Come Here - Part One

Joe Wagner

Like thought, like water, history is fluid,

unpredictable, dangerous. It leaps and surges

and doubles back, cuts unpredictable channels,

surfaces suddenly in places no one would expect.  


        Mark Slouka

Bear with me, O mystery of existence, as I pluck

the occasional thread from your train.

        Wisława Szymborska

In August of 1980, aged twelve, I found myself going to school in Warsaw, Poland. I didn’t speak a word of Polish, so I decided to impress with how far I could throw a baseball, and with the explosions I could make in the back of the classroom by popping empty sandwich bags full of air (clear plastic baggies that my classmates had never seen before). In spite of those decisions, most of my peers still gave me a chance for the year that I was there.

My family was on an exchange program from Kent State University, where my dad taught English at the East Liverpool branch campus. As it happened, that same August a woman named Anna Walentynowicz got fired from her job at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, about three and a half hours by car from Warsaw. I knew nothing of Anna. I was preoccupied with mirrors and exchanging lewd phrases with my new friend Rafał, who I would fail to stay in touch with.    

I later learned that Anna was born in 1929.  She was ten when the Germans toppled the statue of Frédéric Chopin, and almost sixteen when Adolf Hitler sat on a couch for the last time in Berlin. During those six years, Anna would lose both her parents and see her brother sent away. She would then suffer abuse from her adopted family (1), until she left and made her way to the Baltic coast, where she found a job in the shipping industry. She began as a welder in the hulls of ships, where oxygen was hard to come by, and later converted to crane operation. Her work was outstanding, and she was recognized for it. She had, at last, some security: a stable job with colleagues and a home. She was thankful for the communist system in which she flourished, and she strove to support it.

But, there was some trouble with the truth. Anna was asked to lie for the cause, and she quickly became aware of the propaganda machine that was in fact subverting the interests of the working class. She started to appreciate what the Poles have generally come to call białe planie (white wash), the utter rewriting of history, such as the Soviet story that the Nazis murdered all those Polish officers in the Katyn forest, and the overarching false narrative that the Soviets rescued Poland from the Third Reich.  Anna’s encounter with communism reminds me a bit of Richard Wright’s experience during his strive for equality in the United States (Anna has been called Poland’s Rosa Parks in terms of their exceptional acts and their subsequent marginalization). Like Wright, she lost hope in the possibility of communism, and like no one else, she would set the stage for its fall in 1989.


When I call on a memory, I now sometimes wonder how the command and the thing itself tend to get tangled up, how the act of beckoning from today’s particular perch colors the substance of the beckoned (like coaxing a newborn, perhaps, from some mysterious, ancestral space). The degree to which they shape each other surely depends on several things, such as the distance between them. As Nabokov put it, there is the recent “hush of pure memory” alive on the “last limit of the past” and “the verge of the present” (which we must be careful not to embellish), and then those recollections that have “been so long exposed to the blaze of my imagination” they are “now completely bleached.” Most of what I recall in these pages floats somewhere in between—for those that are rather bleached, I have done my best to color them in by talking with my family and looking at old letters, pins, photos, coins, and other stuff we’ve tucked away from that year.

Though I tried not to look it, I was a bit of a coward. The thought of placing a coin on a train track that was still very much in use didn’t appeal to me. It wasn’t so much that I wouldn’t see the train coming in time, but rather the illogical sense that one of those things had recently blown through and would soon blow through again, with me—soft pink fingers on the rail—in that exact same place, just in between. And what if we got caught? But Rafał was hard to resist. Crouching, he placed the first one, turned it, flipped it, until he was satisfied, and then stood to stare at it a few more moments as I slid down the slope to safety. After that first rush, watching from the close bushes and running after to find the keepsake, it became a semi-regular thing, until we got bored. I still have a few of those Groszy, numbers on one side and thick-winged eagles on the other, distorted and flattened, some split near the edge, though mostly intact.

On August 7th, just before we started playing with trains, Anna was officially fired for stealing candle stubs. She had five months to retire, but she’d been a pest long enough. A decade earlier, striking workers who couldn’t afford food were gunned down in the streets by police, and every year Anna would remember them with candles and flowers—and every year, or so it seemed, she was arrested (2). She had long been a loud voice for the working class; her fearless and relentless efforts to make their lives better—in the face of constant abuse and harassment—left her both loved and respected by her co-workers (among her many affectionate nicknames was Mała, or tiny, as she was only 4’ 5”). Her firing was the rallying cry to strike, and the first non-negotiable demand on the workers’ list was that she be rehired—with a raise.

A key component to Solidarity’s success—the largest workers’ union in history at its peak of 10 million members—was the underground press, or bibuła. Until this was up and running, independent strikes across the nation were unconnected and vulnerable. And, of course, workers did not own the language, which is to say, they were up against the official narratives and catch phrases that masqueraded as true by virtue of dissemination and repetition. The word “rhetoric” generally means the manipulation of language, one way or another (honest or devious, kind or malicious). The philosopher I.A. Richards specifically said it should be “the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.” Aristotle’s timeless definition of rhetoric is “finding the best available means of persuasion” (the rhetorical triangle: logos, ethos, and pathos). In fact, history has shown that the ones who run the rhetoric usually win. As Toni Morrison once put it, how we “do” language “may be the measure of our lives.”

The illegal press in Poland did the language well, pulling various groups together: it united academics, the church, and the workers. It served as a place to talk and think about honest ideas, to study “misunderstandings and their remedies.” Women ran it anonymously as many of the men were in prison (Adam Michnik and other intellectuals would write from jail). Through bibuła, Solidarity turned the word “workers” against the communists—it was able to bend and take control of the narrative, identifying “work” with individual rights, dignity, and a duty to families, not to Moscow. As attorney James Pope has emphasized, it’s essential to control the key words. He thinks, in fact, that the word “Strike” itself should be reconsidered, as it can imply from the start aggressive, impulsive workers betraying their employers. He says, too, that many workers in the U.S. today should invoke the 13th Amendment, for it applies to them as well.

Anna was gifted at motivating and organizing people: “it was Anna’s fearlessness and honesty that people responded to,” as Shana Penn notes. “Never before,” Penn writes, “had a strike been called on such a simple, noneconomic premise—the plight of one feisty, forthright female worker” (a female worker who, because of the Nazis, only had a fourth-grade education). She and other women would help to save the strike on August 16th, when the strikers at Gdańsk were about to concede and accept a raise (which would have been devastating for strikers at other sites and for the national movement in general). When Lech Wałęsa was ready to give in, it was, in fact, Alina Pienkowska who said, “Let’s start a Solidarity strike!” Alina, Anna, and others stood at the gates and convinced the workers to hold out and stay. For many, “the commanding presence of Anna Walentynowicz, more than anyone or anything else, made the revolution come alive.” Her thick, dark-rimmed glasses, her hair back tight in a bun, her intractable will; in short, at the perfect moment, Poland’s “best available means of persuasion.”

On August 31st, the Gdańsk Accords were signed; all 21 demands were met, including the rights to strike, to form free trade unions, and to speak and publish freely. As I was practicing impolite Polish phrases that Rafał had taught me, Anna was thinking, “Solidarity was freedom, and freedom was like breathing again.” Communication had been “the underpinning of action,” and they were successful beyond all expectation. Polish journalist Anna Husarska said that, “the media and especially the print media were Solidarity…civil society in Poland was built through the underground press.” Anna Walentynowicz had helped to smuggle the papers and leaflets into the shipyard herself. Though “smuggled” may be the wrong word—she was defiantly brazen about it, a Martin Luther of sorts, calling out members of management who stole money from workers and handing the crooks copies in person. In Anna’s time, an organized source of the truth, of real news, was a threat to liars and dictators. Today, that threat has been neutered by social media and other advances.

What was quite real for Anna was her Catholic faith. Her deep religious belief and her inspired devotion to the first Polish pope seemed to propel her as much as anything. The church was also a great “source of information” in fighting Soviet propaganda. From my own agnostic outlook today, with so many U.S. evangelicals under bright red MAGA hats, the faith that moved Anna is a useful reminder of the good that religion can do (3).

The liberty that Solidarity won, though, wouldn’t last long. After sixteen months, martial law was imposed. Anna would work on the underground press, face time in prison, survive attempts on her life. She would come to dislike Lech Wałęsa and see him as a problem. Four years after she was fired, she said in Ms. magazine, “I started Solidarity, but the winner was Leshek (Lech Wałęsa). It isn’t right, but it’s the situation we live in. The men are the public speakers; they have the authority and power. It’s part of their makeup to feel they are first, and they don’t want to share it.”  She thought Wałęsa and Solidarity betrayed the workers with what they had become (when he ran for president, others were also wary that he might consolidate too much power for himself). “Wałęsa thought he should play first fiddle,” Anna felt. She found him shallow and more concerned about himself than the cause. With a smirk, she called him “our hero” who “leaped over that shipyard wall.”

On Lech Wałęsa, credit should be given where credit is due, and over the years he has received it (e.g., a Nobel Prize and Poland’s presidency). When Solidarity is mentioned, the first name to come up is usually his. In her book Solidarity’s Secret, Shana Penn flips that script on this historical moment. She notes that, “women in the opposition never made the headline news—with the single exception of Anna Walentynowicz. The Western press allotted Anna her ‘fifteen minutes of fame,’ which lasted only until the 1980 strikes were victorious.” After that (as with Rosa Parks), she wasn’t thought to be useful. In December of 1980—just a few months after they won—she was not included in official ceremonies. This would be a movement by brave and articulate men (4). “In 1989, when the Polish Communist Party collapsed, most women who had been active in the 1980s Solidarity underground found themselves excluded from political life,” Penn writes. “Her name made history, but the value of Anna’s contribution has been masked by the symbolic role she was assigned.”

She would also come to be viewed as bitter and fanatical. In the postscript of the third edition of The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, Garton Ash writes that in 1999 he spoke with Anna about what Solidarity had come to be, and he found her “extreme in her criticism.” He says she had “become an activist of the Catholic, nationalist right” and that she felt, “the communists were still running the economy and the entire parliament was in the pay of George Soros.” He quotes her as saying, “‘the people were cheated and, contrary to appearances, Solidarity was used to destroy the nation, to plunge it into poverty, to create conditions that are even worse than under communism.’” Ash adds that she is an “extreme case, almost a pathological one.” What do we make of this? Did she eventually succumb to some of the same propaganda she had fought against most of her life? Did she let her anger at Wałęsa and others cloud some of her judgement? Is Ash being unfair, doing his part to marginalize her contribution? Given the state of Poland today, is there any truth to what she said? Did she have a flaw or two after all?

(1)  “No matter how hard I worked,” she would later say in an interview, “it wasn’t enough. I was beaten over just small things…. I was never allowed to share a meal with the family, not even on Christmas. When the lady once gave me a communion wafer [Christmas Eve tradition], I shared it with my favorite horse.”

(2)  She would later say “the regime that honored me [for my hard work] jailed me for being honest.” On the candles, she would collect memorial candle stubs to use for making fresh commemorative candles.

(3)  Good embodied as well in Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko’s life, a Solidarity sympathizer who was murdered outside Warsaw in 1984 for representing the “center of moral opposition to a dictatorship that had long ago lost all its moral bearings.” That is, as Ian Buruma put it, for “standing by people in distress, strikers being beaten by brutal militia-men, dissidents being locked up for speaking their minds, workers who demanded the dignity of forming independent unions.” When he was killed, Anna responded in part by returning her four “Hero of Socialist Labor” medals for distinguished service and joining in hunger strikes.

(4) As Anna later said, “How quickly we forget the past when it suits us.”

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