Anna Walentynowicz
Anna Walentynowicz
On April 10, Anna Walentynowicz, the woman known as the Mother of Solidarity, died in a tragic plane crash along with the president of Poland and 94 other Polish dignitaries. Walentynowicz was part of a delegation of national leaders on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the infamous Katyn Massacre.  

Though scarcely heard of in the Western media, Walentynowicz was a religious woman whose relentless struggle for social justice was rooted in Polish-Catholic tradition and a deep Christian faith. 

That struggle can be traced to Aug. 7, 1980, in Gdansk, Poland, when Walentynowicz was unjustly fired from her job in the shipyard.  That event touched off the union strikes and changed the fate of Poland forever. 

The petite and bespectacled Anna Walentynowicz earned the affectionate nickname “little Ania.” She was destined to become a freedom icon in the Solidarity Movement.  

Her journey of faith and her struggle for the truth started even before the Solidarity movement.  After a near-fatal bout with cancer, she decided that God had spared her life for a reason—“to do something worthwhile.”   Despite a difficult early life, she now felt she had a purpose. 

Early Years

Born in Równe, Poland, in 1929, Anna Walentynowicz’s idyllic childhood turned nightmarish when she and her family were caught between the vice of invading Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east in September 1939.   

Her father was killed in battle during the 27-day war in Poland.  Her brother was taken prisoner by the Soviet army and she never saw him again.  During the first months of the Nazi occupation, suffering depression and illness after the loss of her husband, Walentynowicz’s mother died, leaving her a war orphan at age 10.  Moved from place to place, from neighbor to stranger, she became a child victim of Nazi policy and forced labor.  When the war ended, Poland was then in the grip of the Soviet Union. 

As a young woman, she searched for a place to fit in.  Most of the churches had been burned to the ground and the priests sent to prison … and Walentynowicz was enticed by the Communist Party. 

In 1950, she took a job at the shipyard in Gdansk and received recognition for her exemplary performance on the job — first as a welder and then a crane operator. 

By her early 20s, though, she was unhappy, unmarried, and expecting a baby.  Her disillusionment with communism grew.  When she discovered that one of the “big bosses” had stolen money from the workers and spent it on gambling, Walentynowicz joined the opposition.

Advocacy Years

After seven short years of marriage, the sudden death of her husband and a brush with a deadly cancer, the widowed Walentynowicz began her tireless advocacy for the rights of her co-workers. 

She became editor and distributor of the underground newspaper, The Coastal Worker, in direct opposition to the regime. 

She went face-to-face with shipyard management, calling for an end to government-controlled press and poverty-level wages. 

She offered a feminine touch to the opposition, often making her co-workers hot soup, tea or warm milk — she even did their dishes. Little Ania was the kind of woman who planted flowers outside the break room to cheer the hearts of others. And because of her kindness, “little Ania” was also simply called “Mother.”

Birth of Solidarity

It took a mother’s heart and an outspoken defender of freedom, this little Ania, who was loved by her co-workers and despised by shipyard management, to inspire the  workers to strike.  On that fateful day in August 1980, she was suddenly dismissed from her job for producing and distributing an “illegal” newspaper — five months before she was to retire.  She was told she would not receive her retirement pension, even after putting in 30 years at the Lenin shipyard.  This action — taken by the government-controlled management against beloved little Ania — created an enormous uproar among the Polish workers. 

A day after she was unjustly fired, the uproar at the shipyard became the first in a series of strikes across Poland, which in turn inspired the Solidarity movement and, in the end, toppled Soviet repression in Poland.

Walentynowicz — together with Lech Walesa – who had also been fired for his involvement in the opposition made a list of demands. 

After 18 long days, the union known as Solidarity won its hard-fought battle.  She and Walesa resumed their work at the shipyard and the workers got pay raises, better working conditions, and more.  This was the beginning of the end of Soviet-occupied Poland.  The final collapse of communism came in 1989. 

Walentynowicz wrote her autobiography, “Shadow of the Past,” with a Polish journalist.  Her life story inspired Volker Schlondorff’s movie, “Strike.”  She received the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. 

In 2005, she received a letter from Pope John Paul II — the last, or nearly last, letter he wrote before his death.  The pope sent her best wishes for a quick recovery from back surgery.  Walentynowicz would have celebrated her 81st birthday Aug. 13. 

The writer is a native Oregonian of Polish decent. She is a freelance writer and member of the Cathedral parish.  She  lives with her husband in Portland, Oregon.  www.catherineahamilton.com