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Memories of the Polish communist era

dannyboy 18 | 248  
26 Jul 2007 /  #1


Michal or whoever, I am very interested to hear about the communist times in Poland.
Could you please give some memories of what it was like?

Some of the Polish elderly people I have spoken to describe it as being like an onion - with good layers and bad layers.

For example, XMAS was usually quite a good time in Poland due to bonuses etc.
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
28 Jul 2007 /  #2
I guess you require too much, giving us at least a 5,000 words assignment :)
For example I was 19 yrs old in 1989, how am I supposed to describe a half of my life, it would take a lot. Unless someone has his diaries from that era.

And mixed feelings in such cases are obvious. You were young, first kisses, first love, passionate discussions with friends, some great events (cultural, sports etc.), you had a life before you and lots of optimism despite the surrunding grey (or even darker) reality. So all that passion interfers in your memory with the political/economic/social conditions.

Now, trying to be as objective as possible, after almost 20 years, I may say it sucked, sometimes a little, sometimes badly. The social life wasn't that bad, in some periods even great, but it was a dictatorship, with all its consequences, especially for personal liberty, which turns out not so important for most people, who just want to be fed, given job, given their paycheck (no matter how lousy it's compared to the free economy countries), those people are the biggest part of the commie era eulogists, but I guess I'm simplifying the problem, so be patient, someone may elaborate, if you give them more time, I guess.
smooth_jazz 7 | 71  
28 Jul 2007 /  #3
I know this is not really on the mark of what you were looking for but there is a pub/dance club in Wrocław that is kind of a tribute to communism (Actually I'm not sure if it is memorializing it or mocking it) . It is called PRL and it has all kinds of old poster and pictures on the walls including portraits of all the worlds famous communitst leaders. They also sometimes have old communist television shows playing on various t.v.'s throughout the pub. Anyhow it is my girlfriend's favorite pub and I kind of like it too.
Ranj 21 | 948  
28 Jul 2007 /  #4
Some of the Polish elderly people I have spoken to describe it as being like an onion - with good layers and bad layers.

Don't mean to jump into your questions about communism directed towards our Polish friends, but I think every political entity has its good and bad layers....that being said, I also would like to hear the viewpoints of those who have lived through communist's alway good to read a different viewpoint, I think. :)
OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
29 Jul 2007 /  #5
Thanks guys,

Ranj, thats a fair point - what I meant to say is that in the West, we think of communisim as only bad and often ignore that it did have good points.

Jazz, I've not been to wroclaw yet, but I'll keep an eye out for it when I do get a chance to go

Krysz, any quirky memories. For example, in some of Michal's other posts he was mentioning that you had to queue for hours to buy meat, and there was only pink toilet roll abailable.

What types of clothes did ye wear?
What was school like?
Was there less crime/more crime?

A friend of mine who is lithuanian told me that the first time he saw Bruce Lee was when he was 12, some sailors had docked. They had taken a photograph of a poster of Bruce Lee using a cheap camera and were selling the snapshots for 1 ruble each.

He often says that his family had plenty of money, but there was nothing to buy with it!!

He also told me that in some apartments, people had VCRs and they would essentially operate a cinema, showing tapes on their TV to group of kids for 3rubles each.

But there would be rows of 10chairs watching a small tv, so if you were at the back you would see nothing.
bunia 1 | 134  
29 Jul 2007 /  #6
only pink toilet roll

try grey :)
I was only a child in that time so i didnt understand most of it.
How its stuck in my head is:
Really lond queue to buy meat and sugar.
Most of the shops were empty.
I remember my mother's face when my dad managed to get furniture to living room - her face was like she just saw god :)

From my old photos from kindergarden and primary school - every child had exacly same shoes :)
I also remember parade on 1st May - absolutely all kids had to go through town vaving little flags.
At the back of my child's health book it was written : 2 pair of tights, 20dkg of ham, 100g butter etc (that was limit my mum could get for me)

One more memory - when i broke my glasses my mum was very upset / sad because it was really hard to get proper lenses.
But like i said - being a child i was happy and didnt really care that my parents had hard time to get food / clothes and everything else. For me it was beautiful time ive spent playing with friends :) TV was not popular so we were healthy childreen spending most of our free time outside :)
PolskaDoll 28 | 2,104  
29 Jul 2007 /  #7
This is actually quite an interesting thread dannyboy. I'm looking forward to seeing more replies on here, the ones so far are interesting.
OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
29 Jul 2007 /  #8
I remember my mother's face when my dad managed to get furniture to living room - her face was like she just saw god :)

Those are the kind of things I find fascinating.
We generally take these things for granted but in that era it was amazing.

On the other hand, a belorussian guy I know was telling me that nowadays petrol costs us a small fortune, but when he was a driver in the USSR, lots of his colleagues used to stick a hosepipe into the petrol tank and syphen the petrol down a sewerdrain, then goto sleep for a few hours. Petrol was dirt cheap.

The reasoning behind this was that there was nothing to transport but their job was driving, so they had to go out and drive regardless of wheter there was work to do.

They would fill up their tank, go out and drink/sleep etc. then go back to the base and show the petrol gauge was at the bottom (since they had dumped the petrol).

If you did that nowadays with petrol, people would think you have mental issues.
Eurola 4 | 1,909  
29 Jul 2007 /  #9
I remember my father listening to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America on UKF stations. The noises coming out of that thing were very loud and disturbing, I think the radio waves were disturbed on purpose. He was tunning into the stations and turning the volume up, and up...and my mom screaming "turn it down! the neighbors are going to hear that!". You know, they could tell on you for listening to this kind of stations. My father was so pro-America. I think, he smiled in heaven when my sister left in 1975 and I - 5 years later...

The same radio played 4,5 hours of speeches given by the 1st Secretary of PolitBiuro..Gomulka, Gierek - especially on Sundays. The real commies listened, most people just went to church... :)There were not too many polish radio stations to pick from, so often, us kids, we just played any station which had a music, no matter what the language was. There was a cultural center in a nearby village, where people went to watch TV or just socialize.

Anyway, since my father was lesniczy (forest ranger) we lived literally - in the forest. The housing was provided by the government and it was free. We did not own a farm, but were given some fields nearby, enough to grow chickens, geese, ducks, a cow for milk, and a pig or two. They were grown for food, so we never really felt deprived. Lemons and oranges were available around X-mas only...

We wore the same uniforms in grade school and did not have to wear any in high school, many did because it was like a cover up. You could wash and wear the same clothes under. I lived in a dorm for 4 years during high school and was coming home once every month or two. It was so much fun to be there! Got myself in trouble for wearing a huge plexyglass cross as a neckless. I was told that it was a civic place, and I should not be wearing a i had to hide it when a teacher was around, but defiantly was wearing it everywhere also.

It was very safe in Poland in 60's and 70's. I could walk all alone at midnight and feel safe. I heard of only one rape in my teens...

It got worse, when my mom died too right after my high school ended (my father died when I was in grade school). It was mid 70's, the long lines started...but I lucked out. My sister left and was sending me money and clothes...I could shop at Pewex... and that's when the long lines for food started in the cities. People were happy to have a family in the village.

In general, education was free, you still had to pay for books etc., doctors and hospitals were free...if you wanted a better care for a loved one - a half a pig for your doctor or a box of chocolates from pewex...

Strange times indeed.
krysia 23 | 3,058  
29 Jul 2007 /  #10
Yes growing up in the 70's in Poland I remeber my dad listening to those radio stations and it was always hush hush so the nieghbors won't hear it.

The lines started in late 70's, food became rationed, you were given tickets for certain amount of sugar, meat, rice, flour, etc. Most TV shows were about war. Russian was a rquirement in schools where you had to attend on Saturdays also.

May first was a parade. Fun stuff!!
Michal - | 1,865  
29 Jul 2007 /  #11
There were also a lot of Russian films shown in the cinemas. In fact, I remember a strange propaganda film in the cinema where I was in Gdansk. I wonder if the cinema still exists?
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
29 Jul 2007 /  #12
oh, the cinema :)

some nice memories from the Dark Age:
American movies were pretty rare in the 80's, I remember only a few films:
Star Wars trilogy, Butch Cassidy ... and Enter the Dragon, which some people saw 10-20 times, if it was screened three times daily for a week, they'd go to see the movie three times daily for a week and Bruce Lee became a real cult figure.

in big cities there were students clubs which were allowed to show (but only to a limited audience) some more non-communist movies, they often got them directly from foreign embassies for just one screening.

In the mid-eighties a great Film Festival (Warsaw Film Festival) was started, every autumn you could see like 100-200 contemporary foreign movies (in 2 or 3 weeks, so noone was able to actually see them all), that's where I saw for example Jim Jarmusch's films for the first time in my life.

In the 60's (but that's not my personal experience) there was a certain Radio Luxembourg, which played rock'n'roll (Beatles etc.) and it was the only source of music for many Polish teenagers, I think the commies didn't disturb their signal since they probably didn't have much (or any) politics, so it wasn't considered a big threat. And the Rolling Stones played in Warsaw in 1967 or so (just one concert).

Even in the late 80's (and that is my personal experience) radio stations were the only source of music for Polish kids/youth, and had to register all on tape-recorders, because we didn't have a free market, so my mother's pay was 11$/month (she was a teacher) and father's 15$/month (an electrician), which was enough for living (or surviving) in Poland, but of course you couldn't afford to buy anything from the West with that kind of income and not go bankrupt.

But I miss the radio from those times,
They were several radio-jays (or DJ's or whatever you call them) who populrized some independent rock music, I really liked all those punk/new wave/goth bands and a small British label (4AD) was adored in Poland, I think Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Birthday Party, This Mortal Coil, Killing Joke, Dead Kennedys, Exploited had more fans here than anywhere else in the world. Nowadays (and this started soon after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the radio stations began to air mostly pop and then more meaningless pop and Spice Girls and boys-bands and Britney Spears) the radio in Poland is so terrible :(

Also we had a huge music festival in Jarocin, with punk, reggae, new wave bands from all over the country, which was an oasis of freedom, sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. The secret police was trying to infiltrate the festival, but I think they never succeeded. There were also smaller festivals (like Róbreggae and later Marchewka in Warsaw) and once or twice a year you could go and see some interesting and unique concerts (The Swans with their heavy, industrial sound and Michael Gira undressing on the scene was a big shock).

But all those things were so unique, that you can still remember them after 20 years, because you had to wait for months for some great events, it wasn't like in the West, where you can go to a gig every week and listen to some interesting music.

Normally we were fed with pop music, both Polish and foreign, and some Polish folklore in addition.
Ranj 21 | 948  
29 Jul 2007 /  #13
But like i said - being a child i was happy and didnt really care that my parents had hard time to get food / clothes and everything else. For me it was beautiful time ive spent playing with friends :) TV was not popular so we were healthy childreen spending most of our free time outside :)

Ahhh youth....I think all kids for the most part feel that way....they don't think about the sacrifices their parents made until later in life....which is how it should should remain kids for as long as they can.....:)
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
29 Jul 2007 /  #14
Polish labels used to buy licences only for a few western albums a year, and the Polish anti-establishment bands had many troubles with their recordings, some of them had to wait for years till their first albums were published, some never made it, because they were singing about things not to the liking of the government.

The books (like everything) were censored, many authors were banned, so they were published only in underground (there were several clandestine publishers in Poland and also the Polish emigration was printing books, for example the Kultura magazine in Paris, were many artists and some translators worked, those books were then smuggled to Poland and circulated among people you could trust). Geroge Orwell's Animal Farm published officially in the late 80's was a huge success, because all those anti-utopian authors (namely Orwell with his 1984 and for example A.Huxley's for his Brave New World) were considered to be totally anti-communist and were blacklisted for decades.

I remember standing in a queue for all night when I was 16, because my uncle needed coal (for heating) and you had to start waiting about 2 days before the delivery to shop.

I remember once I gave some chocaltes and a banana to my mom for Xmas, because I was in another city and I could buy it standing only 1 hr in a queue (in my city you had to wait much more for bananas, so we basically never bought them).

The low crime was indeed a big plus, when I was 14 I went with a classmate to a concert 80 kms from my home, we travelled back at midnight with the last train and we weren't scared. In my city, 30,000 inhabints, but has a river and a cathedral :) I only heard of one murder and it was committed by a mentally disturbed guy who raped and killed a 16 yrs old girl. The whole town was shocked.

One of the worst things with very tragic consequences: People had a different view on property, almost all industry was state-owned, so it felt like it belonged to no-one, thus stealing something from your factory was "normal" and generally accepted, it almost wasn't regarded as stealing. People knew it wasn't good, but on the other hand they thought "everybody's doing it, why shouldn't I". I can understand that (from their perspective), but after the communism fell, it wasn't that easy to change this attitude, and so many years later we still got people here who steal for example rail tracks to sell the steel. Also deceiving is a big problem, after centuries under occupation (since 1795 till 1918, then 1939-45 and then communism), it became Polish second nature to act against any form of governments, because it was necessary, but things like this aren't so easiy to change, so many still don't feel bad about different forms of cheating (I read several times about American teachers coming to Poland, who were simply shocked by students cheating during classes, tests; that's how it's been for decades, and you can't lose those habits overnight).
shewolf 5 | 1,077  
29 Jul 2007 /  #15
krzysztof, I am so fascinated by everything you wrote. thanks.
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
29 Jul 2007 /  #16
Thanks :)
I just hope no-one jumps on my back and starts correcting "this wasn't like that, it was different in my family etc.", because I stick to the topic, personal MEMORIES, not facts, so I may be wrong sometimes, if my memory plays tricks on me :)

another thing:
you all heard about the empty Polish shops, looooong queues, but there were things you simply couldn't buy in shops, you had to go to the factory. For example loud speakers, you could normally get those cheap 40-50-60 Watts, but when my friend and I decided to go for a better sound 110 (or 120) W, we had to travel 200 km, to Września (near Poznan) to the Tonsil (the only Polish porducer of speakers at that time) company's factory shop and buy them there, and they were selling only one set per person. Some people travelled to the producers' shop to buy tiles for bathroom, other to buy a water closet (if they wanted something nicer than available in shops).
OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
29 Jul 2007 /  #17
Very good replies by everyone so far, keep them coming
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
29 Jul 2007 /  #18
May 1989, the communism would crumble in few months, but THEY still don't know it, or are in denial.
I'm 19 yrs old, standing before the WKU (military commision deciding whether you fit in the Army), which I presented earlier with a written refusal to join the Army (I'm rather a pacifist person).

I have to answer some "standard" questions (and my answers are true, you don't want to lie, because, they do have their sources of information):

Q: Are there any priests or nuns in your family?
A: No
Q: Any family members living in the West?
A: No
Q: Is it a religion that doesn't allow you to do military service? Do you realize that the Catholic Church doesn't oppose to it?

A: Yes, I know, but I'm not a religious person at all, it's just my deep belief that you shouldn't kill other people or even learn how to do it.

Q: I know your family is religious and goes to church [that's one lady from the commission asking, who knows my family].
A: It's true about my family, not myself
(some other Q & A, I don't remember anymore)
Q: What would you do if Germans attacked Poland, wouldn't you defend it?
A: Which Germans, from Western Germany or those from Eastern?

And this answer, which wasn't an answer, almost ruined it for me, someone smiled, but one colonel got really furious, started shouting, because you could be a pacifist, but you still had to love your "comrades" from other Eastern Block countries
OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
30 Jul 2007 /  #19
Krzysztof, that was great, what was that excerpt from?
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
30 Jul 2007 /  #20
LOL, the excerpt is from a comedy called my life, seriously. I just tried to dramatize it a little, skipping the usual narratve parts so it's better to read, at least I hope so
Amathyst 19 | 2,702  
30 Jul 2007 /  #21
Krzysztof, thank you for your wonderful posts, I honestly cant remember when the forum had something so refreshingly insightful and interesting last...probably a long time ago, please continue to contribute.

OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
30 Jul 2007 /  #22
Quoting: dannyboy
Krzysztof, that was great, what was that excerpt from?

LOL, the excerpt is from a comedy called my life, seriously. I just tried to dramatize it a little, skipping the usual narratve parts so it's better to read, at least I hope so

Impressive mate, very well written.

what did people do for holidays?

my gf told me one time her family went on holidays when she was a child, they couldn't get a car they her parents got a bike each, she with her father and her brother with her mother and her parents cycled 50km per day for a few days to get to the holiday resort they were staying at (they were no trains to the area I presume).

What sports were popular under communisim?
I am a huge fan of weightlifting, was this popular in Poland?
Were drugs widely available?
Were steroids widely available?
Were guns widely available?

Were pubs/bars popular and were there any nightclubs?
A Russian guy I used to know absolutely hated standing in a group of people on a corner because during the communist times they would be beaten by police for doing this (different rules for Russia I assume), he didn't realise it was normal for people to have a conversation like this.

What would be the singlest biggest and most visible difference between now and then?
bunia 1 | 134  
30 Jul 2007 /  #23
What would be the singlest biggest and most visible difference between now and then?

Me being a child in that time i would have to say christmas !!!
It was so much diffrent than it is now.
Yes it is still so important but it was so much diffrent back then.
Church is more or less same as it was back then, but whole familly get together - diffrent story.
Christmas was only time of the year that you would get oranges !!!! Something so normal now back then was so important ! I was waiting whole year to be able to eat lots of chocolate and oranges ! Preparation for christmas lasted like 7 moths ? You would start saving good stuff just after easer :) I remember my mum would freeze chocolate and always telling me and my sister that its for christams and we have to wait :) Same was with all good meat / ham etc :) Those fiew days before christams when my mum started cooking - something that is so hard to describe. Smell of christams, knowing that you will eat so much good food and that you will get a lovely present hopefully from Pewex... Uh...

Now its so much diffrent. Yes i know, im not a child anymore, but still you dont wait for christams same way now. You can go buy oranges all yearround. You can have all that special things whenever you want.

I kinda miss that speciality about christmas that you had back then...
TheKruk 3 | 308  
30 Jul 2007 /  #24
this has been fantastic reading thanks all.
Eurola 4 | 1,909  
30 Jul 2007 /  #25
Were pubs/bars popular and were there any nightclubs?

A very popular place to go out on Saturday night in the city were "kawiarnie", you could dance your night away. They served coffee in a glass, it had fine grinds settled at the bottom. It was very strong and looked like a tar, you felt like drinking a mug of espresso... Also, there was tea, pastry, beer and variety of alcohol. It was pretty expensive, but you could order just coffee and dance for hours. It was usually a live band.

In the villages there were country dances just about every week. That's where the polkas, obereks and waltzes were played. Vodka, orange soda, lemonade and sausage were available.
OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
31 Jul 2007 /  #26
Eurola, when did the first modern style nightclubs come to Poland and what was the reaction?

Was recreational drug abuse widespread prior to the introduction of modern nightclubs?
What about hardcore drug abuse i.e. heroin addicts?

bunia, you are not the first person I have heard say that. When i was in Poland for XMAS this year, particularily the elderly were saying similar things to me.

They said that during the communist era, everybody got a 13th paycheck for Xmas.

I was amazed by some of the traditions they had in Poland such as "wren boys" - guys who come around to the house dressed up and singing for money etc.

When I told my parents about this, they were looking at me like I was stupid.
Apparently we used to have this tradition in Ireland also [I've certainly never seen it or heard of it]

bunia, one thing that confuses me is how did they separate religion and communisim?
I thought good communists are supposed to be atheists?
Krzysztof 2 | 973  
31 Jul 2007 /  #27
Polish Communist Party fought hard the Catholic Church basically in the 50's (they even imprisoned the head of the Church in Poland, Primate Stefan Wyszynski), but they basically failed (like they failed in another field of the so-called socialist "reforms" - nationalization of the agriculture, all those forms of collective farming - kolkhoz and sovkhoz - didn't have much success here, except for the territories that were German before the World War II, so they had no private owners after 1945), so later the persecutions of the Church were smaller (relatively of course, they still happened to murder a priest now and then, like famous Jerzy Popiełuszko in the 80's). Later on, the communists of lower relevance weren't forbidden to follow the traditional costums (strongly connected with the church), if they weren't manifesting their religiousness, they were allowed for example to have marriage at Church, to baptize their children and get other sacraments, to go to Church for Christmas and Easter.

And of course there were some convinced communist too, who rejected all forms of religion, but their views didn't appeal to the masses.

I thought good communists are supposed to be atheists?

you know the saying "A good Indian is a dead Indian"?
(and I know it was origanally ""The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.")

About drugs, it's hard to say because borders were controlled quite effectively, so one may assume the import of drugs to Poland wasn't significative, but we had some home-made version of heroin, it was made from poppies, no reliable statistics on the use of drugs (as the dictatorships tend to manipulate the statistics at their will), besides they could easily put you in a psychiatric clinic for that, so you didn't see many people under the influence (of drugs, because drunk people were a completely different story) in the streets.

Some other questions of dannyboy:

- What sports were popular under communisim?
- footbal (or soccer as some wish to call it), boxing, athletics, cycling, volleyball, handball, weightlifting, fencing, tennis table and many others.
What is strange we had almost no swimming pools, so no good swimmers, tennis was considered too "western", so only good palyer was W. Fibak (in the 70's/80's), golf was virtually non existant.

- Were steroids widely available?
Probably, but only among the professional sportsmen, you must have heard how Eastern Germany and also Soviet Union mass produced their "supermen" to win the Olympic medals "for the glory of Party/Country". As much as I'd love to believe that Poland was clean, I can't be that naive, sure we couldn't match with the communist Germany, but I'm convinced the "brothers" helped us sometimes with "medical" supplies, we probably had our own production as well.

In the 90's Poland became one of the biggest producers of synthetic drugs (like amphetamine).

- Were guns widely available?
No. There were of course some guns availble from the World War II for a while, Later some "normal" people could have shotguns for hunting, but it was rare. There was also a small amount of pneumatic guns, but everything was under strict control of the police.

- A Russian guy I used to know absolutely hated standing in a group of people on a corner because during the communist times they would be beaten by police for doing this (different rules for Russia I assume), he didn't realise it was normal for people to have a conversation like this.

- Generally, there were rules about "public gathering", so if a certain number (I don't remember the limit) of people were simply standing together in the street, they could be considered as an "illegal manifestation", but in my city I din't experience the problem with police beating you for that (unless it really was an illegal manifestation, then they let the dogs lose - as dogs I mean "pigs") - There were also police forces (ZOMO) specialised in dealing with demonstrations, they were effective (beating you without leaving marks), and they could even beat you to death.

- What would be the singlest biggest and most visible difference between now and then?
I guess it's too hard to answer, for some people personal freedom is the most important thing (you can talk what you want without being afraid that government doesn't like, you can read books that were censored without risking persecutions, you can travel abroad, as a tourist if you can afford it or to work, without waiting months for a passport and get your application rejected).

For other people economic changes are the most imprtant, no matter how far we are from the Western welfare, because under communism you couldn't just establish a company and have success, only small firms were allowed, and if some were making too much profit, the tax offices could destroy them in the blink of an eye.

And there's also social life, it's chaning too, some things to the better, some to the worse. And many other aspects, it really depends on what you value the most.
bunia 1 | 134  
31 Jul 2007 /  #28
thought good communists are supposed to be atheists?

Who said that poland chose to be a communist country from a free will ? :)
I think during that time it was more catholic then it is now !!!
My dad was a "communist". he had a "ksiazeczka partyjna", he was part of it but only on paper. Only reason for it - he wanted to have his job (as educated person you had to be signed in to get proper position at work).

When there was strajk in my home town and fiew people were shot my dad carried on his hands 2 men to my house where my mum as a nurse was looking after them. Middle of the night so neighbours cant see. He was a communist on paper but never at heart !
OP dannyboy 18 | 248  
31 Jul 2007 /  #29
Very good answers Krzysztof, thank you.

Bunia, I know what you're saying but I think there must have been some people who were pro-communist.
I can't go into too much detail but the father of a friend was head of the party in his area, that family had anything they desired.

I think there were some people who were pro-communist simply for what they could get out of it and other more naieve people who were probably pro-communist because they believed in it.

One further question - were you guys told by your parents/teachers in private that the whole thing was a farce and to not believe what you were taught in school?
bunia 1 | 134  
31 Jul 2007 /  #30
One further question - were you guys told by your parents/teachers in private that the whole thing was a farce and to not believe what you were taught in school?

I was too young to understand anything so i wasnt told about it. Or maybe i was told but i cant remember. Kids dont give a damn about politics and economics :)

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