By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“I’m sorry, Miss. You can’t bring your coat in here,” the attendant whispered. “You must check it in the cloakroom.”
This was my initiation to the Jagiellonian University Library. As a recently arrived exchange student, I found myself navigating a Polish university in the waning days of communism. Martial law forced pro-democracy efforts underground. Shortages were a way of life.
Raised to be a rule follower, I entered a world where government edicts seemed nonsensical. Why couldn’t I take photos at the train station? Why were ration cards required to buy a measly piece of meat? Why did I have to pay to use a public restroom? Why did the babushkas attending restrooms mete out Lilliputian scraps of toilet paper?
These questions weighed on my 19-year-old American brain. That said, humans are adaptable. I learned the norms of living in a communist state. When passing a store with a line, I instinctively jumped in to secure my place, like a Pavlovian pup. Only then, did I ask, “Co jest?” (“What is it?”). I stamped my feet in the cold and endured drizzling rain while queued for kielbasa, wine, toilet paper or, perhaps, some bonus chocolate. Only children received ration cards for chocolate—that was the government’s rule. I accepted that items might run out before my turn. I carried a wad of toilet paper with me—always.
I’d passed the Jagiellonian Library several times before, looking forward to studying in its hallowed space. Among its 6.5 million volumes were precious cultural treasures in a country that lost so much to pillaging invasionary armies. The Jagiellonian housed medieval manuscripts, Copernicus’ “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”) and intricately decorated prayer books owned by Poland’s long-ago kings and queens.
Jagiellonian University was founded in 1364, nearly three centuries before Harvard. The library, however, was a relative youngster on campus. Large block numbers etched over its entrance read 1939—the year Germany invaded Poland and closed the university, forcing it underground. So many Polish academics were murdered. To me, the 1939 stood in defiance of brutal Nazi aggression.
Mustering the courage to crack this Polish nut, I determined to settle in for my first study session. I entered the library’s main floor, breezed past the coat check and ascended stairs to the hallowed reading room.
I was greeted by long wooden tables lined in rows and the distinctive aroma of books, thousands of books. Quiet permeated the space. Students hunched over their work, heads leaning into arcs of illumination from reading lamps. I proceeded quietly, settling into a seat near the back of the room.
I removed my jacket and extracted from my backpack a book, notebook and pen. I then heard footsteps on the smooth wooden floor and realized they were coming towards me. It was then that the attendant approached to inform me of my aberration.
A few Polish heads looked up at me from their books. This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen. I wanted to blend in. I didn’t want to be the Amerykanka (American) who was breaking rules.
Repacking my freshly unpacked book, notebook and pen, I stepped ever-so-quietly to the cloakroom, handing my jacket to the attendant behind the counter. She returned a small metal disk with a number on it.
Re-entering the hallowed reading room as inaudibly as possible, I sat down and, again, extracted book, notebook and pen.
I heard footsteps. Somehow I knew they were aimed in my direction.
“What now?” I thought.
“I’m sorry, Miss, but you can’t sit here,” he whispered in semantics reflecting the polite formality of the Polish language
A few more Polish heads popped up from their reading to look at me.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I said, continuing the delicate dialogue in whispers.
“You are required to sit at the seat number that coincides with your disk,” he said, almost apologetically.
I felt stupid, really stupid. I also felt frustrated. Complicated choreography was thwarting my efforts to study.
Embarrassed by the attention I’d drawn in the otherwise pin-drop-quiet space, I decided to leave. I resolved to return another day. Next time would be easy, I thought. I now understood the etiquette. I could slip in and out like a real Pole.
Living in a communist state where basic civil liberties were denied ultimately empowered me to challenge rules when they seemed utterly baseless. I learned to lie to communist officials who asked inappropriate questions. I learned to exchange U.S. dollars on the black market for Polish Zloty because Communist-contrived exchange rates were absurd. I learned it was morally just to secretly stash illegal underground literature. People back home needed to understand the work of the pro-democracy movement.
I am still a rule follower by nature. That said, my Polish sojourn taught me that challenging unjust, nonsensical rules is, in small ways, where social progress begins.
Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected]