I will never forget the day martial law came to my birthplace, Poland, in 1981. Our newborn daughter Kinga was baptized the week before. I was preparing breakfast for the children early in the morning when the president, General Jaruzelski, spoke on the radio. Jaruzelski always appeared in public wearing sunglasses. We nicknamed him The Welder.
Jaruzelski threatened force to counter unrest in the country. It was a Sunday. I went for a walk and met a friend coming off night shift at the coal mine. “We’re going on strike,” he told me.
I was part of the Solidarity movement. We stood, striking, against tanks and riot police. We had no weapons but the encouragement of people and the clandestine broadcasts we’d pick up from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. And, we had the church.
From boyhood I’d learned that, outside of underground political meetings, the Roman Catholic Church was the only place we could hear discussion of human dignity and labour rights. At the University of Kraków, where I studied mining engineering, Cardinal Wojtyla celebrated a mass for youth once a month. I went as often as I could. He told us, “Have no fear; be not afraid.”
When Wojtyla was acclaimed as Pope in 1978 and then returned on his first official visit to Poland, I saw something I’d never seen in my life: old Polish flags with the crown and eagle, flying from windows. The government had banned the flag yet people hid them since the end of the war. That’s when we truly learned not to be afraid.
After university I worked in the mines. Coal miners presumably had privileges other workers did not, though this would not be evident to most Canadians. Anybody who has never been in a Polish coal mine has no idea of the conditions. Some miners worked in a two-foot space, lying on their back, operating mining equipment for five to six hours a shift, with dust and dripping water. My first year in the mines, there were two terrible fires and explosions that took over a hundred lives. We had safety rules of course, but the unofficial policy was to extract as much coal as possible.
So, waves of strikes came and then martial law. The first days were very dark. Most people expected the Soviet military would come, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in ’68. Ronald Reagan said then the unrest in Poland “may be a watershed in the political history of mankind.” I remember when Lech Walesa came to the mines during the first wave of strikes that eventually brought the whole country to a standstill. He seemed strong and honest and unafraid. Occasionally Walesa spoke first and thought later, but he had integrity, and expressed what we felt.
Looking back, what I value most was this happened without more bloodshed. We were walking on dangerously thin ice. There were cool heads on both sides. But my wife Malgorzata and I had made our decision. We would leave Poland with no intention of returning.
I moved to Chicago in 1985. Malgorzata and the children, Marcin and Kinga, joined me when we came to Canada three years later.
Toda, I have a wish. I wish every young Canadian, at least once, will travel abroad to experience the many countries in the world where people do not have basic rights and human dignity. They will see how lucky we are to have this great country and realize this does not come as a gift that is given forever. We must always work together to protect it for future generations, because it can be lost.
(Editor’s note: the author is former president of the Canadian Polish Congress and ex-Conservative MP for Mississauga East-Cooksville, Ont. Mr. Lizon’s commentary was originally published November 23, 2014)