Who had an influential role in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union? The names that come to mind quickly are Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. It may be easier to remember a Pope, British PM, and a US President, but I do think that a welder/crane operator at the Gdansk Lenin shipyard should not be forgotten one year after her death in a plane crash. Her name is Anna Walentynowicz. Below is a timeline of her life.
- Aug. 15, 1929 Anna Lubczyk was born on in the village of Sinne – Volhynia region of Ukraine.
- 1942 At the age of twelve, Anna was sent to work for a Polish gentleman Muntyk Telesnicki, who served at the sugar refinery in Babyn. For her backbreaking job Anna received meals – but no wages.
- 1943 Before the entry of the Soviet troops into Volhynia, the Telesnicki family fled to Poland, taking the thirteen year old Anna with them without the consent of her parents, as a free pair of hands would always come handy around the house. The girl was told that her family had been killed by the Nazis who had burnt their village. In fact, it was the village of Pustomyty, next to Sinne, that was burnt. Besides, Anna’s masters kept warning her to keep her Ukrainian citizenship secret, for fear of being killed.
The Telesnicki family settled not far from the city of Gdansk. The girl continued doing housework for them for meals and clothes only. She did all the chores, and milked cows, trying to please everyone in the household, while her masters always humbled her, deriding her Ukrainian ancestry. Anna had to work from four in the morning till late at night. She never had meals together with the family who shared home with her – not even at Christmas. She usually spent Christmas in the stable with horses, just not to stay alone.
Once her masters beat her up so cruelly for some fault that she desperately rushed towards the sea and was about to commit suicide. There Anna was overtaken by a woman who used to buy milk from them. She comforted the girl, put her up at her house, and then found her a job – looking after a baby for a certain family. These were kind people. When the baby grew up and they moved to another place for work, they let Anna stay in their apartment.
- November, 1950 Anna was so moved by the slogan “The young build ships” that she went to work as a welder at the Gdansk Lenin shipyard. She became a top worker, fulfilling 270 percent of the quotas.
- 1953 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.
- 1964 Anna married, changed her surname to Walentynowicz, and converted to Roman Catholic faith. Soon she became a trade union activist at the shipyard in Gdansk, and then joined in opposition activities.
- 1968 The first attempt at firing Walentynowicz was made when she tried to investigate the fact of disappearance of the workers’ aid fund. Her entire department stood up for her, so the administration only transferred the rebellious worker to another department, without the right to change the place of employment.
- 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.
- 1970 Walentynowicz took part in the strikes, cooking food for the protesters.
- 1978 She was arrested for her work with Lech Walesa and others to organize independent labor unions.
- Aug. 8, 1980 After 30 years of conscientious work and five months prior to retirement, Walentynowicz was fired from the shipyard for opposition-linked activities. However, the official indictment from the administration said that she was accused of being an accomplice to an attempt of theft: there had been an alleged attempt at stealing some wax for making candles for a memorial service. The candles were needed to honor the memory of the demonstrators who died in the streets of Gdansk at the hands of punitive squads.
- Aug. 14, 1980 This administrative decision triggered a strike of the shipyard workers. The trade union stood up for Walentynowicz. The union proclamation said that she was an obstacle and got in the administration’s way as she defended the workers and could organize them for action. The workers of the Gdansk shipyard started to make banners, and the very first of them carried a demand to reinstate Walentynowicz in her former job.
- Aug. 16, 1980 The shipyard administration agreed to the workers’ economic demands. Walesa declared his readiness to sign an agreement to cease the strike. 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 Anna 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….’
Her quiet voice stopped the masses of people. The gate was closed – then another. Six thousand people stayed in the shipyard.
- August 21, 1980 Walentynowicz was called “the most powerful orator in the whole strike movement.” In an interview with the New York Times when asked what the main cause of the strike was, Walentynowicz said:
- October 11, 1981 Man of Iron, a 1981 film directed by Andrzej Wajda is released, and Walentynowicz is a member of the cast. (see film clip below where she is slicing bread)
- August, 1982 Walentynowicz organized a hunger strike at Saint Barbara Church in Czestochowa, demanding to allow Pope John Paul II visit Poland. Later, she continued the hunger strike at her home. Several days later, this protest action was curbed by the secret police.
- Dec. 1, 1982 Walentynowicz was fired by the shipyard administration for absence from work due to her arrest.
- March 1983 The court in Grudziadz passed a decision to give her a suspended sentence of 15 months imprisonment for the “continued trade union activities and organization of protest actions in December.”
- December 1983 She was again arrested, this time in Katowice for an attempt to establish a memorial plaque at the local coal mine Wujek honoring the memory of the miners killed by the police.
- November 1984 Protesting against repressions, Walentynowicz returned two bronze medals and the gold Cross for Merits to the Chancellery of the Council of Poland.
- Feb. 18, 1985 to Aug. 31, 1986 She initiated a hunger strike protesting against the murder of priest Jerzy Popieluszko.
- 1991 She retires from the Gdansk Lenin shipyard.
- 1995 Nazar Lubczyk died in Ukraine, never learning that his daughter was alive.
- 1996 Clinging onto her father’s grave at the cemetery, the tearful Anna Walentynowicz said, “Forgive me, Father, for not having come back earlier, for not having found you. There were various reasons. Ill fate separated us for good, but I’m grateful to you for searching for me. I am so happy to have met my family. God helped me find the path to my old home, to my happiness, even if half a century had passed.”
- 2003 Walentynowicz refuses the title of honorary citizen of Gdansk.
- 2005 She refuses the honorary pension offered by then prime minister of Poland Marek Bielka. Neither did she agree to take part in the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Solidarity.
- Dec. 13, 2005 Yet one of the proofs of Walentynowicz’s victorious truth can be found in the fact that it was her, the legendary Polish opposition leader – and not Walesa – who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the American Foundation of the victims of communism in Washington, D.C. The award was conferred on her by US President George W. Bush.
“I am really touched by the fact that after 25 years I finally received the acknowledgment I had not dared to dream of. When I come back to Poland, I will show this medal to people and say that their struggle, their courage was acknowledged at last,” said Walentynowicz as she received the award.
- May 3, 2006 Walentynowicz was awarded the highest decoration in Poland, the Order of the White Eagle. This highest award she received from the hands of President Lech Kaczynski.
- April 10, 2010 saw the second Katyn massacre in the history of Poland. The plane crash near Smolensk took its toll: the lives of the Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the elite of Polish leadership. The Polish delegation was going to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the first Katyn massacre – the mass executions of Polish citizens, mainly the officers of the Polish Army, committed in the spring of 1940 by the Soviets. Anna Walentynowicz died together with Lech Kaczynski in the plane crash near Smolensk, on April 10.
“It is the lying and cheating the government does. The truth must be told to the people – that’s the main thing.
You can tell from the time line that she had known hard times, and August of 1980 was a time when a lot was happening in her life. As a member of the Gdansk intersectoral strike committee, she participated in the signing of the famous “21 postulates” of the agreement with the Polish government on the creation of free trade unions. It is exactly for this that Walentynowicz was also called “the Mother of Solidarity,” which made her an unofficial ideological leader of the Gdansk strike.
Walentynowicz played the most active part in the trade union at the rise of Solidarity, but, as she herself mentioned, she voluntarily ceded her leadership to Walesa. Her motive was that in negotiations the state administration would more easily find a common language with a man than with a woman. However, as a wise woman and an experienced politician, she might perhaps be reluctant to create a precedent of fighting for power at such a crucial moment, and add discord to the initial and yet fledging phase of the great struggle for the just cause. Later she would recollect this: “When as a young girl I was just beginning this uneasy strife for every person’s right to a dignified life, I dreamed that my son and his peers would be happy citizens of a free nation, led by wise and honest individuals.”
Now one could try to make a case against Anna Walentynowicz for being a communist, for being a union activist, and for being an illegal immigrant (her passport listed her as Polish instead of Ukraine). While associations can not be completely ignored I am going to judge her foremost by her individual works instead of by her associations. It was almost impossible to provide for your basic needs in the Soviet Union unless you were a communist. She had been taught that she had to keep her Ukrainian citizenship secret, for fear of being killed. She was a union activist, and in the 1970s, she began to help set up independent trade unions, making no secret of her opinion that the political leadership of Poland – including former party colleagues – was doing little to improve workers’ rights, freedom of speech or the social or political lives of ordinary people. Her union activism was not about union bosses getting more powerful. In fact she stood up to Walesa and criticised his thinking, but after communism was eclipsed in Poland in 1989 with semi-free elections, she withdrew from the union altogether.
And so the Solidarity – Solidarnosc – movement was born. A blend of workers’ revolutionary fervor and Catholic faith – a blend sometimes hard for those of us in the secular West to imagine – Solidarity was influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union itself. Looking at the Middle East… is there a muslim version of Anna Walentynowicz? I do not know the answer. The answer will become evident by what work is done by an individual, and not be impossible due to group associations alone.
I hope you will take time to watch the video below that is a film clip of a movie, Man of Iron, released a year after the achievement in 1980 at the Gdansk Lenin shipyard. This movie cast includes Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Walesa. The scene discussing the attempt to just distribute flyers calling on the bosses to stop beating up the workers is very instructive to Tea Party efforts bring change. To make no mention of getting solidarity within the local GOP by encouraging conservatives to become precinct committeemen is analogous to the young man just distributing leaflets.
Anna Walentynowicz spoke using simple expressions instead of rhetorical flourish. Here is an example of a simple quote that Poles embrace.
There still may be some poor people in Poland, but there mustn’t be any intimidated ones.
The Mother of Solidarity had to wait 25 years to receive official accolades she richly deserved. On the first anniversary of her death all I have left to say is… Thank You Anna. Rest In Peace.