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In a small Polish farm community, during the fall planting season of 1981, events occurred which electrified the world, sending reverberations of magnitude to capitals as diverse as Washington, Peking and especially Moscow.
This village of Bukowo, 763 souls, stood at the spot where the great river Vistula turns to the north in its stately passage from its birthplace in the Carpathian Mountains at the south to its destiny in the Baltic Sea at the north. In the little settlement there was a stone castle erected in A.D. 914 as a guard against marauders from the east, but this had been destroyed in the early years when those marauders arrived in stupefying force. Each subsequent owner of the village had planned at one time or other either to tear down the ruins or rebuild them, but none had done so because the old castle exercised a spell on all who saw it, and there was a legend among the villagers that so long as their ruined tower stood, they would stand. There must have been some truth to this because there had often been great clamor in Bukowo, but like its doomed tower, it still stood.
Nearly thirty-six million Poles, of whom eighteen million were of voting age, were controlled by the Communist party of only three million members. This minority had made a symbolic concession right at the start of the present trouble. They agreed to hold the discussions over farm policy in the very village from which the principal protester came, and this was interpreted by all as a sincere gesture of good will, but as Janko Buk, the leader they were trying to placate, said: “With the steel strikers giving them so much trouble in Gdansk, they can’t afford to have us on their backs, too.”
The Communists had chosen this village for several additional reasons. It lay in the heart of a large agricultural district and was thus representative. It was also well removed from any big city whose practiced agitators might try to influence or even disrupt proceedings. And perhaps most important, it was near the recently renovated Bukowski palace, with its seventy rooms available for meetings of whatever size might be required.
The three names—Buk for the peasant leader of the troubles, Bukowo for his village, and Bukowski for the family which had once owned the palace—obviously stemmed from the same root, the strong word buk signifying beech tree, and this was appropriate because from time past remembering, the vast area east of the river had contained a large forest whose principal trees had been oaks, pines, ash, maples and especially beech, those tall, heavy trees with excellent trunks. Through the centuries foresters had selectively cut these trees, sometimes floating the great trunks all the way to the Baltic for shipment to Hamburg and Antwerp, but all the woodsmen had carefully tended a particularly noble stand of beech that defined the eastern edge of the village. Like the castle which they resembled, the beeches of Bukowo possessed a special grace.
The great forest of which they formed such a major part had not borne a name until A.D. 888, when the extremely primitive people who lived between it and the river were frightened by a semi-madman who lived amongst them. He claimed that one evening while returning home with a bundle of faggots collected from under the beech trees, he had been accosted by the devil, who wore about his neck long chains which clinked and clanged, and he convinced them, especially the children, that if they listened closely when the devil was afoot, they could hear the rattling chains.
The dense woods was named the Forest of Szczek in that long-ago year, and everyone agreed that the name was well chosen, for clinking, clanging sounds did often come from this forest, and since in Polish the letter e—if printed with an accent, ę—carries an n sound, the word was pronounced shtchenk, which resembles the sound that a chain clinking would make.
The villagers protected the ruins of their good-luck castle and tended the beech trees they loved, but they were proudest of their palace. It had been assembled in rambling style over many centuries by the poor Bukowskis, who had been little better than peasants themselves although acknowledged as petty nobles, and in grand style by the Bukowskis of 1896, who had stumbled upon a fortune.
The palace stood on a slight rise overlooking the castle ruins and the Vistula beyond and was a place of real magnificence, the equal of the lesser French châteaux along the Loire. Shaped like a two-story capital U, the open part with its two protruding wings facing west, its long major base faced east, overlooking the village and the forest beyond. It had been heavily damaged in the closing days of World War II during the German defeat and the Russian victory, but its many rooms had been rebuilt in the 1950s and now functioned as a museum, a rest home for Communist party VIPs and a meeting place for major convocations. A good chauffeur could drive from Warsaw in something under four hours and from Krakow in less than three, so that when government officials selected Bukowo as the site for this important conference they knew what they were doing. Anyone who had visited the Bukowski palace once wanted to do so again.
A major charm of the setting was the village which perched at the edge of the forest. Even before the rude castle had been built or the forest named, a few hovels had collected here, and in the more than a thousand years which had followed, the number had constantly but slowly increased, with the addition of one or two new cottages every fifty years. Improvements came slowly, for the petty nobles who occupied the more permanent buildings that would evolve into the palace cared little about what happened to their peasants. Over a space of eight hundred years no cottage in Bukowo had other than a dirt floor. For nine hundred years none had a chimney, none had windows, and some cottages had passed a hundred years without acquiring a permanent door.
Yet improvements did slowly filter in, a wooden roof to replace a thatch, a slab of precious glass for a rude window, so that in time an attractive collection of harmonious, low, modestly colored cottages grouped themselves artistically about the three sides of a trim central rectangle. As with the palace, the open end faced the Vistula, with the backs of the cottages abutting against the grove of beech trees. Peasants who were born and raised in Bukowo preferred it to any other villages they knew, but this was a limited endorsement because many would have had an opportunity to see only those few that were within a dozen miles. Beyond that perimeter the villagers rarely moved.
That was Bukowo: primeval forest to the east, a splendid grove of beech trees, a snug village, a handsome palace, ancient castle ruins and, dominating everything, the majesty of the Vistula. Here was where the most advanced theories of the contemporary world would do battle.
Sessions would be held in one of the many medium-sized rooms on the upper floor of the palace, and there were six widely recognized clues by which those attending would be able to determine the importance of their meeting. In Communist Poland if guests invited to a formal discussion were of trivial position, only tea was served, in plain cups and from a plain pot. Guests slightly more important saw with gratification that the teacups were placed on a lace doily. Those of medium power sometimes gasped with pleasure when bottles of a delicious black-currant cordial called sok (juice) were to be provided, but one did not wield real power until the fourth level was reached: all the preceding plus a bottle of really good brandy.
If the visitors held truly high office, a plate of cookies would be added, delicious things wafer-thin and decorated with sugared designs, but if the official being honored held a cabinet position, or comparable rank in the army or church, or if he was a cinema star or a leading editor, a sixth mark of honor could be reached. In addition to the five customary degrees—tea to cookies—a final one appeared: actual sandwiches, made of the best bread, with thick butter and tangy cheese, or ham, or spiced chicken. Persons attending a meeting where all this was offered did not require medieval trumpets or modern cannon salutes; they knew they came with honors.
For the meeting of the agricultural consultants, sandwiches were prepared and a chocolate cake.
The Communist representatives reached the palace first, and custodians showed them to their rooms; with so many to choose from, it was easy to get one overlooking the castle to the south and the river to the west. Clerks and research assistants received rooms looking toward the beech trees, and some deemed these preferable, for the Forest of Szczek was in its own way as beautiful as the river.
The arrival of the cabinet minister occasioned a good deal of merriment, for his name was Szymon Bukowski, and everyone joked: “It’s nice to be in your palace,” and he had fun explaining that the Bukowskis who had owned this showplace were not from his Bukowskis, but nevertheless everyone kept calling it his palace.