Martial law puts Poles' fortitude to test

Daily crises and worsening shortages are demanding every ounce of the Poles' traditional fortitude and patience. Even before the latest crackdown, finding a square meal for a family was a major undertaking. And as winter has deepened, the constant quest for food has been accompanied by the search for warm clothes to keep out the cold - inside and out.

In recent days, Poles have been getting up at 4 a.m. to queue for blankets. Galloping shortages of textiles have been matched by a run on the shops for thick clothing for children in often-unheated schools. New winter coats and boots have become prized items.

Declining coal output has meant shutdowns or limited operation for the nation's power stations. Schools, homes, and workplaces are all liable to erratic power supplies and heat.

The new military regime talks of Poland's paramount need for calm. Soldiers and police are being used to try to enforce that on the streets. But outside observers wonder if - with the worst two months of a northern winter ahead - any domestic peace can be achieved without some relief from the present shortages, especially food.

In this connection, the United States decision to suspend further government aid (though allowing what is already in the pipeline or private shipments still to go through) is seen by many West Europeans as overhasty. The European Community countries are withholding their decision for the time being. They take the view that, in the words of one European observer, ''We should go on doing all we can at least until the whole situation is clearer.''

(On Dec. 16 the Reagan administration restricted the movements of Polish diplomats in the US and expressed its ''greatest concern'' over the situation in Poland. A State Department spokesman said the US was responding in kind to a Polish action Dec. 15 placing round-the-clock guards outside US diplomatic offices in Warsaw, Krakow, and Poznan.)

One of the Polish government's greatest failures has been its inability to curb the black market. Poland is not the only East-bloc country where almost anything - the best foodstuffs as well as basic services - tends to disappear ''under the counter.'' But in recent years the malaise has gone deeper there than anywhere else.

Neither the Polish government's acceptance of the peasants' union, Rural Solidarity, nor better prices for their produce has resulted in more food supplies on the markets. In part, this continuing lack of food flowed from the regime's ideological reluctance to provide the tools and other essentials suited to small private holdings. But it also was related to the high black-market prices the private farmers could get from members of the establishment and other better-off townsfolk.

''My wife and I both work,'' a critical but largely pro-regime journalist remarked to this writer. ''We don't have time to queue. A farmer's wife calls once a fortnight and we stock up in our deep freeze.''

Not many Poles have freezers. And the vast majority have to make time to queue however long their working hours.

Meat was rationed in the summer, and the quotas that were planned should have been adequate. With his cards, this correspondent's driver in Warsaw qualified for about 31/2 kilograms (7.5 pounds) of best-quality meat or ham and sausage for a family of four. But at month's end, he still had most of his coupons. Quality meat could not be found.

Sugar supplies improved after a good beet harvest. But butter remains a problem. A paper shortage brought queues for school exercise books and for cigarettes even longer than those for meat.

Now the government has reimposed an earlier limit on bread - one loaf per person per purchase. That seems at least to have brought out - amid all the bitter frustrations - the comradeship of wartime Warsaw. ''If I get an extra loaf,'' one woman said, ''I cut it in two and give the other half to a friend.''

The government has just put a stop to food exports in a move that throws light on one of this year's most bitter issues between government and Solidarity. Port workers demanded a halt to shipments of meat and ham. The government refused, saying Poland must meet its foreign trade contracts.

The quantity being exported was small. But the authorities failed to recognize the psychological impact on dockworkers asked to load it aboard foreign freighters when their wives were queuing vainly at the butchers.

Now, the military government has acted. But the long delay illustrates the clumsiness with which the bureaucracy has frequently ignored a reasonable union demand and given way only - as a Solidarity official remarked to me - ''when we threaten to get rough.''

Another example: The dismissal, also announced Tuesday, of four unpopular regional governors. Two had been the center of bitter worker campaigns for their removal for misgovernment and misdoing in office. Only on what Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski himself calls ''the abyss'' of disaster are such grievances being heeded.

The union may at times have been at fault with unrealistic demands. But this protracted ''dialogue of the deaf'' - with each side apparently determined to talk past the other and each distrusting the other - has been costly. And the government cannot elude the blame.

Several reports in the last 24 hours have suggested that most, or at least many, workers may be shunning efforts by the decimated Solidarity union leadership to organize mass protests. A Dutch reporter tells of watching while several thousand workers quietly left the Gdansk shipyard after the curfew began Tuesday night. The military had given them an extra hour to get home. One day earlier, an ''underground'' union official had said they were preparing to resist eviction.

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