C.W. Gusewell


Two indelible memories from Eastern Europe

I am not by habit a name dropper. But sometimes as I’m at the edge of sleeping, memories come back to me, and to those memories names attach.

Here’s the first of two.

The place is East Berlin, sometime in the ‘70s, more than a decade before German reunification. The hour is midevening. Weary after a long summer day of photography and note taking, I’ve stopped for a cold one before heading back to the hotel.

The bartender leaned close.

“Do you know who that is?” he asked and nodded past me to the other side of the room.

I’d thought I was the only one in the place. I swung around on my stool. A slender, young woman – dark-haired and dressed all in black – sat by herself in a booth, a glass before her, a champagne bottle at her elbow.

The barman spoke almost in a whisper.

“It is Natalia Makarova,” he said. “The dancer. Tonight there was a ballet.”

I’m really not very bold, so it astonishes me even now to remember what I did next. Taking my half-empty glass, I got down from my barstool and walked over to her booth. I didn’t presume to sit. I just stood beside her.

“The barman told me who you are,” I said. “And I have to say that I’m surprised.”

“Surprised how?”

“That after a performance you are sitting alone in this place.”

“I prefer it.”

“I would have thought you’d be surrounded by a great crowd of admirers. Isn’t that how it usually is?”

“It can be,” she said. “But here they are all Germans, and I am Russian. I will dance for them. But I do not have to drink with them.”

And that was the whole of our conversation, and of that memory.

The setting of the other memory is Warsaw, Poland. On an earlier trip there I’d become acquainted with Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the editor of Polityka, a journal of commentary on current affairs – one that our ambassador to Poland at the time considered the best publication of its kind in Europe.

By coincidence, his first wife, the classical violinist Wanda Wilkomirska, had once given a concert in Kansas City.

The acquaintance ripened into a friendship. For nearly three years, Rakowski and I exchanged monthly columns, mine published in Polityka, his in The Star . By agreement, I would not write about Polish affairs or he about U.S. policy. The columns would be printed as written, without revision. Our purpose was to make clear to each other’s readers our respective hopes and values.

Rakowski was paid in dollars, deposited to an account in his name at a Kansas City bank. Polish currency, the zloty, would have been useless to me, so I took compensation in handwoven tapestries.

By the time we met again, his life had greatly changed.

Strikes and other challenges to government authority by the Solidarity movement had led in December 1981 to the imposition of martial law.

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, leader of the military council, had asked Rakowski to join the government as deputy prime minister. Accepting that position cost him the regard of many in his longtime circle of intellectual friends. His second wife and a son had defected to Australia.

Shortly before my last visit to Warsaw a short story of mine – a fictional account based on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia – was published in Harper’s magazine.

Rakowski met me for dinner at the Bristol hotel. He’d seen my story, “The Way to Prague.”

“It’s on my bedside table,” he said. “The Russians will not like it.”

That night, riding around the dark city in his car, I asked him what had led a man of his liberal temperament to join the Communist Party.

“I was 12 years old when Hitler invaded Poland,” he said. “We lived in the west of the country, in a mixed village of Germans and Poles. I saw my father – who was not a political man – executed by the Nazi fathers of boys I’d grown up and played with.

“Poland was a small country that had even disappeared for a time from the map of Europe. It was clear to me that if we were to survive as a nation, we would need a strong protector. Our choices were Germany on the west and Russia on the east. For me, the choice could never be Germany.”

(Rakowski died Nov. 7, 2008, at age 81.)