Before its triumph in 1989, the Solidarity trade union spent more of its existence in the shadows than as an official movement. It started in August 1980 in Gdansk and remained legal until December 1981 when the Polish government declared Martial Law. For the next seven years, Solidarity went underground.
Ewa Kulik was one of the key Solidarity leaders who kept the organization functioning underground. On the morning of December 13, 1981, when the police came to arrest her boyfriend, also an important Solidarity member, Kulik’s name was not on their list. By the time the police sorted out the confusion, she was able to elude their dragnet. That very day, she immediately set to work organizing.
“Until 6 am, I was walking around trying to warn different people, including an MP,” Kulik told me in an interview at her office at the Batory Foundation in Warsaw in August 2013. “He was not aware that they were even taking MPs. Later on it turned out that he was not taken, but he took sleeping pills and didn’t open the door. The next day you could see all the troops and tanks and soldiers in the streets. We turned on the TV set in the morning, and we heard Wojciech Jaruzelski. The telephones were not working, the trams were not running, you couldn’t buy gasoline. It was also a very severe winter with a lot of snow. Public transport was almost paralyzed. So, there was a lot of walking. I remember walking, walking, and walking those first days, trying to get in touch with other people about who was and wasn’t arrested, trying to organize. I went to the steelworks hoping that there was going to be a strike. I went to different plants and factories hoping that they would go out on strike. But all of them were taken by surprise.”
The most important thing, Kulik remembers, was information. “Whoever has information has power,” she told me. “We needed to break the monopoly of the Communist propaganda. And what people really needed was information. So, first of all, we needed to collect information – who was arrested, what plants were on strike, where were other protests – and smuggle it abroad so that it would come back to Poland. Then we had to produce the papers and the books and distribute them. We had to put together a whole network identifying printing machines that had not been confiscated, finding people who could operate them, organizing the distribution network. We needed to make contact with people who could enter the plants and those who were not arrested and could organize underground structures. We did all these things in the first few weeks, and it was expanding and expanding.”
Also important was locating the few remaining Solidarity leaders who had not been arrested. “We learned that some of the leaders were not caught, had managed to flee and escape arrest,” she continued. “One of them was Zbigniew Bujak. Another was Wiktor Kulerski. The main task was to find them so that we could issue statements by these leaders. We thought it was very important to preserve the continuity of leadership, to show that Solidarity was not crushed and that there were leaders who were trusted and had legitimacy because they were democratically elected leaders.”
The ability of Solidarity to maintain organizational continuity and issue bulletins to its followers, even during the worst of the Martial Law period, ensured that the movement could revive when the political environment was more auspicious. But Kulik was not interested in transitioning, as did so many of her colleagues from the underground period, to the world of official politics in 1989.
“It was always my idea that after we had democracy everybody should do what he or she wants,” she told me. “There was no longer any moral obligation to be involved. Everyone could now be part of the democracy. If somebody has an inclination and temperament to be a politician, they should do it. If somebody wants to do something else, they should do something else. I was involved in the democratic opposition not because of my political temperament but because of the ethical principles and standards that I believed in. I chose to be involved, to protest against the totalitarians, and to fight for democracy. But when democracy arrived, I chose to do what I always wanted to do, before I became involved, which was to be a journalist and a translator.”
Today she is the director of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, where she focuses, among other things, on civic education. She told me that Poland failed to focus on civic education after 1989.
“Instead of civic education we had this myth of individual entrepreneurialism as the highest value,” she concluded. “Now we have a totally atomized society. For instance, from an educational point of view, the school reform was successful because right now all tests show that more children read at the same level as in other Western countries. But we have contests between children beginning when they’re three years old. There’s no collective work, no thinking about the public good, only about your private good. The stress is always on being better, and the person next to you is your rival, not somebody with whom you should do something together. So what we do here in the non-profit sector is trying to supply what has been lacking and forgotten.”
You were connected to Solidarity in the 1980s?
I was active in the Solidarity underground during the Martial Law period for five years until I was caught in 1986. Then I went to jail. But after the amnesty in 1986 I was released. Then I became a member of Solidarity leadership, the only woman on the committee. It wasn’t underground anymore. We weren’t legal, but we were not in hiding.
In 1988 after the strikes here in Warsaw and Gdansk, we got a scholarship from the Kennedy family, and we went to Boston. “We” means me and my husband. We spent a year in Boston, and then we came back to Poland. After that came the Round Table talks and after that there were partially free elections. Then I stopped being involved in politics. I came back to what I originally wanted to do when I graduated from university, which was translating books. I worked for a year for the paper The Independent, the English daily. I was the correspondent of this daily here in Warsaw, and then I quit this job and just focused on translating books. Back in 2000-1, I started to work for the Stefan Batory Foundation.
I’d like to go back to when you were in university. Was there a moment when you decided you were going to join the opposition, or was it more of a gradual process?
It was a very specific moment, a quite violent one. I was in the first year of my studies, and it was May, which was the month when Krakow was famous for holding a special feast for students. For three days the city was in the hands of the students, in a tradition that goes back to medieval times, when the students are symbolically given the key to the city. I was brought up in Krakow, and it was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a student, so that in May I could get dressed up and have a party for three days in the streets of Krakow. For a few days students focus on dancing, drinking, playing, making fun, and using costumes to dress up as other people. It was originally only a Krakow tradition, then it spread to other parts of Poland. So now probably in each academic town you have such a three-day student festival.
This festival was coming up, and I was coming back from the building in which the English department was located. I was studying English literature. There was an announcement in Szewska Street on a piece of paper glued to the wall. A student, Stanislaw Pyjas, had been killed by the secret police. It was as if I’d been struck by a thunderbolt. It was something very emotional. I could not believe that the secret police had killed one of us only because he was gathering signatures for a petition to free the workers beaten and arrested during the strikes in 1976 and collecting money to support the families of these arrested workers. This piece of paper posted on this wall announced that a protest was going to be organized in solidarity with this student who’d been killed. And there was also an appeal not to participate in the student festival.
I went to the protest. There was a mass and a manifestation after the mass. And this manifestation was very unusual and also very moving because a lot of young people, dressed in black with black flags, gathered on Szewska Street, one of the streets leading to the old market in Krakow. It was very solemn, and you could feel such an intense atmosphere in the midst of this joyful student festival.
When the first row of the manifestation started to move, there was a provocation and the secret police succeeded in cutting our group into two parts. One part went to the market, the other one went the other way around, but the idea was to go to Wawel Castle. So both halves went to Wawel Castle along different routes. On the way you could see people in the streets waving or drumming, and people in their houses were putting lighted candles in their windows. In front of Wawel Castle there was a proclamation establishing the Student Committee of Solidarity – Studentski Komitet Solidarnosci. The proclamation said that the only legal student union had collaborated with the secret police in searching for the friends of Stanislaw Pyjas who were organizing the manifestation. This showed the real need for creating an independent student organization, and that’s why the initiators of this manifestation were setting up the founding committee of such an organization. It invited people to join them. And under this announcement they put their names and their addresses.
This was really something very unusual. It had never happened before. Before, nobody knew who was who, and everything was anonymous. This really appealed to me, that these people were not afraid of giving their names and their addresses so people could join with them. Interestingly enough, none of them had a telephone: in the 1970s, especially in Krakow, almost nobody had a telephone. I didn’t remember the names of the ten people who were the signatories of this text. But I remembered the address because it was easy to memorize: Chocimska 3/3. I decided the next day that I would join them and take along two of my friends.
At that time when we came to this place, there was a list of the inhabitants as we entered. We don’t have that anymore because people are crazy about data protection. I read the name of the person living there, and it was Bronislaw Wildstein. My friend told me, “Oh, it’s a Jew.”
And I said, “How do you know?” I was so naïve. I didn’t know Wildstein is a Jewish name. I thought it was a German name.
And then he opened the door: Bronislaw Wildstein. For her he looked very Jewish. But for me I had no idea what a Jew looks like. For me, he looked more like an Armenian. But that’s a digression about my innocence in stereotypes about people.
So I said, “We want to be a part of your movement. We want to support you. What can we do?”
He gave us a document that said that we agreed to actively be a part of his movement, to support the Citizen Committee of Solidarity. He gave me some more copies so that I could distribute it at the philology department. And that’s what we did.
When we first got there, I wanted somehow to convince him that I wasn’t from the police, so I produced my ID. He didn’t want it.
I asked him, “How do you operate?”
“Anybody can come.”
That’s when I became aware of how it functions. I really liked that about the democratic opposition movement: its openness. It operated on the belief that what we did was right and we had the right to do it. It was not just the moral right, which is very important, but we also operated under the pretense of some legal framework. What we did was legal even according to the Communist constitution, which on the face of it was guaranteeing certain rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association. Poland had also, of course, signed the Helsinki Convention. So later on whatever we did we always based on these two documents — the Helsinki document and our constitution — depending on which one was more applicable. Because of that, we did what we did openly: signing our documents, giving our names and our addresses so that anybody could visit us. That must have been shocking for the secret police, which usually tried to work to detect a conspiracy. But there was no conspiracy because everything was in the open. So I liked this openness and basing our acts on both moral authority and the law, even if the law was crippled.
I was in the first year of university, and it was May. During that summer, I went with a group of people to a summer vacation camp. I was with people from the Student Solidarity Committee. These were older students because most of the initiators of the committee were already in the fifth year, so they were finishing their studies. During this camp we read a lot of samizdat: Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, Kolakowski and Baranczak and Orwell. It was a kind of education and preparation for the future. My eyes were opened. Already after this summer I was asked to join the committee as a signatory. That’s how it functioned. It was an amorphous movement, but there were always 10 people signing the documents and giving their names and addresses. They were called the signatories of the Student Committee of Solidarity, and I became one of the 10 new signatories after the first set left university. This was another of our main principles: we didn’t want to be like the Communist Student Union activists who were 30-something and still active in the student union. The moment you left the university you were not a student anymore. You could be active in a different capacity, but not in the student organization. Student organizations had to consist of students and be led by students.
I was in this second set of Student Solidarity Committee signatories when I had my first encounter with the secret police. One day the bell rang, and the secret police came and searched the apartment. Some days later I was called in to be interrogated at the police commissariat. They threatened to expel me from the university. But I said I was prepared. Of course I was afraid and worried. But I knew my rights. This was also something very important — we were part of this distinct group, we were prepared, we were told what our rights were. There was a wonderful leaflet that said what you could do when you were interrogated as a witness and what you could do when you were interrogated as a suspect. And when you could refuse to answer the questions and on what you could base your refusal. And this really gave you power, this feeling that you knew the law and what your rights were.
This is what was incredible about this democratic opposition movement. It gave you something. Somehow the people who started it had learned the lessons from the failures of different previous movements. So, for instance, it was based on openness, not conspiracy. It was based on the external legal framework. It also gave you the feeling that you knew what your rights were. And you did not feel as if you were alone. The fifth element was the name that we used: Solidarity. We were the first ones to use it before the Solidarity movement. It was about the solidarity of the student community — if something happened to one student, the others should stand by him or her. But it also indicated solidarity among different social groups, such as solidarity with the workers. That’s why this guy Stanislaw Pyjas had been killed: because he supported workers. We maintained that we were not going to be divided anymore. We didn’t want to allow the Communist authorities to play on these resentments between workers, peasants, intelligentsia, students, and so on, which had been present in 1968 and 1970 when one class group protested and the rest were not interested because the protest had not been in their interest. This was another idea and value that really appealed to me.
So, I started rather emotionally because I was somehow charmed and moved by this manifestation of solidarity. When I learned about this guy who was killed, for a few days I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t think about anything else. I was motivated by a kind of instinctive drive to stand by these people. I admired their bravery for doing this activity openly. Later, with reading and talking and discussing, the conceptual motivation became as important as the emotional one.
This was in 1976 or 1977?
And prior to that had you heard about what had happened in 1968 with the protest at the university?
My family was not politically active. But, like everybody here, I knew. None of my family, fortunately, suffered under Stalinism. Not the close relatives. Of course, talking with my mom and sister, I knew that after 1945 some of our cousins from the countryside were taken to Siberia. Most of them were denounced by their neighbors because they were richer or because somebody had a grudge. They went to Siberia, but they came back. During the Stalinist period, none of my close family was harassed. But in 1968, when I was only 11, I remember my parents talking about friends being expelled from university or jobs because they were Jewish.
I also remember the university protests. My older brother, who is three years old than I am, was not a student, but when the student protests started he was interested and went to see. And my school was next to the Market Square where there were demonstrations. Not far from my school was the Communist Party voivodship committee. I remember the moment when we couldn’t go to school because it was closed. One of my fellow students was the son of a militsia policeman. One day he came in with gas masks and gas and just dropped it all in the classroom. So we had no classes.
In 1970, I remember listening to Radio Free Europe and to my parents and my uncle, so I knew what was happening, and it was a subject of discussion at home. I remember 1976 very well because I was preparing for the entrance exams for the university when it happened. I was walking through the streets after the protests and seeing the workers who were brought there by the party apparat to protest against the protestors. I remember these people with sad faces as if they were going to a funeral, not a protest, with all these banners that read Pisarzhe Do Kura and so on: writers go to and take your pens, students study, and Jews go to Israel. My family of course was trying to get some information, so they listened to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. My uncle was a professor at the medical academy in Krakow. He was not active, but he was always following very closely the political developments in Poland. He told me one day, “Do you know that the students at the university are collecting signatures to help the workers?” And I was ashamed because I didn’t know, because no one had come to our department. So I was listening to the radio to find out where I could find them. And then May 7 happened, and I became involved.
The Student Committee Solidarity was at Jagiellonian University, but it was also at other universities?
It started at Jagiellonian University because this student was killed there. But then students in Warsaw set up one and also there was a very lively center in Wroclaw. There was also a group in Lodz and then in Gdansk and in Szczecin. But in Warsaw, for example, there was already a Committee of Workers’ Defense (KOR), and the politically active students were already cooperating with it, so the Student Solidarity Committee was not that strong there. In Lodz there were not many of them. Wroclaw was very strong because there was no other activity there. And it didn’t emerge in Gdansk because the people there were more connected to the nationalist Right opposition with ties to the Church. Instead, they set up an organization they called Bratniak around the Bratniak paper. And they were more connected to the Confederation of Independent Poland (KPN). But we were in contact with them, so it was kind of a network. But we didn’t have a hierarchical structure. It was more of an amorphous movement. We signatories were the most involved. But there were also certain people who, for different reasons, couldn’t or didn’t want to give their names but who were active. They were printers, they ran libraries, and so on.
So you were still in university in 1980?
In 1980 it was my fourth year, so I was finishing. At that time the studies in Poland were shortened from five years to four. So it was my last year.
And you’d already been working on the Independent Student Association as a signatory, you’d been interrogated, and then these events happened in Gdansk. Was it entirely unexpected that this happened? Or did you have a suspicion as a result of the work of KOR or other organizations?
Oh, no, it was totally unexpected. Nobody expected that. I remember talking to my friend and we were of the same opinion that probably during our lifetime the situation would not change. We were stuck with the system. But within the system you could somehow push the limits for more freedom. And that’s what we were doing. The moment was also convenient because of the economic situation. We were getting loans from the West. The system was more open, and it was evolving. Also, and I’ll be honest, even though you had the feeling that the whole system was trying to enslave you, you felt free internally. You were free in an unfree country. And this internal freedom gave us joy. That’s the privilege of youth: you don’t feel enslaved.
So, no, I didn’t have any premonition that it was going to happen. And when it happened I didn’t know how it was going to end. At that time I was on vacation. I learned about the protests when I was at the seaside. This was in July, and the strike was in Lublin. The strikes had not yet started at the Gdansk shipyard. I was in Krakow when I learned about the strike in Gdansk, and we decided to do something in Krakow as well, to spread the information to Nowa Huta [the nearby steelworks]. We needed a leaflet. But there was an alert, and all our friends who could write something on the printing machines were caught. Later, when I read the reports from the Institute of National Remembrance I found out that some of them were working with the secret police. So probably they just did it on purpose so that no leaflets would be published in Krakow. One of my friends told me that I should go to Warsaw and maybe we could get some leaflets there and bring them back to Krakow, and that’s what I did.
I went to Warsaw and I was waiting for the leaflets to be printed to take them back to Krakow. It took some time. I started to help Jacek Kuron because I was staying at his flat collecting information from all over Poland. People were coming, and they were also calling him by phone. So I was also picking up the phone, putting down all the information, and passing it to Radio Free Europe, BBC, etc. After several days, the secret police came and took everybody except me and Jacek Kuron’s father who was staying there. That was arranged by Jacek. We organized it this way since a lot of people came to his apartment and were stuck there. At one point 30 people were there. Then the police started to take them by vans to the station. Jacek told me that I would be the last, that I would tell them that my father was sick and couldn’t stay alone. And that’s what we did. They called somebody, and they allowed me to stay. They took everybody, but I stayed behind with Jacek’s father, and immediately picked up his job.
People were again calling and coming. Jacek had shown me how he prepared the information, not from his apartment but from a neighborhood apartment. He used some other telephones on the street, calling his younger brothers either in France or in London passing information on what was happening in Poland. And it was coming back to Poland through Radio Free Europe, BBC, France International, and Voice of America. And that’s how I became engaged in what we call the central information bureau of KOR and then of Solidarity.
The Solidarity movement started to spread after the signing of the agreements in Gdansk. Jacek was released, and I stayed with him. From that moment on he was more involved in doing politics, and I was handling the information side. This time, different trade unions and different information centers were being set up around Poland. I took all the different Solidarity bulletins and turned it into an information bulletin for the Solidarity trade union as a whole. When Solidarity established a headquarters, I moved there and became a part of the first paper of Solidarity in Warsaw called Independence. I became employed by Solidarity. My first official job, stamped in my ID, was the Solidarity trade union. I became a Solidarity trade union journalist.
Just before Martial Law, the internal dispute in Solidarity started. There was the faction more to the right and connected with the Confederation of Independent Poland (KPN), along with those who were even more radical and nationalistic. They called themselves pravdie Polacy or “true Poles.” They started to attack people who were closer to KOR, like Zbigniew Bujak and Wiktor Kulerski here in Warsaw. The situation was tense and difficult. They were also accusing us, Independence, of sympathizing with this trend and not the ”true workers” and “true Poles.” They demanded that our paper change into something different. Another paper, connected with this other faction, wanted to get rid of us. The situation was really so uneasy that we decided to resign. My husband Konrad Bielinski, who was my boyfriend at the time, was also a member of KOR. He was editor-in-chief, and I was the managing editor.
After we resigned, I went to visit my friends in Krakow. When I came back I did not have a permanent address here because I’d lost my apartment. I was looking for another apartment when Martial Law was proclaimed. I was lucky enough to be at an address that the secret police didn’t have for me. That’s how I managed to flee the internment. I was staying the night with my boyfriend, now husband, when they came to his flat. But they had a warrant only for one person. The police stations had sealed envelopes with the names that were opened only at that hour. His name was in the envelope, and when they came they just asked me for my ID. They noted it, but they didn’t take me. I was not on their list, though I was on the government’s list. When the police checked at the station, they discovered that I was also wanted. But when they took him away, I left the apartment immediately and never went back. That’s how I managed to escape internment and start to work underground.
I started to look for contacts. I knocked on the doors of different people. That night I went to different places to warn people that the arrests had started. At the beginning I thought it was not about Solidarity but just about KOR, that they wanted to get rid of this radical element. The government was focused on KPN and KOR. So I thought they took Konrad because he was a KOR member not because of Solidarity. This was also after the radicalization of the whole Solidarity movement. A few weeks earlier Jacek Kuron started the whole political movement within Solidarity based primarily on KOR as an answer to the move of the Right in setting up the more nationalistic movement. So I thought that that’s what the arrests were about, not about Solidarity.
But the moment when I went to the Solidarity headquarters, I saw the riot police blocking the entrance. Then I started to walk from one place to another, and I saw the tanks on the streets. So I knew that it was not about KOR, but about Solidarity. I went to Halina Mikolajska, a famous actress who was a member of KOR. She was never arrested for those three years when she functioned as one of the symbols of KOR — maybe because she’s such a famous actress they didn’t want to arrest her. And so this regime was not that severe. They did not try to arrest those whose names were famous. But she was taken during Martial Law. So for me that was another element that showed that it was more serious than I thought.
So this night was very intense. Until 6 am, I was walking around trying to warn different people, including an MP. He was not aware that they were even taking MPs. Later on it turned out that he was not taken, but he took sleeping pills and didn’t open the door. The next day you could see all the troops and tanks and soldiers in the streets. We turned on the TV set in the morning, and we heard Wojciech Jaruzelski. The telephones were not working, the trams were not running, you couldn’t buy gasoline. It was also a very severe winter with a lot of snow. Public transport was almost paralyzed. So, there was a lot of walking. I remember walking, walking, and walking those first days, trying to get in touch with other people about who was and wasn’t arrested, trying to organize. I went to the steelworks hoping that there was going to be a strike. I went to different plants and factories hoping that they would go out on strike.
But all of them were taken by surprise. There was supposed to be a so-called strike alert: a group of people on alert who would organize structures quickly if something happened. But they were paralyzed. Nobody was prepared for it. With the telephones not working, how can you organize people? So, in many factories and plants, there was no alert at all. And the steel factories where people could get organized to go on strike the next day were pacified and very fast. I was in the steelworks when they started to break into the main entrance. The workers took us and other outside people into the plant through back routes.
It was a very tedious and difficult time putting together the remnants of the Solidarity structures and organizing the underground structures. It was very slow. When we managed to put something together it was broken because of arrests. What was very important for us was to find the leaders because, as people who knew each other from before Solidarity, we organized quite quickly. We were connected through KOR and already had the experience of running a clandestine conspiracy to do things like printing. We were doing everything openly in the sense that we were putting our names on articles, books, and leaflets. But in order to produce them we had to do it secretly, in conspiracy. The editorial meetings, preparing the paper, printing the publication: it was all done secretly. And it was mostly women because somehow women escaped the internment. We divided up the jobs, thinking about the kind of logistics that were necessary to make the underground structure of Solidarity.
The most important thing was information. Whoever has information has power. We needed to break the monopoly of the Communist propaganda. And what people really needed was information. So, first of all, we needed to collect information – who was arrested, what plants were on strike, where were other protests – and smuggle it abroad so that it would come back to Poland. Then we had to produce the papers and the books and distribute them. We had to put together a whole network identifying printing machines that had not been confiscated, finding people who could operate them, organizing the distribution network. We needed to make contact with people who could enter the plants and those who were not arrested and could organize underground structures. We did all these things in the first few weeks, and it was expanding and expanding.
At the beginning everybody was responsible for collecting information and finding apartments where we could conspire. It was important to have as many apartments as possible to serve different functions: for those who were wanted and had to hide, for different kinds of working purposes, for editorial staff, for magazines, for meeting places, and so on. We constructed such a network and we delegated different responsibilities to different people. Then we learned that some of the leaders were not caught, had managed to flee and escape arrest. One of them was Zbigniew Bujak. Another was Wiktor Kulerski. The main task was to find them so that we could issue statements by these leaders. We thought it was very important to preserve the continuity of leadership, to show that Solidarity was not crushed and that there were leaders who were trusted and had legitimacy because they were democratically elected leaders.
What we had in mind in terms of conspiracy was what happened with WiN — Wolność i Niezawisłość (Freedom and Independence) — the organization of the 1940s and 1950s. All of them were caught. And the last leadership of WiN, all of them were secret agents. So, we didn’t want conspiracy. We wanted to go back not to the times before Stalinism but to the times of the democratic opposition. We’d be working underground, in hiding, but all the documents, all the appeals to society, had to be signed by real people, not nicknames. It’s very difficult to say how that we figured out that Bujak and Kulerski were still free. It was in the way that one of the priests behaved that indicated somehow that he must know something, that he must have some contact with some important person. We tried to talk to him. Then I decided to write a letter, and I told him just to give the letter to this person, and this person would recognize me from this letter. And that was Wiktor Kulerski to whom this letter was delivered. And he told me that Bujak was also in hiding. Then we knew that the most important thing was to take them out from there and organize around them the whole structure.
So that’s what we did. We organized a very safe network around them. They had apartments in different parts of the city, not far from each other because of the difficulty of moving from one place to another. They were living with families for two weeks, then we extended it to one month, each in a different family. They never met together in those apartments. But we organized for them another apartment where they could meet. They were always accompanied by a liaison who would watch out for them. It was always a woman, someone in her fifties who looked like a good mommy. When they were meeting people from the underground who were also in hiding they always met in a different place. When they were meeting somebody who was not in hiding but was living normally, then this person was smuggled to one apartment or taken to a different apartment when one of them was brought by this liaison. We set up lots of different safety nets and liaisons and structures. But the most important thing was to maintain the safety of the leaders so that they wouldn’t be exposed to arrest and the people they met wouldn’t be followed by the secret police. It functioned quite well for almost five years.
You’ve described the challenges of protecting leadership, but what about you yourself? Did you have to move from place to place as well?
Yes, me too. I was living like that. The difference was that they only rarely got out of their apartment when it was necessary to meet with somebody. I was moving all the time from one place to another, living in one place for only two weeks and then later for one month. When it was somehow stabilized and became more routine, my world was a little bit like working in an office because I was the chief executive of the office of Solidarity. At the last moment I was living with my boyfriend, pretending to be wife and husband, and staying in an apartment that we rented. But we rented it not on the open market but from people who knew who we are. They didn’t need this apartment, so it was empty. We stayed there longer, and this was also one reason why we got caught. You cannot live five years moving every two weeks from place to place: you will go crazy. And also the infrastructure was shrinking. In the fifth year of Martial Law a lot of people were living normally. It was more difficult to get the houses and apartments, especially during this time. A couple of them or even more were at some point exposed because the secret police was also working. From time to time some apartments were excluded from the network because the police learned about them. Not all people were working at such a high level of security as we did.
Your husband was – or your boyfriend at that time – was arrested. How long was he held?
He was interned, and he fled from internment in a very tricky way. We smuggled in a kind of medicine that he swallowed and that gave him the symptoms of a contagious disease. Typhus, I believe.
It wasn’t dangerous?
No, it wasn’t. It was prepared by doctors, and it only gave the symptoms. When he got it he started to pound the doors saying, “I’m sick, I’m sick.” The doctor came, and they took the test, and they said, “Oh, he has to go to the hospital.” He was taken to the hospital in Brudno, a regular one, not the prison one. And in this hospital, the secret police who came with him stayed in the hall. He went to see the doctor, and from the doctor he went to the loo, and from the loo he went through a different corridor and just out into the street where he took a taxi. It was very easy. It wasn’t very romantic or full of adventure. It was as simple as that. He had an address where he was supposed to go when he managed to get out of the place. He rang the bell, people were waiting for him, and that’s how he escaped internment. He was interned one year and a half, not more than two. And then he joined the underground. I knew where he was, I picked him up, and he started to be a part of the underground leadership.
You said one of the reasons why you were caught was because you more or less set up a normal life together in an apartment.
It was more complicated than that. One of the reasons we were caught was that we were not changing apartments that often. We were tired of moving around. But the real reason we were caught was because we started to organize in 1986 – this was almost five years after Martial Law had been declared. As the leadership of the Solidarity underground, we decided that we had to revitalize the movement. People fall into a routine where there is no strategy about where to go or what to do. Already some people, even some leaders, were getting out of prison, out of internment, and they were like a parallel structure to the underground. The movement had to be revitalized. We also had to give Solidarity a new kind of democratic legitimacy. At some point, out of many people who were in the underground only Bujak and Kulerski were leaders with any legitimacy. Wladyslaw Frasyniuk and two other leaders in Wroclaw were caught. So we were on the verge of having only people who would not give their names. But also those who were active had the feeling that they wanted to have a say and not just those who were Solidarity activists and leaders only for one and a half years from August 1980 until December 1981.
We wanted to organize a Second Congress of Solidarity. Of course, it couldn’t be organized in the same way as it was in the legal times when we had delegates elected by all 10 million members. But we wanted delegates from the underground structures we had contact with. There were intense preparations that involved both Solidarity leaders living “on the surface,” as we called it, and those who were in the underground. There were a lot of meetings with those on the surface, including people who were very famous and well known like Geremek, Kuron, Mazowiecki and other advisors of Solidarity like Henryk Wujec. There was a lot of technical and content organization, preparation of program documents, organizing of delegates, of places to meet. We needed one huge place that could hold 100 people. It was risky, but we thought it was worth it. Otherwise, I had the feeling that the movement was dying. It had become routine, and there was no drive.
This was the reason why we got caught. It involved a lot of people, a lot of movement, and a lot of contacts. Not everybody had the capacity to make sure that they were not followed. At some point we probably got careless. And the Communists were not lazy, either, because they were preparing their Communist Party Congress, and they wanted it to be a success. As we learned later, there was intensified secret police work to catch the underground Solidarity leadership. And that happened. They got a clue where we were. We were living together, and we knew at some point that something was wrong around this area.
My husband had a very good eye for the secret police because he was really very much experienced in it. He was one of the leaders of another publishing office, and they often had to escape the secret police to go into hiding and continue their work. He was followed already in the 1970s when he was an activist in the student movement preparing for the Congress of Youth and he was one of the few who protested the unification of all youth organizations. So, he had the feeling that we were being watched. He showed me that something was wrong, that either we or somebody in the vicinity was being followed. There had been several cases when we somehow thought that they were near us, but we never knew whether it was because of us or because of someone else being followed. But if we had not been tired, probably we would have just left everything and gone somewhere else. But we were tired, and we didn’t want to, and we saw many people who had been caught and released were living normally. Sometimes I said that we would be like that famous Japanese soldier who, 25 years later, was still in the bush and didn’t know that the war was over.
So, that’s how we got caught. They were waiting for Konrad. I came back to the apartment earlier, and he had this meeting with Jacek Kuron and Henryk Wujec and Zbigniew Bujak, and he came home early in the morning like 4 am. At 5 am, they broke into our apartment and handcuffed us and took Konrad away immediately. I stayed with them as they searched the whole apartment everywhere, even tearing up the floor. And then we were taken, each of us separately, to the jail.
The Congress was not organized although we believed at the time that it could have been. Later on we were furious that our friends who were not caught did not organize it because everything had been prepared. But maybe it was good after all because maybe some of them would have been followed and in addition to us there would have been 50 more people caught.
Someone told me a story, and I don’t know if it was you they were telling me about, about a woman activist, who while in jail passed notes to other people but signed the note with her underground name, which was not gendered. I had this conversation with an older male Solidarity activist, and it was only after they were both released that he discovered that the person he had been talking to was a woman all that time. He had thought it was another man.
In the prison I never smuggled notes. In prison, one thing is that you shouldn’t smuggle notes because they will be caught by the police. We smuggled these kinds of notes and letters when we were in the underground because we were trying to limit physical contact as much as possible. Through the different couriers we were sending notes to each other. I didn’t visit Bujak or Kulerski, but a courier came to where I was working, I gave them letters explaining what I am sending, and I prepared whole packages for them. It was like a post office.
These were not exactly letters. They were very thin pieces of papers that we wrote so we could put them into a cigarette. The paper was yellow and very thin. You could use blue paper to make copies. I had such a good typewriter that it could make 10 copies. And then there were other couriers. The courier from my office went to another place, to the head courier of my couriers, who then went to another place and met with different couriers who were going to the places where they left letters of instruction for representatives of different structures, different factories. Twice a week we exchanged information this way. That was the communication system. And I always used a man’s nickname. So it could be that somebody told the story of me using this male name.
How long were you in jail?
Not so long. I was arrested in May just after Chernobyl, and I was released in September. In July, the Communists proclaimed an amnesty, and on the basis of the amnesty I was released in September. The decision was made by the Central Committee to release us, so all of us were released, Bujak and me and others in September. You could be jailed for three months without trial. That could be extended for another three months and then another. I was just in my second three-month period when they released me.
You said you were the only woman after 1989 in the Solidarity leadership —
What was that like being a woman in those circumstances at a time when feminism wasn’t exactly accepted by everybody either in Polish society or specifically within the trade union movement?
It was difficult in the sense that when you worked with the workers at that time they were not used to having a woman giving them orders or instructions from the leaders. Our society is still quite patriarchal, but at that time it was very patriarchal. Especially in the working class, wives would often not work. And not only that but it somehow put Bujak in a worse position, the perception that he was being ruled by a woman. As soon as I recognized that dynamic, I said that we had to have a man to go and meet with these people. I immediately started looking for such a man, but it was not easy. We offered the position to several men, and they refused.
And they refused because they…?
I think they were afraid. We also wanted to offer it to somebody who was in the underground, who was hiding, because then he wouldn’t be an outsider. There were also rumors that there was a love affair. A woman and a young man were in hiding… so it was probably a love affair. That was the easiest explanation. And that was difficult for Bujak because it undermined his authority in Solidarity, and that was most important. He had to be a man who was the leader, and anything that weakened this leadership was bad for the movement. There were these jokes that he was in the hands of women, that he was a puppet.
And this was a very difficult thing for me, psychologically and emotionally, because I loved his wife. I admired her. She was, she is, a very modest woman of integrity. She’s a powerful woman, but she never puts herself in the limelight, in the front row. I knew that it was hurting her, and normally she wouldn’t believe such a thing. But how could she know? She had no contact with him. We didn’t know each other very well personally, I just admired her as the wife of Bujak because I met her several times. We were not friends at that time, but I saw this power in her. She was full of dignity. For example, many women when their husbands were arrested went for support to the Church, which was distributing packages and helping them. She always refused. She didn’t want any support. She wanted to be dependent only on herself and behaved very well vis a vis the secret police. She never ever showed any weakness.
In what year are we talking about when you tried to find a man to take your position?
That was immediately in 1981-82, and we soon found such a man. In 1986, I came out of prison, and we decided to put my name in the leadership because then it was easier. In the underground I was not a leader. I was known, but I was not signing the documents. I was just the worker of Solidarity. Also if I were signing these documents in the underground, my life would have been more complicated. I couldn’t move so freely, so easily, because I would be more looked for and wanted by the police. And my work required that I move around a lot. For a woman it’s also easier to change your looks. It’s more difficult for men. Okay, a man can have a mustache or not. But a woman can change a lot of things. So it was easy for me to change my looks and not be caught.
But when I was arrested and then released, it was obvious that I was a part of this. There was no reason to hide it anymore. That’s when we decided and I agreed to be in the leadership, to be one of the members of the Solidarity Warsaw Committee. Then it was a very short time because 1986 and 1988. Then there were strikes, and then we had the partially free elections and the beginning of democratic Poland.
In 1988, when the strikes started, my husband and I went to the States. We were not involved in all the preparations, the Roundtable Talks, and so on. When we came back from the United States, it was September or October 1989. We didn’t get involved in politics. In other words, we didn’t run and weren’t elected to parliament. We didn’t go to any kind of governmental offices. We decided to stay away from it.
Why? Many of the people you worked with were running for office. Later Jacek Kuron, of course, became a minister. So there were obviously opportunities.
We’re not political animals. We did the work because of a kind of moral obligation. We did it when we thought it was needed. It was a fight, a fight for democracy. But then it was always my idea that after we had democracy everybody should do what he or she wants. There was no longer any moral obligation to be involved. Everyone could now be part of the democracy. If somebody has an inclination and temperament to be a politician, they should do it. If somebody wants to do something else, they should do something else. I was involved in the democratic opposition not because of my political temperament but because of the ethical principles and standards that I believed in. I chose to be involved, to protest against the totalitarians, and to fight for democracy. But when democracy arrived, I chose to do what I always wanted to do, before I became involved, which was to be a journalist and a translator. I didn’t want to be a politician just because it happened that I was doing political things for five years. Everything was political at the time, so what I was doing was not politics per se. I didn’t want to run for Parliament. Also I did not want to be in a political party. I’m not a party person. I’m too individualistic. The party requires you to give up part of your freedom because you have to defend the party line. I couldn’t see myself always toeing the party line.
Also these five years in the underground and after were very intense, and I wanted to get some rest. During all these years, I missed family life, being with people, being with friends, not having to worry all the time, not being always responsible. I just wanted to relax.
The third very important thing was that after Solidarity and this moment of celebrating freedom and democracy we knew that the quarrels would start. My friends, acquaintances, the whole community would immediately start to divide into different factions to fight with one another. Accusations would start flying about, along with jealousy and envy. We had that as well in Solidarity: really nasty periods when people were accusing one another and different groups were fighting. But it was nothing compared to what we were going to have after independence. During the Solidarity period, what were the profits? Not much. After independence, your career could depend on it.
This was also a very important motivation for us not to get involved. We didn’t want to see it, and we didn’t want to be a part of it. We preferred to keep our nice memories of people when they were united against the bad things and doing good things together and not fighting each other out of egoistic reasons or because of different opinions of how the whole country should be run.
Here at the foundation you’re in a public role again. What do you see as your mission? And do you see it connected in any way to the work you were doing back in the beginning of the 1970s and through the 1980s?
Exactly, there is a connection. I see the work in the non-profit sector more as a continuation of the work in the democratic opposition and the underground when we were organizing something we called at first “alternative society,” which was a parallel underground society. Here in this open or civil society is a kind of complementary element that makes this democracy work, or should make democracy work. If you ask me what was wrong with the transformation in Poland, there are many different things, but one for me is the most important – and this was something I held against my friends – that they forgot about this aspect of collectivity. They were somehow charmed by the market economy and individualism and individual careers and entrepreneurship, which are always focusing on an individual not a collective good: private good but not public good. Poland was very successful with this entrepreneurial spirit. These market economy mechanisms started to function very well. And all of them, including Jacek Kuron, were focusing on this. And Jacek Kuron was doing something like soups for the poor.
But one thing that was missing and one thing that went wrong was civic education. And instead of civic education we had this myth of individual entrepreneurialism as the highest value. Now we have a totally atomized society. For instance, from an educational point of view, the school reform was successful because right now all tests show that more children read at the same level as in other Western countries. But we have contests between children beginning when they’re three years old. There’s no collective work, no thinking about the public good, only about your private good. The stress is always on being better, and the person next to you is your rival, not somebody with whom you should do something together. So what we do here in the non-profit sector is trying to supply what has been lacking and forgotten. My friends really emphasized education at school, but not civic education and the public good. There’s a totally different generation right now. And unfortunately we didn’t provide them with this kind of education, and we are still not doing it.
Do you think that this is something that the non-profit sector by itself can accomplish in Poland?
No, it cannot accomplish it by itself. The non-profit sector has to work with the authorities, but that’s what we do. The non-profit sector can show models, can make a prototype, can prepare certain methods and test them in a limited sphere to ensure that they work. But we cannot do it ourselves. We need cooperation with the government, local government, authorities, with other partners, with business, that we can show that it may work.
You talked a little bit about how people’s ideas changed from 1989 and on. I’m curious about your own case. When you think back to your perspective around 1989- 90, have you had any major shifts in your thinking as a result of your experiences over the last 23 years, either in terms of your overall world view or specific to your idea of political reform or economic reform?
Not my basic views. But there is something. I never realized it when I was young, but I’m more of a socialist democrat than a liberal conservative. That’s my temperament, or my mental or emotional inclination. It’s not so much my upbringing or the fact that I was brought up as a Catholic and religion at some point was important for me. Probably it’s just more my kind of personality. I have always been on the side of the losers. As a child, I couldn’t watch games because the moment when one team was losing, I was changing my mind about whom to support. So I cannot admire somebody who makes money. I more admire somebody who gives this money to a good cause.
When we started to build the market economy and democracy, I was more focused on democracy than on the market economy. I knew that the market economy was important, but I didn’t have this kind of respect for private property as a value. I understood that it’s important because the socialist economy simply doesn’t work. But I always had the feeling that it has to be an obligation of those who are better off to help those who fail, who cannot function. I have not been disappointed with the market economy and with democracy as such because I knew it was not the best system ever. There is no heaven on earth. So when I think about whether I’m disappointed, I’m not.
From 1989 to 2012 when you think about everything that has changed here in Poland or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to ten, with one being most disappointed and ten being most satisfied?
Same period of time, same scale, but your own personal life?
Looking into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate the prospects for Poland, again on a scale of one to ten with one being most pessimistic, ten being most optimistic?
Warsaw, August 8, 2013