With Easter just around the corner, I looked through my postcards for a seasonal image and found this Polish still life of decorated eggs, pussy willow and a slightly creepy chick. But I found much more in the message on the back.
The card was from Marta, a tour guide I met on a trip to Warsaw and Krakow. We exchanged letters for a few years, and I remember her referring to her country’s leadership as “those communist bandits” in one scathing letter.
She mailed me this postcard in the 1980s when the winds of change were sweeping through Poland—a wind named Solidarity.
“For us I hope Easter will be ever happier despite food shortage. I could never fancy I’d witness or even take part in the creation of the history in my country.”
Led by Lech Walesa, the Independent Self-governing Trade Union “Solidarity” emerged in 1980 at a shipyard in Gdansk. As the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country that wasn’t controlled by the Communist Party, Solidarity quickly gained traction and members, swelling to nearly 10 million by its first national Congress in 1981.
More than a trade union, Solidarity was a social movement, a protest against bureaucracy and communist control. Despite government attempts to repress the organization, it remained strongly entrenched in Poland, spreading its message throughout Eastern Europe and hastening the decline of communism in the region.
Anti-communist candidates won an important victory in the 1989 elections, “spurred” on in part by a Solidarity election poster that featured Gary Cooper in High Noon as a symbol of strength and rectitude, standing tall against oppression.
In 2004 Walesa said, “Under the headline ‘At High Noon’ runs the red Solidarity banner and the date—June 4, 1989—of the poll. It was a simple but effective gimmick that, at the time, was misunderstood by the Communists. They, in fact, tried to ridicule the freedom movement in Poland as an invention of the ‘Wild’ West, especially the U.S. But the poster had the opposite impact: Cowboys in Western clothes had become a powerful symbol for Poles. Cowboys fight for justice, fight against evil, and fight for freedom, both physical and spiritual. Solidarity trounced the Communists in that election, paving the way for a democratic government in Poland. It is always so touching when people bring this poster up to me to autograph it. They have cherished it for so many years and it has become the emblem of the battle that we all fought together.”
Marta and her husband eventually emigrated to America, and I visited her once in northern California. We’ve lost touch now, but I’ll always remember the brief personal glimpses she sent me of a drama played out on the world stage.