BBC Home
Explore the BBC
Search ON THIS DAY by date
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
About This Site | Text Only
1981: A 'sad Christmas' in Poland
No-one who lived in Poland between 13 December 1981 and July 22 1983 will forget the imposition of martial law under General Jaruzelski.

Normal life was severely restricted, the independent trade union Solidarity was banned and its leader Lech Walesa was imprisoned.

Your stories:

I remember it like it was yesterday, even though I was only 11 years old then. The winter that year had been very harsh and I was sick with pneumonia.

My mother was in West Berlin doing Christmas shopping and I couldn┐t wait for her to get back home. She was pregnant with my sister and not feeling well. I was home with my dad. It was a Sunday morning.

My dad woke me up and the first thing I noticed was that it was incredibly cold in my room, the heat was not on, and my dad had a forced smile on his face.

He brought me tea with honey and my medicine. He sat by me on the bed, and suddenly said that mom will not be coming home to us.

I spilled my tea on the blankets and he started to cry. He tried to explain as best he could what was happening in the country, and I didn┐t understand much until I heard shots outside.

There was nothing on TV except some guy in uniform saying horrible things, telling people to stay indoors and not go out in the streets. We had to go to the doctor, I was sick, and we didn┐t have a telephone.

On Monday my father tried to take me to the local health clinic, but as soon as we got to the main street, we were stopped by the police and told to go back home.

My dad had to carry me back home, I was too weak to walk by myself.

People would queue in front of stores just in case, hoping for a delivery of meat, or toilet paper or butter
Ania, USA
We had very little food left, and there was nothing to buy. People would queue in front of stores just in case, hoping for a delivery of meat, or toilet paper or butter.

But queuing was illegal. It had to be done very carefully. My dad joined a meat queue. During the day it was OK, but if you wanted to keep your place, you had to queue at night too. It was dangerous, and besides, he couldn┐t wait outside in the snow 24 hours a day.

I had no choice but to take turns with him. I would wait during the day, and he at night. After a few days of this hell, we bought as much meat as we were allowed for each person. It almost cost me my life.

I couldn┐t breathe and my lungs were filling with water. I had frostbite on my feet and my toes turned blue.

A relative who was a party member took pity on us and arranged for a doctor to come to our apartment - the same relative also warned my dad to go into hiding. The doctor who came to see me was from a nearby naval base. The part of Gdynia where we lived was right past the shipyards, with the naval base to the east and an air force base to the north.

The doctor assured us that if things were going to turn from bad to worse, we wouldn┐t have to worry, that we were perfectly safe.

I was instructed not to refer to my dad as my dad, and he started making arrangements to ship me off to live with relatives.

On December 24th there was a knock on the door. My dad told me to open the door and say that I was home alone, while he was hiding in the bathroom. I opened the door and I wanted to cry with joy but was too weak to do even that.

It was my mom! She came back to Poland from West Berlin to take care of me. She said she was the only person crossing the border, and that even the soldiers were telling her not to come back. She was detained at the crossing for two days in freezing cold, everybody was suspicious as to why she wanted to enter Poland so desperately.

That two days in extreme conditions caused irreversible damage to my sister and she was born with disabilities. But at that time I just wanted to cry I was so happy to see my mom, I thought I would never see her again.

That same day my dad went into hiding, and our lives were changed forever.
Ania E, USA

I was only six years old. I lived in rural area, near an old mill. I lived with my mother and one man who worked in the mill. My mother suffered from serious sickness and had been just released from hospital.

There was a bridge nearby and a group of soldiers was keeping a watch over the bridge. It was an extremely cold winter and soldiers were regurarly visiting our house, asking for tea and exchanging their food rations for fresh bread and some hot meal.

They were young and frightened, they tried not to scare us. I remember they even let me hold the Kalashnikov submachine gun for a while.

But I was scared nearly as much as my mother was.

We were lucky enough to live in rural area where you could buy meat and vegetables from other people. There were food rations at that time, and it was a great effort to find, buy and transport extra food. Even with a valid food ration document, you had to know the right person to actually buy the food at the shop.

I remember help from other countries. Food packages with cheese, butter and sweeties were avaiable at local churches.

I'd like to thank all of you who helped Polish people at that time. This is a deed not to be forgotten.
Pawel Bragoszewski, Poland

I was 11 when martial law was declared in Poland.

I thought it was my mum's cheap trick to get me out of bed when she walked into my bedroom that morning saying, "There is a war".

I was petrified. All TV channells were suspended till around 9.30am. Then all presenters were wearing uniforms on TV. It really was surreal.

I was afraid to leave the house. I was worried for my mum, an active member of Solidarity.

We were burning a lot of underground newspapers that day. We feared a knock on the door.
Tom Tyranowicz, UK

I was a student.

We hoped that Solidarity [would] change our lives. This day took our hope away for 10 years.
Malgorzata, Poland

I remember looking out the window of our apartment block to see the tanks rolling on the streets of Warsaw.

I also remember that the morning kids TV "Teleranek" was cancelled and some talking head kept popping up on the screen every few minutes.

Being only six at the time I had very little understanding of the gravity of the whole situation but my parents' concern was evident and I also felt very anxious that day.
Cezar Grzelak, Poland

There was a lot of hope and excitement in the air prior to the Marshall Law crackdown in Poland.

I was living in Chicago at the time and I remember going to the store to purchase a copy of the Sunday Chicago Tribune. It was a chilling moment and frightening when I saw the headline on the front page.

I didn't know what it all meant exactly but I knew something was terribly wrong.

In his Christmas message Ronald Reagan asked the American people to light a candle and place it in the window in solidarity with the Polish people. Many did.

I also recall the day that thousands went to demonstrate in front of the Polish consulate. I was one of them. Days later there was a huge rally and demonstration in the downtown district of Chicago.

50,000 Chicagoans of all stripes came to show their support for the embattled Poles. As a Polish-American I was very excited for my parents' homeland.

It was a big letdown, however, when the tanks rolled into the streets and Poland's brief months of tremendous hope were snuffed out. But, all that is history. We have a new Poland with a bright future ahead!
Peter Jozefowicz, Poland

I remember that I had two weeks off from school.

I was also using the public transport and taking photo shots of military vehicles. That was a cool experience. I was young. But I was really pissed-off with General Jaruzelski when he imposed "home arrest" for people under 18 after 6pm. We could not play football in the evening.

But seriously, Christmas '81 is, in my memory, one of my saddest.
Tomek, Poland

I was only five months old. At that time my dad was in Canada, and me and my mom in Poland.

They did not have any contact for two months. Every evening my mom was waiting for my dad, keeping me on her arms, praying and believing that one evening he would come back.

And he did come back to me, to my mother. Now I am 24 years old, my parents are happily married and we can live in a democratic country!
Joanna, NL

I was eight years old at the time. TV was taken over and Gen Jaruzelski was making his statements every hour.

Most kids my age were running around with rotten vegetables and throwing them at armoured personnel carriers and soldiers while screaming obscenities
Adam, USA
School was closed and most transportation in Warsaw was not running except police and ambulance. Food had been rationed even before marshal law and now they were even thinner.

A week or so after schools re-opened and basic transport was up and running, however fuel for private vehicles was rationed very tightly.

After I returned to school a lot of my teachers had gone and most classes had to be put together due to lack of personnel. We found out that some teachers were in Solidarity and had been arrested by the army.

I particularly remember that January because most kids my age were running around with rotten vegetables and throwing them at armoured personnel carriers and soldiers while screaming obscenities, such as ****** Russian dogs, Gestapo, go back to ****** Russia.

Parents on the other hand along with other adults were quietly encouraging the children to be very nasty to soldiers and milicja (police).

Some things still haunt me - the looks of young soldiers on their faces after they had been pelted with rotten vegetables. It was an expression of utter pain and helplessness in the situation they were in and orders they had to carry out.

Most commanding officers had the same haunted look on their faces that even at the age of eight really got to me. Now years later I know what that look meant.

I did see some very nasty things happen such as riots over food and work, some of the results witnessed by me were rather bloody.

In mid 1981 my father had been arrested on charges of sedition to state and was taken away under marshal law to prison. He spent two years locked up for being a member of Solidarity.

To this day I cannot forgive for what had happened to him. But to this day my father at least for that is a hero to me. By 1983 things had stabilized and my father was released and as soon as he walked out of prison he went to American embassy and applied for political asylum. In 1984 all of us went to the USA, very happy and apprehensive about what we were about to face and what we were leaving behind.

On the plus side there had been very little fatalities during that crisis and Poland escaped what could had been a very long protracted problem relatively unscathed.
Adam, USA

I was a young (19) conscript in the Hungarian Army that time.

During the autumn we were hearing with growing concern how the tension grew in Poland. Most of us sympathised with Solidarity's ideas but we were pessimistic that a rebellion could be successful in the Eastern Bloc.

The memories of '56 and '68 were still vivid. In November we had a few tough alarm-drill practices, even the officers seem to be puzzled about it.

The air was tense, there was a talk of possibility of having to go to Poland (some warrant-officers in the barrack participated in the '68 Czechoslovakian invasion and felt the same thing was happening again).

We swore that we would not shoot at people and if we have a chance we would desert to Sweden
Bence Kovacs, Hungary
A few days before (I think it was the evening of Dec 11) our officer came over and officially told us that we should prepare to go next morning.

We put our things together and of course were pretty scared.

With a few friends we swore that we would not shoot at people and if we have a chance we would desert to Sweden. In the morning nothing happened. Next day we heard on the radio that the martial law was declared. Suddenly the whole thing has made sense.

Given political situation I think Jaruzelski made the right decision.
Bence Kovacs, Hungary

Although I was a small boy of 11 years old in December 1981, when martial law in Poland was introduced, I remember being a patient in one of the hospitals in Zakopane - the town in the Polish Tatras.

I just went through a very complicated and difficult spine surgery, and just after the operation, I was transported between two hospitals in the ambulance.

As it was December, it was obviously very cold. On the way, our ambulance was stopped by what we called Milicja officers, who demanded to search for the contraband in the ambulance.

As I was hardly conscious the doctor, who was with me refused and started shouting at the officers that they were inhuman and that they would have my life on their account, if they kept on stopping us.

After lots of arguments and shouting, they let us go. I do not remember the name of my doctor, but I wanted to thank him and many others in the whole country for believing in humanity - always!
Roman, Poland/Kenya

I was ten at the time and living in the Upper Silesian city of Myslowice.

I remember my father not coming back from his shift at the coal mine and the sound of rumbling armoured vehicles rolling toward and back from the mine. We were all afraid that something terrible was going to happen.

My father did eventually come back and in one piece. Tanks, armoured vehicles and even helicopters were brought into subdue the miners, steel mill workers and others protesting against the declared martial law all over Upper Silesia.

A few kilometers away from my town, at the ┐KWK Wujek┐ coal mine in the city of Katowice, 7 miners were shot another 20 wounded. It was sad time┐
Richard, Upper Silesia

And on 7 February 1995 Former Communist beats Walesa to become president.

Ironic. Some of us thought the whole world was laughing at us. After all the sacrifice a former 'komuch' was trusted to become a president so soon after.

Although it seems like it was a long time ago it really isn't. I was five at the time when martial law was declared and remember my sister and I going to a grocery store to pick up some essentials.

We were stopped by soldiers and questioned where we were going. We only lived on the outskirts of a city at that time, but the military seemed to have penetrated every area.

Those who didn't have communist papers and were stopped walking the street were risking being arrested put in jail and beaten.
Beata, USA

I was six around the time all these horrible events took place. My memories are chopped and consist of bits and pieces.

My dad was in the special forces of the communist police. In August 1980 we were in a seaside resort when he was abruptly called to go to Gdansk. He didn't come back for days.

All I remember is being terribly sad that he's missing all this fun at the beach. And then there was December of 81.

My mom was eight months pregnant with my brother. My dad away for days, his gun strapped to his belt, no food, no heat.

Police on the streets. My neighbour telling me, we'll be OK because we were "on the other side."

My dad would come back for a few minutes in odd times during the day. My mom scared for him and the new baby. I remember a lot of snow and tanks on the streets.

Years ago I found out that my dad had been arresting people during those times when he hadn't been home with us. It makes me wonder: were they parents or siblings of the people I call friends now? What a shame...
Gosia, USA

 E-mail this story to a friend

Zomo police - 1981
Polish militia patrolled the streets of Warsaw under martial law

General Jaruzelki
General Jaruzelski imposed restrictions that severely affected normal life

Witness Stories

Search ON THIS DAY by date

^^ back to top
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
©MMVIII | News Sources | Privacy & Cookies Policy