert their Polish roots. The extent of this outreach has arguably never been matched by any subsequent Polish governments. There was also a major emphasis on native Slavic themes in art, as well as on Polish folk-culture, in all its splendid regional variety, including song, dance, and the decorative arts.
I had been born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, of Polish immigrant parents. My parents made a concerted effort to acculturate me to “Polishness”. For example, I attended the Polish (Saturday) School from 1968.
In June 1974, I achieved a Graduation Diploma (Grade 8) of the Tadeusz Kosciuszko (Saturday) Polish School (Toronto), Polish Alliance of Canada, with an over-all result of Very Good (5). I had completed the equivalent of 8 grades in six years.
I visited Poland a number of times in the 1970s. In the summer of 1975, I completed a Polish Ethnography Study Program (235 hours/college level) based in Kielce, Poland, for which I received a Diploma. Although I was only in my mid-teens, I was able to meaningfully participate in the studies, being quite bright and highly fluent in Polish. The studies encompassed a very rich program, with numerous trips to different historic towns and cities in Poland. Simple but quite good meals and accommodations were provided for the students throughout the program. Most of the students were Polish-Americans in their late teens and twenties.
Also, in August 1975, I received an Honourary Diploma for Participation in the First Polish Poetry and Prose Dramatic Recital Festival for Persons of Polish Descent Living Abroad, held in Torun, Poland. There was a great emphasis put on dramatic recital as an art form, both in Poland, and in the Polish communities abroad. The Festival also included trips to numerous historic towns and cities in Poland. Good meals and accommodations were provided for the participants.
I travelled to Poland again in 1977. In August 1977, I received a Diploma of Recognition for Propagating the Beauty of the Polish Language and Popularizing Polish Literature, at the Second Polish Poetry and Prose Dramatic Recital Festival for Persons of Polish Descent Living Abroad. also held in Torun, Poland.
However, by this time, the Gierek economic miracle was beginning to sour. There had been ominous disturbances in Radom in 1976. After the election of the Polish Pope in 1978, the hunger of Poles for “only truth” became very palpable. The eruption of the Solidarity independent trade-union movement caught the regime by surprise. The regime reached an agreement with Solidarity on August 31, 1980. There was a brief exhilaration of freedom in 1980-1981. However, Communist General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, 1981, and suppressed Solidarity by force. I felt a distaste for travelling to Poland at this time.
The Communists negotiated with Solidarity at the so-called Round Table in early 1989. In the semi- free election of June 4, 1989, the nation voted overwhelmingly for the Solidarity list. Within a few years, the PRL was dissolved, and the Third Polish Republic was proclaimed.
Nevertheless, the former Communists held the Presidency of the Third Republic from 1995-2005, and dominated the Parliament for most of the years up to 2005. The patriotic Olszewski government was brought down in 1992 by the intervention of Lech Walesa (who had been elected President in 1990 – he lost to Aleksander Kwasniewski in 1995).
Owing to a variety of circumstances, I only returned on a trip to Poland in 2002, after a hiatus of twenty-five years.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents.