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WOMAN OF IRON: Anna Walentynowicz, dead, on the tragic flight bound for Katyn

By Michael Szporer

The April 10, 2010 list of the Katyn plane dead included Anna Walyntynowicz over whose firing the 1980 Solidarity strike in the Gdańsk shipyard began, as a birthday present...

Anna Walentynowicz did nothing less than "gave birth" to independent Poland. If "the Great October Revolution of 1917," really, a relatively speaking,small coup, had its mythic mother--Maxim Gorky's that inspired Pudovkin,Brecht and scores of others around the world--the 1980 Solidarity Strike [referred to ironically as "Great August"] had Anna Walentynowicz.

The Solidarity strike was a birthday present from her fellow shipyard workers; she was born on August 15, 1929. Her firing on August 7th and forcible removal on August 9th from the shipyard sparked the strike, which began on August 14th and subsequently turned into the largest labor strike in history in which more than a million workers participated nation-wide mobilizing more millions.

Arguably, one can claim that this century began with the 1980 Gdańsk strike, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 1980 Gdańsk strike began with Anna Walentynowicz. At this tragic time for Poland in the 30th year of Solidarity, it is worth remembering that the first protest of the Gdańsk Free Trade Union [WZZ], the cradle of Solidarity, was a hunger strike and a church vigil for the imprisoned dissident Blażej Wyszkowski, which took place at "the Katyn Chapel" in 1978.

I met the Solidarity legend with Krzysztof Wyszkowski, Blażej's brother, one of the founders of the Gdańsk free trade union. Instead of attending Solidarity observances, I went to see "Pani Ania"--with bouquet of red velvet roses. We came with Krzysztof's son Konrad, who at the time couldn't have been more than seven. The Solidarity legend offered Konrad a bar of Wedel chocolate and us some tea.

"Pani Ania" was just like my grandmother, a religious, very selfless woman--tough, oh, yeah, she could be tough! But most Polish women aren't snowflakes. Long-stringy hair pulled back in a simple bun, penetrating blue eyes, thin wire-rimed glasses over widening high cheekbones. And she was really "mala" [tiny], so nicknamed by her fellow shipyard workers--came up to my shoulder and I'm only five feet four.

She would crawl up the bows of ships and weld them. Everyone these days is watching Andrzej Wajda's film "Katyń." Few know, however, that Wajda's other classic "Man of Iron," evoking Sergei Eisenstein's "Ten Days That Shook the World," really was about a woman of iron, based on the life of Anna Walentynowicz.

Walentynowicz was a Heroine of Socialist Labor turned dissident. Her life was very much like Poland's, never nothing, but if you are not afraid to speak up for yourself and care for others, just look what you can become,"Pani Ania," a worthier role model than most, because an honest one. Our caring and protective mother!

During her last visit to the United States in 2005, Anna Walentynowicz was compared by leaders of AFL-CIO to the icons of American labor, like Frances Perkins and was "the cover girl" of the largest US labor publication. America's first lady of the news, Georgie Anne Geyer, reflecting on powerful women around the world, called Walentynowicz "the inspiration" of the most decisive event that brought down communism in a column reprinted in over two hundred newspapers. This pint-sized heroine had better press than presidents.

It is fitting that probably the last letter written by Pope John Paul II before his death in April was to Anna Walentynowicz, wishing her a speedy recovery from back surgery. Walentynowicz's idea of social justice emerged from her deep Christian faith. She lived for others and through her actions gained the respect of ordinary people, perhaps the highest form of respect.

Once recognized for exemplary work by the communist regime, Walentynowicz joined the opposition after her numerous protests against the inequities and corruption in her workplace went unheeded, and met with threats from Poland's notorious security police, the SB. In all, Walentynowicz, SB alias "Suwnicowa" [crane operator],spent 1.7 years in prison standing up for human rights. She had been frequently detained, imprisoned and brutalized for her courageous defiance. Former SB documents indicate at least one attempt on her life involving an opposition activist [SB alias Karol].

After her release from martial law internment in June 1982, Walentynowicz was soon rearrested for trying to memorialize the slain miners from the Wujek with plaques, spending four months in a hospital ward. In October 19, 1983, Walentynowicz returned her labor hero medals--the brown, the silver and the gold crosses--to protest the gruesome murder of Solidarity priest, father Jerzy Popiełuszko by an SB goon squad. In December 1984, she took part in a hunger strike in the Church of St Stanisław Kostka in Gdańsk against the arrest and beating of Andrzej Gwiazda, in solidarity with political prisoners in Polish jails.

After communism's collapse, Walentynowicz was unfairly portrayed in the press as a moralizing retiree, mainly for her dispute with Lech Wałęsa, accusing him of vanity. However, at the wedding of Magda Wałęsa, she made up with Magda's father, jokingly saying she will only break her promise and publicly slap him, if he runs for Poland's president again. Wałęsa laughed but I think she was serious, scolding even the leader of Solidarity in a maternal jest. Walentynowicz really cared about the common people, forgotten by the changes.

On December 13, 2005,Walentynowicz accepted the Truman Reagan Medal of Freedom on behalf of "the first free trade union Solidarity, Gdańsk 1980" from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington DC that also recognized her dissident activities.

Born in Rowny, Volynia [now Ukraine], she was repatriated as a ten-year old orphan to Poland with a farming family who adapted but abused her, making her their servant. She ran off to Gdańsk and ended up in the shipyard. A self-made woman of iron and a single mother of her son Janusz until her marriage to her husband Kazimierz, she was all about "the solidarity of hearts." In the end it was all about John Paul II and a belief in something greater than us.

She was 80 and listed among the dead on the Russian-made TU 154 Polish presidential airplane bound for Katyn.

" Piotr and Bogdan arrive at my apartment, and I'm nowhere to be found. The
oman in Apartment Four lets informs me the director's car has arrived for me, and that I must immediately go with them to the shipyard. At first, I'm apprehensive, because I'm always followed, but she tells me it was OK, our boys from shipyards. When we arrive at Gate Two [Now main entrance by the monument] of the shipyard, Piotr simply commands the guard to open it, and to my complete amazement, the guard obeys. Inside a sea of faces, workers as far as the eye can see. Out of the crowd a young woman twenty-something, greets me with a bouquet of roses. I ask her, "Child, where did you get these flowers? It's still early for roses." She responds, "From the director's garden. They're our roses!"

The boys lift me up on top of a mechanical shovel, above the sea of faces. I see a simple cardboard sign pinned to a plank, RETURN ANNA WALENTYNOWICZ TO WORK, ONE THOUSAND ZL BACKPAY. An unforgettable, incredibly moving moment--that sign over the heads of the shipyard crowd!"

Anna Walentynowicz, from interview with Woman of Iron in Solidarność [anticipated from Oxford University Press, 2010]

Michael Szporer is a Professor of Communications at University of Maryland
University College and Member of the Board of Directors of Victims of
Communism Memorial Foundation.