In the windowless inner sanctum of the Polish cabinet room, dour middle-aged men in dark boxy suits shuffle to their seats. Culture Minister Izabella Cywinska provides a lone splash of color with a purple scarf over her black ensemble. Then in comes Vice Minister Malgorzata Niezabitowska, fairly aglow in a pale turquoise dress. But the glamorous Niezabitowska, a former journalist, model and political activist, is anything but another pretty face. As official spokeswoman for the new Solidarity-led government, she has quickly emerged as one of the most conspicuous players in the country’s historic experiment with non-Communist rule. These days, when the leadership needs to take its case to Poles and the watching world, Niezabitowska, 40, steps into the hot glare of the television lights.
And since she took the job two months ago, things have been warm indeed. While getting up to speed on issues, Niezabitowska must constantly preach the virtues of austerity to a country in deep economic trouble. “It’s hard having to learn so much so quickly,” she says. “But it won’t be so crazy once we are organized. I can handle it.” Despite that apparent cool, some Solidarity supporters are not so sure; they carp that Niezabitowska’s stylish attire and beauty-queen cheeriness send precisely the wrong signals. “She smiles when talking about a bad situation,” says a pro-Solidarity journalist. “It’s no good.” Another political analyst complains that Niezabitowska flounces into press conferences “in something you’d wear to a cocktail party.”
In truth, behind the charm and flash lies a shrewd woman toughened by years of sparring with Poland’s Communist system. Her father, now 66, an economist, was imprisoned briefly during the Stalinist roundups of the early 1950s; he later ran a boardinghouse. Her mother, Poland’s first television newscaster, died after abdominal surgery when Malgorzata was just 9. Her two grandmothers helped raise her. Malgorzata attended prestigious Warsaw University, where she took degrees in law and journalism. Meanwhile, her striking looks and ebullient spirit brought her not only a reputation as a girl-about-town but also modeling assignments that brought in money to pay the bills.
After graduation she became a magazine reporter but grew frustrated by government censors, and abandoned journalism to write television plays and pop song lyrics. “With fiction,” she says, “it was a bit easier.” In her personal life, though, things were quite a bit harder. Nine months after marrying photographer Tomasz Tomaszewski, who is more than four years her junior, she gave birth by cesarean to a baby girl, Maryna. Complications set in almost immediately, and the baby nearly died.
The rise and fall of Solidarity in the early 1980s provided further anguish. When the trade union made its electrifying stand at the Gdansk shipyards in 1980, Malgorzata and her husband plunged into the movement with gusto. “Everything changed,” she recalls. “Freedom was suddenly possible, and you had to help fight for it.” She became a contributor to a pro-Solidarity journal edited by a rumpled intellectual named Tadeusz Mazowiecki.
Then in 1981 the Communist authorities crushed the union and declared martial law, forcing Malgorzata to publish her political pieces in Western European publications and Poland’s underground press. She and Tomasz began work on an extraordinary project—a 1986 book about the 5,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust still living in Poland. That led to a National Geographic assignment for an article titled “Discovering America,” during which the family crisscrossed the U.S. Malgorzata, who is fluent in English, also spent a year at Harvard on a Nieman journalism fellowship.
In August, with the remarkable emergence of a Solidarity-dominated government, the still-rumpled Mazowiecki became the first non-Communist leader in the Soviet bloc. “We were watching Miami Vice while I was preparing dinner when I got the call that the Prime Minister wanted to see me,” she says. She immediately accepted her mentor’s offer to be the new government’s voice. Niezabitowska realizes that Solidarity now bears much of the responsibility for solving Poland’s problems and that her job is to give official declarations a credibility they never had under the Communist regime. (She can also perform that task in French, German, Italian and Russian.)
The new job pays about $3,600 a year, a solid middle-class income in Poland. Malgorzata and Tomasz are at work remodeling a house, once the residence of Japan’s ambassador to Poland. Working up to 16 hours a day severely limits the time she can spend with her family.
Tomasz now looks after Maryna, 11, who attends the private American school in Warsaw. At times Malgorzata’s thoughts turn to the U.S. and the pleasures of living in a less frantic environment. Nevertheless, she is engrossed by her duties and, more important, the possibilities for her country. “I could have had a more comfortable life just carrying on what I was doing,” she says. “But to turn this down would have gone against everything I believe in. This is Poland’s moment in time.”
—Bill Hewitt, Fred Hauptfuhrer in Warsaw