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He had been the leader of the prison commune, and now old friends and former acolytes turned away, scorning him as a pariah. He tried to kill himself, but was saved by prison doctors. After some time in isolation, he was placed in the same cell as Szechter. Miss Szwedowska told my father that in the days and nights she talked to Mr.

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Szechter before his death he had told her that his first doubts about Communism had arisen in a cell in Brigidka prison, in Lvov, when he spoke with a man who had been in Moscow as a guest during the Comintern meeting, and she said that he must have meant my father. My father is very tough and he does not cry easily, but after she said that he sat still for long minutes, his eyes shining with emotion.

But not all the memories pricked by his Warsaw visit were flattering. Just after he arrived, my father asked me to take him to the area where he had lived when he was a poor university student, studying law. The street has been replaced by a park that runs along a riverside highway just below the Old Town so painstakingly rebuilt after the war.

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The area is near the tourist center of the capital, with horse-drawn carriages carrying visitors over quaint cobblestone streets. The sight stimulated old feelings of guilt. This is how my father described it in a journal:.

It was the winter of and I was very poor, permanently hungry. In spite of this, I was exhilarated. I ran to lectures and ran to the library writing down everything I could not understand. I went to Parliament and listened to debates and returned home at 10 or 11 at night. But even then the streets were full of people, selling, buying, talking, quarrelling. Who were these people? Intellectually, I knew that in the narrow, teeming streets of the Muranow district there were hundreds of thousands of very poor, very helpless, very weak and tired Jews, carrying out a desperate daily fight for the necessities of life.

Emotionally, however, they were outside of my consciousness. Years later, when these people were among the millions who were gassed and had their bodies burned to ashes, I reproached myself that as a boy of 19 I had so little sympathy for my miserable neighbors and brothers and instead had joined the party of Polish industrial workers who didn't need my help. Then, after walking the streets of the Old Town, this old regret returned, evoking a sickening feeling, a mixture of nostalgia, mourning and pity that the , Jews of Warsaw have gone and that only the names on the streets remain the same.

Everywhere there are monuments to sacrifice, to suffering. Families visit cemeteries regularly and bus loads of schoolchildren come each day to the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. In Warsaw alone, there are three former prisons that are now museums. The sense of national history is everywhere.

It is as real as grandmothers, and often it boils down to genealogy and family stories. On the day we went to Auschwitz, as we walked in the rain among the rows of barracks, my father seemed to be thinking of specific losses - his sister, my mother's sisters, his nephews and nieces and the friends of his youth who perished in Nazi camps. There is a long gravel road that leads to the crumbling crematorium. My father walks slowly and uses a cane, and I could see that pieces of gravel were cutting into his thinly soled shoes. I asked him if he wanted me to ask for permission to drive him.

He said, ''No, this is the Via Dolorosa; it is supposed to hurt, and it is right that it is raining. We made our way to the end and stood in front of one of the crematoriums. The thoughts of family victims were replaced by barely comprehensible images of as many as 24, people a day, among them children too young for sins, passing to their deaths.

We needed some ritual, some incantation, to ease and affirm awe. My father intoned Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead that he had last recited as a year-old boy after his father's death. Something else was needed, but in the end neither of us could think of anything more appropriate than silence.

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Later that day, as he entered his impressions in his journal, my father wrote that ''the magnitude of the crimes was so enormous that they could be perceived only feebly through the display cases of symbolic remnants - the bales of shorn hair, the confiscated eyeglasses and the washbowls. More in hope than belief, my father cited Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger, the Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris, whose views he had been reading. The Cardinal, he recalled, had said that at Auschwitz absolute evil was unleashed on humanity for which God will yet answer with absolute good.

The sense that at the heart of Polish history lies genealogy or family stories was again emphasized one afternoon when my father and I were vis-ited by Janusz and Joanna Onyszkiewicz. He is a mathematician at the University of Warsaw who was also the national press spokesman for Solidarity when the independent labor union movement was legal. Joanna is a tall, British-born architect, who also happens to be the granddaughter of Marshal Pilsudski, who ruled prewar Poland, first as an elected leader and then as a military dictator.

She first came to Poland during the heady days of Solidarity's bloom, and when she decided to marry and live here she willingly surrendered her British citizenship. Her grandfather is today venerated widely with almost cultlike adoration. The 50th anniversary of his death earlier this year was marked in churches all over the country, and, though the Government pays little heed to his role, old copies of his out-of-print books are highly coveted and his whiskered image is seen in the photos and busts prominently displayed in many Polish living rooms.

During my father's prison years, Pilsudski, of course, was his hated nemesis, the authoritarian leader with whose police, courts and prisons he had to contend. In those years he had, perhaps daily, scorned and cursed the marshal, and now, in an irony he was clearly enjoying, he was sharing lunch with Pilsudski's granddaughter, cooing with delight at the robust infant son she held in her lap.

No one could then imagine the totalitarian regimes of Hitler or Stalin and the horrors that lay ahead. Onyszkiewicz, who is active in the Warsaw University senate, was explaining over lunch how academic freedom is being threatened by a proposed law that, among other things, would require loyalty oaths for teachers. Once again, my father was reminded of an old experience. He recalled that his first arrest, on a charge of conspiracy, took place in April , just a month before he was to have graduated with a law degree.

He ended up spending three years in prison on the charge, but after his release, one of his old professors, whom he met casually, suggested that he return to his studies. A panel from the university senate asked him only whether he had ever received pay from a foreign power, and when he replied no, he was readmitted. My father wondered whether a student jailed for Solidarity activism or for distributing underground publications could be treated this way today. In fact, there have been instances in Lodz and Poznan in which university teachers have been dismissed because of ties to Solidarity and, just recently, Bronislaw Geremek, a teacher of medieval history, was discharged from his position at the Academy of Sciences because of his Solidarity links and political views.

In our Warsaw conversations, my father several times recalled that in his day there had been brutal repressions. Once, in jail, he was forced to lie down with four other men in a tiny crawl space and kept near suffocation for 48 hours. He was on occasion beaten, and he had seen and heard others being tortured. He had friends who had been in Bereza Kartuzka, a prewar concentration camp for political prisoners, where conditions were very harsh. Still, in some ways, he thought, there may have been more tolerance then.

For one thing, political inmates were, by and large, kept together in prison.

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They had access to books, and they maintained study groups. Once, my father recalled, he was given permision to make a May Day speech to his fellow inmates.

Furthermore, in contrast to the Gdansk trial, at which Mr. Michnik was kept muzzled by the judge, my father remembered how he and others would use the prisoners' dock as a political pulpit. At one of his trials, he was even complimented by the judge on his rhetorical skill. Practically every movie and literary work includes prison motifs.

It is significant that the Polish word for ''conspirator'' does not have any negative connotations. In Polish historical experience, incarceration, banishment and exile have always enhanced the credibility and authority of the sufferers. And, as my father pointed out, the present Government of Poland may be the first group of leaders since the country was partitioned in who neither served in prisons nor fought in clandestine conspiracies.

He mentioned this as we walked through the Citadel, Warsaw's old czarist fortress where the cell occupied by the young, socialist Pilsudski lies near one once tenanted by Feliks Dzierzhinski, the Pole who later founded the Soviet secret police. Other cells bear the names of men and women who shaped Poland's history. A few days later, we went to yet another old jail that is now a museum, one that my father had known well.

We drove to Lodz, Poland's second-largest city, where we stopped first at the house at 17 Piotrkowska Street, where my father was born and where he lived his first 10 years. With great nostalgic joy, he pointed out the balcony where, according to family legend, his mother shielded him with her body when, during the failed revolution of , he came out to watch Cossack troops firing from Schultz's textile factory across the street toward striking workers scattering in the courtyard below.

He was very moved by the streets of his childhood, streets and houses that were clearly recognizable except that now, he said, they were much cleaner and populated by much better dressed and healthier looking people. The open sewers of his youth were gone.

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We continued on to the Museum of the Revolutionary Movement, which is housed in the jail in which my father on three different occasions spent the better part of a year. A sign on the door said it was open to visitors, but a uniformed guard said we could not come in. A young Polish friend who came with us said, ''Of course, he's wearing a uniform, so he has to say no. I came close to losing my temper and remarked that three times in this old man's life, when the building was a prison, he had not wanted to enter it but had been forced to, and now that it was an open museum he was being barred.

A young official came down and invited us in. My father, noticing that we were the only visitors, concluded that the place was probably visited mostly by school groups and that the appearance of three people coming off the street must have astonished the staff. We tried to find the punishment cell where he had almost suffocated, but it was gone.

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Instead, there were display cases of clandestine periodicals with names such as ''The Worker,'' ''Struggle'' and ''Independence,'' all looking quite similar to the materials published clandestinely today by Solidarity groups.