A Minister in Jeans: The 80th anniversary of the birth of Jacek Kuroń

1 Maja Jacek KurońWhen Jacek Kuroń died ten years ago, his Polish friends put next to his coffin a yellow thermos bottle filled with an extremely strong tea. It was the one thing he always carried with him, even to official ministerial meetings. A few months later, when the Orange Revolution broke out, students from Ukraine hung an orange scarf on the cross on his grave. They knew that if he had been alive, he would have stood at their side.

 

If Jacek Kuroń, a prominent Polish politician, eccentric activist and a maverick intellectual were still alive on March 3rd 2014, he would have turned 80.

 

 

Yet, he would probably waste no time in blowing out candles on his birthday cake. In this turbulent period for Poland’s eastern neighbour, he would rather use his energy to raise funds for the people of the Maidan and raise his voice in favour of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

 

He could be in a hurry for another round of meetings with Poland neighbours or minorities, or those whose rights were disrespected. When Kuroń died, Jews, Greek and Roman Catholics, Muslims and Buddhists all attended his funeral or prayed for him in temples in Tibet and Nepal, synagogues in Jerusalem and churches in Poland and Ukraine.

 

 

Or he could spend this day simply wondering how to change the world, the question he was asking throughout his life, during his fight against the communist system and even after democratic transition in 1989, when he was a minister of labour and social policy, as well as member of the Polish Parliament.

 

Rebel, idealist, socialist

 

This road was not an easy one. Jacek Kuroń, once an ardent Marxist and member of the Communist Party, later turned into a dissident. In 1964, together with Karol Modzelewski (now a prominent historian of the Middle Ages), he wrote The Open Letter to the Party, in which they dared to accuse the ruling bureaucracy of being hostile to the working class. An intellectual, he became the co-founder of KOR, the famous Workers’ Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników), and later adviser to the Solidarity labour union. Years later, Lech Wałęsa said: “There would have been no success or victory without him.”

 

He was charismatic, an excellent orator and he attracted and fascinated people. All foreign journalists and leaders of the opposition knew his phone number. Some even nicknamed him “the godfather of the opposition”. But he paid his price and spent a total of nine years in imprisonment. The communists hated him so much that even when the Polish Round Table Talks started in 1989, they did not agree for him to participate (although he ultimately did).

 

The fall of the regime was not the end of his fight. He realised how high and bitter were the costs of economic transformation: inequalities, injustice and social exclusion. He saw politicians looking for money and privileges. He felt guilty for the new order and kept on criticising it until his death in 2004. “We screwed it,” he said three years before.

 

Common people remembered him as a politician who wore a blue denim shirt on all occasions, a minister who poured soup for homeless people in the streets of Polish cities. After he introduced social welfare programs, “Kuron’s soup”, or kuroniowka, also became the synonym of Polish unemployment benefits.

 

“I felt like a clown in a suit,” he was heard saying. He put it on only a few times, i.e. when he ran for President in 1995. He won 10 per cent of the vote and in came third place. Until his death, Kuroń was ranked high in every poll of Poland’s most trusted politicians.

 

 

A Pole from Lviv, a friend of Ukraine

 

But it all started in Lviv, then a Polish city (Lwów), which after the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 was annexed by the Soviet Union and now lies in western Ukraine. Born on March 3rd, 1934, Kuron was brought up in a place of coexistence of various communities: Polish, Ukrainian, Jewish and Armenian. “I have been absolutely in love with Ukraine since early childhood,” he once confessed. Before and after 1989, he was persuaded that “there is no free Poland without free Ukraine, and there is no free Ukraine without free Poland”. But there was also another thing: a common and difficult history for Poles and Ukrainians.

 

 

“Ten years were enough to get to know hatred that different nations may suffer from, if they happen to live in the same land,”he wrote in one of his essays. “When I was a child, there already existed a multitude of mutual harm, a sea of blood and tears dividing Poles and Ukrainians.” He meant the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918-1919. But he also repeatedly claimed that the Poles owe a certain debt to their eastern neighbours, as through centuries they repressed the Ukrainian struggles for independence.

 

He went against the current one more time, when he vehemently opposed the idea of Poles as being only victims, and not also perpetrators, of ethnic cleansing in Volhynia and eastern Galicia in 1943 and 1944 that in reality cost the lives of tens of thousands of people on both sides.

 

He believed that the only way to heal the wounds was to unite, as difficult as it was, instead of arguing who suffered more. Thus, he became one of the initiators of a historical ceremony in the Lychakiv Cemetery, the place where notable Poles and Ukrainians were buried. In 2002, it became the stage of a common ecumenical prayer for reconciliation between the two nations.

 

He was already seriously ill at the time. But he managed to come to Lviv and say his last goodbye to the land of his childhood.

 

We are all responsible: dialogue with the Jews

 

Back in Lviv during the war, Poland was wiped off the map of Europe. Kuroń was only 10 years old when one day he saw some Polish men throwing stones at Jews. He did not approve, but he was afraid to intervene. He kept the memory of this incident forever.

 

 

In 2001, in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza (one of Poland’s largest newspapers), he confessed that he never stopped blaming himself for being passive that day many years ago. He advanced a bold thesis that the Holocaust, although orchestrated by the Nazi Germans, occurred in a certain social climate for which all people were responsible.

 

 

He made this point when Poland was in the middle of a heated social debate over the massacre in Jedwabne. The Poles, one of main victims of the Second World War and a nation that holds the most Israeli Righteous among the Nations medals for Gentiles who aided Jews, had just learned that in 1941 at least 340 Polish Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours in a village in Podlachia. Not everyone believed this. “The truth must be told, the responsibility taken,” claimed Kuroń. Only later would then-President Aleksander Kwaśniewski publically apologise for the crime and the Polish Institute of National Remembrance would complete the official investigation (according to its conclusions, the massacre was conducted by Poles, but “in sensu largo was inspired by the Germans”).

 

 

A Christian without God

 

Kuroń was a man of dialogue. Although he was not believer, he befriended the priest Father Jan Zieja, one of co-founders of KOR, the confessor of the insurgents in the Warsaw Uprising and a rescuer of Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. In 1976, he had an amicable meeting with Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (and correctly predicted that the latter would later become pope).

 

 

“God does or does not exist, yet we must live in accordance with His commandments,” he once decided together with his wife, andthis declaration became part of his political, social and private credo. Some people thought that he was atheist, but he would have rather called himself a “non-believing Christian who follows the Gospel”. In his essay “Christians without God” (which received praised from Cardinal Wojtyła), he confessed that he read the Gospel as a young boy and then chose it as his path. “The Gospel gives life meaning,” he wrote. He called it radical and fascinating at the same time. He particularly appreciated two commandments: to love your neighbour as yourself and to love your enemy.

 

 

This must have been source of his deep humanism, faith in people and inability to feel hatred, even after one of the raids on his apartment in 1979, when young party members beat his son and wife Gaja. And even three years later, when Gaja was dying and Kuroń was in jail, he was allowed to visit her only for one day.

 

The last days

 

But during last years of his life, he was filled with bitterness. In his last book A Republic for my Grandchildren (“Rzeczpospolita dla moich wnuków”), he criticised neo-liberalism. In 2003 he was the only mainstream Polish politician who objected to the occupation of Iraq. He called it a “shameful adventure”.

 

In his televised testimony, he asked his friends to ensure budget money for education and for raising future generations in a spirit of respect for national minorities.

 

Until the end, and still in his blue denim shirt, a cup of strong tea in his hands, he kept on asking how to change the world. Did he find the answer? Shortly before his death, he wrote a letter To My Friends the Alterglobalists, in which he asked them to act and said that the future of the world lies in their hands.

 

 

Paulina Konieczna is a graduate of the Department of Political Science of the University of Warsaw and the Institute for Political Studies in Strasbourg. She has been working for Polish television since 2007, first dealing with international affairs for Wiadomości TVP (the main news programme of Polish television). She currently is a Warsaw-based journalist.

Jacek Kuroń died in Warsaw at the age of 70 in 2004.

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