Patriotism with a Polish face
by Sarah Merchlewitz
Memories situate important world events within our own personal lives. For example, most people who were alive in the 1960s can remember where they were and what they were doing at the precise moment when they heard that President Kennedy was shot.
For myself, born under Reagan, there has been no such catastrophe, but the close of the 20th century has certainly been filled with life-altering political changes for others.
I can remember the day I was told that the Iron Curtain had been lifted from Europe. I was 7 years old. It was 1991, and my first grade class at Washington-Kosciusko was having library time.
I remember how the librarian took some of us into the small room overlooking Mankato Avenue and sat us down. She made us point to the big, brightly colored blotch on the wall map marked “USSR.”
Then she said something like, “You might not understand what this means, but today is a very important day. Today, this country here, the Soviet Union, no longer exists.”
Sixteen years later, I am living in Poland, the country that was responsible for weakening communism’s control of Eastern Europe. I think back to sitting on the W-K library floor and thinking that names like “Gorbachev” and “Yugoslavia” sounded too strange and were located too far away to mean anything to me.
Now I am living in the country where the first labor union succeeded in overcoming communist repression to gain representation in the Eastern Bloc’s first democratic elections. Poland gained her independence in 1989, and the rest of the region soon followed.
On Oct. 21 of this year, for Poland’s special senatorial elections, I went to Krakow’s 116th district polling place. I accompanied my roommate, whose newly acquired Polish citizenship allowed her to vote, to watch her first act of civic participation.
The place was full of people. There was barely enough room for all of the voters and the giant paper ballots inside, so the students, old men and women, couples and friends spilled out into the hallways. What struck me most about watching this scene was that I was witnessing a democracy that is younger than I am.
For Americans, it might be easy for us to take that little, red “I Voted” sticker for granted. It is easy to lose focus on the big picture when you are immersed only in one environment. Our press has been abuzz with Iowa, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and the others while hundreds of people were recently arrested in Pakistan for protesting against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s emergency rule.
I find it fascinating how a shift in geography makes for a shift in one’s mentality. For example, it is not Turkey that is Poland’s biggest concern for the next round of EU candidates, but its neighbor, Ukraine. Living in a country like Poland with a completely different set of foreign and domestic policies than what I know is opening a new set of eyes within my consciousness as a global citizen.
The week before I left Winona, I had lunch at Bub’s with my grandmother and her two friends, Jane Kohner and Jean Burke. These two sisters had been to Poland, and they wanted to share their past travel experiences during Poland’s fragile period of communist rule and martial law.
At one moment in the conversation, a sort of distant look came over Jeanne’s face as she said, “I would love to go back one more time. I have never seen a free Poland.”
That wistful moment quickly passed, but Jeanne’s words seemed especially poignant, and they stuck with me.
Every day in Krakow I pass on the street, share a tram car, buy my groceries and go to classes with people who until the end of World War I did not even have a country to call their own. I may only be living in this country for a few more months, but I see the pride and the tenacity written on the face of this country, and I start to believe in a new definition of patriotism.
A former Winona Winhawk, Sarah Merchlewitz is a recent graduate from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she studied literature and writing. She currently lives in Krakow studying at Jagiellonian University.