The Reckoning

11 minute read

As a crusading reporter for Poland’s opposition Solidarity Weekly in the 1980s, Malgorzata Niezabitowska was among the most prominent voices of the revolution. She wrote exposés about illegal demonstrations and military crackdowns. With her husband, photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski, she chronicled the darkest days of martial law, smuggling her diaries (written under a pseudonym) and photos of tanks in the streets out of the country to a world hungry for news of Poland’s awakening dissent. Later, in 1989, she was appointed spokeswoman for the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Niezabitowska’s charisma and no-nonsense demeanor stood in marked contrast to the colorless apparatchiks who had given up power just a few months before. It was no fluke that Niezabitowska became the face of Poland’s Third Republic: she symbolized a clean break with the country’s communist past.

Or did she? Today, that break looks a lot messier. Niezabitowska, 56, is one of tens of thousands of Poles who, in the past few months, have been accused of collaborating with the communist secret police (SB) in the 1980s. The accused include top politicians like Jozef Oleksy, who resigned from the post of parliament speaker after being found guilty of lying about his collaboration, and countless senior bureaucrats and academics. Even Lech Walesa, the ex-Solidarity leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was accused of informing on his colleagues while a young man in the early 1970s; a court has cleared him of the charge. For Niezabitowska, the accusation against her is humiliating. “I would rather be accused of having killed someone than of being a traitor,” she says, seated beneath portraits of her ancestors in the study of the 19th century mansion on the outskirts of Warsaw she and her huSBand have restored. “This kind of thing can destroy a person.”

“This kind of thing” has been happening across the former Soviet bloc as police archives, sealed since the end of communism, are gradually revealed to the public. The political fallout is intense. Politicians are seizing on the information to discredit foes. Some question the very authenticity of the files, but a growing number of people see the opening of the secret-police archives as an overdue step towards normalcy after a half-century of totalitarian rule. The disclosures can be “a good thing in the hands of reasonable people,” Walesa told TIME, but he believes the latest charges are being handled by “less reasonable” people, mostly for political ends. “It has caused a lot of trouble,” Walesa says, “but maybe this is what we need.”

Newspapers have coined the term “wild lustration” to describe the storm of new charges. The term, derived from the Latin for “purification,” was coined in the early 1990s to describe the vetting of public figures for ties with the old regime. But now it’s back. And what makes this lustration so wild is the indiscriminate way in which so many of the names are coming to light, often through leaks to the press or on the Internet, with no supporting evidence.

In Poland, the disclosures have renewed calls for a full reckoning with the country’s communist past in the run-up to parliamentary elections later this year. A growing number of Poles want the unconditional release of 1.5 million police files covering the entire period from 1939 to 1989. But many ex-dissidents warn that the process is slipping out of control, harming innocents, and playing into the hands of political opportunists. “This is a catastrophe,” says Jan Litynski, 59, a Freedom Union party member and founding member of Solidarity. “So many people are being hurt.”

Niezabitowska says she’s been wrongly accused, and has suffered a huge blow to her reputation as a result. She says she lost 6 kg last December in the five days after being tipped off that she was being named by a former colleague at Solidarity Weekly who had been researching his own file. Not long afterwards, a lengthy list of 160,000 names compiled as a reference document by the historical agency that houses the secret police files, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), appeared on the Internet. The list, never intended for public use, does not distinguish between full-time agents, part-time collaborators or, astonishingly, their victims — typically people in the opposition whom the police wanted to recruit as informers. Journalist Bronislaw Wildstein, 53, obtained the list from the institute — he won’t say how — and shared it with a dozen colleagues, then posted it on the Internet. Wildstein says his aim was to increase public pressure on the authorities to release the secret files so that “we can make an accounting with the past. It will tell us who were the real heroes, and who were the evil ones.”

Unlike some other postcommunist countries such as the former East Germany, which released the bulk of its secret police files in 1992, Poland has kept its secrets largely under wraps. Leading dissidents who helped oversee the transformation from communist rule were against opening the files because they feared they would needlessly destroy lives and careers. Former communists were equally reluctant to publicize their party’s, and perhaps their own, misdeeds. In fact, between August 1989 and January 1990, up to 60% of the files on senior Solidarity leaders and the clergy were either destroyed or disappeared.

But in December 1998, under growing pressure from a new generation of right-wing political groups, parliament established the IPN as a custodian of the files. It opened its doors in March 2001. Under Poland’s lustration laws, the IPN was also charged with helping to investigate claims of collaboration and vetting the backgrounds of public-office seekers. The laws gave access to historians and researchers — among them Wildstein — and last year authorized some dissidents to conduct their own searches.

Today, the files occupy 80 km of shelf space at the IPN’s drab, mustard-yellow headquarters in downtown Warsaw and at satellite offices around the country. Their contents, a mixture of the bland and the sordid, record everything from employment history to sexual preferences. Subjects are divided into three categories: security-service personnel, informers and “candidates,” usually 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) opposition members about whom the police had potentially compromising information. “They thought they knew us and we thought we knew them,” explains Jadwiga Staniszkis, a leading sociologist and dissident who has written widely on Poland’s security services. “It was a kind of self-corruption.” According to the IPN, by the late 1980s, Poland had 80,000 informers working for the police.

Niezabitowska insists that she was not one of them. The allegations, she says, are all traceable to a single encounter back on Dec. 15, 1981. Niezabitowska, then 33, was at home in Warsaw with her ailing father and 3-year-old daughter. Her husband was traveling abroad. Two days earlier, the government had declared martial law. Like most opposition figures, Niezabitowska was expecting to be arrested. But the two figures she saw crossing her backyard that day had beards and wore U.S.-style army jackets; they looked more like fellow Solidarity members than secret police. She opened the door with a big smile, her child in her arms — then she saw the IDs identifying the men as SB agents.

Over the cries of her father, she was led away, driven downtown in a battered Fiat 126, and interrogated for nearly seven hours without food or water. Before arriving at the headquarters, she says, she had run through the possibilities in her mind: “Either I will be put in jail, in which case there is nothing for me to do, or they will question me, in which case I will play with them to see what they know.”

It soon became apparent that they knew a lot. A “controller” calling himself Grzelak had been trailing her for months, bugging her home and workplace to gather intimate details of her life. “I was shocked at how much they knew,” she says. “All the time I was thinking, ‘What is their source?'” She agreed to talk, she says, because she feared the alternative was prison. She admits she rambled on about her work and her personal life, but says she recounted only what she thought were “things that they already knew.” In the end, she says, Grzelak suggested she collaborate. She said “No.” Grzelak invited her back the next day, but Niezabitowska said she was not about to change her mind. “That was the last meeting I had with them,” she insists. A few weeks later, outside a grocery store, she ran into Grzelak, who greeted her with a smile and another invitation to talk. “Leave me alone,” she said.

Niezabitowska’s file confirms most of this account — but it doesn’t stop there. Grzelak wrote that Niezabitowska did come back the next day and agreed to collaborate under the code name Nowak. The controller filed 10 additional reports on meetings with Nowak. Niezabitowska says this portion of her file was fabricated by her controller, perhaps to advance his career or discredit her and other activists. “They wanted to neutralize people, not kill them,” she says of the communist regime, “discredit them and force them out of the opposition.” All the information attributed to Nowak is accurate, she says, but taken from the initial seven-hour interview.

Last month, Niezabitowska was granted a hearing before a special lustration court set up to determine whether plaintiffs are collaborators or innocent; her trial is scheduled to start next month. Last week, she saw her file for the first time; a “thin” 70 pages, she says. She considers it all the more unconvincing because documents are signed not “Niezabitowska” but “Nowak,” which is easier to fake. Leon Kieres, head of the IPN, argues that since the files were all intended for internal use, officers would have had no reason to fabricate them. He insists all the documents in his institute are 100% genuine. “They reflect the truth,” he says.

Niezabitowska’s case and others have been seized upon by some opposition parties to assail Poland’s postcommunist political élite, both ex-communists and ex-dissidents. The rightist Law and Justice Party is pressing for a “complete lustration” of all state and city officials, professors, company directors and even editors. Many observers, even sympathetic ones, say Niezabitowska’s biggest mistake was not bringing this incident up when she was appointed government spokeswoman in 1989. “She was treated as an asset, and yet she was vulnerable,” says the Freedom Union’s Litynski. But he thinks her case is typical: “She may have said some things; she may have said too much. She was frightened. But I don’t think she can be described as a secret agent.”

Others, quite clearly, could be. Leslaw Maleszka was a journalist and close friend of Wildstein’s in the Solidarity youth movement in the 1970s in Krakow. The two men were called in separately to be interrogated. Unknown to Wildstein, Maleszka became an informer, suggesting that Wildstein could be compromised by planting drugs in his apartment. “He was very creative,” Wildstein says. It was only by studying his own files, noting that there was no mention of Maleszka and repeated mention of an informer called Ketman, that Wildstein deduced his friend’s involvement. Maleszka has made no public comment on the accusation. But according to Wildstein, he at first denied his involvement, then confessed after Wildstein went public with the accusation. Maleszka lost his reporting job at the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and now copy edits from home.

Many believe cases like Wildstein’s are all the more reason why police files should be opened to public scrutiny. “People should pay for what they did,” says sociologist Staniszkis. Meanwhile, Niezabitowska is still trying to clear her name. Since hearing the charges, she has begun work on a memoir of her life as an anticommunist activist in the 1980s. “The history of our nation will not be written by the secret police. I will not allow it!” she declares. “I am not a collaborator,” she then adds quietly. “I am a freedom fighter.”

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