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Blinking Lights for Freedom

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Real Heroes: The People of Poland



Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.


Each week, Mr. Reed relates the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. 


Readers of this series are likely aware of my affection for Poland and the Polish people. Previous essays featured such Polish heroes as two-time Nobel-winning scientist Maria Sklodowska (Marie Curie), the anticommunist martyr Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the courageous undercover fighter Witold Pilecki, and science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem.

Though I have no Polish blood in me — my father was of Scots-Irish ancestry and my mother was German — I would be very proud if I did. Polish bravery in the face of invasions, occupations, and tyranny is exemplary. In recent times, Poles played a critical role in the momentous unraveling of the Soviet Empire in the 1980s. To millions of Polish freedom fighters who ushered communism into the dustbin of history nearly 30 years ago, the world owes an unending debt of gratitude.

My first of several visits to the country was in 1986. The experience left me with unforgettable memories. For seven days in November of that year, I glimpsed something of the nature and effectiveness of those who opposed the communist regime. Escorted by activists in Poland’s illegal Freedom and Peace movement, I conducted many hours of interviews in Warsaw and Krakow. What I discovered went far beyond anything I had expected.

“The people of Poland are giving us an imperishable example of courage and devotion to the values of freedom in the face of relentless opposition.” — Ronald Reagan

The history of Poland from the imposition of martial law and the crushing of the Solidarity organization in December 1981 to the glorious elections of 1989 is not the saga of a pessimistic, defeatist, or compliant people. Rather, it is a remarkable testament to the human will to be free. While the constellation of strong leaders in Britain, the United States, and the Vatican (Thatcher, Reagan, and John Paul II) helped the process of communist disintegration immensely, those very same leaders rightfully and repeatedly credited the defiant spirit of the Poles. “The people of Poland,” declared President Reagan, “are giving us an imperishable example of courage and devotion to the values of freedom in the face of relentless opposition.… The torch of liberty is hot. It warms those who hold it high. It burns those who try to extinguish it.”

An intellectual giant of Polish liberty, Leszek Kolakowski (1927–2009), labeled Marxism “the greatest fantasy of our century” and regarded totalitarian brutality as the inevitable outcome of the concentration of power. He told the New York Times in 2004, “This ideology was supposed to mold the thinking of people, but at a certain moment it became so weak and so ridiculous that nobody believed in it, neither the ruled nor the rulers.”

By the 1980s, the communists’ promise of a better life under socialism had given way to appalling safety conditions in workplaces, sooty air that posed a major health threat, frequent shortages of everything from gasoline to toilet paper, and luxury living for party officials while the masses lived at two-thirds the world standard for 1980. A national housing shortage was so pronounced that the average waiting time to get an apartment was 15–20 years. In parts of Warsaw, the wait was as long as 25 years — in other words, until someone with a house died.

I learned during my 1986 visit that five years after the regime’s harsh crackdown, Poles were dodging and weaving around the restrictions in ways that almost defied imagination. Shortages of basic foodstuffs, double-digit inflation, and a powerful secret police did not deter them from creating thriving black markets and flourishing private institutions from radio to theaters to publishing houses and schools.

Solidarity’s Wiktor Kulerski had sketched the outlines of Polish resistance a few years before when he wrote,

This movement should create a situation in which authorities will control empty stores, but not the market; the employment of workers, but not their livelihood; the official media, but not the circulation of information; printing plants, but not the publishing movement; the mail and telephones, but not communications; and the school system, but not education.

Thirty-eight million Poles were thumbing their noses at the state. They knew from painful experience that, as dissident Stefan Kisielewski put it (and was arrested and beaten for saying), “Socialism is stupidism.”

Nowhere else in the East bloc was defiance so brazen and so extensive.

At a dinner party secretly hosted by several underground printers in Krakow, I was dazzled by the scope of what they called “independent publishing ventures.” They had translated and printed “subversive” works by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell, and even Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand.

“Where do you get the paper to print all this stuff?” I inquired. A young Pole named Pawel answered, “We get it from two places: we smuggle it in from the West and we steal it from communists.” Pawel explained that workers in government printing houses who were sympathetic to the resistance often spirited paper to the underground. On some occasions, they even printed the illegal stuff on the government’s own printing presses. When the government mounted a campaign to confiscate the cars of their distributors, the underground printers formed their own insurance company (they called it “Lloyd’s of Warsaw”) to cover the costs of the confiscation of their cars, paper, and materials.

I asked those printers who entertained me that evening how I could help. They already had a specific request in mind. If I could raise $5,000 and channel it to their émigré allies in Paris, they told me, they would eventually get the money and be able to translate into Polish and print several thousand copies of Milton and Rose Friedman’s classic Free To Choose. Among my most prized possessions today is a copy of that book, inscribed by activist Wojciech Modelski with these words: “Thank you, Larry! Without your help it was [sic] not be possible to publish this book.”

Seven illicit publishing houses in the country together were producing 200 books a year in editions of up to 10,000, according to the New York Times (December 31, 1986). Nowhere else in the East bloc was defiance so brazen and so extensive.

Entire underground universities flourished in the major cities of Poland, holding classes and conducting research in the most unlikely places: warehouses, basements, churches, and even the state’s own university buildings after hours.

On the black market, Poles produced and traded everything from vodka to automobiles.

In meetings with dozens of Poles in their late teens, 20s, and early 30s, I was stunned by their depth of commitment and high degree of sophistication. They were the intelligentsia of Polish freedom fighters, extremely knowledgeable of world affairs. They were restless for change and willing to endure imprisonment or worse to make it happen.

By 1988, thousands of their peers were refusing to take the oath required upon forced induction into the military. Through hunger strikes, sit-ins, petition drives, and acts of civil disobedience, activists pressured the government to release from prison those incarcerated for spurning the oath. Illicit groups like Freedom and Peace condemned “socialist pollution” for wreaking havoc on the country’s air and water. They championed equal rights for women and the democratic ideals of a free press and free elections.

One activist named Leszek told me he had been repeatedly denied a visa to travel abroad because of suspected underground activity. The government official who had most recently refused him permission to leave asked him pointedly, “Why do you want to go to America? Haven’t you heard they have homeless people living in sleeping bags on city streets?” Leszek wanted me to know how he responded. He said he looked the official in the eye and exclaimed, “I would gladly trade my apartment here for a sleeping bag on a street in New York any day!”

My favorite story from my 1986 visit involves a very brave couple, Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski, who had only months before been released from prison for running an underground radio station. “How did you know when you were broadcasting if people were listening?” I asked. Sofia answered, “We could only broadcast 8 to 10 minutes at a time before going to another place to stay ahead of the police. One night we asked people to blink their lights if they believed in freedom for Poland. We then went to the window and for hours, all of Warsaw was blinking.”

A few weeks later I wrote, “What is percolating in Poland constitutes such a profound challenge to Marxist dogma that it seems sure to put the government on a collision course again with its own people.” Little did I know that the climax would arrive like a deafening thunderclap just 30 months later.

Poland’s communist leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, struck an agreement with Lech Walesa’s banned Solidarity organization early in 1989 to legalize suppressed political groups and schedule elections for June 4. He had little choice. Poland, he declared, had become “ungovernable.” I knew exactly what he meant, because I had witnessed it myself in November 1986.

On June 4, 1989, as Chinese government tanks crushed a mass uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Poland electrified the world by holding the first free elections in communist Europe. Opponents of communism and its kissing cousin, socialism, stunned fellow Poles with their showing. The opposition won 99 of 100 seats in the Senate and every single one of the 161 seats in the lower house of Parliament (the Sejm) that the regime allowed to be contested. These results assured that the momentum for liberty across the Soviet empire would mushroom until it toppled dictators and parties from East Berlin to Ulan Bator.

Zbigniew Romaszewski won a seat in the Sejm in those elections. Later, he was elected to the Senate, where he served until his death in 2014. Jan Rokita, a leader of Freedom and Peace and my chief escort in 1986, was elected to the lower house in 1989 and served there until retiring in 2007.

I was arrested, detained, strip searched, and expelled. 

My two-week 1986 visit ended in Warsaw. I was arrested, detained, strip searched, and expelled. My film and tapes were seized and my repeated requests for their return and for a visa to return to Poland were denied. Within a month of the 1989 elections that ended communist rule, however, my confiscated materials arrived in the mail. In November 1989, as the dominoes of the East bloc were falling, I once again visited Warsaw, where I celebrated the rebirth of freedom with my Polish friends. I went back again in 2003 and even visited with Zbigniew and Sofia Romaszewski at their Tatra Mountains cottage near Zakopane.

Among the freedom-loving organizations in Poland today is the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education (PAFERE). On March 9, 2016, I will deliver a lecture at the Warsaw School of Economics, cosponsored by PAFERE and FEE. I will tell my Polish audience that their country has a special place in my heart and in the hearts of freedom lovers everywhere.

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