Edelman – Last of the Bundists?

October 5, 2009

RIP Marek Edelman 1919/22-2009

RIP Marek Edelman 1919-2009

Although the title of this piece is, in all probability, utterly misleading, it is not without reason I pin the moniker “Last of the Bundists” on the head of the departed Marek Edelman. There are several reasons. Firstly, he was most certainly the last of a dying breed. Marek Edelman passed away on the 2nd October 2009 at the age of 90. He was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, fighting tooth and nail for Poland’s decimated Jewish population. He was a member of Solidarity and took part in the Round Table Talks which triggered the beginning of the end for communism in Europe. He received Poland’s Order of the White Eagle and France’s Legion of Honour for his wartime bravery and opposition activism.

Edelman Survived the Ghetto

Edelman Survived the Ghetto

Secondly, Marek Edelman was in every sense a true hero. Honoured in Poland, France and the US, and respected across Europe, this humble man decided to stay in Poland after the war and not, like so many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, emigrate to the newly forming State of Israel, then still the British Mandate of Palestine. He had fought and witnessed most of his friends and family die at the hands of the Nazis. To have survived such atrocities and then take up and leave was not Edelman’s style. He had defended Warsaw so that Warsaw and its inhabitants would live on. He would not be leaving Poland’s capital.

Edelman & the Round Table Talks

Edelman & the Round Table Talks

It is odd then that Edelman, a Jew and the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was never honoured by or afforded the same degree of respect in Israel that he was given in Europe and the US.  In trying to explain the “Last of the Bundists” sobriquet we should remmber that Marek Edelman belonged to the the Jewish Labour Party ‘Bund’ and was an outspoken anti-Zionist and a firm critic of Israel’s foreign policy in particular with regards to its middle-eastern neighbours. It was difficult for him, a socialist and supporter of Solidarity (and solidarity), to come to terms with what had become of the State of Israel. In this sense he really was the “Last of the Bundists”…

Marek Edelman 1919-2009, wartime hero, political activist and cardiologist will be sorely missed.


Round Table Anniversary

February 6, 2009

Mazowiecki, Kuroń, Wałęsa, Kwaśniewski...

Foreground (l-r): Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Lech Wałęsa. Background (l-r): Kuroń, Geremek, Kwaśniewski.

Today is a wonderful day. The 6th February 2009 is the 20th anniversary of one of the most important moments in European history. On the 6th February 1989, twenty years ago, the so-called ‘Round Table’ talks kicked off in Warsaw and so began the dismantling of the totalitarian regime in Poland.

Good vs. Evil
The Round Table talks were pretty amazing as they saw the communist government invite representatives of Solidarity (the anti-government, anti-communist, pro-democratic semi-legal opposition) as well as members of the Catholic Church (sworn enemies of communism) to the table in order to discuss the future. The very fact that all of these people were able, and wanted, to sit down and together discuss the future of their country was unprecedented on a European, and perhaps even global, scale.

Forces of Good
The members of the Solidarity opposition who sat at the Round Table (and in later years became key figures in Polish politics) included: Lech Wałęsa (leader of Solidarity), Bronisław Geremek (chief consultant to Lech Wałęsa), Tadeusz Mazowiecki (editor-in-chief of the weekly Solidarność), Jacek Kuroń (Solidarity advisor and founder of the Workers’ Defence Committee), Adam Michnik (Solidarity advisor and Workers’ Defence Committee member) and Lech Kaczyński (Solidarity advisor).

Forces of Evil
The governmental side at the Round Table included: General Czesław Kiszczak (member of the Politbiuro and Minister of Internal Affairs), Leszek Miller (member of the Central Committee of the Party) and Aleksander Kwaśniewski (Minister for Young People).  The infamous General Kiszczak is said to have played a fundamentally positive role in the talks. Leszek Miller and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, perhaps not huge players at the time, were set for dazzling careers in Polish politics in the years to come.

Wałęsa at the Table

Wałęsa at the Table

The talks were pivotal in the fact that they saw the bitterest of enemies sit down and constructively discuss the future of a nation on the brink of economic and social collapse. As a result, Solidarity gained a tangible foothold in Eastern European politics and led to the disintegration of communism throughout Europe. The Round Table not only began the erosion of communism within Europe, but the participants (including the much-maligned communists) actively worked towards the dismantling of a totalitarian regime that they realised no longer had a future.

Round Table Careers
The political legacy of the talks can still be felt today. Beginning with the Solidarity side, Lech Wałęsa went on to become President of Poland, Bronisław Geremek was Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was Poland’s first post-war democratically-elected Prime Minister, Jacek Kuroń became Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Adam Michnik founded Poland’s first post-war free newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and Lech Kaczyński is currently President of Poland. As for the communists, Leszek Miller became Polish Prime Minster whereas Aleksander Kwaśniewski was President of Poland. Three Presidents, two Prime Ministers and a host of ministers is quite a legacy.

In Praise of “Meritum”

September 23, 2007

The CoreThere is a great word in Polish which is popular amongst politicians. Politics abounds in highfalutin language and exaggeration which is part of the reason why I so love this word. “Meritum” can be roughly translated as “the heart of the matter”, “crux” or “substance” and it’s both the sword and shield of every self-respecting politician in Poland.

Of Sword and Shield
When wanting to go on the attack, a politician will use the “meritum” sword to tell the nation that their party is a party of action and not words, they will not bandy around the problem but stick to the “meritum”. When attacked by another, the politician will employ the “meritum” shield claiming the opponent is unwilling to talk about the ‘real’ issues (the “meritum”) but is once again using empty slogans. Welcome to Polish politics.

Substance-free Politics
For all their waffle it seems there is absolutely no “meritum” there. You may all say that this is common to politics in every state in the world. Perhaps. But Poland is in a current, dangerous state of policy-free politics. According to a few observers and several historians, the reason for this particularly worrying state of affairs lies in the resolution of the Round Table Talks of 1989.

Knights of the Round Table
Round Table The round table set a precedent for the whole of the communist bloc and for many other countries around the world – here a road-map was created that allowed for peaceful power-sharing. The Communists sat down with Solidarność and agreed to formulate a plan for the common good and future of Poland. What, I ask, could be more noble than that? However, the Round Table Talks were more than just a European and world precedent, they were a historical precedent for Poland. And it is this fact, this peaceful transition and transferral of power, that is at the core of Poland’s current problems.

In Search of an Enemy
Poland’s long history has been full of victories, defeats, revolts and uprisings. Each and every change of power brought with it a bloody upheaval. Every time. However, when the Communists decided to cede power to Solidarność, not one drop of blood was shed. This was a peaceful revolution in the true sense of the word. However, it also meant that the enemy was now an ally, a colleague, someone to work with. What Poland was lacking was an enemy…

Enemy Found
Target Practice Ever since the Round Table Talks, Poland has been blindly searching for an enemy, someone it can vent its anger at for fifty years of communist oppression and the savagery of two world wars that were largely enacted on its front lawn. Despite the wise words of Tadeusz Mazowiecki and his “thick line“, divisions were created. It began with the so-called “War Upstairs” in 1990 which saw the splintering of Solidarność. An enemy was found but no real substance, no “meritum” was behind it.

Continual Search
This incessant search for an enemy continues today. Polish politics is no longer divided into clear demarcations – “Commies” and “Solidaries”, nor is it divided by ideology and substance. Several former Communists are members of ruling PiS (the self-declared successors of the Solidarność legacy), PO (who also hail from Solidarność), like PiS, also seem to have no clear policies and to all intents and purposes are a more liberal faction of PiS, LiD is an odd amalgam of former Communists and Liberals which, for all its hot air, has no real manifesto, Self-Defence will take anyone that will join, and finally (far) right-wing LPR have recently teamed up with UPR, a party known for supporting the legalisation of drugs, prostitution and euthanasia.

Policies? What Policies!
ConfusionIt seems the one thing that all these parties have in common is a blatant lack of substance. Even little PSL is no longer the Peasant’s Party it was once so proud to be. We are witnessing a complete erosion of policy. Parties do not wage war against each other holding their sword of substance in one hand and their shield of consistence in the other. The battle-cry has simply become “attack” regardless of the fact that you are actually attacking someone who shares your views. A good example here is Stefan Niesiołowski (now of PO) and Marek Jurek (now of newly-formed LPR) who were founder members of the National Christian Union. PO is labelled as a liberal party whereas LPR is right-wing.

In Praise of Substance
Personal animosity and the hunger for power is now far more important than historical background, ideological legacy or political beliefs. Poland is in desperate need of a political debate of substance where all parties are obliged to publish their manifestoes, their programmes for the future and their core ideologies. Yes, the average Polish person may be interested in the drunken antics of former President Aleksander Kwaśniewski or the waffling of Nelly Rokita but neither of these facts are more important than the concrete manifestoes of their respective parties.