The Value of Individual Freedom

An East-European Insight

A Jew discussed emigration with a friend. Where to go? Spinning his friend’s globe, eyeing it sceptically, he asked, “Could you pass me another one?”

I also remember a conversation with a young French B’nai B’rith member. After telling me his story and hearing mine, he asked, “Why didn't your grand mum take all of you to the west?” “Well, she did,” I said, “just look at the map.” He didn't get the point.

By way of explanation, my mother’s mother was born in 1900 in Zdunska Wola, a town in central Poland where about one third of the population was Jewish. In 1924, she was arrested as a Communist for alleged espionage for Soviet Russia and sent to Moscow in an exchange for Polish prisoners from the recent Polish-Soviet war. In 1937, she was arrested again (I found it funny) for alleged espionage for Poland and – she was apparently a double agent – sent to the Gulag. She survived.

My mother, born in Moscow to a relatively luxurious life of a Communist expat, ended up in a Soviet orphanage, then better, at a Soviet university in Saratov. She too survived.

I was born above the Arctic Circle in a dugout on a reindeer skin on the threshold of the Gulag, and eventually found myself in a democratic EU country (a Jewish paradox). The French guy asked me a wrong question, “Why she didn’t take you to the west?” “Are you kidding?” I retorted. “From Vorkuta to Warsaw was as far to the west as from Warsaw to Lisbon, not to mention Paris.”

What does it all have to do with individual freedom? Well, a lot, collectively and personally, because each and every human life (Jewish included) is lived by existential choices, the freedom of choice. Having survived the German Holocaust in a Russian Gulag (yet another paradox), my grandmother took our small family to Poland in 1956 – back in her case, and into a new life for my mother and myself.

Here I’ve been living ever since, enjoying my personal freedom in a “godforsaken land of graves, ashes and dybbuks,” as I heard once upon a time in New York. Because the young Frenchman was not the only one. Wherever I went, I have had to explain, “Why Poland?”

The country’s reputation among world Jewry isn’t good, and rightly so. Poles, as many others, gave the Germans a helping hand in the Holocaust, and in 1968 organised an anti-Semitic campaign of their own which resulted in a massive emigration from Poland of some 13-20,000 of the remaining Jews. Poland is an undeniably anti-Semitic country – unfortunately, not unlike the rest of the globe (European capitals and American campuses included), as evidenced sadly by the international community’s callous response to the bloody events of October 7.

Nonetheless, back in the 1960s and 1970s Poland was a liveable place, also for Jews – as the saying went, it was the merriest barrack in our eastern bloc. It was not without annoyances, however. For example, in 1967, I refused to go to the summer camp from my mother's workplace where previously I had been bullied as a “non-Catholic and thus a Jew” or even a “Russian” because of my Russian-sounding first name. The family tribunal of two great-uncles, my grandmother and mother decreed that I should go to the Jewish summer camp on the Baltic coast (organised by the Social and Cultural Association of Jews in Poland, TSKZ), and so I did.

Moreover, when joining the dissident movement, I didn’t expect harsh repressions such as in the USSR, Czechoslovakia or the DDR. This is going to sound like heresy, but in Poland dissidents lived, in a sense, more freely than other Polish citizens. We were not afraid of losing our jobs because we often had to make do otherwise – with my M.A. in mathematics, I worked as a house painter – nor were we afraid of being refused a passport because, with few exceptions, we wouldn't get one anyway.

We did not live in fear of superiors and could say out loud whatever we wished to say. Despite routine police harassment, we lived exciting, eventful, bohemian lives. In 1986, still under the Communist rule, as a self-employed wall decorator, I collected my first passport to embark on a hilarious trip to Oxford with a newly acquired Ph.D. in sociology.

For ordinary citizens, the passport itself embodied the restricted freedom of movement; it belonged not to the individual but to the state, issued after interrogation and collected immediately upon return. The Jewish émigrés of March 1968 were given a one-time “travel document,” a one-way ticket, instead of passports.

As the great Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski (whom I had the honour to meet in person) rightly observed, “All the deceptive manipulations to which the word ‘freedom’ is subjected in order to deflate it from its ordinary content are unconscious tributes paid to freedom by its enemies; they profess, as it were, by that very deception, that freedom is still regarded as the greatest treasure of mankind and that therefore it cannot be fought under its very name. But it is a treasure which, like air, is almost imperceptible as long as we have it.”

What do we see when looking at the globe and human history? That individual freedom is a rare commodity. It is too precious for the ruled to enjoy it universally and for the rulers to give it away for free.