Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anna Walentynowicz, Woman of Iron, R.I.P.


I rolled over in bed this morning, turned my laptop on, and read, "Polish President, 96 Others Dead in Plane Crash".

I was shocked to read that Anna Walentynowicz is among the dead. I got out of bed and dug up the college paper I wrote about her in 1983, at the height of the Solidarity movement for justice and freedom she helped form.

This is the obituary I just wrote. An obituary with footnotes.

In August 1980, Anna Walentynowicz was a rather dumpy little fifty-year-old widow. In photos of the time, you often see her wearing a mauve polyester paisley dress and carrying a big black handbag, her hair in a granny bun.

She was also a crane operator at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, a tough town on the Baltic Sea.

Soon to retire from her job, she was fired for trumped up charges that August. The real cause was her ongoing work to form an independent labor union, something the Communist government outlawed.

It wasn't the first time the regime had punished her for her outspokenness.
The first time was in 1953.
Postwar Poland was under the paw of its neighbor the Soviet Union. Like many Polish women, Walentynowicz had gone to work in state-controlled heavy industry. After three years as a welder in the Rosa Luxemburg Brigade, she complained that women weren't receiving equal prize money as production incentives.
Pointing out inequality in the socialist system got her an eight-hour interrogation.

In 1968, the year a Soviet invasion of Prague crushed Eastern bloc hopes of reform, Walentynowicz was fired for speaking out against corruption in government trade unions, the only kind of union allowed.

Two years later, Poland broke out in strikes, protesting the government's enormous hike in food prices.
Walentynowicz described what happend at the Lenin Shipyards on December 15, 1970, called Bloody Tuesday:
"It was horrible. Tanks and trucks with police surrounded the shipyards. When the workers wanted to go out into the street and were told to halt, the shooting erupted. Those who fired were policemen dressed up in soldiers' uniforms. The first victims were right at our gates." [2]
By December 20, the official toll was 45 dead and 1,165 wounded.

Again she was arrested in 1978, this time for her work with Lech Walesa and others to organize independent labor unions. Their group, the Free Trade Union Committee, published the underground newspaper called Robotnik Wybreza (Worker of the Coast).

The English word robot comes from robota, which means work or labor, including the slave labor of serfs, in many Slavic languages. It also carries the sense of "drudgery." Czech author Karel Čapek introduced artificial people called robots in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), in 1920. [3]

The Polish workers' crusades against using people as if they were machines matched Poland's deeply Catholic culture.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II, once Karol Wojtyla of Poland, visited Poland and met with Lech Walesa.
In the pope's nonspecific but nevertheless obvious blessing on the workers' movement, he stated,
"Christ will never approve that man be considered, or that man consider himself, merely as a means of production. This must be remembered both by the worker and the employer...."[4]
On August 6, 1980, management fired Anna Walentynowicz again, just months from her retirement.
In the unjust firing of a well-liked woman, the Free Trade Union Committee found a rallying point.

On August 14, workers walked off their jobs, carrying signs demanding Walentynowicz's reinstatement. The strike committee also demanded a raise in pay and the right to an independent trade union.

Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa, August 1980

On August 16, management agreed to everything. Except the trade union.

Walentynowicz described what happened on that day:
"[Lech] Walesa declared an end to the strike... and the workers started leaving the shipyard.... The workers standing outside from the other factories protested:
'You got your issues taken care of, but what about other people from other factories who were fired? They will be lost!'

What could we do? How could we stop 16,000 people leaving through three different gates?
We ran to the gate and I shouted, 'Let's have a solidarity strike!'

Then Alina [Pienkowka] took action. She stood on top of some barrels, such a close-to-tears girl in a candy pink blouse, and she said:
'We have to help the people from other factories because they won't be able to defend themselves....'

Alina's quiet voice stopped the masses of people. The gate was closed––then another. Six thousand people stayed in the shipyard.
For me, only in that moment did the Polish August begin." [5]
Walentynowicz was called "the most powerful orator in the whole strike movement." (pictured right) [6]

In an interview with the New York Times in August 21, 1980, when asked what the main cause of the strike was, Walentynowicz said:
"It is the lying and cheating the government does. The truth must be told to the people––that's the main thing.
We workers are much more sure of ourselves [compared to a disastrous strike in 1970]. In 1970 it was a shout of despair. We went into the streets calling 'we want bread for our work.'
Today our demands are different. We are more humanitarian, more political." [7]
And so the Solidarity--Solidarnosc--movement was born. A blend of workers' revolutionary fervor and Catholic social justice piety--a blend sometimes hard for those of us in the secular West to imagine––Solidarity brought down the Communist government in Poland and was influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union itself.

Before that happened, there was at least one more arrest for Walentynowicz. On December 13, 1981, General Jaruzelski declared martial law and put Poland under "state of war" status. Police arrested Soldiarity leaders along with radical priests, intellectuals, journalists, and any other people perceived as threats. Including Walentynowicz, who said:
"There was an old lady in our house, very ill with high blood pressure. I had to take her to the hospital. On the way a car pulled out, some men jumped out and tied my hands behind my back, bundled me into the car and left the old lady standing in the street." [8]
"Anna Walentynowicz with Lech Walesa, 8-29-80" [9]

Relations didn't proceed smoothly between Walentynowicz and Walesa. She felt he made too many compromises, and when Walesa received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, she commented,
"I started Solidarity, but the winner was Leshek [nickname for Lech]." [10]

At the time she was doing clerical work and campaigning against alcohol, saying "It's easy to rule a nation that drinks." [11]
Eventually she left Solidarity.

But Walentynowicz wasn't forgotten. On May 3, 2006, President Lech Kaczyński bestowed upon her the Order of the White Eagle.

Poland's highest decoration since 1705, the White Eagle was never awarded during the nation's Communist era. It was only given again in 1992, after the fall of communism.
How fitting that a woman of iron should get a cross of gold.

On April 10, 2010, along with President Kaczyński, Anna Walentynowicz was part of an official Polish delegation flying to western Russia to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Massacre: the slaughter by Soviet secret police of twenty thousand Polish officers and others in Katyn Forest at the beginning of World War II.
LEFT: Polish soldier at Katyn Memorial [12]

The plane crashed in thick fog, killing everyone aboard.

Former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa said, "This is a great tragedy, a great shock to us all."

I wonder if he remembers that mauve paisley dress.


Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa appeared as themselves in Man of Iron, by Andrzej Wajda. The filmmaker was part of a Polish "cinema of Moral concern."

"It is not exaggeration to say that films played a major role in the struggle for Poland’s independence," says blogger Venkat SIddareddy in a review of Man of Iron.

It is because of films that I know who Anna Walentynowicz was.
I went to see Man of Iron in 1983 and had not a bloody clue what was going on. Distressed at my ignorance, when I saw a course offered that fall on "Postwar Polish Culture," taught by Wlad Godzich, I signed up.
The paper I wrote: "Anna Walentynowicz, A Polish Woman, a Polish Worker" is one of the few college papers I saved.

(I haven't seen Strike, a fictionalized story of how Anna Walentynowicz (renamed Agnieszka in the film) provided the spark for Solidarity.
Walentynowicz reportedly did not like how she was portrayed. Now I'm going to watch it anyway.)


[1] Top photos:
a) Black-ribboned flags for plane crash victims, April 10, 2010, at Poznan, Mickiewicz Square, by Andrzej Monczak; from the gallery at Gazeta Wyborcza
b) Anna Walentynowicz by Michal Grocholski/AG 2008-12-05]

[2] Bloody Tuesday: "Catalyst of Poland's Crisis," New York Times, August 21, 1980, p. A-12.
Photo: "Gdansk,December 15, 1970," from Andrzej Friszke, Polska Gierka, [Gierek's Poland], Warsaw, 1995;
found at Anna M. Cienciala, History 557 Lecture Notes: Poland 1957-1980/81.

[3] Film poster for the Soviet film "R.U.R." after Karel Capek, 1935, from Wikimedia

[4] Pope John Paul II, from Lawrence Weschler, Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982

[5] Urszula Wislanka, "The Solidarity Movement: Women's Roles," New Women's Times, March 1982, p. 1

[6] "most powerful orator," from Weschler, Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion

[7] "lying and cheating," from "Catalyst of Poland's Crisis"

[8] "ill old lady": Urszula Wislanka, "The Revolutionary Activities of Polish Women," Off Our Backs, April 1982, p. 12

[9] B&W photo of Walentynowicz and Walesa, © Harald Schmitt / stern

[10] "I started Solidarity": Wislanka, "Revolutionary Activities"

[11] "a nation that drinks": Ibid.

[12] Katyn Memorial, April 4, 2010, from Gazeta Wyborcza


Maura said...

She looks like a visionary warrior in that first photo!
Women all over stand on the shoulders of such heroines (Hannah Duston could have take a page (or the whole book!) out of her book)!

femminismo said...

What a history lesson I have had this morning (er...afternoon - didn't realize the time!) and I am so unsurprised to find it here in a very entertaining format. Thank you!

Clowncar said...

I took a course from Vlad Godzich too! A Fantasy Lit course in the Comparative Lit Dept. I had directed his kids in my own adaptation of Phantom Tollbooth at the Pillsbury House in the early 80s, and since I was so fond of fantasy lit he suggested I take his course.

Small world!

Sad about Anna Walentynowicz.

ArtSparker said...

Thanks for the very engaging history lesson.

Anonymous said...

Thought of Wlad and you, and you, too, Clowncar--(gotcher numbah)-- when I heard the news, today, too. I didn't learn about the plane crash until about 5:00 p. m. today from my Jim after his faculty recital--(at which a pianist played 3 fantastic Chopin etudes, which, of themselves, almost brought me to tears! Had I known the news then, I might've run sobbing from the concert hall!). I'd stayed away from all media except the phone, and no one I talked to had heard the news yet, or at least no one I was with mentioned it. Ironically, I spent a good chunk of the day at the Global Exchange up on Lake Street, of course interacting with quite a few folk from lots of different places on the Planet, but no one from Poland. I remember you working on that paper, and we had some discussions back in the day about some of this, as you were doing your research. I will now incorporate sister Anna into my personal collection of inspirational womyn who "eat bread and salt and speak the truth." (A Russian proverb I still remember from my folks' copy of THE FAMILY OF MAN, which helped me learn to read at an adult level.) I loved what she said about how easy it is to rule a country in which everyone is besotted...Whatever the opiate--potable or indoctrinating-- can it become a stimulant/remedy and help facilitate revolution against injustice? I want to discuss this with Anna W., but I guess I'll have to wait 'til the afterlife. In the meantime: Too much wine, too many late nights of wonderful film, dance & music, so much sad news... my heart is topsy-turvy with revolutionary possibilities.
Thank you always, Fresca, for this incredible post and all your guerrilla geography and history!

Love and Solidarnosc!


Marz said...

Now I know.
(Thank you)

Clowncar said...

Stef! Thst you? I love when the virtual world collides with the real one.

Call us!

Fresca, how cool you two are friends! Such similarly generous worlds views.

Fresca said...

MAURA: The poem you left in the previous post, Auden's "September 1, 1939" is a spookily good fit too, written after Germany invaded Poland.

FMISMO, SPARKER & MARGARET: You're welcome. I'm glad you read it--I figured many Americans wouldn't know who Anna was. It meant a lot to me to write it.

Small world ! ! !
This is all down to Art Sparker, which is where I found the Oort Cloud.

I SAW your "Phantom Tollbooth" at Pillsbury House!
And Jeff, we have met briefly at least once, through Stef--I remember you were working at the Band Box (which is still there).
I remember Stef taking Wlad G's fantasy/sci-fi class---I am still kicking myself for not taking it myself. (Then I wasn't interested in that genre though, as I am now.)

The happiness of this collision mitigates the sadness of the Polish plane's.
Last night I dreamt a plane flew into the IDS Center. I was horribly distressed---I woke up thinking this must be how much of Poland is feeling.

momo said...

I knew nothing of Anna Walentynowicz's story, and had only the most confused awareness of the Katyn Massacre. Thank you for sharing these stories.

Clowncar said...

That image of the plane flying into the IdS is indeed horrifying.

But how wonderful to know the Band Box is still there. I loved that place, and that neighborhood, with all my heart.

This whole collision of pasts is too cool. When did we meet? At the Phantom Tollbooth? The Band Box? Vlad's lit course was a trip: Lewis Carrol, Stanislaw Lem, ETA Hoffman, Mary Shelly. Sorry you missed it.

Hey Stef, we'll try and call you tonight!

deanna said...

This is educational for me, too. And the events are heavy-duty, but so important to know about. Good job bringing her together for us.

Fresca said...

MOMO & DEANNA: I wouldn't have known about AW either if I hadn't taken that class. She was right that Lech was "the winner" if there was one...

CLOWNCAR: I don't remember where we met exactly--I seem to think it was at the red rooming house on Stevens Ave, where Stefanie and I both lives, and where we met each other.
I actually hadn't seen her in many years and then I ran into her at the library a couple years ago.
I love how things go round.