Europe's Persistent Gap

03/18/2015 04:43 pm ET | Updated May 18, 2015

It was a shock for many East Germans when they visited West Germany for the first time -- not just in 1989 but way back in 1959. Thirty years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany had already recovered from the devastation of World War II. Between 1950 and 1960, the average GDP growth for West Germany was 8.2 percent, and it was during this period that the London Times declared the country's performance a Wirtschaftswunder, an economic miracle.

Many East Germans were so impressed by what they saw in West Germany that they didn't return. "Since the foundation of the GDR in 1949 and the end of Honecker's first full year as Secretary for Security in 1958, 2.1 million East Germans had fled the country that Ulbricht built," writes Frederick Taylor in The Berlin Wall. "Almost a million would leave during he next three years. In the first twelve years of its existence East Germany lost around a sixth of its population." It was no surprise, then, that the GDR built the Wall in 1961.

Even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Germany's economic performance still serves as a model for those further to the east. Poland, for instance, has posted one of the more successful economic records of the countries of East-Central Europe. But this success is nothing compared with what West Germany was able to achieve in the two decades after World War II. And that's one reason why two million Poles have left their country.

Adam Jagusiak is one of those Polish émigrés. When I met him in Sopot in 1990, he was working with other activists to stop the country's first nuclear power plant in Zarnowiec, a protest that ultimately succeeded. But the group that Jagusiak was involved with -- Freedom and Peace (Wolnosc i Pokoj, or WiP) -- was dying out, and he was not optimistic about the future. Eventually he took a job with the Polish foreign ministry that brought him in 1992 to New York to work at the Polish consulate. He has stayed there ever since, only returning to Poland as a visitor.

When he looks back at what has changed or not changed over the last two decades in Poland, he is most disappointed with the economic performance.

"It's 23 years since 1990," Jagusiak told me in an interview in New York in November 2013. "It's longer than the interwar period, the intermission of Polish independence. In 1965, West Germany was already the wealthiest and most productive country in Europe. It took them only 20 years. They produced more than France and Britain. They had their Wirtschaftswunder, their economic miracle. What's most disappointing, for most people, not just me, is that after 23 years we cannot close the gap. It's there. We closed it to a certain extent, but now it just plateaus. Poland would have to grow 10 percent annually to close the gap. That's a neck-breaking pace, like Japan in the 1950s and 1960s, or like South Korea in the 1970s. We grow maybe 2 or 3 percent. There's no closing the gap in sight."

If the Poles were to look to the east or the south, they would be no doubt pleased with their relative success compared with Ukraine or Bulgaria. But Poles generally don't look in those directions for comparison purposes, any more than Americans judge their economic success by Mexican standards.

"For us, Germany is the point of reference," Jagusiak continued. "For Ireland, it's England, but they closed the gap. Finland was the poor cousin of Sweden, but they closed the gap, and maybe they're even better off now. But this whole block or camp of countries is still lagging behind. Slovenia is perhaps closest, but it's a small country, cozy between Italy and Austria. The Czech Republic is wealthier than Poland, but still it hasn't closed the gap. It was wealthier in the 1920s and 1930s, under the Habsburg rule, under Communism. This area has been wealthier for the past 200 years. But they still haven't closed the gap. And I don't really know why. Twenty-three years looks like a long time to achieve something economically. Maybe it's impossible to grow like this. Maybe Japan and South Korea were in the right place at the right time. Maybe that's all we can do."

We talked about his time with Freedom and Peace, his experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the potential reasons that his car was subjected to multiple attacks when he was living in Queens.

The Interview

In January 1990 was a new economic reality in the country. How did you experience that?

It was bananas on a cot. This was my experience of this economic transformation. The Polish market had no stuff, no goods. Everything was rationed and very limited and bad-quality. But after these fiscal changes, two things were different. One was free exchange rate for dollar and Deutschemark. Kantors -- exchange booths -- were everywhere. This was big business for some people. And producers, national factories, could sell things from trucks. It wasn't necessary to deliver to stores. They would just park a truck in the center and sell stuff from the truck. Clothes, cookies, whatever. Bananas. It filled up amazingly quickly in 1990. These rationing coupons were still issued in 1989, but they disappeared.

You were still translating movies at this time?

In 1989, I'd already stopped. I was teaching English a little bit. I opened an art gallery. This was a bad idea for me. It was just a whim. I knew nothing about art. It only lasted for a few months. Then in 1990 I already got a job offer from the foreign ministry. I moved to Warsaw and started working there. The job came right on queue. The timing was good. The revolution came at just the right time -- when I had nothing else to do!

What were your responsibilities at the ministry in Warsaw?

I worked in the consular department. I was supposed to go to Berlin. It was a rotation. You spent four or five years and someone took over your duties. The position in Berlin was dealing with the Polish community. But they cancelled this position. And I was offered New York. I took it. I worked in the legal section. You didn't have to be a lawyer for this. I worked in the estate section. The consulate back then still did the transferring of estates. If someone died here in the United States and some heirs entitled to the estate lived in Poland, the consulate would help transfer the estate. Now they don't do it anymore. It's a private issue. People hire their own lawyers.

When I came here, I lived in Queens, where there was a whole consular community. Very quickly I became a target of aggression. Someone broke a window in my car. I thought it was just vandalism. But it was a nice area in Middle Village, and nothing like this ever happened. Then someone broke into my trunk and stole jumper cables and a spare tire. Then again they smashed the windows a few times. Everyone was surprised. No one knew what was going on. Finally my car was totally burned. Nothing was left but a pile of ash. I didn't really know why, though it was quite a strong message. What was next? An attack against me, that I would suffer bodily harm? I was a bit scared. The police came but were not very impressed. They said it was just arson. I had no idea why. And I still don't. I moved out. The consul general advised me to move out from this area. The secretary suspected something, maybe even someone from the consulate doing it.

But years after I read a report that there was something in Poland called WSI, military intelligence. They survived until 1994. It was an abandoned institution that turned into a criminal mafia, like the Tonton Macoute in Haiti, which survived the fall of the regime. The WSI made a few spectacular thefts of estates through fake documents of vital statistics, amounting to a million dollars. Maybe somebody before me was cooperating with them, and they wanted to scare me so that I would leave the country. Nobody told me, and I'll probably never find out. That's the only logical explanation that I can come up with now. When I moved, it was over.

You worked for the consulate for five years. Then you started working as a journalist?

Yes. After five years, my term expired, but I got a job offer from one of the Polish-language daily newspapers here. I took the job.

Could you have gone back to Warsaw and worked for the ministry?

Yes, I could have, but it would have been tough -- not politically but just renting an apartment in Warsaw. I worked at the consulate at the worst economic time. Before then, you were paid in dollars. If you took $100 to Poland in the 1970s, it was a big deal. For the past decade they pay much better. But in the 1990s, they kept us on these wages that were supposed to be a big deal back in Poland, but they really weren't very impressive. But I didn't leave the consulate because of the pay. I left exclusively for personal reasons. And I decided to stay here in New York because of circumstances. I took the job with the paper and worked there for many years.

You were reporting on events here in New York and also in Poland?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.