Poland's Communist Sympathizers

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Bernstein, The New York Times, 1/14/05

During the heady days a decade and a half ago when democracy first came to Poland, few faces were more visible, or more emblematic of the democracy movement than the movie star-like spokeswoman for Solidarity, Malgorzata Niezabitowska. Certainly, she would be the last person anybody would suspect of having collaborated with the Communist government.

But in the past few weeks, Ms. Niezabitowska -- like numerous other Solidarity veterans -- has been snared by allegations that under the code name Nowak she was a regular informer for the Communist security services. The allegation, supported by newly available documents from the Communist-era secret police, has both transfixed Poland and made a turmoil of Ms. Niezabitowska's life.

Among the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, Poland is a relative latecomer to what has become know as lustration, so called because the bringing to light of secret Communist files may serve as a purifying sacrifice, a process that roiled countries like Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary in the 1990's.

Several years ago, none other than Lech Walesa, a founder of Solidarity and Poland's first democratically elected president, was charged with having collaborated in the early 1970's. While he was cleared by the Polish Parliament, the taint on his reputation has remained.

But there has been a sharp increase here lately in lustration cases because, after years of delay, Poland only this month completed the process of opening its former Communist secret police archives to anybody who can claim to have been a target.

Just last week, Jozef Oleksy, a former prime minister, was forced to resign as speaker of the Polish Parliament after a court found he had lied about his past associations with Polish military intelligence. Mr. Oleksy denied that allegation and is appealing the court's ruling.

Mr. Oleksy is a former member of the Communist Party, but, in a strange paradox, many of the people whose past records are coming up for scrutiny are former leaders in the Solidarity movement. Among them are Marian Jurzczyk, the Solidarity leader of Szczecin and now the mayor of that city, and Zbigniew Nakder, a former head of the Polish language service of Radio Free Europe, and numerous Roman Catholic priests.

This has led some people here to wonder if the process is not harming the wrong people -- former democracy activists rather than the many current government officials who were members of the very Communist Party that persecuted them.

''Lots of people signed something,'' said Helena Luczywo, the deputy editor of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and a former democracy activist. ''Lots of people said something to the police, because they were weak, or because they were blackmailed.''

''It's all very complicated,'' Ms. Luczywo said, ''but if you're young and didn't have this experience, it's difficult to understand.''

While there have been a number of highly publicized disclosures lately, the accusation against Ms. Niezabitowska, which she denies, is the one that has riveted the country. She has admitted to speaking once to the Communist-era secret police, but said she refused to collaborate with them and, in any case, told them nothing they did not already know. She said that any documents in the files relating to anything other than that one meeting were fakes made by a secret police that routinely engaged in fabrications.

''Their attitude is that if the secret police wrote something, it must be true,'' Ms. Niezabitowska, 56, said of her accusers during a conversation at her home outside Warsaw. ''But this is a fundamental misunderstanding. In the Communist time the core of the system was a lie and the system's executors were professionals. They knew very well how to make lies look like truth by mixing both in words and in documents.

''There was a special service inside the secret police called Office T that specialized in making false documents,'' she continued. ''Sometimes they invented fake agents altogether, or they fabricated letters with compromising information.''

But officials at the government bureau that keeps the documents and studies them argue that, while Ms. Niezabitowska's claim of forgery could theoretically be true -- the issue is now before a special court -- it is unlikely in this case, and that Ms. Niezabitowska does indeed have a past that she has, until now, refused to acknowledge publicly.

''To me the file of Malgorzata Niezabitowska is a standard file,'' said Pawel Machcewicz, a historian at the Institute for National Remembrance, which is the custodian of the vast records of Poland's Communist past. ''I didn't see anything in it that makes it different from other files.''

Similarly, a well-known historian, Antoni Dudek, wrote recently in Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland's leading newspapers, ''To accuse the special services of forging documents is absurd, because they would just have been cheating themselves.''

Ms. Niezabitowska's case came up when another former member of Solidarity Weekly, Krzysztof Wyszkowski, examined his own files and learned that he had been informed on by a secret collaborator identified as Nowak. Researchers at the Institute of National Remembrance determined that Nowak was Ms. Niezabitowska, and Mr. Wyszkowski gave that information to the Polish press.

In the meantime, having learned that her file had turned up, Ms. Niezabitowska made a statement of her own to the press, in which she recounted her secret police experience.

She had one and only one meeting with the secret police, on Dec. 15, 1981, she said, shortly after martial law was declared, when she was picked up at her home, taken away and interrogated for six hours. She says that she gave some opinions about some of her fellow members of Solidarity Weekly, including Mr. Wyszkowski, whom she did not like.

To talk as much as she did, Ms. Niezabitowska has admitted, was an error. But, she says, she did not disclose information harmful to anybody, and she refused further cooperation. After that first involuntary meeting, she said, she never met with the secret police again.

She argues that what she was really doing in those days belies the accusation of collaboration. She and her husband, Tomasz Tomaszewski, a photographer, clandestinely documented scenes of martial law, taking pictures, for example, of tanks on the streets, and surreptitiously passing them to a Western diplomat who sent them abroad. There they were published, helping to counter the portrait being painted by the official propaganda, which was that Poland, free of the unrest caused by Solidarity's strikes and demonstrations, had once again become a happy, peaceful place. If Ms. Niezabitowska or Mr. Tomaszewski had been caught, she said, their crime would have been espionage, and they would have faced prison terms of at least 10 years, or possibly even the death penalty.

''So can you imagine how I feel about this now -- that I was not a fighter for democracy, but was a petty collaborator with the secret police,'' Ms. Niezabitowska said. ''I'm heartbroken, not just for me, but for Poland. I fear that the history of the Polish opposition and our struggle for freedom will now be the story as told by the secret police, by people who were our worst enemies and did everything to destroy us. It would be a real victory of the totalitarian system from its grave.''

Mr. Machcewicz said that, having studied Ms. Niezabitowska's dossier, he believed the documents in it to be authentic. Her file, he said, consisted of 11 reports from her controller in the secret police. In one of them, for example, she appeared to provide information about a clandestine meeting of members of the underground Solidarity Weekly that took place in April 1982.

Ms. Niezabitowska's signature does not figure on the 11 reports of her handler, but it does appear on three separate documents, twice with her own name, once as Nowak. One signature appeared on a typed document, dated the day after she said she had her sole meeting with the secret police, in which she agreed to collaborate, for the sake of ''avoiding bloodshed,'' in the words of the person who wrote the letter.

Mr. Machcewicz said that the police seemed to have some information about Ms. Niezabitowska, the exact nature of which he declined to disclose. ''It's a complicated case,'' Mr. Machcewicz said of Ms. Niezabitowska, ''of a person who was under strong pressure, who tried not to collaborate, but who nonetheless provided some valuable information.''

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