From bread line to online: Polish family reflects on how 1989 revolution changed their lives

The Associated Press

The communist era Palace of Culture, colorfully illuminated, is surrounded by modern skyscrapers, in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, May 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Associated Press + More

By VANESSA GERA, Associated Press

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — When communist Poland held its first partly free elections a quarter century ago, Cezary and Alicja Wasowski — expecting their second son — held hopes for modest improvements in their lives but not much more.

By the time little Michal was born three months later, it was clear they would be bringing up their son in world vastly different from the one they knew: Poland had just elected its first democratic prime minister in decades and the Soviet system was crumbling before their eyes.

Today, Cezary, Alicja and Michal travel freely abroad, read books once banned by censors and express views that reveal surprising generational differences — itself a triumph of democracy. The family spoke to The Associated Press as Poland prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the historic vote on Wednesday, with President Barack Obama and other world leaders gathering in Warsaw to celebrate the democracy that began at the ballot box in Poland and spread throughout Eastern Europe.

"We knew that something was changing but we couldn't imagine the scale of the changes at first," said Cezary Wasowski, 56. "Then events happened so fast. They were truly revolutionary changes."

Like many Poles, he and Alicja have seen their lives improve in many ways. A state that once produced everything "from tanks to condoms," as Cezary put it, has opened up a huge sphere for private entrepreneurship, making his own rise possible as the head of a private engineering firm. His wife no longer spends endless hours in communist-era bread lines. Boundless plenty beckons from shops on every corner.

But they don't view all change as progress. They see a new a worship of money that is eroding a traditional focus on family and culture. They don't like how commercial Christmas has become. Their isolation behind the Iron Curtain seemed to deepen friendships and create more time for human interaction, something they miss.

"It's hard to say if things are better now," said Alichja. "We weren't less happy then."

The couple also feels that, in the birthplace of Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement, too many people have become politically disengaged. They are particularly dismayed that fewer than 24 percent of Polish voters took part in the May 25 elections for the European Parliament.

"People complain that the prime minister is bad, the president is bad," Cezary said. "They just complain, but they don't vote."

Perhaps ironically, their son — who never knew communism — takes a harsher view than either of his parents of the Soviet era. "I know these were bad times, and I would never want to live in them," he said.

The Ukraine crisis has also brought back dark evocations of Moscow's dominance: Since Russia annexed Crimea and moved troops to Ukraine's eastern border, many Poles, including Michal, have wondered whether Poland is out of Russia's grip for good despite its membership in NATO and the European Union.

"More than 20 years have gone by and many things have changed," Michal said. "But we still see Russia as a threat."

The 1989 vote followed years of economic hardship that sparked nationwide unrest. Strikes in 1980 led to the birth of Solidarity under Lech Walesa's leadership. The regime tried to crush the movement the next year, with leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski — who died a week ago — imposing martial law, a system of harsh repression.

But there was no way to crush Polish yearnings for freedom. In 1988 a new round of strikes broke out that pushed the communist authorities to sit down for the so-called "Round Table" talks with Solidarity. Allowing the dialogue was a new man in the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev, who granted unprecedented freedom to the Soviet satellites as he attempted to reform socialism at home.