Woman of Iron
On board the Smolensk plane was the petite firebrand who once got a revolution for her birthday.by Michael Szporer, 15 April 2010, TRANSITIONS ONLINE
If the October Revolution of 1917 had its mythical Mother, in the near-allegorical title character of Maxim Gorky’s novel, then the 1980 Solidarity strike, and communism’s subsequent unraveling, had Anna Walentynowicz, who died in the 10 April plane crash in Smolensk.
Her name, pronounced Valenteenovitch, is synonymous with the Gdansk strike. Affectionately nicknamed Mala (“Tiny”) by her fellow shipyard workers, she was only 4-foot-5. She worked in the shipyard for 42 years, first as a welder, when she would crawl into the hulls of ships with her torch, then, after a bout with cancer, as a crane operator.
Her firing on 7 August 1980 and forcible removal from the shipyard two days later sparked the Gdansk strike, which began on 14 August. The strike was a birthday present from 17,000 shipyard workers to Walentynowicz, who was born on 15 August 1929.
In one of a series of conversations I had with her in 2000 (which form the basis of a section of the forthcoming book, Solidarnosc), she recounted the day the workers gave her this unusual gift.
“Piotr [Maliszewski] and Bogdan [Felski] arrive at my apartment, and I'm nowhere to be found. The woman in apartment 4 tells me the director's car has arrived for me, and that I must immediately go with them to the shipyard.
“At first, I'm apprehensive, because I’m always followed, but she tells me it was OK, [it was] our boys from the shipyards. When we arrive at Gate 2 of the shipyard, Piotr simply commands the guard to open it, and to my complete amazement, the guard obeys. Inside [is] a sea of faces, workers as far as the eye can see. Out of the crowd a young woman, twentysomething, greets me with a bouquet of roses. I ask her, ‘Child, where did you get these flowers? It's still early for roses.’ She responds, ‘From the director's garden. They're our roses!’
“The boys lift me up on top of a mechanical shovel, above the sea of faces. I see a simple cardboard sign pinned to a plank [that says] RETURN ANNA WALENTYNOWICZ TO WORK, ONE THOUSAND ZL BACK PAY. An unforgettable, incredibly moving moment – that sign over the heads of the shipyard crowd!”
Walentynowicz was born in the Rivne (then Rowny) region of Volhynia, a province of what is today western Ukraine. As a 10-year-old orphan, she moved to Poland with a farming family who adopted her and treated her as little more than a servant.
In her early 20s, she ran off to Gdansk, where, like many displaced people from the borderlands, she eventually ended up in the shipyard. A self-made woman, she was also a single mother to her son, Janusz, born in 1952, until her marriage 12 years later to Kazimierz Walentynowicz, a friend from the shipyard.
She is survived by Janusz, who works as a merchant marine.