Crumbling Pyramids: the Fall of Totalitarian Communist Rule in Poland and Memory of the Forest

Crumbling Pyramids: the Fall of Totalitarian Communist Rule in Poland and Memory of the Forest

Paul Andreas Fischer

5.8.2015

Jonathon D. Huener

 

Crumbling Pyramids: the Fall of Totalitarian Communist Rule in Poland and Memory of the Forest

In Memory of the Forest, by Charles T. Powers, the beginning does not assume significance. It does not throw on the tapestries of European historical writing by dwelling on the horrific natures of mutually assured destruction and consumerism that gripped American writers at the time. However, for those who have read Little House on the Prairie or listened to the more contemporary Garrison Keeler on National Public Radio, there will be a reassuring familiarity in the stories of a “little town in Poland”. Looking at the characterization of the Polish nationality and the nature of life under Communist rule may cast some light on the fate and nature of infamous “the disappeared” of totalitarian government in Poland. To understand the missing, it is first necessary to understand how they were while present.

The history of Poland is rife with running. It is a recurring theme, from military withdrawals to the systematic hunt, or Jager, of the Jewish populations during World War Two. Persecution of Jews proceeded under Stalinist anti-zionist campaigns which periodically emanated from Moscow. With the downfall of Communism in Europe and Russia, a new running was beginning: a female friend of the protagonist of the book, Leszek, named Jola says, “maybe I’m running, but I’m running with my family”. Desperate to leave the villages behind, perhaps it finally felt for the Poles as if there was something, an American dream perhaps, to run to, even if this would be found simply in a larger city now.

Bribery can be seen to be rampant at this time, “it wasn’t a question of moral qualm; just lack of know-how” Just as the American rock song The Farm or Tobacco Road by Jefferson Airplane exalts the benefits of country life, the Poles too have an aversion to the city life, compounded by sentiments of anti-establishmentarianism crossed with disdain for the inveterate lack of life found in fellow city dwellers. Father Jerzy, speaking at a funeral points out that “the culture of the totalitarian gives rise to the totalitarian solution, to force, to murder”. This symptom of systemic sickness is easily diagnosed, the smaller observations can be harder to emphasize, though they lie out in the open, both in life and in this book. One frustration in early country life is technological illiteracy; a local priest, Father Tadeuz, refuses to bless a copy machine.

A fundamental distrust of technology is not limited to the clergy. Cars break down, the heavy industry emphasis of early communism, never significantly successful in satellite states, was long gone and the system had entered a period of prolonged decay ominously omitted from Marxist forecasts as symptomatic of an isolated and unnatural economic system. There is an overwhelming claustrophobia about economic conditions, and while things would be getting better, for these Poles it seemed “as though the air were rationed”.

In order for a small village to obtain even basic necessities like coal, someone had to engage in nefarious behavior, from diversion of food to illicit sexual companions or intoxicating substances. The economic value of goods at the time is complicated by the addition of complementary services from necessary connections to perseverance in obtaining what one or a group needed. Yet times are changing and “nothing was sure any longer, the great pyramid of power was crumbling, visibly notched and chunked at the top, reduced to uncertain sand at the bottom”. This change represented a violent movement away from early notions of revolution upon which many in the social structure had become raised to their positions.

Father Jerzy offers greater insight than the mere violence perpetrated, but also points the finger at the behavior of Communists once they had acquired the mechanisms of control. Poland “is poor because the Communists robbed the people for forty years. Suppressed the church. Encouraged the collapse of the family. Sent Bolshevik Jews and Stalinist tyrants to rule over our lives, to remove religion from the schools”. In the final accusation, the remnants of the anti-zionist campaign can be seen; Polish recognition of anti-semitism can be hard to come by, and nearly as great a crime as the purges under Communist rule was the utter lack of apology, the wretched fear and hatred instilled in the population, which was left exposed for the west, still smouldering from decades past.

Unlike many revolutionary or economic constructions and movements in the United States, the fall of Communism was not one of young people throwing off the yoke of the archaic, reactionary system. Instead it was tired old people, ones who had fought and killed for a way of life that stubbornly refused to materialize, desperate for a new solution. The protagonist’s grandpa has a mild, teasing disdain for “anyone he associated with what he thought of as the structure of Socialism”. Meanwhile those who make sure the village is warm and survives from year to year must attend frequent Party meetings to turn the sickening wheels of corruption.

Still, for these young capitalists to lament the totalitarianism seems to be a loss of place in a certain way. Just as in America, the USSR was seen with an uneasy distrust, along with some useful programs that took a long time to take hold here, people behind the Iron Curtain must have also had such misgivings and suspicion of the brave new world offered. Equally important to the protagonist as he snoops around this small village, is the Jewish history, or lack thereof.

“There was no history here, no archive, no memorial”. As useless as an empty American prairie to digest the atrocities that occurred, land once resplendent with clues, from graves to lifestyles of European Jewry, the small Polish town and its inhabitants still wallow in ignorance of the acts committed by local and occupying authorities. Some of the apathy and ignorance of the village is explained by the pathetic “cultural center” which contains a handful of books and a desk. Some, like a travel agent “proud of his crisp uniform” believe in the system. With an arrogant uselessness, the agent’s eyes barely waver from the screen and the protagonist is disgusted.

This is not all of the Polish national character that is contained in this book. Like Poland, the young men are brave. Old men look for the characteristics of their leaders in the eyes of their young. There is a romance, which is flawed by its innocence, and the omniscient recognition that to change this will create folly many times that of any flaw apparent in this relationship. With the tunnel-vision of young love, the social stratification and troubles of the village still must come first. That could be a sole logical fallacy, but as in life, white lies are necessary in literature to facilitate the delivery of important messages and for the enjoyment of the reader. For an American, the disparate love and hatred between child and adult, the ignominious recognition of a failing system is apparent. This strange distance is also quite alien; this brings one closer to the judgemental decisions which are begged and are continually recurring. It is fitting that in conclusion, Leszek confesses for his father. Some would argue as well, that it is fitting that he does not pay for these crimes. Polish families continue to live in the former homes of their Jewish neighbours exiled or killed through the brutal methodology of fear intimidation and exclusion (not to juxtapose the acronym when it is not necessitated).

A final note of how these officiously useless figures and apathetic, ignorant people came to lose faith in a political system convoluted by decades of isolation is needed. “Do I hear my charges now or at the trial?” a chairman of a farmer’s co-op laughingly asks, referring to his potential accusers as young crusaders. The concept of being charged was laughable, the ideation of criminality had lost its grip through repressive measures and negative execution of judiciary demands.

While the book is a memory, and little more, it is also a historical artifact. Interestingly, more striking than the outlandish tales of foreign peoples that characterized early travellers’ accounts such as Marco Polo or Cortes in the renaissance or age of absolutism, this story will touch an American reader with similarities. The small town, rife with mystery and intrigue. A long forgotten but intrinsically detailed past involving every family rushes to meet the villagers in the light of the present day. Morally and ethically, the reader must contemplate reality and juxtapose a unique system of judgement in evaluating these people; so much of what is experienced strikes home, even for one not natural to the Polish character.

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