Monday, 23 April 2012

POLAND / HISTORY: 'This Is Not The Poland They Fought For' (K. Pilawski)

Lech and Danuta Wałęsa with their 8 children. Would such a large family make ends meet in today's Poland?

What strikes the reader most about Danuta Wałęsa's autobiography? The rapid self-betterment of 2 people who were born into very poor, large families in small, remote villages. 2 people who from childhood did primitive physical labour....


Danuta Wałęsa-- a girl with only elementary education who had worked for 5 years as a farmhand-- finds herself in Gdańsk. She finds a husband and in 1972, at the age of 23, she is a wife, mother of 2 children and in charge of a flat which, although small, is posessed of all the comforts of which she was deprived during her 19 years growing up in the country. She is able to give back 14,000 złoty which her parents have given her as a stake in the housing cooperative because the Wałęsa's flat has been given to them by the Lenin Shipyard (in 1972 the shipyard granted its employees 591 flats). Nowadays, a 36-metre 2-room flat is nothing out of the ordinary because such properties ( developers call them 'compacts' ) are in demand. One has to pay a price, however. The current market value of the Wałęsa's old flat in the Stogi neighbourhood is 170,000 zł. At today's prices it is out of reach for a family of four with only a single bread-winner, especially a blue-collar bread-winner who, like the Wałęsas, cannot rely on any parental support. Without money, which bank is going to offer them a mortgage?

Even if they could get a mortgage, would they be able to keep up repayments? Would they decide to have a further 6 children like the Wałęsas? Large families can apply for social housing but it is not easy and social housing also bears a stigma-- the family would find itself in very low-status environment which is full of dangers and which is very difficult to escape from.

In 1980 the Wałęsas (Danuta was 31, Lech 37) moved to a 136-metre flat in the Zaspa neighbourhood, which was also allocated to them by the shipyard and not bought. ( In the PRL the buying and selling of private property was not forbidden).


Before the birth of her first child, Danuta Wałęsa did casual work but she had no intention of continuing to do so. In her autobiography she states repeatedly that it was her husband's job to support the family financially and her job to look after the children. What would an electrician, a technical school graduate, have to earn today to support such a large family? In December 2011, according to the Institute of Work and Social Affiars, the minimum income needed to sustain a 5-person family was 3,940 (exluding any mortgage or loan repayments. For a 10-person family it would surely be more or less twice this figure. What full-time worker, even with moonlighting, brings home 7-8,000 zł a month? (The average monthly salary is around 3,400 before tax-CK)

In the autobiographies of both Danuta and Lech Wałęsa there is no mention of problems with paying off debts, difficulties with utility bills, lack of money to pay for nursery school, school books or medical fees. Danuta Wałęsa still has a sharp mind and can recall her life with Lech down to the smallest detail yet she makes no mention of financial problems. Shortages of food were not down to lack of money to supply and rationing problems. Despite difficulties with the ration card system, the Wałęsa's never had to endure hunger, cold, lack of clothes or an inability to meet their essential needs.

It is notable hat Danuta Wałęsa states that her family enjoyed a standard of living equal to that of the rest of the Stogi district. In her book she says that her large family never had to rely on welfare or benefits. In today's Poland such a situation is hard to imagine.

"Large families are the people most at risk from poverty" states the National Bureau of Statistics in its report on poverty in Poland, published last year. 1 in 4 families with 4 or more children live below the poverty line, which means that they are unable to meet their basic living requirements. Most large families ( which account for a third of all children in Poland ) cannot make ends meet on paid work alone. They therefore rely on welfare, free school meals and the help of private charities. How is it possible in this situation not to give in to a sense of hopelessness? How is it possible to maintain one's dignity, something which the Solidarność strikers constantly talked about?


The battered and rubble-strewn post-war Poland inherited many unsolved problems from the 2nd Republic. Amongst them was rural over-population. Migration to the cities before the war was limited my a lack of work. Many people migrating from the country ended up in shanty towns-- in the Warsaw district of Żoliborż a whole city of trailers, tents and shacks sprung up housing some 4,000 unemployed people. the first step to improving the lot of the peasantry was the package of agricultural reforms implemented immediately after the war, which to some extent satisfied the hunger for land. The next step was the 'colonisation' of the western lands, formerly belonging to Germany. The third step was the overseeing of the economy by the state, the nationalisation of key industries and fast-track industrial development. This solved the problem of rural over-populationa dn ensured social progress.

Thanks to these processes, the technical boarding school in Lipno which Lech Wałęsa attended was founded. The future leader of Solidarność, acting on impulse, one day went to Gdańsk managed to find a job in the shipyards the very same day he arrived in the city. Today, even some of his children find themselves unemployed.


The story of the Wałęsa children in the autobiography is moving. The free-market reforms starting in 1989 were supposed to create an environment of unlimited development for young Poles. At the fall of Communism the eldest of the 8 Wałęsa children was 19, the youngest 4. They reached adulthood one-by-one in the 1990s and the first decade of this century. Danuta and Lech did not have any parental support, they were self-sufficient. All of their children have relied on, and some still rely on, financial support from their parents. None of the children have so far managed to make any capital out of their surname, which is a brand with global recognition. Maria Wiktoria (30) a marketing graduate tried to do so when she opened a fashion boutique in Manhattan, one of Gdańsk's oldest shopping centres. It fell victim to the free market. Thanks to her surname, she appeared on 'Dancing with the Stars' but she has struggled for years with unemployment. Magdalena (33) opened a dance theatre which went bust. She now teaches in a public ballet school. 2 sons, Bogdan (42) and Przemysław (38), chose a more stable route and got jobs in the National Security Department and the Border Security Agency. The youngest child, Brygida (27), also works in the public sector in the Gdynia aquarium. Would they have got these jons if they were not the children of a former president?

News of unemployed Sławomir has been circulating for more than a decade now. In his mother's memoirs she recounts a humilating scene in the job centre. Anna (32) got married, had 2 children and does not work. Jarosław (36) the best-known of the children started his political career working in his father's office. In his election campaign in 2005 he never left his father's side, in order to be in every photo.

The Poland which Lech Wałęsa fought for has not created the same opportunities for social advancement as the Poland which Lech Wałęsa fought against.

Author: Krzysztof Pilawski  Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine.


Czary kapturek said...

Thanks a lot for the translation of this interesting article.

There appears to be a terrible irony in this story, in that the system that the Wałęsa's were part of was that which enabled him to find work and flats to live in relatively easy, and enabled her to move out of her background of poverty. Pointing out this irony is not of course the expression of a desire to return to such days, but still, I wonder whether an element of what the Germans call "Ostalgie" is at work here.

To tell the truth, while I know that some Germans wish the days of the GDR to return, I am unaware of similar sentiments in Poland.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I am always surprised by how social conservatives are able to ignore the very real evidence that family life has likely gotten worse in the post-communist states.

Usually the answer is to blame everything on individuals instead of recognizing that people do not live in a vacuum and that systemic pressures have a large impact on individual choice. Even worse is the silence of so many religious figures on these issues.

Czarny Kot said...

@Czary Kapturek

Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog.

Personally I would prefer people to see this article as an indictement of the failures of the last 2 decades, rather than as a tribute to the achievements of Communism.

To be fair, it is a one-sided article. Objective, balanced articles on Poland's Communist past are very thin on the ground so it is probably best to read both the pro and anti points of view and form a larger picture from them. One question the article does not address is why people like Wałęsa were so willing to risk their jobs, freedom and even life to fight the system which had given them the benefits listed in the article.

As for 'Ostalgia', it is very common for Polish people to lament those aspects of the past which compare favourably to the present but it is rare for people to come out and say that they would like Communism back.

Contrary to stereotypes, members of my wife's family manage to be both devout Catholics and nostalgic for Communism. It is hard to generalise.

Anyway, many people in non-Communist countries such as the UK voice the same complaints-- it would seem that it is not democracy and capitalism which which are the problem but rather tha modern strain of capitalism which was introduced after 1989, and which is now more or less standard around the world.

The legitimate disappointment with the present is heightened by basic human nature, which tends to over-praise the past and over-criticise the present.

The anti-Communists in Poland were surely looking to Western Europe and Scandinavia as models, not Brazil...

PS: I had a quick look at your site. It is good to see an interesting English-language Polish blog. Is it OK if I add it to my links?

Czarny Kot said...


Hi John, thanks for your comment. It is bizarre that so many people can fail to see the main reasons behind the decline of the family.

Polish conservatives have listed feminism, abortion (which isn't even legal in Poland), and homosexuality as grave dangers to the family.

At the same time, in a country with relatively few feminists and gays and no legal abortion, over half of young people in a survey have said that they would not like to have even one child-- they see it as mission impossible in current conditions.

Personally, I think that 8 children is over the top. I do not think that it is the duty of the state to enable people to have 8, 9 or 10 children without financial difficulty.

I do think, however, that the state has a duty to ensure that having 3, 2 or even 1 child is seen as a possibility, even if it is a challenging one.

As a father of one in Poland, 8 children is science fiction. A second child would be nice but the practicalities are daunting.

As for religious leaders, the religious right in Poland spends more time on paranoid conspiracy theories and anti-fem/gay/commie rhetoric with the result that people vote for the neo-liberal, 'pro-business' government as the lesser of 2 evils, even if they disagree with nearly all their policies.

The Catholic / Nationalists do put up some populist resistance to unpopular measures but they cannot make common cause with those who feel the same yet are put off by their overall craziness.

Poland's best-selling Catholic magazine, meanwhile. contains a weekly column by an economist from the Adam Smith Institute in which any form of state intervention or social democratic policies are mercilessly bashed.

I hasten to add that the most vocal and extreme factions are not true representatives but whoever screams the loudest gets the attention.

All the best.

Czary kapturek said...

Thanks, the other Czarny, and thanks for your comment on my blog, which I gave a question to. You're free to provide a like to my blog here. I'll do likewise, if that's OK with you.

I think that Wałęsa's struggles against communist state authorities were assumed. For me, an article doesn't need to give a "balanced" approach, putting the rights and wrongs of issues, rather, they can go deeper when they look at one particular aspect. I've not come across anything positive about pre-1989, so far, so it was interesting for me to read the article.

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