On 4th June, 1989 the Solidarity Civil Committee contested 35% of the seats in the Polish Parliament, the Sejm and all the seats in The Senate. Solidarity obtained 161 seats in the Sejm, the maximum possible, and 99 out of 100 in The Senate. For some reason, Piotra Baumgarta didn’t find favour with the voters, but all the other 99 Solidarity candidates were elected.
Solidarity is the heartbeat of recent Polish history and to emphasize this point a ‘feedback wall’ in the final exhibition room is covered with a reproduction of the 1981 cardiogram poster of Czesław Bielecki. The word “Solidarity” is the culmination of a number of upheavals, starting with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and including many revolts against communism. Visitors can write their feedback, on what they’ve seen, on small pieces of white or red paper and then place these thoughts on small pegs and add to the thousands already there.
I spent 2.5 hours in this museum and I was not conscious of the time passing as the exhibits and information were fascinating, interesting, and brought alive by their presentation.
Another shocking event which placed the authorities in a bad light, was the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko a staunch anti-Communist Catholic priest. After completing his secondary education, Jerzy Popieluszko attended a seminary in Warsaw. He served his army duties in a special force designed to dissuade young men from becoming priests. This had no effect on Popiełuszko, as,he continued his studies after leaving the army. In 1981, Jerzy Popiełuszko took part in demonstrations with strikers in the Warsaw Steelworks. His sermons included spiritual exhortations and political messages, criticizing the Communist system and motivating people to protest.
During martial law Catholic Churches were the only places where protests could be voiced openly. Popiełuszko’s sermons were routinely broadcast by Radio Free Europe, and became famous throughout Poland for their uncompromising stance against the regime. The Służba Bezpieczeństwa, or Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, tried to silence or intimidate him. When this didn’t work, they fabricated evidence against him; he was arrested in 1983, but soon released on intervention of the clergy and pardoned by an amnesty.
Jerzy Popiełuszko avoided a car accident planned for him on 13th October 1984 but the authorities had other plans. One of these was carried out on 19th October 1984. The priest was beaten by three Security Police officers: Captain Grzegorz Piotrowski, Leszek Pękala, and Waldemar Chmielewski. He was tied up and put in the boot of a car. The officers bound a stone to his feet and dropped him into the Vistula Reservoir. Subsequent investigations found he was conscious when dropped into the water. He’d been bound in such a way that the more he struggled the more a noose around his neck tightened.
Although the authorities were hoping to reduce the effectiveness of the Gdansk Agreement for workers’ rights in Poland, a number of different situations conspired against them. The first was the film Man of Iron by the Polish Andrzey Wajda, about the shipyard strike of 1980, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1981. The publicity for the film meant the authorities couldn’t prohibit it from the cinemas. The second event was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Lech Walesa on 5th October 1983. Walesa feared he would not be let back into Poland, so his wife Danuta and son Bogdan accepted the award on his behalf. The biggest reason why Poland remained in the news was that the Pope John Paul II was Polish and the pontiff visited his homeland often, including paying a visit to Walesa in June 1983 after he’d been released from prison.
The next room moves on to 1980. An economic crisis led to the Communist government authorizing an increase in food prices for the summer of 1980. Once again a revival of labor disturbances erupted throughout the nation. Workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike in mid-August, sparked by the firing of Anna Walentynowicz a crane operator, who was regarded as a trouble-maker by the management at the shipyard. Led by electrician Lech Wałęsa, the workers took control of the shipyard and demanded labour reform and greater civil rights including the freedom of expression and religion, and the release of political prisoners. The original 21 demands of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee written on plywood were hung on Gate 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard (this gate appears further along in the museum as it was destroyed by a T55 tank during a period of Martial Law). In 2003, these items were placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Demand number 1 was the authorities should accept that Trade Unions such as Solidarity be independent. Number 2 was the guarantee of the right to strike. On the third day of the strike, on August 16, 1980, management granted Lenin Shipyard workers their working and pay demands. Lech Wałęsa and others announced the end of the strike. Two women at the shipyard, Anna Waletynowicz and Alina Pienkowska, managed to close the gates of the shipyard and keep some workers inside. Wałęsa was stopped near the Gate No° 1 as he was leaving, and was persuaded to change his plans and return to the shipyard. Over the next few days, he led the negotiations on the worker’s side and Mieczysław Jagielski was the main negotiator for the government. The Gdańsk Agreement was signed on 31 August 1980, recognizing the right to organize free trade unions independent of the Party for the first time in the Communist bloc. When the Solidarity trade union was registered shortly after the Gdańsk Agreement, it had nearly ten million members, the world’s largest union to date.
I continued on and read more details about the events of 14th – 17th December 1970 along the Baltic Coast commemorated in the Monument to the Shipyard Workers outside the centre. People protested at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk on the 14th and then on the 17th 44 people were killed at the dockyard and railway station in Gdynia. One of the people shot was Ludwik Piernicki who was coming out of the station when he was mown down by a salvo of bullets fired by security forces. The authorities claimed the bullets were ricochets but they weren’t. Ludwik’s blood-stained jacket is on display for all to see. He was carrying his blood donor card at the time of his death. The motto on the card stated “Giving blood is the greatest humanitarian act, proof of great social solidarity”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this – I probably should have done both.
In 1956, Nikita Khruschev’s address to the 20th Convention of the USSR’s Communist Party spoke of strengthening socialism’s grip on the East, and of the dangers of individualism. Already simmering with discontent the Polish media helped stir local discord and on June 28th a strike started in the Stalin brick factory (later the ‘Hipolita Cegielskiego Factory’), before spreading to the city’s other major industrial plants. An estimated 100,000 workers descended on the Municipal National Council (now the Zamek building), chanting slogans like ‘Bread and Freedom’ and ‘Out with Bolshevism,’ while demanding lower prices, higher wages and a reduction in work quotas.
Initially peaceful, the protests took a violent turn when it was revealed that the team negotiating on behalf of the strikers in Warsaw had been arrested and detained. The demonstrators stormed Poznań prison, liberating 257 inmates, destroying records and seizing armaments. These insurgents marched back to the city centre to continue their protests. The communist authorities reacted by deploying 10,300 soldiers, 400 tanks and 30 armoured personnel carriers. Street battles followed, but with the city cut off from the outside world, order was quickly restored by 30th June. The clashes officially left 76 civilians and eight soldiers dead, with over 600 strikers injured (though unofficial estimates were vastly higher). The victims included a thirteen year old boy, Romek Strzalkowski, who was shot dead whilst waving a Polish flag. News of the riots helped spark an equally heroic anti-communist uprising in Budapest later in the same year, which was also brutally suppressed.
All this historical information surrounds the living room of a typical flat available to families from the Polish state. These flats were assigned to their owners and wouldn’t have been given to people taking part in events described elsewhere in this section of the museum! The items on show included a soda syphon decorated with a sticker of Goofy, an alarm clock, and a radio. The owners would have been able to listen to Radio Free Europe if the authorities hadn’t jammed the frequency.
The exhibits then contrast the ordinary nature of some people’s lives with the extraordinary events taking place in the Communist countries of the Eastern Bloc. Some events such as the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when Imre Nagy withdrew his country from the Warsaw Pact, the raising of the Berlin Wall on 13th August 1961, and the Alexander Dubcek-inspired Prague Spring of 1968 are well known.
Others are not but are of equal significance in the gradual breaking down of the Communist system under the control of the Soviet Union. On 16th June 1953, three months after the death of Stalin, 300 East Berlin construction workers went on strike and marched down Stalinallee towards government buildings after their superiors announced a pay cut if they did not meet their work quota. These demands soon escalated into an outcry for a General Strike on the following day.
Early the next morning, 40,000 protesters had gathered in East Berlin. Protests were held throughout East Germany in almost all industrial centres. The original demands had turned into political statements including one that required the resignation of the East German government, who decided to crush the uprising, a theme that was often repeated behind the Iron Curtain, though not in 1980 in Gdansk as already indicated. The East German authorities turned to the Soviet Union for military support. 16 Soviet divisions with 20,000 soldiers were used to quell the uprising.