Poland; Out of the strike -- new faces

The best-known man in Poland just now was totally unknown until this summer of labor unrest. On the other hand, after one month in office, the new head of the ruling Communist Party is still an invisible, almost nonperson to the overwhelming majority of the population.

* Lech Walesa -- Polish accents make it Vawensa -- an electrician and ardent Roman Catholic who was the most visible of the strike leaders at the Baltic port of Gdansk, has become a national folk hero in two short months.

Shortish, a little chubby of face, mustachioed, he would once have passed unnoticed among a crowd of workers. Now his comrades carry him shoulder-high. He calls on government leaders -- even keeps them waiting -- as the chairman of Poland's infant but lusty first free trade union, officially recognized as self-governing and independent of both Communist Party and state authority.

* Stanislaw Kania was named chief of the Communist Party Sept. 6, replacing the faltering Edward Gierek. The regime's labor troubles were far from over, despite far- reaching concessions made to get the strikers back to work.

Few Poles, indeed, knew anything about him then and have learned little since.

"Stanislaw who?" was the reaction of many people when the news came over the radio. The next day's front-page pictures looked like passport photos or the kind of full-face shots intended for police records. Few people were surprised at that, since Mr. Kania's party responsibilities were known to be the armed forces and security.

What most people did not know was that he had also been in charge of the Communist Party's relations with the Catholic Church when Pope John Paul II paid his triumphant visit and during the subsequent period of progress toward a modus vivendi between the church and the state.

Increasingly now the ousted Mr. Gierek is being criticized as a "Gaullist" who thoroughly enjoyed hobnobbing with such world leaders as France's President Giscard d'Estaing. It is said that Mr. Gierek had developed an almost Olympian detachment from the soaring problems at home.

At 53, his successor is the youngest leader of a Communist Party in the Soviet bloc. Those who know something of Mr. Kania say he is a hardworking, modest man with no pretensions to a personality cult.

He has said he will propose that no one shall be first secretary of the party for more than one term, and that he does not want to be a "leader." "I am one of a collective," he said on his election.

He comes of a large and poor Catholic peasant family in one of the most impoverished parts of southeastern Poland. As a teen-ager he was apprenticed to the village smith.

Soon after World War II he began a long and consistently upward party career through first the provincial and then the central party apparatus. But he reached the top only in 1971, when he became a Central Committee secretary and four years later entered the Politburo.

In contrast to his newspaper photos, he presented a relaxed impression when he was finally seen on television. Even then it was only in videotapes of speeches to party activists at Gdansk and at Katowice, another deeply troubled strike area.

Mr. Kania surprised viewers, however, by coming across as a very human person. Unlike almost every other bloc leader this writer has observed, he did not simply read from a written text. He talked somberly enough of Poland's crisis -- and of the party's -- but in simple, direct language. Sometimes he chided his audience for its share of the responsibility for the failures, but with a touch of humor and a smile at the corner of the eyes.

"I am impressed," said the young woman graduate in applied linguistics who was interpreting for me. Which is something, indeed, coming from one of Poland's minimally communist, largely politically disaffected, and often strongly Christian youth.

There is no doubt that Mr. Kania would be tough in dealing with any real challenge to either the party's position or the alliance with Russia. But already his approach appears to have something in common with that in Hungary.

There, Janos Kadar has for years skillfully combined loyalty to the Soviet Union's foreign policy and its basic ideological stand in the international communist movement with Hungary's own brand of economic liberalism, good relations with the Catholic Church, and a lighter hand in domestic affairs in general. It is a course many in the Polish party would like to see followed here.

A member of the Central Committee said that from the outset of the strikes Mr. Kania was unequivocally opposed to the use of force to break them. "A political solution is possible to any problem. We have to go on talking," he said when tension was at its highest.

It was political realism as well. To those who said free trade unions mean a retreat into reformism, he is reported to have replied, "Better that than go right over the brink."

Mr. Kania was seen on the screen again the other evening at a presentation of awards to private peasant farmers. He still has not appeared to talk directly to the nation. A lot of his followers wish he would.

Mr. Walesa has no qualms about publicity. During that critical August fortnight in Gdansk, amid all the pressures on time, the demands of daylong, nightlong discussion with 400 factory delegations and the tough negotiations with the government, he always seemed to have time for the television crews. He had less for the print reporters.

He is an extrovert but also an enigma. Even after several encounters it is not easy to pinpoint what makes him tick. If pressed, he will say it is his religion.

"Brief questions, please," he asks. The answers come in staccato, clipped sentences. He answers what he wants to and no more. He thinks very fast and can put punch into a few words.

After leading a large delegation to start the legal registration of the first of the new unions, he gave a jubilant press conference. Polish newsmen hung enthusiastically on every word.

"We are ready to compete with the old unions," he said. "But I don't think they will survive!" (Journalistic applause.)

East-bloc reporters tried to catch him on that sacred communist shibboleth, the "leading role" of the party, which is so mandatory to Moscow.

"We have no political aims," he barked back."We want just to be masters in our own land. We present no threat to anyone. The world understands this, and Poland's neighbors should understand it even more!" (Even louder journalistic applause.)

He is not above demagoguery. When someone asked, "Do you have a Mercedes?" an allusion to excessive official privileges now under strong fire here, he flung back: "No, but I have [pause] two suits and four pairs of socks!" (Journalistic laughter.)

"I was unemployed till spring. Two months ago I never thought I'd be doing what I am. I've been given a larger flat now [he has five children], but it has no curtains."

A conservative Catholicism appears when a woman reporter asks a question. "Women should not work," he says. "Sometimes they must, but a man should be able to earn enough so his wife can stay home and not work."

He has hung a crucifix in his office at the new union's headquarters in Gdansk and says it will stay there while he is chairman. There are already some murmurings about "clericalism" -- among Catholic intellectuals, even -- in the new unions.

Lech is a legendary, very special Polish name. A fable has it that three brothers parted to go their respective ways:

Rus, it is said, founded Russia. His brother, Czech, the land of the Czechs. And Lech stumbled on a nest of white eagles.

He thought it a good omen and established his capital at the spot, called it Gniezno (nest), and made the white eagle the symbol of his Lechitian kingdom.

It was Poland's ancient name, Gniezno the seat of its Christianity.

Today, he has created something new in contemporary Poland that may have great impact for other communist states as well.

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