Polish June ’89 – the beginning of Europe’s transformations

Rafal Dutkiewicz

4th June, the anniversary of one of the greatest events in the recent history of Poland, is approaching. Although the elections in 1989 were not fully free but with all certainty they half-opened the door to our independence; they were an ‘invitation’ towards the community of free European countries.

Door to independence

Undoubtedly, the Polish events related to the elections in June 1989 evoked a wave of transformations in Central-Eastern Europe, leading to Germany’s reunification and the enlargement of the European Union and NATO. In his book ‘Five Germanys I Have Known’ Fritz Stern presents interesting facts, ‘Now, looking from some distance, I saw how Wroclaw of the 1980s assumed a new meaning, becoming a real fortress of ‘Solidarity’, this Polish social movement that brought about the self-liberation of Eastern Europe and also the reunification of Germany.’ Our Polish problem is that – as it happened many times in the past – we cannot learn the skill of ‘winning’ our victories. Unfortunately, with time it is the fall of the Berlin wall that is seen in the social awareness of Europe as the moment of the ultimate fall of the Iron Curtain. We lacked determination and perhaps the skill to convince the world opinion to what was so obvious and irrefutable for Stern. But the reason for that can be even more prosaic. What has been the greatest value for us, i.e. the almost peaceful liberation, without big dramas, basically without bloodshed, was unnoticed by the world and even if it had been, our five minutes were very short. Perhaps the reason was the lack of some spectacular turning point, some dominant situation which was most certainly the fall of the Berlin wall. However, the Polish year 1989 had some background. It was the effect, the consequence of several phenomena and processes out of which the most important ones were: very strong and unique (not present in other countries of the Soviet block) position of the Church in post-war Poland; development of the democratic opposition, commencing from the 1970s, that was socially present in a permanent way. If I were to reconstruct the sequence of the important events, it would be most sensible to begin with 1978 when a Pole, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope. His first visit to Poland was not only connected with a wave of great enthusiasm, religious reflection but also with the unplanned and unexpected (especially by the communist authorities) demonstration of social power, resulting from the meetings with the Holy Father. One can dare to say that one of the effects of this pilgrimage was the foundation of ‘Solidarity’. And thanks to the strong social resistance and the support of the Church ‘Solidarity’ survived the marshal law to be restored in 1989, bringing freedom to Poland and the fall of communism to the world. In any case one cannot overestimate the role of the Church that she played during the marshal law. We all remember her charitable activities and direct support for the internees and their families by the Archbishop’s Charity Committee in Wroclaw but also by indirect and direct support for the oppositionists’ activities. Fr Jerzy Popieluszko is a symbol of such an attitude.

Wroclaw as one of the bastions of ‘Solidarity’

In those hard days Wroclaw was extraordinarily lucky because it had some outstanding representatives of the Church, whose activities supported people and gave them hope. You cannot mention all of them but you cannot forget such wonderful figures as Fr Stanislaw Orzechowski, Fr Miroslaw Drzewiecki, Fr Andrzej Dzielak or Fr Adam Wiktor. They made the night of the marshal law less dark for all of us. The essential space of exchange of thoughts was the Weeks of Christian Cultures, which were co-organised in the 1980s by the undersigned, who was then an activist of the Club of the Catholic Intelligence. Dozens of thousands of inhabitants listened to various speeches, participated in artistic events, talked to theologians and men of letters, members of the opposition as well as outstanding Poles with ‘resistant background’ in several churches in Wroclaw. If among the readers of this text there are those who remember that time they know well the meaning of a free conversation, exchange of thoughts free from censorship and fear. How meaningful were those meetings with the people who were the bearers of truth and inner, very personal freedom. That gave people strength, which the communist authorities were afraid of so much. But you could be mistaken, not knowing the details of those days if you thought that the atmosphere was only grey and sad. They were funny moments, too. Many of them were connected with the special person who played a meaningful role in the history of the Church and Wroclaw, namely Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz. In 1984 our marriage was blessed by Bishop Adam Dyczkowski, the auxiliary bishop of Wroclaw. There is an anecdote connected with Adam (his friends and wards called him Harnas). Cardinal Gulbinowicz played the main role in it. The story is as follows: in 1982 Tesia Szostek and I came to Archbishop Gulbinowicz. We wanted to take some sum of money from the famous 80 million zloty, which the Lower Silesia ‘Solidarity’ deposited with the Metropolitan just before the imposition of the marshal law. We wanted it for the needs of the underground ‘Solidarity’. Archbishop Gulbinowicz wanted to give us the money at the presence of some witness and he called Bishop Dyczkowski. Because then everyone was afraid of bugs in the room when Bishop Dyczkowski entered the room Archbishop Gulbinowicz pointed at us and said, ‘Your Excellency, these religious sisters came to us to ask for money for the orphanage’. But Harnas did not understand the intention of the archbishop and opening his arms he approached me saying ‘Good to see you, Rafal’. Hearing that irritated Archbishop Gulbinowicz banged his fist on the desk and threw, ‘Not Rafal, but sisters, I say sisters!’ Today when I go to Ostrow Tumski I think about my wonderful friend who – I hope – will not be angry for my calling him friend. I think of Cardinal Gulbinowicz who often asks me,
– Are your children naughty?
– Oh, they are causing trouble!
– Thank God!
When the citizens’ committees were organised in 1989 they developed so dynamically because the Church supported them wholeheartedly. For example, I had a file of in blanco certificates, signed by Bishop Adam Dyczkowski. The certificates say, ‘The bearer of this document is a person worthy of confidence in the matters he/she represents.’ I filled in the names myself.

“Europe – this is our history’

The exhibition ‘Europe – this is our history’, which we brought to Wroclaw, presents these issues. The first exhibit is a picture ’27 Europeans’, which is a huge photograph or actually a video presenting 27 inhabitants of 27 EU countries. They say that you can and should support your neighbour, another human being. Sometimes the faces of these people show their characters, sometimes they show the environment in which they were brought up, sometimes they show the features of their ancestors, almost always generational, known and unknown, history, which proceeded them and which formed them.
Two elements of the exhibitions are important. The first tells us that this European project originated out of deep reflection, thought and also the shock connected with World War II. It is not accidental that the reflection was deeply Christian in its images concerning the future. The second more important element is the story showing the origin of Europe’s unity. Twenty years after the end of World War II Cardinal Boleslaw Kominek wrote in the famous letter of the Polish bishops to the German bishops, ‘We forgive and ask for forgiveness.’ These words served to build the European unity. Once John Paul II said, ‘I myself based all my teaching on these words of Boleslaw.’ The main message of the exhibition is that the year 1989 brought freedom to the Polish nation and many other nations and European countries. It caused that the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe fell down. Let us hope it fell for good.

"Niedziela" 22/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl