I am in Gdansk doing penance for my youth.
In the summer of 1980, I was a 25-year-old copy editor at The Boston Globe. In my defense, let me say that I was very young and knew nothing about the world, though of course I thought I knew everything. One night in August, as I reported to the national/foreign desk for a 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. shift — bad enough in itself — the copy chief, Hamish Robertson, assigned me to be the Poland editor for the evening. Shipyard workers there were on strike, and for some reason people thought that was a pretty big deal. That night I edited seven stories about Poland. “Nobody’s going to read seven stories about Poland,” I grumbled to myself. “Who cares about Poland?”
As it turns out, I do.
After finishing my three-week summer course in Wroclaw, I traveled to Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, mainly because I hadn’t been there before and had just enough time. Its Stare Miasto (Old Town) is historic and charming, filled with amber and marinas and appreciation of the city’s maritime heritage. To the north, less charming but no less historic, are the shipyards.
Even without the STOCZNIA GDANSKA sign (the LENIN is now gone) visible from a nearby highway, the shipyards would be hard to miss. Their giant cranes loom over the city and have become one of its symbols, gracing countless T-shirts and mugs. I found my first sight of them from a tour bus unexpectedly exciting; in 2017 terms, this was the Room Where It Happened.
Since I first taught in Wroclaw 10 years ago, I’ve tried to learn more about Poland whenever I could. (And really, Americans, how much do you know?) This summer’s international film festival in Wroclaw helpfully prepped me for my visit to Gdansk. The open-air screenings on the Rynek, or market square, included Andrzej Wayda’s “Man of Iron,” a drama about the 1980 shipyard strikes, and “Robotnicy ’80,” a documentary on the negotiations to resolve them. I sat through nearly three bone-chilling hours of “Man of Iron” but had to leave midway through “Robotnicy”; when I Googled it to see how I might somehow finish it, I found a 1982 review by my old colleague Vincent Canby, which noted that the Public Theater in New York would be showing the film free every Saturday and Sunday afternoon indefinitely. The Lutheran evangelical center where I stayed had a couple of very attractive Solidarity mugs in the kitchen, and I toyed with the idea of liberating one but figured my Lutheran mother would strike me dead. Anyway, if I really wanted one, there were probably some for sale in Gdansk.
And there were, in the gift shop at the European Solidarity Center. Surely the workers who founded Solidarinosc could never have envisioned the museum that now stands a block or two from the shipyards. The complex is a rust-colored hulk, inside and out, and touring it is like being inside a Richard Serra sculpture, only much, much bigger. Its ground floor has an atrium with wines climbing the walls, an auditorium, galleries for temporary exhibitions (currently — no surprise — one on amber), play space for children, a restaurant, a cafe and that gift shop. It’s slick, no question, but it does tell the story.
The seven halls of permanent exhibitions walk visitors (carrying audioguides in their choice of languages) through the strikes and their meaning in Polish history, and the world’s. The first gallery sets the stage, explaining what triggered the strikes: the firing (just before retirement age — sound familiar, boomers?) of Anna Walentynowicz, a diminutive woman who had worked 32 years at the shipyard but belonged to a frowned-upon organization. (Among the exhibits is the cab of a crane like the one she inhabited.) The next tells the backstory, the history of Soviet repression dating back to the end of World War II. The third — a gallery of curving white walls on a red floor, which spells out Solidarinosc on the mirrored ceiling — examines the new freedom in Polish culture (not least Wajda’s Palme d’Or for “Man of Iron”); the fourth, its repression under martial law in 1981 — chilling to those of us who, suddenly, can imagine martial law in the United States.
After four galleries I was already exhausted. Luckily, the three remaining galleries are more conceptual than informative, ending in a room for contemplating those who have fought in the name of peace. Throughout, the faces of two men appear time and time again: Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II.
Being a 21st-century museum, the center is filled with screens and other high-tech gadgets, some of which work better than others. (The screens can be toggled between Polish and English, but on many of them the English did not display. I, for one, would have liked to hear about how the Solidarinosc logo was designed.) Some seem to offer too much information, but visitors may choose to consume as much or as little as they want. Newspapers displayed in the world reaction sections did not include The Boston Globe, sparing me from having to confront the work of my callow self.
In the second-last gallery, a light-up wall map shows the dissolution of the Eastern Block (sic — one of those errors spellcheck won’t catch) as, one by one, pink nations turn white. I noted with pleasure that Poland was the first to change. In 2015 elections, Poland became the first Western country to turn right-wing “populist.” When friends feel compelled to remind me, “You know, Poland has a very conservative government,” I simply smile and say I hope Poland will also be the first to change when that particular pendulum swings back.
The Gdansk shipyards are mostly inactive now. Taking a break before seeing Agnieszka Holland’s 1981 film “Kobieta Samotna” (“A Woman Alone,” set partly in Wroclaw) in the auditorium, part of the 2017 Solidarity of Arts festival, I strolled as close as I could to the shipyard. Though just a block or two from the Solidarity center, it’s a ramshackle district, largely deserted at dusk. Looking across the highway at the mammoth brick buildings, I could see them repurposed as, say, a tech complex, the world’s largest live/work space for artists or, worst-case scenario, more shopping malls.
As for Anna Walentynowicz, she entered my world when she died in the 2010 plane crash in Russia that wiped out half of Poland’s leadership. I often use the crash story as an exercise in classic news writing format. From clueless beginner, I’ve evolved into a dispenser of journalistic wisdom. OK, Poland, I get it now.