Polish American Journal, May 2019

By Catherine A. Hamilton

Nine years ago, on April 10, 2010, Anna Walentynowicz, the woman known as the Mother of Solidarity, died in a tragic and mysterious plane crash along with the president of Poland and 94 other Polish dignitaries. Walentynowicz was part of a delegation of national leaders on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the infamous Katyn Massacre.

Walentynowicz died as she had lived — full of faith that exposing the truth was the best path to freedom from communism.

Though scarcely heard of in the Western media, Walentynowicz was a woman whose relentless struggle for social justice was rooted in Polish tradition and a deep Christian faith. That struggle can be traced to Aug. 7, 1980, in Gdansk, Poland. On that day, nearly 39 years ago, Walentynowicz was unjustly fired from her job in the shipyard. That event touched off the union strikes and changed the fate of Poland forever.

The petite and bespectacled Anna Walentynowicz earned the affectionate nickname “little Ania.” She was destined to become a freedom icon in the Solidarity movement. But she was much more than that. She was a loving and loyal friend to her co-workers.

Walentynowicz’s journey of faith and her struggle toward the truth started 20 years before the Solidarity movement, after a near-fatal bout with cancer, when she decided that God had spared her life for a reason—“to do something worthwhile.”  Despite a difficult early life, she now felt she had a purpose.

Early Years

Growing up in Poland during WWII had a tremendous impact on the life of little Ania. Born in Równe, Poland, in 1929, Anna Walentynowicz’s idyllic childhood turned nightmarish when she and her family were caught between the vice of invading Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east in September 1939.  Anna’s father was killed in battle during the 27-day war in Poland. Her brother — whom she remembered as tall and handsome — was taken prisoner by the Soviet army and she never saw him again. During the first months of the Nazi occupation, suffering depression and illness after the loss of her husband, Anna’s mother died, leaving her a war orphan at age 10. Moved from place to place, from neighbor to stranger, Anna became a child victim of Nazi policy — she was no longer allowed to attend school because she was Polish.

The war dragged on and Anna ended up in Warsaw, where she worked in forced labor in farming and tending the fires at production factories. Finally, the war ended. But Poland was then in the grip of the Soviet Union.

As a young woman, she searched for a place to fit in. Most of the churches had been burned to the ground and the priests sent to prison … and Walentynowicz was enticed by the Communist Party. In 1950, she took a job at the shipyard in Gdansk and received recognition for her exemplary performance on the job — first as a welder and then a crane operator. By her early 20s, though, Walentynowicz was unhappy, unmarried, and expecting a baby. Desperate to give her unborn child a better life than she had had, she turned back to the church. Her disillusionment with communist corruption had been growing.  But it was when she discovered that one of the “big bosses” had stolen money from the workers and spent it on gambling — not to mention government control of the press, and it’s the lack of concern for the poor and the rationing of food — that Walentynowicz joined the opposition. She gave birth to her son, Janusz and at age 30, she fell in love with Kazik Walentynowicz, her “one true love,” and the two were happily married.

Advocacy Years

After seven short years of marriage, the sudden death of her husband and a brush with a deadly cancer, the widowed Walentynowicz began her tireless advocacy for the rights of her co-workers. Walentynowicz became editor and distributor of the underground newspaper Robotnik Wybrzeza (The Coastal Worker), in direct opposition to the regime. She was fearless in her efforts; she dared to go face-to-face with shipyard management, calling for an end to government-controlled press and poverty-level wages. She even went so far as to deliver her opposition newspaper to the “big bosses” in person. For her bravery, she was later sentenced to 20 years in prison and off and on spent months at a time in jail before the fall of Moscow-led communism in Poland.

Walentynowicz had a heart of gold and a will of iron. And yes, she was relentless. But she offered a feminine touch to the opposition, often making her co-workers hot soup, tea or warm milk — she even did their dishes. Little Ania was the kind of woman who planted flowers outside the break room to cheer the hearts of others. And because of her kindness, “little Ania” was also simply called: “Mother,” according to Shana Penn’s book Solidarity’s Secret.

Birth of Solidarity

Indeed, it took a mother’s heart to give birth to the Solidarity movement. It took this outspoken defender of freedom, this little Ania, who was loved by her co-workers and despised by shipyard management, to inspire workers to strike. And that’s exactly what she did. On that fateful day in August 1980, Walentynowicz was suddenly dismissed from her job for producing and distributing an “illegal” newspaper — five months before she was to retire. She was told she would not receive her retirement pension, even after putting in 30 years at the Lenin shipyard. This action — taken by the government-controlled management against beloved little Ania — created an enormous uproar among the Polish workers.

A day after Walentynowicz was unjustly fired, the Coastal Worker printed the following announcement: “…. Anna Walentynowicz has been a thorn in their [the repressive regime’s] side because she is a model activist devoted to others. … We appeal to you to defend the crane operator Walentynowicz.” The uproar at the shipyard that day became the first in a series of strikes across Poland, which in turn inspired the Solidarity movement and, in the end, toppled Soviet repression in Poland.

Walentynowicz — together with Lech Walesa, a shipyard engineer who had also been fired for his involvement in the opposition — made a list of demands, and when the strike was only three days old, an initial agreement was reached. On the surface, it looked good. But Walentynowicz took a closer look; the agreement would help only the workers at the Lenin shipyard. But many of the striking workers at Lenin were satisfied. They were putting down their signs and had begun to leave the shipyard. Walentynowicz wasn’t ready to give up so soon. She and a shipyard nurse named Alina Pienkowska saw the danger of signing a premature agreement. They picked up megaphones and shouted: “Stop! Come back! What about all the other workers in Poland!”

After 18 long days, the union of more than a million workers known as Solidarity won its hard-fought battle. Walentynowicz and Walesa resumed their work at the shipyard and the workers got pay raises, better working conditions, and more. This was the beginning of the end of Soviet-occupied Poland.

Post-strike Phase

Although some say that Walentynowicz was sidelined in the later phase of Solidarity and was disappointed because of what she considered to be compromises in the agreement with management, she maintained an important role in the eclipse of communism. When film-maker Andrzej Wajda was casting his 1981 movie “Man of Iron,” he asked Walentynowicz to play herself in the motion picture. She agreed without hesitation — even at the risk of being imprisoned by the Soviets.  The final collapse of communism came in 1989. Anna retired from the shipyard in 1991. She wrote her autobiography, “Shadow of the Past,” with a Polish journalist, Anna Baszanowska. In 2006, her life story inspired Volker Schlondorff’s movie, “Strike.”

Political Alliances

Walentynowicz was a long-time friend and ally of the late President Lech Kaczynski. Their friendship dated to the 1980s, when the young Kaczynski was a law professor and counsel for Solidarity.

Walentynowicz and the conservative pro-American President Lech Kaczynski were not invited by Vladimir Putin to a choreographed wreath ceremony on April 7, 2010, in memory of the POWs killed at Katyn by Stalin’s men during WW II — a fact denied by the Soviets for more than 50 years.  The Russian government’s “official” memorial was held three days before the Tupolev TU-154 crashed near Katyn while attempting to land.

It’s unlikely, even if she had been invited, that Walentynowicz would have attended Putin’s visit to the Katyn memorial. Putin was an ex-KGB agent, and his predecessors had sentenced her to 20 years in prison for speaking the truth.

It was no surprise that Putin didn’t invite Kaczynski to his private Katyn event. Kaczynski was against the very core of Putin’s ideology. What was surprising, though, was Putin’s comment that, in his opinion, Stalin had felt personally to blame for the deaths of thousands of Red Army POWs who died of hunger while in prisons during WW I and that he had ordered the massacre of the Polish prisoners out of his personal sense of revenge. The “revenge” explanation seems all the more cruel given the ghastly event that befell Walentynowicz and 95 Polish leaders three days later at the site of Katyn.

Strangely, Lech Kaczynski isn’t the only Polish commander-in-chief to die in a suspicious plane crash. Polish Prime Minister Sikorski’s plane plunged into the Sea of Gibraltar shortly after liftoff in July 1943; Sikorski had just launched a full investigation of possible Soviets involvement in the slaughter of 20,000 soldiers after mass graves containing the Polish officers’ remains were found in the Katyn Forest.

Unanswered Questions

Many unanswered questions circle the tragic plane crash that took the life of Anna Walentynowicz. Certainly if she were alive today, she would begin to ask pertinent questions and expect answers. Did this catastrophe deserve an international investigation?

Given the way that the Russians handled the investigation — taking nearly two months to turn over copies of transcripts of the black box — anyone would wonder. One concern in the minds of many Poles is that of censorship. Some say the truth will never be found. And as of June 1, 2010, the actual black boxes and original recordings had remained in Russian hands.

Within hours of the April 10 incident, pilot error and weather were blamed for the crash. But the Polish crew of the Yak-40, which transported the Polish press and had landed successfully about an hour earlier, told sources close to the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita that the radio tower had been problematic during their landing. The Yak-40 was the last plane to land safely and, watching from the ground, the crew saw a Russian jet ll-76 having trouble stabilizing on its approach to the runway, which, according the Yak’s crew, could happen only if the radio tower signal were interrupted — or not present at all. The Russian jet veered off to the left and later landed in Moscow just before the TU-154 was expected to land in Smolensk.

How, if visibility was a primary factor, could a crew on the ground see incoming planes? A Polish reporter said he saw the doomed TU-154 from his hotel window as it was coming in for a landing. According to a few journalists in Russia, the air-traffic control crew working April 10 were fill-ins and not the regular crew that staff the tower — reportedly because President Kaczynski was not “officially” invited. The commander of the Polish air force was in the cockpit, but there is no evidence that the pilot was being pressured to land. It has yet to be explained why the experienced pilot didn’t take full advantage of the U.S.- installed TAWS warning system until it was too late.

Sadly, several Russian security officers — who were supposedly guarding the crash site — robbed bank cards from one of the crash victims and began withdrawing cash from the account less than two hours after the tragedy. The Russian soldiers responsible are now in jail, but only after repeated denials by Russian authorities. It’s enough to make one ponder what else might have been stolen posthumously — cash, computers of military generals, documents, cell phones, memory sticks?

At the same time, the political void created by the untimely deaths of President Kaczynski and his entire Cabinet forced the grieving nation into a rapid-fire presidential runoff between political rivals: Bronislaw Komorowski, of the left-leaning Civic Platform, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the conservative candidate and twin brother of the late president. After a down-to-the-wire race, the election ended with Komorowski the new president. The sudden change in the presidency and respective political parties is the latest chapter in the surreal events occurring in Poland — a change certain to reel the nation in an opposite direction on policies regarding finance, the military and family life issues.

Previously, as parliament speaker, Komorowski supported Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk in opposing President Kaczynski. It was Donald Tusk, not the late President Kaczynski, who was invited to attend Putin’s Katyn Massacre ceremony. Tusk was in Smolensk, Russia, on April 7, 2010, with Putin three days before the Kaczynski delegation died there.

Whether or not the incident of April 10 had anything to do with the regime shift to the left, it seems safe to say that had Anna Walentynowicz been alive on Election Day 2010, she would undoubtedly have voted for the twin brother of her good friend President Lech Kaczynski. Lech Kaczynski’s brother, Jaroslaw, ran for president in June 2010, shortly after his brother’s death, and lost after the second round in July 2010 to Komorowski. It would surely have pleased her that Jaroslaw served as Prime Minister of Poland in 2006 – 2007.

 About the international investigation

Less than six months ago an international report was released. It was Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz who had taken the lead in denouncing early accounts of the disaster as “whitewash, secretly coordinated with Moscow.” Macierewicz promised a new look at Tu-154 crash that was based on new evidence. This new report was long overdue and came after Macierewicz wasn’t defense minister any longer. However, this most recent report charged that the disaster was caused by multiple explosions aboard the Tu-154 prior to its collision with the ground, as most Poles had suspected and feared.

 Walentynowicz’s Awards and Acknowledgments

In 2005, Walentynowicz received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, presented by President George W. Bush. That same year she received a letter from Pope John Paul II — the last, or nearly last, letter he wrote before his death. The pope sent her best wishes for a quick recovery from back surgery. In 2006, she was decorated by President Kaczynski of Poland as a Knight of the Order of the White Eagle.

They say that people die as they live. For Walentynowicz that meant doing what she believed was right, rather than what was popular. It meant she died bearing the heart and soul of the everyday person in Poland. May her sacrifices for freedom and her motherly love never be forgotten!

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Millie

    Hi, very nice website, cheers!


    1. Catherine A. Hamilton

      Many thanks, Millie! I’m glad you like my website!

  2. Ted Lipkien

    An excellent profile of Polish Solidarity leader Anna Walentynowicz. Catherine A. Hamilton shows an impressive grasp of Polish history and ability to present it with objectivity and fairness. I was in charge of the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service when these historic events were taking place. Ms. Hamilton captured their significance while focusing on a woman whose courage inspired others to start with her a peaceful revolution against communism and Soviet domination of Poland.

    1. Catherine A. Hamilton

      Thank you for your comments Ted! Anna Walentynowicz is a great inspiration. And the subjects of the Katyn massacre and the 2010 plane crash are of particular interest to me. In fact, I’m working on a novel that juxtaposes these events.

  3. Eileen Guerin

    What a comprehensive and carefully crafted tribute to the dramatic life of this brave Polish patriot of the 20th century! Ania lived in extremely difficult times and endured unbearable heartbreaks across the trajectory of her life. Her life was astounding in its breadth and import to the Polish nation, and I learned so much about her tragic death and the mysterious circumstances of the plane crash.

    Thank you for the effort you have put into this chronicle of the life of a saint of our times!

    1. Catherine A. Hamilton

      It is an honor to have shared her heroic story, Eileen! Thank you for reading my blog and making a comment!

  4. NG Hamilton

    Fabulous article about important events largely ignored by the media here. Thank you!

    1. Catherine A. Hamilton

      Many thanks NG! I’m glad you’re following my blog and find the articles important!

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