40 years after Solidarity, Gdańsk's rebellious spirit still inspires Poland

The Baltic seaport is a city of grit, elegance, and memories of the labor strike that turned the nation toward democracy.

Dominik Lubecki practices flipping over a bench in Nowy Port, a working-class district where dockhands in 1946 launched one of the first communist-era strikes demanding better working conditions. When he’s not skateboarding or composing hip-hop, “Lulek” works as a volunteer with Gdańsk’s youth.

For the longest time, I associated the city of Gdańsk with my police detention. It was December 16, 1982, and a year earlier the communist authorities had imposed martial law.

They were signaling an easing of restrictions by releasing the Solidarity trade union leader Lech Wałęsa after 11 months of internment. A government spokesman smugly described him as “the former head of a former union.” Wałęsa was due to give a speech that day, and about 40 of us—foreign correspondents, photographers, and our Polish assistants—were clustered next to the entrance to his apartment block, expecting to go inside for an interview.

Instead, police barred us from entering. Because Solidarity was banned at the time, Wałęsa’s speech and our attempt to see him were deemed illegal. The face-off was at first alarming—many Poles had been imprisoned during the crackdown. But the tension gave way to comic relief. You see, I was four months pregnant, and particularly the Poles in our group were outraged that the police would subject me to any stress, much less detention—and they let the officers know it. Soon it seemed that half the apartment complex had heard I was with child. Women stopped to bawl out the police, who accepted this dressing-down with quiet embarrassment. In those times few Poles felt friendly toward the authorities, and it must have been cathartic to lecture these representatives of power on proper Polish behavior. Still, we were crammed into windowless vans and transported to the station. There we were merely warned to stay away from Wałęsa and released.

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