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Geremek 'Spoke With The Authority Of A Historian'

  • Petruska Sustrova

Geremek had survived the worst and made a career studying people who had done likewise

Geremek had survived the worst and made a career studying people who had done likewise

I first met Bronislaw Geremek on November 3, 1989. I was 41, a little-known Charter 77 signatory on my second trip abroad on my new passport. Geremek, who just a short time before had been in the same situation as me, was now deputy chairman of Poland's Sejm. He was in a position to influence developments in Poland.

And he was very interested in what was happening in Czechoslovakia. I remember that I felt discouraged and had little hope of real change in my country. But he was just smiling and telling us that things did not have to remain the way they were. He spoke with the authority of a historian. And as we were leaving the parliament building, I realized that I believed what he said.

Geremek died in a car accident on July 13. His life was a mirror of the trials of his country in the 20th century. As a Jewish teenager during World War II, he managed to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. His father was not so lucky and was killed at Auschwitz. He spent the war years being sheltered by a Polish family, soaking up the influences of the country's rural Catholic tradition. In 1950, he arrived in Warsaw and joined the Communist Party.

In 1968, however, he left the party after protesting against the Warsaw Pact's August invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was able to keep his job at the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he devoted himself to the study of medieval history. But in 1985, he was pushed out of that post because of his work as an adviser to the Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Walesa. He had already spent more than a year in prison.

Without a doubt, Geremek was a key figure in modern Polish history, and on the international stage he became one of the country's best-known and important representatives. In the postcommunist period, he served as chairman of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee; from 1997 to 2000, he was foreign minister; and from 2007 until his death, he was a member of the European Parliament. He oversaw Poland's entrance into NATO in 1999.

Geremek was a man of compromise. A master negotiator who played a key role in the nonviolent transfer of power from the communist regime to Solidarity. But his role as a compromiser has left him an ambiguous legacy in Poland itself.

Some of his countrymen never forgave Geremek for his years in the Communist Party. Others were unable to get past one or another compromise he negotiated over the years. Still others admired him as a person but did not share his political views. None of the political groups that he helped create or lead over the years were particularly popular or successful.

After Walesa became president in 1990, however, the two men grew apart. When Walesa made remarks that Geremek regarded as anti-Semitic, Geremek commented that he felt like he was living in a different time with a stranger. The split with Walesa was hard for Geremek.

But Geremek's legacy for Poland and for Europe lies in his success in negotiating the semi-free elections of the spring of 1989 that heralded the peaceful collapse of communism. It is hard to imagine that anyone else could have convinced Solidarity's leaders to participate in that process. But Geremek had tremendous credibility. His word meant something, so they agreed. Of course, not all the radicals in the trade-union movement agreed with this compromise, and Geremek was criticized by some for years afterward.

But his life experience and his training as a historian gave him the perspective to rise above criticism. He had personally survived worse and he had made a career studying people -- medieval beggars and prostitutes -- who had also survived worse.

Everyone now is speaking of Geremek in superlatives. All criticism has been forgotten. Lech Walesa has said that Geremek's intellect and patriotism make him the most important Pole of the 20th century. Everyone -- even those who made their livings criticizing Geremek -- now admits that Poland has no one else of his caliber.

Petruska Sustrova is a former Czech dissident and Charter 77 signatory. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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