Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland
Shana Penn
The University of Michigan Press. 371 Pages. $34.95.
Poland’s success in getting rid of Soviet-imposed Communism and in remaking itself as a Western democratic country remains a puzzle to many folks. Shana Penn’s “Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland,” offers clues by focusing attention on seven Polish women who shaped the underground Solidarity newspaper, Tygodnik Mazowsze. This paper kept the movement alive after Polish Communist leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, decapitated the leadership with arrests of 10,000 men and 1,000 women and imposed martial law on December 13, 1981.

Communism never was a good fit in Poland. The Soviets who gained control of Poland and other Eastern European countries with the Yalta agreement near the end of World War II could not impose total control in this country of 38 million. Starting in the 1960’s and expanding in the 1970’s, links were forged between Polish elites and workers—a real threat to the myth of the “worker” oriented Communist state. These had culminated with the Gdansk shipyard strike, which erupted initially to protest the dismissal of veteran activist and shipyard crane operator Anna Walentynowicz, with another fired worker, electrician Lech Walesa, joining the fray and leading it.

The Gdansk accord, signed by Walentynowicz, Walesa and others, included a Communist concession for the creation of a “free trade union.” In the next 16 months, half the adult Poles had signed up to be Solidarity members—forming units of the free trade union in their local schools, hospitals and bureaucracies. This became a vehicle to express anti-Communist sentiment, in essence, and it proved to be a huge threat not just to Jaruzelski but also to party bosses in Moscow. Thus the crackdown.

What happened right afterwards is hardly known in the West, and until recently was not known clearly even in Poland.

Penn’s book documents how the clandestine press played a massive role in keeping Solidarity alive. It provides the first comprehensive look at the strategic thinking, organizational brilliance, and the sheer daily grit of putting out an underground weekly newspaper during the next seven years.

The paper became a vital conduit of information to the masses of Poles who had backed Solidarity as a way of opposing the Communists. It squeezed 22 pages of newsprint into four legal-sized pages. The paper carried interviews with the jailed Solidarity leaders, as well as the few leaders who had avoided arrest and were in hiding. But it also featured stories about ordinary people who had been arrested or who were helping with the resistance—or coping with the chaos of minimal transportation and minimal amounts of food.

Each issue listed names of people arrested, including where they were imprisoned. It was a commitment to naming the victims, unlike the Communist Party policy of arresting tens of thousands of nameless people. This made the paper a valuable resource for international human rights monitors—and an organizing tool used by émigrés and their supporters in London, New York and Paris, who raised money to smuggle into Poland to help finance the underground press.

The underground media network didn’t just happen, of course. Penn’s book documents what took place in the hours after the mass arrests of Solidarity leaders and activists and how Helena Luczywo organized the clandestine network of writers, editors, printers, distributors and couriers into a formidable countrywide force that continued to bedevil and resist the Communists. Luczywo had edited resistance publications, notably Robotnik, and in the brief period of Solidarity’s legal existence had run a news bureau about Solidarity activities that also fed news to the foreign media about the movement. She barely escaped when Jaruzelski’s troops began knocking down the doors of a Solidarity office at midnight December 13th.

Three days later, she and six other women began plotting strategy. The others were Joanna Szczesna, Ewa Kulik, Anna Dodziuk, Zofia Bydlinska, Malgorzata Pawlicka, and Anna Bikont. The government cut off telephone service, shut down public transportation, banned public gatherings, and put a nighttime curfew in place. “Each knew without a doubt that they would fight back. Solidarity was their dream come true, their life’s work and mission,” writes Penn. “It was only later that they realized they had formed the only all-woman cabal in Poland to make a counterstrike against martial law.”

A first priority was to find and safeguard the few high-profile male Solidarity leaders who had evaded arrest. They did that within days. Simultaneously, they began planning an underground newspaper. Within a month, the paper hit the streets and factory floors. Up to 300,000 Poles agreed to use their flats for storage, drop-off or pickup points for the newspapers. About the same number of people became part of the distribution chain, including within factories. The newspaper’s language was plainspoken, a break from the flowery and “romantic” language common in most publications at the time. By February, the newspaper featured interviews with Solidarity leaders in hiding, who said that what happened next would depend on the ability of millions of rank-and-file Poles to continue the resistance. Huge strikes probably would not work in the midst of martial law, they warned. That proved true.

From the outset, Luczywo positioned Tygodnik Mazowsze for the long haul. In doing that, she helped create the “civil society” institutions that involved many hundreds of thousands of Poles. In effect, she had helped shape a grass-roots network of civil society participants a decade before that was the buzzword of Western diplomats and aid-donor groups who came calling after 1990.

Within a year, circulation was up to 80,000. Over the next seven years, 290 papers were published, with few interruptions even in the regional circulation. Luczywo and most of her writers stayed one step ahead of the police. Luczywo proved to be a formidable organizer. She developed a loosely knit team of printers, couriers, distributors and chemists who could make ink, Poles who donated flats or houses for the printing presses. Safe houses were changed regularly for what became known as their “floating offices.” The Communists, trapped in their own sexist stereotypes, kept looking for the men who were putting out this weekly. After the regime changed, they were astounded that it had been women.

As bleak as the picture looked inside Poland, the outside world was evincing support. In 1983, the Polish-born pope made his third visit to Poland and Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize. By mid decade, the government began two rounds of amnesties of prisoners. With the economy in a tailspin, by 1987 mass protests began again. A new Solidarity leadership structure was put in place and, in April 1989, Round Table talks between Solidarity leaders and the Polish Communist leaders concluded. The first partly free parliamentary elections were set for June 4th.

One Solidarity demand at the Round Table talks was creation of a private newspaper before the elections. Walesa drafted Solidarity philosopher Adam Michnik for the job; Michnik recruited Luczywo. And 250,000 copies of Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette) were on the streets several weeks before the elections, with profiles of all candidates. Solidarity won every contested seat, a total wipeout for the Communists, which forced them to turn over power later that summer.

Luczywo and Michnik went on to make Gazeta Wyborcza and the parent publishing company, Agora, the strongest in Eastern Europe and one of the strongest in Europe. In retrospect, Tygodnik Mazowsze had helped keep Poles focused on a common purpose during a decade when it appeared the Polish Communists held all the cards. It also set the standard that would usher in a free press in Poland.

Breaking the Silence

In her book, Penn undertakes a feminist analysis of the role of women in Poland, past and present, and also explores why the vital work of these women remained a secret to much of Poland after the fall of Communism. Their role had not been written about—by them or by the many notable foreign correspondents who used them as sources during martial law, including Lawrence Weschler and Timothy Garten Ash. Political actors, including Walesa, didn’t acknowledge them, either, and historians of the era have, for the most part, ignored them.

Penn’s book fills in the gaps. In explaining the long silence about the crucial role these women played, she devotes considerable time to the centuries-old “Matka Polska” (Mother Poland) role attributed to women to preserve the language and the culture during the dozen or more invasions by Russia over several centuries. Women were the ones who kept the culture intact even when Poland was divided into three parts and wiped off the map. Women and men also used this image as rationalization for why so few women went into politics when the first of many Solidarity parties took control. During their half century under Communism, women were educated in science and technology in numbers far higher than in the West, but when the battle to combat Communism took center stage, gender roles weren’t on the table, and Communist rhetoric on equality had long since worn thin. Even though all women had been required to work fulltime, the Communist government was quite happy letting women continue to bear the vast majority of at-home kitchen-and-child duties.

With few exceptions—most notably professor and legistator Barbara Labuda, who was a Solidarity activist from Wroclaw—women who played vital roles in the movement never sought credit after 1990. Some downplayed their roles, while most were as manic as the men in scrambling to shape new lives.

Penn’s interviews with the key women affiliated with the Solidarity movement began to reach public view by the mid-1990’s in Poland. Fledgling feminists began to ask why they hadn’t known about these women who had played such pivotal roles in the creation, and sustenance, of Solidarity. Still, some of the women Penn had interviewed were reluctant even then to talk.

By the time the book was published in English this spring, words by Walesa endorsed it. The book, he writes, asks “a simple question I wish I had thought more about, myself: Once the leadership of Solidarity had been arrested during the 1981 military coup, who kept the movement alive over the following months and years?” Walesa praises the book about these “activists who rose to the call, set about saving an entire political movement, and in time turned themselves into some of the most powerful women in Poland today.”

Peggy Simpson, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance reporter in Washington, D.C.. While based in Poland, she covered the Eastern European transition countries for such publications as Business Week, European Banker, Media & Marketing Europe, and the Warsaw Business Journal. She met Shana Penn there in the early 1990’s when Penn was researching this book, which was published in 2003 in Poland and in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press.

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