Annemarie in the Sea of Geopolitics

Annemarie in the Sea of Geopolitics[1]

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

In more ways than one my daughter is a child of 1989, although she was actually born a year later. Without the unexpected events that unfolded during this annus mirabilis, she would have been a different person and even more ominously, she would not have been at all.

In the late 1980s, none of my friends and acquaintances with whom I discussed politics and the ‘state of the world’ predicted or even hoped for the changes that 1989 brought about would occur within our lifetimes. No, we did pine for such changes – democracy, freedom of speech, well supplied shops, an end to rationing cards, passports that we could keep at home, open borders, a currency with which you could officially buy dollars in a bank, the possibility to study and work outside of Poland – but we knew these were just impossible dreams. As ‘highly educated and reasonable’ adults, we thought it delusional to believe that the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc might let Poland out or, let alone, both may disappear, vanish into thin air. That is exactly what did happen. But before, lest we were accused by peers of naïveté or madness, we did not dare to express our hopes in words. We kept silent on them.

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Only my maternal Granny was unbashful about speaking her mind. She lived a simple life in the isolated tiny hamlet of Jaworowo Kolonia in Mazovia, some 150 kilometers northwest of the Polish capital. During the long 85 years of her life she visited Warsaw a mere couple of times. The big city beyond the horizon hardly ever brushed off onto the lives of the twenty odd inhabitants of Jaworowo. Work in fields progressed as it had always done in keeping with changing seasons. Each day the horses had to be brushed, the pigs fed and the cows milked. The breakfast of scrambled eggs and bread with butter was followed by the mid-day dinner of boiled potatoes with fried pancetta cubes and washed down with thick sour milk. The sun arced the sky and at night the moon played hide-and-seek among the stars. On Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in the morning the whole hamlet walked the seven kilometers to the village of Zawidz Kościelny, where the church is located and the commune authorities reside, to attend the holy mass. When there was no work to be done, Granny met with her friends. By reciting the rosary together, they constituted living ‘roses of the rosary.’ They met once a month at the house of a different ‘rose.’ The prayers done, the women talked, praised the hostess’s aromatic babka, or yeast dough cake, and sipped tea with sugar and a slice of lemon served in glass tumblers placed in wicker or metal holders.

Granny lived out her life like that in interwar Poland, during the German occupation, under communism, and after the end of this totalitarian system. She kept repeating that ‘The Soviet Union is a godless country and must fall, shall fall soon. God will not allow such evil to rule for long, as half a century of this punishment has been more than enough.’ I wanted to provoke her and asked how long the Berlin Wall would continue to stand. She did not know what it was. Granny never even saw the Baltic Sea, 200 kilometers north of her home, where the parents took my brother and me in summer for holidays on the sandy beach. I had to explain to her about the divided old capital of Germany. She understood. The name Berlin, among other capitals, was emblazoned on the front panel of the antiquated radio set to which she listened in the kitchen when fixing meals. She ignored programs with people talking, unless it was a weather forecast. Granny liked music, at best songs from before the age of rock, with lyrics in Polish. (But her true favorite turned out be live broadcasts of church masses on Sundays, which were allowed after the end of communism.) To my eye as a university student, she knew nothing of the modern world. But unwaveringly, while stroking my head, as if I were still a small boy, she replied, ‘Yes, the wall will fall, too. Nothing that atheists built will last. Sin cannot last. In the end, God always smites evil.’

This customary teasing of Granny slipped my mind. I forgot about it. I had no time to think about the future of the world. My girlfriend, Beata, and I planned for marriage. There were so many things to attend to and so little time. Our parents were surprised by our decision to marry. Beata had just graduated from the medical school, while I still had two more years of studies at university to go before I could obtain a diploma and start looking for a proper job as a school teacher. We had yet nowhere to live on our own. These difficulties were smoothed out by our daughter, or at that time, a baby, a fetus, of whose existence we learned after Beata had peed on one of the early pregnancy tests, then a novelty. The featureless white padding in a small circular plastic container sprouted a plus sign.

A new life began. (We treasured this blue test kit with the plus sign as our secret talisman, but as with everything in life, it perished, too. We lost it in 1997, when a huge flood devastated much of central Europe, and also destroyed our ground floor apartment.) Communism collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet bloc broke up, and the Polish zloty became officially convertible into the hard currencies of the Deutsche Mark and Dollar. We hardly noticed, busy with the wedding and finding rudimentary furniture for our studio apartment which my parents-in-law had secured for us. Beata suffered morning sickness. I had no time for her. I commuted to and from the university in Sosnowiec, staying there for three or four days each week in the dormitory, and in the evenings I taught English in a private language school. Things went from bad to worse. Beata had problems with the pregnancy: was dizzy, experienced abdominal pain, and feared she might lose our daughter. Somehow she already knew it would be a girl. Once, on a warm late spring day in April, when sitting on a bench in the town park, I embraced Beata and then kneeled to listen to the baby in her womb. I felt a bump to my cheek. It was a tiny foot. Beata stroked my hair and said that the baby would be a beautiful, graceline-featured girl with green eyes. For a moment Beata was like Granny, talking about the unknowable, as if she knew the future. Yes, from the moment she was born, our daughter was a beauty. Beata was wrong about her eyes, though. Our daughter’s eyes were blue. But when she was almost three, their color suddenly and inexplicably changed to green. So in the end Beata was right, like Granny.

I am saying that with the privilege of hindsight, a quarter of a century later. When the things of which I am talking were actually happening, I had no time or peace of mind to reflect on them. Because of the endangered pregnancy, Beata had to stop working. Earning more money to add to her sick leave allowance was a must. I took more lessons and had to stay away for longer and more often from our studio that had not become home yet. Beata was lonely and unhappy. When she felt better, she moved back with her parents. I bore a grudge; there was no space for my books in the studio, so I took to spending more time in my old attic room at my parents’. Beata did not like it. We quarreled and almost lost the pregnancy. The GP sent her to hospital so that the pregnancy could be sustained. For a quarter Beata lay prostrate in bed in the maternity ward among other women with endangered pregnancies. Many lost their babies. It was a hot summer, no air conditioning in the hospital room with six beds and no privacy.

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I visited Beata too infrequently. The bus drive took too long, I had so many things to do and never enough time. I wanted to do research for my master’s thesis. I dreaded the ward, the women in unintentionally revealing robes and slips, and this ominous air of pending tragedies. On visits during the prescribed hours allowed by the hospital authorities, I brought along fruit juices, oranges and plastic bottles of mineral water. I didn’t know what else to do. We couldn’t talk freely because others would eavesdrop. The women and their visitors felt ill at ease. When Beata was better and the weather allowed, we went for a stroll in the neglected garden-cum-park at the back of the hospital. We held hands and talked about the future, like starry-eyed teenagers playing mum and dad. I was anxious not to offend Beata by not jumping into the flow of these dreams too vigorously. I feared that Beata might lose the pregnancy and all the planning would come to a painful naught. At the best of times, I was taciturn but I preferred to remain silent and just listen to her daydreaming expressed in torrents of words. If only the reality could be tamed with them.

Next, near-tragic news struck. Beata had to start taking the uterine relaxant Partusisten otherwise the pregnancy could be compromised in a day or two; we did not dare to utter the term ‘miscarriage.’ This then novel medication was not available in Polish pharmacies, starved of any fancy drugs, like regular shops of other goods, except for the bare essentials. A solution was to order the tablets from the West through the hard-currency Pewex shop, but it would take a week or two for the medicine to arrive. It was an emergency, we could not wait. After the end of communism, Poland’s borders were flung open to the world but the world did not want poor Poles pouring into it. The only two places where a Polish citizen could then travel without a visa or a special permit (required for entering formerly Soviet bloc countries) were Austria and West Berlin. The former was insulated from any impulsive Polish traveler by Czechoslovakia, which Poles required a permit to cross.

Thus, West Berlin was the sole option left for me to consider. The East German authorities, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, had stopped demanding permits from Polish travelers to West Berlin. I hurried from the hospital to the office of one of the numerous private travel agencies which had mushroomed since late 1989 when private entrepreneurship had been allowed. I exchanged most of my monthly earnings for a return ticket to West Berlin. The following day, just at daybreak, I got on board a rather new-looking bus that sped without a hitch to its destination where we arrived at noon. Most passengers were budding traders who came to purchase small supplies of goods that were still missing in Polish shops. With time, their income rapidly boosted by this shuttling trade, they would change bus trips for their own minivans. I rushed to a pharmacy with the Polish prescription in hand and explained in my textbook German that I needed Partusisten for my heavily pregnant wife. Many desperados of my ilk in search of medications unavailable in the Poland of those times must have already visited this establishment, because the pharmacist did not bat an eyelid. I gave her my stash of some fifteen Deutsche Marks (which then equated the Polish monthly salary) in one-, two and five-mark coins, and she handed me a box of the precious tablets nicely packed in a white bag with the pharmacy’s logo.

I put the package in my rucksack and went to a small park near the railway station, where at 5pm the bus would be standing at ready to go back to Poland. I took out the sandwiches of rye bread, butter and cheese, which I had made for the trip, and ate them for lunch. I could not afford to go to even the most rudimentary eatery at the railway station. A cup of tea and a small burger cost five Deutsche Marks, which was a small fortune to me then. The waiting was nerve-wrecking. I knew that every hour counted. I hoped I would not return too late. There was nothing I could do but wait. At last the bus arrived and I was back home in the small hours of the night. I tossed in bed sleeplessly. At seven in the morning, bleary-eyed, I was already in hospital. Beata was in her bed. She smiled at me wearily. I knew I hadn’t come too late. Our girl with green eyes was safe. Afterward, I slept the whole day and night.

Two months later, just for her birthday in September, Beata was released from hospital. The obstetricians decided that the pregnancy had stabilized and was now safe. We moved again to our studio in a typical communist-style bloc of apartments from the 1960s. During the two previous months I had had more time for Beata with the university and language schools closed for summer. We would have had a blissful time together, bar my decision to take up a bursary to continue with my studies in South Africa for eight months. I was to leave in January, but because Beata knew, this plan of mine made her resentful and withdrawn. Eventually, I kept escaping to my old attic room at my parents’ to ‘do work.’ ‘What work?,’ Beata snorted in reply. We met at night on the same sofa bed, with few words exchanged. Silent. Thinking of going separate ways, or perhaps staying together, thinking about feelings and intentions we preferred not to talk about. We should have. The last tenuous thread that continued to link us was the precarious life of our daughter with green eyes. Her migration from the invisible side of the Moon to Earth was imminent.

It began too early. Beata somehow knew. She had kept a bag at the ready packed with a change of clothes, a robe, pajamas, slippers, bathing flip-flops and toiletries. After the difficult month together, late at night in mid-October, we did not quarrel. Beata felt contractions. We were horrified, it was a whole month too early. The girl with green eyes was pushing into the world. She would be premature and did not realize that in freshly postcommunist Poland’s hospitals medical equipment was not up to scratch. Life or death was a lottery, or fate. My Granny would say ‘God’s will.’

I ran out from our studio apartment that had just begun to become home and walked as fast as could to the railway station where the taxi rank was. I could not just phone as most people did not have telephones then. (Mobiles would arrive almost two decades later.) Going to a payphone or to my parents who had a landline would take as long. In the dark – most street lamps switched off after midnight to cut down on the electricity bill – two policemen on a patrol stopped me at Liberty Square Plac Wolności, taking me for a robber or burglar speeding away with loot. Luckily, one of the two was a guy I knew from secondary school. I told him that my wife had gone into labour. He nodded and let me go.

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In the taxi, the contractions became stronger and more frequent. Beata was in pain and feared for our girl with green eyes. It had taken me half an hour to bring this taxi home and the ride to hospital in Koźle ten kilometers away took almost another thirty minutes. In those days, husbands or family were not allowed into the maternity ward, separated from the rest of the world by the two heavy doors with windows fitted in them. These doors were separated from one another by the distance of almost one meter, a veritable air lock, through which only medical personnel could cross at will. Mothers who had just given birth and happy fathers were reduced to suppliants kindly allowed to talk with one another over the internal telephone, which carried their voices through this impassable ‘air lock.’ It was said to keep germs away.

There was nothing to be done. I had no money to spare on a taxi. Huddled in my old windbreaker, I waited at the bus stop for the first early morning bus to go home. I did not sleep long. Just after seven someone was persistently ringing at our studio’s entrance door. Disheveled, as I had slept without undressing, apart from the old jeans that I had taken off, I unlocked the door. It was my Dad, strangely beaming. At first I thought he was drunk again, but then I realized it was morning and he was on the way to his job. ‘Tomek, you are a father – jesteś ojcem,’ he said by the way of explanation. At first, I did not get it and must have looked puzzled. So Father repeated, ‘Early in the morning Beata gave birth to a daughter. Both are fine.’

It was a relief to hear. I couldn’t believe the birth had been so smooth and fast. I immediately went to hospital. A suppliant at the ‘air lock,’ but Beata could not talk. I did not see her or our daughter. It was an urgent cesarean. Beata came to herself only the following day. Tired and in pain, she shuffled to the ‘air lock’ with the little orange-colored girl with green eyes shut and tightly swathed in the crook of Beata’s arm. I felt like crying. It was hard to talk. ‘Beata, take a good care of her. She is so fragile,’ I managed to whisper into the telephone receiver. A week later, Beata told me at home that when they had attached the monitor to her belly, the baby’s heartbeat had begun to slow down. There had been no time to lose. During the C-section, it had turned out that the umbilical cord had got looped around our daughter’s neck and been dangerously tightening.

It was a stroke of good luck. Had we arrived at the hospital an hour later, our girl with green eyes could have been no more. That is how delicate life may be at its most vulnerable. This had nothing to do with the year of 1989. But everything else touching the life of the baby did. Without my passport at home and the two Cold War borders separating us from West Berlin wide open, I would not have had a chance to go and buy Partusisten when it was needed. It was a matter of life or death. The sudden geopolitical change let our girl with green eyes mature in Beata’s womb long enough, so that she could survive in a rudimentary incubator with no specialist neonatal medications available. A small miracle invisible to and not heeded by representatives of the superpowers that had decided on the new shape of Europe and the world in 1989. But these changes would have been for nothing, an empty and meaningless shell built of nicely crafted words and abstract concepts, unless lives of millions upon millions had not filled this framework up with babies, families, work, unprecedented projects and discoveries, happiness, worries and deaths. Yes, death is needed, too, for renewal, in other words, for life. Where is no death, there is no life.

I knew all that in a not fully realized manner, but thought, ‘Not yet, god, not yet.’ Blessed we were for a decade and a half when all our close relatives were still alive and more or less well. Our parents, the two sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles. In their midst, Ania – as we named our daughter – safely and happily growing up until her teenage years. I went to and came back from South Africa. At first Ania was afraid of my beard and cried, but after a day I was her dad again, reunited with the rest of family who had missed me so acutely for the eight months when I had been away. My absence for sure had not helped Beata’s postnatal depression. In the early 1990s Polish doctors did not know yet about this condition. They thought it to be ‘hysteria’ and treated it with relanium.

In the moment of her birth, Ania swam from the amniotic sea of the womb to the stormy ocean of geopolitics after it had just calmed down. She could not believe her good luck and kept her eyes shut for three days, before she decided to crack an eyelid a bit in order to have a quick look at Mum and the world. It did not look too bad. So the girl with green eyes decided to stay with us for good. A quarter of a century later, she is twenty-five, a qualified pharmacist with her diploma from the University of Brighton. She decided to follow into her Mum’s footsteps, and in September 2015 Ania is going to enter the Medical School in Dundee. She knows nothing of communist Poland, of rationing cards, empty shops, closed borders, the one-party system, obligatory school celebrations of the anniversary of the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution,’ compulsory demonstrations on Mayday, political prisoners, strikes, security police, censorship, the jamming of Radio Free Europe, or the propaganda of success when newlyweds had to wait for a tiny apartment for two or three decades.

It is all history to Ania. She was born after the annus mirabilis. Ania can learn about the communist times if she cares to read books devoted to them or to listen to her parents’ boring stories. But she does not have to live through communism herself. The fall of this totalitarian system opened the way for European integration on a truly continent-wide scale. In 1993 the European Union was formed from the European Communities. Four years later Poland was invited to the accession negotiations with this new all-Europe polity-in-making. And in 2004 Poland, alongside seven other postcommunist countries, joined the Union. During this momentous year, Ania and Beata were with me in Washington DC where I did research in the Library of Congress. They did not let me go alone. Ania went to school in Arlington City and from one day to another began speaking and writing in English. Beata, with all the free time at her hands, attended a language course organized by the County of Arlington for immigrants and in the afternoon went to free English lessons offered in a local Methodist church.

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After returning to Poland, we almost immediately left again for Britain. But this time we were not immigrants. We moved within our own enlarged European Union, from its one corner to another. Like millions of others, for employment, better jobs, and improved education opportunities. This is the continuing legacy of 1989 on which the life of today’s Europe is based. All this is now so normal and obvious that a decade after the ‘big bang’ enlargement we have begun to take it for granted. However, without 1989, we would not have been able to go to the United States, neither Ania nor Beata would have acquired English, Polish citizens would have needed to apply for Schengen visas to enter the European Union, Ania would not have studied in the United Kingdom, nor would Beata nor I have pursued our professions in this country.

Indeed, 1989 was an annus mirabilis that marks the end of the Cold War and opened so many doors, ushering unprecedented freedoms across the eastern half of Europe blighted by almost 60 years of two totalitarianisms between 1933 and 1989. Neither are these freedoms obvious nor forever. They need to be guarded and tended to, so that they do not disappear one day again leaving us all to live under the shadow of authoritarianism, which is still the norm for hundreds of millions in China, Laos, North Korea or Vietnam. I wrote this essay lest Ania and her generation of those born in free Poland and free Europe forget.

Despite all this, in one small but quite invasive way communism still did manage to catch up with Ania. Now, I should say ‘Anna,’ as she dislikes it when people use the Polish diminutive of her name. A week after her birth I went to the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths in the town hall to register her with the powers that be. The clerk asked me to fill in the requisite forms, which I did. After waiting patiently in the line, when it was my turn, the lady looked at me accusingly. ‘Young man, you filled in the name of your baby daughter wrongly,’ said she.

‘I don’t understand,’ my hesitant reply was.

‘You wrote “Annemarie”.’

‘Yes, I did. That’s the name my wife and I chose for her.’

‘It’s not a Polish name.’

‘Well, most aren’t. I’m Tomasz, and this name is of a Hebrew origin.’

‘Stop it, young man.’

I disliked her calling me ‘young man,’ as if I were the clerk’s underling.

‘You know well what I mean,’ said the clerk.

‘No, I don’t.’

‘Well, I’ll spell it out for you.’ She took out from a metal cabinet a well-thumbed brochure. ‘Here,’ the clerk pushed it my way across the counter that separated us. The booklet’s title read Wykaz imion używanych w Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej, or ‘The List of Names in Use in the People’s Republic of Poland.’ ‘Have a look under letter A,’ she urged me. I was fumbling with the brochure for too long, so the clerk took it brusquely from my hands and opened at the appropriate page. ‘Look,’ she pointed with her index finger. ‘Here’s “Anna”,’ next she quickly leafed through the pages, ‘and Maria is here. There is no “Annemarie”. It is not a Polish name.’

‘But I have a lot of relatives in West Germany.’

‘It’s your problem. We live in Poland and use Polish names.’

‘So maybe, the form “Annamaria” would be possible.’

‘No,’ she replied impatiently, ‘the Polish law does not allow for merging two names into one.’

‘So you mean that naming her “Anna Maria” would be possible.’

‘Yes, the regulations permit such a combination.’

‘What about a hyphen?’

‘What hyphen?’

‘I mean, would it be okay to conjoin the two names with a hyphen.’

‘No way. The law does not allow such a solution.’

‘But now we live in a free country. Communism is over,’ I protested.

‘Well, if you want, you may take the case to a law court, but it would take time,’ at long last she conceded.

‘How long?’

‘At least two months, but some cases drag even for half a year.’

The clerk knew well how to convince obstinate young men who thought that they could do everything they might want in a democracy. I relented. Without a valid certificate of birth, Beata and I would not have access to the free health care system for our girl with green eyes. And we would have to wait until the end of a court case before allowed to apply for benefits. I was to leave for South Africa in a quarter. We could not afford to wait. Before going abroad I had to put all the administrative matters in order and secure as much financial support for my family as possible. My parents and in-laws promised to help Beata during my absence. But it is always better to stand on your own.

Instead of Annemarie, we registered our girl with green eyes as Anna Maria. In short, Ania. I still think of her as Annemarie, but would not call her by this name. In 1990 communism was over in Poland. But the national half of this suddenly vanished totalitarian system has survived rather well under democracy. I felt the intrusive and unyielding steel-hard edge of Polish nationalism with whose blade the clerk delivered a sharp blow to my family’s freedom to choose a name, which we wanted for our daughter. It was the place where any freedoms stopped and the clerk felt it necessary to defend the Polish language and its ‘correct usage.’ ‘The pure Polish language’ was the basis on which Polishness and the Polish state were purported to stand. In the clerk’s view it would amount to treason, if she had allowed my willful and altogether wrongheaded wish of naming the girl with green eyes Annemarie. Persisting in my ‘linguistic crime’ I would have endangered the new free Poland.

Years later, more mature and surer of myself, I discovered that even then, in 1990, there was no law prohibiting me from giving the name Annamaria to our daughter, even without a hyphen. The only legal restriction was that any female name allowed in Poland had to end in –a, or in any other Polish ending that would unequivocally indicate the feminine gender of the person with this name. I believe the clerk acted in good faith. In Poland we lived in the region of Upper Silesia, which nowadays is the most multiethnic and multilingual in this country, Silesians and Germans accounting for a third of the area’s population. A reflex to homogenize, to deepen the Polish character of this complicated Central European region survives among Polish civil servants to this day from the times of the national communist totalitarianism in pre-1989 Poland.

The past never disappears without a trace. It continues in many small ways, including elements of the totalitarian system which was overturned and abolished in 1989. Seeds of totalitarianism remain in democracy. The day we start taking democracy for granted and cease to care about it, we open a space for weeds of totalitarianism to flourish. Should we let them, these weeds will choke democracy, paving the way for a new-style totalitarianism.

I pray, not in my lifetime, or Annemarie’s.

May 2015


[1] I thank Catherine Gibson for her helpful advice and comments. But it is me alone who remains responsible for any remaining infelicities.

Foto: Aw58, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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