Family, Taboo and Communism in Poland, 1956-1989

by Barbara Klich-Kluczewska (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)
©2021 Monographs 264 Pages
Open Access


The book answers fundamental questions about the processes of social negotiation of mentality shifts in communist Poland. Taking divorce, single motherhood, domestic violence and abortion as examples, it analyzes the level of acceptance toward tabus grounded in tradition, and the course of negotiating new meanings and using social exclusion when dealing with new phenomena. The author uses not only national documents, but also ego-documents and cultural texts to prove the macrosocietal dictatorship in the years 1956-1989 contributed not to the revolutionization of society at the family level, but to its perpetuation. The family references made by the communist authorities, especially in the last two decades of their regime, can be treated as one of the factors legitimizing the system.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Family in Postwar Central-Eastern Europe in Historiography: Sketching out the Picture
  • Research Goals
  • The Construction of the Work
  • Sources
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1 Taboo as a Research Category in the Historian’s Toolkit
  • 1.1. Taboo: Semantic Journeys
  • 1.2. Taboo, or: Organizing through Avoidance
  • 1.3. The Morphology of Taboo
  • Chapter 2 Introduction to Sociological Discourse on the Family
  • 2.1. The Discourse Framework
  • 2.2. Polish Family Sociologists after the Second World War
  • 2.3. The Glorification of the Family and the Paradigm of the Crisis
  • 2.4. The Theory of the Great Change
  • 2.5. The City Vs. the Country
  • 2.6. Narrative Strategies
  • Chapter 3 “Unmarried Girl with Child:” Beyond a Hybrid System of Social Aid
  • Introduction: We Begin Just the Two of Us
  • 3.1. “Pregnant, Single, and Far from Home:” Crisis and Coming out of the Shadows
  • 3.1.1. The Framework of Social Politics
  • 3.2. Single Motherhood and Young Mothers: Language and Numbers
  • 3.2.1. Families of Unwed Mothers in Statistics
  • 3.3. The Great Breakthrough That Never Happened: The Situation after the Second World War
  • 3.4. Exclusion through Omission and Avoidance (1956–1989)
  • 3.4.1. Unmodern
  • 3.4.2. “Citizenization:” Symptoms of Change
  • 3.4.3. The Stamp of Immorality and Coping Strategies
  • Chapter 4 Divorce: On the Criminalization Process and the Power of Popular Culture to Disarm Taboo
  • Introduction: Minutes
  • 4.1. Divorce as a Legal Ritual
  • 4.1.1. Divorce in Modern Europe
  • 4.1.2. A Unified Polish Marriage Law, 1945
  • 4.1.3. The Legacy of Interwar Poland: Divorce? What’s That?
  • 4.1.4. The Reform of Divorce Law in Communist Poland
  • 4.2. Divorce in Numbers
  • 4.3. Rituals of “Criminalization”
  • 4.3.1. “This Question was a Kind of Trick”
  • 4.3.2. “One of my colleagues got divorced, now he drinks”
  • 4.4. Public Psychotherapy: On the Humanization of Divorce
  • 4.5. A Marital (and Thus National) Crisis
  • Chapter 5 Gesture or Crime? Physical Violence at Home
  • Introduction: The Case of Ewa Świder, Nowa Huta, June 1956
  • 5.1. Legal and Educational Discourse on Corporal Punishment
  • 5.1.1. A “Teacher from the Stone Age”
  • 5.1.2. If He Hits Me It Means He Loves Me
  • 5.2. Domestic Violence as Alcohol-Induced Violence
  • 5.3. Records of Violence
  • 5.3.1. The Individual Experience: Woman as a Victim of Violence
  • 5.3.2. Narratives of Violence
  • Chapter 6 Abortion– An Example of Breaking a Taboo
  • Introduction: The Case of Maria from near Bochnia
  • 6.1. “The Segment of Pregnant Women:” Abortion in Citizens’ Words 1955–1956
  • 6.1.1. Between a “Harmful Operation” and the “Ogino-Knaus Method”
  • 6.1.2. “Dear Radio, Help out Us Women…”
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names
  • Series Index

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“He wasn’t really my husband, Boguś’s father. But I do not consider that a sin,” confessed Irena, the main protagonist of A Woman Alone, directed by Agnieszka Holland “[…] I left [him] when I was six months pregnant, because he beat me. And before that, my father drank and beat us. Me the most. Because I was the weakest. My sisters could stand up for themselves. Then he killed himself, while drunk on his motorbike.”1

This famed director’s film was produced in the late spring of 1981, at the height of the Solidarity carnival, and is considered the darkest, most pessimistic picture of the Polish society of the time. It languished on the censor’s shelf for seven years, even though Holland had hoped that viewers would see it on screens in 1982. It was not intended to be a documentary. The tragic story of the Wrocław mail carrier, Irena, was not based on intervention reporting or radio/television nonfiction. The accumulation of misfortune, of human unkindness, evil, and social injustice, seems too much for any one life. The paradox is that, although the mail carrier was regularly working in a “good area”2 of a bigger city, Irena lives in destitute symbolized by her apartment, which assures neither privacy nor intimacy, located in a lean-to by the railway tracks, without a bathroom or running water, far from the city. Her low income, social exclusion, and lack of friends prevent her from leading an easy life. She is having extreme trouble in making ends meet.

Most accounts link A Woman Alone with a critique of the growing demoralization of Polish society, its self-interest, and the vanishing of civic rights. However, since I first saw this movie many years ago, I have wondered at how far this dark vision of soulless social control was a metaphor for the state’s collapse, and how far it reflected the real life of people in postwar Poland. Can we allow a literal reading of the statement by Irena’s boyfriend, handicapped Jacek, in the ←9 | 12→key scene of the movie: “The people here, you know… If you’re different, they can’t wait to mock you”?

This book came into being as a result of reflection on the fates of those citizens of communist Poland who departed from the generally accepted model of conduct and sought to escape the power of social norms, conventions, and customs in reality defined by the political dictatorship.

Being well aware that the system of social control in every community is a mosaic of various, not always organized relations and tensions, where codified and informal norms mutually affect each other, I have focused on one particular factor, namely taboo, as an informal tool for separating of what is socially unacceptable. For this reason, I have selected the family as a field of observation in which the functioning of taboo in communist Poland reaches its full intensity. For at that time it was precisely the family that constituted the fundamental social entity and a constant point of reference for most Poles.

Although my discussion of the family tends to prioritize a perspective which might seem marginal, I do attempt to raise what I feel are crucial questions to the historian of communist Poland. Those questions concern especially the effects of the transformation of the family in an era of socialist industrialization, urbanization, and rapid development of mass society. Indeed, the decision to examine the family and the phenomenon of taboo also springs from my interest in whether the changes experienced by the Polish family and the forces which influenced it were distinctive at the time when the Western European family unit went through a major revolution, breaking with the traditional model centered around the nuclear family and the notion of marriage sealed for a lifetime. Another crucial context of my analyses are issues of dictatorship as a culturally alien or domestic phenomenon and the closely related problem of socialist modernization. All these factors shaped the functioning and transformations of the Polish family in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Family in Postwar Central-Eastern Europe in Historiography: Sketching out the Picture

Although the history of the family and private lives is, at present, a major field of research into the social history of communism in Central-Eastern Europe, this topic remains marginalized in Polish historiography.3 This is surprising in that ←10 | 13→Poland was among those Eastern Bloc countries in which sociological and ethnological research into the family enjoyed great popularity, and whose enormous number of publications and field studies in the discipline require critical reading and reinterpretation.

Despite the gradual development of research on the family in postwar Central-Eastern Europe, these studies do not form a single current with a consistent methodology, while classical research on the family, rooted in the history of social structures, is a marginal part of this group. In spite of this, A Social History of the Twentieth Century, published in 2013 by Béla Tomka, a distinguished Hungarian socio-economic historian, brought the Central and Eastern European family into a synthesis of the European history, effectively breaking down the Western-centric approaches that have been taken on this topic.4 His comparative approach to the make-up and size of families hinges on, for instance, the rate of female employment and demographic and statistical data. Nonetheless, he does not list changes in religiousness, philosophy or pedagogical thought among decisive factors in transformations. Instead, he focuses on their economic and legal aspects. Despite the dynamic of changes in the picture of the twentieth-century European family that emerges from the pages of this book, it is not as geographically diverse as one might expect. For instance, Tomka shows the model of the family with a pair of children as widespread throughout nearly all postwar Europe. At the same time, however, it is not hard to see certain characteristic traits of the Central European family after the Second World War, though these were often not lasting, and often imposed by the politico-economic situation. One example might be the extended family, including parents and married children, which, by the end of the twentieth century, was a significant group that constituted up to 20 % of the population, more than in neighboring Western countries. Meanwhile, though women’s employment was much the same throughout prewar Europe, after the Second World War it grew tremendously in Central-Eastern Europe, and up until the mid 1970s. Alongside East Germany, the leader in women’s employment was Poland where, in 1974, ←11 | 14→an estimated 80 % of women aged 25–50 was employed. This was tied among others to the fact that there was no local tradition of part-time contracts, typical for Great Britain or Norway. The influence of the political-economic system also manifested itself in the conclusion based on public opinion polls of 1990, which assigned material goods a much greater role in a family’s happiness in Eastern Europe than tolerance and mutual respect valued in the West.5

Nearly all detailed studies of the family in Central-Eastern Europe have primarily focused on the case of East Germany. For years, this has enjoyed great interest from Anglo-American socio-cultural historiographers. Moreover, German historiography can pride itself on an outstanding domestic tradition, original studies on everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte), involving a special sensitivity to the experience of ordinary citizens in a dictatorship.6 However, one of the most important monographs on the East German family, Revenge of the Domestic, Women, the Family, and Communism in the German Democratic Republic, by the American scholar Donna Harsch, comes from a different focus of study: gender historiography.7 We should note that the family is not a common subject when it comes to gender and women’s history, as was most clearly noted by the German social historian, Robert Moeller. In a collection of studies from 2007, which gives a critical account of the impact of gender methodology on German historiography,8 Moeller writes:

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This strikes us as essential because, at first glance, it seems that, over the last fifteen years, studies in gender history have replaced family studies in the pure sense of the term. But this has been so only on the surface. We should agree with Moeller that family issues appear indirectly in narratives on gender, through an analysis of social policies, employment policies, sexuality, violence etc. Harsch’s intent was chiefly to reconstruct the relations between women and the family, on the one hand, and the Party and the state, on the other. Her research focuses on women’s changing situations, including the party’s policies toward generation, childcare, consumption, and marriage over the first two decades of East Germany’s existence, and her source documents confirm the transformation of the authorities’ social policies toward the family in the face of growing social discontent. Most contemporary historical analyses of the family from the viewpoint of gender history return to the question of why the socialist project of equality did not automatically yield a revolution in private social practices, including the realm of the family.10 Another inspiration in these studies has often been drawn from questions posed by social sciences, and their authors’ have focused on issues of single parenting and divorce, such as in And They Lived Happily Ever After: Norms and Everyday Practices of Family and Parenthood in Russia and Central Europe.11 In Czech scholarship on communism, the subject of the family has been addressed mainly by sociologists. Květa Jechová makes it clear in “Cesta k emancipaci. Postavení ženy v české společnosti 20. století. Pokus o vymezení problem:”

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Studies on socialist Czechoslovakia might serve as an example of the development of another trend in family studies. However, we ought to realize that this trend functions alongside the mainstream of historical research into the latter half of the twentieth century, and, in terms of sociopolitical analyses of Czech history, it is rather marginalized. What I have in mind here is the oral history developped in Czechia mainly through the Center for Oral History at the Institute of Modern History of the Czech Academy of Sciences.13

The family increasingly crops up in broader analyses of private life. To a certain extent, this reflects an attempt to highlight processes of individuation.14 The discussed trend includes a brilliantly-received book by Paul Betts, Within Walls: Private Life in the German Democratic Republic,15 and an ethnological analysis of the Chinese countryside by Yunxiang Yan: Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village.16

Regardless of these studies’ advancement, it would be hard to point to a dominant center or schools of research focused on the postwar history of the ←14 | 17→family in Central-Eastern Europe. Indeed, research is scattered both in terms of methodology and diversity of addressed subjects. This is probably why we lack broader comparative research (apart from Béla Tomka). Against this backdrop, the achievements of Polish historiography seem particularly impoverished. It would be difficult to point to a monograph in which the family takes center stage. Generally, wherever it appears, it is only as a context, or one strand of analysis. The most striking example of this approach can be found in Krzysztof Kosiński’s books on young people.17 Though the institutional perspective prevails, as compared to other Czech studies on that subject, the author devotes a great deal of space to the socialization of children and young people in the family.18 The family was also a central issue tackled by Ewelina Szpak in her analysis of the Polish rural mindset, Bartłomiej Gapiński in his studies on religiousness, and Małgorzata Szpakowska who explored the women’s narrative of the 1960s; also my own study of private lives in postwar Krakow contributed to this research trend.19 Over the past five years, the articles have appeared on images of motherhood and fatherhood, written by Piotr Perkowski, Katarzyna Stańczak-Wiślicz, and Piotr Śpica.20 Research on family life is developing apace. Perkowski and ←15 | 18→Stańczak-Wiślicz21 also analyzed changes in the model of housekeeping, while Dariusz Jarosz explored the housing situation in the period of the communist Poland.22 A full understanding of the Polish family is impossible without taking into consideration both religiousness as everyday practice and the institutional policy of the Church. Unfortunately, historians still have to tackle the Catholic Church’s teachings on the family activities of the clergy and secular Catholic organizations that popularize views conforming to the dictates of religion. The research carried out to date, most often by cleric, generally reflects on the problems of today’s families in the context of Church teachings, often sacrificing a historical approach in favor of theological considerations.23

The place of the postwar family on the map of Polish historiography probably results, to a large extent, from the broader phenomenon of the marginalization of social and cultural history of the latter half of the twentieth century. However, an equally essential cause of this state of affairs is, I believe, the long tradition of family scholarship in Polish social sciences of the communist era, which I explore in more detail in Chapter Two of this book.

Research Goals

The basic category I will be using in the present study is taboo as a tool for socially designating what does not fall in line with the prevailing structure. This has allowed me to set apart areas for which, in our day, we can find no more fitting or neutral concept. The concept of taboo also allowed me to destigmatize certain historical terms, such as “pathology” or “deviant family,” widely used in communist Poland, while avoiding the currently quite widespread concept of marginalization, which does not fully express processes of social exclusion paired with silence.

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Taboo focuses our attention on the peripheries of family life, in which interesting changes are negotiated, ones that might be – depending on the convictions expressed by the participants in the debate – symptoms of progress, transformation, crisis, or catastrophe. As such, the family is chiefly analyzed in this book in terms of conflict. By this I do not mean the crucial twentieth-century conflict concerning images of women as a mother and a worker, but tensions tied to the internal, tottering hierarchy of gender and generation, and the development of marriage as a bond based on emotions. This perspective is opposed to a very strong tendency to idealize the family; for we must bear in mind that, to quote Filip Schmidt, “there are few institutions which, to the same degree as family, marriage, and intimacy (including sexuality), are so filled with such emotionally charged idealizations, in which change is so feared, and which are the field of such fierce political and ideological struggle.”24

Using the examples of social visions of divorce, single motherhood, domestic violence, or abortion, I sought answers to how far there was acceptance for the lingering tradition of habitual taboo, the ongoing processes of negotiating new understandings, and the use of social exclusion in dealing with new phenomena. I was interested in the paths by which tensions tied to tabooization grew and decreased, and their practical effects for the members of various communities. On the one hand, I explored the exclusion and isolation expressed in the language and everyday life of communist Poland. On the other hand, I sought moments when these practices were openly criticized. At the same time, given that taboo reinforces what is considered the social norm, I believe that responses to these questions provide indirect knowledge of the strength and durability of traditional ways of thinking about the form and functions of the family in communist Poland.

In each of these cases, we should pay attention to the agents of control: social groups and state institutions that were particularly responsible for upholding customary taboos. Usually, we encounter more or less strident views on divorce and single motherhood presented by experts or institutions, such as courts or the Catholic Church. However, my aim was not to write a monograph on formal and informal institutions and their practices. In the vein of historical anthropology, I have mainly tried to observe historical processes from a subjective perspective of individual historical actors and their biographies. This situation of the individual appears to be crucial. Moreover, the study shows that images of what is undesirable are so deeply internalized by members of a community that it was ←17 | 20→sometimes hardly justified or simply difficult to attribute their presence to the strength of various institutions. Nonetheless, investigating instances allows us to observe the fluctuation or, alternately, the longevity of views when it comes to the most important participants in public discourse.

The selection of the various streams of analysis arose from the necessity of searching through varied and quite scattered source documents. As such, I arbitrarily omitted research on cohabitation, adoption, and sexual abuse,25 though these phenomena are clearly the subject of taboo in the period we are exploring, and are visible in the available source documents, such as the egodocuments and court records. However, these require a separate and time-consuming in-depth study. Nor do I examine homosexuality in this book, though it is virtually the symbol of social taboo in communist Poland; this issue would have taken me far beyond the context of the family.

The concept of modernity will play an important role in the interpretation process. This comes, in part, from its constant presence in the discourse of the times. The concept seems omnipresent. The modern state, the modern family, modern buildings, and so forth appear in various spheres of public debate in communist Poland, and thoughts on what significance this term bore in describing privacy and the family will accompany me throughout this book. On the other hand, I will be taking into consideration images of communist regimes as “modern dictatorships.” Although communism as such is not generally labeled a modern regime, and, in the wake of Johann P. Arnason, it is termed anti-modern, pseudo-modern, or an embodiment of backwardness or economic and social regression, we ought to acknowledge that the premise of communist ideology grew out of striving for modernity.26

Communist Poland has yet to be systematically analyzed from this standpoint. The exception is a book by Wojciech Musiał, who does, however, mainly focus on the economic dimension of modernization, which is not at the forefront of the issues of our interest.27 This leads to a broader problem, which has been described by, for instance, Dariusz Stola: the lack of profounder and more systematic exploration of the regime’s nature. Stola ascribes this to a general reluctance of the exponents of this discipline to theorize on communist Poland:

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ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2021 (March)
history of family gender history East Central Europe divorce domestic violence abortion
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 264 pp.

Biographical notes

Barbara Klich-Kluczewska (Author) Jan Burzyński (Revision)

Barbara Klich-Kluczewska is an associate professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, at the Department of Anthropological History. Her fields of research include cultural history of post-war East-Central Europe, especially history of family, history of sexuality, biopolitics and gender history.


Title: Family, Taboo and Communism in Poland, 1956-1989