We were born in Communist Poland, when everyone was the same. Across thirty-seven years we were raised to blend in, not one of us a hero. From the buildings we lived in to the food that we ate, not a thing stood out. But the truth was that people were not the same despite appearances and despite the underlying rule of Communism. Some people had less, others more and many had nothing at all. The suffering had made many generous and many kind, but it had not made them heroes. That was the point.
“Rysiek! Jak sie czujesz? How is everything?” Rysiek was a priest. He lived the good life in Communist Poland. Priests of the time were the crème de la crème of society. They had better lives than most Kings of the era. Everything was going excellently for them.
The man talking to him was Eugeniusz – he was a manual laborer. He had nothing to eat most days. And he was not a Communist, despite his patriotism. “Rysiek! How are you? I fixed your shower already. It’s okay now. You should have the hot water now. Let me know if you need anything else now.”
“Of course, my comrade,” Rysiek nods his assent. “Maybe you would like some food as thanks. I have everything. Caviar, bread, pork. What do you want?”
“You have good fresh bread? And pork?” Eugeniusz did not know what caviar was.
Rysiek bundled together a food parcel for Eugeniusz to take home to his family. It was hard to find good, honest workers nowadays. You had to take care of the ones you had.
At home the Kowalski family had a good meal with the food Eugeniusz Kowalski brought home. They didn’t share the food with their neighbors, even though they knew that they might be hungry too. They were not heroes, nor did they want to be. They just wanted to survive another day. And even though Rysiek had been generous, he, too, was not a hero. He didn’t practice what he preached about patience and doing good to others, whomever they were.
Mrs. Kowalski prepared a good lunch for her husband, Eugeniusz, to take to work the next day. There was just enough left over. When Mr. Kowalski walked to his work, he passed by an old woman begging for Groszy (the Polish penny). Even though he had a lunch with him, he gave her nothing. He was not a hero. But he spared her a few words. Communism had not made him generous but it had made him kind. “How is everything, Mrs. -? Is everything well with you?”
“It could be better. No money today,” she answered, eyeing his packed lunch which was just visible in in his worn-out bag.
“Yes, there never is,” he replied. “Not even for me. I have a family and a job but no money.”
“I am much the same as you,” she said. “I have no family, no job and I am also with no money. In the end it is the money that matters. That is what makes the difference in this life. With money you can have anything you want. You can have a good life, even in this Communist Poland.”
As Eugeniusz leaves her crouched in her corner, he understands that he is no hero. A hero would have given her some money or his packed lunch. He left her nothing except a few words of conversation. But that was more than she got from most people. She remembered his words as she continued to beg later that day and into the next day, when Rysiek the priest happened to pass her by. He gave her nothing at all, not even a few words of comfort, despite his white collar that made him holy and despite his affection for God. She saw him walk by and snorted in derision as he passed. This man did not deserve to be holy. He did not support the poor as he had promised to do, in the eyes of God and Christ.
So far, we have met a priest, a laborer and a beggar. They represent a dichotomy of Polish Communism. Together they symbolize God and the Catholic religion, the work force and the poor and homeless. Each symbol constitutes a part of Polish society in its genetic makeup as it once was.
When Rysiek, the priest, gave Eugeniusz the laborer some food in thanks for a job well done, God smiled in acknowledgement. He had shared what he had and comforted the belly of another man and his family.
When Eugeniusz spoke some kind words to a woman who had less than him but did not share what he had, God saw a kindness that lacked generosity, but He appreciated the gesture anyway. And even though she continued hungry and penniless, she was happy to have had someone speak to her when everyone ignored her.
When the priest, Rysiek, passed the beggar woman without word or gesture, God was angered. This man had all the benefits of holiness, money and food. Of all members of society, it was he who ought to have helped that woman. But he chose to not be a hero and went on his way, his pockets jingling with the coins he did not give and his mind focused on the good, warm lunch he was about to have.
Throughout the whole of Poland there were people like these three who went on their way angering or pleasing God and each other. They had been unified under a banner of Communism, but they were not the same. And even though they each suffered in their own way, and some were generous while others were kind, these people were not heroes. They endured because they had no other choice. They helped where they could, not where they couldn’t. That made them good people but it did not make them heroes of a country torn apart. To be a hero meant suffering more than you had to. And while it might have made God happy to see, God was not here on Earth to thank us and acknowledge the good deed. And, the lack of a good deed would not send anyone to Hell. The lack of a good deed was not a bad deed. That was how we justified it.
And so, in answer to Eugeniusz’s question, Rysiek would say he was fine.
If Rysiek had posed the same question, Eugeniusz would have said he was fine, even though he was not.
And if either of them had asked the woman begging, she would have said she was fine, even though she was both poor and hungry.
And if any of them had asked God, God would have said He was fine, but that the people were not.