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Portrait of Poland today. Two books help illuminate a complex reality

The Private Poland: An Anthropologist's Look at Everyday Life, by Janine Wedel. New York: Facts on File Publications. 226 pp. $17.95. KOR, Workers' Defense Committee in Poland, 1976-1981, by Jan Josef Lipski, translated by Olga Amsterdamska and Gene M. More. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 561 pp. $39.95. In the West, Poland evokes images of totalitarian tragedy, political repression combined with economic penury. Martial law, Solidarity's banning, and the recent arrest of underground leader Zbigniew Bujak have reinforced this picture of a nation behind bars.

Two excellent new books show that the reality is much more complex, both saddening and inspiring. Both Janine Wedel's ``Private Poland'' and Jan Josef Lipski's ``KOR, Workers' Defense Committee in Poland,'' offer insightful portraits of this country, where the embattled individual spirit struggles for human dignity.

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Wedel's ``The Private Poland'' can be compared to Hedrick Smith's ``The Russians.'' Though Wedel's prose lacks Smith's crispness and color, she paints a fascinating picture of daily life.

How different Poland remains from its big neighbor! In the Soviet Union, Americans find it almost impossible to make friends and to be invited into private homes. In Poland, Wedel is flooded with invitations. In Russia, Americans encounter little open discussion. In Poland, Wedel takes part in fascinating intellectual debates, with officials as well as dissidents.

Anecdotes peel away our one-dimensional view of a totalitarian state. A Communist Party member joins Wedel at the official May Day parade -- and later tells her with pride that his daughter is participating in the illegal Solidarity march. Two police officers harass her -- and later ask her to help them pick out perfume for their girlfriends when they meet by chance in a shopping center.

A Fulbright scholar, Wedel has traveled and lived in Poland since 1977. She knows her territory well and makes sense out of all its seeming contradictions. Her explanation is that Poles lead double lives: the public and the private.

Instead of the explicit exchanges in the West, Wedel shows how nothing is explicit in Poland. Westerners go to a store and buy a handbag. Not Poles. They must make an elaborate private arrangement to obtain it. So Wedel trades her scarce supply of coffee for an equally scarce handbag.

Through such arrangements, Poles manage to sidestep the constraints of their society, to buy meat or toilet paper, to secure work or living space, or to bail out arrested family members or friends. How can the Roman Catholic church thrive in an atheist state? With 95 percent of the population Catholic, even communists attend church. How can this widespread unofficial economy exist in a state-directed economy? Because even government officials depend on it to survive.

The gulf between private and public behavior has deep negative side effects: It erodes respect for authority and leads to constant cheating. Wedel finds herself lying to obtain what she wants and she leaves Poland wondering whether Poles ever will find peace with themselves.

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At the same time, she admires Poles for succeeding at softening the sharp edges of their repressive system. She values the strong ties between family members and friends, and is amazed at how much success Poles have in forging a humanistic society.

The valiant political struggle behind this success is the subject of Jan Josef Lipski's book on ``KOR.'' KOR stands for Workers' Defense Committee. In 1976, a group of dissident intellectuals joined together to proclaim their solidarity with workers who had organized short strikes in factories at Radom and Ursus. The new committee provided legal and financial help to workers facing trial.

This alliance between workers and intellectuals represented a bold stroke. Other eastern European dissident groups remain detached from the working class and the larger public. By linking Poland's intellectual dissidents with dissatisfied workers, KOR laid the groundwork for the creation of the independent trade union Solidarity.

Lipski was one of KOR's founders. A prominent historian, literary critic, and essayist, he has written an informative, insider's account of the organization. With meticulous detail, he chronicles the group's development, describing individual trials of workers, police harassment, successes, and failures. The reader learns how daunting a task it is to confront a totalitarian society -- and how a small number of individuals united by moral certainty and physical courage can successfully blunt its harder edges.

After the creation of Solidarity in August 1980, KOR's members took up key posts in the independent union's leadership. With KOR's work effectively carried out by Solidarity, the group dissolved itself in 1981.

A few months later, martial law was declared. Most of KOR's leaders were interned. Some succeeded in escaping and joining the underground. Others like Lipski were abroad and returned, only to be sent straight to prison.

Today, they remain in limbo. While Adam Michnik, one of KOR's founders, was recently released, another former KOR leader, Jacek Kuron, told this reporter in an interview in July in Warsaw that he was surprised to be out of prison.

Despite this repression, the spirit of KOR persists. Lipski notes that when KOR was formed, ``those who were fully active in the movement in defense of human and civil rights and in the fight for free trade unions numbered only a few hundred people, yet today there are tens of thousands, and behind those, millions more.'' With good reason, this broad support leaves Lipski and his readers ``cautiously optimistic'' about Poland's future.

Special correspondent William Echikson recently returned from an extensive writing tour of Eastern bloc countries.

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