Poles get uncensored view of their history
The Poles are reclaiming some of their legendary heroes. Heroes like Marshal Pilsudski, who turned Lenin's advancing revolutionary troops back from Poland in 1920; Kosciusko, a patriot who led a revolt against occupying Russians in 1794; and Sikorski, who until 1943 headed the anticommunist Polish government in exile in London during World War II.
The names of these Polish heroes were banished from the history books by the Soviets. Now they are even showing up on movie screens. Their reappearance in popular accounts of Polish history is the direct result of the new censorship law passed in July. That legislation removed a good many items from the communists' long postwar list of taboos.
The new censorship law replaced a decree of 1946 that gave the Communist regime unchallengeable control of every written or broadcast word, artistic performances, and even simple announcements.
But gaps persist despite the current relaxation of censorship. The authorities still insist some incidents are ''nonevents'' and deem some issues ''unsuitable'' in their specialized rendering of history.
Overenterprising commentators have had to pull back as the crisis escalated to points embarrassing to Poland's relations with its allies and the Communist Party's control of the nation increasingly slipped from its hands.
But the change remains. In fact, after the formation of the independent trade unions the relaxation of censorship is one of the biggest of the many gains that turned last year's strikes into a major revolution.
From the very start of the crisis 15 months ago, the news media have been undergoing a tremendous transformation. Daily newspapers, weeklies (including Solidarity's mass circulation 24-pager), and radio present a wealth of information touching the whole new panorama of Polish life, including the issues and errors that until last year were rigorously excluded from any public ''right to know.''
Television remains largely the creature - and a dull one - of the government. But the press as a whole has become informative, controversial, and highly readable.
The transformation in the press is so dramatic that it is taking Poles time to adjust. After decades of ''cooked'' statistics - especially in the ''success'' propaganda of recent years - disbelief and doubt at first swung the other way.
Was the economic picture being painted so darkly simply to get people to work harder?
Dissident Jacek Kuron aptly summed it up in recent interview with the Communist youth newspaper Sztandar Mlodych:
''The current situation is such that if an entirely true item of news was published that the government had laid a golden egg, people would say, first, that it was not golden, second, that it was not an egg, and, third, that the government hadn't laid it anyway. . . .
''It is not funny,'' Mr. Kuron added. ''It is tragic.''
The interview itself was a testimony to the relaxed censorship law. It was the first time an article, or a statement by a dissident - other than one given in a courtroom - was legally published in a regime newspaper.
The law has not abolished censorship. But it has gone far toward meeting pledges in the August 1980 strike settlements to limit censorship primarily to sensitive national interests.
In the past not only had history been distorted or ignored but also the rules were often applied to literature and theater, with ludicrous results. The law allows big changes here. Basically, it also:
* Substantially restricts official interference in the work of the media and lays down that ''what is not specifically prohibited may be published and distributed.''
* Defines the two areas - the political system and the constitutional principles of foreign policy and alliances - on which nothing ''detrimental'' may be published.
* Introduces, for the first time, an author's or editor's right of appeal against censorship all the way to the Supreme Administrative Court. It also allows authors and editors to show readers where cuts have been made.
* Puts the censorship office under direct supervision of the Council of State - not the government - and Parliament, with a largely public watchdog committee to monitor the office's performance.
* Places members of the Seym (parliament) and most scientific, educational, religious, and trade-union publications beyond the censors' reach. The exceptions here are the mass-circulation papers of the Roman Catholic Church and the union.
Communist regimes adapt and revise history to suit their own ideological ends. In Poland, history became a matter for omission. Virtually anything having to do with past or contemporary relations with the Soviet Union is a ''no go'' area.
There may be enough Polish parents - apart from intellectuals and academics - to show their children that history as it has been taught in their schools for two generations is frequently very different from what actually happened and the given official interpretation of events.
But the sanitized history has nonetheless damaged education and as much as anything is responsible for the present generation's almost total alienation from and disaffection with the system the Poles have lived under since the war.
There are those in General Jaruzelski's new administration who understand this. Given time and a more stable situation - and the completion of a program for truer texts and access to diverse source materials - it may change substantially.
History today has become a test issue.
Interviewed by the party newspaper Trybuna Ludu Sept. 10, the rector of Warsaw University, Prof. Henryk Samsonowics, called forthrightly for history to be treated with truth, not in ''a set of inviolable formulas'' whose memorization ''might win good marks but provides no understanding of our past.''
As an example, he singled out the politically sensitive teaching of Poland's relations ''with our neighbors'' and issues of common history which he said ''must be explained once for all so that they cease to irritate public opinion.''
The rector referred explicitly to the ''Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact'' of 1939 - between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany - describing it as quite ''unacceptable.''
It was the first time a party newspaper had carried so explicit a condemnation of the pact that helped spark World War II and led to yet another ''partition'' of Poland.
For Poles, history is a matter of identity and what French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, recently visiting Warsaw, identified as their desire to preserve their separateness.The gaps in history's postwar teaching, the simplifications and the secrecy that often went contrary to that, are as much a part of their present crisis as the country's economic misfortunes, and the need for reform is just as pressing.