By Norman Davies
Notes from Poland is pleased to publish the first in a series of exclusive extracts from the autobiography of Norman Davies (published in Polish by Znak), the leading international historian of Poland and senior consultant to the Notes from Poland Foundation. In the passage below, Professor Davies recalls his first experiences in Poland as a student in the 1960s – including helping his roommate, who had been asked by the communist authorities to spy on Davies, to write his reports for the secret police.
One could call my relationship with Poland a love story – love of the people and the country. That sounds nice. In fact, though, everything was much more complicated, at least at the beginning.
Some time after my arrival in Kraków, I was chatting to colleagues at the Institute of History in a break between lessons, and one asked me outright: “What actually made you come to Poland?” Suddenly I heard Professor Henryk Batowski’s voice behind me: “Cherchez la femme!” We laughed. Batowski, an undercover specialist in the field, had hit the nail on the head. But the saying had a double meaning for me: it wasn’t only what attracted me that was important, but also what I was running away from. In fact, I’d say “Cherchez les femmes!”, and one of the women in that plural was my beloved mother.
My departure to “faraway” Poland was something incomprehensible to her, lunacy even, and I doubt I ever managed to convince her that it was worth it. A neutral observer would have said that the young Davies had certain talents and gradually abandoned various options as he made his way, as if an inner voice were telling him to keep looking. Yes, some unnameable force was pulling me eastwards. Years later, I can say that I have no regrets about succumbing to it.
My decision to take up a scholarship to go to Poland was also heavily influenced by the centrifugal force pushing me away from the safe shore where I left my entire life to date behind. One of the components of this force was disappointed love, and the whole string of consequences that came with it.
The idea of the scholarship to study in Poland was preceded, and in a sense inspired, by a student excursion in which I participated in 1962. We weren’t allowed into the USSR, so the organisers decided that we’d go to Warsaw, Lublin, Kraków and Katowice. The entire stay in Poland was surprisingly pleasant. Before leaving England, we’d been warned that in a communist country the people were suspicious, you had to avoid political topics, and not start conversations with strangers.
And yet the students we met behaved normally, openly told political jokes, and by no means concealed their detachment from communism. I remember the first joke they told us: “Poland is like a radish: red on the outside and white on the inside”. I soon realised how true this was. I also learnt that socialism or communism could look different in different countries, that the system was by no means a monolith.
During my first visit to Kraków, we stayed at the Grand Hotel and were looked after by students, a group of friendly young people who wanted to speak English with us. One of them was a young doctor named Maria. In the evening we had a party together. While everyone was dancing, I saw Maria sitting to the side on her own, so I went to chat with her. We were only in Kraków for two or three days – not long enough to get to know each other properly, but after I’d left we exchanged postcards from time to time. She also sent me a beautiful record from the Chopin competition.
A year later, when the trip to the USSR was finally supposed to be coming to fruition, I sent Maria a postcard saying that I’d wave to her as our train passed through Poland. Once in Moscow, I received an unexpected telegram from Kraków: “Break up your return journey. I’ll be waiting. Warsaw, Gdańsk station”. Sending a telegram to the USSR wasn’t easy then. I was impressed by her courage and resourcefulness. She’d got hold of the address of the hall of residence where the Sputnik organisation housed young foreigners.
I found out that a break in the railway journey was permitted, and the transit visa was valid for a whole day. When the train pulled into the station, a smiling black-haired woman in a beautiful hat stood waving at me. We spent a few hours wandering around Warsaw, before I had to catch the next connection to London. I was pleasantly surprised that she had wanted and was able to do something like that.
There were many reasons for my interest in Poland. Even the first time I visited this “faraway country on the Vistula”, I knew a little more about it than the average young Englishman. As a historian, I was interested in the states cut off by the Iron Curtain, and Slavic languages were my passion at the time. As I slowly lost enthusiasm for my Russian studies at the University of Sussex, I began to learn Polish.
In my last three months in Brighton, I spent a lot of time with my Polish grammar book. I also remembered what the great poet Antoni Słonimski, whom I’d met by chance in Brighton, had told me: nobody can understand Russia or Poland without going there. At the time, I didn’t quite realise who this elderly gentleman was, but I felt he was right, and I wanted to follow his advice.
The Russian textbook I’d once found in a cupboard at St Paul’s School was called Russian Grammar for British Workers. I came across a similar book – Polish Grammar for British Officers – by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton. It was a 1940 edition aimed at military men who were to be working together with General Władysław Sikorski’s staff. Even today, I still have the exercise books I practised in. I’d get up every morning at six and study Polish for three hours before doing other things. But for all my systematic work, I only achieved a passive knowledge of the language. I had no idea about pronunciation. I didn’t let that bother me at all – rightly, as it turned out, because I learnt it quite quickly afterwards.
Having decided to spend longer in Poland, I began looking around for options for what I could do there. The British Council operated an exchange programme funding students and graduates, so I approached them asking if they could send me to Poland. The deadline had passed, but apparently there weren’t too many applicants. In any case, I received a scholarship, formally funded by the Polish ministry. I was told when to show up in Kraków. I’d find out who was to be my supervisor on arrival.
I travelled to Kraków by car in summer 1966. I wasn’t earning bad money at the time, and I’d just bought my first car – a Renault 4. It wasn’t especially fast, but it was practical and extremely hardy, which was very important over the two years, and particularly winters, I spent in Poland. I chose a route via the Federal Republic of Germany to Nuremberg, and then on through Bavaria to Prague. I didn’t stay in hotels, but just slept a few hours at a time in the car.
I crossed the Polish border in Cieszyn. It was evening, and I stopped for dinner, ordering tripe in a restaurant on the market square. Tripe had been a speciality in my home town of Bolton since the American Civil War. Impoverished workers began eating it when the war brought a halt to cotton deliveries, and towns living off the textile industry found themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. From that evening on, whenever I’ve travelled through Cieszyn, I’ve had my own private ritual of eating tripe at that restaurant.
Finally, I arrived in Kraków, at the Żaczek Student Hall. Any student pulling up outside halls in a car caused a sensation at the time, which I found terribly embarrassing. I got a place in a two-person room. I soon found out that this was a privilege, and of course every privilege comes at a price.
My roommate, a Pole who fortunately spoke a little English, appeared on the first evening. He surprised me by telling me straightaway that he’d received a place in a two-person room on condition that he wrote a report on me, presumably for the SB, the secret police. In Żaczek, as in every student hall, there was a network of informers.
My roommate was loyal to me – protective, even; he made me understand what “real life in Poland” was like. I was grateful for his honesty and helped him to write a report that presented me as a boring Englishman who spent all his time in the library and was mostly interested in football. I realised that not all Poles were blindly obedient to the regime.
Norman Davies is the founder of the Project for Polish Studies Abroad, which aims to assist the development of Poland-centred studies at university level in countries outside Poland through the Fundacja Normana Daviesa.
Translated by Ben Koschalka.
Published with the kind permission of Wydawnictwo Znak.
Main image credit: author’s personal archive