Journalist Sharon Sakson began covering Poland 27 months ago, when Solidarity was born. As a producer for ABC News, she interviewed labor leader Lech Walesa and became his friend. Sakson returned to Poland on Oct. 8, the day Walesa’s union was outlawed, and covered his release five weeks later from a unique perspective. For four days before he was freed, Sakson kept a tense vigil with Walesa’s wife and seven children. Here is her report.
It was Thursday, Nov. 11, the day after Leonid Brezhnev had died. I rushed through the wintry streets of Warsaw to a hastily summoned government press conference, expecting to hear a routine expression of official grief over the Soviet leader’s passing. Instead, there was an unbelievable announcement: Lech Walesa, the man who formed and led Solidarity, was to be freed from internment.
Could Walesa’s release after 11 months mean that the grip of martial law would soon loosen? If so, setting free the most popular man in Poland was a sensible first move. Among ordinary citizens, there was no one I met who did not still keep a picture of Walesa in his wallet. They remembered the good times, when food lines were long but hopes were high, when Lech led them.
I first met Walesa in August 1980, during the strikes that led to the formation of Solidarity. He was inside the Lenin Shipyard, hectically busy, and not talking to reporters. But I begged and my translator, Margosia, burst into tears. “Please,” she pleaded, “we will lose our jobs.” Walesa laughed, then gave us his first interview on Western TV. His fellow workers objected, but Lech, the labor leader, said: “Listen, I am trying to keep these poor girls employed.”
This time when I called the Walesa home in Gdansk, his wife, Danuta, answered. “I don’t believe it,” she said. She was refusing all interviews, but when I asked for a friendly chat, she laughed and said, “Bring your camera.” I flew to Gdansk and drove to the gray concrete apartment building where Danuta, 33, had waited, living off Lech’s $188-a-month union salary and caring for her children with the help of a young cousin, Mariola. During the months of Lech’s absence she still cooked for them every day and entertained her frequent visitors with endless cups of tea. Danuta is a simple peasant woman. She was working in a Gdansk flower shop 14 years ago when Walesa, then an electrician, walked in to use the phone. She became his wife and still treasures her background role as a traditional mother. Her only complaint about her husband’s leadership of Solidarity was that it left him too little time with his family. While Lech was interned in a hunting lodge 500 miles from Gdansk, Danuta was thrust unwillingly into the spotlight. Reporters mobbed her. “It’s he who is important,” she told them, “not me.” She has a stolid strength and is apparently unshaken by rumors that the government has pictures of Walesa with another woman. “Do you still love him as much as when you got married?” a friend asks. “No,” she replies. “A hundred times more.” When she lost patience, it was with the security agents who strip-searched her after a visit with Lech. They were apparently looking for a smuggled letter, prompting Danuta to shout, “I’m not a criminal.”
I arrived at the apartment carrying four bottles of champagne. “I won’t drink,” Danuta said. “I’m too excited.” She looked tense but happy, and she drank anyway. Her official government contact had confirmed that Lech would be freed “in time for Mass on Sunday.” Danuta looked out the window. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she said. She started to cry.
By the next morning Poland seemed to feel alive again. People stopped each other on the street with the news: Lech is free! They said they didn’t believe it, but they were smiling. Outside the Walesa apartment, a boisterous mob decorated the family’s van with the word the government has tried to ban: “Solidarity!” The workers told American reporters that they loved our country and I was smothered with kisses and hugs as they chanted: “Reagan is with us!”
Walesa had not been seen in public in almost a year, and some people were fearful he might have been broken in detention. The anxiety grew with the news that Polish TV was to screen an interview with him. The interview was not shown at the scheduled hour, and when I sneaked into a private screening, I understood why. Walesa did not say what the government wanted him to say. His face was strong, determined. Most shocking, he wore a Solidarity button. No one in Poland wears that anymore. Asked about rumors he was drugged, Walesa observed, “I wasn’t worried. I ate the same food as the guards, and I knew none of them would be sacrificed.”
Far from being broken, Walesa was politely defiant of the government. Prior to release he had written a conciliatory letter to the country’s military ruler, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. But when he spoke of wanting an agreement with the authorities, Walesa added, “Not with me on my knees, but a fair and proper agreement.” I called Danuta and played the tape to her. She heard her husband say, “I have not changed,” but she seemed pensive. “I will wait until I see him,” she said. The children were too excited to wait patiently. At 2 a.m. Sunday the phone was still ringing and Bogdan, at 12 the oldest Walesa child, refused to go to bed. “I am waiting for my father,” he insisted. A cousin came into the apartment once and asked Walesa’s oldest daughter, 4-year-old Magda: “Where’s your daddy?” She ran to the wall and pointed to the portrait of Walesa.
By Sunday morning outside the apartment a jubilant crowd of 3,000 people were singing, holding hands and chanting “Lech! Lech! Lech!” But the appointed hour came and went with no Walesa. The crowd waited on into the night. Someone hoisted a new sign: “Lech, you waited 11 months. We can wait all night.” But Danuta was in a frenzy with worry. “I know he’s not free,” she fretted. “If he were free, he would call me.” Then she turned to Margosia and, like any possessive Polish woman, whispered: “If he is free and he didn’t call me … I’ll kill him!” Finally, at 10:30 p.m., four black government cars and a phalanx of plainclothes guards brought Walesa home. The crowd surged forward. WALESA! SOLIDARNOSC! Guards tried to clear a path, but people wanted to be near him, to see him. Walesa alone remained calm. He acknowledged the cheers with casual waves and a relaxed smile that said, “See? We made it. Everything is okay. Did you ever doubt it?” Moments later, he stepped into his apartment and held Danuta in a long embrace. “Praise God, you’re home,” she said.