Lifelong Struggle of Polish Professor Is Study in Freedom
McClellan, Bill, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
LIKE EVERYONE applying for U.S. citizenship, Michal Rozbicki had to take an oral exam. In his case, the examiner asked him to explain the significance of the First Amendment and its relevance to freedom of speech.
He hesitated, and tried to compose his thoughts. Rozbicki was born in Poland 49 years ago. He grew up in the rubble of Warsaw, which had been devastated in the second World War.
One day, while playing in a friend's attic, he came across an old issue of Life magazine. The lifestyle revealed therein seemed glamorous, and what's more, when he examined the date of the issue, he saw that it was from 1944. It was wartime, and yet the people seemed so happy and prosperous! Rozbicki was 9 or 10 years old when he saw that Life magazine, but it created an image he never forgot.
His father had been educated before the war, before the coming of the Russians, and in the privacy of the family's apartment, he taught his son a version of history that was forbidden in the Stalinist schools. This was not unusual. All over Eastern Europe, the young intelligentsia learned on two parallel tracks that never intersected. What you learned at home you were not allowed to repeat in schools.
Eventually, Rozbicki went to the university, and he majored in English and American literature. What he was really studying, though, was American culture. That old copy of Life magazine was still, more or less, his guiding star.
In fact, the impression it had created was only reinforced as he grew older.
"When you live in a totalitarian state, everything is censored," he told me. "When we wanted to find out the truth, we used to listen to Radio Free Europe."
And where did this voice of truth come from? The United States of America.
Rozbicki was an excellent student. Only once did he fail an exam, and that exam was administered by a member of the Communist Party.
"We all had to have military training. At the end, we took an exam. The question was about NATO, and I answered it at some length. `You know a lot,' the instructor said, `but you didn't sufficiently condemn NATO's hostile plans.' "
Although his military career was checkered, his academic career was not. Rozbicki earned two doctorates, one in English history and one in American colonial history.
When Solidarity rose out of the shipyards of Gansk in 1981, Rozbicki was teaching at the university, and he was one of the first at the school to join the movement. After the union was crushed and martial law was imposed, Rozbicki, like the other dissidents, opted for patience.
"We never suspected that the government would suddenly collapse," he said. "Instead, we were hoping for a gradual liberalization. You see, you cannot preserve a totalitarian regime in partial form. …