The Day Poland Stood Still: Memories from the Introduction of Martial Law
On Sunday 13th December 1981 at 6am, Polish radio and TV broadcasted an address by General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Repeated over and over again, the broadcast informed Polish citizens that a new organisation called the Military Council of National Salvation (WRON) had been established and that martial law was being introduced nationwide based on a decree from the State Council. Culture.pl looks back at what various artists were doing that day, where they were when they heard the news, and what happened to them next.
The communist regime started to take Solidarity and other opposition activists from their homes the day before, just before midnight. During just a few days, approximately 5,000 individuals were placed in internment centres (a list of the confined was published by the Institute of National Remembrance, IPN, on the website http://13grudnia81.pl). A total of 80,000 soldiers and 30,000 communist policemen were used for the purpose of this huge operation, using 1,750 tanks, 1,900 ground combat vehicles and 9,000 cars. How are those first hours of martial law remembered by artists and other cultural figures?
Maciej Rayzacher, actor
On 12th December before midnight, I can hear a door bell ringing. It’s the UB officer assigned to me and a policeman with a crowbar. My wife holding our little son asks: ‘Sirs, did he do something bad?’.
‘Your husband will be right back,’ says my ‘friendly’ UB officer.
I meet some friends in the police transporter. I meet even more friends at the police station in Opaczewska Street. The policemen look like they have no idea what’s going on. They take down our particulars and take us away in the police transporter again. Where to? To Białołęka prison.
At six o’clock, in an empty prison cell with broken windows, I’m woken up by a radio-broadcast address by the general about the introduction of martial law. I’m transferred to cell number 15. Konrad Bieliński, Janusz Krzyżewski and a dozen Solidarity activists from Warsaw are there already.
After a week, we’re put in a helicopter. We fly over the neon light of Koszalin railway station, on our way to Jaworze [an internment facility]. Before that, I had been detained numerous times for 24 or 48 hours, so it was no great surprise for me whatsoever.
We received parcels from a support committee. I treated with amusement all their attempts to persuade me to sign a statement of loyalty to the communist regime. I kept refusing: ‘If my country is under occupation and you, in the occupant’s name, suggest that I be kind to it, being soldiers I think you understand that I can’t do that.’
Maciej Prus, theatre director
On 13th December, I came by tram to the Congress of Culture, where, in front of the closed doors, I learned what had happened. We went to Saint Ann’s Church to sign a letter of protest. Over there, I learned that Halina Mikołajska had been interned. Because I was a very close friend to her and Marian Brandys, I suggested to Marian that I stay with him until the situation cleared up.
Together we went to the Writers’ Union, where all those present started a discussion on how to behave in this situation. One eminent poet demanded suddenly that they intern him too – yes, such things did take place, unfortunately.
I was the only theatre person over there and maybe that’s why Marek Nowakowski made me one of the founding members of the Committee for Supporting the Interned. The core of the committee included Maja Komorowska, Janusz Anderman (until his internment), Basia Sadowska, the mother of Grzegorz Przemyk, Marta Fik, Jacek Sieradzki, Hania and Jacek Fedorowicz.
I was a member for no more than one and a half months – I’m no activist and I was soon substituted by a number of other, more willing people. For me, political events were facts, but they did not scare me. I can analyse them, but my feeling towards them is totally ambivalent. This is how I am. This whole demonstration of force that was happening, it seemed to me to be the last refuge of those who despised us.
Gustaw Holoubek, actor & director
That very night I was writing a speech for the Congress of Culture. It was held at the Dramatyczny Theatre where I was the director. I arrived there by car at 9am, but a few men in civilian clothes brutally withheld me from going in there.
Once home, over my still sleeping wife, I said a word out loud: ‘War’. She got scared. I myself – on the contrary – was not scared at all. The first moments of martial law seemed to me absurd and unacceptably grotesque. Soon, cut off from the rest of the world – as we all were – I started to become a little more concerned.
However, as time went by, I firmly believed that such a solution was totally against the tradition of settling things in Poland. That it was duress from abroad. A foreign body which has nothing in common with domestic reality. And even the bombastic and sentimental address of Jaruzelski to the population confirmed my opinion that he himself didn’t quite fit with that decision of his. I returned my licence as a member of parliament.
Soon, the Dramatyczny Theatre became the Theatre of the Republic of Poland. Protests did not help. After a year and a half, Żygulski, then the minister of culture, called me in to fire me, while accompanied by some Świrgoń guy, but this is an entirely different story.
Agnieszka Holland, film director
At the beginning of December 1981, I went to Sweden. I was visiting various cities while promoting my film Provincial Actors and discussing the situation in Poland. On 16th December, my husband was to join me with our little daughter – in Poland shops were empty – so we were to spend Christmas with our family in Gothenburg.
During my journey, the fatalistic and catastrophic vision of what must happen in the country was growing bigger and bigger. Well, I had already had the Czech experience and remembered the Czech spring crackdown. I felt that something horrible would happen soon.
I insisted that my family leave Poland earlier. It had no effect. On 13th December in the morning, I arrived at Gothenburg where my cousin was waiting for me at the railway station. ‘What do you think will happen?’ he asked. ‘Finis Poloniae,’ I answered thinking about my gut feeling. He understood I already knew. And I had a verbal diarrhoea all the way to his home and I only shut up when I saw tanks on the streets of Warsaw on TV.
Over the following days I felt like I was hypnotised. Swedish journalists bombarded me with questions, I was the only Pole known over there. I hesitated a few days, but the feeling of duty towards those interned and persecuted won inside me: I started giving sharp interviews knowing that I risk a long ban on coming back to the country and seeing my beloved ones. And so it had happened.
I was in despair more than I was angry. A long night was ahead of me. I knew that my life and the lives of many other Poles would never be the same again.
Józef Duriasz, actor
I was a correspondent for Solidarity Weekly during a meeting of the Solidarity National Committee in Gdańsk. I was staying at the Sopot Grand Hotel. On the night of 12th December, everybody was taken out of there. All except for me, because I hadn’t come back to sleep there. I was dozing off on the morning express train when I was woken up by a stentorian voice: ‘You’re asleep with a war around!? We’re looking for allies.’
It was the attorney Siła-Nowicki who, together with Jan Olszewski, had been staying the night in Sopot at his son-in-law’s Konrad Marusczyk, a Solidarity activist. Konrad was taken away by UB officers, but lawyers were simply warned against pursuing ‘enemy activities’. Together with the attorneys, I forced my way through the throng of train passengers.
We found Zbigniew Romaszewski. Siła-Nowicki – the old conspirator – pushed him into a toilet and put me on lookout at the door. When the train slowed down just outside Warsaw, Romaszewski jumped into a snowdrift. We had naively exchanged telephone numbers before we learned at the railway station that telephones didn’t work anymore.
We read information posted near the Palace of Culture that the Congress of Culture had been shut down. I met with Zofia Czerwińska from Syrena Theatre, who gave me a ride home in her little Fiat. They did not look for me, although when I visited a friend in Strzebielinek [an internment camp] in January, some UB officer told me that I wasn’t there by accident.
Krystyna Prońko, musician
On 12th December, we were staging the musical Kolęda Nocka at the Music Theatre in Gdynia. Performers from outside Gdańsk were staying at the Grand Hotel in Sopot. That night, I was woken up by a phone call from Halina Frąckowiak, who told me to look out the window. There were lines of uniformed men outside.
A moment later, I heard a knock at the door. A uniformed policeman demanded my ID, and one of two people dressed in camouflage uniforms looked under my bed, checked the wardrobe and the bathroom, but not behind the curtains, which surprised me. When they left, I heard the bang and shuffle of moving furniture all around. I knew that the delegates of the Solidarity National Committee were being looked for, as they were also staying at the Grand Hotel.
In the morning, during breakfast at the hotel restaurant, there were only artists and scared waiters. The telephones didn’t work, so Halina and I went to the theatre, since we were to perform again this Sunday. A morning performance for children was in progress, but our evening performances were cancelled.
We came back to Warsaw hitch-hiking – in a Mercedes which drifted and scuffed a lamppost. The train to Warsaw was scheduled after curfew, so we were afraid we’d be arrested on the way to the platform. However, we arrived safely, even though not only tickets, but also documents were checked. My dog also suffered, because the curfew eliminated his late evening walks.
Paweł Huelle, author & poet
I was close to what was happening, because I worked at the Solidarity Press Information Bureau. The incoming news and behaviour of the regime government made us think that confrontation was inevitable. A disaster was coming. When it finally came, I wasn’t surprised, but furious with helplessness. And totally frustrated.
During those first days, it seemed that as a population we are defenceless and that we had all lost. All of us. Nearly every member of the Solidarity National Committee was arrested just after the meeting in Gdańsk. There were strikes at the shipyard and in Nowa Huta, but they were cracked down. Everybody knows how it had ended at Wujek coal mine. Additionally, we were sick of the propaganda.
However, I had a feeling that if that system had to resort to tanks, nightsticks, arrests and violence, it meant that it was helpless. That this is the beginning of its end. They could not go any further. There was hope that the system was burning out, and victory would be on our side.
I spent the first days of martial law running around the city. My friends and I had to hide archives and our remaining equipment. We made a list of people we knew who had been arrested and where each of them was interned. All these were quite desperate and chaotic actions, but they helped us to avoid succumbing to black thoughts.
Maciej Wojtyszko, writer & director
After general Jaruzelski’s address about martial law was finished, an anchorman dressed in a military uniform invited all the children to watch a TV theatre performance Trzynaste Piórko Eufemii (‘The Thirteenth Feather of Eufemia’), written and directed by myself. I felt as if somebody had spat in my face. The rehearsals of The Master and Margarita in Jaracz Theatre in Łodź had to be cancelled. The performance was never completed.
Then, since we live on the outskirts of Warsaw, our house became a natural oasis for those who were in hiding. It served as a storage place for printing matrices and a venue for clandestine meetings. My son was a few months old, my wife was pregnant with our daughter. Due to a television boycott and no possibility of work at a theatre, my only source of upkeep was a job at a Drama School.
Later I was directing a performance of Rose by Stefan Żeromski at Dramatyczny Theatre in Warsaw, but it never made it to the premiere. Even today I’ve still got a copy of the text with the censor’s proposed deletions and interference: ‘There will always be a Moscow soldier parading here under the gibbet’ and ‘Thanks to you there will be no more Russia in Poland’ are both struck out. Next to ‘Long live independent Poland’, it says ‘to be discussed’.
I know that the person who corrected the text felt even more stupid than me and I think we underestimate the psychological aspect of that situation – quick-witted people had no doubts as to which side to support. Żeromski was right: ‘Thanks to you (persecutors), there will be no more Russia in Poland’.
Tomasz Jastrun, writer
‘Ms. Ogrodzińska, a neighbour of Andrzej Celiński, came to me. She heard him shout from the balcony, she was confused’, says Tomasz Jastrun, who on 13th December worked as chief editor of the Solidarity Cultural Information Brochure.
He lived in Warsaw’s Sadyba district at 5 Urla Street. The apartment of Helena and Witold Łuczywo was nearby. The door to their apartment had already been forced out, but the police did not find anybody there. Telephones did not work.
‘I thought it must have begun. I was certain it was the beginning of the Russian invasion preceded by an action of the Russian security forces. I said goodbye to my wife, climbed in my small Fiat, and decided to warn other people against arrest. For the first time that night, I passed by SB officers. They arrived a few minutes after I’d left. They hid the crowbar in my child’s room, sat down, winked sorry at my wife and waited for me to come back.’
Jerzy Połomski, singer
I went outside to start the car. A friend of mine, Bogdan Krzywicki, an actor, passed by. I told him how surprised I was because my radio and TV set had both broken down at the same time. And he told me that martial law had been declared.
My first thought was just astonishment. The second thought: there will be restrictions.
In order not to succumb to depression and to keep a cosy atmosphere at home, I dragged four Christmas trees to my flat. Then I had to go to the passport office, because I had a contract for a series of performances in the USA with the band Break Water. Surprisingly, we managed to leave Poland.
Posters advertising the concerts sported a slogan which was hardly adequate under the circumstances: ‘The whole room sings with us.’ The organiser didn’t foresee that I’d have to apologise for it in front of the Polish audience. I spent all of the martial law period touring between New York and Chicago. I participated in concerts on behalf of my colleagues in Poland who joined the TV boycott.
I thought I’d never come back to my country again. I changed my mind only when Moscow buried two consecutive first secretaries, and martial law was lifted. I can’t see a place for myself anywhere else, although a lot of things still upset me and make me nervous, the life here is far more intensive than in any other place on Earth.