Central Europeans reflect on life before the fall of the Berlin Wall
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Anna Maria Mydlarska

One of our poets said that people were bringing to the strikes what she or he has the best to bring

Gdańsk, Poland, 2019
Polish English

Anna Maria Mydlarska, Documentary Film Maker

I had the experience of it all, starting from the strike in 1980. I have witnessed it myself with my own eyes, and I have a chance to hear it all in a very special way because I was the translator for Lech Wałęsa. 


In 1979, a year before Solidarity was founded, I was a student. One of the important factors of  the Solidarity movement was the unity of people coming from various backgrounds. My family was the perfect example of Polish intelligentsia, as  both of my parents were university professors. Many people from the university, both students and young academics, became involved immediately in the movement. But also, it has to be stressed that from the beginning of the opposition in Poland, there was enormous support from the oldest generations. People in their 80s, who were important in the life of Pre-war Poland, were strong supporters of the opposition and quite often they were trying to protect the young people involved in the movement. The strikes have started in big industry, such as mines and shipyards but you have to realize that from the beginning the strikers had the support of the intellectuals. It made all the world of difference to have this unity. 


The first important point concerning Wałęsa as a leader was that he decided to let the intellectuals into the striking shipyard and he decided that they should become advisors. A delegation of intellectuals from Warsaw came to Gdańsk with a letter of support for the movement.  They just gave their signatures, but Wałęsa asked them what can they do practically and told them that they should form a committee that will advise Solidarity and that it was very important. And the two leaders of this Experts Group as they were called, Bronisław Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki became very important people in Solidarity. The strike of 1980 was not a protest just by  the workers alone, but rather the protest of the whole nation. 


In June of 1979 we had the first visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland. He began his visit with these words: “do not be afraid.” People have taken that message very strongly into their hearts. Wałęsa have said later that in the ‘70s  there were just small groups of people willing to act and willing to risk everything to be a part of the opposition. One and a half year later he was not doing anything any wiser, he did not have more money, but somehow, instead of 10 people, he had 10 million people willing to act. Which is an enormous difference. So, the feeling of hope that was inserted into the nation by the Pope was very important factor.


August 1980 was transformative for many people, including me. My husband called me at home and said the strike has begun and that I have to see it. I didn’t understand why I should  see it and my husband told me that he cannot explain it. “You just have to take a tram to Gdańsk and get out at the Gdańsk shipyard stop and walk all the way to the center of the city so from Gate 3 to Gate 2. Just walk around the walls and you will understand everything.” So I went and I walked around the walls of the shipyard and I immediately understood the feeling, the incredible wave of enthusiasm and uplifted spirit of the nation that really is hoping for much more than they dare to express


For the first time, I heard Wałęsa speaking from the gate. The amount of people coming from the city to support the strikers was enormous. There was thousands of people standing there and then they kept coming back. Many of them were just not standing to support the protest, but were bringing things that were necessary to the movement. One of our poets said that everyone was bringing what they thought was best they could possibly bring. The first thing I brought into the shipyards was paper. They didn’t have paper as it was not sold in the open market at the time. Only people who were writers, or journalists, or scientists, were given permission to buy paper for typewriters.  Because my mother was teaching at the university she had several piles at home so I brought paper because the workers were asking for it. Of course they needed food. Local famers were bringing cars loaded with food and some elderly ladies were bringing just one bag of food. Everyone was bringing something on his or her measure. That was an incredible moment and very soon I tried to become part of it in a more concrete manner. 


Several days  later, I was the Solidarity delegate for my theater (it is where I had my first job).  I joined the movement in the first days of September 1980 and I became a delegate to those first meetings where Solidarity was established. However, several month after I decided that it would be more important to work for the Solidarity organization, so I joined the editorial team of the Solidarity Bulletin. I was also involved in the preparation of the regional, and later the national, congress of Solidarity. During the regional congress, the lady in charge of the translator’s office, Maria Komorowska, asked me to interpret the interview of Lech Wałęsa. It was in June 1981 and then I have started interpreting Lech Wałęsa. 


When I first met him, he was standing in a large group of people taking pictures with them and signing autographs. He would autograph a photograph of himself and give it away. He gave me a signed photo, and I told him that I hadn’t given him one to sign and he said,  “I am like Robin Hood, you know, taking from those that have  - and giving to those who don’t have any”.  So I was really impressed by that first encounter, which showed his friendliness and how he could readily react to a situation. He was really brilliant from the beginning. Another very important feature of Walesa’s personality was that he was able to unite people and to make them behave as if they were better than they really were. Bringing to the surface all the best that was in a person. That was an incredible gift that made life easier during the difficult times.

August 1980 was full of euphoria. People felt free, even though nothing was yet changed or decided. The feeling of freedom was overwhelming. I had two little children at the time and there was nothing in the shops during the strikes because people involved in the distribution and sales of food were also on strike, so it was up to Wałęsa to decide what they were actually going to sell and distribute.  In the beginning, Gdańsk was cut off from the rest of the country. The government cut off telephone lines  and they stopped the trains from coming to the city. They decided that only bread, butter and milk would be distributed to the shops and there were enormous queues in the shops. Then a group of people with Solidarity white and red bands on their arms would come and bring something to be sold. And the people in the queue were delighted. They were delighted to stand in the queue, and they were delighted to see the Solidarity members come, and they would applauded them.  It was a very different attitude then what we had seen before in circumstances like that, where there were really great shortages of everything. It was absolutely peaceful and it was accompanied by the total prohibition of alcohol throughout August. In a nation that was rather famous for drinking, suddenly out of the blue people were not drinking and were celebrating the fact because it was Solidarity that decided that there is a prohibition. People were behaving as if it all was great pleasure. When the trains were not running, private cars would stop and take anyone where they needed to go. Neighbors were asking each other if someone needs any help and they were taking care of striking shipyard workers’ families. 

  Former Solidarity Meeting Hall, Gdańsk Shipyard 

At the Solidarity meetings there were endless discussions. It was established that everyone had the right to say at the meeting, or in his or her workplace, whatever he or she thinks and that every opinion or view was important. Therefore the meetings were very long, but every voice was important. It was such an outbreak of democracy in a non- democratic society that it was causing both euphoria and the absolute need to speak out one’s mind. Solidarity television unit, was formed as BIPS TV (Solidarity Press Information Office TV) which later became known as Video Studio Gdańsk. The first camera was given to us by the American Trade Unions AFL CIO during the first Solidarity National Congress in the autumn of 1981. The process of getting the camera lasted for several months and we received it just a few weeks before the introduction of Martial Law. I was one of the interpreters during the first Solidarity Congress when Wałęsa was elected the chairman. I interpreted his interviews for many journalists during that congress. 


Wałęsa was detained on the first day of the martial law. His imprisonment lasted almost a year. I traveled with foreign journalists at that time, taking them to meet people that were in hiding, or to see some celebrations, or holy masses that were organized during martial law. During the first three months of martial law, I was going around with my toothbrush, a small towel, and a piece of soap, which was very difficult to get at that time. It was incredibly difficult to buy soap and washing powder. I was everywhere with those things in my bag in case I was arrested. We had started a clandestine magazine that was printed and edited by boys from the Interpreters Office, and I was distributing it.  They were soon arrested. Then my mother, who had memories of the conspiracy during WW2, when somebody came to tell her that they were arrested, she burned some of my private archive, but no police ever came to search my flat, which shows that the boys never mentioned me. Perhaps I was never questioned or arrested, because my sister in law, who had a very similar first name and the same family name as me and was born the same year went in 1981 to West Germany. So maybe they believed that I had emigrated, but I cannot be sure. 


Once, I met one of the girls from the Interpreters Office. She looked terrible, very ill. I asked what had happened and she told me that “they” had not come for her, no one had come to arrest her and so maybe people would think that she was a government spy. Then I have  stopped that nonsense of carrying my towel, soap and toothbrush because I have decided that fear was more destructive than the potential arrest.


One of the most spectacular things that I did was to bring Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron from Warsaw to Gdańsk to meet Wałęsa. It was probably in the spring of 1983.  In Warsaw I was supposed to meet them at the publishing house, but my plane was late and the whole conspiracy arrangement have failed. All I knew was just that Vonnegut and Styron were in Warsaw and I had to find them.  I thought for a while and I decided that the best hotel in Warsaw is Hotel Victoria and I went there and asked at the reception desk for Kurt Vonnegut and I was told that he was in his room. So I went there. I was really afraid at this time because I was sure that he would be given a room that was bugged. I entered the room and Vonnegut looks at me and says, “the Gdańsk connection”.  So everything was out in the open. 

I brought them to Gdańsk from Warsaw by taxi. I spent many hours with them traveling, talking and talking. Before our trip to Gdańsk we have also visited the US Ambassador John R. Davies, Jr. in his private villa in Warsaw where there was a big party. This party was really something shocking because all of the important figures in the Warsaw opposition were there with Vonnegut and Styron. They were buying films from the filmmakers and books from the writers and then helping to get the books published and the films screened abroad. They were really supporting the underground, clandestine culture. The security services must have noticed because nearly 100 people were in that villa, but I believe they didn't know about the trip as we were not followed to Gdańsk. Probably they did not realize that we could take a taxi for such a long trip.   

Soon after the Wall came down, in January 1990, I participated in a contest for a journalism training sponsored by the Know How Fund and Margaret Thatcher government in the UK. I was part of the first group of journalists that went for this training. We started in Wales in Thompson Foundation and then interned at organizations of our choice. I choose the BBC in London and the cultural program The Late Show. Upon return I could have started my job at Polish Television immediately but I was invited  to America for a year to teach at Drake University about the transition of democracy in Poland. So our family went to Iowa and my husband also taught at Drake, in the Art Department. After my family and I returned to Poland from the States I started making documentary films of my own, including films about Solidarity. I was working for Polish Television and Video Studio Gdańsk.  So, I started to make interviews with Wałęsa and other Solidarity leaders again. In 2008 our institution - European Solidarity Centre - was established. I have designed the project of  filmed testimonies – long biographical interviews with people involved in Solidarity called NOTACJE and I used some of the interviews that I made with people of Solidarity to start this collection. We have now over 1400 interviews and we continue the project.

This conversation was in English

Photographs by Janeil Engelstad 



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