Page last updated at 20:24 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 21:24 UK

Children of the Solidarity revolution

By Krassimira Twigg
BBC News

Twenty years ago, on 17 April, Poland's communists agreed to hold elections and to allow the Solidarity movement to take part.

The first democratic elections in the Soviet bloc resulted in the eventual collapse of the communist regime - but for most of the 1980s, Solidarity had been an illegal organisation whose members faced a constant risk of arrest.

Natalia Borysewicz as a child in the 1980s
Natalia Borysewicz and her sister acted as couriers for her father

For their children, these were years in which the excitement of a secret and forbidden life could easily turn to heartache.

Natalia Borysewicz, now in her thirties, was given important jobs by her father, a miner and Solidarity member at the brown coal mine near their home in Belchatow.

"He was using us kids as couriers to smuggle underground literature. We didn't fully understand what we were doing, but it was very exciting. We knew we shouldn't mention to anybody what was discussed at home.

"Although we were heavily indoctrinated at school, our parents educated us at home and so we ended up with two versions of education."

Filip Sikorski was another child whose family was involved with the workers rights' movement. His father, an engineer, introduced Solidarity to his computer institute in Warsaw, and sometimes travelled from place to place, distributing illegal literature.

Filip remembers how proud he was when his father would ask him to help carry the materials to the train station.

"His rucksack was full of magazines and forbidden books, like Orwell's 1984. I had to keep quiet about it. We were always afraid that the doorbell might ring one morning and it would be the police."

Martial law

For Natalia, the excitement came to a sudden end on 13 December 1981, when the Polish government introduced martial law in an attempt to crush political opposition. Thousands of people were arrested.

Natalia Borysewicz in 2007 in Warsaw
Natalia now works for a bank in London

Her father spent eight months in prison without charge or any indication of when he would be released.

"I remember very well how our life was with dad in prison. It was very tough for my mum. They say 'poor men', but I say 'poor women', as it was the women who had to deal with everything."

Natalia remembers that her father maintained his sense of humour even in prison. On one of her visits he gave her a badge he had made for her to wear, which read: "I am the daughter of a political prisoner."

After he was released, the authorities offered the family the opportunity to emigrate.

"We visited a couple of foreign embassies to make enquiries," Natalia says. "To my disappointment my parents decided to stay. My dad thought it would be cowardly to leave the country, so this was his sacrifice."

Life went back to normal for the family, although Natalia's father withdrew from the political movement.

"He was more of a veteran, my dad. He didn't want to be the guy at the front. Anyway, towards the end of the 1980s, being a member of Solidarity wasn't much of a heroic thing anymore, it became easier and more mainstream."

Radical change

The speed of the developments in 1989 took everybody by surprise. February saw round table talks between the communist government and the opposition, which led to the first democratic elections in the Soviet bloc and an overwhelming victory for Solidarity.

Filip Sikorski (in the middle) with his brother and a friend waving the EU flag after Poland voted in a referendum to join the European Union in 2003
Filip (centre) celebrates Poland's Yes vote in the 2003 EU referendum

"What followed was a radical change," says Natalia. " Young people like me benefited hugely. The change opened the world for us. Look at us now, I work for a bank in London, and my sister works for a big international company in Poland."

Natalia is proud her father was part of those momentous events and she thinks that if it hadn't been for Solidarity, Poland wouldn't be where it is now.

"We are an enterprising nation and we started flourishing. We are confident now. We are citizens of Europe."

The events filled people with excitement - and worry. The Red Army was still present in the country and the memories of what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 (when Soviet tanks crushed resistance) were all too vivid.

Brian Hanrahan
Poles will tell you two things with pride - that they started the 1989 revolutions, and that instead of receiving international aid, they are now strong enough to donate it
BBC diplomatic editor, Brian Hanrahan

For Filip, the turning point was when in August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki was appointed the first non-communist prime minister in the history of post-war Poland.

"It was an unforgettable moment: all our dreams and hopes came true. Finally, the people of Poland were in charge of our country."

Filip now works for an international company and regularly travels on business to other European countries. He is delighted that Poland is now a member of Nato and the EU.

But while the majority welcomed the changes, others felt disappointed. The transition from a planned to market economy meant that some companies went bankrupt and jobs were hard to find. Gone was the sense of security enjoyed under communism.

"Communism is like living in jail - you are provided for, you don't have to worry about food, but you have no freedom," says Filip.

A new beginning

Natalia Borysewicz having a drink with her father
Natalia is proud of her father's contribution to democracy in Poland

Natalia's father is 67 years old now. He won a presidential award for his contribution to Polish democracy.

"From time to time he puts on a suit and goes to meetings. He is very proud of his contribution. He jokes that he even wears his medal in bed."

But this recognition came with a bitter aftertaste. When his personal file was declassified, he discovered that close friends he had trusted had betrayed him.

Filip's father is now 72. He runs his own IT business, employing more than 60 people. The collapse of communism gave him the opportunity for a fresh start in his fifties.

"There's no stopping him now. He is doing very well and is not even thinking about retirement. He says that communism stole 40 years of his life and he now has to make up for it."

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific