THE TWO POLANDS
But in Lodz, Poles Struggle as Reform Flounders
`WE curse Lech Walesa!" shouts Irena Hebel, trying to make herself heard above the racket of beating looms at the Dywilan carpet factory in Lodz.Skip to next paragraph
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Mrs. Hebel belongs to the Solidarity trade union, but the economic reforms introduced under the three-year-old presidency of Mr. Walesa, the father of Solidarity, do not agree with her one bit.
"It's wages," she says. They are not keeping up with the rising cost of housing, food, electricity, and heating. "I've got nothing left over at the end of the month," she complains.
And it's unemployment. Hebel counts herself lucky to have a job, but many of her friends don't. Lodz (pronounced Woodj) is a one-industry city, 60 percent dependent on textiles. The industry, however, has collapsed along with its former prime market, the Soviet Union.
In Lodz, unemployment has reached nearly 18 percent, making it one of the most depressed major cities in Poland. It is typical of many regions in Poland that have been left behind by economic recovery. Poles in these areas have had to watch while their countrymen have prospered in other, more economically adept cities.
"It's much, much worse than it was five years ago," says Hebel. "My friends think communism was better than what we've got now."
Lodz has seen strikes and demonstrations, including a march protesting hunger. Boguslaw Grabowski, governor of Lodz Province, predicts that social tension in the area will become more dangerous over the next years - even if the standard of living improves and there is an increase in industrial production (which has plunged 60 percent over the last three years).
"Revolution starts not when conditions are the worst, but when the gap between expectations and experience is the highest," he says.
For example, it used to be that people from Lodz who visited Warsaw could notice little difference between the two cities, Governor Grabowski explains.
"Now, there's more and more of a difference. In Warsaw, five or 10 new hotels have gone up, and not even one in Lodz," Grabowski continues. "People start thinking, `Why? I live in the same country!' " The difference is made even more noticeable because wages in Lodz are about 17 percent below the average Polish wage of roughly $200 per month.
As a "depressed" area, Lodz qualifies for special financial assistance from the central government: funding for worker retraining, extended unemployment benefits, a three-year tax holiday for companies investing more than $1.6 million dollars, and generous depreciation schedules for businesses.
BUT somehow, this government assistance seems not to have touched the world of an unemployed department store worker named Grazyna Rypalski.
Her unemployment check runs out this month, two years after she was first laid off from her job as a middle manager at the Otex department store, now bankrupt. Her husband Janusz lost his job as an electrician and has bought a small booth from which he sells jeans and T-shirts in the Lodz market.
"I need to be very strong inside to live through all this, because one day he's got money and another day, he has none at all," Mrs. Rypalski says. When she has money, Rypalski says the first thing she does is buy food and freeze it for harder times ahead.
Rypalski recalls how, when she was desperate, she used to smuggle clothes in from Hungary and sell them in Poland.
"I'm not ashamed of this," she says. "It was hard work." But it is no longer profitable.
Mrs. Rypalski and her husband stopped buying clothes for themselves long ago, concentrating instead on the needs of their 16-year-old son, Dominik, a fan of the late rock star Jim Morrison, a guitar player, and a poet. She draws a lot of support from her family, and remarks that others are worse off.
She tells of a family in her apartment house where both parents are jobless; they have three children. "Their kids are out on the street and ill-behaved. The 7-year-old boy has started stealing. They have nothing at home, and it is getting worse."
For all her problems, though, Rypalski can still manage a smile. She hopes for better days, and certainly does not want to turn back the clock to communism. "I felt like I was in a glass jar. I'm so happy the lies are over."