My parents left Belgium and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Canada in 1953. (They had never returned to Poland after the War.) Their emigration was driven by my father’s belief that it was only a matter of time before Joseph Stalin would try to conquer the parts of Europe that weren’t already under the Soviet banner. Not an unreasonable supposition given the times. My mother was less politically inclined and not as consumed by anti-Communist passion as my father was but she was willing to follow his plan.
My parents occasionally did discuss East European politics around the kitchen table as I was growing up. Of course the talk usually included scathing comments about Communists but my parents were not ideologues. They also had a healthy cynicism about all politicians and the will of Western governments to actually assist the people struggling under “the yoke of Communism”. I remember my parents even having a good laugh over President Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech and questioning exactly how much he would come to Western Europe’s aid should there be an actual conflict. No doubt the American Government’s non-response during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution influenced my parents’ attitude. (Disclaimer: My in-laws were refugees from the Hungarian Revolution so my attitudes to Communism have also been influenced from that quarter.)
But overall I was raised in a household with a strong antipathy toward Communism and Communists. The terribleness of Communism was also instilled in me in more subtle ways such as being told to eat all my dinner because people were starving in Poland. There was also our annual pre-Christmas ritual of bundling up our cast off clothes into a box for shipping to relatives in Poland. (In turn, my relatives showed their gratitude by shipping us mushrooms which my mother made into a murky soup for our Christmas eve dinner. My God, I am still scarred by being forced to eat that concoction.)
As I also had contact with other Eastern Europeans in my community I would occasionally hear about their troubles dealing with governments behind the Iron Curtain. Particularly galling was the case of a Lithuanian woman I slightly knew. When she wished to travel back to Lithuania in the early 1960s to visit her ageing mother, the Soviets forced her to jump through a number of hoops on her trip. These were designed to keep her from seeing as little of her home country, and its sorry impoverishment, as possible while simultaneously extracting a maximum amount of hard currency from her. When she finally arrived in Lithuania she was compelled to stay in her hotel while the authorities brought her mother to the hotel. I can only imagine the heart breaking scene as mother and daughter were reunited for a brief time within the confines of an austere Soviet-era hotel room. The room was probably bugged too, so the conversation would have been constrained. One can only wonder about the humanity of the authorities who were privy to this reunion. They had mothers and children. Did they not feel any empathy and question the legitimacy of a paranoid system which resorted to such tactics for its preservation?
All these youthful exposures to the miseries of Communism meant I was aware of its moral and economic bankruptcy. While I was not indifferent to this (I valued the superiority of the West’s ways) as long as Communism did not threaten my country it remained largely an abstract concept to me. As I grew older and was able to think things through for myself I also came to wonder whether Communism was merely a symptom and not the disease itself. In the absence of Communism, I reasoned. various European countries would develop other political systems with which to subjugate their citizens. It was in their blood, not their politics. I don’t believe this theory has been disproved yet for a few Iron Curtain countries.
So I began my travels through Central Europe, not with a desire to validate any feelings of loathing, but with a sense of curiosity about life under Communism. I wondered, too, whether there were many vestiges of Communism left since it had collapsed a quarter century ago, after all. A conversation I had with this fellow on the Zurich-Berlin train reinforced this question. He told me that he had lived his whole life in what was West Germany but had travelled to eastern Germany a number of times over the past 25 years and with each successive trip he found fewer features which distinguished the East from the West.
From my, admittedly limited, exposure as I travelled through eastern Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary I felt that Communism’s tribulations had been pretty well scrubbed away from people’s every day lives. The department stores were filled with goods, late model cars plied the roadways and, for better or worse, there was a plethora of fast food places.
But Communism’s ugliness still resides in these countries’ buildings and infrastructure. In the Czech Republic’s case you can see it in Prague’s Zizkov Television communications tower. The tower looks like a giant whitehead erupting from one of the hills which surround Prague.
But the Tower could almost be called tasteful in comparison to the horrid Communist-era apartment buildings that one has to suffer when passing through Prague’s outer suburbs. I travelled to Prague by bus since I was coming from a provincial town in Poland. Staring out the window as the bus made its way into the centre of the city I wasn’t sure if what I had heard about Prague’s beauty was terribly misinformed or I had taken a bus to the wrong Prague.
Poland, in turn, has Warsaw’s vomitous Palace of Culture and Science which was a “gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland”.
I first became aware of this building in the early 1970s in some book I was idly thumbing through in the high school library. Even though the book claimed to be an impartial look at Communism, it was clearly no such thing; but rather a propaganda tool for some right wing group. So I took what the book said about the Palace with some scepticism.
When I finally witnessed the building for myself, some 40 years later, I was stunned by its hideousness. No picture can do justice to such architectural grotesqueness; a Stalinist Gothic heap that has been dumped into the centre of Warsaw. The hideousness is heightened by the Palace’s disregard for the relatively understated style of the surrounding buildings.
Let me try to bring some humour to the Palace’s awkwardness by reworking a couple of old jokes. There is the Rodney Dangerfield joke about looking up “ugly” in the dictionary and finding a picture of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science. Or else, we can paraphrase Fred Flinstone “I don’t know what the architect got for designing that building, but it should’ve been life!”
But don’t let me put you off, if you find yourself near the Palace do have a quick look in one of its lobbies (you probably couldn’t stomach more than a quick look). There is no such thing as subtlety in any part of this building, inside or out.
Still in all, such towers and buildings are only monuments to bad taste. They may hurt the eyes of the people who are passing by but they don’t do any real harm to anyone but the most aesthetically sensitive. As such, they may leave me smiling pitiably at the hubris which created these horrors but they do not explain the visceral feelings of hatred toward Communists and Communism that I developed during my travels. That was sparked in the most aggrieved city – Berlin.
Whew! I didn’t know I could write so much about Communism’s fading trail. But I’ll give you a break from reading and me a break from writing for the moment. So I’ll post this and pick it up next time by writing about my time in Berlin.