Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Life in Warsaw

Janos Gereben
January 27, 1970

Fellowship Year

A report of uncaptioned pictures from the Polish capital for the purpose of giving an over-all impression of everyday life there. The accompanying text consists of excerpts from Warsaw papers on the lot of the “little people” vs. bureaucracy in a Communist society—with some remarkably candid observations about both the power plays of the New Class and the undaunted boldness of complainers after more than two decades of living in a police state.

From Polityka: “Wrongs for Sale” by Andrzej K. Wroblewski—

We all know these letters. We know them and fear them. I can well imagine the author, a desperate man, slipping five or six carbons into his typewriter, leaving a space at the top and then writing—page after page—the whole truth about his wrongs.

He has abandoned caution, thrown diplomacy to the winds, staked all on a single card. After finishing, he fills the empty space with different addresses: The Central Committee /of the Communist Party/, the State Council, the State Prosecutor, the main council of the trade unions, Trybuna Ludu /the party’s paper/, Polityka. After all, there must be just men somewhere, men unconnected with cliques, men with sensitive consciences—so he thinks and sends everything out by registered mail. And then, he counts the days and weeks …waiting.

We are afraid of such letters, because many contain a tragedy, and we are not up to the demand they make on us. Most frequently, it is the tragedy of a man who expects that, since we have socialism, all wrongs and evils should automatically have been eliminated. Sometimes it is the drama of a society terrorized by a contentious maniac who abuses the patience of our legal and administrative authorities.

We receive three, four, sometimes even ten such letters daily. Only one writer in a hundred can hope to achieve what he expected—to become the hero of an article, after which, incidentally, his fate may turn out quite different from what he had anticipated. The remaining writers will receive from the editor more or less curt advice about where to turn for help or to whom their letters have been forwarded.

A paper will print an article, which would interest its readers. And the readers are interested in typical, but not in banal, cases. Not every wrong finds a buyer…At most, one in a hundred.

Sometimes, someone will write in his letter: “I know that you cannot settle everything people ask. But at least help me.” Yet we do not help. We have calloused souls, like surgeons unmoved by the sight of blood. We know that we could help in this and in that, and in a dozen cases, and we know that they will be followed by new wrongs. We know that philanthropy has never solved a social problem, at best it has helped individual ones, and. for us, wrongs have no faces and no names, they are a social problem. Most certainly, there are too many such letters, too many complaints, too many wrongs. And this is a matter over which it is worthwhile pausing—not to aid this or that expediter of six registered letters to six selected addresses.

The well-known cliche that life is more inventive than the longest legal code is obvious from these letters. Rarely does someone complain that his superior is breaking a law; no, the complaints concern chiefly the breaking of social norms, which the writer deems obligatory. Even if the codes were ten times thicker, they would still fail to anticipate all the situations, which are presented by our correspondents. “I am a good employee, but I refused to execute an order which was incompatible with the ethics of my profession; then some shortages were brought to light for which I was allegedly responsible…” Or:

**Pictures on this page only from Warsaw papers. All others by Janos Gereben.

“After my statement at the teachers’ conference, I felt surrounded by an atmosphere of isolation, as if I were a leper, although I mentioned only a small part of what everyone had been saying in private. Soon afterwards, I was transferred to a grade school…” Or:

“The militia did not even bother to measure the distance between my motorcycle and the truck, it was written down as an estimate and later the judge accepted it as important evidence against me and the verdict was based on it…”

One appeals for justice higher up when the local judges fail. A characteristic aspect of these letters is the conviction of these people, not necessarily an unjustified one, that there are no objective people available locally, that everyone is taking sides.

It would seem from the letters that all those chairmen of workers’ councils, those personnel directors and inspectors can freely manipulate facts and be guided not by an interpretation of them but by personal likes and dislikes. It would seem that the pretty talk about social control is one thing and the practice of it quite another.

I frequently heard the following opinion about someone who had complained: “Well, all right, it is correct…but that man, how shall I put it, there is this opinion among us that, if it came to something, you know, he would be the first…”

If it came to what? What opinion? And, most of all, why among us, rather than among his immediate co-workers, who should know him best?

I do not believe in the existence of sins so secret that they cannot be presented to a Party collective. I do not believe in opinions so camouflaged that no one knows what is what, only a smell pervades. Criteria should be taken from above and this, in my opinion, is the essence of centralism. But judgment should be passed, according to these criteria, by those below. A severe judgment so that neither the council chairman, nor the personnel chief, nor the voivodship /district/ inspector would dare act according to his own fancy.

“If, in the West, a guy has no money,” a certain observer of our social life told me, “and thereby feels a second-class citizen, it is only natural. If he suffers, it is natural. If he cannot get an education, it is natural, and if he cannot afford an expensive medicine, he dies, in the conviction that everything is as it should be. But here people do not want to give up anything.”

Let us not quibble about words, it is possible that people demand more from life. In any case, they rarely want to accept what they believe to be wrong. Some complain among themselves, others speak up at meetings, others still write to the central authorities and to us.

I know that there are few angels among our correspondents. For months and years, they could stand by passively watching some wrongdoing, until it touched them personally. This is how things frequently happen in our society, where everyone is concerned first about his own problems, leaving public matters to the care of officials. Let the trade unions, the State Attorney, the Party organization defend a wronged man, why should I do it?

And only later, when one can no longer pretend to be deaf and blind, one reaches for a pen. We find a lengthy list of sins of our negative hero in his letters, old sins, but remembered ones. One of the letter writers had been paying bribes for four years, and finally told what he knew about his superior, after having been fired anyway.

I know that there are such people, but what can we do? The law protects from punishment one of those guilty of bribery if he turns informer. It may be less moral, but it works. Nor can we preach to our correspondents that they should have been more honest in the past. Frequently, they would have had to pay more for their honesty than society would gain from their revelations.

I know in advance that any move complained about in a letter of complaints has an explanation. And I know that a number of these explanations will be quite true. To maintain that the man in the street is always wronged would be as non-sensical as to maintain that the authorities are always right. Every so often, a miserable effort is made to establish some sort of rigid rule to include all conflicts: at one time, the worker was always right; later, the same went for Party members; later still, it might have seemed that only directors had a monopoly of being right; and a year ago, during the anti-technocratic campaign, quite the contrary was true.

These efforts are miserable and sterile, impossible to apply in a developed society which cannot be categorized into simple little groups of better and worse people.

It is not a question then of establishing who shall always be right and who wrong. It is a question of the real possibilities of settling such conflicts from above, by an office remote enough to carry absolute authority in local conflicts. Which means the intervention of the main council of trade union in a small plant, of the Ministry of Education in a rural school, of the voivodship committee in a basic organization. Inspectors coming from afar have to be told the story all over again from the beginning…the matter drags on…the whole matter appears in a new light.

I have been in similar trouble myself. I was treated to half- and quarter-truths, by people hoping that their opponents would be less careful, that perhaps I would fail to realize what is missing in the picture, that, after all, I might not take the opinion of the Party secretary too seriously, because he is gone now and perhaps had something on his conscience, too.

The whole tricky art of allusions and understatements is designed to inform or to mislead the outsider; only before him is it worthwhile to play such games, because those directly involved know it all anyway. And then, everyone waits for the article. If they have managed to fix the journalist properly to draw his attention to one aspect and conceal another—this in itself is a victory. They will then claim the article as proof, disregarding the fact that the local people know how things stand. They know, but they don’t count, since the thing has been put down in writing, perpetuated, period.

And this is the key to the matter. The local people hardly count. The level on which the verdict could have been most justly reached, because it is the most competent one in this case. I remember a conflict between an activist of the Workers’ Self-Management and a department chief in a metal plant, which was presented for solution to all possible organizations, including the Central Committee, which spoke about the balance of forces in the plant, displaying the

virtues and shortcomings from everyday contact and which could hand down a just decree. I remember housing disputes involving regiments of officials, up to and including the Ministry of Communal Economy, disputes which could best have been solved by the municipal national council.

In other words, the social problem of wrongs and complaints cannot be improved by searching for who will personify justice. Now the plaintiff might be guilty, now the official, now the worker, now the foreman, now the doctor, now the patient. I may be stating a cliche”, but it has to be said: only a democratic solution, meaning a self-management one, can be helpful.

When, a few years ago, the new code of administrative procedure was introduced, many people were deluded into thinking that the letter of the law would be helpful in life and would push it along in this direction toward a settlement of disputes. The code attempted to define clearly who is to decide in matters of accusations and complaints, and ordered that all complaints sent to another address should be returned to the proper office, the next highest office directly above the complainant. A directive is one thing, but hardly anybody was thereby discouraged from trying at ever-higher offices, as long as breath permitted. Cut the possibilities of appeal? Impossible, this is the basic civic right in a democratic country, a psychological safety valve for a wronged man. Therefore, one must tolerate the chronic growth of such matters, of such unrestricted disputes going to an ever-higher level, with ever more paper and increasingly virulent fury.

Whenever I have to help unravel wrongs and guilts, I experience a growing lack of belief in the powers and responsibility of those below, in whom I placed my hopes that they might be the first and the final judge. Somehow, one looks for justice from above, up to the highest levels, from which wisdom and grace are expected to flow. This is, of course, not unconnected with the still too centralized system of rule, but that is another matter. Justice in Poland need not have the same vertical structure as the system of economic management or that of water distribution.

Indeed, it does happen that a higher power must protect a man who has served the long-range public good rather than his own, cheap popularity and may have even antagonized those around him.

To wait for self-management to become mature enough to take upon itself tasks other than those it has at the moment would be like delaying the freeing of peasants from serfdom until they become educated. We would wait forever.

Things would go on forever, such as the situation where a man attending a meeting of the basic Party organization, or some trade union group or some other collective, thinks: “Why should I stick out my neck with my view on this matter? Afterwards, everything will go on as it would have anyway, but X will never forget that I once was against him. What do we know down here anyway? Let those in the committee look the matter over and decide what is what…”

The democratic system of solving conflicts forces the reaching of ever more just and ever more responsible solutions, since everything is being done before the eyes of people who are aware of the facts, who know the persons involved and the background of the conflict. The more severe the judges below become, the less necessary would be interference from above. Centralism is one thing, but on the other hand, one rarely hears that any consequences have been drawn after the final solution of some conflict in respect to those who, while judging it while it was on its way up the ladder of authority, were guided by partiality, ill will or simply carelessness. And yet, they were harmful in more than one way. They added their little brick to the construction of that great market hall where human wrongs are put up for sale.

From Zycie Warszawy: “Not Necessarily a Minister” by Berna Bakowska—

A modern frequenter of offices and bureaus needs many virtues, but the ones most necessary, from the viewpoint of his own interests, are stubbornness and optimism…A citizen displeased by a decision reached on the communal level advances to the district, goes on to the voivodship and—should he still not win his battle there—travels to the capital or at least writes a letter there. Echelon after echelon, the complaint climbs higher and higher—from the communal office to the minister.

Sometimes it is much too slight a matter to involve so many people and the intransigent optimism and stubbornness of the claimant unnecessarily take up the time and energy of the administration. But sometimes the fact that the request has to go that far is an alarming sign of heartlessness and bureaucracy on the part of certain councils and offices, of the helplessness of man in the face of wrongly interpreted directives and paragraphs.

It arises irrefutably from analyses, discussions, and observation that a large number of complaints lightly rejected by lower officials demand more attention and a positive approach…

The Council of Ministers’ Office of Complaints and Letters receives over 10,000 letters, complaints and suggestions a year, and, unfortunately, their number is not decreasing. While, last year, the office received some 16,000 letters, by Sept. 1 of this year /1969/ it had already received over 11,000. Detailed analyses and checkups have shown that the great majority of the plaintiffs are right. This means that in certain national councils clients and their complaints receive perfunctory treatment. There are known cases where the persons involved have not been informed of the decisions or have been sent back whence they came.

And yet, it is no one other than these ordinary men, endowed with eyes and ears, who inform the authorities of many shortcomings and problems of daily life. As a result of complaints reaching the highest authorities, through the justified complaints and requests of citizens, it has been possible to correct many regulations, to simplify and unify many problems, frequently eliminating the source of conflicts…

What remains are complaints from a single individual, a single family, a single case, of a lesser importance on the overall scale, but vital for the person involved. Here the highest authorities step in less frequently, and only in cases where the citizen has been obviously wronged.

In general, he must seek help alone, among friends, by writing to newspapers, to the Polish National Radio. He seeks justice or just answers, which should have been forthcoming from his local authority.

No higher authority, not even in the most detailed manner, no intervention from outside is capable of solving all unsettled problems, eliminating all wrongs. Only the national councils, their administrators and especially their representative agencies are there to improve the still none too good relations between the citizen and the official. Improving their style of work, their integrity, and raising their knowledge and education will surely strengthen the trust of citizens in the possibility of getting their problems solved locally, at home base.

From Zielony Sztandar: “Journeys in Search of Justice” by Emil Morgiewicz—

Clients come daily to the Department of Complaints and Suggestions at the Ministry of Justice in Warsaw. There are over 5,000 of them annually. The greatest number come on Mondays, when the minister receives people personally. They come from all over Poland, from backwater Rzeszow villages and from nearby suburbs, from Kielce and from Pomerania, from Zielona Gora and from the Mazurian lakes…The majority come from rural areas because property matters, all those divisions of inheritance, the boundary disputes, the return of holdings, are inflammatory questions where wrongs and injustices are easily done.

So they travel, abandoning urgent farm work, disregarding expense, since they are urged on by the hope that what could not be achieved in the local court might still be achieved at the ministry, when they present their case directly to the minister.

What are their complaints? Last year, the ministry received 5,369 clients. Over half, 55 percent, came about questions subject to extraordinary revision. Then came complaints about property attachment, about lengthy procedures, about verdicts. About 15 percent, 541 people, came to the ministry with problems outside the jurisdiction of the courts.

The question arises whether the plaintiffs must really come all the way to Warsaw. Justice Zygmunt Mank wrote recently that in his opinion 75 percent of these trips were unnecessary. This opinion arises from the data available that 1,199 of the persons received wanted nothing more than legal advice—and this can be obtained without necessarily coming to the ministry.

Moreover, 55 percent of all cases about which the visitors came had already had a legal verdict passed on them. This means that only an extraordinary revision or a new trial could upset the verdict. This is unusual and a rarely practiced procedure. Out of 5,405 demands for revision in civil cases received up to October of this year /1969/, only 247 were approved for revision by the minister. The figure was even smaller in penal cases: out of 2,700 requests in the first half of the year (we do not take the second half in consideration because of the amnesty), only 100 were sent for revision—of which 30 were to the disadvantage of the accused.

Almost every visitor hopes to present his case personally to the minister. He receives only those whose request for a revision has been rejected. They are then given the reasons for the rejection. As an example, this year, out of 4,383 clients who showed up at the ministry, 286 were granted an audience with the minister.

How can people be stopped from making unnecessary trips? Above all, the courts must always carefully and openly inform the parties concerned when issuing a verdict about the available means of appeal. The point is that the parties displeased with a verdict must start necessary procedure before the verdict becomes binding. Afterward, the plaintiff’s chances of getting this done are very slight. And if a verdict has already become legally binding, more information is necessary about the ways and means of obtaining an extraordinary revision.

Full knowledge of the opportunities for presenting complaints would save people time, expense, and frequent disappointment, when nothing can be done, even in the Ministry of Justice.


Received in New York on January 27, 1970.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.