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The price of Solidarity’s glory
Danuta Walesa writes of family’s travails as Lech led 1980s uprising
WARSAW — Lech Walesa’s wife says she paid a huge price for her husband’s struggle against communism.
In an autobiography coming out this week, Danuta Walesa talks publicly for the first time about her loneliness and fear for the family’s unity as her husband gained worldwide recognition with his political work.
In the candid 550-page book, “Dreams and Secrets,” Mrs. Walesa, 62, reveals that she felt neglected as she raised their eight children. She express hurt that she was excluded from her husband’s strategic decisions that gave rise to Solidarity and the trade union’s ultimate toppling of Poland’s authoritarian communist system in 1989.
Some revelations from the book, which is to hit bookshops in Poland on Wednesday, have appeared in the Polish media in recent days, shattering a view of a former president and first lady long seen as happy and deeply united, not the least because of their shared Roman Catholic faith.
“There was no formal divorce, but there were two separate worlds in our family,” Mrs. Walesa writes in the book, made available to the Associated Press by publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie.
She says family life was generally peaceful in the early years of their 42-year marriage. But things took a turn for the worse when her husband rose to prominence during historic strikes in August 1980, when workers demanded greater freedoms.
“In August, everything was smashed,” she writes. “Our nest was torn apart.”
It was then that Mr. Walesa, who had been fired from his job as a shipyard electrician for his political agitation, jumped over the yard’s fence to lead a wage strike against the regime.
Mrs. Walesa recalls how, on Aug. 14, 1980, her husband left home promising to register the birth of their sixth child, 2-week-old Ania, at the city hall in Gdansk.
Instead, he headed straight to the shipyard. Hours later, she learned that her husband had become the strike’s leader.
“When Solidarity was born, not immediately, but in a short time, the father and the husband was gone,” she writes. “And later, in the 1980s, with that bloody politics, he was less and less involved at home, with the children, with me, with the family.”
The family’s loss was Poland’s gain.
Under Mr. Walesa, Solidarity showed the communist authorities that they were no longer welcome, and in 1989, having weathered a martial law crackdown and massive arrests, it peacefully ushered in democracy and a free market economy.
Mrs. Walesa acknowledges that those years of hardship also brought rewards. When word spread in August 1980 that the wife of the national hero was home alone with six children, strangers came offering food, money and other help.
“The amount of kindness that came my way at the time could not be compared to anything at any other time in my life,” she says.
But the small family apartment also became the pilgrimage site for hordes of Solidarity activists, international journalists and people seeking counsel.
Mrs. Walesa, still nursing Ania and with five other children, felt obliged to cater to them, but at some point broke down under the stress.
“One day, in the presence of all these people, I started yelling at my husband. My husband rose and left, without one word. All the others left with him,” Mrs. Walesa remembers.
A few hours later Mr. Walesa returned with a decision: “If you wish, we will put up a sign on the front door: typhoid fever. No admission to strangers.” Peace returned to the home.
Mrs. Walesa faced more sadness in January 1982, when she gave birth to their seventh child, Maria Wiktoria, while Mr. Walesa was imprisoned during martial law. The baby’s christening drew crowds, but Mr. Walesa’s absence was painfully felt by his wife.
Jealousy also came into play. She complains that her husband used the same term of affection - “little frog” - with other women, just as with her.
She is also rueful that despite all of Poland’s sacrifices, and its leading role in triggering change in the revolutionary year of 1989, many people today think mostly of the fall of the Berlin Wall as the watershed moment.
“Unfortunately, it is not the flower-decorated Gate 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980, but the crumbling Berlin Wall in 1989 that has become the symbol of the freedom and unity of Europe,” she writes.
Mrs. Walesa was briefly in the international spotlight Dec. 10, 1983, when she traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on her husband’s behalf. He was recognized for his fight against communism but feared that if he left the country, the communist authorities would not let him back in.
She complains that he essentially ordered her to go without first asking her how she felt about doing so.
Now she is glad she went.
“It was a lesson in life for me, a wonderful lesson. I shed my complexes, my fear that I am not capable of doing something, that I cannot cope,” Mrs. Walesa says. “I am very grateful to my husband for that.”
Mr. Walesa has defended himself against some of her accusations by arguing that he could not consult with her during the Solidarity years because the secret police had bugged their home. He also felt home life had to be sacrificed for a higher calling.
“I needed to have my hands free for the country,” he said in an interview last week in the daily newspaper Fakt.
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