Sounding an Alarm on Poland
The `Mother of Solidarity' questions the pathway to freedom her `child' has chosen. INTERVIEW
CARMEL, NEW YORK — ANNA WALENTYNOWICZ is called the ``mother of Solidarity.'' Her dismissal as a crane operator in Gdansk's Lenin Shipyards set off the strike that launched Solidarity - and earned her a permanent place as a symbol of quiet determination in Poland's independent trade union movement. But it did not secure her a berth in Solidarity's subsequent power structure. Today, Mrs. Walentynowicz (Val-len-teen-OH-vitch) opposes Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. When he took the movement into government, she accused him of collaborating with the communists and making decisions without consulting the movement's rank-and-file.
``Her views are completely unimportant,'' said national Solidarity spokesman Janusz Onyszkiewicz in a phone interview. ``Some people in Solidarity who were impatient founded another organization [Solidarity Working Group]; Walesa has no need to consult with them on anything.''
If she feels slighted by her own exclusion from inner Solidarity circles, she does not say so. She clearly is not ready to retire as a footnote in history. As a member of the Solidarity Working Group, which brings together other radical union veterans, she calls for a return to trade union ideals.
Originally, she planned a brief tour to raise money for a memorial for Jerzy Popieluszko, an outspoken pro-Solidarity priest murdered by Polish state security officers in 1984. But conservative Polish-American groups ended up financing a full six-month speaking stay. She returned to Poland last week.
She came to ``tell the real situation in Poland, because the American public has been misinformed by the news media.
``The American public is under euphoria that changes in Poland are leading toward democracy. But the communists are again deceiving public opinion and even want to deepen Polish [foreign] debt. The credits they are asking the West for are for communists and not for the people. The Polish people still have no control over how to spend these credits.''
Her message is not a popular one, she admitted in a three-hour interview. Her slogan, ``Poland needs freedom, not credits,'' has rallied little support with general Polish-American audiences. Nor has her severe criticism of Walesa, who began his own US tour this week seeking assistance for Poland's struggling economy. Her talks in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, Washington, D.C., as well as in cities in Arizona, California, and Colorado often met with sharp questions from the floor and left behind a trail of heated letters in local Polish-language newspapers.
But, she says, she is used to standing up to opposition. And fear of authority, even within her own Solidarity movement, lost its hold on her long ago.
She speaks with a steady earnestness that leaves little room for a light quip or amusing aside - or the charisma associated with Walesa. Her speech includes no qualification; no hesitation; no shades of gray; qualities that served her well during years of imprisonment and interrogation.
SHE began her career in 1950 as a welder in the Gdansk shipyards, a difficult job, but one she welcomed. ``I was full of enthusiasm for the new communist government and its slogan, `Youth are building ships.' I was convinced that communists were a good thing, and the future of Poland,'' she says.
Her views changed a year later while serving as a delegate to a youth meeting in East Berlin. At the meeting, she said, delegates were ``told to lie and how to lie: what could be said to the public and what could not.'' Many in the Polish delegation used the opportunity to escape. The remaining delegates, including Walentynowicz, were locked into their hotel rooms and told never to speak of these defections in Poland. ``We were told that if someone asked why the others did not return, we should answer, `It's not true. It's just capitalist propaganda.'''
She turned to radical politics in December 1970 when strikes and food riots in Baltic ports brought down Polish Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka - and led to the deaths of 50 workers.
The new Polish leadership promised reform. ``This turned out to be another lie,'' she says.
In April 1978 she became one of the founders of the independent trade union movement in Gdansk and launched an underground newspaper, Robotnik Wybrzeza (Workers of the Coast), to expose corruption and injustice in the workplace. The union leadership began with three activists, and grew to seven, including Walesa. Even though there are no women now in the top ranks of Solidarity, four of the seven original organizers were women, she says.
``Woman activists were in the worst situation, because they were responsible for children. But I could afford sacrifice, because I was a widow and my son was in the Army,'' she says.
Her first arrest for political activism came in December 1978. Without going into detail, she recalls it simply as a time of ``humiliation and shame.''
``I was treated very badly by prison authorities and in great fear. They asked me to collaborate with them in the shipyard, and when I refused they said, `You will have an accident soon.'''
After her release, she sought out Andrzej Gwiazda, chairman of the independent labor union, and told him ``I'm sorry, I can't work with you. I'm afraid.''
He replied, ``Why? What's wrong with you? If they're arresting you, they're afraid of you. If they're afraid of you, why should you be afraid of them?''
She recalls his rebuke as a turning point in her life. ``While I was arrested every December thereafter'' for sponsoring a collection to buy memorial flowers for the victims of the 1970 massacre, the experience was never again as fearful, she says.
ON Feb. 1, 1980, the authorities laid off many people involved in the independent trade union. Walentynowicz was transferred to a military shipyard with a warning that she would be fired if she continued to publish the newspaper. She refused the transfer and was laid off on charges of drunkenness. She fought her layoff in Polish labor courts, won the case on Aug. 7, but was not reinstated. Workers rallied to her cause: ``The union told the crew of the shipyard that if they don't fight for the leaders of their cause, they will never gain anything.''
Her account of the subsequent historic shipyard strike contrasts with the heroic version surrounding Walesa. He did not ``leap over the shipyard wall,'' she insists. ``The gates were open. He just walked through.''
Nor did Walesa organize the strike, she said. It was organized by activist Jerzy Borowczak. ``Then, when the strike was already in effect, Walesa appeared.''
Walesa went on to negotiate legalization of Solidarity, and win a Nobel Peace Prize for his activities. After martial law in 1981, he never stopped preaching the necessity of compromise. When the communists offered to talk to him again, he agreed. The negotiations led to Solidarity's relegalization and partially free elections and paved the way for Poland's first noncommunist government.
Despite these successes, Mrs. Walentynowicz fears that compromise will not rid Poland of communism. To compromise is to collaborate, an option she refused in the early days of the movement, and sees no need for now.
``We're back at the beginning,'' she says.