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A Hidden Poland

By Jonathan Rowe / October 3, 1990



MILANOWEK, POLAND

FROM the street, the shed in the rear of 9 Chrzanowska (street) looks like a place for old oil drums. But behind the Gasoline Alley exterior, a small crew makes precision bearings for Fiat plants in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. This is a private business, Stanislaw Cwiklinski's factory. The BMW in the driveway, and the new house out front, attest that ``Stan'' has been doing quite well. No, the factory didn't sprout overnight, like the much-touted farmers' markets in Warsaw, with the passing of the Communist regime. It's part of a Poland that Americans haven't heard much about. The American press has portrayed a dreary, impoverished land of cabbage farms and crowded urban flats. That Poland does exist, and building an economy is rightly the new government's top priority.

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But exactly how to build it is another question. The advice raining down on Poland from American economists has taken scant notice of the entrepreneurs who are already here. Nor have the American experts paid much attention to the strengths of Polish life and culture that can't be measured in dollar terms.

Though the problem seems far off right now, one finds brooding concerns about a shift to an American-style economy. ``I have a [worry] that I will lose my lifestyle, being close with friends and family and culture,'' says Adam Brostek, a reporter who is helping to start a local newspaper in Milanowek. ``It is in my blood.''

Milanowek is about 20 miles outside of Warsaw on the main railroad line. Part commuter suburb, part factory town, it feels like an Old World version of the American small town of yore. Elderly couples peddle to town on fat-tired bikes, net shopping bags in hand. Farmers drive horse-drawn wagons. There are no billboards, no boom boxes. An American feels at first deprived of stimuli; but then, unburdened and relaxed.

Milanowek is more prosperous than most Polish towns. There are enough entrepreneurs to make up a small chamber of commerce (called a ``craft association'' in Communist days.)

The Polish Communists were not orthodox Marxists. Rather, they were a kind of ``mafia,'' explains Andrzej Moes, a local entrepreneur who is chairman of the recently elected town council. They kept the best government jobs, the best enterprises. Others could start a business, but only in ``difficult and twisting ways,'' such as greasing the right palms.

Having endured the Communists, local entrepreneurs have a new worry: the measures designed to plunge Poland into a free-market economy. Utility rates have jumped from 50 to 100 percent, for example. Private greenhouses will be hit especially hard, as will Richard Puch, who stone-washes dungarees. With winter heating season coming, ``I'm not sure how much will be left for living,'' Puch says.

These entrepreneurs desperately need advice on conservation. But the Western economists - let alone President Bush - don't seem very interested in that.

One doesn't hear much complaining, however. There is a remarkable lack of self-pity in Poland. People agree that a market economy has to come, and are willing to sacrifice in the process. But some do worry about the social effects.

Milanowek is a town many Americans would envy, ahead for being behind. It has a bustling village center, a lack of litter and waste. Family and personal relationships are very important here. People eat their meals at home. Children stay close to parents. In most stores, products are kept behind the counter, requiring personal conversation and contact.

This is not just American sentimentalizing. ``Most people in Poland don't realize that they have very good things, apart from the political and economic problems,'' Mr. Moes says. ``We are not so spoiled by industry, commerce, and technology. We have more calm living.

``People organized in your way are separate from one another. Here people are forced to lead a social life, to have contacts.''

Moes's business is suffering while he devotes full time to town affairs. Like many Poles, he is both hopeful and fatalistic. ``It will bring both sides, good and bad,'' he says of the market. ``I hope the good influence will be the majority.''