Polish Road to Freedom in Erazm Ciołek’s Lens

Polish History Museum

And I cry – I, who am a son of the land of Poland and who am also Pope John Paul II. I cry from all the depths of this Millennium, I cry on the vigil of Pentecost, I cry with you all: Let your Spirit descend!  Let your Spirit descend! And renew the face of the earth. The face of this land!

John Paul II, 2 June 1979 
Pope John Paul II celebrates his first papal mass in Warsaw, Erazm Ciołek, 1979-06-02, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Pope John Paul II celebrates his first papal mass in Warsaw, 2 June 1979

“In this scenery of growing chaos and disappointment, only a spark was needed to consolidate the mood of the people and to transform a little flame of disgruntlement into an open fire of demands for the reform of the system. In the opinion of many observers, that spark was provided by the visit of the Holy Father John Paul II to Poland in June 1979.”

Norman Davies, “God’s Playground. A History of Poland”
Gdańsk Shipyard’s Gate No. 2 during the strike, Erazm Ciołek, 1980-08-14, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
On 14 August 1980, in protest against the dismissal of a female worker activist - Anna Walentynowicz - a strike broke out in the Gdańsk Shipyard. In a gesture of solidarity with the shipyard workers, their families and regular residents of Gdańsk began assembling at the shipyard gate.

At the end of the 1970s, the social mood was deteriorating along with the deepening economic depression. In August 1980, a wave of strikes that commenced in the Gdańsk Shipyard rolled through Poland. The workers demanded primarily the right to establish trade unions that would not depend on the authorities. Other demands included higher wages and an increased supply of food products to the market.

Lech Wałęsa addresses the crowd gathered at the Gdańsk Shipyard, Erazm Ciołek, 1980-08, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
“I was taken aback, from the very beginning, by the manner in which those several thousands of workers on strike were behaving. (…) Drinking alcohol was totally unthinkable.  They were reprimanding each other when someone swore in the OSH Room, or when someone lit a cigarette. Very well-mannered. I saw a nation in the time of trial.” - Erazm Ciołek (1)

“I officially declare that if the authorities fail to stop arresting the activists of the Workers’ Defence Committee and other social organizations, there will be no negotiations whatsoever. They were cheating, are cheating, and want to continue cheating!”

Lech Wałęsa during the meeting of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee
The August Agreement was signed by the strike leader - Lech Wałęsa, and the deputy prime minister of the People’s Republic of Poland - Mieczysław Jagielski, in the Gdańsk Shipyard’s OSH Room. The Agreement offered, inter alia, the right to found authority-independent trade unions, and loosened censorship-related restrictions. 

“I would like to thank, once again, the Prime Minister and all the forces that have prevented a forceful solution to this conflict. I would like to thank you for allowing us to reach an agreement, like a Pole with a Pole.  Without the use of force”

Lech Wałęsa following the signature of the August Agreement in the Gdańsk Shipyard’s OSH Room
Lech Wałęsa announces the end of the Gdańsk Shipyard strike, Erazm Ciołek, 1980-08-31, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Immediately following the signature of the agreement between the inter-factory strike committee and the government of the People’s Republic of Poland, Lech Wałęsa addressed the workers gathered at gate No. 2 of the Gdańsk Shipyard and announced the end of the strike. 
Lech Wałęsa announces the end of the Gdańsk Shipyard strike, Erazm Ciołek, 1980-08-31, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Lech Wałęsa announces the end of the Gdańsk Shipyard strike
Tension, Erazm Ciołek, 1978/1989, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek

However, co-existence of the communist state and an independent trade union Solidarity was not possible. The tension in the country was mounting, and manifested itself in several serious incidents affecting the relations between Solidarity and the government of the People’s Republic of Poland.

A Warsaw roundabout blocked by the authorities, Erazm Ciołek, 1981-08-16, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Following the establishment of Solidarity, strikes and protests were one of the ways to fight the communist system. On 16 August 1981 Solidarity organized a convoy of trucks and buses that passed through downtown Warsaw, in protest against the difficulties in stocking shops with food products. The militia reacted by blocking the intersection of Aleje Jerozolimskie and Marszałkowska streets. 

The introduction of martial law in December 1981, saw many Solidarity activists arrested and imprisoned or interned. The public reacted by organizing itself to offer assistance to those in custody, and to their families. The Primate’s Committee was established to collect gifts, in churches, for those arrested and for their loved ones.

Packages for the interned, collected at St. Martin’s church, Erazm Ciołek, 1982-03, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
“When I arrived in Piwna Street the next day, I noticed a long line of people, standing there in front of the monastery’s gate, in freezing temperatures, holding gifts in their hands. They were bringing everything - clothes, washing powder, toothpaste and soap that were difficult to come by in the shops, food bought in exchange for coupons, and cigarettes. Money was offered as well. And medicines." - Ewa Krasińska (2)
A barricade in Warsaw’s Old Town district, Erazm Ciołek, 1982-05-03, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
On 3 May 1982, the Constitution Day that the communist authorities have never recognized and celebrated, many Polish cities became a scene of riots between the participants of illegal marches and the militia. In the photograph: a group of people erects a barricade in Warsaw’ Old Town district, to defend themselves from the attacks of militia’s special ZOMO forces.

Every opportunity was taken to manifest public disapproval of the martial law and the communist system. Thousands of those who attended the funeral of Grzegorz Przemyk - a high school student beaten by the militia to death - formed one of the largest manifestations of the time. Holly mass celebrations often served as an opportunity to manifest opposition-supporting views as well.  The Catholic church was one of the main sources of support for the opposition and provided it with locations for secret meetings. Many priests were threatened and repressed by the Secret Police. Jerzy Popiełuszko, a highly regarded chaplain of Solidarity, who had the ear of millions of Poles, was abducted and murdered by the Secret Police in 1984.

The funeral of Grzegorz Przemyk, Erazm Ciołek, 1983-05-19, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The funeral of Grzegorz Przemyk , which turned into a public manifestation against the regime, 19 May 1983.
The Funeral of Grzegorz Przemyk. Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko with Barbara Sadowska, Erazm Ciołek, 1983-05-19, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko, the legendary Solidarity chaplain with Barbara Sadowska, the mother of Grzegorz Przemyk.

“I called for total silence, and that was the biggest and the most meaningful manifestation of the residents of Warsaw. God, provide this suffering mother with enough strength, for she has accepted the blow in a truly heroic manner”.

rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko “Zapiski 1980-1984”
Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko, the legendary chaplain of Solidarity, Erazm Ciołek, 1984-08-26, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko, the legendary chaplain of Solidarity, was abducted and brutally murdered by the communist police officers in October 1984. 
The cassock of rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko, Erazm Ciołek, 1988, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
It was not until 1988 when the authorities returned to the Church the personal belongings of rev. Popiełuszko he had on him at the time of the murder.

Although the authorities had delegalized Solidarity, they were incapable of putting an end to the ever expanding conspiracy. Opposition circles continued to meet and discuss their options to expand the margin of freedom. As free discussions were not allowed in the public space, the meetings of independent activists were often held in private apartments.

Zbigniew Brzeziński meeting journalists in Poland, Erazm Ciołek, 1987-05-17, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The meeting of Zbigniew Brzeziński, the former aide to the U.S. President, with independent journalists in Anna Borkowska’s apartment. 
Zbigniew Brzeziński meeting journalists in Poland, Erazm Ciołek, 1987-05-17, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Zbigniew Brzeziński

"It is easy to forget today how mighty the Soviet Union had been, how self-confident the communist regime seemed, when you threw down the gauntlet in front of the entire world. Through solidarity to freedom! It was an act of incredible historic courage. It was a great mass uprising!”

prof. Zbigniew Brzeziński (3)

The subsequent visits of John Paul II to Poland that took place in 1983 and 1987 stirred the entire country. Papal masses were attended by hundreds of thousands of the faithful. The Pope restored the feeling of dignity and was lifting the spirit required to fight for freedom and independence.

John Paul II in Gdańsk, Erazm Ciołek, 1987-06-12, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The papal mass in the Gdańsk’s district of Zaspa, one of the masses celebrated by John Paul II in 1987.

“Struggle cannot be stronger than solidarity. (...) This is something I want to talk about, so let the Pope say it since he wants to speak about you and also in some sense speak for you.”

John Paul II during the service in Gdańsk-Zaspa

Perestroika in the Soviet Union, the deepening economic stagnation in Poland, the wave of strikes in 1988 and the adamant stance of the democratic opposition finally forced the authorities to commence talks with Solidarity. In preparation for the negotiations with the authorities, the opposition established the Citizens’ Committee made up of numerous Solidarity activists and long-term opposition leaders.

First meeting of the Citizens’ Committee, Erazm Ciołek, 1988-12-18, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The Citizens’ Committee at the Head of NSZZ “Solidarity” Lech Wałęsa became an informal organization ready to negotiate with the communist authorities. It was made up of numerous “Solidarity” members, and human rights activists.

“Communism is facing a situation that is totally beyond its control. It is forced, under a strong social pressure or in the wake of economic disasters, to introduce changes, even if these are not voluntary, even if they are forced”

Leszek Kołakowski (4) 
First meeting of the Citizens’ Committee, Erazm Ciołek, 1988-12-18, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The first meeting of the Citizens’ Committee at the Head of NSZZ “Solidarity” Lech Wałęsa was held at the Mercy of God Church in Żytnia Street in Warsaw. Pictured from the left, at the table: Andrzej Wielowieyski, Bronisław Geremek, Lech Wałęsa, Leszek Kołakowski (guest), Tadeusz Mazowiecki, at the bottom right: Gustaw Holoubek.
Citizens’ Committee session, Erazm Ciołek, 1988-12-18, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Citizens’ Committee session: Bronisław Geremek, Andrzej Stelmachowski, and Lech Wałęsa.

The primary objective of the Citizens' Committee was to convince the authorities to offer as many freedom- and democracy-oriented concessions as possible.

“The Round Table was a political event that took place in specific circumstances. (...) At that time, none of the parties was strong enough - a confrontation could have ended badly for either of them. Hence the decision about the attempt to reach a compromise. (...) At that time, at the turn of 1989, it was absolutely necessary to start talking. The only thing was that we were taking with usurpers. The only legitimacy of the communist authorities was many hundreds of kilometres to the east of Poland’s border. Should one talk with usurpers? In certain circumstances, yes. Sometimes it is necessary. And such a tactical agreement was necessary at that time.”

Lech Kaczyński, Presidential Palace, 6 February 2009
Government side at the Round Table, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-02-06, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Government side at the Round Table 

"We must not allow power to be taken over in Poland by reactionary forces. We have started a pioneering political experiment. The Party is willing to share its power, but in a wise manner.

Wojciech Jaruzelski  (5)
Round Table talks, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-02-06, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Round Table talks in Poland, 6 February - 5 April 1989
Solidarity representatives at the Round Table, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-04-05, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Solidarity representatives at the Round Table 

“We went there to reach an agreement that will enable the Polish society to commence the process of establishing democratic institutions. It is obvious that we are aiming to hold free and democratic elections”.

Jacek Kuroń (6)

"Whenever starting to read the thick book with the Round Table agreement, I always was laughing ironically, as the text is a combination of unthinkable political and economic nonsense; the only thing is that none of that really mattered at that time. The free elections, the parliament and the offensive that was awaiting us there were only things that really counted”

Jan Maria Rokita (7)

Under the Round Table agreement, the first, partially free parliamentary elections were held in Poland. Candidates that were not linked with the rulers, including Solidarity members, were allowed to take part as well. 65 per cent of the Sejm seats were reserved for the communists, but the Senate elections were completely free.

Election campaign in 1989, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-04-04, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek

“Memorize the names of the opposition candidates to the Sejm and the Senate, or write them down. Locate them on the voting sheets. Do not cross those names out. Cross out, one by one, all other names on all voting sheets. Deposit the sheets in the box. Remember: a good communist is one that has been crossed out”

From the voting manual published in the underground “Czas Solidarności” magazine
Lech Wałęsa and Jan Józef Lipski | Election Poster, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-05-11, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Lech Wałęsa and Jacek Kuroń | Election Poster, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-05-11, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Lech Wałęsa and Zbigniew Romaszewski | Election Poster, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-05-11, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek

“The election fever is gaining in strength. Solidarity is extremely active. (...) If we manage to survive these elections in one piece, it will be a true miracle”

Mieczysław F. Rakowski, Polish United Workers' Party (8)
Presentation of the Solidarity poster featuring Gary Cooper, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-04-04, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The election campaign of the “Solidarity” Citizens’ Committee relied on election posters picturing the individual candidates with Lech Wałęsa. This innovative idea taking advantage of Lech Wałęsa’s immense popularity has contributed to Solidarity’s final victory. All photographs were taken by Erazm Ciołek and Maciej Goliszewski during one meeting of the Solidarity candidates in Gdańsk. 

The election results came as a surprise both for the government and for the opposition. The opposition won all of the Sejm seats it had been awarded, and 99 out of 100 Senate seats.

“I spent the night of June 4th in Kraków. With two of my friends we were visiting the polling stations in the middle of the night, convincing the “Solidarity” representatives to provide us - in breach of the procedures - with information about the results. At about 2 am I knew we had taken it all. I called Krzysztof Kozłowski in the middle of the night, woke him up and said, in a semi-joking manner, that I would not be feeling safe to sleep at home if I were in his shoes. As there were only two options - either the communists would lose power in a cowardly and absurd manner, or - if they had the last traces of reason and courage - they would not publish the results of the election and would lock us up again. It was obvious that publication of such results would mean the end for them.”

Jan Maria Rokita (7)
First session of the Sejm of the 10th term, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-07-04, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The new Sejm of the People’s Republic of Poland was elected in 1989 in partially democratic elections. Solidarity won 161 seats - nearly all that were available to it in the free elections. It was the communist bloc’s first parliament with the participation of the opposition.
The first session of the Senate, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-07-04, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
The Senate was established in Poland pursuant to the Round Table agreements. Solidarity won 99 per cent of the Senate seats in the elections of July 4th.

“In 1989 we, the people of Solidarity, were marching to power with numerous, specific postulates. We wanted freedom, human rights, independence, democracy, a healthy economy, decent salaries, well provisioned shops, better healthcare and education, abandonment of censorship, a civic state, access to the media, the feeling of security and truth in the public life. But there was one word that described all of those collective dreams. The word “subjectivity”.  We wanted Poles to be able to decide about themselves”

Jacek Kuroń (9)
Round Table talks : Tadeusz Mazowiecki waiting for a call from Stanisław Ciosek, Erazm Ciołek, 1989-02-11, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek

On 24 August 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was appointed the first non-communist Prime Minister of Poland.

Lech Wałęsa taking the presidential oath, Erazm Ciołek, 1990-12-22, Original Source: Erazm Ciołek
Lech Wałęsa taking the presidential oath 

In December 1989, the Sejm renamed the country the “Republic of Poland” from the “People's Republic of Poland”. 

In 1990 Lech Wałęsa was elected  President of the 3rd Republic of Poland in the general presidential elections.



1 - Erazm Ciołek, in an interview for the “Na poważnie” magazine, July 2012

2 - Ewa Krasińska of the Primate's Committee in Aid of People Deprived of Freedom and their Families,, 13 December 2013, Gazeta Wyborcza, “We wanted to help the interned and their families right away”

3 - prof. Zbigniew Brzeziński, the former national security advisor to U.S. President Jimmy Carter  at the international “From Solidarity to Freedom” conference in Gdańsk, 31 August 2005

4 - Leszek Kołakowski at a meeting of the Citizens’ Committee at the Head of NSZZ “Solidarity” Lech Wałęsa, 18 December 1988

5 - Wojciech Jaruzelski at the meeting of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, 9 February 1989, explaining the reasons for which he decided to reach an agreement with the Solidarity opposition

6 - Jacek Kuroń in an interview for Radio Free Europe, 28 February 1989

7 - Jan Maria Rokita, “Jan Rokita. Anatomia przypadku”, Czerwone i Czarne 2013

8 - Mieczysław F. Rakowski, “Dzienniki”, 26 May 1989

9 - Jacek Kuroń, “Siedmiolatka, czyli kto ukradł Polskę?”, Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie 1997

Erazm Ciołek, Agata Ciołek, 1937/2012-11-13, Original Source: Agata Ciołek
Erazm Ciołek

ERAZM CIOŁEK – born in 1937 in Łódź, died on 13 November 2012 in Warsaw. Photographic artist, member of the Polish Association of Photographic Artists. Journalist, photo reporter, member of the Polish Journalists Association. Between 1965 and 1970, he worked for the Polish Press Agency and the Central Photographic Agency, and between 1971 and 1973, he was an employee of the “Polityka” weekly. In 1970 he established lasting ties with the artistic circles. In March 1968, he photographed students protesting in the Krakowskie Przedmieście street, in the vicinity of the University of Warsaw. Between 1980 and 1992, he completely devoted his professional career to documenting the activities of Solidarity. In August 1980, along with Stefan Starczewski, an opposition activist, he went to the striking Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. They were allowed to enter the shipyard’s premises thanks to a guarantee offered by Jacek Kuroń.  Ciołek was free to document the course of the strike and the signing of the August Agreement. Following the end of the strike, in September 1980, his photographs from the Shipyard strike were displayed publically for the first time (inter alia, in the Warsaw headquarters of the Polish Journalists Association). Ciołek was also the first Polish photographer to depict the murky world of drug addicts.  He spent some time living with them, and in November 1981 his “Narkomani” (Drug Addicts) exhibition was presented in Warsaw, drawing attention to the existence of this phenomenon in the Peoples Republic of Poland. Between 1981 and 1989, he photographed and participated in the struggle of the people of Solidarity’s underground. He won the trust of Solidarity and participated, very often as the only photographer, in the meetings at which the Polish statehood was being forged.  He was an active member of the Independent Culture Movement, displayed his works in illegal exhibitions and published them in underground press. Ciołek photographed numerous events, concerts and uncensored exhibitions of independent artists of the 1980s. Between 1984 and 1989, he was a member of the editorial team of the underground “Przegląd Wiadomości Agencyjnych” magazine. Erazm Ciołek was the co-founder of the photography service of Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza NOWA. Appointed by rev. Jerzy Popiełuszko his personal photographer, he participated, without any restrictions, in the rich religious, and, in particular, social life of the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Warsaw. He photographed the Round Table talks (6 February - 4 April 1989) as a reporter of the Citizens’ Committee to Leach Wałęsa. Prior to the parliamentary elections of 4 June 1989, Erazm Ciołek (along with Maciej Goliszewski) took a famous series of election poster shots.  The shots presented Solidarity’s MP candidates standing next to Lech Wałęsa. In the 1990s, Ciołek returned to artistic photography.

Credits: Story

Authors — Jerzy Morawski, Dorota Szkodzińska
Photos — Erazm Ciołek

Credits: All media
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