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Letter from Poland :: The fall of an icon

PR dla Zagranicy
Roberto Galea 24.02.2016 17:53
  • Letter from Poland :: The fall of an icon
IPN has published alleged evidence that Lech Wałęsa was a communist agent.
Photo: PAP/Jacek Turczyk Photo: PAP/Jacek Turczyk

True story: I first came to Poland on a student exchange as a lad of 22 in 2004 on a post-graduate work experience to the then (at least to me) exotic country that is Poland.

Just before I got here, I received some kind of questionnaire to assess how much I knew about the country. Most of the questions were rather mundane. Where is the capital of Poland? What currency do they use, etc.

However, there was one question which I can still remember clearly. It sounded like this: How many of these Polish people are you familiar with? The list included great Poles like John Paul the second, Marie Curie (better known here as Maria SKŁODOWSKA Curie) and a name that I now regret I had not heard of before: Lech Wałęsa.

As a child of the early 1980s, growing up in the Mediterranean, I was ignorant of the details of the Solidarity Trade Union, much more so about one of its founders: Wałęsa.

Of course, I have since made amends for that lack of knowledge and developed a respect for the Nobel peace prize laureate just like every other Pole, in Poland or abroad. However I was mistaken.

There are many people who have a beef with Wałęsa, who almost singlehandedly removed Poland from under the yoke of communism.

The issue came to the fore in recent days, when the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), released some sensitive documents allegedly signed by Wałęsa in the 1970s. IPN is an institution which was partly the brainchild of then-Warsaw mayor Lech Kaczyliski, who went on to become president of the country. Kaczyński was one of the 96 people killed in the plane which crashed in 2010. His twin brother, Jarosław, heads the Law and Justice (PiS) party now in government. Both twin brothers were close associates of Wałęsa's, but a falling out saw the union leader and the two brothers going their own separate ways.

Back to those documents. Allegedly, the documents which IPN recently released were held at the Warsaw home of General Czesław Kiszczak, an interior minister with the communist party. The documents include a penned by Wałęsa admitting to doing some informant work for the secret police and getting paid for it.

The document was signed Wałęsa and "Bolek" – the pseudonym allegedly used by Wałęsa at the time. Now what is important to note is that Bolek functioned in the early-to-mid 1970s, at a time when Wałęsa was a lowly electrician working at the Gdańsk shipyard, at the time called the "Lenin shipyard".

If anything he would have provided low-level in information on his colleagues. And in recent days Wałęsa has admitted that "he made mistakes" in the past but has vehemently denied ever accepting money for this.

This is a person who spent the best part of his life FIGHTING the communists. He famously scaled the shipyard fence in 1980 to join a strike. He was arrested several times over this very intense period in Polish history. Some people in Poland say: "So what? Wałęsa did so much for Polish democracy later in life, that we can forgive his earlier weakness in collaborating with the powers that were."

Others think that once "smeared" (for lack of a better term) Wałęsa could not have done anything to redeem himself. MPs in Poland have called for the Gdańsk airport which bears his name to be renamed. Others have proposed that the Nobel peace prize be taken away from him.

A long time ago, a man much wiser than myself told me that societies should not idolize the living: build monuments to them, or put their face on money, for example; because until their last breath, they can always do something evil.

Only now do I see how that could ever be possible: by seeing the reputation of one of my personal idols being dragged through the mud.

But perhaps IPN is right, and the wrongs need to be exposed, even if they were minor offences which happened decades ago.

I will end this letter with something very unusual for me: a bible quote – John Chapter 8, verse 7.

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