In a different world, a long time ago, a little girl and her family were experiencing a country in crisis.

In this country, there were long lines in front of grocery stores, with people waiting for hours, often only to be told that the food in the store had run out.  The government issued ration cards for how much food each person could receive, and there was real anxiety about where our next meal was coming from.  There were tanks on our streets, and Soviet tanks waiting on our border, just in case they were needed to come in and help crush anti-government resistance.

And there were many, many people out on the streets protesting the government, including members of my family.  The protesters were met by the military and the police.  They were tear gassed and clubbed.  Some of them were shot.

This was life in the Communist Poland of my childhood.  But you would never know any of this was happening if you watched official state television.

We had only two channels on our black-and-white TV, but if you turned one of them on, you would see cheerful citizens, who would never even think of complaining.  You would see interviews with farmers who were excited to work for the socialist state.  Speeches from government officials about our glorious future, during which everyone in the audience clapped enthusiastically, because they knew they had to.  And of course, proud military parades, accompanied by much flag-waving.

And the protesters?  Their existence was rarely acknowledged, but when it was, they were described in no uncertain terms.  They were anarchists.  They were violent troublemakers.  They were drug addicts and criminals.

I made the mistake last week of watching parts of the Republican convention.  What I saw gave me a sinking feeling of the worst kind of déjà vu.

Once again, my family and I are living in a country in crisis.  Thousands are dead of a badly mismanaged pandemic.  Our economy is on the verge of collapse, with mass job losses and business closures and evictions looming on the horizon, or already here.  We see example after example of violent police brutality against Black Americans, and people are out on the streets protesting systemic racism.  And armed militias are now showing up at those protests, threatening and, at least in one case, shooting and killing protesters, with seeming support or indifference from the police.

But you would never know any of this was happening if you watched the RNC.  Here, the pandemic was mentioned in past tense, and since it’s practically over, the economy is about to bounce back!  The convention was full of happy nurses who were not experiencing PPE shortages, and happy people of color who don’t get discriminated against.  We got the requisite moving story of the prisoner who had repented and reformed, and the cop who became his lifelong friend.  And then there was the parade of shiny-faced Trump family members, telling us about how caring and compassionate this President is, how much he respects women and loves to put them in positions of power.  All this accompanied by many uniforms and much flag-waving.

According to the RNC, the biggest danger in our country right now is the “cancel culture” ushered in by liberals, which might cause a few people to unfollow you on Twitter.

To my American friends, please take this as a warning from someone who would know:  YES.  This is a tipping point.  Every time you hear another speech about how Trump is the “only one” who can protect America, you should be very afraid.  That is pure dictatorship talk.

If Trump wins re-election, that really could damage what remains of our democratic system beyond repair–or damage it so severely that it will take generations to fix it.  There are also fundamental problems with American society that have existed for a long time, like systemic racism and big money in elections, but we will not be able to work on any of them if our country slides into full-on totalitarianism.

My family was able to survive a totalitarian state once, and we don’t want to have to do it again.  We need to work to get Trump out of office like we have never worked before.  I’m ready to do my part.  I don’t want any more of this kind of déjà vu.

I have sadly, sadly neglected this blog.  However, I have continued writing and editing for my local Democratic party chapter.  I posted this over on their blog, and thought I would share here, as well.

As I look at pictures of women and children getting tear gassed at our border, my mind can’t help but drift back to a time when I was a frightened little kid.

Back in the 1980s, my parents made a brave decision which a lot of Americans on both sides of the political aisle would have approved of. They stood up to the Communist government of our native Poland. They became active members of Solidarity, the trade union movement which fought against totalitarian oppression and for free speech, fair elections, better working conditions. Because of this, my parents were blacklisted by the government and unable to find employment anywhere. The threat of arrest was always looming over them. There were contingency plans for who would take care of me if they were taken away.

My father decided that, for the good of the family, we would leave Poland.

My parents managed to obtain visas for a six-week vacation to Holland–our suspicion has always been that the government was happy to get rid of us because we were troublemakers. Nobody who saw us leave would have been fooled by the vacation bit. Our little Volkswagen bug was filled to the brim with sheets and pillows, clothing and books, so much so that it almost broke down at the border between East and West Berlin. After many adventures, we made it to Groningen, a town in the north of Holland which would become our home for the next few years, and there my parents made their next brave decision.

We overstayed our visa.

Yep, that’s right–we broke immigration law. It was our only chance at a new life, since there was no way the Communist government in Poland would have officially allowed us to move elsewhere. As weeks and then months went on, the realization hit me that this really wasn’t a vacation and I really wasn’t going back home. I suffered from intense homesickness, but in time, I got used to Dutch culture and I grew to like living in Holland.

And I’m so grateful that the Dutch government didn’t just immediately kick us out.
I’m even more grateful that they didn’t arrest us, or separate me from my parents, or attack us with tear gas. The Dutch understood that we were asylum seekers and they put us through the normal asylum appeal process. In time, the Berlin Wall would fall, and with it Communism–much sooner than we thought it would–and at that point, our asylum claim was denied due to the changed political situation. But we were given a fair shot.

And while, yes, we had some scary times in Poland, what we went through is nothing compared to what some of the refugees trying to get into our country have experienced. The families from Central America who have seen family members get kidnapped and killed. The Syrian kids whose homes were bombed into rubble. And we can’t extend a helping hand to them? Because these people are “illegal”? Since America is supposed to be such a devout nation, I will speak in a language it might understand–like the Pharisees in the New Testament, you are obsessed with following the letter of the law, not the effect it might have on the life and spirit of your fellow human beings. Jesus would not be proud.

When I have brought up my family immigration history to Trump supporters who are all about keeping the migrants out, I get only silence in return. People literally don’t want to discuss it. I can guess why this is–there are only a few options for how one can respond, none of them very pleasant. One would be to admit that you’re wrong about the refugees and maybe we should allow some of them in–not something a MAGA fan would be willing to do. Another would be to tell me that yes, Holland should have deported us back to Communism–again, not a point that a conservative would enjoy making.

And then there’s the worst possibility of them all–that if the Trump supporter were being honest with me, they would say “Well, we would be okay with you coming in as a refugee, because your skin is white. You’re European, so we can empathize with your fear and pain. But these migrants–they’re brown-skinned, they’re Latino, they’re Muslim. It’s just not the same thing.”

I suspect that this is what’s behind the silence, and that is a painful conclusion to reach.
To those who think that way, I would say this: You’re not only hurting the migrants, you’re hurting our country, too.

Immigrants make this country stronger and better. We work hard, we’re innovative, and America is enriched by including many different cultures, religions, traditions.

My family has been incredibly lucky. I can’t simply turn my back and close the door on other desperate families, other frightened kids. Let’s give them a chance at a new life, too.

I was in the back of the car, perched on a pile of bedding and blankets. My parents were sitting in front, glancing about anxiously. We were crossing the border.

We had left Poland a couple days before. Our visa to Holland was good for a vacation visit of a few weeks, but my parents–although I didn’t know it yet at the time–were planning to overstay it. They actively opposed the Communist government in Poland, and this was causing us more and more problems. So off we went, with a little bit of money in our pocket, our black cocker spaniel at my mother’s feet on the passenger side, and our green VW bug packed to the brim with our possessions. Funny thing is, at the time our Volkswagen seemed like a giant car compared to the little Fiats many Poles were driving.

And here we were, crossing from East Germany into the West, and it was scary. Our car was so overloaded that it crawled along, and we feared that it would overheat and die at the border crossing, which would have gotten us in serious trouble. It didn’t help that there were guard towers at the side of the road with armed soldiers inside of them. Our baggage was thoroughly searched, and then–with a huge sigh of relief–we were through.

Europe has come such a long way since then. I still remember how excited we were when Poland became a member nation of the European Union. Now it really felt like we would be a part of Europe, and hopefully wouldn’t go back to being one of Russia’s satellites. It was also a moment of pride for us when Donald Tusk, an ex-Prime Minister of Poland, was chosen to be President of the European Council.

The internal borders of Europe are now a different place. There is free movement between countries. The younger generation of Poland can live in Spain or Scotland if they so choose (and if they can find a job there). My uncle now lives and works in London. I would not want to go back to the severe restrictions of the past.

Yet the tragic events in Paris this week have sparked a conversation about precisely that. Some countries are discussing the possibility of changing the rules of the Schengen Treaty–which established freedom of movement in the European Union–and bringing back border checkpoints. I’ve also heard American journalists express surprise over the lack of border searches between, say, France and Belgium. I’m not sure those reporters understand how the concept of the EU is supposed to work. Europe is trying to be a united community–although this process has come with many problems–so what they are suggesting would be a bit like having checkpoints between American states. Sure, it might make things safer if we were searched when entering California from Oregon, but I suspect it would also change the way the people in different states view each other.

So will the terrorist attacks in France lead to a tightening of controls in Europe, much like the 9/11 attacks did in America? I would be sad to see this happen, especially if the European continent regressed to being a more divided place. Let’s hope we can find less drastic solutions to the terrorism question.

Here’s how a workplace conversation went for me a few months ago:

“Hey, what’s that? Oh…a book about the Warsaw Ghetto?”

“Um…yeah. You know, just a little light summer reading.”

“Why? Is it because you broke up with your boyfriend? Are you depressed?”

Lately, I’ve been on a reading binge about the history of my native country, Poland. I was only eleven when I left, so I’ve never examined Polish history with adult eyes. Yes, that means reading about World War II and the Holocaust. Yes, these are dark subjects. But life can be dark. Part of understanding myself is understanding where I come from, and my psyche comes from the sick and twisted European continent of the twentieth century, with its totalitarian regimes and its spilled blood. There’s no getting away from that.

However, I find myself becoming self-conscious about how everyone else might view me as I lug around these stories of doom. Will they indeed think I’m depressed? Crazy? Emotionally unstable? Now I only pull my books out of my backpack when the lunchroom is relatively empty, and I don’t spot anyone I know nearby. To my dismay, I’ve realized that I would be a lot less embarrassed if I was caught reading a cheesy romance novel, because at least that would be considered normal. A romance novel wouldn’t get me suspicious looks.

Or worse. On a recent train ride to work, I was reading Architects of Annihilation by Gotz Aly, a truly chilling work which examines how Nazi technocrats decided that killing millions of people was justified, based on perfectly “rational” economic policy. The cover design of the book includes a swastika–and this prompted the guy across from me to lean in and enthusiastically explain to me how much he admired Hitler. I literally wanted to crawl under my seat. He finished his tribute with: “And you know what I really love about him? His brutality. He knew that sometimes you have to resolve things in an ugly way, man.”

At this point, his girlfriend hastily shushed him and pulled him off the train. The girlfriend was comical in her own right. She was clearly mortified that he was saying all these things in public, yet had no problem being with a guy who gets a hard-on from the Fuhrer’s brutality in the first place. All of a sudden, the fact that Charles Manson is getting married was no longer such a mystery to me.

Anyway, I’ve come up with a solution to help me continue my history studies with minimum trouble. I’m going to make a fake cover to wrap my library books in, preferably one with a picture of a buff Fabio on it. That way, everyone can breathe easy and assume that I’m having happy fantasies about my future boyfriend. And with not a single serious thought in my head, as it should be.

Ah, the scent of children’s tears and crushed dreams is in the air–must be time to go back to school.

I remember how much I dreaded this time of year when I was little. I knew I could look forward to spending my days getting mocked by my old Communist teacher, who hated my family for not being Communist, and attacked by my Catholic schoolmates, who hated my family for not being Catholic. After long, blissful months of drawing, reading and flying off on imaginary adventures, I had to slouch back into the building where everything I was and liked would get stomped on as “weird” and “stupid”.

Later on, my school experiences in places other than my mind-stifling Polish hometown were much better, so much so that I would look forward to September. Positive teachers and welcoming classrooms made all the difference. So this year, I’m wishing all the kids going back to school a place which expands their imagination and desire for knowledge rather than squashing it. A place which is considerate of students with different religious and political beliefs. And may the butterflies they feel be ones of excitement, not of anxiety and fear. School should not be a scary destination.

It looks like my native country of Poland is just as politically divided right now as my adopted home country of the United States.  In last week’s EU parliamentary elections, the two main rival parties received the exact same number of seats–19.

The party which is the “winner” of the election–with only 32.8% of the popular vote–is Platforma Obywatelska (PO) or Civic Platform, a center right party.  And this may be the one time that I will be excited about the right winning an election.  Because PO is–there is no other way to put it–the sane party.  They are right wing in a very moderate sense–perhaps this is what the Republicans in America used to be like, or wish they could be like again.  They are interested in free markets, open to Poland being a part of the European community and the economic benefits that can bring to the country.  They have previously come out in favor of privatization and deregulation, but have been in charge for the last few years and privatization has only happened on a small scale.  They don’t seem to be interested in dismantling society.

On the other hand, there is the opposition.  Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS)–the Law and Justice party.  It’s a bit unclear to me if they would be considered left or right by American standards.  What they are, more than anything else, is religious.  PiS followers are fervent Catholics.  They are nostalgic people of the sort which wants to wind the clock back to a better time in the past, in this case possibly back to the Middle Ages, when the Church was safely in charge and the priest was the ultimate authority figure.  Hence their opposition to Poland’s involvement in the EU–they don’t want Polish culture to be influenced by all that Western moral decadence, with its pesky feminism and pride parades.  This would also be why some Catholic right talking heads have actually expressed support for Putin’s expanding influence.  Sure, Russia may endanger Polish sovereignty, but at least it doesn’t have gay rights.  The spiritual scene in Poland has become a lot more diverse since the fall of the Iron Curtain, with Buddhists and pagans popping up, and PiS followers are not big fans of that.  While we’re at it, they would also prefer it if women would step back into the kitchen where they belong, thank you very much.  This would mean no rights to abortion or contraceptives, and a proposed tax rebate for each successive child, to encourage Poles to continue following the Catholic big family model.  There is definitely a populist streak to the PiS platform–they are in favor of welfare programs and at one point made promises of a large-scale guaranteed housing project for Polish families.  This is where your average American observer might get confused.  PiS essentially combines social conservative values with some progressive safety net ideas.

Funny thing is, the Civic Platform party isn’t that terribly liberal about social issues either.  But they are closer to the middle, which has caused them to be accused by Law and Justice of being depraved and sinful heathens, ready to take Poland over the brink into heresy, which is enough to recommend PO to me.  And I guess there’s the similarity–whether in Poland or America, elections aren’t about voting for the party you love, they’re about picking the less crazy option of the two.

When you go on a journey, you discover that the world is full of dangerous people.  My life has been no different.  I’ve come far and faced off against many villains.

For example, when I was a child, I was told that evil American capitalists wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on me.  But then I moved to a different land and found out that it was, in fact, evil Russian Communists who wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on me.  That was confusing, but then things got even more complicated.

When I lived by the northern European seas, abortion and gay rights were considered good things, and anybody who opposed them was strange.  But when I lived in the American desert, I learned that abortion and homosexuality were sins, and anybody who supported them was immoral.  Now I live by the Pacific Ocean, and once again it’s those who are too religious and too traditional that are suspect.  I’m having a hard time keeping track of all this.  Maybe it would be easier for me to tell the good guys and the bad guys apart if I had stayed in one place and didn’t move around so much.

What makes it even harder is that so many people wear magical disguises and are not what they seem.  For instance, those who aren’t Christian aren’t really American, even though they pretend to be.  Just like those who aren’t Catholic aren’t really Polish.  Ah, but hold on–it’s not enough to know that someone is wearing the Christian label.  If they are liberal, they aren’t really Christian.  You see how tricky this gets.

Now I feel as if I’m living in a cursed time, because everyone is starting to look like an enemy.  The conservatives aren’t true patriots and neither are the progressives.  I’m supposed to be on the watch for thieves who will steal my money through taxes and robbers who will steal my work by paying me too little for it.  There are hawks who want to attack everyone and doves who want us to get attacked.  Gun nuts want to shoot me, but then again I hear that those who favor gun restrictions want to see me defenseless and shot.

So how do I move forward on my way when I’m surrounded by dragons?  Could it be?  Is it possible that I’m the only one who’s right and everybody else is wrong?  After all, many wise men and women around me are making this claim–that they are the only ones who hold the key to true knowledge.

Believing that those who think differently from you are monsters to be fought is one way to journey through this world.  I find the travelling lighter and easier when I don’t carry all that heavy weaponry with me, though.  The dragons are imaginary anyway–they’re just imperfect human beings, a lot like me–and our battles are unnecessary.

Watching Russia Today is like doing the Soviet time warp.  The pro-Russian propaganda takes me right back to my Eastern bloc childhood.  I feel like I should be wearing my blue school uniform and clutching my ration cards when I watch RT.  Even the vocabulary of the news anchors is the same–they still talk about Western imperialism.  When America invades Iraq, it’s an example of imperialism–and I agree with that!  But when Russia invades the Crimea, they’re “liberating” that region of the world.  Hmmmm.  Sounds like somebody’s recycling old Don Rumsfeld sayings.

Not all old memories are getting recycled.  I’m not hearing anything about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat–they’re not in fashion anymore.  When I was a Commieland kid, the bourgeoisie was maligned for being a tool of the capitalists.  Now it’s turned into the squeezed middle class, and RT is defending it.  You gotta keep up with the changes.

But some things stay the same.  In the 80s, when my parents and their friends protested against the Communist government, the official news channels labelled the protesters as a violent and criminal fringe element, and threw in allegations of heavy drug use and orgies.  According to RT, the protesters in Kiev were also part of a violent fascist fringe.  I’ve heard that song before.  On the other hand, the people marching against austerity in Western Europe are always “peaceful”.  It’s a thin line between a peaceful civil resistance movement and crazy neo-Nazis, I guess.

Another classic move in the Cold War time warp dance?  Promises of a wonderful economy.  Russia is going to bring vast economic improvements to the Crimea, RT says.  Once upon a time, we heard the same sales pitch in Poland.  That one ended with bread lines around the block.

Now, I’m by no means claiming that American news media don’t do their share of propagandizing as well.  In fact, Russia Today doesn’t just remind me of Communism–it also reminds me of Fox News.  Maybe Putin’s dream was to be able to run his own version of Fox.  If so, he succeeded.

A few days after the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion, we were watching a news report about it on Polish TV.  The news anchor pointed to a black and white picture of Chernobyl.  It was a picture of the plant before it had exploded.

“You see, ladies and gentlemen, nothing happened.  Everything’s fine.”

There were political reasons for Eastern bloc television to cover up the accident.  It had happened in the Soviet Union, and our Russian big brothers were supposed to be perfect.  Nothing was ever supposed to go wrong in their Communist paradise.  Also, May Day was coming up, and the government wanted everyone out on the streets for the May Day parade.  The last thing they needed was people hiding in their homes, scared of radiation.

But we knew they were lying to us.  There was word of mouth information being spread by friends who had visited Russia and knew the real story.  Also, we had a farm and we saw the way the animals behaved.  The birds in the trees, which had been waking us up each morning with their early spring noise, fell silent.  The dog cowered in his doghouse and the chickens wouldn’t leave their coop, unwilling to come outside even to be fed.  We knew something bad was going on, but there wasn’t much we could do to protect ourselves.  We’ve been lucky, though–we haven’t experienced serious health effects due to our little brush with radioactivity.

Fast forward to now.  Another nuclear plant has had an accident–this time in Japan.  And again, I feel like I’m not getting the real story.  The media here in America isn’t doing anything as blatantly silly as showing us pre-tsunami pictures of Fukushima.  But the news about the continuing leakage of radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean is painfully underreported.  I’m reading about the contaminated ocean currents reaching the California and Oregon coasts, and yet we’ve been spending more time on the Duck Dynasty bullshit.  What are we choosing to focus on?

I live on the West Coast, so the radiation is once again moving in my direction.  Maybe I’ve built up some kind of green glowing immunity by now, but still.  When I moved to this country, I expected more open communication in my news media.  Am I being given the Chernobyl act all over again?

My family recently received an e-mail from relatives in Poland telling us how the “true Polish national identity” is the Catholic one, and going so far as to say that anyone outside that Catholic identity is not only indifferent to the well-being of the country, but might in fact be an evil Commie.  (Sound familiar?)  Being that my parents have for most of their lives been practitioners of Buddhism and yoga, this rubbed them the wrong way.  When my mother tried to suggest that perhaps non-Catholics, atheists, gay and Jewish people should also have a place in Polish society, the relative came back with the pleasant response that he hoped those atheists, gays and Jews would be well served by the euthanasia and abortion they so strongly believed in.

This is a growing movement in Poland right now, and many of our old friends—people who used to be rebels and freethinkers—are more and more often making these kinds of shocking statements to us.  Of course, all I have to do is turn on the right radio station or website here in America and I can hear all about how this is a Christian country and only those who are Christian in the correct way are truly a part of it.  Except that over here this kind of talk will be prefaced by the disclaimer that the talker believes in everyone’s right to have a different opinion or belief…it’s just that those with the different opinion are a “darkness” or a “cancer”.  And a cancer needs to be removed from the body, right?

Is it just me, or does anybody else feel the gathering stormy weather?  That pounding drumbeat of “those who are not like us”?  I suppose that drumbeat is always there, but there are times when it seems to flare up, and right now the tension is building up so tight it feels like the planet needs to clear its sinuses.  Then again, since the sinus-clearing usually entails a world war of some sort, maybe it’s better if we remain clogged.

One thing we cannot do is allow ourselves to be fooled by the relative calm.  After all, Western Europe in the 20th century was a very polite, civilized society as well, wasn’t it?  For now we still smile at each other on the train and give each other the fake “I’m doing great!”  In a moment of real crisis, how quickly could that turn into “You are the problem and you need to go”?  It has happened over and over again.

Maybe those times of horror are part of a strange birthing process by which our species grows.  Hey, I have the right to delude myself as much as anyone else.  All I know is that no matter where you go, you will always meet that group of people which needs to hold on to some type of dogma to be secure.  And I have met those people both on the right and the left, by the way.  I’m from Poland, so I’ve dealt with real Commies, not the bugaboo ones that conservatives invent over here.  No matter which side the true believers are on, they are bound by one common quality:  they can’t handle it when someone else thinks differently from them.  It rocks their world too much.  They lash out against it.  Under certain circumstances, they even kill.

And no matter which time we live in, it is the duty of those of us who don’t have a closed mind to stop them from doing so.  It may be a struggle which never ends.  And probably one I’m not strong enough for.