Jan Litynski died in Poland on February 21, 2021 in an attempt to rescue his dog who was trapped on the ice in the Narew River, which flows near Pultusk, a town about 70 kilometers North of Warsaw. The dog had slipped on ice and had fallen into the river. Litynski jumped in to try to save the dog; so did his wife, to whom he passed the leash and she was able to pull the dog out. She tried to get Litynski but was unable to do so. So, a pleasant walk turned into a horror.
It was far from a fitting end to a man with a long history of fighting for democracy in Communist Poland, one who had played a major role in transforming his country. Jan Litynski spent much of his adult life in a struggle against Soviet domination of Poland and of Eastern Europe and the Communist regime that the Soviets imposed on the bloc it occupied and controlled.
He began his efforts as a student at Warsaw University, where he and others who became well-known opponents of the regime fought for truth and for freedom. In 1968, the year of upheavals around the world, the student demonstrations in Poland were among the first. Playing in Warsaw was the well-known poet Adam Mickiewicz’s nationalist play with several anti-Russian lines that the audiences applauded as a way of expressing their anti-Soviet attitudes. This reaction worried the regime’s leaders, who let it be known that in a few days the play’s run would end. Litynski told me: “We immediately decided it was a fantastic tool for us to be defending Polish independence”. Having organized several students to meet them outside after the performance, Litynski and several others attended the play. Afterward, they and their colleagues brought out signs that expressed their opposition to censorship and they marched to the Party headquarters. They were met with police repression, and some of them were expelled from the university. Litynski was arrested, convicted for his participation, and he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
These events set off demonstrations at other campuses in other cities, which also faced police repression, which in turn stimulated more demonstrations at other universities and at some high schools. By the time it was over, a significant number of that generation had become hostile to the regime. Litynski said of that period: “For our generation, there had been no truth in public life. For our history lessons, we were supposed to recite out of the book. It was not important if it was true or not. March created a generation that demanded that in public life there should be truth.” (Much of the rest of the postwar baby boomers followed the students in their hostility after the regime unleashed deadly force against strikers on the Baltic Coast in 1970.)
In response, the government unleashed an anti-Semitic campaign, claiming that the demonstrations were being led and organized by Jews, the children of Stalinists who had been responsible for imposing the harsh conditions of the regime that was then being contested. Helena Luczywo, another activist of that time recalled: “The general line was that the protest was fomented by the children of Jewish Stalinists who wanted to get back to power. These kids were called ‘banana kids’ because bananas were a symbol of luxury in Poland at that time. It was the most disgusting populism, strengthening and creating the most appalling stereotypes: that Stalinism was ‘something alien to Poles, imposed by the Jews’.” Litynski told me that in those conditions of anti-Semitism, despite his Jewish birth, he decided to choose to be Polish because that identity was the important one to him.
Litynski and many of his dissident colleagues remained in contact with one another and worked with leading intellectuals from the previous generation such as Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski, who were well-known as opponents of the regime. In 1976, another set of strikes and worker demonstrations broke out; it was also repressed, but Edward Gierek, who had come to power as a result of the killings in 1970, had promised that guns would not again be used against dissidents.
Despite severe repression in 1976, Gierek kept his promise. Litynski told me that forbearance on the part of the government made it possible to organize once again, and he and his colleagues did so openly. They created KOR, the Workers’ Defense Committee, whose purpose was to support and defend the workers who were facing sometimes severe repression of those accused in 1976.
KOR sought connections to those workers, in part through an illegal, underground newspaper of its creation called Robotnik: The Worker. Litynski, one of the paper’s founders, told me that it had three purposes: “To trigger workers’ commissions; to provide information, and to organize a network; and to break down the barriers between workers and intellectuals”. After some time, Robotnik and other publications by KOR helped both to put the regime on the defensive and to stimulate workers to organize themselves into the Solidarity union that ultimately played a central role in ending the Communist regime, the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union.
During the period of legal Solidarity, Litynski worked as an adviser to miners in Walbrzych. He was one of thousands interned when martial law was declared on the night of December 12-13, 1981. Some years later, he participated in one of several strikes that broke out in 1988 and eventually compelled the government to agree to talks with the opposition.
Litynski played an active role in the Round Table talks that ultimately brought about an election which was the closest to being free and fair since the Soviets had dominated the country. He was elected to the Sejm as a representative from Walbrzych, indicating that his council to the workers was appreciated. He served as a member of the parliament from 1989 – 2001. He became an advisor to the president from 2010-2015.
At a time of deep polarization in Poland, Jan Litynski is remembered as a decent and honorable man who played an important role in the history of his country.
Jack Bloom is Professor of Sociology at Indiana University Northwest and a member of the REEI Affiliate Faculty.