Gdansk is a Polish city located on the Baltic Coast. For Scandinavians, it’s a convenient place for a cheap dental treatment. Germans value it as the perfect holiday spot due to the sandy beach and affordable accommodations. Young Brits see it as the party capital with a large number of pubs serving Mojitos for 2,50 euros each.
While all of the above make Gdansk a good traveling spot, there is more to the city than the beautiful beach, cheap alcohol, and a vibrant Old Town. One aspect, in particular, the city’s historic significance, seems to be outshined by other attractions and overlooked by the tourists, as well as the locals.
Gdansk is the birthplace of the Solidarity movement, a Polish labor union — the first one not controlled by the communist party. Through civil resistance in the ’80s, they contributed to the end of the communist regime in Poland and the fall of the Eastern Bloc.
It only takes a 20-minute walk from the city center to reach the Gdansk Shipyard, where 17, 000 workers led by the shipyard electrician, Lech Wałęsa, started Solidarity. The central element is the huge, rusty-looking steel building. Its raw and visually heavy exterior reminds of the concrete buildings typical in the former Communist Bloc. However, this construction was newly built, and it is the main facility of the ESC — European Solidarity Center.
For the 4 euro entrance fee, visitors can be transported back in time and explore Poland’s long, rough way to democracy, and discover the ideas that started among ordinary shipyard workers and quickly spread to all parts of Poland. After only a year, more than 30 percent of all working-age Poles were members of Solidarity and their resistance eventually influenced the changes across entire Europe.
The first floor is a walk through history. On the walls, you see the authentic boards with 21 demands of the strikers, and the ceiling is covered with hundreds of yellow safety helmets that workers had to use. In the middle of the room, you can see the desk where the martial law was declared. Apart from this, each wall has personal stories printed on them.
Although the stories printed on the walls of the ESC are captivating, the best stories can be heard from the visitors themselves, exchanging comments with each other. “We were visiting your Dad’s parents when they declared the martial law,” says a middle-aged woman to her son. “On our way home, the streets were full of tanks. You must have been a few months old. I was sure another war is about to start.”
“That’s how stores used to look like,” a young woman tells her little daughter who is fascinated by the picture of an empty grocery store. “I remember when our local store got a few kilograms of lemons. Your uncle waited in the queue the whole night and still came home with nothing, they ran out.”
“Before leaving the house, I would always leave my watch and wedding ring on the bedside table,” says the older man to his friend. “If I didn’t come back, at least my wife would be able to get some money for it.”
On the next floor, visitors can see items from the time where freedom seemed like an unachievable goal. The memories from the Pope John Paul II’s trips to Poland, private correspondence between the members of opposition youth movements, and illegally distributed press and books.
The information boards explain the importance of opposition journalists that managed to distribute over 6,000 press issues in the time of strict media censorship. It’s hard not to feel like the history came full circle while observing the decline in media freedom in Poland, and the few opposing media outlets trying to give people the most obtainable version of the truth.
In a three-hour trip, we travel through the beginning go Solidarity, protests, strikes, martial law, the first democratic election, and finally the “freedom’s triumph.” That’s the title of the last room of the ESC’s exposition, full of huge screens showing how Europe has changed after 1989. One wall is covered with white and red post-it notes that the visitors can fill. Together, they form into a large word Solidarność — Solidarity.
Some notes are the personal memoirs about life under the communist regime, while others refer to the heroic fight for democracy or the anecdotes from the ‘80s.
“Poland, get your shit together,” says one note. “Where is all that heroism now?” This is not the only critical remark. There are many more notes pointing out the alarming political situation emerging in Poland.
In 2015, the far right-wing party Law and Justice (PIS) has won the Polish parliamentary election and has since then taken control over Polish media, peddled the conspiracy theories about the Smolensk plane crash in Russia, and neutered the constitutional tribunal.
Despite the frequent protests happening all over Poland, the support for PIS is growing, and the voters seem to have forgotten what living in an authoritarian regime feels like. This is why visiting ESC is important for foreigners but should be mandatory for Poles. They need a reminder of what solidarity means, now more than ever.
Photo credit: Pixels