May Day in Bielsko
Issue #44, June 1999
It was May 1st, in the late '70s. I was wondering whether I'd still have time to bicycle in the woods before it got dark. It looked like a perfect day for bicycling, but instead I was crawling along in the middle of a May Day parade in Bielsko-Biala, my hometown in southern Poland.
The crowd moved another several dozen meters and stopped. My high-school classmates, with whom I was marching, moved along another couple dozen meters and stopped again. We tried to occupy our time telling jokes and gossiping, but had to shout in order to hear each other in the midst of all the noise.
Loudspeakers were mounted on all the building corners of the main street, which led past the reviewing stand. I wanted to switch off the damn official music. It could have been worse, I thought glumly. I could have been doing this in the '50s under strict marching discipline, with much larger signs. By the '70s, Communist political signs and symbols were being downsized.
A gust of wind almost tore the huge crepe-paper red poppy out of my hand. Clouds were moving in and it started looking like it would rain soon. I didn't have an umbrella and began worrying about how I'd get back home: all the city bus drivers were marching in this same parade. Another gust of wind nearly knocked over two kids carrying a long red banner with one of those meaningless inscriptions.
The inscriptions were actually fascinating, despite their predictability. You could jumble the words and then read them from the beginning, middle or end with the same ideological results. 'The nation with the party' also read 'The party with the nation.' Or then there was 'Let our Poland grow stronger and the people grow wealthier.' Or did it mean a wealthier Poland and a stronger people? Whatever the word order, it was all the same: wishful thinking. Just bullshit. We called it nowomowa (new language), a postwar language of patriotism and nation-building that used empty rhetoric to address real social problems. Edward Gierek, then the prime minister, was a master of this double-talk and showed his mastery with every bread riot and miners strike.
We students prepared all the emblems and banners -- under teacher supervision, of course. We created the banners on the school gym floor, carefully following faculty-approved slogans. Since I loved artwork, my class teacher made me responsible for all our May Day decorations. It was a boring and time-consuming task to cut out dozens of large white letters and pin them onto red cloth banners. Once I asked whether, just for a change, we could do white banners with red letters. The teacher stared at me with open contempt and didn't bother with a reply.
It was difficult to resist the temptation to re-word these stupid slogans: they were empty sentences, where meaning had long ago disappeared. Sometimes, I would lock the gym doors from inside and rearrange letters into new words, and the words into completely different meanings. It was my private rebellion, practiced in solitude. In the end, I restored the official slogans: I had enough serious troubles in high school without that sort of political problem. The teacher responsible for school discipline had put a report in my file complaining about my anti-social behavior. She also repeatedly telephoned my parents, who listened to these official complaints quietly but without sympathy. My father had been forced to join the Party in order to maintain his career as a surgeon, but he despised the Party, its corruption, and opportunism.
Out on the main street, the parade quickened its pace and the music got louder. We approached the reviewing stand. I felt the first drops of rain on my face. The cold wind made me shiver because I was wearing only a thin white cotton shirt and a dark blue skirt, the mandatory uniform for May 1st.
Rain began falling on the red petals of my crepe poppy, making it collapse. Soon the flower looked like a piece of red rug attached to a green stick.
The reviewing stand in front of us had a long table where municipal officials and party members were sitting. The stand had a roof, of course, so that important men would not be troubled by the weather. They seemed to pay little attention to the crowds marching in front of them, shouting out flattering slogans and singing songs. Both sides were playing designated roles: the hypocrisy of pretend politics had become clear. Instead of waving back, the chosen were busy talking among themselves, eating and drinking from the table in front of them.
I was completely soaked by now. Red, green and black ran off my flower holder onto my sleeve. The colors dyed my shirt into an approximation of an abstract expressionist painting. I was cold, hungry and tired. May Day was a caricature of its own history, of the hopes it once held. As a working-class holiday it resembled my crepe flower, with meaning running like the colors.
I looked at the laughing faces of the officials under their roof, and then at my friends who were in no better shape than myself. I dropped the wet, dead paper flower and walked out of the parade, knowing for certain that my teacher would phone my parents again the next morning to discuss my political misbehavior.
Ewa Pagacz is a recently-unemployed college teacher who still misbehaves and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org by Ewa Pagacz. Drawings © Mike Mosher 1999