Monday, February 23, 2015

Orwellian Poland: An Interview with Eva Cybulska

Music to accompany the interview: Waltz No. 2 (Dmitri Shostakovich)

Why did you decide to leave Poland?
I wanted to be free: free in the choice of my profession, my choice of travel, in what I read, did, and most of all in what I thought.

When did you make this decision?
I was about 11 years old, playing with other children in the forecourt of our house when I saw a plane high in the sky. I thought to myself: “I would love to fly like this one day”. Later, I talked to my mother and she said “you never will”. I couldn’t understand why not. She then explained a few things to me about the so-called “system”. I was shocked and disappointed, and I felt very strongly that no system would ever stop me from flying if I wanted to. Not long afterwards, I happened to read Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle about his journey to the Galapagos Islands, which fuelled my appetite for adventure even more, and then his Origin of Species, which put forth one of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of science. Darwin was an adventurer in soul and body, and so was I! He immediately became my hero.

How did you make plans do leave Poland and the “system”?
I was about 14 when I acquired addresses of various young people abroad through a magazine called Radar. It was widely read around the world, and it included adverts for pen-pals. Over the years, I must have corresponded with at least a dozen youngsters of my age: there was an Australian, a French girl, an Irish boy from Cork, and there was Cassie from Surrey in the UK. Of all these contacts, only my relationship with Cassie endured, until I qualified in medicine in 1972. The only way to get out of Poland was to have an invitation from abroad. Cassie invited me to her wedding in 1973, having guessed my innermost wishes. She also sent me the tickets (I later returned her the money with my first salary in England). And so I left Poland, being prepared never to see my homeland again.

What were the greatest obstacles you had to overcome in order to leave?
I had no great difficulty in obtaining a passport, especially that I had travelled once to Scandinavia as a student two years previously (a special Dean’s Prize for my academic achievements), and I had returned. A passport application had to be made each time one intended to travel abroad and one had to surrender it to the Police on return. Obviously, I must have appeared innocent to the (not very intelligent) Communist authorities as they gave me the passport without any problems. I was, however, somewhat surprised that they didn’t try to recruit me as an informer then. Many of my colleagues and friends had been offered a ‘job’ of an informer in exchange for their passport. My brother declined such an ‘offer’ and was refused a passport.

Describe your journey from Poland to England.
It was quite long. I travelled by train from Gdańsk via Warsaw to Hoek van Holland, and then by boat to Harwich and then by train to Liverpool Street station, where Cassie and her fiancé awaited me. Looking back, what a pilgrimage to freedom that was! They took me to her parents’ home in Surrey where we stayed a couple of days. I shall never forget how her mother brought me a cup of tea to my bedroom, on a cold October morning. “What a country this is! I’m stopping here”, I thought to myself. And that is just what I did – for the next four decades and counting.

What do you consider to be the most important tools to a successful immigration?
Firstly, an excellent education. In my case, Gdańsk Medical School, was one of the top medical schools in the country. Secondly – courage, determination and faith in one’s own abilities. Thirdly, a hard working personality and fourthly, having an open mind for different customs and ways of thinking. Incidentally, I felt instantly at home in Britain with its tradition of tolerance, fairness, restraint and a unique sense of irony, not to mention a tradition of culture and science. Apart from Darwin, Shakespeare was my other hero. Decades later, when the BBC announced a public vote for the greatest Brit, I voted alternatively for these two. My friends here were joking that had I not split the vote, one of them would have surely won. (Ultimately, it was Churchill who did.)

Were you unusual in this undertaking or was there a general exodus at the time?
I think I was unusual. There were very few people leaving Poland in the early seventies, possibly because the country was relatively prosperous at the time. For several years, my colleagues in Poland were earning more than I was in England, and that apparent wealth was a powerful silencer of their conscience. There was a large Jewish exodus in the late sixties, another exodus during the 80s post-Solidarity (some people falsely claimed political persecution), and a labour exodus when Poland joined the EU.

How easy was it for you to stay in the UK?
I was appointed to a doctor’s position within four months of my arrival in the UK, thanks to the fantastic support of my Consultants and the hospital administration. The problem was in extending the British visa which was contingent upon having a valid passport. Short validity of the passport was serving as a ‘dog’s leash’ for the Communist regime. I didn’t want to make a decisive rupture with Poland and applied for a passport extension a few times; they usually gave extensions of no more than two-three months. On the last occasion, the official at the Polish Consulate asked me whether I visited the Polish Cultural Centre (POSK) and other Polish establishments, mostly in West London. I didn’t. (After all, I hadn’t left Poland to congregate with Poles in London!) He was surprised and said that he would “appreciate information about some people who go there”. While he was tightening his fishnet, I still tried to escape from it by pretending I didn’t understand. Eventually he put it upfront: “either you inform on your fellow countrymen or you won’t get the extension”. I felt a rush of blood to my head, coupled with overwhelming nausea. I got up and left, slamming the door behind me. I had no further contact with the Polish Communist authorities. I relinquished my Polish citizenship and was given a Geneva Convention Travel Document valid for 10 years and for all countries except Poland. I still have it. I treat it as a talisman – after all, it finally pushed the door open to my inner and outer freedom!

Tell me more about those who chose to be informers. How does one spot an informer?
There was quite a network of informers in Poland and in the West, who were mingling with the crowd of their compatriots, pretending to be “friendly” whilst informing the Communists on their plans, movements, thoughts and such like. They had no problems with extending their Polish passport; this was their ‘Judas’ money’ for betrayal. They would often travel back and forth to Poland. An informer would be someone who ‘had it easy’, as one of them foolishly boasted to me. Certainly I didn’t! Also, typically, the Communists would have never allowed a married couple to leave Poland, unless they were both informers. Only one person per family could travel to the West, while other family members were kept behind as hostages.

   Informers were mostly uneducated, mediocre individuals whose life was meaningless, and such a ‘job’ gave them a sense of power. Some of them developed heroic claims that they were a threat to the Polish establishment, expelled for their heroic and intelligent activities. To my knowledge, Polish Communist Authorities never expelled dissidents, as Soviets had done. And even in Soviet Russia, one had to be of the stature of Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov or Bukovsky to be expelled. These eminent people were more dangerous inside than outside of the Soviet Union; dangerous because they spoke the truth and word was their weapon. As they could not be quietly exterminated, they had to be expelled.

   There is an important distinction between a spy and an informer. A spy is usually an intelligent, well-educated, patriotic person who risks his life by venturing into the enemy’s territory to gather intelligence. Alternatively, he may betray his country for ideological reasons, and the famous Cambridge Four would probably be a good example of that. (They soon found out what their idols were made of, though!) Personally, I condemn spying against one’s own nation as immoral, even though it is less ignoble than the activity of informers; at least there’s an element of sincerity and passion behind it.

   An informer is a nobody who yearns to be a somebody. Informing on one’s compatriots makes them feel important and clever. I have come across one such informer who was regularly boasting of her great talent to ‘suss out’ people. Informers mingled with their own breed, listened to unimportant conversations, and indiscriminately reported what they heard. To assume that anyone would divulge sensitive information about themselves to a random nobody is a delusion of a primitive mediocrity. (In my case, only my Mother knew of my plan to leave Poland, and nobody else!) Informers had overblown egos, but in truth they were absurdly insignificant pawns in the hands of the ‘Big Brother’. And the ‘Big Brother’ (at least in Poland) was equally incapable of ‘filtering’ the important information from the unimportant. They certainly missed on me! The ultimate tragedy is that informers spent their lives doing a highly immoral job of no significance. But they were spreading fear, and fear can corrupt as Aung San Suu Kyi has incisively commented.

How would you compare this system to the one described in Orwell’s 1984?
It’s a complete devaluation of values – to paraphrase Nietzsche’s famous phrase. Betrayal is patriotism, stupidity becomes intelligence, indiscriminate, parrot-like reporting becomes clever ‘deduction’, and a cowardly nobody parades as a hero. But, incredibly, there are people in the West who are prepared to believe these ‘moral cockroaches’. Are these people just naive and gullible, ready to swallow any information that is given out to them? Or perhaps they lack a discerning, independent mind and have a deep-seated yearning to succumb to a totalitarian, herd mentality? After all, the novel 1984 (written in 1948) was not about Russia, but about the West, as Orwell often stressed. The plague of moral rot is always waiting in the wings, ready to erupt— a theme explored by Albert Camus in his allegorical novel, La Peste, published in 1947. The informers of Orwellian Poland were a contagious plague par excellence.