Poland Never Ceased It's Call For Freedom

Poland Never Ceased It's Call For Freedom

by Kenneth Rayman on March 14, 2019
In the US, Poland is primarily known for it’s Holocaust experience, but there is another narrative it’s known for as well. It’s known for the Warsaw Pact in response to the creation of NATO, binding the armies of the Eastern Bloc in the same way as NATO was created to support Western Europe, and the periodic suppression of Polish demonstration against Communist rule, such as the Solidarity movement of the 1980s. Yet as with the country being known for the suffering of Auschwitz, Solidarity is known, if at all, only as a strike that was ruthlessly crushed and the leader of the movement, Lech Walesa, became President after the 1990 break-up of the Eastern Bloc; but not much else about Solidarity is known. The focus is ideological, primarily.

My guide in Gdansk had taken me to the famous shipyard where the strike happened, showing me the museum next to the shipyard gate (which is a European Heritage monument). For my “free day,” I knew it was just a quick UBER ride from my hotel. The museum itself is very modern, built to resemble the hull of a ship built in the yard, with audioguides that tell the story of Solidarity as you move, so you don’t have to worry about following a map and getting lost, skipping events in the timeline, or pressing buttons to play the historical snippets.

The museum features an open arboretum just passed the admission and audioguide desks with a large representation of the Polish flag which had a feeling of openness and true peace, which the design intends, the audioguide explained. The next floor features the main exhibit, starting off with a period timeclock, timecard slots, and lockers to make you feel like you’re in the dock itself. The timeline starts with events leading up to the August 1980 strike, including the 1968 student strike, the 1970 Gdynia dock strike that resulted in 42 dock workers being killed and the 1980 unfair firing of female dock employee, Anna Walentynowicz, just before her retirement. The audioguide and displays tell the story of how the workers were mobilized by this firing to act for fair working standards and the right to unionize to protect their jobs. They came up with a list of 21 demands and wrote them on slabs of plywood, later protected under the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and placed them at the shipyard entrance. But the most significant part of the strike, from the previous instances in ’68 and ’70, was that they knew to achieve anything they had to make sure that all their actions were non-violent. Next to the Boards of 21 Demands was an interactive map that showed the movements of striking workers as they moved to take control of the shipyard and gain support. A trolley that Lech Walesa would have driven in the dock was displayed as was a crane that Anna would’ve worked.

As you moved from display to display you see a mixture of personal accounts of strikers, government representatives sent to negotiate (who said they were afraid for their lives), and the response of the rest of the country becoming emboldened by the strike and bringing industry to a halt throughout the country. The strike would become a symbolic victory for the Polish people as the dock workers won the right to form the first non-government controlled trade union. However, it was limited to one industry and people would be left to find unique ways to join the union which swelled in its membership and its activism and result in the declaration of martial law in 1981 that the West is familiar with.

The social impact is shown through an exhibit with the efforts of the wider populace to become involved in support or activism, using the lax in rules to express themselves. The nation was shown to be inseparably linked by the word “Solidarity” and it would be immortalized with the creation of a painting by Jerzy Janiszewski who wanted to symbolize the link through close positioning of the letters of the party’s name and giving it the unique coloring of red and white with the Polish flag above one letter. It became instantly recognized and adopted by the nation and party. Looking at the mirrors above, you see that the exhibit is a representation of the logo itself. The social impact section features the ripple effect the movement had in Polish society in art, writing (including a Nobel Literature Prize), music (festivals created in the spirit of Solidarity), film (with international recognition of a film on the shipyard strike), and religious support through Polish Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church; along with movements spawned in its wake, most notably the Orange Alternative in Wroclaw.

The Orange Alternative was an anti-communist organization that masked its activity as theatrical satire. It became synonymous with dwarfs, using the city’s official emblem, as members wore orange dwarf caps during demonstrations and painted orange dwarfs over government slogans and posters. The aim was to make a mockery of the institution of Communism, the Polish Government, and the Security State, doing so peacefully through “Orange Happenings”. Happenings were Flash Mob type demonstrations in the city streets that would seem benign and allow unaffiliated citizens to meld in without difficulty. One large demonstration was to say that the call for freedom in Poland should include dwarfs as well, making it a protest masked by satirical views of its own movement. When I was later in Wroclaw, my guide would tell me of another Happening “protesting the hot summer weather.” The Dwarfs spelled out a slogan on their shirts to protest the weather but when the State Security Police weren’t looking, one member would remove themselves from the line making the slogan go from, “Down with the Hot Weather” to “Down with the Dickheads” until police were noticed and the person would suddenly reappear to “protest the weather” acting as if they were late arriving.

Martial law was instituted in December 1981 as the government tried to reign in the burgeoning act of collective Polish will. You will be able to watch the televised address by Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski announcing martial law in response to a rumored Solidarity-backed coup before you move to a Polish State Security van for more footage and explanation. Along the walls are Mugshots of Solidarity members including Lech Walesa, with shipyard uniforms hanging from the ceiling to represent the civilian victims of the crackdown. As you leave the room you see the world’s response with representations made of the aid packages sent by various countries and their own grassroots support of the Solidarity movement.

Unfortunately, by soaking up the experience of the movement, once I got to the Round Table room meant to be a full representation of where the leaders of both Solidarity and the government met, I was approached by a museum employee to tell me that the museum was now closed. The museum’s website shows me that this is where partially free elections were agreed upon with Union leaders after the government realized that support for Solidarity was increasing despite martial law. “Lech’s team” would win almost all the seats up for election and vote in Solidarity member Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the first non-Communist Prime Minister in 1989. Lech would be elected President one year later, as Jaruzelski resigned becoming disillusioned with the collaborative government. The next two rooms would chronicle the domino effect Polish freedom caused within the Eastern Bloc countries, as one by one they declared themselves independent of the Soviet sphere, and a representation to all peaceful ideals in the world, not only of Polish independence.

I learned more about the Polish nation itself and it’s character, through the social impact section that brought out the Solidarity that is sadly missing in the US, where Cold War ideology dominates. Seeing the overall story unfold in a fluid manner, never overwhelming you with facts and figures, presents the decade in a tactical manner grabbing your attention and encouraging participation. This museum is a definite must for tourism, showcasing the unity of humanity and it’s will to persevere.