“When Pope John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw airport he began the process by which Communism in Poland – and ultimately elsewhere in Europe – would come to an end.” – John Lewis Gaddis, U.S. Cold War Historian
It was going to be a long day today as our return flight to the UK wasn’t until ten o’clock in the evening and we had to check out of the hotel at midday so we had a leisurely breakfast and stayed in our room as long as we could before checking out and returning to the streets.
In the Market Place the musical event had already started and there were some choirs and bands lining up and preparing to take their turn on the stage. It turned out that this was a charity event and there were dozens of tin rattlers shaking collection boxes under the noses of the people in the square. Luckily a contribution was exchanged for a red heart sticker which successfully prevented any subsequent pestering. Unfortunately they weren’t especially sticky so it was important to be careful they didn’t fall off and the pestering would start all over again.*
I asked a bar owner who was busy arranging pavement tables what it was all about and was told that it was a national fund raising day for sick people without state health care provision and all around there were people representing their particular disablement or ailment and some of them looked rather uncomfortable which made me wonder why they didn’t have this event in the spring or the summer when sick people wouldn’t catch their death of cold. Fortunately the sun was shining!
So now we went looking for more dwarfs and walked to the river and then walked east but there was a chill wind blowing down the river valley so we abandoned the route almost as soon as we had started and headed back to the centre and along the way came across ‘Jatki’ which is the only preserved medieval street in Wroclaw. ‘Jatki’ was the street of the butchers and this is where we found my favourite of all the dwarfs that we managed to track down, the butcher hanging his meat.
There were also some bronze sculptures of animals, a pig, piglet, goose, duck, rooster and a rabbit at the entrance to the street. These sculptures figure prominently in the guidebooks of the city and on numerous postcards but the statues that I wanted to see seemed difficult to find, didn’t get a section in the guidebook or appear on any postcard that I could find so eventually I had to admit defeat and go to the Tourist Information Office to ask for directions.
I was looking for a sculpture called ‘The Anonymous Pedestrians’ and I knew about it thanks to fellow bloggers Terri and James who wrote about them in a post called ‘Wroclaw’s Anonymous Pedestrians: Memories of Martial Law’. Without this post I am fairly certain that I wouldn’t have come across this collection of statues because they are a little way out of the city centre.
At a busy road junction there are fourteen statues of ordinary people going about their daily business but on one side of the road they are sinking into grey obscurity into the pavement and on the other they are rising back out into the sunshine in a form of social resurrection. It is a wonderful piece of street art and I am prepared to say that for me it was one of the highlights of Wroclaw.
The statues are a memorial to the introduction of martial law in Poland on December 13th 1981 and the thousands of people who disappeared (‘went underground’) in the middle of the night courtesy of the militia. In a symbolic statement the fourteen statues were erected in the middle of the night in 2005 on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the introduction of martial law.
In 1981 the Polish Communist Government was having a hard time, there was a troublesome Polish Pope who had visited the country two years earlier and given people hope of liberation, there was a severe economic crisis, workers were striking and there was the growing influence of the workers movement Solidarity, and under pressure from the USSR, General Jaruzelski decided on a brutal and violent solution.
Early in the morning Martial Law was declared, several thousand opposition campaigners were interned, it is estimated that approximately one hundred people were murdered and strikes were crushed with the help of the army and special riot police units. Many members of the opposition and underground trade-unionists were sentenced to prison terms, others were forced to emigrate. Normal life was severely restricted with curfews and rationing, the independent trade union Solidarity was banned and its leader Lech Walesa was imprisoned.
Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until the general amnesty in 1986.
Jaruzelski and the other instigators of the martial law argued that the army crackdown rescued Poland from a possibly disastrous military intervention of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries similar to the earlier ‘fraternal aid’ interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 but history generally disagrees with this defensive interpretation and even today some of the leaders of the action await formal trial and punishment.
This is probably the most striking and powerful memorial depicting ordinary people that I have ever seen that perfectly captures the moment and visually records the suffering and the inhumanity, the desperation and the the hope of the time and the military regime.
We crossed the road back and forth several times and I could have stayed longer if only to watch the reaction of other people who were seeing it for the first time but eventually it was time to move on because we had plans to visit the city museum.
* Begging and tin rattling is something that really irritates me especially as these days it is impossible to go to the supermarket without being accosted by somebody collecting for something that I really have no interest in contributing to!