Generation Wall: Young, free and Polish

A woman chips away at the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Credit: Justin Leighton / Alamy

A woman chips away at the Berlin Wall, November 1989. Credit: Justin Leighton / Alamy

Our latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine includes a look at “Generation Wall” – the young people who grew up in a free eastern Europe.  Tymoteusz Chajdas, 23, from Poland, is one of our contributors. Here, he looks back at what has changed and remembers his family’s excitement when packages arrived from an uncle in the West

The delivery of a package, the size of a small fridge, from abroad was rare in 1980s Poland. My family was fortunate enough to have this privilege. Every month, my two-year-old sister, Joanna, sat on the rubber flooring in the hallway of our two-bedroom apartment. She waited for a package from Jerzy, my uncle who lived in Cologne, West Germany.

The unpacking was always an occasion. But my parents have a particularly strong memory of the first time a package was delivered. When the postman arrived, Joanna opened the box and immediately started playing with the contents. “Balls. I’ve got so many! Come play with me!” It was the first time my sister had seen oranges.

This was the reality of that time. Poland became isolated from the rest of Europe when the Soviets erected the Berlin Wall in 1961. The ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy remained unattainable for an average Pole for the next 28 years. Some only experienced these ideals remotely by having family in the West, and occasionally receiving “samples” of what Western life was like.

Over on the eastern side of the wall, Poles couldn’t buy basic material goods easily, such as food or hygiene products. Large chunks of everyday life consisted of tedious searches and hours standing in long lines to buy essentials. Store shelves were frequently empty, and it seemed the only item always in stock was vinegar. Even if a product was available, it could only be purchased upon presentation of a ration card.

“Jerzy was devastated by this,” says my mother, Jadwiga, talking about her brother. In 1979, my uncle was invited by a friend for a three-week holiday in the Netherlands. After two weeks, Jerzy decided to stay on the other side of the wall. He applied for political asylum and never came back.

“He could stay there under one condition: he had to reject Polish citizenship,” she tells me. “So he did. Within two years he started sending us food and clothing.”

A few years later, another relative of ours emigrated to the United States. While the Berlin Wall divided Europe into two worlds,

Poles could not reveal any connections they had with the West. It was around this time my father started his career at the Silesian Police Department.

“We started to fear our own shadows,” says my mother, remembering that having family in the West was both a blessing and curse. Any association with capitalist Europe posed a threat to the authorities of communist Poland and was seen as political espionage and violation of the communist ideology. “[Your father] had to renounce family mem- bers living in the West if he wanted to stay employed,” says my mother. “Our phone was tapped so we had little contact with them.”

Despite this, my family still received packages. Only those who worked two jobs or were communist party members could afford to live comfortably, so my mother had to lie about her income to cover up for the extra goods we received from relatives abroad.

Less privileged Poles had little or no un- derstanding of what life looked like on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Jolanta Sudy, a high school teacher and family friend, re- members those times very well. She says the majority of Poles were victims of communist propaganda and were unaware of what was happening in their own country.

“As far as censorship is concerned, the Soviets presented the Eastern Bloc as an El Dorado where everything was perfect and no problems existed,” she says. The government spread its ideology through newspapers, magazines, books, films and theatre productions. Popular radio and tel- evision broadcasts were also censored and reinforced the views of the communist party.

Every year on 1 May, all Polish citizens were obliged to attend a street parade celebrating the International Worker’s Day. A register of attendance was kept.“It looked like a country fair or circus,” recalls Sudy. “Everyone was dressed up to show how joy- ful it was to live in Poland, how happy we were because of the socialist system. But the party stood above us with a whip.”

The elections worked similarly and at- tendance was also mandatory. Many saw them as an ironic spectacle organised by the authorities. The ballot paper featured only one name. “I always signed the register but I never put the card in the box,” says Sudy. “This was my battle with communism.”

Such oppression, constant fear and invigilation had a strong influence on the Poles. Some listened to Radio Free Europe, which broadcast unbiased news from Western countries.

In 1989 the situation changed drastically: the Berlin Wall was torn down.

“The store shelves filled up again with foreign goods,” says my mum. “Travel agents started organising vacations to other coun- tries. This was very difficult before then.”

Some Poles found the change shocking. Sudy says that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the amount of uncensored news was overwhelming. “It was hard to believe that we could have lived differently since the end of World War II.”

The overturn of the uniform culture of communist Poland gave birth to a cul- tural explosion which had skillfully been repressed by the Soviets. Free expression in the arts in Poland did not exist during the communist period, according to Kasia Gasinska, a 24-year-old graphic designer. Some Polish citizens listened to music from non-authorised radio stations but it was only “after the wall fell down that [Polish] art became liberated,” recalls Gasinska. 

Gasinska says that Western music suddenly became available in Poland, and Poles set up new bands. “New music genres were introduced, such as rave or techno, which embodied the feeling of freedom shared by many at the time.”

The collapse of communism also brought with it one of the most powerful artistic forms – street art, says Gasinska. Many Poles made the journey to the remnants of the Berlin Wall where they could freely express themselves through graffiti.

This expanded as an artistic movement to major cities in Poland. Lodz, the third largest city and a post-industrial centre, became one of many hubs for street art, famous for its colourful murals and playful graffiti that covered many bleak estates.

olish cinema was liberated from communist propaganda as well. There were new movies that referred to the Polish romantic ideals of the previous epoch, as well as comedies and films that dealt with everyday life in the wake of the political transformation.

Today, the events that led to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall seem like a distant memory for many young Poles, myself included. I was born in 1990 and I only learnt about those times by listening to the stories my parents told. Some were scary, some funny. But mostly, they feel unreal, as does the idea of getting shot at for attempting to cross the western border.

Although the Berlin Wall was torn down 25 years ago, divisions can still be felt. An in- visible wall divides us into those who are too young to remember and those who suddenly woke up in a capitalist country. Some made up for the lost time and found themselves in the new system. Others still tend to talk about the good old communist times when the pace of life was less hectic.

But even these Poles wouldn’t deny that the Berlin Wall has become a symbol of an unrealistic system, gradual economic decline and political oppression. Today, its ruins remind me of the adversities many eastern Europeans had to go through to experience living in a free, democratic country. Few remember that, at the time, only hope kept the Poles dreaming of a better life.

My mother told me that when she was a child, she received a present from her friend who was leaving for West Germany. “It was a pair of knee-high socks with blue and red stripes at the top. Today, I would say they were unsightly,” she says. “But back then, I wore them every day. Every time I looked at them, I promised myself that it was going to be better one day.” 

This article appears in the summer 2014 issue of Index on Censorship magazine. Get your copy of the issue by subscribing here or downloading the iPad app.