This past year was a good year for an Arkansawyer to be a Fulbright scholar in Poland. It was the 100th birthday of J. William Fulbright (D-Ark), whose bill established, 60 years ago, the international exchange program that bears his name.
Poland, the only former communist-bloc country to have had a Fulbright program operating behind the Iron Curtain, celebrated Fulbright’s legacy with enthusiasm. The paeans at the Polish Fulbright Commission to the visionary from Arkansas whose program had brought a light of hope to the Poles’ communist-dazed darkness were impressive.
It has been 27 years since the fall of communism in Poland. The country’s political and economic progress is noteworthy: elections have proceeded fraudlessly, and salaries have advanced.
But when people take steps forward they sometimes leave much behind. During the communist era, studying American literature was an officially sanctioned way to be subversive, a cherished mode of resistance to Soviet occupation — and therefore a charge of excitement filled the air every day. American literature departments across Poland were privileged places where issues could be discussed that were forbidden elsewhere. The best students in Poland were drawn to American literature. Professor Agnieszka Salska, head of the American Literature and Culture Department at the University of Lodz where I taught, admits that she always wondered if there were spies in her classes, a drawback, to be sure; but now her students are mainly looking to use their excellent knowledge of English to land good jobs.
A Polish friend who was in the United States in 1989 was pleased when the communist regime fell. She remembered the deprivations of the past, the waiting in long lines for nothing in the end. But when she returned to Poland last year, she was appalled at many of the changes. She remembered the sense of community, the time people took to be together, the way they would look out for each other in the face of deprivations. In the bad old days, if one found a scarce commodity, one got some of it for one’s friends. Now, she says, people do not seem to have time for each other. They are only concerned about advancing their careers.
They are becoming American-like.
That’s how people live in Poland now, but how do they die? In Arkansas people seem to die at home or in hospitals, in Poland more publicly. Once the city bus I usually took pulled into the turn-around area across from our communist-era housing. The driver parked oddly. At first I thought the bus had mechanical problems. Then I saw a woman slumped against the bus window: She had died en route. I saw other people dying in their tracks. Only a few days earlier I had observed a man spread out on the sidewalk, blood trickling from the side of his mouth, being held by another man. A butcher stood in his doorway, observing. After I passed, I looked back and saw the comforting friend or stranger gently placing the man’s head back on the walkway. I assumed he had ended his struggle.
Once, for the sake of variety, I walked a different route home from the Instytut Anglistikie — and right upon an unattended ambulance, beside it a large black leaf bag. A dead man was in it. His feet stuck out.
All of my observations were not so grim. Because I could understand hardly a word of Polish, I became hyper-visually orientated, gawking at everything — the carved fox at the base of the tree on the facade of Leopold Kindermann’s art nouveau villa; the carved statues of mill workers standing right there with the Greek gods atop Palac Poznanski (which was the residence of the owner of the next-door and now closed textile factory, one of the largest in 19th-century Lodz); the evening silhouette of the Julian Tuwim park-bench statue and the long shadow it cast down and the peeling stucco of the secondary streets, the brick exposed like raw flesh, the city and the people too poor to heal these sick buildings.
In Park Staroczieiski one morning in early spring I saw two young women greet each other with the traditional Polish cheek-kisses; they put their bags down on the park bench and ran off on their morning jog around the park together. In what American city of 850,000, I wondered, would two women leave their belongings unattended on a park bench?
The snows, which began in November and continued well into March, were various, sometimes fiercely blowing sideways, at other times quarter-size flakes floating ambiguously downwards, dancing a lovely dance on their way — the kind of snow I have only seen in 1940s movies. Lodz, much of which is dirty and run-down, was transformed by this snow covering into a wonderland.
For anyone nostalgic for the kind of Christmas we remember from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there are worst places to be than Poland. I wonder if there are any better.
Ashby Bland Crowder, who teaches at Hendrix College, is the editor of the soon-to-be-published “Far From Home, Selected Letters of William Humphrey” (LSU Press).