Food and Freedom: A Retrospective on Poland

Ryan Waller ’24


The lives of those in Poland in the 1980s consisted of work, hunger, and fear. My grandparents and my mother both suffered under the rule of the communist government in Poland. Following the Second World War, Poland had a Russian puppet government. The Polish people and Polish government officials feared Russia, and that ever-looming threat was exploited to “correct” the behaviours of those who stood up against the Communist government.

In Poland, the problem for most people was not money but the fact that there was nothing to buy. My grandfather told me how he stood in lines that stretched blocks for food. He would wait in line, hungry, until his work shift started and then would ask someone in line to hold his spot for him. On his days off, he would return the favour. My grandfather was not the only one in the family who stood in lines to help get food for the family. My mother, who was only eleven years old at the time, often missed two to three hours of school to buy butter or other household items. The deal between teachers and students was that students would provide a small amount of what they stood in line for to the teacher, almost as a tax for an excused absence. This, unbelievably, was commonplace in Poland and not seen as a bribe but as a justified exchange—a way to help each other. Often, students would have to take two sets of class notes: one for the student in line and one for themselves.

In later years, a food coupon system was introduced, and with it came an underground market for selling food. These stores were technically legal but frowned upon by the government. Underground shops sold foods at three times their government value.

Furthermore, if you had excess food in your home, you could sell it to the underground store for money. When my grandfather fled to West Germany while the rest of my family was still in Poland, he would send food for the family. My grandfather sent packages filled with SPAM, seen as a delicacy in Poland. If he sent extra food, my grandmother sold it to the underground stores for extra money.

Poland was not a place with a lot of future promise, and my grandfather joined Solidarity to fight against communism. The night before the civil war broke out on December 13, 1981, my mother and grandmother were at home. They heard the breaking down of doors and the imprisonment of Solidarity supporters. Thankfully, my grandfather was in Germany at the time; it was not safe for him to return to Poland, as he would have been arrested.

Western society takes for granted its luscious lifestyle and fails to understand the pangs that other countries have endured just an ocean away. Poland’s citizens lived in constant fear of their government—hungering not only for food, but for democracy and freedom.

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