Anna Walentynowicz, 80

Anna Walentynowicz of Poland's Solidarity movement dies at 80

Anna Walentynowicz, above in 2003, was jailed for her activism.
Anna Walentynowicz, above in 2003, was jailed for her activism. (Maciej Kosycarz/associated Press)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Anna Walentynowicz, a shipyard worker whose firing made her a central figure in Poland's Solidarity movement, which broke the communist grip on the country in the 1980s, died April 10 in the airplane crash near Smolensk, Russia, that also claimed the lives of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and other top Polish officials. She was 80.

Ms. Walentynowicz became a heroic symbol of freedom in her homeland after she was dismissed from her job at the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980, just five months before she was scheduled to retire. She had been harassed for years by authorities, who considered her a troublemaker for launching an underground newspaper and helping organize the budding Solidarity movement in the 1970s.

Her firing prompted a strike at the shipyard and the spread of the Solidarity movement, which quickly attracted millions of followers across Poland. It was the first successful labor revolt in a communist country and resulted, less than a decade later, in the downfall of Poland's communist regime.

"I was the drop that caused the cup of bitterness to overflow," Ms. Walentynowicz (pronounced val-en-teen-OH-vitch) once said.

Repeatedly jailed, reinstated to her job and jailed again, Ms. Walentynowicz became known as the "mother of Solidarity."

She began her life of activism in 1970, when security forces killed 50 striking workers in Polish port cities. For years, on the anniversary of the killings, Ms. Walentynowicz was arrested for collecting money to buy memorial flowers for the slain workers.

By 1978, when she received her first substantial prison sentence, she had begun to publish an underground newspaper that exposed corruption among the shipyard's leaders and was one of the seven founders of Solidarity. Four of the founders were women, she said.

"Woman activists were in the worst situation, because they were responsible for children," she told the Christian Science Monitor in 1989. "But I could afford to sacrifice, because I was widow and my son was in the Army."

In December 1981, a little more than a year after Ms. Walentynowicz's firing sparked the Solidarity revolt, Poland's military government under Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law and arrested many dissidents on flimsy pretenses.

Ms. Walentynowicz spent seven months in a women's prison, where she learned a "repertoire of 57 political songs, many of them very rude about the Communist authorities and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski," she told The Washington Post in 1982. "If they maltreated us, we would sing the whole repertoire."

Anna Walentynowicz was born Aug. 13, 1929, in Rovno, a Ukrainian city that was then part of Poland. She was orphaned at a young age and began working as a maid when she was 10.

She made her way to the port city of Gdansk in 1950 and found work as a welder in the Lenin Shipyard, where her short stature (4-foot-10) enabled her to climb deep into the hulls of ships. She later became a crane operator.

Little is known about her immediate family, except that she raised a son as a single mother, later married and was widowed. She continued to work at the shipyard, often organizing labor strikes, until 1991.

For a time, she was close to Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and was elected Poland's president in 1990. But she broke with Walesa in the early 1980s, believing he compromised too easily with communist authorities and ran the Solidarity union in an autocratic manner. She refused three offers to work in his government.

"We have a jester for a president," she said in 1991. "The real Solidarity was born on my back, and now it is destroyed."

Often called the conscience of her country, Ms. Walentynowicz received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the U.S. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation at the Polish Embassy in Washington in 2005. She was the inspiration for "Strike," a 2006 film by German director Volker Schloendorff.

"We wanted better money, improved work safety, a free trade union and my job back," Ms. Walentynowicz said in 1999, reflecting on the early days of Solidarity. "Nobody wanted a revolution. And when I see what the so-called revolution has brought -- mass poverty, homelessness, self-styled capitalists selling off our plants and pocketing the money -- I think we were right."

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