Gdansk – 11

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.

Gdansk – 10

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.

Gdansk – 9

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.

Gdansk – 6

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.

Gdansk – 4

I rarely use audio guides, but I must recommend them at the European Solidarity Centre as the information provided was clear, concise, and fitted in almost perfectly with what I saw. This may seem obvious but there is so much information to process that you have to concentrate all the time during the visit.

In 1980, the Lenin Shipyard was the 5th largest ship manufacturer in the world and the largest in the Baltic region. 17,000 people worked there on a site covering 150 hectares with its own hospital and cinema. Electricians such as Lech Walesa would use bicycles to move around. The industrial scale of the museum is emphasized at the start by the presence of hard hats covering an entire ceiling, an attendance control board with hundreds of available slots, and a wall full of individual lockers for workers’ essentials.

In the next room is a large photo of Leonid Brezhnev kissing Edward Gierek, the Polish Communist party first secretary at the time the Gdansk Agreements were signed. In the summer of 1980, price increases on essential foodstuffs set off protests across the country, especially in the Gdańsk and Szczecin shipyards. Unusually, the Communist regime decided not to resort to force to suppress the strikes. In the Gdańsk Agreement and other accords reached with Polish workers, Gierek’s representatives were forced to concede the right to strike, and Solidarity was born. Shortly thereafter, in early September 1980, he was replaced as first secretary, but from the Polish authorities’ perspective the door had been opened and the damage done. Solidarity kept going in an upwards trajectory.

Travels through History – The Balkans: Journeys in the former Yugoslavia

The Macedonians build a fountain and upset the Greeks.

Villages on the road to Lake Ohrid fly Albanian flags instead of Macedonian ones.

Kosovan taxi drivers believe fundamentalists are being sponsored in their country by former foes.

Dubrovnik is so popular a one-way system is now in operation on the city walls.

In Sarajevo, the place the First World War started is not easy to find, but evidence of more recent atrocities is.

All these stories and more can be found in my new book: Travels through History – The Balkans

Memories are long in The Balkans, contrasts and contradictions are all around. History is always in your face, reminding you nothing stays the same for long in this most fascinating corner of Europe.

 

Pyramid Racing – Part 2

Each year there are roughly 5,000 entrants for the race who make their way to Cairo at their own expense. They are given a thorough medical by the race organizers and those who pass have to sign an insurance waiver and provide proof they have adequate medical insurance for repatriation to their own country. If more than 3,072 pass the tests then an elimination 10,000-metre race is run around the Giza Plateau and the top 3,072 entrants reach the pre-qualifying races.

A basic pyramid race comprises four racers, one for each of the edges. The idea is that the contestants start the race 50 yards from their corner of the pyramid. They stand by an empty plinth and wait for the Starting Judge to wave the Wand of Osiris. Once this happens, they make their way to the top of the pyramid, collect an image of Thoth from a judge wearing an ibis mask, who stands on the capstone, and then descend to the bottom. The winner is the person who first places his Thoth on the plinth.

In the week prior to June 21st the qualifying takes place on the Pyramid of Menkaure. Between June 14th and June 17th the 3,072 entrants each take part in one of the 768 races; the losers from these races qualify for the races on the Step Pyramid of Djoser between June 18th – 21st. On June 18th and 19th the 768 winners are whittled down to 192 and then on June 20th the final 48 are decided and they qualify for the “Race to the Stars” on the Great Pyramid on June 21st. The 576 who lose races on June 18th and 19th qualify for the races on the Pyramid of Menkaure on June 21st, which is still a prestigious race. The 144 who lose races on June 20th qualify for the races on the Pyramid of Khefre on June 21st, a race only second in importance to the race on the Great Pyramid.

Extract from Sports the Olympics Forgot