Martial Law was imposed in Poland by the communist regime on Dec. 13, 1981, in order to suppress “Solidarity,” the anti-communist grassroots movement of Polish people.
Solidarity—the first trade union in the eastern communist block independent of the regime—was born in Poland in August 1980. The movement, which advocated workers’ rights and started demanding some reforms of the communist system, quickly grew in popularity and was joined by about 10 million Poles.
The Communists agreed to legalize Solidarity only because they were forced to do so by the circumstances, said Piotr Brzeziński, Ph.D., a historian at the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Poland.
“The strikes [leading to the birth of Solidarity] in August 1980 were so big that the communist authorities of Poland realized they were not able to suppress them and the 16 months of Solidarity’s legal operation began,” Brzeziński told The Epoch Times in an interview.
After signing the agreement with Solidarity which allowed it to operate legally, “the communist government started devising a contingency plan [to be used] in case political means to subdue Solidarity, such as persuasion, would fail,” Brzeziński explained.
“The lists of people intended to be arrested had been prepared many months in advance,” said the historian at IPN, a state institute whose mission is to research and popularize the modern history of Poland, and to investigate communist crimes.
The plan was to arrest more than 4,000 Solidarity activists while the most well-known and active Solidarity activists were going to be detained during the first night of martial law, Brzeziński said.
“Figuratively speaking, the communist authorities wanted to behead Solidarity.”
In actuality, there were 5,000 activists arrested in December, Brzeziński said adding that in total during the entire martial law about 10,000 activists, as well as a considerable number of people were arrested.
Then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev called the Solidarity movement a counterrevolution and demanded then Polish communist leader Stanisław Kania to introduce martial law in Poland, the historian said.
“The Soviets were afraid that the example of Solidarity would influence the Russians, the people of the Baltic countries, Belarusians and Ukrainians.”
“And indeed, when reading the memoirs of Soviet dissidents from those years, one can see that Solidarity made a very big impression on them. They even tried to model their activity after Solidarity,” he added.
The Baltic countries—Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia—as well as Belarus and Ukraine, used to be a part of the Soviet Union at that time while Eastern and Central European countries including Poland belonged to the eastern communist bloc heavily influenced by the Soviet Union.
Kania did not want to introduce martial law in Poland and “stalled for time” hoping to tear down Solidarity from the inside out, Brzeziński said adding that one-third of Polish Communist Party members (one million) joined Solidarity. The regime hoped that Party members would influence Solidarity’s policies but they left the Communist Party after the imposition of martial law as the number of Communist Party members dropped by about one million after that, he noted.
Secret security forces also tried to recruit Solidarity activists as their agents with a goal to influence trade union’s leaders, Brzeziński said.
Amid mounting Soviet pressure, Kania decided to resign from his post rather than introduce martial law and was succeeded at his post by General Wojciech Jaruzelski who was also at that time Poland’s prime minister and defense minister, Brzeziński said.
According to the historian, Jaruzelski, a military man who consolidated three key positions in the country, seemed to be the only person who could carry out the operation of imposing martial law efficiently and ruthlessly.
Nearly two months later, 70,000 soldiers and 30,000 security service officers were utilized to pacify Solidarity by force, Brzeziński said.
Paweł Grzegorczyk, as a little boy in the 1950s, often watched his father and uncle secretly listening to Radio Free Europe at night. The windows were covered and every once in a while one of them was checking if anybody was eavesdropping outside the window.
“As a child, I knew that there are true things and things that are truer,” Grzegorczyk told The Epoch Times. “Therefore … from the very beginning, I have always had a very negative attitude to communism.”
For listening to Radio Free Europe during the communist era in Poland, a person could be reported to the authorities and possibly punished.
State-run media in Poland at that time had not reported truthfully about how life in the West looked like and people only knew about it from others’ stories, foreign radio stations, or the underground press, Grzegorczyk explained.
Polish workers several times went on strikes but the strikes were bloodily suppressed by the communist authorities, he said.
“Living in such a country, a person has no choice but must fight and wants to fight for a free Poland, for democracy, so people in Poland could live like [people] in the West.”
When the Solidarity movement started in August 1980, Grzegorczyk and others engaged in organizing Solidarity trade unions in the state-owned factory he worked for and in other state-owned enterprises. He became a member of the board of the regional Solidarity chapter in Lubusz Land which had 38,000 workers.
Some Solidarity activists advocated establishing trade unions that would be independent of the Communist Party and that resonated well among people, Grzegorczyk said. “Each of us thought—a [free] trade union today and tomorrow free elections, free Poland.”
Pope John Paul II—who hailed from Poland—said during his inauguration ceremony in 1978: “Do not be afraid” and these words inspired Grzegorczyk.
“That was why, we didn’t feel any fear of the Communists, even though we’re told ‘you don’t know what they’re capable of.’ However, this fear was entirely sidetracked.”
On Dec. 13 when martial law was declared, Grzegorczyk was warned by his colleague who came to his apartment at 4 am telling him that “something bad was going on” and urging him to run away and hide.
The activist left his home and went into hiding together with the vice-chairman of the Solidarity chapter. They both continued their work for Solidarity interacting with other members who managed not to get arrested, Grzegorczyk continued.
On the same day, Paweł Grzegorczyk’s wife, Elzbieta Grzegorczyk, put their three-year-old son on a sled and together with her father went to the office of the Solidarity chapter and took all the documents and a typewriter from the office and hid them at their allotment garden in the suburbs.
Grzegorczyk and his wife both worked at the research and development department of a state-owned commercial vehicles manufacturer in Nysa, Poland. Elzbieta told The Epoch Times that when Paweł was hiding she was asked every day by a secret service officer about her husband’s whereabouts but always answered that she did not know.
The officer kept telling Elzbieta that if her husband did not return to work he would lose his job. One day however the officer threatened her that she might come one day to pick up her son at the daycare but the child would not be there.
Pawel then returned to work after hiding for about two weeks but the company did not allow him to return to his previous position as a commercial vehicle designer because the secret service police forbade him to have any contact with employees.
He was assigned to work instead in a small separate building where only six people, mostly prisoners, sewed upholstery for vehicles.
Two months later, plainclothes and uniform policemen came early morning to arrest Paweł. While he was getting dressed, one of the policemen started opening cabinets one by one and threw their contents on the floor.
In the last cabinet, Grzegorczyks used to keep a typewriter, banned books, and Solidarity bulletins. To divert the officer’s attention, Elzbieta tugged the officer’s clothes and loudly asked him where they would take her husband. The policeman grabbed her and bashed her head against the metal window frame several times.
Elzbieta suffered a concussion due to the assault but the typewriter and banned materials were not discovered by the police. Typewriters were used by Solidarity members to produce flyers and bulletins. In communist Poland, it was very difficult to get a typewriter as they were not sold in stores.
Since martial law was declared, Paweł had been involved in producing Solidarity flyers and used the typewriter to write them while Elzbieta helped to distribute them. The main purpose of flyers was to keep up people’s spirits, tell them that Solidarity was still alive and we would win, Paweł said.
Paweł was interned in a prison together with other Solidarity members. When he was released after four months and wanted to return to his work his employer offered him only an entry-level salary—only one-third of his previous salary—and Paweł declined the offer.
The secret service police used to summon him several times for interrogation. At one of them lasting eight hours, “there were four people who took turns to interrogate me and as a result, they told me ‘you [expletive] won’t return home alive today’,” Paweł said. “I then was really devastated after that interrogation.”
He then wanted to leave the country and visited an American consulate in Poland where he was told that he qualified for a refugee visa which Paweł accepted, and emigrated to the United States where he lives today with his family.
As a six-year-old boy, Grzegorz Michalski said he witnessed in 1956 a strike organized by workers in Poznan who were demanding lower food prices and better working conditions.
The communist authorities used their military to crush the protest leaving a few dozen people dead and several hundred wounded.
Speaking after the protest was quelled, then Polish Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz said: “Every provocateur or madman who dares to raise his hand against the people’s government, let him be sure that the government will chop off his hand.”
Although Michalski did not understand what happened at that time but remembered Cyrankiewicz’s words later quoted by adults. His father worked for a state-owned factory that went on strike and returned only after several days with bumps on his head.
In August 1980, Michalski worked for a shoe factory when the strike against worsening living conditions spread to the whole country giving rise to the Solidarity movement.
“It was spontaneous, simply against power, against the system, and against the administered command system … because [the system] was not a free market,” Michalski told The Epoch Times.
Michalski organized a Solidarity trade union at his factory and became a chairman of the social and living conditions section of Solidarity.
He removed from the factory the Communist Party cell and its affiliated trade union cell.
Solidarity was not a trade union organizing people of one profession, it was joined by workers of all professions, Michalski explained. “And it was actually the strength of this union.”
He was highly respected by workers and the factory administration for helping workers with social issues including resolving disputes with the management. Later he was elected a member of the board of the regional Solidarity chapter in the Wielkopolska region.
After the election, Michalski did not move to the Solidarity office but stayed at the factory because he did not want to lose contact with workers.
Michalski was arrested early morning on the day when the martial law was imposed even before it was officially declared.
The police transported him with several other arrested Solidarity members by a police van with no windows. They were not told where they were going so they started to shout wanting to let others know about their arrest. When all of a sudden the van turned into a bumpy road and they heard tree branches hitting the van’s roof, they understood that they entered a wood and felt terrified fearing that they could be killed.
It turned that they were brought to a prison located in the woods. Michalski was locked in a solitary confinement cell for 4 or 5 days first and after that was moved to a cell shared with other interned Solidarity members.
Michalski recalled that at that time there was “the best solidarity [between them] that could happen to a man in his life.”
Martial law was imposed “two weeks before Christmas—a holiday that Poles celebrate in Poland sumptuously and calmly. Everyone goes to church to attend the midnight masses,” Michalski said. “And this was what the Communists hit. Also, some of the [interned activists] broke down but we lifted their spirits.”
At night they sang patriotic songs, their voice echoed through the town, and sometimes drivers of trains passing by blew horns.
“Once we were released … the solidarity [between us] ended,” Michalski added. People felt intimidated and were afraid to talk to him.
While in jail, Michalski was asked by the authorities to sign a document saying that he acknowledged his imprisonment decision but Michalski refused to sign.
“[Allowing Michalski] to remain free would threaten the national security and public order because he called for social unrest,” the decision seen by The Epoch Times said.
Once when Michalski entered the interrogation room, the officer order him rudely to sit down. Michalski did not sit and said, “I’m sitting.” In Polish, the phrase “I’m sitting” is a slangy term for ‘being jailed’.
The officer ordered him again to sit down but Michalski again answered “I’m sitting.”
“He stood up, pulled out a handgun, held it to my forehead, and [said] ‘sit down!’. I told him ‘I’m sitting’,” Michalski said while he was still standing. “He capitulated,” he said referring to the officer.
When Michalski was released after nine months of internment his employer fired him and he was not able to find another job. His apartment was searched by the authorities several times. His mother fell ill after seeing the persecution of her son. Even his father advised him to leave the country.
“You have to leave [the country] because they will kill you here with your character,” Michalski cited his father’s words.
Michalski was granted a refugee visa by the United States and left the country. Later it turned out that the Solidarity spokesman who was imprisoned with him in the same cell was collaborating with the communist secret service agents.
When Michalski arrived in the United States he was monitored by secret agents, according to a confidential document released in 2008 seen by The Epoch Times.
After martial law was lifted in 1983, the secret services still monitored interviews given by Michalski to American media and people with who he maintained contact, according to the disclosed document.
I learned from the released documents about “my old colleagues who reported everything on me. It was just a stab in the back,” Michalski said.
In 2018, for his merits, Michalski was awarded by Polish President Andrzej Duda the Cross of Freedom and Solidarity, a reward established to honor anti-communist opposition members in Poland.
Delaying Medical Treatment to Persecute
When in 1980, strikes broke out in several state-owned enterprises in the Lublin region, Michał Wronski started organizing a strike in the large automotive repair workshops he worked for. Later when Solidarity began to form he was elected a chairman of a Solidarity chapter at the company.
He and other Solidarity activists helped other state-owned companies to organize their Solidarity chapters and also assisted police officers who started organizing their Solidarity unit.
“The police was a special group of people but anyway there were a few officers who often visited us … and with whom we were working quite well, and with whom my colleagues also went to Warsaw to register the [trade] union of the Citizens’ Police,” Wronski told The Epoch Times. However a provocation occurred in Warsaw which prevented the registration, he added.
Wroński was not at home when martial law was declared and therefore he avoided arrest although—as he found out later—he was on the list of Solidarity activists designated for internment.
He then organized a sit-down strike at his company to protest martial law and the strikers were able to hold on for five days. The communist authorities pacified the strike with tanks and riot police, Wronski said.
He went into hiding but was arrested five days later. During interrogations, he and other Solidarity activists were asked why they interfered with the police.
“We were ordered to sign commitments that if we [stop our activities], we will then get a chance to be released. I told them it was absolutely out of the question,” Wronski continued.
Wronski was arrested because he did not renounce Solidarity activities and was one of the leaders of the sit-in strike after martial law was declared, according to a document seen by The Epoch Times.
Later he was sentenced by a court to three years in prison and disenfranchisement lasting also three years.
While in prison, Wronski started having stomach pain and asked to see a doctor but his request was denied. When he lost his consciousness the prison guards took him to a city hospital where he was diagnosed with appendicitis. The doctor said that Wronski needed immediate surgery and wanted to keep him in the hospital but the guards refused and took him back to the prison.
Two days later, Wronski was transported to a prison hospital and underwent the surgery. After the surgery, he was left without any medical attention for two days and was not given any water to drink.
“One of the officers in the prison hospital told me had I not interfered earlier with uniformed police forces maybe I would have been treated differently and that’s why I had to suffer here,” Wronski recalled.
Due to the efforts of his brother, who hired a lawyer, Wroński was let out of the prison for a temporary leave on health grounds after spending nearly a year there. During his leave martial law was lifted and Wronski was granted clemency along with many imprisoned Solidarity members.
However, it did not end Wroński’s hardships—as an imprisoned and sentenced Solidarity activist he could not find a job. One director wanted to hire him and told him to come to work the next day. However the next day the director told him that if he hired Wronski he would be fired but he again offered Wronski a job despite the consequences.
Wronski told him “Mr. director, if you have a job, [you should work]. I’ll keep looking.”
Having difficulty finding a job, Wronski tried to leave the country and was granted a refugee visa by the United States. But he really did not want to leave his homeland and was hoping for a change in the political situation. He postponed his departure as long as he could but when his granted visa was about to expire he and his wife decided to emigrate.
He settled in the United States with his family, found a job, and has been leading a successful life.
Interned Solidarity activists received passports that allowed them to cross the Polish border only once which meant that they could not return to their homeland. All three activists interviewed by The Epoch Times received such passports which prevented Grzegorczyk and Michalski to go Poland to attend their fathers’ funerals when Poland was still under communist rule.