Posted on 15.06.2011 in People's Voices

Maja Komorowska

“The West was another world for us back then. Today it is hard to imagine the differences that existed between Poland and the West. Poland with its greyness contrasted sharply with the West and its colourfulness. I have to stress too, that I always appreciated the fact that I could travel and see the West with my very own eyes during those difficult times.”

She is one of the best-known theatre and film actresses in Poland, during the seventies she was a member of the Jerzy Grotowski group. She cooperated closely with Krystian Lupa, as well as most renown Polish film directors: including Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Tadeusz Konwicki. Currently, she works as an actress for the Współczesny Theatre in Warsaw and teaches at the Theatre Academy in Warsaw.

Maja Komorovska

Maja Komorovska

As an actress you are capable of portraying different characters, from dramatic to comedy. Did you undergo a transformation of sorts while travelling abroad too? What impact did travelling have on your life back in the days of communist Poland? Undoubtedly, travelling was very important back then. Travelling afforded one the ability to see a world that was different from the one we were living in. Generally, I did not travel for private reasons in those days, though. I travelled mostly to perform with a theatre or play in a film, or else, to appear at a film screening. Privately, I only went abroad once to visit my sister in West Germany, in a place near Hanover. Apart from having to wait for a passport, I never had any problems.

What are your memories of your first trip to the West?

I went to the West for the first time in the sixties. It was with Grotowski’s ‘Teatr Laboratorium’. I was playing in ‘The Constant Prince’. We were performing in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Then we went to Paris and Spoleto in Italy. These trips were an adventure for me, an opportunity to discover a new, unknown world. We knew that we were living in a communist State, and that travelling abroad was a privilege. While there, we were completely focused on doing our job well.

Did you have any problems with obtaining a passport or a visa?

The only inconvenience was the wait for a passport. I didn’t have to apply for it though. PAGART Agency or Film Polski used to make all the arrangements for me.

The West was another world for us back then. Today it is hard to imagine the differences that existed between Poland and the West. Poland with its greyness contrasted sharply with the West and its colourfulness. I have to stress too, that I always appreciated the fact that I could travel and see the West with my very own eyes during those difficult times.

So it was easier for an artist to go abroad than for the so-called ordinary folk?

Grotowski’s Theatre was a special place. I was becoming better known, also abroad. When we were on the road with a play we didn’t have time to explore the city we were performing in. We used to rehearse in the morning and perform in the evening.

Of course, the West enraptured us with its wealth and prosperity. One wanted to bring something back for one’s family or friends. But our means were scarce. We were given a daily allowance in a foreign currency but it was rather meagre. Probably, today’s youth would find it difficult to imagine but we were not allowed to take foreign currencies out of Poland. And abroad one could not, of course, use ATMs or pay with a credit card in a shop. Thus we tried to be thrifty with our allowances, save some, and use the money to buy gifts for our family and friends. I remember that I bought a non-iron shirt for my son that seemed so beautiful to me back then. All these sweaters and tops filling the shelves of shops danced in front of our eyes with their colours. I remember that my mother wanted so much to have a box of good matches. So I bought them for her.

Was your application for a passport ever refused?

I had difficulties relating to travelling only twice. I was working for Krzysztof Zanussi. Zanussi was not that well known as a film director as yet so we were not allowed to go abroad when we wanted. Zanussi reminded me of that recently. My memories of that time are somewhat vague because matters such as those relating to travelling arrangements were not something I used to deal with. I remember though that when I was awarded a Grand Prix at the San Remo Festival I was not able to go there to pick up the award. Something like this seems impossible to me today: an award-winning actress unable to show up at a film festival to pick up her statue. So I did not participate in the Grand Prix event. Instead, I was invited to a meeting in Warsaw where an official – I don’t remember whether from Film Polski or from the Polish Ministry of Culture – handed me a Gold Medal on a ribbon with the colours of the Italian flag and words “San Remo”. And that was the “award” I picked up.

Did your first encounter with the West cause you a shock because of the consumer opportunities, shops well stocked with goods of all sorts, or did you also suffer a culture shock?

As I said, I didn’t have time to come into contact with real life abroad. My time was spent in rehearsals and giving performances – on the intensive work. During the stay in Japan and India – where we were staying as guests of festival organisers – we were put up in a luxury hotel at their expense. This luxury was a shock to me. I felt uncomfortable.

Travelling allowed one to come into contact with another political system – democracy. Of course, we knew that it were not material goods, the well-stocked shops that were the most important element in a democratic State. That was the appeal of the West. However, whenever I arrived back at an airport in Poland, so grey and unexciting – when the colours of the West were becoming only a memory – I felt joy that I was back in my country again. I was surprised that I was so willing to return. And I felt like that every time I came back. Throughout all the years of communist Poland I knew that I wouldn’t know how to live as an émigré. I wouldn’t emigrate even to be free. My father remained in Poland even though our family lost all its wealth. Though Poland became stricken with poverty and the Stalinist regime took over, my father still used to say that our place is here and nowhere else. My parents instilled in us a love for our country. I wanted to work in Poland. I wanted to achieve something here. I wanted to have control over my life here, in my homeland. I was always in a hurry to get back home. Colourful shops, the wealth, even the freedom, were not enough to keep me in the West. I had a feeling that I had to “guard” my country. There were some “small” matters in Poland but yet we thought that we were the ones who had to attend to them. I was not the only one who used to think like that.

Did anything unpleasant ever happen to you during passport control or customs clearance?

I was once subjected to a body search. It was during Martial Law. But it was done rather for show. I was taken into a separate room where I was subjected to a rather cursory search. It was obvious that border guards and customs officers were not deriving any satisfaction from their work. Of course, they used to go through our things to check whether we were not by any chance carrying something forbidden. But passengers in free countries were, and are also subjected to checks at borders, and that’s understandable. During a check at a US airport you even have to take your footwear off and pass through a metal detecting gate to board a plane. But that is understandable after the 11 September events.

Were you ever made to feel a second-class person abroad?

No, I was not. I never felt that. On the contrary, we felt we belonged to the first-class category because people in the West were interested in us. They tried to approach us and see us. In addition, I really didn’t want to feel like a “second-class” person so I simply didn’t allow myself to feel that way. Of course, a person from the Communist Block visiting the West was aware that they had everything. And I am not thinking here only of consumerism. And despite having all that wealth and prosperity around me I only brought back a box of matches. Of course, I used to wonder back then why the world was organised that way. Why was there such inequality in the world? I didn’t imagine back than that Poland would undergo a transformation towards democracy so soon. Of course, our path towards democracy was, and still is, very difficult, and democracy – as John Paul II used to say – is not only given to us but also demanded of us. But back in those days we did not expect that communism would collapse. It’s a well-known fact that there were those, though, in Poland who were working towards some form of democratisation and believed that it would eventually happen but nobody knew exactly when.

Which of your journeys was the longest?

It was the one to India and Japan. I went there with Krzysztof Zanussi. As far as the culture and geography is concerned these are the countries that are located furthest from Poland. On the other hand, the trip to France showed me what democracy and civil society were really all about. It also made me aware of the enormous gap between Poland and their democracy that existed back then. From the perspective of time gone by, when I think of communist Poland and my foreign journeys back then, I remember how much I used to long for my homeland. I always wanted to live here.