Communist-Era Scars Haunt Poland's Politics

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Part of the miles of files from Poland’s Nazi occupation and communist era i

Boxed and numbered, files from Poland's Nazi occupation and communist era are kept underground in a modern archive in Warsaw. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
Part of the miles of files from Poland’s Nazi occupation and communist era

Poland's Nazi occupation and communist era are kept underground in a modern archive in Warsaw. In a controversial vetting process known as lustration, Poland uses the documents in part to check whether public figures collaborated with the communist secret police.

Emily Harris, NPR
Beata Gorczynska-Szmytkowka was jailed in 1983 at age 17 for distributing banned publications. i

Beata Gorczynska-Szmytkowka was jailed in 1983 at age 17 for distributing banned publications during communist rule. Emily Harris, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Harris, NPR
Beata Gorczynska-Szmytkowka was jailed in 1983 at age 17 for distributing banned publications.

Beate Gorczynska-Szmytkowka was jailed in 1983 at age 17 for distributing banned publications during communist rule. She is tired of seeing public officials who served with the oppressive secret police continue to wield power in post-communist Poland. The young man who prosecuted her as a teenager rose to head a regional prosecutor's office after communism fell.

Emily Harris, NPR

About Poland's Files

  • A public agency called the Institute for National Memory, or IPN, maintains the 53 miles of files from the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent communist regime.
  • IPN employs its own researchers to study the files' contents.
  • IPN regularly publishes books and publicizes those who worked for the communist security agencies up until they were dissolved with the fall of communism in 1989.
  • Anyone who has a file can see it. The files of several people defined as "public figures" are open to the public. Journalists and researchers can also request any file.

Parliamentary elections in Poland this Sunday could result in an early end to the rule of the country's governing twin brothers who came to power on a campaign to cleanse Poland of its past.

Polls showed Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice party running in second place at the end of campaigning Friday. His twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, will remain in office for another three years.

The Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party came to power two years ago, after campaigning to cleanse Poland of its past. One method was to expand the use of communist-era secret police files to expose former collaborators still in influential positions. But their efforts have had mixed results. Critics say it's part of the twins' worldview of "us versus them" that reverberates in this election campaign.

A Lasting Scar

Secret police files still stir deep emotions in post-communist Europe because the security services infiltrated ordinary citizen's lives. Beata Gorczynska-Szmytkowka missed her high school final exam in 1986 because she had been thrown in jail for distributing pamphlets — then illegal in Poland. After the fall of communism three years later, she watched as the man who handled the case against her became a high-ranking regional prosecutor in post-communist Poland.

She is convinced that people formerly employed by communist security services should not hold positions of authority now, because she believes the qualities they showed by working to repress opponents of communism could also come into play now.

"I mean dependence, being easily influenced, being 'a man for hire.' In any public office — but especially in the justice system — that's absolutely unacceptable," she says.

Under communist rule in Poland, thousands of ordinary people agreed to inform on friends and family. Some did, while others merely signed papers in which they promised to inform. Such agreements often occured under pressure of blackmail or punishment, or as a trade for the chance to travel abroad.

Gorczynska-Szmytkowka says she can't condemn those who collaborated "to protect themselves or their families, people who signed a document and never really informed on anyone."

If she'd been in their position, she says, "I don't know, I might have done the same."

Journalist Ewa Milewicz says that for her, the worst point in her life came in the late 1990s, when her name was revealed to be in a secret police file. She says that for a former underground, anti-communist activist like her, it felt like being wrongly linked to a murder.

"You are accused, but you are innocent," she says.

A German agent posing as a student in Poland reported he'd bought illegal books from Milewicz. But the only information initially made public years later was that her name was in a file. It took nearly two months before she was cleared and declared a "victim" rather than a suspected collaborator.

Vetting the Past

Distinguishing between victim and collaborator is important in Poland's political life. But not because former collaborators or even secret police employees under communism are punished now for their actions then. Poland chose early on to exclude from public office only those who lied about their past, comparing declarations they made about their past with secret police files. The process is called lustration.

During their party's two years in power, the Kaczynskis sponsored a law requiring people in many professions — including teachers and journalists — to declare details about their past. Declarations would be checked against the secret police files, and liars could lose their jobs. Milewicz was among those who refused to sign — she says it seemed too much like the old times.

The law was largely struck down by Poland's highest court this summer. Judges called it an unconstitutional craving for revenge. Law professor Wiktor Osiatynski says that the ruling made lustration less of an issue in this year's campaign, compared with its prominence when the Kaczynski's party took power two years ago. In the previous election, Osiatynski says, Poles were fed up with scandals involving the government, which was largely made up of former communists.P>

Lustration resonated then "because the Kaczynski brothers made a very effective political campaign of purifying Poland — in every potential measure," Osiatynski says.

From Collaboration to Corruption

More recently, the Kaczynskis have focused on fighting corruption, complete with videotaped stings of politicians and even a famous transplant surgeon. Osiatynski says promises to clean up the system play well among Poles who feel they've unjustly become losers in the transition to capitalism. It doesn't matter whether the target is corrupt officials or former collaborators, he says.

But lustration still lingers in this parliamentary campaign. Poland's main opposition leader, Donald Tusk of the Civic Platform, accuses the Kaczynskis of digging in the past. He plays on words to say his party will 'dig for the future' by building better roads, among other pledges.

Civic Platform is expected to win this election. And lustration won't go away — more than 100,000 Poles have filled out declarations required by the new law. Although Kaczynski critics say the brothers and their party have used leaks from the files for political manipulation, there are supporters of lustration too.

Journalist Bronislaw Wildstein remains a strong proponent of publicizing the files' contents. Wildstein fought the communist system and learned later that a close friend was reporting every detail to the secret police. History, he says, is not always nice — but it is necessary.

All deputies elected to the Polish parliament today will be checked to see if their declarations of encounters with communist security forces are accurate. If not, they won't be allowed to take office.

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