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Poland's vigorous underground press

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 1986



Cambridge, Mass.

PUBLISHERS who have to scrounge for every sheet of paper, who are sometimes reduced to using shoe polish for ``ink,'' and whose presses are constantly on the move from one basement or attic to another would ordinarily close up shop. But there's nothing ordinary about publishing in Poland. And far from closing shop, that country's legion of underground writers and editors turns out a steady stream of print -- all of it in defiance of the government and under threat of imprisonment, and all of it a testament to the motivating power of liberty and patriotism.

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A varied sample of their work -- political journals, cultural journals, works of history, art, and poetry, even unofficial postage stamps and currency -- fills the foyer of the Widener Library at Harvard University. The viewer browsing through the glass-encased documents, even without a word of Polish at his command, senses the gritty vitality of the now-banned Solidarity movement. Welding together workers and intellectuals, the movement flowered from August 1980 to the fall of '81. Then came the heavy thud of martial law.

The items on display here date from the Dec. 13, 1981, declaration of martial law, which brought harsh penalties for involvement in the independent labor union movement. That declaration was officially lifted in July 1983, but sanctions against free expression remain. Any Pole found with the kinds of materials on display here could face a prison term of six months to five years, says Grazyna Slanda, Widener's Slavic librarian for Polish. Literature as well as political tracts

Leaflets printed on the flimsiest tissue paper just after the imposition of martial law list those who have been jailed and tell people how to behave, should the police arrive at their doorstep. Later publications indicate a movement again beginning to sprout from roots of commitment seemingly untouched by oppression: journals for youth, a newsletter for women, bulletins for every kind of worker -- even policemen and soldiers.

Mrs. Slanda explains it wasn't just political expression that went underground in 1981. Virtually all publishing activity was tightly constricted. When it came to works by foreign writers, for example, the government-approved channels produced ``very little in literature and practically nothing in good titles,'' she says. The underground presses took up the slack, printing translations of such authors as George Orwell and the late Czech Nobel Prize winner Jaroslav Seifert. They've also published the work of exiled Poles and that of writers still in Poland.

All this is done with some care. Pseudonyms are frequently (but not always) used, and the disclaimer, ``published without the consent of the writer,'' appears regularly. ``There's lots of camouflaging going on,'' says Alicja Altenberger, cataloger for the Solidarity Bibliographic Center, which is at the adjoining Houghton Library. She explains that underground publishing houses -- actually just groups of people without permanent quarters -- often change their names. Addresses shift unpredictably. Sometimes, notes Mrs. Altenberger with a laugh, the publishers will give the address of the Polish government censors. Wry humor, almost always at the expense of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and his regime, permeates the underground publishing. `Vital' record, `fantastic' movement

Political and religious imagery is another hallmark. Slanda points out that the acronym WRON, standing for the elite corps formed by General Jaruzelski to clamp down on Solidarity, was altered by the underground into wrona, Polish for ``crow.'' That symbol of contempt is frequently played against the eagle, the nation's emblem -- e.g., this slogan, ``the crow cannot defeat the eagle.'' Christian symbols abound; some of the underground's ``bank notes'' carry a portrait of Pope John Paul II.

Widener Library began the task of collecting these publications in 1981. There was a recognition, says the library's curator of Slavic languages, Hugh Olmstead, that this material was an ``absolutely vital record of this fantastic movement.'' Collecting the documents, he says, was important not only for Poland, but for ``what they represent in world history.''

In 1982, an international gathering of scholars at the University of Virginia resolved to establish a North American center to coordinate and index the various collections of Solidarity-related publications. Harvard was asked to house the center; hence the beginnings of the Solidarity Bibliographic Center at Houghton. Drawing on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the center recently published its first microfiche listing of authors, titles, and places that have collections of underground publications.

Just how Harvard or other institutions acquire the leaflets, pamphlets, and books is a matter of some secrecy. There's no ``regularity'' to their flow, says Slanda. But flow they do. Altenberger's one-room headquarters is stacked with carefully organized filing boxes of Solidarity materials, including thousands of individual items. The publications ``filter out'' of Poland ``in various ways,'' says Dr. Olmstead. The sources of materials -- probably networks of individuals inside and outside Poland -- have to be protected.

The Widener exhibit runs through Jan. 30.