We all know the slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” The exact opposite is true of Gdansk.
Their slogan is: ‘What happens here moves the world.’
The selfie is mine, but this iconic location belongs to the people of Gdansk, (until 1939, known as Danzig, Poland). This particular spot holds a significant place in history as the birthplace of a movement that changed the world.
Known to many people the world over, via their television sets, the gates to the Gdansk shipyards was where a group of disgruntled shipyard workers formed an illegal, freedom-oriented, trade union, named Solidarity.
Not so significant in itself, you might think.
The Rise of Solidarity
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, this site was a hotbed of protest. The illegal Solidarity Union, led by the charismatic electrician, Lech Walesa, demanded the immediate adoption of (21) reforms to working conditions, including the right to strike and better wages, in total defiance of the Soviet regime and puppet Polish Government. Not only that – they went further demanding the abolition of censorship and the release of political prisoners. From there, Solidarity developed rapidly into a populist, political movement that gained support the world over, but never more so, than in Poland, itself.
It had been a sacking of a female crane operator, just months before her retirement, that initially galvanised Walesa and the workers to strike. Risking imprisonment and perhaps execution by the hardline authorities, these protests are considered to be a pivotal moment in history.
One that eventually triggered a reverse domino effect – the eventual collapse of the old Soviet political order in Eastern Europe and an end to Cold War hostilities.
Rumour-mongers later discredited the motives behind Walesa’s actions, suggesting he had, at one time, co-operated with the Soviets when threatened with the loss of his job. However, the authenticity of these documents is disputed and may have been politically motivated, for, in 1989, Lech Walesa became the first President of the newly independent Poland and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
He later retired from politics to lead a quieter life, living in a house that overlooks the same shipyards where he was began his activist journey.
Despite the negative claims, as a high school student in the 70’s whose head was filled with Marxist ideals, seeing Walesa and Solidarity protesting on the TV, was inspirational. Standing up for the powerless, Walesa became an instant hero of mine. Here was an underdog fighting against injustice, and moreover, against the biggest power in Eastern Europe. What guts!
Walesa’s words maintain potency even today:
“We showed that the biggest problems should be solved at the negotiating table. They should be solved in an intelligent way… using argument rather than force. “Lech Walesa
Right there – Lech had me on his side.
A Tribute to Workers
An imposing monument to the fallen workers stands at the shipyard gates. It was a poignant moment reading thepoetic words I found engraved on one of the plaques. It carried a solemn warning:
You who have wronged a simple man…
Burst into laughter over his suffering…
DO NOT FEEL SAFEGdansk Shipyard Plaque
The Price of Freedom
For the Polish people, the new political order was both an incredibly exciting and an exceedingly difficult time. I learnt of a Grandmother, who had worked extremely hard for many years under Polish Soviet rule, saving to buy a house. When she had finally saved enough money and was close to her financial goal, independence from the old communist order arrived in Poland.
Unfortunately, along with economic independence came a massive devaluation of Polish currency and a huge financial shock. After independence, I was told the only thing the Polish Grandmother’s savings could buy was a pair of shoes!!
Can you imagine?
Such was the price of freedom!
UNESCO World Heritage
Together with the adjacent European Solidarity Centre – a museum documenting the workers’ struggles, the Gdansk Shipyard Gates are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and have become a place of pilgrimage for intelligent, peaceful protest against oppression.
Ironicially, it is believed in some circles that some Poles think workers are not so much better off today, than they were under Soviet rule.
I will leave that for others to judge.
Poland has duly honoured the contribution of Lech Walesa by naming the city’s Airport after him.
Lying 12 km Northwest of the city, Lech Walesa airport is well served by both budget and major airlines such as Ryanair, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines and Polish LOT and is the gateway to beach resorts, such as Sopot and Gydnia on the Baltic Coast.
You can also arrive in Gdansk by Train and Bus from mainland Europe, or Ferries from Sweden.
A pilgrimage to the shipyards can be combined with a delightful day visiting the Old Town of Gdansk – where the 18th Century comes alives and more UNESCO sites await you.
But more of that next time, at Something to Ponder About.
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