God shapes a historic event with the carving tools of his accomplished and humble servants. This ancient proverb is an ingenious description of the unforgettable episode that initiated the epoch-making event of the Cold War.
Initiated in August 1980 by the shipyard workers in Gdansk, the strikes, which spread out around the country and brought the Communist regime to its knees, laid the foundation for the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
The catalyst and the first leader of these seminal protests was such a humble woman Anna Walentynowicz. Following her favourite hero of the biblical Samaritan, whom she interpreted for herself as “to seek needy to be able to help them”, in the spring of 1978 Walentynowicz had joined the Free Trade Unions of the Coast (FTUC) in Gdansk. She distributed independent magazines, published her columns, and opened her humble apartment for illegal meetings of the opposition. From her meager monthly salary, Walentynowicz also committed a financial contribution to FTUC, a sum left after paying bills. According to some opposition leaders, the secret police attacked her when Walentynowicz acted as a mother figure towards them - she cooked, washed their clothes, and turned her adjacent room into a guest room.
The Gdansk Shipyard directors transferred her to different sections, deprived her of entrance cards, punished her with reprimands, salary cuts, detention, and imprisonment in the industrial guards' centres - and eventually fired her on August 7, 1980. Walentynowicz’s generosity and honesty earned her high authority among the shipyard workers, who launched the strike in her defence. After she returned via a car provided by shipyard’s director who was terrified by the crisis in the 345.94 acres production plant, one of the biggest in Poland and the Soviet Bloc; Walentynowicz requested workers to continue the strikes to defend the dignity of all unjustly treated workers.
The Western press rarely offered Anna Walentynowicz an opportunity to correct the record, that is, in fact, the history of that unique political movement. Perhaps it is one of the first exposition of crucial facts, as the Solidarnosc leader would have wanted in the Western press.
She was born in 1929, in the Ukrainian protestant family of five in a village that was formerly in Poland’s region of Wolyn, which is contemporary Ukraine. The Soviet political police NKVD arrested her older brother and sentenced him to 15 years in the Siberian concentration camps. Her mother died when she was eight years old. In 1943, the owner of a sugar mill took Anna and his family to the Western part of German-occupied Poland without the knowledge of her father. The wealthy owner continued to utilise her as a maid until she left for Gdansk.
At first, the young worker put trust in the Communist Party’s promises about the “people’s country”. "People's" - this word had magical powers, she reminisced later in the interview. It promised, it assured me that there was a place for me too, she added. Her remarkable diligence and dedication at work in difficult times with shipbuilding, earned her the title of labor leader, “Hanka of the Proletariat”. She quickly gained respect among the crew, when she bravely demanded an investigation into injustice that occurred at the plant. Even then, she was called in for warning talks with the secret police. She was first fired from the shipyard in 1968 when she wanted to explain the embezzlement of money from the relief fund.
After seven years of their marriage, her husband died decimated by his heavy labour. Just one year earlier, in December 1970 she witnessed how the people’s government-sent armed forces to attack peaceful protesters from the shipyard that killed 45 of her defenceless colleagues and wounded 1165.
The secret police increased her persecution after she participated in the services, aimed to preserve the memory of workers murdered the previous year.
The humility and genuineness can be heard in her memories of the first meeting with the Gdansk opposition leaders: Good morning. My name is Anna Walentynowicz. - Shhh ... - someone puts a finger on his lips - there is a wiretap! I was embarrassed. I was full of complexes anyway.
She remembered: “They are, so wise and educated, and I, am a simple worker, a shipyard's crane operator. It is my first entry, and I have already made a bad impression. After all, I have no idea about the conspiracy! Will they accept me?” Obviously everyone in the room knew about Anna Walentynowicz. She acknowledged that she saw earlier almost everyone and heard about their underground activities. They didn't ask me questions. They knew who I was. My battle at the shipyard was no secret to them, she added.
When the waves of intimidation and torment failed, the secret police decided to launch a painful blow by orchestrating her punitive layoff just five years before her retirement, thus depriving her rights to the pension. Her colleagues from the Free Trade Unions of the Coast signed a statement in her defence calling upon the workers to protest thus transforming into the Walentynowicz led historic strikes of August 1980.
When the director finally had no other choice than to re-employ Walentynowicz, and Lech Walesa announced the end of the strikes, she called upon the workers to stay for a prolonged strike. With two other women, Walentynowicz had closed the main gate to the plant, remembering the government’s massacre of the workers in 1970. Next day on her birthday, 156 of the biggest Polish industrial plants with millions of workers joined strikes in Gdansk, shaping the first independent self-governed trade unions Solidarnosc in Poland.
What would be Anna Walentynowicz’s narrative about the August strikes? She would emphasise three characteristics that distinguished these strikes from similar occurrences in history and made a distinction between the Solidarnosc protests and different movements.
The protesters did not seek a compromise with the Communist regime but demanded recognition of their rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and dignified treatment of the workers. It is, therefore, correct to state that they stood for what the American founding fathers defined as an unalienable rights.
The Solidarnosc leader had also explained that the workers launched strikes on behalf of those who were morally unable to participate. Namely, the healthcare workers “who could not leave sick and needy”, teachers “who could not desert vulnerable children”, and farmers “who produced food for all” were among them. This approach formed a new higher moral standard of the mass protests.
Thirdly, the secular, not to say atheistic narrative omits the indispensable factor of the strikes - the workers’ prayers and devotion.
The portrait of Pope John Paul II and Black Madonna placed at the entrance to Lenin’s Gdansk Shipyard was not a decoration but our confession of faith in trust, she stated in one interview. It was Walentynowicz who, after several hours of battle with local government bureaucracy who won from the Gdansk’s voivode permission for Sunday masses in the shipyard. That unique service unified the city’s inhabitants that surrounded the shipyard and the workers behind the gate.
Although she was a vital spark and spirit of the momentous phenomenon, the Western history textbooks and daily press rarely mention her name. But failure to emphasise her name is an equivalent of telling falsified history.
In the last essay published before his exile, Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed: Our way must be: Never knowingly support lies! Having understood where the lies begin (and many see this line differently)—step back from that gangrenous edge! The secret police officer in 1983 during the interrogation brazenly stated to Anna Walentynowicz: “Walesa is already in the Encyclopedia, and you are not there, and you never will be. We knew about it in 1980 ”. Indeed, Anna Walentynowicz is an unsung and forgotten hero that greatly contributed to the peaceful end of the Cold War.
The edited version of this article appeared first on AMAC.