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Too hot to handle (Letter to Wollongong).

In Letter to Wollongong, a short masterpiece of theatre by the Czech diplomat Jaroslava David-Moserova, a nurse living in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia writes to her brother who has emigrated to Australia. She recalls the brutal crackdown of the Prague Spring in 1968. She was working in the hospital ward where the young student of philosophy Jan Palach died after setting himself alight to protest against the invasion of Warsaw pact troops. (Moserova, a burns specialist herself, was one of those who treated Palach). The nurse is interrogated and blackmailed by the Communist secret police into signing a document of collaboration.

This could have happened, with some variations, in all Soviet bloc countries. Watching the play I felt as if I was back in martial law Poland being interrogated by the secret police after taking part in a Solidarity demonstration in Krakow. I heard the similar arguments of the agents, I felt the same fear and despair. Then I tasted the smell of the police jail.

Again, time went back to when I was a young schoolboy in 1968, spending a vacation on the Polish-Czechoslovak border. I saw the Polish tanks and warplanes which, with Soviet troops, crossed the border to kill the spirit of Prague's Spring. All day and night I listened to the Czechoslovak radio. The next day, the broadcast was suddenly interrupted--the station was taken over by the Russian (or Polish or German?) commandos. Frustrated I walked to the bank of the river Poprad. Boys were sitting on the opposite, Slovak side. When they saw me, one took a stone and threw it in my direction. The others shouted: `Traitors! Poles are traitors!' This hurt me more than any physical pain.

I experienced the same almost unbearable frustration and helplessness 24 years later in the besieged Sarajevo, as a correspondent reporting the Balkan conflict. Nobody shouted at me (except one Muslim militia man, who tried to accuse me of spying), but I had a feeling of guilt. I felt sorry for these people; women, children, old folk, whom Europe had left alone--hungry and exposed to gunfire and mortars.

By the end of Moserova's play, my memory was flashing like a video of my life. It was the cold, snowy morning of 21 March 1980. In front of people lining up for food at a store in the Krakow Old Market Square, an old man, Walenty Badylak, chained himself to a water pump, poured gasoline over himself and set himself alight, like Palach had done, in protest against the Communist domination in Poland. He died before reaching hospital. (This was just a couple of months before the August strike in Gdansk shipyard which gave birth to the Solidarity movement in Poland). The government-controlled Polish Press Agency issued an official statement that Badylak had been undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital. It later became clear that this was a party fabrication to undercut his protest. People brought flowers and candles to the old water pump and late every evening unknown men cleaned up the place. But we well knew that Palach and Badylak were sensitive and brave men who couldn't bear living through all the lies of totalitarianism.

As the play finished and the audience clapped, I came back from Krakow Old Market Square of March 1980 to 1996 in Caux. During a late summer evening I sat with Moserova and my Polish and French friends on the stairs of Mountain House. Moserova said that people in the Czech Republic were not ready for this play; it was still too hot an issue. (It has never been performed there.) I told her that I thought Poles were also not ready to see it but I hoped the time would soon come. Post-Communist societies have still not confessed to past sins and so the heritage of the past is not yet overcome. Of course, Moserova's play can act as a stimulator, and her play is being translated into Polish.

As I didn't have flowers for her, I had to write this `Polish echo' to her play. Many thanks, Jara David-Moserova, for the gift, which made me think intensively on how to deal with the past--a past which will always remain a part of us.
COPYRIGHT 1996 For A Change
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Jan Pieklo
Publication:For A Change
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:702
Previous Article:Never too late to love my father.
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