Well, I was born in Warsaw in 1948. I come from a family of assimilated Jewish intelligentsia. As a young man I had interests in several areas, but I was very active in the Boy Scout movement – this was, so to speak, my rebellion from the communist youth scene. The Union of Socialist Youth is what I am talking about. The Boy Scouts enjoyed relative autonomy although they were under the supervision of the regime.
So you could say that my birth as a political animal happened in March of 1968 – I was 20 years old and enrolled in my second year of Architecture School and, well, I participated in the March Events [students and intellectuals organized protests against Poland’s communist government in March 1968], as they were later called. And as a consequence I was visited by these so-called ‘sad gentlemen’ [agents of Poland’s secret police] who carefully looked over all the books in my home library.
I found myself in prison for the first time, which is the most radically significant education that a young man could receive in the communist system. Because you would have to orient yourself on which side you are able to collaborate with whom, [and] with whom you cannot [collaborate], what community means to you, what loyalty means, what brotherhood means; how you see the future of your country; whether you are inclined more to fear [them] or you would rather [simply] stand up to a certain situation.
So, I left jail after three and a half months, and the tactic that I adopted at that time, which I later consistently practiced in my subsequent, much longer jailings, was to simply keep complete silence. I did not say ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘I want to go to the toilet’ – whether I was [going to be there] three hours or eight hours. I would just stay perfectly silent. And you can find this from 1985 or 1986, which is a text called the Monologue in a Warsaw Prison, which was published in the New York Review of Books. And because I smuggled this out of jail, something I was very accomplished in, I smuggled this monologue out of jail, which was a record of things that those security men had said to me.
So things which they spoke to me, and to which I kept my silence. And this is quite funny, and was something which gave some amusement to many of my comrades on the outside. So then I had my [literary] debut in 1968. Now, as a political essayist, my debut happened in 1979, in the Paris-published Kultura, our émigré quarterly – well, actually a monthly that was operated by Jerzy Giedroyc [Polish writer and political activist], whom I count among the handful of the most illustrious Poles whom I was privileged to know. And so my debut was an essay titled WolnoĆÄ w Obozie [Freedom in the Camp].
This was later published in the London Survey and this was a summation of a certain type of experience and which Mr. Jerzy Giedroyc, in his role as editor, talked me into. From my regular job as an engineer, a young architectural engineer working at a construction site. And this was a construction site at which I experienced the events of June 1976 [Polish worker strikes organized against rising prices]. And these were the strikes at Radom and Ursus [cities in Poland]. Which was perhaps the big event between the massacre of workers on the Baltic coast in 1970 on the one hand and 1979/1980 [period leading to the August 1980 Lenin Shipyard strike in Gdansk], being the swelling of the great wave of independence.
The first story which happened to me and which I put as a fantastic dialogue in my political fiction, The Screenwriter, I published three years ago, it was a scene when I was arrested and I realized I’m in an empty room in a police station. There are two people in uniforms. So ‘names and addresses’: a typical, typical, special political police – political police question. We know everything, but tell us names and addresses.
It was my first experience that silence is the best method and let them have their monologues. How do we connect in this situation when the balance between fear and terror was broken because after the death of [Joseph] Stalin [leader of the Soviet Union from 1924-1953], after ’56 and the Budapest insurrection [anti-communist uprising in Hungary put down by Soviet military power], practically we didn’t experience direct physical terror in Poland.
And because the communist totalitarian is based, as Nazi totalitarian is, on a physical terror, on the balance between terror and fear, when the society is quite convinced in millions of citizens that nothing can happen in the future, that we have no emergency exit – and that’s the situation which is transforming the regular civil society we know in the West into an atomized, dispersed community in which no one can trust to his co-citizen. That is a challenge.