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First Person: Steve FallonBy Steve Fallon
Published: January 22 2010 23:25 | Last updated: January 22 2010 23:25
In September 1975, I was a fresh-faced young American with wanderlust and a desire to get more than just a peek behind the Iron Curtain. So when I took the train from Paris to the Polish People’s Republic, where I was to teach for a year in the new English department at the University of Silesia, near Katowice, I was hoping to learn a lot over the coming months.
In Poland the second world war was not in the distant past as it was in the west; one not infrequent reminder was the number of people straphanging on trams who bore numbers tattooed on to their arms.
I knew I was being watched (or at least listened in on) from the very start. As I lay in bed the morning after my arrival, a woman let herself into my room and removed my telephone, returning it an hour later. At a teachers’ meeting several months later, a colleague with whom I had had a falling out over unpaid work said that he’d have to speak in English because “Steve’s Polish stinks.” “How do you know?” I asked him. “Have you been listening in on my phone again?”
But until I saw the 2006 film The Lives of Others, about the state monitoring of east Germans, I never dreamed the SB – the Polish secret police – would bother keeping a dossier on me. In 2007, I was hired to update the Lonely Planet guide to Poland and while I was there I decided to visit the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Katowice to see if there was indeed a file on me. My old friend Marek came with me to the institute’s modern offices, where, looking at the form I needed to complete, we discussed why I thought a file might exist. “Let’s see,” I said to Marek. “Poland, 1975, American, gay… I’m not certain.” The young receptionist looked at me. “Mr Fallon,” she said sharply, “you most certainly will have a file.”
Almost a year and a half later, it arrived in the post. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this, full of platitudes and mistakes. “Mr Fallon has a bubbly personality, is very presentable,” I read. I learned that I hung out with Lidia D (I knew a Sabina D), that I was having an affair with a woman I had never heard of and that my best friend Jolanta was in love with me (I’ve since learned from Jolanta that at least this was true). There was nothing about me cruising the train station – the SB were clearly not the East German Stasi.
My informers bore the pseudonyms “Ewa”, “Zbyszek” and “Arski”. I had strong suspicions on one but didn’t give the identities of this ghostly trio much thought. Then, about six months later, another letter arrived from the IPN, this time announcing Decision 42/09: “To identify the persons who passed information to the state’s security organs about the applicant.”
The IPN withheld the real names of “Ewa” and “Zbyszek” because they could not be “unequivocally” linked to me. “Arski”, as I suspected, was identified as a former colleague.
My file never caused me any hardship; it just makes for a good dinner-party tale. But what damage did “Arski” and his ilk do to colleagues, my students, my friends? Marek, for example, was refused a passport in 1973, a time when everyone was allowed to travel from Poland.
I decided to find “Arski” and, after an e-mail exchange, we spoke on the phone for half an hour. He told me he had no idea that the SB had given him the pseudonym “Arski”, and said he had provided the police only with the most basic information about foreign lecturers like me. Otherwise, he said, how would we have got visas to work in Poland?’
“Arski” even suggested we were in the same boat. “When I worked in the US, I know that American services collected information on me, too. Who supplied it, I do not know and do not care.”
The thing is, I did care. And now I know.