Photo by Eddie Adams
Political Participation and Life Underground
"‘Let’s not get caught’ was our slogan."
Labor organizer and pro-democracy activist Zbigniew Bujak received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in 1986 and is a Speak Truth To Power Defender.
Bujak led the Solidarity underground in the Warsaw region from the imposition of martial law in 1981 until his arrest in 1986. Born in 1954 and trained as an electrical technician and soldier, Bujak became active in the opposition in 1978 while he was working at the Ursus tractor factory. After organizing a strike in 1980, Bujak became the leader of the Warsaw (Mazowsze) region of Solidarity in 1981. Escaping capture in Gdansk on the night martial law was declared, Bujak traveled underground back to Warsaw where he set up one of the most elaborate and effective underground operations ever known. After his release from prison in a general amnesty, Bujak continued to lead Solidarity for the Mazowsze region until 1989. He was one of Solidarity’s leading negotiators in the "Round Table Negotiations," during which he and his colleagues negotiated a peaceful compromise with the communists and set the stage for the rise of democratic governance in Poland. The wave of democracy that started in Poland inspired change in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and eventually throughout the entire region. Bujak decided not to run for office in this electoral contest, instead choosing, like Lech Walesa, to stay focused on the trade union movement. He also worked in the political arena, and helped to found the Citizens’ Movement-Democratic Alternative, later the Democratic Social Movement, and the Union of Labor. Elected to Parliament in 1991, he served until 1997. There he spoke eloquently on behalf of women’s rights and against anti-Semitism, incurring the wrath of many who were once his ardent supporters. He served as Minister of Customs, one of the most important posts in the Polish government until his retirement from politics in 2002.
In the Solidarity Movement, though we didn’t realize the army would be used on such a scale, we knew there would be some sort of martial law introduced. We prepared—hiding the money, all the machines, the files—we hid it all. On December 12, 1981, on the very day when the Solidarity Trade Union held a national meeting at Gdansk shipyard, news was coming in that ZOMO, a special unit of military police used in street fighting, was mobilizing. We thought, "This is it. Even if there is very little we can do at this point, we just have to go. We have to finish the meeting of the national committee."
This particular meeting was being very closely monitored by the secret service. Entering the Gdansk shipyard and arresting us there could have been dangerous because it was a big factory, with a lot of people around and it could have turned into a direct confrontation—with consequences. It was clear from the very beginning that General Jaruzelski was trying to avoid that. He used a tremendous number of police and army units to intimidate us. He wanted to paralyze us with this massive force. Tactically speaking, he did it all very well. They decided to wait and arrest us in our hotels, which was much easier to do. We could see the Monopol Hotel being surrounded, and people being taken away. When we got there, the receptionist told us that Janusz Onyskiewicz, the Solidarity spokesperson, had been arrested. The moment had come.
Zbyszek Janus, another activist, and I went directly from the shipyard to the railway station. From there Zbyszek went to his friends in Gdansk, and I stayed that first night in a monastery; then, the next day, I moved to a private apartment. From the windows I could see the tanks, one after another, entering the shipyard. We managed to get in touch with the people of the strike committee inside to figure out whether we should join them, but they suggested that we should stay out, that all the leadership should scatter to different hiding places. I got an engineer’s uniform and rode the train back to Warsaw.
In Warsaw, the most important problem was figuring out who was in hiding, and how to get in touch with them. I had a very clear-cut strategy. I went to my friend’s family and asked them to ask their neighbors to go to a very trustworthy priest named Father Nowak to ask for help in contacting others in the underground. Nowak already knew where my deputy, Wiktor Kulerski, was hiding in a private house. I met Kulerski the same day. Another priest from a neighboring parish helped us out. Wiktor then got in touch with Ewa Kulik and Helena Luczywo, and now we knew that our problems had been solved. With those two women, we would be able to build the entire underground network.
We organized three separate structures. The editorial committees published and distributed underground newspapers and leaflets—our most important function. A separate structure existed for all these people who organized Pularski’s, Janus’s, Zbigniew Tomaszewski’s, and my activities. Every single one of us had to have a separate crew of people who organized safe houses for us where we could live, have meetings, and work. The others didn’t know where we lived or which people were organizing for us. So if somebody got caught by the secret service, that person would know as little as possible—just one cell would be disrupted. Every month we had to change apartments and our appearance. The way the secret police did their surveillance was by compiling details about the kind of hat, coat, bag you carried. If you switched what you wore, you could easily lose the police. At one point I remember having this jacket that was very light on one side and very dark on the other, so I could turn it inside out and unbutton it and it would look like a coat.
In one place, where we were for a month, we had about sixteen different apartments at our disposal to move to at any time, apartments of complete strangers. We avoided both our own families and those of other activists. We avoided our friends. That meant we had to completely put our trust in strangers. At the beginning we had this fear that these people would sell us out. The reward for doing that was huge: twenty thousand dollars and a permanent exit visa to leave the country. But only once was someone betrayed.
"Let’s not get caught" was our slogan. The general belief in Poland was that the secret police were omnipotent. The whole system was based on the myth of their "terrible efficiency." When people were shown that a year had passed and the opposition was still not captured, was flourishing underground, the myth of efficiency began to show cracks. This was our conviction—that remaining free would compromise the system. And we were right. Today we still get calls from former secret police agents who say, "You know, you son of a bitch, if we had caught you then..." and you can see they are still angry.
There are two kinds of courage. I have a deep conviction that military struggle (though this is certainly a paradox) does not require that much courage. I myself was in the army and know it’s easier to just point, shoot, and run. When I read about the dissidents in Russia, I realized "civilian’s courage" is much harder. I don’t know how to prove this, but when you have to make a decision—whether to sign a petition, or whether to participate in a demonstration—when you know you can be put into jail, sentenced, or sent to Siberia for years, the way that the Russians have been, this is real courage. When you read about Mandela in South Africa, you can see that it requires a different courage to be ready for this type of activity.
In politics, you can call it courage to express your true opinions. It may turn out that you lose friends—that somebody in the family turns from you. I experienced it. I know I stopped being a hero to all Poles when I expressed my opinions aloud. A lot of people said, "You have disappointed us, you betrayed us. We thought you would be with us, the Nationalists, you would be leading us." And a lot of anti-Semites said, "We thought you would be a true Pole, and that we would deal with those Jews and Communists." Or all those people involved with the antiabortion movement, when I said I believed that it’s the woman’s decision to choose, turned me into enemy number one.
Look, I believe all of my dreams are coming true. I was afraid that my wife and I would be childless. Then we had a son and we are happy beyond belief. If he hadn’t been born I think I would have been a frustrated, bitter person, thinking I’d wasted my family life for something abstract. But he came. And I have this feeling that what I am leaving for my son is the best Poland I could possibly have helped create. You know what we are doing now is going to become the stuff of legends, the same way as it was for us when we talked about our parents’ lives. I have the sense of participating in a huge victory: the end of martial law, and later the roundtable, and then Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s success. Our idea has won, in the sense of helping fulfill a big political vision, and I was part of it.
Speak Truth To Power (Umbrage, 2000)