Gdansk’s Solidarity Museum

Late last month I arrived in Gdansk, Poland for the second time in a couple of years. Besides it being an old Polish port city, I couldn’t wait to see the redesigned Solidarity Museum.

I was a bit hesitant to see how the remake turned out. I feel that sometimes one can do too much and be too polished, leading to a loss of the message and intimacy. I feel that way  about the new Newseum in Washington, D.C. The old one was quite small and its messages were clear. The new version, however, has its own building on the mall, and has lost the spirit of gumshoe journalism. Despite the engraving of the noble First Amendment on its façade, the new Newseum has become a hodgepodge, no longer a carrier of the message and promise of journalism, but, rather, a place that appears as an empty void with too much white space and a prevalence of television monitors.

Whether by chance or good design, the Solidarity Musuem is a lot like the old Newseum. Located in the basement of Solidarity Party headquarters just outside Gdansk’s historic district, it’s not as easy to get to as it might be, but, despite the logistical difficulties of attracting visitors, this is part of the story. The road to freedom, after all, begins in back alleyways and eventually makes it onto the streets. From the entrance, one is confronted with an armored militia (Communist police) vehicle and is led to the back of the building, closer to the Gdansk Shipyard entrance and the 1970 monument to the killed strikers.

The exhibit itself is called “Road to Freedom.” One enters through a subway-like entrance that is convoluted at odd angles so you can’t see where you’re going until you make three or four turns (and even then you’re disoriented). The passage has a recorded voiceover of people being arrested, allowing you to feel the panic of the moment. It reminded me of my father’s experience before my family moved to the US in 1962. He spent four months in jail for not naming the person from whom he bought a piece of leather on the black market in the 1950s.

The Solidarity Movement developed when the people of Poland had enough of one-party dictatorial rule. The leaders of the movement looked at the example of revolutionaries in Prague in 1976 (and also how Moscow called the Warsaw Pact nations to use violent force against them). In Poland, the movement had small beginnings in the Gdansk Shipyard in 1970 following an explosion in the shipyard in which 21 workers were killed due to lax safety measures being taken by the employer (the government). It was then that the workers united to be heard and not only be represented by the government sanctioned and supported union. To get a great picture of all that happened, I recommend watching Strike (2005), directed by Joan Stein. The 1970s strike was disorganized, almost like a mob war with police in which many were killed by police, and many were labeled as enemies of the state and blackballed from having a shipyard job. It was years later when Lech Wałęsa and his associates brought the government to its knees by having “solidarity” with other workers (and the Catholic Church) around Poland that froze transport, commerce, and, essentially, the entire planned economy. A Catholic priest named Jerzy Popiełuszko was interrigated and killed by the militia, which angered the Solidarity folks even more. Poland was in a state of war for over a year during which martial law applied to the entire country. These victories by Solidarity were the beginning of the fall of the Iron Curtain across Europe.

The exhibit shows the stores of the Communist period, which, as I remember from my own experience, had four eggs, two pieces of sausage, and a milk truck in front that ladeled milk iont your glass bottle. The ticket to the exhibit is actually a rationing coupon, making the truth of the past all that much more real to visitors today. Of course, Communist Party members had their own stores and did not have to stand in line. Even lines had a purpose in Poland’s government-planned economy: standing in line kept you from having time for idle thought like revolution and being unhappy with your situation in life.

The best thing about this museum is the attempt–mostly successful–to give visitors a glimpse of life under Communism. The bathroom section shows the typical–some often crude–jokes that were made during the time: a scrawled note says “Making Cheese for the Soviets” on the back of the toilet.

Another room contains a jail cell, as well as a replica of the tables where Solidarity’s negotiations were made with the government, showcasing the 21 Demands, including free speech and labor unions independent of the Communist Party. It surprises some that this “worker’s paradise” methodologically discarded ideas such as pensions, workplace safety, and paid maternity leave, and health care. In the c enter of the room sits a white statue of Lenin, similar to one appearing at key government buildings throughout the Soviet empire. A film runs in the background, showing the signing of the papers.

Incidentally, the papers were signed with a pen that had a photo of the Polish Pope Jan Paweł II who was instrumental in keeping the Poles inspired and together during this time. Religion, of course, was mostly abolished by Communist rulers, being deemed incompatible with communism. Government control over this private part of an individual’s life is sadly nothing new. In Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic), for example, the Prussians invaders abolished Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox Church to try to instill Lutheranism. This made the Czechs skeptical of religion to this day. Poland, on the other hand, has always been devoted to Catholicism, which arrived in Poland in 966 AD. The Church, in fact, were the keepers of the Polish language, culture, and music at the time when Poland–as a state–did not exist from 1795 to 1918. The Polish language was forbidden in public education during that time. Even well into the 1910s when the Austro-Hungarians, Prussians, and Russians controlled portions of Poland, people were learning in clandestine environments. My brother was in Poland until 1980, taking English classes in a Lutheran Church since the only government sanctioned foreign language was Russian.

Back to the museum: one walks into the next space and amidst images of the strike and the death of Father Popieluszko. The next three rooms chronicle the events around the 1970 strike and how people were killed and kept in prison. The last room has an effective visual of cause-and-effect, demonstrated by a series of red dominoes that eventually all fall down. The museum even houses a series images from Tibet, talking about the Tibetan people’s wish to be free of China today.

The point is that the story of Solidarity and of the Soviet-era Polish state was a gritty one, and this museum lets you feel it with the spaces, the lighting, the threathening voiceover, and the footage. No matter how well designed and crafted the exhibits are, it’s useful that they’re a bit rough around the edges (as can be seen in the 21 points sign board).

The Solidarity Museum in Gdansk is worth a visit for anyone interested in learning about this very recent turning-point in human history.

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