Martial Law in Poland Remembered

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Martial Law Declared In Poland: Winter days in Poland are notoriously cold, dark and bleak. But they were to become even more so with the murky dawn of Sunday, December 13, 1981- now remembered as a particularly dreadful and infamous day: On the cusp of Christmas, while Poland was still peacefully abed, the oppressive communist regime - stealthily, like thieves in the night - imposed a very strict and draconian regimen of martial law upon all of the citizens of Poland. This was to be the Poles heavy cross-to-bear for now proactively embracing democracy while simultaneously rejecting and opposing communism…a foreign totalitarian form of governance that was forced upon Poland with military might by the neighboring Soviet Union (a.k.a. Russia) in 1945, immediately in the aftermath of World War II.

25th Anniversary Event At Polish Embassy. The imposition of draconian martial law in Poland by the oppressive communist regime on December 13, 1981 was remembered - exactly 25 years later to the day - at the Embassy of Poland in Washington, D.C. The ceremonies were a tribute to the Poles who opposed, suffered and endured the onerous and punishing situation over the next 2 years. Among those participating in the remembrance (pictured above, left) was Daniel Fried - U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Janusz Reiter - Ambassador of Poland, and Paula Dobriansky - U.S. Undersecretary of State.

Poland Suffers: Poles rapidly were made aware by the omnipotent, heavy-handed communist authorities, commanded by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, of the very serious arbitrary and summary-judgment consequences to follow. Poland was now being roughly shoved - at gunpoint - into the bizarre and dangerous worlds of Kafka and Orwell. Numerous members of the nascent but rapidly growing democracy movement, led by Solidarity and Lech Walesa, were to suffer intimidation, harassment, persecution, prosecution, sever physical punishment, the mass internment of 10,000 activists, and even an estimated 100 tragic deaths-- all at the bloody hands of the reactionary communists.

Even the small, relative freedoms that the people had previously enjoyed were officially extinguished. The ruthless communist regime was determined to strangle the infant democracy movement while it was still in the cradle. Poland had in effect had now become one huge prison camp with every citizen a prisoner, guarded by the deployed Polish Army. The SB (secret police), ZOMO (riot police) and Milicja (militia), all equally dreaded and detested in Poland, were given a free hand to subdue the populace. The long and brutal winter of martial law had begun and was to last until July 22, 1983.

The National Debate: There is a serious and intense political and academic debate in today's Poland concerning the martial law episode. Some pundits opine that the alternative to Polish-imposed martial law was an all-to-real looming threat of a massive, nation-crushing, punitive `invasion by the Soviet Union and its conscripted, captive, satellite countries in Eastern Europe.

Still other pundits vehemently disagree with the aforementioned assessment: They steadfastly maintain that the threatened Soviet intervention would have not occurred under any circumstances. And they still categorically resent and totally reject the apologetic concept that Polish-imposed martial law was better or more desirable than the Soviet alternative. To them politically imposed martial law in any form, be it domestic or foreign, is an anathema and gross offense to its victims. In effect, they say that say that once your freedoms are lost - and real, abject suffering begins - does it really matter if your oppressor speaks Polish or Russian? 25 years after the fact, in the hindsight of history, this national conversation continues in Poland.

Remembrance At Embassy: On December 13, 2006 - exactly 25 years to the day that martial law was imposed on Poland - there was a remembrance here at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland to pay tribute to all those who opposed, suffered and endured during the martial law period. The event was hosted by Ambassador Janusz Reiter, adroitly assisted by Counselor Mariusz Brymora, Head of the Culture & Public Affairs Department. In attendance from Poland's Ministry of Health was Undersecretary of State Jaroslaw Pinkas, with a delegation from Warsaw, visiting here on official business.

The invited speakers were Paula Dobriansky - U.S. Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Daniel Fried - U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, John Darnton - a former correspondent in Poland for The New York Times, and Father Harold Bradley - Georgetown University, a founder of the Friends of Solidarity (Fr. Bradley's remarks were concluded by Dr. Christopher Michejda). All of the speakers were active and eye witnesses to events - in their respective capacities - before, during, and after the martial law period.

During the speakers' collective remarks many extremely interesting vignettes and attestations - both official and personal - were recounted to the spellbound and amazed gathering. Everyone was also sagely reminded of all of the sacrifices made by the Polish nation in the fight against communism, and also of the Poles substantial contributions to bring about the fall of communism and the end of the Cold War. Ambassador Reiter, earlier in the day, contributed his related thoughts and words with a coordinated article in The Washington Post entitled "Don't Write Off Democracy." It was a very special evening to remember for all those who attended this unique living-history tribute to the people of Poland.

Jazz Concert: And what better way to uplift spirits and cap the evening than with a jazz concert? Jazz - the American born and bred music form - exemplifies freedom of expression, individuality and a certain defiance and manipulation of the norm- all of which is totally abhorrent to lock-step communist ideology. These combined factors served to make the selection of jazz even more apropos as the event's musical venue.

Renowned jazz pianist Adam Makowicz wowed the audience with a variety of lively and free-spirited music as his nimble fingers danced uninhibitedly across the keyboard of Ignacy Jan Paderewski's piano in the Embassy's Blue Salon. Especially appreciated by the energized house was Makowicz's renditions of popular compositions by Frederic Chopin and George Gershwin. Undoubtedly, both maestros would have enjoyed and applauded the stellar performance.

At the conclusion of the concert, Ambassador Reiter quipped…with a mischievous chuckle…that tonight's music was much more enjoyable than the omnipresent martial music blaring nation-wide on the radio and television that he and Poland woke up to on the fateful morning of December 13, 1981.

Washington DC Bureau, February 7, 2007
text and photographs by Richard P. Poremski, contact the author by e-mail
This article was published originally in Polish American Journal, Washington, D.C. Bureau

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