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The Late Anna Walentynowicz


Honourable senators, it is a vast understatement to say that Poland has been no stranger to strife and tragedy throughout its history. It was visited by the two once again on Saturday, April 10. That day, the plane carrying the Polish president and his wife, along with a host of the country's elite, crashed in a Russian forest killing all those on board.

This was no nameless Russian forest but a killing ground named Katyn. It was there in 1940, at the outset of the Second World War, that the Soviet secret police massacred more than 22,000 Polish officers. The Soviets spent decades denying that crime. However, Katyn has never been forgotten by the Poles. It symbolizes for them the oppression and injustice visited upon their country by the Soviets during the war and for 35 years thereafter. It symbolises an oppression whose crushing grip was pried loose only in 1980 when a strike in a Gdansk shipyard led to the founding of the Solidarity movement and the unravelling of communism.

The strike and that unravelling were sparked by the firing of a crane operator and labour leader named Anna Walentynowicz, a remarkable woman whose fierce determination and unparalleled courage hardly seems comprehensible to us, and is belied by the fact that she is called "the grandmother of Solidarity."

Each December, as The New York Times reported, she collected money for flowers to memorialize the 50 or so workers who had been shot by the police in 1970. Their crime was to protest food shortages. Each December she was arrested. How could she know when she collected money each year that she would not herself be shot?

She published an illegal newspaper that was distributed to workers and hand-delivered to her bosses. It was her hands that delivered it. This was uncommon bravery. As a woman, it probably would have been enough in the 1980s to have been a welder and crane operator, but Anna went far beyond that accomplishment. She is an unsung hero of the fall of communism in Europe and of the women's movement too, I hazard to guess; and most of the public had never heard of her.

Anna Walentynowicz was among those killed in that plane crash in Katyn. She and others were on their way to a Catholic mass in honour of the seventieth anniversary of the murder of those 22,000 officers. The tragic ironies abound.

Our hearts and prayers go out to her family and to the families of all those killed in that accident. The world rarely sees the likes of Anna and we are all fortunate, and should be profoundly thankful, that we witnessed her in our lifetime.