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EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : Plock, Poland : For Better or for Worse : Life after the death of communism is sweet for some, bitter for others. The adjustment has brought strains.


PLOCK, Poland — It was a wet, dreary morning, and the sulfurous belches from Poland's largest petroleum refinery had this medieval town stinking like a rotten egg.

Kazimierz Matuszewski's mood was just as foul. He was neatly dressed in pressed trousers and a matching knit shirt, but the unending line at the unemployment office had deposited him outside the front door. By the time he worked his way inside and got the bad news, he was soggy and ornery.

Sorry, no jobs. At least not for a 56-year-old former office worker who has been unemployed for more than a year. Matuszewski had heard it so many times before that he wondered aloud why he even bothered anymore.

"Under communism, we all had a good life," he said wistfully, mopping raindrops from his bushy brow. "Everyone had security, everyone was granted a job. Even medicine was free. Now Poland is like America. You need a lot of money to get anything."

Just off the main road a short distance away, Stanislaw Tucholski was sifting through a stack of invoices in the musty garage of his red-brick house. Tens of thousands of dollars in electronic and machine parts extended into the rafters. His Volkswagen had been long ago relegated to the pothole-ridden street.

The converted garage is a retail shop and showroom for Tucholski's thriving metal works company, started in the late 1980s as a one-man operation hammering steel in the same cramped quarters. Tucholski now has 20 people working for him. His wife, Janina, helps run the business, and he is expanding into a cathedral-sized blacksmith's shop just outside of town. His $60,000 in monthly orders come from as far away as Canada.

"A lot of people complain that things were better the old way," said Tucholski, 45, who went to work for himself as a means of survival after being fired from his state construction job because of his Solidarity trade union activities. "That is nonsense. I dreamed all my life of having something of my own, and this would have been impossible until now."

Tucholski is bullish on Poland's future; Matuszewski longs for its past. Together they reflect the seesaw struggle for the nation's heart and soul being carried out every day in towns and villages from the Baltic Sea to the Tatra Mountains, places much like this former riverfront capital 75 miles northwest of Warsaw.

The fate of the post-Communist experiment in Poland, as in much of Eastern Europe, is being debated by politicians, businessmen and academics in Warsaw, Gdansk and Krakow. But it is also being sorted out--often with great anguish and hand-wringing--by everyday Poles in little-known outposts in Poland's heartland, unwavering towns that have outlasted centuries of change.

"We have shown that we can produce a revolution to destroy something, but we have yet to show that we can create something as well," said Andrzej Celinski, a former Solidarity activist who represents Plock in the Polish Parliament. "Unfortunately, in towns like Plock many people's mentality is still in communism. They have freedom, but they are not using it as pioneers would."

Plock has endured many invasions in its thousand-year history, and town historian Jakub Chojnacki predicted with confidence that it will master the capitalist one as well. People complain a lot these days, he said impatiently from his antique-adorned Old Town office, but he said the arrival of free markets most probably will be recorded by future historians as just another colorful fiber in the plush historic fabric in this town, whose name in Polish is pronounced Pwawtsk .

Plock's story is Poland's story, a continuum of triumph and failure. It has been plundered and raided from east and west, has played host to kings and queens, has served as the nation's capital, has burned to the ground half a dozen times and has been swallowed up by Germany twice in this century.

In the 1960s, as part of the socialist vision of an industrialized workers' paradise, one of the largest petrochemical refineries in Eastern Europe was erected at the north end of town. It is a vast complex that has polluted the air, dirtied the soil, tripled the town's population and cluttered its historic horizon with unsightly smokestacks and concrete apartment buildings.

free-market economy will change this town as well," said Chojnacki, who does not hide his nostalgia for the lost Communist era, a period when his 174-year-old Plock Scientific Society enjoyed generous state subsidies.

"But this is still a question of many years to come," he added. "The old system gave us free schools, retirement benefits and what we call the Plock phenomenon--30 years of industrialization. We are still waiting to see what the new system will bring."

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