New exhibit on Polish Solidarity movement opens at UMass

By Karissa Hamblet

Flickr
Flickr

Polish immigrants, Polish Americans and community members alike gathered at the University of Massachusetts’ W.E.B. DuBois Library last Wednesday to witness the unveiling of “Human Solidarity, Polish Solidarność” – an exhibit honoring the 30th anniversary of the country’s Solidarity movement, which helped lead to the installation of a democratic government.

The exhibit, which previously was on display at both Stony Brook University and Yale University, is composed of 20 plates – consisting of photographs, newspaper clippings and other artifacts – that detail the history of the Solidarity movement. Some of the plates feature pivotal figures in the development of the movement  – such as Anna Walentynowicz, a woman that became well-known for standing up against her dismissal from a job at the Gdansk Shipyard, who died in a plane crash last year along with the country’s president.

The Solidarity movement in Poland has its roots in the strikes that took place at the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980 – where, according to the BBC, workers demanded more rights and higher pay from the communist-controlled government. The movement played a large role in the country’s political scene in the following years, and contributed to the sanctioning of free elections in the country in 1989.

Polish Consul General Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, who was a journalist in the country during the Gdansk Shipyard strikes, was the guest of honor at last Wednesday’s  unveiling – which was in part put together by Robert Rothstein, a professor of Judaic and Slavic studies and comparative literature, and his wife, Galena. Junczyk-Ziomecka spoke about witnessing the events that unfolded at Gdansk, but not being able to publish any stories on them – because government officials censored her and her fellow journalists.

Additionally, Junczyk-Ziomecka spoke about the development of the Solidarity movement.

“When I’m thinking about Solidarity, I think about an act of modern opposition,” she said. “However, at the beginning it was not yet politics. The effectiveness of this protest depended on public opinion in Western countries, in democratic countries. That opinion was shaped by foreign journalists.

One attendee of the event asked Junczyk-Ziomecka how Solidarity is taught in Polish schools today.

“First of all, there are still leaders of Solidarity among us,” she replied. “They are witnesses, so they can talk about it, which is very much appreciated by the school system.

“This personal contact is always so important for the young generations, even if they believe we are from the Stone Age,” she added.

In addition, Junczyk-Ziomecka also commented on the current state of Poland’s economy.

“The prices are going up,” she said. “Two weeks ago, my mother told me in Warsaw that, ‘You know, we are buying sugar,’ and I said, ‘Mom, what do you need the sugar for?’ and she said, ‘Well, the price is going up, but they said that you can’t buy more than 10 kilos.’ So the generation before ours still remembers what happened  – that the prices would go up so high.”

Junczyk-Ziomecka also spoke about the condition of the Euro – the most common form of currency in Europe – and Poland’s current stance on the monetary system.

“Who is in the better shape? Those who joined Euro or those who [didn’t]?” she asked. “So according to the economies, we are not in that bad [of a] situation because we are not with [the] Euro. But [the] situation goes in the direction that in a total account of the situation that all of the European countries will have the same currency, so we are thinking about in two years [joining] the Euro.”

Additionally, when asked about Polish culture’s resistance to communism, Junczyk-Ziomecka noted, “Polish culture was always in good shape because Polish people are perfect masters to be against [communism] and to ride against something, against the government, against other people. There is so much poetry about it and so [many] novels about it and films about it… to be against and to fight, it’s wonderful.”

Junczyk-Ziomecka also spoke on the effects of Solidarity in Polish culture today.

“When the Solidarity won, when the communists collapsed, suddenly our writers, our Poles, had nothing to say,” she said. “What is there to say about the good news? For example, look now. Such a terrible crash, the plane crash that happened a year ago. There is only two movies made, and they are mostly propaganda, but there is not drama.”

In addition to Junczyk-Ziomecka, Dr. Robert Cox, the head of the W.E.B. DuBois Library’s special collections unit, spoke at the unveiling of the exhibit about what his department collects and why it chose to bring “Human Solidarity, Polish Solidarność” to UMass.

“We collect things related to the University here,” Cox said. “We collect materials relating to Western Massachusetts, and then we actually do have rich collections for Polish immigrant communities from the 1890s-forward here at UMass.”

Cox also said his unit wants to expand upon its collection of items about social change.

“When we talk about social change in special collections, we think about groups and people who try to change the world,” he said. “People who look around and see social injustice and try to correct it, or people who think of new ways to manage society for the better of all.

“When Bob and Galena [Rothstein] came to us a few years ago with a possibility of adding this massive Polish collection, it immediately struck me that this was square in the middle of our social change mission,” said Cox.

“The Solidarity collection still forms a critical core for the way we see our collections evolving,” Cox added. “We believe that as this becomes more and more distant in history, as the Solidarity movement moves back farther in time, we’re going to see more and more historical research into the movement, and more and more use of it for contemporary movements for social change as well.”

The Polish Solidarity exhibit will continue to be on display through May in W.E.B. DuBois Library’s learning commons.

Karissa Hamblet can be reached at [email protected]