‘We just wanted to be with them …’ The Workers’ Defence Committee and the Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’ (1976-1981)

The Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) was
one of the most important initiatives opposing the Communist regimes in Poland
and Central-Eastern Europe. Its activities in the 1970s triggered the processes
of social change which led to the establishment of Solidarity in 1980.

The First Secretary of the Party Central Committee, Edward Gierek, visits a newly opened sugar refinery in Łapy, December 1974 (1976-05-27) by Zbigniew MatuszewskiOriginal Source: PAP

The 1970s in Poland

The replacement of the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) in December 1970 raised hopes for change amongst Poles; hopes that were, however, soon to prove illusory.

Edward Gierek speaks to shipyard workers. Gdańsk, 25 January 1971. (1976-05-24) by Janusz UklejewskiOriginal Source: PAP

Fragment przemówienia do stoczniowców

The shooting of workers in the coastal cities of Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg and Szczecin in December 1970 led to political changes in the upper echelons of the Communist government. Władysław Gomułka left under a cloud and was replaced by the energetic, dynamic Edward Gierek. Many Poles welcomed this change with hope, and the new Party leader, with some experience of the wider world, a knowledge of French and a relatively easy-going manner, soon gained the confidence of many citizens.

His simple, direct, unstudied way of communicating was also appreciated. His official visits to numerous factories around the country were part of a propaganda campaign aimed at creating an image of a leader known for ‘wise and careful husbandry’. In a famous speech to Gdańsk shipyard workers in January 1971 he outlined his basic plans: ‘… to develop our country, to strengthen socialism, to improve the living conditions of working people.’

Edward Gierek meets women invited to the Party Central Committee premises to celebrate Women’s Day, 8th March 1974 (1974-03-08) by Jan MorekOriginal Source: PAP

In the 1970s the Party raised hope among the citizens that their needs as consumers might come to be satisfied – all of course within the limits of a socialist state. The opening towards the West - evidenced in easier access to passports and increased freedom to travel, as well as the presence of Western European films in the cinemas and on television, and the famous colourful advertisements for Coca-cola – all this was a propagandist safety valve.

The inhabitants of the PRL were to attend to their individual prosperity rather than to engage in politics or demand an extension of civil liberties. The farthest reach of their aspirations had to be a mini-Fiat, or a holiday in Bulgaria or maybe a new set of furniture. The slogan ‘May Poland grow ever stronger and the people ever more prosperous,’ from a speech made by Edward Gierek at the IX Plenary Session of the Party Central Committee on the 4th of September 1971 became the economic mantra of real socialism.

Queuing in front of a food shop in Warsaw, August 1970 (1970-08-01) by MorozOriginal Source: PAP

Towards the end of the 1960s Poland’s per capita gross national product was 50 per cent lower than that of Eastern Germany. The country was backward and poor. But as a result of certain economic decisions - increasing wages for the lowest earners, freezing prices for several years, abolishing obligatory supply quotas from farmers while raising the price at which the state bought meat from them – Polish standards of living improved significantly. According to official statistics, wages rose by over 50 per cent in the years 1970-1975.

The increased consumption of the years 1971-1974 was, however, made possible only thanks to loans from Western European banks. From an economic point of view the scale of the borrowing was frightening, and living on credit in this way had to end badly; the first sign of the impending disaster was the dramatic increase in the price of basic foods that was announced in 1976.

Workers demonstrate in front of the Radom Voivodship Party Committee (1976-06-26) by -Original Source: PAP

Radom – Ursus – Płock: Anatomy of the protest

The strongest protests broke out in the industrial centres in Radom, Ursus and Płock. Workers took to the streets to show their opposition to the steep price hikes. 

‘Proposed changes in the structure of retail prices’ – news of the price increase in the official press. ‘Głos Wybrzeża. Dziennik Polskiej Zjednoczonej Partii Robotniczej’, no 11 (8760) (1976-05-29)Polish History Museum

In the evening of the 24th of June 1976, Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz, speaking in parliament, presented the main points of the proposed ‘changes in the structure of prices’. This economic manoeuvre involved a price increase combined with certain compensation payments. The resultant burden on consumers was, however, significant. Meat and processed meat as well as fish were to cost on average between 69 and 110 per cent more; the price of sugar went up by 90 per cent, and that of butter and cheese - by 60 per cent. The compensation system was extremely unfair, favouring as it did the highest earners. The move was widely perceived as another step in an ongoing process of privileging the communist ‘nomenklatura,’ while at the same time it signalled the end of any dreams for a better, more prosperous life.

Protesters in Żeromskiego street in Radom, 25 June 1976 (1976-06-25) by Instytut Pamięci NarodowejOriginal Source: BU_388_16_T7_0023

The day after the price hikes were announced workers’ protests and strikes took place in several cities in Poland, including Gdańsk, Szczecin, Elbląg and Łódź. The number of strikers is estimated today at about 80 thousand. The strongest protests took place in Radom, Ursus and Płock – towns with large factories.

During the first phase of the protest in Radom, begun by employees of the Predom-Łucznik munitions factory, a crowd of five thousand people took to the streets. The workers, joined by protesters from other, smaller factories, made for the building of the Voivodship Party Committee, demanding cancellation of the price rises and the opportunity to negotiate with the local authorities.

Kiosk in Radom on fire (1976-05-29) by -Original Source: PAP

By the afternoon the protest had swollen to about 25 thousand participants. The crowd grew impatient, suspecting the authorities of stalling. The protesters rejected an offer of ‘public consultations’ made by the authorities, and again demanded that the price rises be cancelled. The slogans chanted grew bolder; Party cards were burned; and when the demonstrators discovered that the Party officials had secretly left the building, they started demolishing it and finally set it on fire. The unrest reached boiling point.

Barricades were erected in the streets, cars were burned, stones were thrown at the voivodship police headquarters. The authorities brought in reinforcements in the form of the ZOMO, riot police from Warsaw, Łódź, Lublin and Kielce. A regular battle between government forces and protesting workers ensued.

Workers on strike in Ursus block an international railway line. 25 June 1976. by Instytut Pamięci NarodowejOriginal Source: IPN Lu 0374/29

The protest in the tractor factory Ursus developed in a less dramatic way. On the morning of the 25th of June 1976 nearly all the workers - more than ten thousand – went on strike. The protesters blocked the railway tracks to stop the movement of trains and to make their protest known to the general public.

Workers on strike in Ursus block an international railway line by IPNOriginal Source: IPN LU 0374/29

The workers remained calm and non-violent at first; in the afternoon, as resentment grew, they dismantled part of the tracks and pushed a locomotive off the rails. At that point ZOMO units stepped in to suppress the protest.

A police unit prepares to attack demonstrators, Radom, 25 June 1976 by Instytut Pamięci NarodowejOriginal Source: bu 388_16_T6_0055

The authorities, although they had expected some response to the price rises, did not foresee the scale and form of these June protests. Party leaders, terrified by the vision of anti-government and anti-Party protests spreading to the whole country, backed away from the ‘price manoeuvre’, as it was called in official propaganda, causing frustration and a sense of humiliation in the Party.

In a conversation with Radom Voivodship Party Secretary Janusz Prokopiak, Edward Gierek shouted: ‘You allow such a brawl and you expect us to treat it leniently? These people are nothing but hooligans! I’ll remember what they’ve done!’ And, unhappily, the First Secretary was to keep his word on this.

Stanisław Kowalski talks about police brutality against arrested workers and other participants in the June protest.Polish History Museum

The scale of the reprisals directed against workers and other real or supposed participants in the Radom and Ursus protests was considerable. All those who had been arrested were repeatedly beaten, tortured or otherwise mistreated. A notorious form of torture was the so-called ‘fitness trail’, which involved forcing prisoners to walk or run between two lines of policemen with batons, who beat them. During interrogation, verbal abuse, beating and other forms of torture were used to force confessions. It is estimated that over the whole country more than 1000 people were arrested. Radom, Ursus and Płock had been brutally pacified.

Film: Stanisław Kowalski talks about police brutality against arrested workers and other participants in the June protest.

Members and supporters of the Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’ meet in Jacek Kuroń’s flat at Number 27, Mickiewicza, flat 64 in Żoliborz, January 1980 (1980) by Tomasz MichalakOriginal Source: PAP

Roots and Beginnings

The Workers’ Defence Committee was the first action that would in time make it possible to overcome the isolation, tacitly engineered by the Communist regime, of different social groups. It was the beginning of the end for the system.

Stanisław Stomma, the only member of parliament who abstained from voting on amendments to the Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic. Warsaw, 10 February 1976 (1976-05-29) by Cezary SłomińskiPolish History Museum

Between December 1970 and June 1976 initiatives opposing diktats by the Communist Party tended to emerge in, and remain limited to, specific groups or milieus. Despite this, the period can be seen as laboratory in which forms of social cooperation were developed. Among the most important dissident initiatives of the years 1970-1976 the so-called ‘Letter of 59’ must be mentioned, demanding the abolition of censorship, the right for workers to organise in independent trade unions, autonomy for institutions of higher education, free parliamentary elections, and independence of the judiciary.

It was followed by the ‘Letter of 101,’ which opposed planned changes to the Polish constitution: clauses guaranteeing the ‘leading role of the Party’ and making civil rights and liberties contingent upon the fulfilment of civic obligations. An amendment that was to make a lasting alliance with the Soviet Union part of the Constitution also provoked dissent. At the same time, the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (known as the Helsinki Accords), signed in Helsinki on the 1st of August 1975, provided the basis for cooperation between human rights groups within Europe. The so-called ‘Basket III’ contained provisions regarding cooperation among signatory states in matters of human rights and fundamental liberties. Dissident groups in Poland demanded that these provisions of the Helsinki Accords be respected.

Piotr Naimski talks about the milieu of the ‘Czarna Jedynka’ Scout troopPolish History Museum

The core of the future Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) came from three distinct groups that opposed the regime.
One was ‘Gromada Włóczęgów’ (the Rover Crew), a group of adult Scout leaders of the 1st Warsaw Scout Troop, known as ‘Czarna Jedynka’ (‘Black One’) from the colour of their neckerchiefs. Their Scout training, which involved tasks such as finding and interviewing veterans of Freedom and Independence (a post-WWII underground anti-communist organisation), combined with a traditional patriotic and civic education, turned out to be good preparation for later underground activites in KOR. Antoni Macierewicz, Piotr Naimski, Wojciech Onyszkiewicz, Ludwik Dorn, Marcin Gugulski, Wojciech Fałkowski were among those connected with this ‘Czarna Jedynka’ Scout troop.
Direct action with practical help for persecuted Ursus workers started as early as July 1976, before the Committee was formally established.

Film: Piotr Naimski talks about the milieu of the ‘Czarna Jedynka’ Scout troop

Henryk Wujec talks about the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia milieu.Polish History Museum

Another anti-regime circle was the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK) in Warsaw. Its young members included Henryk and Ludwika Wujec, Wojciech Arkuszewski, Jan Tomasz Lipski, Wojciech Ostrowski, Krzysztof Śliwiński and Kazimierz Wóycicki. They used to meet in the Dominican monastery in Freta street, under the spiritual guidance of Father Jacek Salij. The wider milieu also included members of the Catholic student group. Those young Catholics met to debate moral and social questions; they also undertook activities such as voluntary maintenance work in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw. The seminar format adopted for their meetings brought them into contact with the third group, which had its roots in the events of March 1968.

Film: Henryk Wujec talks about the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia milieu.

Jan Lityński talks about the post-March 1968 milieuPolish History Museum

The third of the groups which came together to form KOR were the people sometimes referred to as ‘komandosi’ (‘the commandos’), grouped around Jacek Kuroń. Those were people whose first political experience had been that of March 1968: Adam Michnik, Jan Lityński, Seweryn Blumsztajn, Barbara Toruńczyk. Those who had emigrated after the March events also played an important role: the brothers Aleksander and Eugeniusz Smolar published the quarterly ‘Aneks’, first in Uppsala, and then in London. ‘Komandosi’ met at private seminars in the members’ homes, discussed the political situation, exchanged books published outside Poland, and sought contact with dissident groups in other Communist countries.

Film: Jan Lityński talks about the post-March 1968 milieu.

Extract from the ‘Information Bulletin', Current Affairs’, no 12, June 1977: ‘In Defence of the imprisoned’ (1977-06-01)Polish History Museum

KOR: Range of activities

The reprisals directed against workers shocked the various dissident circles and in a certain sense forced them to respond. One year after the June 1976 events the government declared an amnesty, which can be seen as an achievement of the anti-regime movement. 

PROjekt hardKOR (2011)Polish History Museum

Anti-regime groups began to organise help for workers as early as July and August 1976. Contact with the workers’ families was made during the Ursus trials: activists obtained the addresses of those who had been arrested and sentenced, collected money for their families, offered legal help. In July Scouts from the ‘Czarna Jedynka’ troop travelled to Ursus with aid. At the same time, Mirosław Chojecki, Zofia and Zbigniew Romaszewki, Andrzej Rosner, Krystyna and Stefan Starczewski and others made similar trips to Radom. The eminent barristers Jan Olszewski, Władysław Siła-Nowicki, Stanisław Szczuka and Witold Lis-Olszewski defended the arrested workers pro bono. The scale and complexity of the aid had no precedent in the history of Communist Poland: the barriers created by fear and social isolation, assiduously preserved by the regime, were gradually beginning to disappear.

The beginnings of the future Workers’ Defence CommitteePolish History Museum

The Służba Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service) realised relatively soon that the workers had not been left to their own devices, and those helping them began to come under harassment. It became necessary then to create some form of protection for the intellectuals who were supporting the workers. It was for this reason, out of necessity, that the Workers’ Defence Committee was officially established on the 23rd of September 1976. Antoni Macierewicz came up with the name. The founding document, the Appeal to the Society and Authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland, was signed by fourteen members: Jerzy Andrzejewski, Stanisław Barańczak, Ludwik Cohn, Jacek Kuroń, Edward Lipiński, Jan Józef Lipski, Antoni Macierewicz, Piotr Naimski, Antoni Pajdak, Józef Rybicki, Aniela Steinsbergowa, Adam Szczypiorski, Father Jan Zieja and Wojciech Ziembiński.

Film: The beginnings of the future Workers’ Defence Committee.

Jan Józef Lipski by Tomasz MichalakPolish History Museum

A protective umbrella to shield the young members and collaborators of KOR was provided by the so-called ‘elderly ladies and gentlemen’; these were eminent social and political activists who, due to their personal and moral authority as well as their international recognition internationally, were less vulnerable to direct reprisals. They included Aniela Steinsbergowa, defence lawyer in certain pre-1939 political trials as well as in the PRL; the economist and socialist Edward Lipiński; Józef Rybicki, WWII commander of the Home Army sabotage units in Warsaw; Ludwik Cohn, lawyer and lifelong socialist activist; Jan Zieja, Catholic priest and chaplain of the ‘Grey Ranks’ (Szare Szeregi) - the underground paramilitary Scouting organisation of World War II; Antoni Pajdak, lawyer, independence fighter and socialist activist, sentenced in the so-called Trial of the Sixteen in Moscow in 1945; Wacław Zawadzki, historian and bibliophile, and a political prisoner before World War I. One of the most influential founder members of KOR was Jan Józef Lipski, Polish language and literature specialist and Home Army veteran.

Ludwik Cohn, Tomasz Michalak, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Ludwik Cohn, lawyer and lifelong socialist activist.

Aniela Steinsbergowa, Tomasz Michalak, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Aniela Steinsbergowa, defence lawyer in certain pre-1939 political trials as well as in the PRL.

Antoni Pajdak, Tomasz Michalak, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Antoni Pajdak, lawyer, independence fighter and socialist activist, sentenced in the so-called Trial of the Sixteen in Moscow in 1945.

Edward Lipiński, Irena Jarosińska, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Edward Lipiński, economist and socialist.

Józef Rybicki, Tomasz Michalak, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Józef Rybicki, WWII commander of the Home Army sabotage units in Warsaw.

ksiądz Jan Zieja, Tomasz Michala, From the collection of: Polish History Museum
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Jan Zieja – ksiądz katolicki, kapelan „Szarych Szeregów”.

Zofia Sadowska talks about living conditions in Radom by -Polish History Museum

The nature of the Ursus and Radom trials as well as general the scale of open reprisals directed against workers who had taken part in the protests prompted many to become involved in helping the victims. Even the presence of friendly observers in the courtrooms counted. Such observers were, however, themselves often subjected to various forms of harassment. The workers and their families were offered financial, legal and medical aid, and even practical help in such everyday matters as buying and shovelling coal for the winter. Thanks to their trips to Radom and Ursus, members of the Warsaw intelligentsia became acquainted at first hand with the living conditions of the working class. The extreme poverty they encountered came as a shock to many.

Film: Zofia Sadowska, who took part in the protest in Radom on the 25th of June 1976, talks about living conditions in Radom.

KOR Bulletin’, an underground magazine which brought information on arrests, beatings, interrogations and verdicts, as well as on the help given to victimsPolish History Museum

One of the chief aims of KOR was to gather information about the persecution suffered by the workers. Jacek Kuroń’s private phone number was known to virtually every dissident in Poland. All information was recorded in a KOR ‘log’, and violations of human rights were being publicised through contact with western journalists as well as in the underground ‘KOR Bulletins’.

The editorial board of the Bulletins consisted of Jacek Kuroń, Jan Józef Lipski, Antoni Macierewicz, Piotr Naimski and Wojciech Ziembiński. The texts, typed in up ten copies at a time using carbon paper, contained information about arrests, beatings, interrogation methods and verdicts, as well as about the help offered to the persecuted. The dry, matter-of-fact language of the ‘Bulletins’ was modelled on that of the ‘Chronicle of Current Events’ published by Russian dissidents.

Representatives of KOR and Charter 77 meet on mount Śnieżka, on the Czech-Polish border, in the summer of 1978. From left: Marta Kubišová, Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuroń, Antoni Macierewicz, Jan Lityński. (1978-05-31)Original Source: PAP

Western media soon learned of the activities of KOR. Adam Michnik, who was abroad until May 1977, kept European intellectual circles informed of the Committee’s activities, and Polish political emigrés in the United Kingdom, France, Canada, the USA, Germany, Belgium and Austria also became involved. On the initiative of the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, the ‘Appeal in Support of Polish Workers’ was proclaimed, which provided an institutional framework for funds to be collected to support KOR and the growing independent publishing movement. Panel discussions and seminars were organised.

On the 9th of December 1976 in London, Leszek Kołakowski, Włodzimierz Brus and Adam Michnik held a press conference to present KOR to the international media. Contacts with dissidents from other Eastern bloc countries were also crucial, in particular with the signatories of the Czecho-Slovak Charter 77. This cooperation inspired what became one of Václav Havel’s best-known political essays, ‘The Power of the Powerless.’

The title page of the first issue of the magazine ‘Głos’ (1977). (1977-05-30)Polish History Museum

The Workers’ Defence Committee was never an ideologically uniform group. On the contrary, it was only the shared goals that enabled cooperation among people who were divided by deep ideological and political differences. Those differences are can be seen in the debates and conflicts that occurred within KOR. One example is the controversy concerning Jacek Kuroń’s views on the ‘finlandisation’ of Poland. Kuroń envisaged Poland gaining a status similar to that of Finland – a parliamentary democracy with limited sovereignty, respecting the international interests of the USSR – as a step on the way to independence.

The group around Antoni Macierewicz opposed such ideas, as well as visions of a compromise with the reformers in the Communist Party, as proposed by Adam Michnik in an article submitted for publication in ‘Głos’, one of the first underground magazines. As a result of the latter controversy, some members of the ‘Głos’ editorial board left and established the magazine ‘Krytyka’.

The 19 July 1977 amnesty decree Dz.U. 1977 nr 24 poz. 102 (1977-07-22)Polish History Museum

KOR members were subjected to wearying harassment: arrest and detention for 48-hour periods, searches, anonymous letters, dead phone calls, often in the middle of the night, and ‘spontaneous visits’ from attackers claiming to be ‘worker activists’. Despite such treatment, they continued to pursue the aims described in their founding declaration: to bring help to workers persecuted after the June events.

At the same time, the question of future forms of activity and initiatives, such as the development of independent publishing, was already on the horizon. The immediate and most important goal of the Workers’ Defence Committee was, however, achieved when all the arrested workers were released under an amnesty declared on the 22nd of July 1977.

Members and supporters of CSS ‘KOR’ meet in Jacek Kuroń’s flat, January 1980. From left:: Jan Józef Lipski, Adam Michnik, Stefan Starczewski, Marek Beylin, Rafał Zakrzewski, Sergiusz Kowalski. (1980-01-01) by Tomasz MichalakOriginal Source: FotoNova

The Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’ 

The transformation of the Workers’ Defence Committee into the Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’ was a sign of the consolidation of different dissident groups in Poland, as well as of a toughening attitude on the part of the authorities, and in particular of the Security Service, towards those groups. 

The funeral of Stanisław Pyjas (1977-05-15) by Maciej SochorOriginal Source: PAP

Members and sympathisers of KOR all agree that one of the key moments in the development of real consciousness within the democratic movement in Poland came with the death of Stanisław Pyjas, a student of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and a KOR supporter, who was killed on the night of the 6th of May 1977. His death has been linked to the activities of the Security Service, with the Communist regime thereby demonstrating that it was possible to get killed for anti-regime views and political activity alone.

The ‘Black March’ in Cracow, 15 May 1977 (1978-05-15) by Stanisław MarkowskiOriginal Source: PAP

Four days after Pyjas’s funeral, on the 15th of May 1977, a silent demonstration took place – the so-called Black March, which KOR had prepared very thoroughly: by the 13th of May hundreds of leaflets had been handed out, appealing to students to boycott the Iuvenalia festival, and several thousand notices announcing Pyjas’s death and the time of his funeral had been posted on walls. KOR members who had intended to take part in the march were however detained by the security police. These events led to the establishment of the Student Committee of Solidarity in Kraków.

Extract from the ‘Information Bulletin', Current Affairs’, no 12, June 1977: ‘In Defence of the imprisoned’ (1977-06-01)Polish History Museum

In an attempt to curtail opposition, in May 1977 the police arrested several KOR activists. KOR continued its work. A hunger strike was organised in St Martin’s Church in Warsaw from the 24th to the 31st of May 1977 in solidarity with the arrested activists and the workers who still remained in prison.

Artists and writers protested; official petitions were directed to the parliament and the cabinet. The May arrests were noticed abroad, with US President Jimmy Carter speaking in Congress of the need to maintain respect for human rights within Poland. Russian dissidents issued an appeal. Protests came from various quarters in France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. Under pressure, the Polish government declared an amnesty, under which the last of the Radom workers still in prison, as well as the KOR activists, were released.

Declaration of the Democratic Movement’ in ‘Głos’ no 1 Declaration of the Democratic Movement’ in ‘Głos’ no 1 (1977/1977)Polish History Museum

Despite internal disputes about future forms of activity, on the 29th of September 1977 the Workers’ Defence Committee announced its transformation into the Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’. The main aims of the ‘new’ organisation were: to fight political, religious and ideological persecution; to oppose breaches of the law; to provide help for the persecuted; to strive to safeguard civil liberties; to support all initiatives aimed at defending human and civil rights. In October 1977 the ‘Declaration of the Democratic Movement’ was issued. The democratic opposition in Poland had begun a new stage in its history.

KOR Bulletin’, an underground magazine which brought information on arrests, beatings, interrogations and verdicts, as well as on the help given to victimsPolish History Museum

A model for dissident activity in Communist

The activities of the Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’ – independent publishing, documenting human rights violations perpetrated by the regime, educational initiatives, civic self-organisation – became a model for dissident activity in the years to come.

Zbigniew Romaszewski (1981/1981) by Tomasz MichalakPolish History Museum

The CSS ‘KOR’ Intervention Bureau, established in May 1977 and run by Zofia and Zbigniew Romaszewski, continued the work of KOR in gathering and recording information about human rights violations, and in organising help for victims. It offered assistance, including financial and legal help, to people who had been persecuted or harassed by the police and other authorities, as well as help to those who had been unjustly dismissed from their work or were in other difficult situations. Its routines involved travelling to places where abuse had been reported, interviewing those affected, keeping records of all the cases, and producing leaflets to inform the public of these things. It was a wearying, non-spectacular work, but a work of the most fundamental importance.

Clandestine printing office (1980-07) by Tomasz MichalakOriginal Source: Tomasz Michalak/FOTONOVA

One of the greatest achievements of Polish dissidents was the creation of an independent publishing movement. It offered a way of circumventing the omnipresent censorship; providing access to information and freely-expressed opinion; and restoring to the public domain the work of many forbidden writers.

All of this was made possible by the efforts of underground publishers, editors, translators, printers, book folders, bookbinders, and distributors. Publications included independent magazines (‘Biuletyn Informacyjny’, ‘Robotnik’, ‘Głos’, ‘Krytyka’, ‘Zapis’, ‘Puls’, ‘Spotkania’) as well as books, for most of which the underground edition was the only form in which they were available. The largest of the publishers was the Independent Publishing Office, NOW-a (Niezależna Oficyna Wydawnicza), run by Mirosław Chojecki.

Edward Lipiński by Irena JarosińskaPolish History Museum

November 1977 saw the launch of the so-called ‘Flying University’ in Warsaw – a series of independent lectures and seminars on topics banned by state censorship. The activities were coordinated by Andrzej Celiński. The lecturers included both well-known academics as well as those who were making their debut; among them were Władysław Bartoszewski, Tomasz Burek, Bohdan Cywiński, Jerzy Jedlicki, Adam Michnik, Jan Strzelecki. The sessions were often interrupted by groups of young Party activists, who beat the participants. Shortly after the Flying University had started, the Society for Academic Courses (Towarzystwo Kursów Naukowych, TKN) came into being on the 22nd of January 1978.

This second self-education initiative was also created by a mix of well-established intellectuals and young academics linked to dissident groups. The founding declaration of TKN was signed by several dozen people, including a number of university and Polish Academy of Science professors. Bronisław Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki were both members of its academic board. According to estimates made by Jan Józef Lipski, in total about a thousand participants attended the sessions. The Security Service considered the Society for Academic Courses to be a particularly dangerous phenomenon, being outside, as it was, of the control of the government and Party apparatus.

Documents connected with the work of the underground activist Kazimierz Świtoń, founder of the Free Trade Unions in Upper Silesia The documents have been presented by his widow Dorota Świtoń to the Institute of National Remembrance archive in KatowicePolish History Museum

Of all the actions that were made possible by the activities of CSS ‘KOR’, the one with the most far-reaching results was the establishment of Free Trade Unions. The first of these were the Free Trade Unions of Upper Silesia, started by Kazimierz Świtoń. Soon afterwards, on the 29th of April 1978, the Founding Committee for Free Trade Unions for the Coast was formed by Andrzej Gwiazda, Krzysztof Wyszkowski and Antoni Sokołowski.

The aim of the Free Trade Unions was to defend the rights of workers and citizens, and their activities would later lead to the strikes of the summer of 1980, which ultimately resulted in to the formation of ‘Solidarity’. Free Trade Union activists included Bogdan Borusewicz, Lech Kaczyński, Bogdan Lis, Alina Pieńkowska, Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa.

The wall of the Gdańsk shipyard adjoining Jana z Kolna street during the August 1980 strike (1980-08-01)Polish History Museum

The Swell of Solidarity

The quiet hot days of early summer 1980 hardly seemed to presage any momentous change. Then, in the middle of August, the history of Poland changed its course.

Gdańsk Shipyard during the strike in August 1980Original Source: Tomasz Michalak/FOTONOVA

The strike in the Gdańsk Shipyard started on the 14th of August 1980 and was called by the Free Trade Unions of the Coast. One of the leaders of the protest was KOR member Bogdan Borusewicz. The limited action soon developed into a sympathy strike or - as it is known in Polish - a solidarity strike, as workers from other enterprises joined the shipyard workers of Gdańsk. The presidium of the Inter-Factory Strike Committee, led by Lech Wałęsa, included other Free Trade Unions members: Bogdan Lis, Anna Walentynowicz, Joanna Duda-Gwiazda and Andrzej Gwiazda.

Initial quite modest claims finally grew into the famous list of ‘21 demands’, the key first two of which stipulated the ‘acceptance of free trade unions independent of the Communist Party and of employers’ and ‘a guarantee of the right to strike without danger for strikers and their supporters’. Clearly, members of CSS ‘KOR’ belonged to the latter group. On the 31st of August 1980 the Gdańsk Agreement (also known as the August Agreement) was signed in the ‘BHP’ room of the Gdańsk shipyard.

1st National Congress of Delegates of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’, Olivia Builing, Gdańsk, September 1981. (1980-08-17)Polish History Museum

Most of the members and supporters of the Committee for Social Self-Defence ‘KOR’ became actively involved in Solidarity. They became either members of the Union or of its advisory bodies. The future of the Committee itself was not clear, especially in the light of the ideological divisions within it. Gradually, Solidarity took over all the functions of the Committee. In a residual form, CSS ‘KOR’ lasted until the 1st National Congress of Solidarity.

On the 28th of September 1981 one of the oldest members of CSS ‘KOR’, Edward Lipiński, read out a statement in which the Committee announced the end of its operations. This, and the speech with which he followed it, was received by the delegates with considerable applause. Yet a resolution that was proposed by Andrzej Sobieraj, the delegate for Radom, acknowledging the contribution of CSS ‘KOR’ to the establishment of ‘Solidarity’, met with unexpected resistance. The Congress finally adopted it only on the last day.

Commemorative stamps issued by ‘Solidarity Post’ on the 10th anniversary of the founding of KOR, 1986.Polish History Museum

From a resolution of the First National Congress of Delegates of the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union ‘Solidarity’:
‘The Workers’ Defence Committee, established following the June 1976 events, brought help to persecuted workers and their families. It was the first organised form of democratic opposition which came into being after 1976.

It was an expression of convictions shared by the intelligentsia and the workers alike. KOR members and supporters were frequently persecuted, imprisoned and harassed for their activities. The First Congress of Delegates expresses its thanks to the members and supporters of the Workers’ Defence Committee, which has made valuable contributions to the defence of workers’ interests and to the common national cause.’

Credits: Story

Author – dr Jacek Głażewski
Review – dr hab. Jan Skórzyński
Translation – Marta Umińska

‘350 days’ – extract from a recording of the meeting of Edward Gierek with shipyard workers in Szczecin, 25 January 1971. Polish Radio Archives, recorded and edited by Jacek Kalabiński


Primary sources
„Dokumenty Komitetu Obrony Robotników i Komitetu Samoobrony Społecznej „KOR””, oprac. A. Jastrzębski, Warszawa-Londyn 1994.
„Kryptonim „Gracze”. Służba Bezpieczeństwa wobec Komitetu Obrony Robotników i Komitetu Samoobrony Społecznej „KOR” 1976–1981”, wybór, wstęp i oprac. Ł. Kamiński, G. Waligóra, Warszawa 2010.

Marian Brandys, „Od dzwonka do dzwonka” [w:] „Moje przygody z historią”, Warszawa 2003.
Urszula Doroszewska, „Harcerskie wychowanie”, „Głos” 2006 z dn. 23 września.
Jarosław Kaczyński, Lech Kaczyński, Michał Karnowski, Piotr Zaremba, „Alfabet braci Kaczyńskich”, Warszawa 2006.
Anka Kowalska, „Folklor tamtych lat”, Warszawa 2011.
Janusz Krupski, „Od początku do końca”, „Scriptores” 2011, nr 39, t. 3.
Jacek Kuroń, „Gwiezdny czas. „Wiary i winy” ciąg dalszy”, Londyn 1991.
Piotr Naimski, „Latem 1976 roku”, „Głos” 2006, z dn. 23 września.
„Romaszewscy. Autobiografia. Ze Zbigniewem, Zofia i Agnieszką Romaszewskimi rozmawia Piotr Skwieciński”, Warszawa 2014.
Ludwika Wujec, „Związki przyjacielskie”, rozmawia Michał Sutowski, Warszawa 2013.

Studies and monographs
Andrzej Friszke, „Czas KOR-u. Jacek Kuroń a geneza Solidarności”, Kraków 2011.
Jan Józef Lipski, „KOR. Komitet Obrony Robotników, Komitet Samoobrony Społecznej”, Warszawa 2006.
Jan Olaszek, „Rewolucja powielaczy. Niezależny ruch wydawniczy w Polsce 1976-1989”, Warszawa 2016.
Paweł Sasanka, „Czerwiec 1976. Geneza – przebieg – konsekwencje”, Warszawa 2006.
Jan Skórzyński, „Siła bezsilnych. Historia Komitetu Obrony Robotników”, Warszawa 2012.

Credits: All media
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