It’s embarrassing to admit how little I realized the significance of Poland’s Solidarity movement in the 1980s to the ultimate fall of the Iron Curtain. It happened in my adult lifetime, and I remember some random highlights in the news—Lech Walesa, shipyards, strikes against communism. I vaguely remember thinking, “Go Poland!” since they were battling the Evil Empire of the USSR.
But the Solidarity exhibit in Gdansk gave me a deeper understanding of the persistence and courage of the Poles as they rose against the oppression of the Soviet Union in the 1950s … and in the 1960s … and in the 1970s when many of the protesters were killed … and in 1980 with the start of the Solidarity strikes … then surviving the imposition of martial law in 1981 … and persisting until they finally gained their freedom in 1989.
The Soviet Union lost its grip on Poland, and then Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria … the dominoes tumbled one by one. But it started with the courage and persistence of the Polish people.
I thought I knew a lot about WWII, and I knew the Poles had an underground resistance against the Nazis. But I knew few details about their resistance and had never heard of the Warsaw Uprising.
In the late days of the war with Russian army troops advancing toward Poland, the Polish resistance rose up to battle the Nazis because they didn’t want to owe their liberation to a foreign army. They fought hard and the Nazis retaliated. Warsaw was left in ruins, just shells of buildings remaining.
Despite the Poles’ courage and 63 days of battling the Nazis (the largest military action by any European resistance group), Poland was never recognized as an allied force, which excluded them from the end-of-war negotiating table. This doomed them to 40+ years of subjugation by the USSR, their courage and contribution to fighting the Nazis ignored by the more powerful Allied forces.
Even though two-thirds of my family lines (all ethnic Germans) lived in Poland for a generation, I’ve never given Poland or the Polish people much thought, maybe influenced by years of hearing Polish jokes that ridicules them. But visiting Poland, learning about the history of the Poles’ strength and courage, seeing how vigorously they’ve thrown off their communist past and built their country into one of the stronger economies in the EU gives me a whole different perspective. The Poles are people to be admired. I think I want to be Polish.