Unlike most former Soviet bloc nations that opened secret police files shortly after the fall of communism, Poland has moved more cautiously. Nearly 15 years after Solidarity leader Lech Walesa became president, Poland's files are beginning to come under public scrutiny. Andrzej Arseniuk is a spokesman for Poland's Institute of National Remembrance, which has been entrusted with the documents.
Mr. Arseniuk says, "Only now can the victims of persecutions obtain information about security officers or collaborators who harassed them for their opposition activities."
For decades, communist authorities kept tabs on anyone and everyone they considered remotely important, according to Krzysztof Bobinski, director of the pro-European "Unia and Polska" foundation in Warsaw.
Mr. Bobinski contends, "If you were a shipyard worker, they would want to recruit you as an informer so you could tell them what the mood in the shipyard was. They would try to recruit priests to find out what people in the church were saying."
Anyone who was investigated and informed on can ask to see his or her file. Researchers and journalists may also apply for access. Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, director of Poland's Institute of Public Affairs, says she plans to examine her file in the near future.
Ms. Bobinska says, "I think it is better to know than not know [what the file contains]. It is history, part of my life. I will look at how they [the secret police] affected my personal life."
But what of privacy? That question perplexes "Unia and Polska" director Krzysztof Bobinski.
Mr. Bobinski notes, "My family and I were observed by the police for 20 or 25 years. Should all that information about me and my private life be made public? In 1976, the police wrote down that I spent a lot of time drinking and going to parties, which is true. But do I want everyone to know about that?"
Already, the files are causing upheaval and discomfort but not for those who were spied on. Rather, it is the unmasking of one-time informers that is raising eyebrows. People are discovering that old friends, colleagues and even family members are named as informers in their files. Even more embarrassing are fingers being pointed at leaders of Poland's anti-communist movement who are listed as having had contact with the secret police. None other than Lech Walesa was alleged to have collaborated in the 1970s, a charge that arose during Poland's 2000 presidential campaign but which was dismissed by a judicial panel.
Poland observer Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University in Massachusetts says old police files should be regarded with skepticism.
Mr. Polonsky says, "You cannot trust these secret police files beyond a certain point. If you talk to a secret policeman, then he says to his superiors that "X" [a random person] is working as an agent. He needs to do that because he needs to tell his superiors that he has had some success. So you cannot trust these files exactly."
Institute of National Remembrance spokesman Andrzej Arseniuk says no one wants to see a new class of victims emerge as the files are released. But, he insists the past cannot be ignored.
"This is our most recent history. It is often very difficult and painful for many people,” says Mr. Arseniuk. “But the knowledge of this history needs to be constantly updated."
"Unia and Polska" director Krzysztof Bobinski agrees.
Mr. Bobinski says, "We do not know to what extent the people who were connected to the secret police, the repressive apparatus in communist times, to what extent they are still functioning as networks. We really ought to know who is who, and who was who."
But Brandeis University researcher Antony Polonsky remains skeptical, rejecting that the examination of secret police files constitutes an act of national contrition. Rather, he says it is more tied to Polish-nationalist political factions that hope to shame those who worked for democracy under communism and favor European integration today.
"This is not grappling with the past,” notes Mr. Polonsky. “The past has been grappled with in Poland. This is part of the pursuit of politics by other means. The populist forces in Poland have been encouraged to believe that they can overturn the general consensus, particularly the pro-European consensus. I think they have seized on some not-terribly-important revelations merely to strengthen their position in this regard."
Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, director of Poland's Institute of Public Affairs, speaks of the files with an air of resignation.
Ms. Bobinska says, "The Czechs went through this [process] at the beginning of their [post-communist] transformation. The [former East] Germans, as well. It was quite painful, but they are done with it."
Ms. Kolarska-Bobinska says she expects a steady drip of information to emerge from the files in years to come.