The Persistent Gap

It was a shock for many East Germans when they visited West Germany for the first time – not just in 1989 but way back in 1959. Thirty years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany had already recovered from the devastation of World War II. Between 1950 and 1960, the average GDP growth for West Germany was 8.2 percent, and it was during this period that the London Times declared the country’s performance a Wirtschaftswunder, an economic miracle.

Many East Germans were so impressed by what they saw in West Germany that they didn’t return. “Since the foundation of the GDR in 1949 and the end of Honecker’s first full year as Secretary for Security in 1958, 2.1 million East Germans had fled the country that Ulbricht built,” writes Frederick Taylor in The Berlin Wall. “Almost a million would leave during he next three years. In the first twelve years of its existence East Germany lost around a sixth of its population.” It was no surprise, then, that the GDR built the Wall in 1961.

Even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany’s economic performance still serves as a model for those further to the east. Poland, for instance, has posted one of the more successful economic records of the countries of East-Central Europe. But this success is nothing compared to what West Germany was able to achieve in the two decades after World War II. And that’s one reason why two million Poles have left their country.

Adam Jagusiak is one of those Polish émigrés. When I met him in Sopot in 1990, he was working with other activists to stop the country’s first nuclear power plant in Zarnowiec, a protest that ultimately succeeded. But the group that Jagusiak was involved with – Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj or WiP) – was dying out, and he was not optimistic about the future. Eventually he took a job with the Polish foreign ministry that brought him in 1992 to New York to work at the Polish consulate. He has stayed there ever since, only returning to Poland as a visitor.

When he looks back at what has changed or not changed over the last two decades in Poland, he is most disappointed with the economic performance.

“It’s 23 years since 1990,” Jagusiak told me in an interview in New York in November 2013.  “It’s longer than the interwar period, the intermission of Polish independence. In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe. It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What’s most disappointing, for most people not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap. It’s there. We closed it to a certain extent, but now it just plateaus. Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That’s a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe 2 or 3 percent. There’s no closing the gap in sight.”

If the Poles were to look to the east or the south, they would be no doubt pleased with their relative success compared to Ukraine or Bulgaria. But Poles generally don’t look in those directions for comparison purposes, any more than Americans judge their economic success by Mexican standards.

“For us, Germany is the point of reference,” Jagusiak continued. “For Ireland, it’s England, but they closed the gap. Finland was the poor cousin of Sweden, but they closed the gap and maybe they’re even better off now. But this whole block or camp of countries is still lagging behind. Slovenia is perhaps closest, but it’s a small country, cozy between Italy and Austria. The Czech Republic is wealthier than Poland, but still it hasn’t closed the gap. It was wealthier in the 1920s and 1930s, under the Habsburg rule, under Communism. This area has been wealthier for the past 200 years. But they still haven’t closed the gap. And I don’t really know why. Twenty-three years looks like a long time to achieve something economically. Maybe it’s impossible to grow like this. Maybe Japan and South Korea were in the right place at the right time. Maybe that’s all we can do.”

We talked about his time with Freedom and Peace, his experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the potential reasons why his car was subjected to multiple attacks when he was living in Queens.

 

The Interview

 

In 1990, you discovered that you had friends in high places.

 

Yes, and it was a very new experience. That’s why I was offered a job in the foreign ministry. It was called “new people” in Polish. The system needed new people. I was one of those new people, and I was offered a job in the foreign ministry and I accepted. In 1992, I took a job in the Polish consulate in New York City. Which I did for five years.

 

In 1990, Freedom and Peace (WiP) was basically over. Was there a particular time when you think it ended?

 

It ended in spring 1989 with the Round Table negotiations.

 

And it ended because?

 

It definitively ended then. At the end of 1988, there was already a decline in the movement. It ended because it lost momentum. It lost its purpose.

 

One of the focuses of WiP was military service.

 

That was most important.

 

When did that issue become resolved?

 

Actually, it was only really resolved two years ago with the abolition of conscription in Poland. I don’t really know what was going on for the last 10 years, the kind of alternative service that was offered or the conditions in which people served. It was probably easy to get. But the way I see it, it was resolved with the final abolition of conscription. Nobody gets papers from the army now. It’s the first time in a long time in Polish history.

 

There’s no obligatory service. But you can volunteer.

 

Yes, it’s professional. I’m not sure how it works, but you sign a contract and maybe stay on as a professional. This is the final solution of the alternative service question.

 

How old were you when you had to deal with the military service question?

 

For young men, if you didn’t go to college or university at the age of 18 or 19, then you went to the army. If you were accepted into one of the academic institutions, they would let you graduate and delay conscription. In the 1980s, when I graduated from Gdansk University, they would take you only for one year rather than two years. Then you’d be an officer. You didn’t get the lowest military rank. They basically treated you better for one year because you were educated and the military evidently appreciated this.

 

You graduated from Gdansk University, and then what was your experience?

 

I was called for a medical examination, which I passed. Then I was supposed just to wait for the letter that tells you that you have to report somewhere — to this particular unit on this particular day. At that time, I started looking for contacts with WiP. Maybe they didn’t want to conscript me because of this. I tried to postpone it. I never did anything so radical as what some of my friends did. I didn’t refuse or reject conscription openly. Some burned their military documents, which was like a booklet with data in it. They wouldn’t accept the call-up papers. I had to be careful not to sign this registered letter because once you signed it then you were supposed to know what you were going to do. If not, it wasn’t delivered. I managed to postpone it until I was 28 years old. When you’re 28, the army doesn’t want you any more. That was three years. Someone helped me delay on medical grounds for a couple years. By 1988, I was already 28. And then it was over.

 

How did you find out about WiP?

 

I don’t remember really. Maybe someone told me that there was a movement that could be suitable for me. I got the address of an apartment in Sopot. It was the epicenter of the movement for the Gdansk area. Once I got there and from then on, I knew. The whole issue was how to get there, to find the apartment.

 

If you were 28 in 1988, you were 20 in 1980. Were you in university during the strikes in Gdansk?

 

Yes.

 

What was that like?

 

It was absolutely wonderful, fantastic. That might have been my first political experience, the strikes at the university in 1981 before Martial Law. It was living in a pure fantasy. I had no idea what would happen, how it would be resolved. Some more experienced people knew for sure. I was not even 21. We were planning to change the curriculum, which classes to suspend and which should be continued. It was pure fantasy. But I loved it. I stayed there for three weeks in a sleeping bag. It was constant stimulation: talking, lectures, meetings.

 

Were there people on the faculty opposed to the strike?

 

Yes, there were. But they were in a minority. The majority was for it. If they were opposed, they didn’t show up there. But they didn’t try to indoctrinate us.

After some years, it occurred to me that my whole education was under a Communist system behind the Iron Curtain: eight years plus four years plus five years. For all those 17 years, no one asked me to read a passage from Marx or Engels. No one asked me to read anything from Marxist philosophy. Nobody cared. I had one lesson in primary school, a sort of a civics class, where the teacher asked us, “Who rules our country?” And the whole class shouted “Edward Gierek!” That was in the 1970s. The teacher was vulgar. She said, “Not Edward Gierek you idiots,” that’s how she called us. “It’s workers and peasants.” But we didn’t know. We didn’t know that the workers and peasants ruled the country. They were children of workers, but it would never have crossed their minds that their parents had any say in the rule of the country.

The strike in 1981, I remember this as very unreal, surreal. We had very daring plans in which we got rid of Brezhnev and this whole clique, transform the studies at the university, take things into our hands. It was all fantastic and daring, but maybe appropriate for that time and age.

 

Was there much contact between the university and the Gdansk shipyard?

 

Not really, not as far as I know. Then Martial Law came, the university was closed, everyone was kicked out, and we had enforced vacation for a month. When we came back at the end of January, it was already very different.

 

Do you remember the day the Martial Law was declared?

 

Yes, I remember. I was at home in Sopot.

 

Were you surprised?

 

I was surprised. I didn’t know what to make of it. I had no real insight. I didn’t have any inside information. I was just living in this fantasy world, enjoying this semi-freedom for those few months. Some people said that the ending would be brutal, but I didn’t know when or how it would be resolved.

 

Were any of the student leaders arrested?

 

Probably some were interned, the ones most active in the Independent Student Association, but I didn’t know about them. Back then I was a face in the crowd. There were a lot of people there from my group. My group was 30 people. At least 25 were there.

 

Your group…?

 

That I was doing the program with. I was doing linguistics.

 

When you were in university, what did you think you would do after graduation?

 

I didn’t know. I was postponing this. I didn’t know what I would do after graduation. I could be a teacher of English language. Many of my friends did that, and that’s still their career. I found out the hard way when I graduated in 1985. That year was very depressing, the doldrums, a hopeless time. Many of my friends left the country. I thought about it. I debated. But I didn’t. But so many people left that you felt left out.

When I graduated, I didn’t know what to do. The choice was this way or that way, join the Party or not. I was young and educated, but the Party didn’t have much to offer. It wasn’t that you joined the Party and you immediately had a career. But if you tried and worked hard, it was a path for some people. I knew foreign languages, so if I joined the Party, I could maybe do foreign trade. It was a Faustian deal. You could join the system and try to benefit from it. Or you could be an outsider like most of society. Most people weren’t in the Party. They made their living, they had families. But a small minority of people decided to do something, not to sound highfaluting, for dignity. I saw it as doing something for myself. Looking for political opposition, searching for like-minded people, doing something with them — I saw it as also doing something for myself.

 

Your decision on military service, what motivated that?

 

That I didn’t want to go? Nobody wanted to go. But for most young men it was just a thing that you did. You didn’t think about it. Actually most didn’t go to any universities or colleges. Maybe one third lived in the countryside. They were sons of farmers. So they just went to the army, unless they had a farm of their own. But who has a farm of their own at the age of 18? Maybe some very rare cases. They just went without questioning. If you graduated from some vocational school, you learn a trade, you went to the army, and then you got a job. It was only two years. For most people it was not a problem.

I made a big mistake when I was 20. I was still suffering from something psychologists called “primary egocentrism.” That usually ends at the age of two. When a child is hungry, it thinks the whole world is hungry. If a baby wants to sleep, it projects its feelings on the whole world. When I was in my twenties, I thought that my issues and problems and what I thought was important, everyone thought the same way. But it was not true. Only much later I realized it was not like this.

For most people, serving in the military was not a problem because everything was done by the time you were 21 — your schooling, your military service, your trade. You were good to go. For those who went to schools and universities, it was different. We were older. We saw it as wasting a year. But most decided to go because it was only a year. And when I graduated, maybe it was only half a year — a few months in the barracks and then you went home and worked for the army. But for me it wasn’t about how long it was. I just didn’t want the government to have control over my life, ordering me to go to a particular place on a particular day. It was also political. WiP began with the military oath. We had this humiliating text for the military oath, swearing allegiance to the Soviet army. This was the first bone of contention. For me, it was not such a big deal. Swearing an oath to a country that was a dominating power was humiliating, but I didn’t think about this, about them making me utter those words. It was more like: why should I do this? Avoiding military service took more energy and trouble than doing it. But I just didn’t want to do it.

 

I remember some of the members in WiP were focused on the military oath. But if the oath was removed, they were perfectly happy to serve in the military.

 

Maybe for some people, if you removed the oath, they would serve. Now my thinking is different. I think: was Adam right? He was right in some sense. But maybe if he had gone to the military and not seen it as a kind of yielding or surrendering, maybe it could have been a sociological project to get to know his generation. For this purpose, I think maybe he should have done it. But he was not interested in this sociological experiment. He thought he knew his generation. But he didn’t know it. He knew a very small section of his generation. If he went, he would have had a chance to make some observations, to get this experience.

 

As you said, most people were willing to go to serve in the military. But did you mean that there were other differences between you and your generation. Were there other things that you didn’t understand?

 

I knew people from WiP. They were my generation though mostly a few years younger. I didn’t know my generation in the sense that I didn’t know typical people from my generation. I knew them, but I didn’t find them interesting. It was wrong and unfair. I don’t divide people like this any more. Maybe it’s pardonable when you’re 20.

 

During the Martial Law period, was there much contact between WiP and the rest of the opposition?

 

Do you mean the whole 1980s since technically Martial Law ended in 1983?

 

The whole 1980s.  

 

WiP was launched in 1985. Was there much contact between Solidarity and WiP? It depended on the area. In Gdansk, not so much. In Wroclaw, yes. In Krakow, I don’t know. In Gdansk, we had Walesa and Father Jankowski. It was called the Court. They were not so easily accessible like some local activists in smaller places. In Wroclaw, the relationship was especially close, and they would let WiP use their equipment. I never met Walesa. It’s not that I avoided him. It just never happened. Some people from the Gdansk chapter of WiP knew some people from Solidarity, and they had a friendly relationship.  Solidarity paid our fines as we were constantly harassed with arrests and fines as a tool of political repression. Solidarity paid those fines to help us. Otherwise bailiffs would come to our homes and confiscate our mostly meager possessions. Some people had labels on their refrigerators that read “property of the state” or something like that.

 

During that period, what did you think was going to happen? Did you think you would be in this political limbo for the rest of your life?

 

This was something I didn’t think about much then. It was two years for me of living dangerously. I started in 1986, but I really got into it in 1987 and 1988. I lived with such an intense feeling as if on a high every day. Occasionally I’d think about it but it was suppressed by another event. The measure of success or failure was very individual, very detached from reality. If we achieved something for the movement, this was success and I was happy. If something didn’t go well, it was a failure, and I was unhappy. It’s impossible to live like this for a longer time. If not for the changes in 1989, if it had continued tike this, after three or four years, I would have reached a point of frustration. But it was disrupted by 1989. It was terminated before I started feeling frustrated and starting to think about what I would do with myself.

I worked translating movies. This was my job, my income. There was a company in Gdynia. It was illegal. The black-market economy was thriving in the country back then. It was the time when videotape was a novelty in the 1980s. VCR, videotapes — it was just introduced in Poland. The owners of this company had someone tape movies on TV in England and send them. This was also the time when this laser disc was introduced, like a record player with a sapphire needle. It was cheap technology, and you could only play it a few times. I translated the dialogue into Polish. Someone else read them. They paid well. I made more money than people working in the factory. It was easy too, just working one or two days a week. Sometimes I spent a whole day translating a movie, for 14 hours, and it was like a monthly wage for some people. But this was an aberration. It couldn’t go on like this. But I didn’t think about it back then. I was already 27 or 28. I was young, but I wasn’t that young. If it had been one or two more years, I don’t know what I would have done. I didn’t want to know. It was some kind of denial.

 

You worked one or two days a week. And the rest of the time you devoted to political activity?

 

Social or political activity, there was no difference for me. The rest of the time I devoted to living! I worked for two days and I lived for five days. This was a wonderful time. You talked to someone, you did something: everything furthered the cause, in my opinion.

 

When you think back to those two years, what stands out in your memory?

 

Interactions with people on the street. Public actions were our method. When you collect signatures, you have to deal with people, explain to them. Also we had many people coming from different countries to talk to us. I was one of the few who could talk with them. My first contact with WiP was teaching English. Not very successfully. The small group of WiP activists who wanted to learn had some enthusiasm but it was short-lived, and then this little group disbanded.

I was one of the few who could communicate with the foreigners. My explanations were okay, but I thought that what I was doing something no one had ever done before. Which wasn’t true. People had done this before in other countries. I considered some people who came from Western Europe more naive than they were. I considered them badly informed, somehow completely lost. Some of them knew very well the extent of repression in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. I tried to say everything, leave nothing unsaid or untouched. I don’t know how they reacted to it, what they really thought.

Those were the highlights — speaking to people on the street and talking to people from other countries. At that time, behind the Iron Curtain, we didn’t have so many contacts. The idea that someone coming from another country was interested in what we were doing and wanted to talk to us was in itself exciting. Before nobody was interested, and this was the first time that someone seriously listened to what I had to say. I was telling them the whole truth!

 

When the Round Table negotiations were announced, did you think that this was the beginning of the end of Communism in Poland or did you consider this to be a bad strategy for the opposition?

 

I didn’t think it was a bad strategy because I didn’t have any other alternatives. I wasn’t cynical back then. I took many things at face value. I didn’t think about any secret deals or secret agendas. For me, it was an acceptable solution. I thought that it would probably be the end of the system, but how it would end and what would follow, I didn’t know. I don’t think anyone expected the collapse — maybe the collapse of the system in Poland but nobody was talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nobody talked about independent Ukraine or Lithuania. This came later. Maybe I thought of it more as a liberalization. The real end of Communism dawned on me the night the Wall fell when I was in Berlin.

 

You were there? By accident?

 

Yes. I didn’t plan it. I knew some people from East Germany. We had contacts. They were Lutheran priests. I visited them. I could go to East Germany in the 1980s. I couldn’t travel outside the Soviet bloc, but I could travel within. The terminology was amazing. Our bloc was called “camp” — oboz — which means exactly “camp.” We lived in a camp. We could travel between blocs in the camp. So, I traveled to GDR in 1988. I was with my friends on Leipzigerstrasse, right next to the Wall, and they were saying that they didn’t think they would see the fall of the Wall in their lifetimes.

“It’s there to stay,” one of them said. “I don’t think about it. I just try to block it from my view. When I pass, I don’t want to look at it.”

I said, “I’m not sure,” not because I knew something but just to tease them. “One day it might go.”

And exactly one year later, I was going by bus from Amsterdam in November 1989 to get back to Gdansk. We were going through West Berlin where I had to cross the border and take a night train to Gdansk from East Berlin. When the bus was traveling through Germany, the driver said, “Oh, they announced that the border is open. People are gathering at the border.” When we crossed the border, the inter-German border, there was a bunch of people in cars trying to get to the West. And they could pass. When we went to West Berlin, it was a mob scene, a human river. I was just carried by people. My feet never touched the ground. I was carried across. I left West Berlin for the train station in East Berlin and took a train back home. But I saw the fall of the Wall, this brutal symbol of division, and then I knew that it had to be real. Before that, I thought it could just be liberalization. That I could get a passport in fall 1989 was not such a big deal. Many people did. I had been able to leave the country in 1979 when I went to England. Poland wasn’t the GDR. But when I saw this scene, then I knew it was real. This was something that could not be reversed.

 

The crowds were pushing you from where to where?

 

I was trying to go the other direction from the crowd, which was moving from east to west. But I couldn’t. They just carried me. I spent some time there, in West Berlin. Then I crossed back to East Berlin. I don’t think they even checked my documents. No one was checking passports.

 

You were very lucky to be there on that day.

 

I couldn’t have even planned it! Maybe ten people knew that it was going to happen on that day. Gorbachev, Honecker, maybe Kohl, maybe Reagan. It’s something that’s hard to forget.

 

By November 1989, there was the Solidarity government of Mazowiecki –

 

We still had this contract parliament and Jaruzelski as president. But the next year we had free elections, so it was a short-lived deal with this contract parliament.

 

In January 1990 was a new economic reality in the country. How did you experience that?

 

It was bananas on a cot. This was my experience of this economic transformation. The Polish market had no stuff, no goods. Everything was rationed and very limited and bad quality. But after these fiscal changes, two things were different. One was free exchange rate for dollar and Deutschemark. Kantors – exchange booths — were everywhere. This was big business for some people. And producers, national factories, could sell things from trucks. It wasn’t necessary to deliver to stores. They would just park a truck in the center and sell stuff from the truck. Clothes, cookies, whatever. Bananas. It filled up amazingly quickly in 1990. These rationing coupons were still issued in 1989, but they disappeared.

 

You were still translating movies at this time?

 

In 1989, I’d already stopped. I was teaching English a little bit. I opened an art gallery. This was a bad idea for me. It was just a whim. I knew nothing about art. It only lasted for a few months. Then in 1990 I already got a job offer from the foreign ministry. I moved to Warsaw and started working there. The job came right on queue. The timing was good. The revolution came at just the right time — when I had nothing else to do!

 

What were your responsibilities at the ministry in Warsaw?

 

I worked in the consular department. I was supposed to go to Berlin. It was a rotation. You spent four or five years and someone took over your duties. The position in Berlin was dealing with the Polish community. But they cancelled this position. And I was offered New York. I took it. I worked in the legal section. You didn’t have to be a lawyer for this. I worked in the estate section. The consulate back then still did the transferring of estates. If someone died here in the United States and some heirs entitled to the estate lived in Poland, the consulate would help transfer the estate. Now they don’t do it any more. It’s a private issue. People hire their own lawyers.

When I came here, I lived in Queens where there was a whole consular community. Very quickly I became a target of aggression. Someone broke a window in my car. I thought it was just vandalism. But it was a nice area in Middle Village, and nothing like this every happened. Then someone broke into my trunk and stole jumper cables and a spare tire. Then again they smashed the windows a few times. Everyone was surprised. No one knew what was going on. Finally my car was totally burned. Nothing was left but a pile of ash. I didn’t really know why, though it was quite a strong message. What was next? An attack against me, that I would suffer bodily harm? I was a bit scared. The police came but were not very impressed. They said it was just arson. I had no idea why. And I still don’t. I moved out. The consul general advised me to move out from this area. The secretary suspected something, maybe even someone from the consulate doing it.

But years after I read a report that there was something in Poland called WSI, military intelligence. They survived until 1994. It was an abandoned institution that turned into a criminal mafia, like the Tonton Macoute in Haiti, which survived the fall of the regime. The WSI made a few spectacular thefts of estates through fake documents of vital statistics, amounting to a million dollars. Maybe somebody before me was cooperating with them, and they wanted to scare me so that I would leave the country. Nobody told me, and I’ll probably never find out. That’s the only logical explanation that I can come up with now. When I moved, it was over.

 

You worked for the consulate for five years. Then you started working as a journalist?

 

Yes. After five years, my term expired but I got a job offer from one of the Polish-language daily newspapers here. I took the job.

 

Could you have gone back to Warsaw and worked for the ministry?

 

Yes, I could have, but it would have been tough — not politically but just renting an apartment in Warsaw. I worked at the consulate at the worst economic time. Before then, you were paid in dollars. If you took $100 to Poland in the 1970s, it was a big deal. For the past decade they pay much better. But in the 1990s, they kept us on these wages that were supposed to be a big deal back in Poland but they really weren’t very impressive. But I didn’t leave the consulate because of the pay. I left exclusively for personal reasons. And I decided to stay here in New York because of circumstances. I took the job with the paper and worked there for many years.

 

You were reporting on events here in New York and also in Poland?

 

Just here. I reported on community news, focusing on practical issues: on New York, immigration, and the Polish community. We covered some topics of public discussion covered by other newspapers, with some entertainment. But it was mostly practical. The paper was supposed to be friendly. You found out where you could get free flu shots. They used to buy a news service from Poland. We couldn’t possibly do the reporting on Poland here.

 

Which paper was it?

 

I’d rather not say. They didn’t treat me well in the end. They had to lay off people. Soon it will only be an online edition. That’s the way newspapers like this are going.

 

You went back to Poland semi-regularly. But you said that you had difficulty understanding what was going on there.

 

Because I didn’t live there. I didn’t really have difficulty understanding. But if you don’t experience something… I saw what it looked look, I lived there for a few months but I didn’t work there. So it was more like being a tourist.

 

When you went back, were there things that surprised you more than others?

 

No, it was gradual. Maybe if I went back now, there would be surprises. But I was never away for more than two years.

 

How would you evaluate the trajectory of Poland since 1990 from your point of view? Are you satisfied?

 

What is most disappointing now is the economic performance. It’s 23 years since 1990. It’s longer than the interwar period, the intermission of Polish independence. In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe. It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What’s most disappointing, for most people not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap. It’s there. We closed it to a certain extent, but now it just plateaus. Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That’s a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe 2 or 3 percent. There’s no closing the gap in sight.

For us, Germany is the point of reference. For Ireland, it’s England, but they closed the gap. Finland was the poor cousin of Sweden, but they closed the gap and maybe they’re even better off now. But this whole block or camp of countries is still lagging behind. Slovenia is perhaps closest, but it’s a small country, cozy between Italy and Austria. The Czech Republic is wealthier than Poland, but still it hasn’t closed the gap. It was wealthier in the 1920s and 1930s, under the Habsburg rule, under Communism. This area has been wealthier for the past 200 years. But they still haven’t closed the gap. And I don’t really know why. Twenty-three years looks like a long time to achieve something economically. Maybe it’s impossible to grow like this. Maybe Japan and South Korea were in the right place at the right time. Maybe that’s all we can do.

People ask, when will it be better. The answer: it’s already been better. We had it better already, didn’t you know? That’s the most important thing. That’s why many people left the country, in disappointment. We still look at Europe from below. It’s so deeply imprinted, a mixture of inferiority covered with some superficial bravado.

Young people don’t use the phrase “the West” anymore. They don’t say someone is in the West. They say someone went to France or England or Sweden, because “the West” doesn’t make sense. But in our generation, it was the West. When I lived in Poland, the West was one place, whether it was Los Angeles or Berlin.

The changes are absolutely huge and very positive. You can drive from Warsaw to Lisbon, and you don’t to stop the car on the way. But the economic gap is still there, and it’s so persistent and it doesn’t look like it will go away.

 

New York, November 13, 2013


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *