Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A "Polish joke" from the Cold War (updated)

Image result for krakow

I served in Krakow as a US public diplomacy [JB emphasis] dip (more properly put, had the privilege, among other so-called "official" duties, of sharing ideas and stimulating conversations about the relationship between America and Poland at luncheons [yes, served with Polish vodka] with exceptional, often brilliant, people in that unique city, 1986-1990).

These honest-as-could-be-at-that-time, pleasant, intellectually scintillating sharing of ideas -- about what Washington-based academic policy wonks/foreign-policy "theorists"/formulators perhaps would label (justify for budgetary reasons?) as "strategic interpersonal communications."

All these "subversive, last-three-feet" exchanges taking place at a time, of course, when the Polish people were undergoing very difficult political/economic conditions under a collapsing communist regime. 

Much of my job, as a low-ranking dip "in the provinces" outside of Warsaw, was understanding "in the field" what was going on, rather than promising (which I neither had the authority nor the desire to do) the "USA-to-the-rescue-from-communism" of Poland (think of the consequences of our USA 21th-century disastrous Iraq/Afghanistan military missions "we're-here-to-help" [destroy?]).

I'll leave the USG role in the ideological (military?) support of the Hungarian '58 revolution to the experts.

So, as I saw it, an important part of my public diplomacy job in that cultivated, but skeptical, part of the world with its tormented history -- while working with admirable Polish colleagues at the Consulate to do so -- was to maintain, aside with, most important, talking/meeting with people "at the last three feet" level, a modestly-staffed miserly-supplied USG-related library/video programs on the Consulate's premises -- freely open to the public.

A "free" library -- American "generosity" at its best.

Full confession: I plead guilty for ok-ing, as Mr. Dip Censor, the showing "Dirty Dancing," with its Polish references, in the modest screening room of the Consulate as a video In Catholic Poland:

Dirty Dancing, Polish Movie Poster

Needless to say, the screening (I won't use a vulgar pun) room was packed with young people who enjoyed (were intrigued by?) the film, with its Polish references. I remember the laughter, snickering (or so I tell myself, with my unreliable memory) reaction.

But the audience, I think, appreciated the "honesty" of showing what granted is not a cinematic masterpiece, not necessarily "pro-anti-Polish," a piece of "Americana" from a country they wished to understand better from afar (pre-social media); or in that period, longed to emigrate to.

Also, the Consulate, upon the suggestions of Krakow dip colleagues and my own, modest input, nominated (to headquarters, the now-defunct United States Information Agency, via the State Dept., if I understood the "headquarter's communications system) bright, inquisitive, questioning young (and sometimes not-so-young) Polish citizens to visit the US under the admirable thank-God-still-existing International Visitor Program (IV).

And, may I note, the Consulate tried organize -- of course, if these returning IV's were willing -- some public lectures by them upon their return from the USA  -- within the walls, needless to say, of the USA Consulate


My favorite anecdote from that Central-Euro-cultivated, skeptical,"we're far too superior to be a capital" town -- Krakow, once, in times past, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire -- home of one of the oldest universities in Europe, and tragically a victim of 20th-century nazi/communist totalitarianism (verboten/nel'zia): don't mention the word collaborator), including soviet-style "industrialisation" -- and horrid USSR-style pollution (think Nowa Huta, the Soviet-era steal [sorry, meant steel] factory town on the outskirts of Krakow).

Here's the joke (not quite in its original form); is not humor one of the best defenses against totalitarianism?
The Cold War turns atomic.
Soviet missiles aimed at the U.S. land/explode in Poland instead. (In a Soviet-era jargon [is it still around?] "po tekhnicheskim prichinam": "for technical reasons.")
A communist party man from Nowa Huta stumbles along in the ruined fields/homes of southern Poland.
The loyal apparatchik has survived the nuclear disaster due to a special gov-issued "space suit" that protects the faithful believers in Stalin from radiation. He ambles along devastated fields, destroyed homes, you name the horror.
Then he reaches a hill -- on the top of which three gentlemen, dressed in the most conservative English-style, proper dinner-party attire are enjoying a game of bridge, each seated at a table long suited for formal bridge occasions.
The space-suited Nowa Huta proletarian chinovnik, less out of sympathy than surprise, asks the aristocratic-looking Krakowians:
"How did you survive the nuclear war and its pollution"?  
In unison, they answer: "We're from Krakow." :) 

[Ah, that pollution from the steal mill -- Are not proper manners, if properly used, an antidote (among, of course, many far more important matters) from totalitarianism?]

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