It was Solidarity that drew me to Gdańsk. I feel oddly emotional whenever I see that red and white Solidarność symbol, a reminder of the concerted peaceful action of 10 million ordinary people throughout Poland in the 1980s. It began with a strike at the Gdańsk shipyards under the leadership of Lech Walęsa, a longstanding hero of mine.
So a visit to the European Solidarity Centre is a must.
Monument of the fallen shipyard workers
I’m greeted by panels in a number of languages with small sculpted figures emerging from the concrete. Towering into the sky is the monument, three pillars against the grey clouds. A nearby statue of a man with hands shielding his face fronts a wall of remembrances. Several hundred workers were killed and a lot more injured as the communist regime tried to eradicate the strikes.
The museum building is designed to give the impression of walls cracking and tilting, and is covered in rust-coloured sheet metal reminiscent of a ship’s hull. It stands at the entrance to the shipyards where strikes began over food prices and the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz for union activities.
There are so many thing in the exhibition that moved me: an old metal locker with worn workman’s clothes hanging in it; a ceiling of workers helmets with employee numbers stencilled on them; a bullet-riddled jacket and a heavy metal hospital door with bullet holes in it; a cell such as the one protesters were imprisoned in; a newspaper article showing Walęsa as a family man with his wife and young child; mugshots of strikers; film of crowds listening to speakers.
The events of 1980 are given their background: the strike in Poznań in 1956; the Prague Spring of 1968; the March 1968 protests in Warsaw when the performance of a Mickiewicz play was banned; the food shortages and queuing for scarce resources in the late 1970s (when my son-in-law was a child); then the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz which precipitated the strike. I only scraped the surface of the information offered: I’ll be back.
Rambling around the semi-wasteland outside the museum, I come across the building where the 1980 August Accords were signed, establishing Solidarność as an independent self-governing trade union. Inside, a series of panels present the life of Anna Walentynowicz including her arguments with Walęsa: she accused him of passivity, failure to listen to other people’s opinions and submissiveness towards the authorities. Once again my simple-minded hero worship is challenged, although I can feel a new bout coming on, with Walentynowicz as its object. The photo shows her during the strike in the Lenin Shipyard in 1980, just before her reinstatement.
A number of other photos catch my attention. The men with linked arms are trying to hold back those who don’t want to be involved in strike action. The tank is outside the Moskwa Kino during martial law: the authorities saw the screening of “Apocalypse now” as a subversive act. The round table is the site of 1989 discussions which led to elections where 35% of seats were reserved for deputies independent of communist authorities. The final photo shows the last Russian soldiers leaving Poland in 1993.
As I walk back towards the museum thinking about the events I’ve just seen unfold, I come across the colours of Solidarność embodied in white daisies and red poppies.