Warsaw, Poland – 13 December 2008
The sunlight has been nonexistent since the end of October. The wind is so cold that my eyes water and the tears harden into ice. It crackles when I smile. Even the burly men in riot gear hover around a burning bin in a feeble attempt to warm themselves. My husband and I have come to Warsaw for the Christmas Fair. We did not expect to see a tank, vintage police cars, and men in riot gear.
It’s a reenactment of this day in 1981 when martial law was declared in Poland. Borders were sealed, airports were closed, and communications were cut. Solidarność and other organizations were banned and Lech Wałęsa and other leaders were temporarily detained. Dozens were killed. Poland was completely cut off from the outside world. This state of war continued until July 22, 1983.
As images from that day flash across a a large video screen, a memory comes back to me. I’m standing next to my grandfather’s chair as he watches the events unfold on the news. The smoke from his cigarette floats upward in a long, uninterrupted tendril. My grandparents visited family in Poland just a couple of years before. His silence is louder than words.
The mood here in Warsaw is far from somber. The men in uniform ham it up for the cameras. I convince my husband to have a photo taken next to the tank. The guard points his machine gun at my husband and scowls. Once the photo is taken the guard breaks into a proud smile.