Special Reports

Last updated: 3 october, 2009 - 09:18 GMT

Poland's journey

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt is a 23-year-old aspiring journalist living in London. Her parents met in Poland and married when the country was still under martial law, before moving to Ireland in 1984.

"My sister and I were born of a relationship between an Irish woman and a Polish man, which in its own right signified the momentous changes which took place between Western and Eastern Europe in the 1980s.

"Five years after my parents left Poland for Ireland, the world changed forever.

In 1989, the Iron Curtain was drawn back: students occupied Tiananmen Square before being forcibly removed, the Berlin wall fell, Poland had its first free elections, and Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini died. Amid these monumental changes, my father, Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski, moved to London to join the Polish section at the BBC World Service.

"A year later, in the summer of 1990, my father and his best friend, an Irish man named Vincent O’Shea, packed my sister Klara and I in a car and took us to see the freshly fallen Berlin Wall.

"Here, in the photographs he took, you can see the bits of wall we hacked off and the Soviet army hats we modelled.

"In this exchange with my father you can learn, as I did, his memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the role it played in his life and career."

Maciek with Niamh and Klara

Maciek with Niamh and Klara

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This conversation between Niamh and her father Maciek, is part of a series of eight cross-generational interviews from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Poland, Romania, Tajikistan and Cuba. This is an edited transcript, full the full recording please click the audio above.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: So it’s August 1990. And we're in a car driving to Poland.

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: We went to Poland, and we were terribly excited. I was a young journalist - I’d just started working for the BBC and I spent my first year reporting on the Berlin Wall. For me Berlin was such a symbol. When I was younger, we'd travel from Poland to East Berlin and we’d go to the television tower. Everybody was on the western side and it looked like the television tower was going to topple over because it was so overloaded with people.

My best friend Vinci and I just packed you and your sister in the car and we went to Poland through East Germany. We had a holiday and on the way back there was no East Germany anymore! The country disappeared while we were holidaying. So on the way back, we took a break in Berlin.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: I don’t remember a huge amount about it. Klara and I were four and five years old at the time. Do you remember having to explain to us why the Berlin Wall and its fall were important?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: You were both born not long after the end of martial law in Poland. I don’t know if you remember, but while other children learned nursery rhymes you were taught to chant ‘Lech Walesa, Lech Walesa’. So you had a clue about Solidanosc and Walesa, and the Berlin wall falling was part of all that. You were really brainwashed!

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: I remember singing it, but at such a young age I don’t really remember understanding what Solidarity meant.

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: When you were at that young age it was important for me to show it to you while it was still there. It delineated a very firm boundary in my life growing up, because I couldn’t travel. In fact, I remember as a teenager I dreamt about going abroad, and about going to the West.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: Was the physical nature of the journey - especially driving through Germany - symbolic of the difficulty of crossing borders and travelling that you had experienced? You and my mother began your relationship during martial law, travelling wasn’t all free and easy. Was this trip symbolic in that sense?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: Yes, absolutely. I crossed the border a couple of times when East Germany was still in business. In a way I kind of miss it. At the time, I could hardly imagine anything more exciting than going from West Berlin to East Berlin and back. Everything would change completely. You went from little Trabant cars to big shiny cars, and from half empty shops to shops full of goods. And people were relaxed and it was different – a different planet just a stone’s throw away.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: I can imagine it being a good educational tool. As a child, you have a certain innocence and naivety when you think of communism because it seems like such a great idea. Travelling back and forth must have been quite a good physical example of the experience that you had of communism.

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: Well you know people talk a lot of rubbish about communism. I liked communism because I had lots of girlfriends! But overall, yes, it was a dreadful system.

I must say that last year, in 2008, we drove to Poland and nobody was interested in looking at our passports. For me it’s a big deal because I grew up in a completely divided Europe, and that’s what I wanted you and Klara to see, which is why I took you back in 1990. And that’s where the pictures come from.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: There’s a picture of Klara and me holding bits of the Berlin Wall. No one can start chipping away at it now.

Niamh and Klara hold bits of the Berlin Wall

Niamh and Klara hold bits of the Berlin Wall

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: It’s like moon rock. Mind you I’m sure there’s a workshop in China that makes ‘genuine’ bits of the Wall. I’ve been to Berlin a couple of times since 1989 and you can’t find the places in these pictures. They’re completely gone.

In those days you could park anywhere, and we just stopped next to it. I think we found bits of metal and we started literally hacking at the Wall. But your sister Klara decided better. She disappeared and when we caught up with her she was queuing to a man who was selling ready chopped off bits of Berlin Wall. She decided to buy hers.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: She went the capitalist way.

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: And so we all ended up with lots of bits of the Berlin Wall!

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: Were there many people visiting it like you guys?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: Well as you can see it wasn’t a full on tourist attraction. But that’s what we went to see, we went to see it with our own eyes. I think that happens at those moments, you feel the wind of history. You want to go and see where it comes from, what’s the big deal. I think the fact that you remember, vaguely being there, and that you have the bits if the Wall.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: Those memories feel very significant to me. And the fact that Vinci went with you, as an Irish person. What were his feelings towards it? Was it just voyeuristically interesting?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: Yes it was interesting. I remember distinctly the East German border guard looked at his passport, and he said ‘Irelanda, Irelanda?’ and Vinci looked at him and said, ‘what you’ve never heard of Ireland? In two weeks no one will have heard of the German Democratic Republic!’ And yes, in a way it was prophetic because many young people today don’t realise there was a German Democratic Republic.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that communism and martial-law happened in Europe, in our lifetime. In the internet age that we live in, I can’t imagine a situation in which communication can be cut off between countries. I won’t even bother asking whether something like that could happen now because I don’t believe that it can.

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: If it wasn’t for Solidarity, for martial law and for what martial law was a result of, you wouldn’t be here. Because there were very few people travelling between Ireland and Poland (which is unthinkable today with hundreds of Poles in Ireland) but your mum and I started something really new and unusual in those days.

Lech Walesa

So in a way Klara and your coming to the world marked the beginning of the end of one era, and the fact that you guys can travel freely whether you have Polish passports or Irish passports. Now one thing that really blows my mind is that Ryanair flies to Wroclaw, my home town, because this is like something that would have felt like science fiction when I was growing up, when I was your age!

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: Polish martial law ended in 1983, but its hold was prevalent throughout the 1980s. How was the news of the breakdown of communism relayed to you through radio, television, and through being at the BBC?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: The Solidarity revolution in Poland was a photocopy revolution. There’s a healthy little theory that without the photocopier - which was a way of breaking the state's monopoly on printing - it would have been very difficult. But that was 1980.

1989 was distinctively a fax revolution. Being a journalist here in Bush House in 1989, most of the stuff we got through the Iron Curtain was via fax. Poland's only free daily paper, which was set up to report the first democratic elections, would be photocopied in Warsaw and faxed to us. This was all pre-internet. It is very difficult to conceive today that news travelled like that.

And suddenly the Berlin Wall fell in the autumn of 1989, and by spring 1990, Polish BBC programmes were broadcast on FM by Polish state radio.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: So your family would have had access to news.

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: Yes, they could see our faces. This was a new era. Only a few years previously a Bulgarian journalist who worked in Bush House was killed by communist intelligence for being a "traitor", so there was a lot of fear. When I came to the Polish section a lot of people appeared on air with adopted surnames, you know very strange sounding names. And then after the wall fell, many of them reverted back to their real names.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: Lech Walesa was elected president in October 1990. Did you vote? Could you vote?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: I did better than that, I went to see him. I got the best gig of my journalistic career.

To top all these great things that happened, there was a matter of the 1936 Polish constitution, which established the idea of the continuity of Polish statehood. All the while during communism, there was in fact a Polish president-in-exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, living in London, who had in his possession the great seal of state.

From the point of view of the pre-war constitution the Polish communist government was not legitimate. So when Walesa was elected, the president-in-exile Kaczorowski (who was also an accountant from Harrow in London), took the seal of office, the constitution and all the other symbols of the Polish Republic and flew to Warsaw to hand them over, to emphasise the continuity of free Poland.

And I got on the plane which carried this guy to Poland with the seal. And I got to talk to Ryszard Kaczorowski, the president-in-exile. I had my microphone in his face, I was asking ‘so how are you feeling?’ and he was saying ‘well I haven’t been to Poland since 1939 so this is going to be really emotional for me.’

And then, as I’m recording, the captain says in Polish ‘ladies and gentlemen, we have crossed the Polish border and we are now flying over the territory of Poland’ and this guy started crying into the microphone, literally his tears were dropping onto the microphone and he’s saying ‘see the pilot just said...’ this is what was happening. So it was quite momentous 1989.

Niamh Brennan-Bernatt: Goodness. Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall came down?

Maciek Bernatt-Reszczynski: At work, of course.

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