It was about 1966 when I first got a phone call from Sigmond Zarchevski. He identified himself as a senior culture ministry official from Poland. He was in New York. “Let me get right to the point,” he said. “I saw your Chad Mitchell Trio perform at Carnegie Hall two nights ago, and I have never seen a more exciting group of singers. How can we get them to visit Poland?” It turned out we would both be in New York about a month later, so we agreed to get together. A month went by, and I was sitting down for dinner with Zarchevsky in New York.
Zarchevsky was a cultural bureaucrat, so I wasn’t surprised that he was conversant with the arts and culture. He was also, it turned out, sophisticated politically and we found that we could relate to a lot of the same things. He had fought with the partisans in the civil war, and had been a communist in the pre-war Polish party, which was one of the best — it had been purged by Stalin three times. He was fully acquainted with Deutscher. He had a historical appreciation of Trotsky.
Tragically, I thought, Zarchevsky reflected the view of many honest Communists who I think thought they could cheat history. “I understood what Stalinism is,” he told me. “l understand the problems in the Polish Party and the Polish state. But in spoite of it all, we are still the future. In spite of ourselves, you might say, we will overcome Stalinism. Bourgeois democracy surely has no future: for better or for worse, we are it.” Zarchevsly had met some of the CP periphery in New York. He thought they were political morons. “You are the only political person I have met in America,” he said expansively.
After that I made a point of meeting Zarchevsky whenever he was in the UNited States. We kept trying to set something up for a Trio, but the Polish Culture ministry couIdn’t even pay their air fare. “At least you, Frank, should go to Poland,” Zarchevsky told me more than once.
I did not hear from Zarchevsky again. Two years later, word came that he had died of cancer. I found out from the man who was named to replace him.
“My name is George,” he told me on the telephone. “I am right now in Chicago. May I meet with you?” There could have been no clearer contrast between the two men. Where Zarchevsky was urbane and continental, George looked so much the caricature of the broad-faced Polish peasant that you could picture him playing the lead in some of those dumb Polish jokes. The first time he came to our office he was wearing an orange sport coat and he was dead drunk. It was noon. Next to Zarchevsky, I thought, this man certainly doesn’t bathe the Polish culture ministry in glory.
I took George out to lunch, mainly to get him out of the office. “My former boss left your name on a list of excellent American contacts,” he said. “He spoke quite warmly of you.” I thanked him, wondering how I would break the news that the Mitchell Trio was no more and that he was wasting his time on me.
“I am to invite you,” he continued, “to come to Poland next year for our biennial international contest of performance and talent. You will be the American judge.”
This was the first I had heard of this angle. “Sopot is a typical middle European resort town,” George told me. The pop music festival was created because they had a ten-week classical music festival, and they had an extra week to fill and wanted tourists to come to Sopot. It takes place in a gorgeous natural amphitheater in the forest. Without thinking too much about it, I realized that I wanted very much to go to Poland and be a judge, and I accepted the invitation.
In the interim, I almost forgot about my promise to attend, until George would come through town and I would see him for another drunken luncheon. George was always drunk, and he was always trying to cage records or tickets. I tried, on one of these visits, to get him to talk politics, but he was a stone wall. With George, what you saw was evidently what you got.
When the time came to make the trip, I paid wholesale for a box of Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd records for George’s kid and brought them along.
George was waiting for me at the Warsaw airport, which was the first surprising thing. There was very little traffic to contend with, and none of the sense of a major country’s international hub. It wasn’t that I felt like I was going into the cold war enemy’s territory, it was more like going into the airport at Michigan City.
The first day I went to the Warsaw ghetto, alone. The next day George appeared at my hotel room. “I am to take you all over,” he pronounced. We took a cab to the Whispering Forest, where 40,000 partisans were killed in World War ll. Afterward we sat down at a restaurant on the edge of the forest that had been Chopin’s home. It was one of the better restaurants I had ever eaten in. Once again I attempted to bait George into a little politics.
Finally, George banged his hand on the table. “You want to know about politics?” He demanded. “You want to know about communism? My parents were killed in World War II lighting with the partisans.
“At the age of fourteen I went too,” he said. “l was a part of the young communist league. Most of my family was killed. It didn’t matter. We were fighting the fascism, building the future.” He stopped, stared at me for a moment, and held up the half—empty bottle. “Now, there is only one future that I know of,” he said, and paused again.
I worried that I had lost him.
“This is the most corrupt regime in the world,” George said suddenly, putting the bottle down hard. “The bureaucracy is strangling the country and the only thing I live for is my son and my booze. And my dacha in Yugoslavia.” I thought it best not to point out that he hadn‘t mentioned his wife.
“Don’t talk to me about communism,” he said. “Don’t talk to me about socialism. I know all about it. I‘m living it. You are not.” We both were silent for a while.
“You may have romantic ideas,” he said finally, glaring at me. “That is probably why Zarchevsky took a liking to you. He was a romantic too.”
George delivered me to the festival the next day, where I met his wife and handed over the records to his son. After that his responsibility for taking care of me was over. He had told me more about Poland and Eastern Europe I than I cared to know. If I had been more perceptive, I suppose I might have detected the seeds of the future in what I’d seen, but all I really took from it was that you can’t judge a man by the color of his jacket.