INTERVIEW WITH FLORA LEWIS (NEW YORK TIMES CORRESPONDENT, POLAND) - 1/7/96
INTERVIEWER: Tell me firstly, what were conditions like in Poland?
FLORA LEWIS: Well, arriving in 1946 for the first time, it... was a matter of crying or laughing. The city was completely destroyed. I remember getting off... it had been a long trip from London, by ship to Holland, and then up through Denmark, and then to Sweden, and then by ship again to Gdansk, and down by train. So arriving in a sort of early winter morning, there was snow, and there was no railway station; the tracks just stopped, and you had to get out in the snow, and then finally found a few droshkies, that are carriages with horses, because there were no cars either. The railway station was just... it was like a giant ball of spaghetti, with tracks all sticking out in crazy ways and so on. The city was really very nearly razed, and people were living there again by then, but sometimes in buildings with only three walls, and it was a very, very cold winter. There was hardly any coal, and not much food, so conditions were extremely difficult at that time.
INT: Ten years later, in 1956, there had been at least eight years of hard-line communist rule in Poland. What was the mood of the average Pole that you spoke to?
FL: Well, things had changed because in late '46 the communists were moving in to crack down, but the regime hadn't been consolidated, and we realised, but not right away - it was some time before finding out exactly what was going on - there was a real insurrection in the mountains in the south-east, a kind of a guerrilla war that was still going on, and people were... There was still a Socialist Party, which was swallowed up later, still a peasants' party; finally the leader of that party managed to escape, and I saw him here in London just afterwards - I had come to have a baby, and I went to see him before I went to the hospital. But people still thought that there would be some kind of possibility that this would be some kind of a coalition regime. But step by step, the crack-down came and people were arrested and deported, and the regime took hold very much more severely than had been expected. So that as the physical conditions began to improve - buildings were patched up one way or another, and food became a little more plentiful - the political conditions, the social conditions got very much worse. Ten years later, in the beginning of '56, the city wasn't nice but it was tolerable; enough building had been done that people had... at least they weren't living with no protection against the cold. But the atmosphere was beginning to loosen up; there had been a kind of,... whether they just got tired of being too afraid - anyway, there were a lot more jokes; even Party members would tell jokes against the Party, and you could... you could sense that there was a resistance. So that when the uprising broke out in Poznan, which was in the late spring of '56, it was not a terrible surprise; there had been mounting tensions. And that uprising then had a tremendous impact in forcing open the situation in the whole country, which led very much to what happened in October '56.
INT: What were the causes of the Poznan uprising?
FL: Well, they were always the same on the surface: they asked for bread and freedom. What did it mean? What really shocked the government, the regime, was that it was the workers who rose, it was not the people that they were afraid of, it was not the sort of intellectuals - you can't say there was any upper class left: the aristocrats had been driven into little holes in the wall; they really had nothing much... It was not people involved in politics, it was real workers, and they were disgusted. So that was a terrible blow to the regime, and they didn't quite know how to deal with it; and they decided they had to have a trial in order to show "we won't stand for this kind of behaviour, this disorder, this rebelliousness". So... but they didn't want to try them for anything political, so they picked a number of just young ordinary people, and tried them for things like smashing windows. Some of the army had handed out guns and smashed and tried them for that sort of thing. But when they finally came to holding the trial, it didn't work because they had been beaten and so on, and they repudiated their confessions in the public court room, and there were international observers, and Sir Hartley Shawcross, who was then Hartley Shawcross, was one of them, and there were others, so that it was a public trial.
INT: Sir Hartley Shawcross, who was later Attorney General of Britain, was there; it was a public trial. And finally these young men broke down and said they had been beaten and they had been forced to confess, and the whole thing just broke up in shambles. And that influenced the atmosphere very much, created the increasing dissatisfaction, and then the writers began complaining and publishing more or less dissident things, so that the atmosphere built up, until you had the October.
INT: In February 1956, Khrushchev made his secret speech denouncing Stalin. How did that impact on events in Poland?
FL: It had a great deal to do, it had an enormous impact. Word got out... It had been the 20th Party Congress - that was all perfectly well known - and word got out fairly quickly, in a matter of weeks, as the delegates came back and word was spread inside the Party that there had been this shattering secret speech. We didn't see it. I remember then... the secret speech - one reason it was called secret [was] not only they didn't publish it, but the foreign delegates were excluded, and then a special version edited; we have never had the original version until now, but a special edited version was distributed to the foreign communist parties, and so brought back to Poland as well as the other countries, and distributed for reading in the party cells, but always with numbered copies, that they had to be read out loud at the cell meeting and then the copies given back, so that they thought they had real control over the document itself. But they read this out. And I remember one woman, who worked at Polish television, told me that she fainted at her party cell meeting when she heard this, she was so overwhelmed. And it really had an enormous effect in provoking questions about the Party, about the history of the Party, about Stalin's role, and that contributed very much to changing the atmosphere.
INT: How did the CIA acquire a copy of the speech?
FL: Well, there were a lot of stories that circulated for a long time; even, at one point, that I had... that it had been given to me and that I had published it, which was not true at all, or that my husband had published it - also not true. The CIA put out a story that they'd bought it at the flea market in the suburb across the river from Warsaw, which was of course nonsense. But a good bit later, I found out it was given to a correspondent of Le Monde, who also wrote for an Israeli paper, and he gave it to the Israelis, and the Israelis gave it to the CIA.
INT: What was his name?
FL: Philip Bem was the name he used to write by; it was not his real name, but he never used his real name.
INT: How accessible were the Polish Party comrades, or even the senior leaders, to foreign journalists in the summer of '56?
FL: Well, it depended. And Bem was particularly... he was of Polish origin, so he spoke perfect Polish, and he knew a lot of these people and a number of them trusted him, and he helped us too. But we... we came to know more and more, and some we had known before, from the first time; but a lot of people who wouldn't talk to me the first time, then became accessible. And when that... It became clear afterwards - it wasn't really known at the time - that there was a reason for giving out this speech, because tensions were really mounting between the Polish Party and Moscow, and this was considered a kind of protection for the Poles, to have this information get out.
INT: What was the Polish Party anticipating wthis rising tension?
FL: Well, you know, there was still the... The Polish... the Ministerof Defence in Poland - I was going to say Polish, but he wasn't - was Rokossovski, a Soviet marshal, and the police were... there were lots of Russians in the police and in all the major ministries, the "organs of power", as they called them, and there was a growing sense that this was very much against the interests of Poland, and a desire to try to push these people out, which of course Moscow was resisting very fiercely. So it was all part of trying to position Poland to have some backing. Also... well, that's a little later, after the Hungarian Uprising which came that same year, but still, strains were growing very considerably between Moscow and Peking, and so the Polish communists - not all of them; there were different factions, but some of them were looking... and Khrushchev had already made the reconciliation with Yugoslavia, the trip to Belgrade, so they were looking to set up a kind of Warsaw-Belgrade-Peking axis, to put pressure on the Soviets to ease off. And at that time, the State Department absolutely didn't believe that there any possibility of a break between China and the Soviet Union; they were very slow to recognise. But we... you could see it on the ground, and certainly the Poles were very interested in this and trying to promote it. Zhou Enlai came to Warsaw - that was early the following year - and it was felt that he was... his purpose was to encourage the Poles, to... to say "you have some backing", but Polish Party leaders also had been to Peking and had been given some encouragement.