Solidarity Underground

04/07/2015 03:13 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

Before its triumph in 1989, the Solidarity trade union spent more of its existence in the shadows than as an official movement. It started in August 1980 in Gdansk and remained legal until December 1981, when the Polish government declared Martial Law. For the next seven years, Solidarity went underground.

Ewa Kulik was one of the key Solidarity leaders who kept the organization functioning underground. On the morning of December 13, 1981, when the police came to arrest her boyfriend, also an important Solidarity member, Kulik's name was not on their list. By the time the police sorted out the confusion, she was able to elude their dragnet. That very day, she immediately set to work organizing.

"Until 6 a.m., I was walking around trying to warn different people, including an MP," Kulik told me in an interview at her office at the Batory Foundation in Warsaw in August 2013. "He was not aware that they were even taking MPs. Later on it turned out that he was not taken, but he took sleeping pills and didn't open the door. The next day you could see all the troops and tanks and soldiers in the streets. We turned on the TV set in the morning, and we heard Wojciech Jaruzelski. The telephones were not working, the trams were not running, you couldn't buy gasoline. It was also a very severe winter with a lot of snow. Public transport was almost paralyzed. So, there was a lot of walking. I remember walking, walking, and walking those first days, trying to get in touch with other people about who was and wasn't arrested, trying to organize. I went to the steelworks hoping that there was going to be a strike. I went to different plants and factories hoping that they would go out on strike. But all of them were taken by surprise."

The most important thing, Kulik remembers, was information. "Whoever has information has power," she told me. "We needed to break the monopoly of the Communist propaganda. And what people really needed was information. So, first of all, we needed to collect information - who was arrested, what plants were on strike, where were other protests - and smuggle it abroad so that it would come back to Poland. Then we had to produce the papers and the books and distribute them. We had to put together a whole network identifying printing machines that had not been confiscated, finding people who could operate them, organizing the distribution network. We needed to make contact with people who could enter the plants and those who were not arrested and could organize underground structures. We did all these things in the first few weeks, and it was expanding and expanding."

Also important was locating the few remaining Solidarity leaders who had not been arrested. "We learned that some of the leaders were not caught, had managed to flee and escape arrest," she continued. "One of them was Zbigniew Bujak. Another was Wiktor Kulerski. The main task was to find them so that we could issue statements by these leaders. We thought it was very important to preserve the continuity of leadership, to show that Solidarity was not crushed and that there were leaders who were trusted and had legitimacy because they were democratically elected leaders."

The ability of Solidarity to maintain organizational continuity and issue bulletins to its followers, even during the worst of the Martial Law period, ensured that the movement could revive when the political environment was more auspicious. But Kulik was not interested in transitioning, as did so many of her colleagues from the underground period, to the world of official politics in 1989.

"It was always my idea that after we had democracy everybody should do what he or she wants," she told me. "There was no longer any moral obligation to be involved. Everyone could now be part of the democracy. If somebody has an inclination and temperament to be a politician, they should do it. If somebody wants to do something else, they should do something else. I was involved in the democratic opposition not because of my political temperament but because of the ethical principles and standards that I believed in. I chose to be involved, to protest against the totalitarians, and to fight for democracy. But when democracy arrived, I chose to do what I always wanted to do, before I became involved, which was to be a journalist and a translator."

Today she is the director of the Batory Foundation in Warsaw, where she focuses on, among other things, civic education. She told me that Poland failed to focus on civic education after 1989.

"Instead of civic education we had this myth of individual entrepreneurialism as the highest value," she concluded. "Now we have a totally atomized society. For instance, from an educational point of view, the school reform was successful because right now all tests show that more children read at the same level as in other Western countries. But we have contests between children beginning when they're three years old. There's no collective work, no thinking about the public good, only about your private good. The stress is always on being better, and the person next to you is your rival, not somebody with whom you should do something together. So what we do here in the non-profit sector is trying to supply what has been lacking and forgotten."

The Interview

You'd already been working on the Independent Student Association as a signatory in the 1970s, you'd been interrogated, and then these events happened in Gdansk in 1980. Was it entirely unexpected that this happened? Or did you have a suspicion as a result of the work of KOR or other organizations?

Oh, no, it was totally unexpected. Nobody expected that. I remember talking to my friend and we were of the same opinion that probably during our lifetime the situation would not change. We were stuck with the system. But within the system you could somehow push the limits for more freedom. And that's what we were doing. The moment was also convenient because of the economic situation. We were getting loans from the West. The system was more open, and it was evolving. Also, and I'll be honest, even though you had the feeling that the whole system was trying to enslave you, you felt free internally. You were free in an unfree country. And this internal freedom gave us joy. That's the privilege of youth: you don't feel enslaved.

So, no, I didn't have any premonition that it was going to happen. And when it happened I didn't know how it was going to end. At that time I was on vacation. I learned about the protests when I was at the seaside. This was in July, and the strike was in Lublin. The strikes had not yet started at the Gdansk shipyard. I was in Krakow when I learned about the strike in Gdansk, and we decided to do something in Krakow as well, to spread the information to Nowa Huta [the nearby steelworks]. We needed a leaflet. But there was an alert, and all our friends who could write something on the printing machines were caught. Later, when I read the reports from the Institute of National Remembrance I found out that some of them were working with the secret police. So probably they just did it on purpose so that no leaflets would be published in Krakow. One of my friends told me that I should go to Warsaw and maybe we could get some leaflets there and bring them back to Krakow, and that's what I did.

I went to Warsaw and I was waiting for the leaflets to be printed to take them back to Krakow. It took some time. I started to help Jacek Kuron because I was staying at his flat collecting information from all over Poland. People were coming, and they were also calling him by phone. So I was also picking up the phone, putting down all the information, and passing it to Radio Free Europe, BBC, etc. After several days, the secret police came and took everybody except me and Jacek Kuron's father who was staying there. That was arranged by Jacek. We organized it this way since a lot of people came to his apartment and were stuck there. At one point 30 people were there. Then the police started to take them by vans to the station. Jacek told me that I would be the last, that I would tell them that my father was sick and couldn't stay alone. And that's what we did. They called somebody, and they allowed me to stay. They took everybody, but I stayed behind with Jacek's father, and immediately picked up his job.

People were again calling and coming. Jacek had shown me how he prepared the information, not from his apartment but from a neighborhood apartment. He used some other telephones on the street, calling his younger brothers either in France or in London passing information on what was happening in Poland. And it was coming back to Poland through Radio Free Europe, BBC, France International, and Voice of America. And that's how I became engaged in what we call the central information bureau of KOR and then of Solidarity.

The Solidarity movement started to spread after the signing of the agreements in Gdansk. Jacek was released, and I stayed with him. From that moment on he was more involved in doing politics, and I was handling the information side. This time, different trade unions and different information centers were being set up around Poland. I took all the different Solidarity bulletins and turned it into an information bulletin for the Solidarity trade union as a whole. When Solidarity established a headquarters, I moved there and became a part of the first paper of Solidarity in Warsaw called Independence. I became employed by Solidarity. My first official job, stamped in my ID, was the Solidarity trade union. I became a Solidarity trade union journalist.

Just before Martial Law, the internal dispute in Solidarity started. There was the faction more to the right and connected with the Confederation of Independent Poland (KPN), along with those who were even more radical and nationalistic. They called themselves pravdie Polacy or "true Poles." They started to attack people who were closer to KOR, like Zbigniew Bujak and Wiktor Kulerski here in Warsaw. The situation was tense and difficult. They were also accusing us, Independence, of sympathizing with this trend and not the "true workers" and "true Poles." They demanded that our paper change into something different. Another paper, connected with this other faction, wanted to get rid of us. The situation was really so uneasy that we decided to resign. My husband Konrad Bielinski, who was my boyfriend at the time, was also a member of KOR. He was editor-in-chief, and I was the managing editor.

After we resigned, I went to visit my friends in Krakow. When I came back I did not have a permanent address here because I'd lost my apartment. I was looking for another apartment when Martial Law was proclaimed. I was lucky enough to be at an address that the secret police didn't have for me. That's how I managed to flee the internment. I was staying the night with my boyfriend, now husband, when they came to his flat. But they had a warrant only for one person. The police stations had sealed envelopes with the names that were opened only at that hour. His name was in the envelope, and when they came they just asked me for my ID. They noted it, but they didn't take me. I was not on their list, though I was on the government's list. When the police checked at the station, they discovered that I was also wanted. But when they took him away, I left the apartment immediately and never went back. That's how I managed to escape internment and start to work underground.

I started to look for contacts. I knocked on the doors of different people. That night I went to different places to warn people that the arrests had started. At the beginning I thought it was not about Solidarity but just about KOR, that they wanted to get rid of this radical element. The government was focused on KPN and KOR. So I thought they took Konrad because he was a KOR member not because of Solidarity. This was also after the radicalization of the whole Solidarity movement. A few weeks earlier Jacek Kuron started the whole political movement within Solidarity based primarily on KOR as an answer to the move of the Right in setting up the more nationalistic movement. So I thought that that's what the arrests were about, not about Solidarity.

But the moment when I went to the Solidarity headquarters, I saw the riot police blocking the entrance. Then I started to walk from one place to another, and I saw the tanks on the streets. So I knew that it was not about KOR, but about Solidarity. I went to Halina Mikolajska, a famous actress who was a member of KOR. She was never arrested for those three years when she functioned as one of the symbols of KOR -- maybe because she's such a famous actress they didn't want to arrest her. And so this regime was not that severe. They did not try to arrest those whose names were famous. But she was taken during Martial Law. So for me that was another element that showed that it was more serious than I thought.

So this night was very intense. Until 6 a.m., I was walking around trying to warn different people, including an MP. He was not aware that they were even taking MPs. Later on it turned out that he was not taken, but he took sleeping pills and didn't open the door. The next day you could see all the troops and tanks and soldiers in the streets. We turned on the TV set in the morning, and we heard Wojciech Jaruzelski. The telephones were not working, the trams were not running, you couldn't buy gasoline. It was also a very severe winter with a lot of snow. Public transport was almost paralyzed. So, there was a lot of walking. I remember walking, walking, and walking those first days, trying to get in touch with other people about who was and wasn't arrested, trying to organize. I went to the steelworks hoping that there was going to be a strike. I went to different plants and factories hoping that they would go out on strike.

But all of them were taken by surprise. There was supposed to be a so-called strike alert: a group of people on alert who would organize structures quickly if something happened. But they were paralyzed. Nobody was prepared for it. With the telephones not working, how can you organize people? So, in many factories and plants, there was no alert at all. And the steel factories where people could get organized to go on strike the next day were pacified and very fast. I was in the steelworks when they started to break into the main entrance. The workers took us and other outside people into the plant through back routes.

It was a very tedious and difficult time putting together the remnants of the Solidarity structures and organizing the underground structures. It was very slow. When we managed to put something together it was broken because of arrests. What was very important for us was to find the leaders because, as people who knew each other from before Solidarity, we organized quite quickly. We were connected through KOR and already had the experience of running a clandestine conspiracy to do things like printing. We were doing everything openly in the sense that we were putting our names on articles, books, and leaflets. But in order to produce them we had to do it secretly, in conspiracy. The editorial meetings, preparing the paper, printing the publication: it was all done secretly. And it was mostly women because somehow women escaped the internment. We divided up the jobs, thinking about the kind of logistics that were necessary to make the underground structure of Solidarity.

The most important thing was information. Whoever has information has power. We needed to break the monopoly of the Communist propaganda. And what people really needed was information. So, first of all, we needed to collect information -- who was arrested, what plants were on strike, where were other protests -- and smuggle it abroad so that it would come back to Poland. Then we had to produce the papers and the books and distribute them. We had to put together a whole network identifying printing machines that had not been confiscated, finding people who could operate them, organizing the distribution network. We needed to make contact with people who could enter the plants and those who were not arrested and could organize underground structures. We did all these things in the first few weeks, and it was expanding and expanding.

At the beginning everybody was responsible for collecting information and finding apartments where we could conspire. It was important to have as many apartments as possible to serve different functions: for those who were wanted and had to hide, for different kinds of working purposes, for editorial staff, for magazines, for meeting places, and so on. We constructed such a network and we delegated different responsibilities to different people. Then we learned that some of the leaders were not caught, had managed to flee and escape arrest. One of them was Zbigniew Bujak. Another was Wiktor Kulerski. The main task was to find them so that we could issue statements by these leaders. We thought it was very important to preserve the continuity of leadership, to show that Solidarity was not crushed and that there were leaders who were trusted and had legitimacy because they were democratically elected leaders.

What we had in mind in terms of conspiracy was what happened with WiN -- Wolność i Niezawisłość (Freedom and Independence) -- the organization of the 1940s and 1950s. All of them were caught. And the last leadership of WiN, all of them were secret agents. So, we didn't want conspiracy. We wanted to go back not to the times before Stalinism but to the times of the democratic opposition. We'd be working underground, in hiding, but all the documents, all the appeals to society, had to be signed by real people, not nicknames. It's very difficult to say how that we figured out that Bujak and Kulerski were still free. It was in the way that one of the priests behaved that indicated somehow that he must know something, that he must have some contact with some important person. We tried to talk to him. Then I decided to write a letter, and I told him just to give the letter to this person, and this person would recognize me from this letter. And that was Wiktor Kulerski to whom this letter was delivered. And he told me that Bujak was also in hiding. Then we knew that the most important thing was to take them out from there and organize around them the whole structure.

So that's what we did. We organized a very safe network around them. They had apartments in different parts of the city, not far from each other because of the difficulty of moving from one place to another. They were living with families for two weeks, then we extended it to one month, each in a different family. They never met together in those apartments. But we organized for them another apartment where they could meet. They were always accompanied by a liaison who would watch out for them. It was always a woman, someone in her fifties who looked like a good mommy. When they were meeting people from the underground who were also in hiding they always met in a different place. When they were meeting somebody who was not in hiding but was living normally, then this person was smuggled to one apartment or taken to a different apartment when one of them was brought by this liaison. We set up lots of different safety nets and liaisons and structures. But the most important thing was to maintain the safety of the leaders so that they wouldn't be exposed to arrest and the people they met wouldn't be followed by the secret police. It functioned quite well for almost five years.

You've described the challenges of protecting leadership, but what about you yourself? Did you have to move from place to place as well?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.