Today I rise in solidarity with Polish people everywhere, celebrating on June 4, 2014 the 25th anniversary, of the beginning of the end, of communism in Poland.
In 1989, the Solidarity movement led by charismatic leader Lech Walesa and aided by four other key figures who were the spiritual and intellectual forces, won the first partially free election, under communist rule, setting off a chain reaction that spread across the country, bringing down the communists and culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To put this into historical perspective, I must go back in time.
In November 1918, Poland regained its independence after 123 years of foreign occupations. This lasted until May 1926, when the government was overthrown in a military coup: a mere 18 years.
From 1926 until 1989, the Polish people had been subjected to foreign invasions, political unrest and martial law, police violence with hundreds being killed, incarcerations by the thousands, religious persecution and the trampling of every basic human right.
My Grandfather and my Dad immigrated to Canada just as the “dirty 30s” were gripping this country, creating extreme hardship for all new immigrants as they struggled to make a living. However, few returned to their homelands, preferring the hope, freedom and promise that Canada offered.
Over the years my family did with little, so Grandpa and Dad could sponsor a few immediate family members for immigration to Canada: a plan that was stalled when Poland was invaded yet again, by Hitler.
In 1987, my parents, accompanied by my husband and I, traveled to Poland to reacquaint Dad with his former homeland. We knew Poland was still occupied by communists, but were not prepared for the real meaning of “communism”.
The beautiful country that Dad remembered appeared dark and decrepit, the cities and countryside strewn with garbage, many war torn buildings blackened by soot and no attempt whatsoever, to remediate.
Any wealth the country was able to accumulate was re-directed to Moscow.
It was a humbling experience for us – knowing that the food being put on the table by these new and welcoming family members – had been traded for months of their future food-stamp rations.
The shelves in stores were mostly bare; essentials like flour, milk and other staples meant getting up at dawn and standing in line until you were served or supplies ran out.
Whenever supplies and money were available, hoarding was common.
Poland is predominantly Catholic but many churches were closed; meaning long walks for those who were able and without a vehicle.
Gas was also rationed: a fact we learned, only when we drove from Germany into Poland.
My husband became very adept at covertly trading US dollars for gas; until the day we drove into a modern-looking gas station and were refused because we didn’t have ration stamps, as requested.
I can still hear the owner – harshly telling Dad to get off his property then saying “you think I don’t want your money for my family? See that farmer across the road? He could be a communist spy and if I took your money and he came over and demanded to see the gas coupons I wouldn’t have, I would be reported. I would lose everything and be sent to jail, so get out of here now”.
We drove away with heavy hearts: for the terrible plight of the people of Poland.
I will never forget that day on which I learned – in a very small way- the meaning of the word “oppression”.
And now, before our very eyes, Vladimir Putin exercises his considerable muscle, with invasions into the eastern regions of Ukraine and over Europe in general.
The people of Poland are again living in fear of foreign occupation and, at this point in time, the people of this nation have only had the experience of freedom – for a mere 25 years.
Yet they persevere – and they celebrate.