GDANSK – It was difficult to know whether Lech Walesa was cynical, joking or dead serious. Maybe all of the above.
His direct approach to, and simplistic views of, a complicated international reality can embarrass the listener. Nevertheless, it is clear that the former president of the Polish Republic – a Nobel Prize laureate, who co-founded Solidarity, contributed to the collapse of the Soviet bloc and became an icon of liberty and freedom – can allow himself to be his country’s enfant terrible. And it seems that he enjoys this position.
His answers to our questions solidified his image as an ardent Catholic and a conservative homophobe who opposes the absorption of immigrants, doesn’t appreciate US President Barack Obama and has an amusing solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
We – a group of Israeli journalists – met him earlier this month in his office at the European Solidarity Center and found him in a good mood.
Resembling the hull of a ship, the impressive and moving museum and learning center stands out for its uncommon use of Corten steel, which has a rustlike appearance. The building is located where the gate to Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyards once stood, the gate over which, in 1980,Walesa, then an unknown electrician, climbed to declare a workers strike. The rest is history.
Since hundreds of thousands of refugees from the wars in the Middle East, Asia and Africa are now crushing against the gates of Europe, we naturally asked him about his views and reflections on this humanitarian crisis.
“I understand why Poland and Europe fear their influx,” he said. “They arrive from places where people are beheaded. We are worried that the same will happen to us.
“We in Poland have small flats, low salaries and meager pensions. Watching the refugees on television, I noticed that they look better than us. They are well fed, well dressed and maybe even are richer than we are.
“I do understand them. We Poles also were immigrants and refugees during communism. But wherever we went, we respected the local culture and laws. These immigrants are different. Even second or third generations – look at France, for example – who got good education and made money still turned against the host countries.”
Don’t you feel empathy toward them? “I was offered by the Communist regime to leave Poland and become a refugee. I declined. I stayed on to fight for what I believed in. It’s true that part of the new refugees and immigrants leave because they fear for their life. But many also immigrate to improve their standards of living and quality of life.
“It’s a problem. If Europe opens its gates, soon millions will come through and while living among us will start exercising their own customs, including beheading.
“Unfortunately, Europe is still not unified, and each country in the EU has its own interests and agenda. I offer that European leaders get together to deal with the problem. My advice is that we – mainly the rich nations, like Germany – help them financially to create jobs, for example, in their countries of origin.”
His strong and controversial opinions also refer to the gay community. Two-and-a-half years ago he caused public outcry when he argued in a TV interview that homosexuals “have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to the greatest heights. A minority should not impose itself on the majority.”
He also added that he believed gay people had no right to sit on the front benches in parliament and, if there at all, should sit in the back “or even behind a wall.”
Asked about it now, he didn’t change his basic views but only stressed that “there were those who didn’t understand me and those who didn’t want to understand what I had said. I am a democrat, against building walls and I respect everyone. If the gay community consists of 30 percent of the population, they deserve to be represented with 30% in institutions. If they have only 1%, they should get only 1%. My belief is based on facts – they are a very small minority and have no chance of reaching parliament. They should know their place and shouldn’t impose themselves on society.”
The world according to Walesa is indeed a complex place, but the solutions he offers to remedy its illnesses are simple. This simplicity and his plain language, far removed from political correctness, are probably his secret which made him a historic hero.
He was born in 1943 in a small town called Popowo.
His father, a carpenter whom he barely knew, was interned by the Nazis in a concentration camp and died from illness two months after being released at the end of the Second World War.
After completing high school, Walesa married Danuta Golos (the couple has eight children) and soon started his job as an electrician at the Gdansk Shipyard.
In 1970 he was one of the organizers of a major – illegal, of course – strike in the shipyard, where workers protested the rise of food prices. The strike was smashed by the Communist police; dozens of workers were killed. Walesa was sent to jail for “antisocial behavior.” After his release, he returned to his struggle, first demanding to erect a monument to his killed colleagues.
Later, in 1980, he organized another strike. Walesa, with his thick mustache, which became his trademark, climbed the gate to the shipyard, and from a makeshift stage addressed the workers, demanding that the regime recognize the rights of workers to organize themselves and to strike. Within weeks he changed history. He forced the Communist authority to cave in and agree to the establishment of Solidarity, the first independent trade union behind the Iron Curtain.
The victory was short. A year later, under Soviet pressure, Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law and outlawed Solidarity. Walesa was arrested, exiled to a remote area in the country and put under house arrest.
During that period, in 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Fearing that he would not be allowed to return to his homeland, he didn’t travel to Oslo to receive the award. His wife, Danuta, accepted the award on his behalf. The couple donated the money – $350,000 – to the Solidarity movement in exile in Brussels.
In 1988, against the background of the Soviet “glasnost” (openness), Walesa returned to the scene, this time with stronger demands. He once again forced the Communists to recognize the trade union but also to allow the creation of political parties and to hold elections.
A year later the first noncommunist government was established in the Soviet bloc, and in December 1990 he became the first democratically elected president of Poland since 1939. He served one term of five years.
In the last 20 years his influence on Polish politics and society has been reduced. Nevertheless, he survived his controversial interviews and accusations that he was an agent of the secret police and that he had been involved in personal and family financial scandals.
In recent years, despite his poor health – he underwent heart surgery and quit smoking – he is still considered a moral voice that many listen to.
The saying “I am in favor but against,” which was attributed to him, characterized our meeting with him. For example, when we asked his opinion of Obama.
“I received the Nobel for the Solidarity triumph against the repressive Communist regime. Obama got it as an advance payment for the future, but he has not justified it. He was elected to reform the US and the world. It has not happened. He failed to lead the world. The US doesn’t show universal leadership and economically is in decline. The situation is painful and worrisome. Because of this, I criticized him and until last year refused to meet him.”
However, in 2014 during Obama’s visit to Poland, the two met. Walesa modified his opinion of the US president. “I thought that he had no plan and no vision. But in our meeting I realized that he is intelligent, does want to succeed, but has many troubles at home from opponents who bothered him and put obstacles on his way.”
Our conversation exceeded the time allocated for us. Walesa ignored the hand signs of Ana, his daughter who runs his office, pointing to her watch, and he agreed to answer two more questions about Israel and Jewish-Polish relations.
He told us that when he visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority, presidents Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas asked for his advice on how to enhance the peace.
“I told them,” he replied with a wide smile, “that I would do it [i.e., give advice] under one condition: that both agree beforehand to accept and implement it. Of course they didn’t agree. I told them that even before I return to Gdansk, both sides would continue to fight with each other.”
And what was the recipe you wanted to give them to end the bloodshed? “I wanted to advise them that all weapons on both sides have to be collected; and if someone, regardless of his nationality, breaks the commitment to stop violence, his property must be confiscated, and he will be ordered to pack his belongings and leave. But it is clear that both sides don’t want peace.”
Last May the conservative challenger Andrzej Duda won the presidential election by defeating incumbent Bronislaw Komorowski. During the television debate, Duda bashed his rival for apologizing for the Polish crimes in Jedwabne. In 1941 Poles in Jedwabne gathered 300 Jews and burned them alive in the village granary. For years it was told that German Nazis did it, until historian Jan Gross in 2008, in his book Neighbors, proved the truth.
Asked about the newly elected Polish president’s revisionist history, Walesa was brief: “I can only advise him to be silent for six months, to learn the facts and then to talk.”