From the book Kryptonim “Wasale,” by Łukasz Kamiński
From the book Kryptonim “Wasale,” by Łukasz Kamiński
Waldemar Maj (MBA 1996) shivered in the dark Warsaw alley and wedged his body further into a crevice in the building wall. At his feet was a suitcase filled with posters, the ink barely dry—contraband in the eyes of Poland’s Communist government, which approved all publications in the country. Maj held his breath as an officer of the Służba Bezpieczeństwa—the secret police—walked by the entrance to the alleyway. It was sometime after 2 a.m. on December 16, 1978—the anniversary of a massacre. Between December 14 and December 19, 1970, soldiers quelling protests in northern Poland had killed 42 people who had been demonstrating against the government’s decision to increase food prices.
Maj, long-haired and lanky at age 22, and several of his classmates from the Warsaw University of Technology had spent most of the night collecting the necessary materials and printing some 1,500 posters commemorating the event, which had become a rallying cry for the country’s anti-Communist activists. Maj and his friends, part of Poland’s growing underground publishing movement, were practiced in subterfuge. No one of them knew the full plan for producing and distributing the posters, and each took a circuitous path to the central Warsaw basement where they would be printed.
But as Maj and his friend Janek walked away from the building and through a nearby park in the early morning darkness, several men appeared in front of them and then several more behind them. It was the Służba Bezpieczeństwa or SB as it was commonly known. “You run left, I’ll run right,” Maj told Janek. Maj took the posters; Janek took the printing machine. Maj was fast, but a wrong turn had trapped him in the alley crevice. He remained motionless in the rain as the officers scoured the neighborhood with flashlights and, as dawn broke, with dogs.
The Free Speech Memorial in Warsaw was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of the end of communism in Poland. “It’s a symbol of the hundreds and thousands of people involved in the underground publishing movement,” Maj says. “It’s a symbol of my life.”
Maj was in his final year of high school in the spring of 1975 when he was first summoned to the local offices of the SB. He wanted the necessary permission from the office to travel abroad; he planned to hitchhike around Europe for the summer before attending university in Warsaw. The SB officers wanted to recruit Maj as an informer among the student ranks.
Teenaged Maj was not an activist. He had spent his childhood in a small town about 50 kilometers outside Kraków, far from the workers’ protests of 1970. Poland had been under Communist rule since the end of World War II, and life under the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, the Communist Polish United Workers’ Party, had been, as Maj recalls now, “ugly,” but his family had not suffered as many others had. Still, he refused the SB’s overtures. “I was 18 years old,” explains Maj, now 60, in a sharply tailored suit with close-cropped silver hair. “It probably wasn’t very bright, but I was arrogant.”
But as Maj began his studies in Warsaw, Poland again fell into tumult. In early 1976, a controversial amendment to its constitution declared the republic to be a socialist country and enshrined its ties to the Soviet Union. Later that summer, a government plan to again dramatically increase the price of food and other basic commodities sparked large, violent protests in Warsaw and its suburbs. The unrest led to the formation of the Workers’ Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników or KOR), a group of Polish intellectuals banded together in support of workers across the country, the first time the two groups had formed such an alliance.
In the fall of 1976 one of Waldemar’s classmates heard about KOR through the static of Radio Free Europe, broadcasting from Munich. The announcer gave the name and address of one of KOR’s founding members.
“Why don’t we go?” Maj asked his friends. The building was near their dorm. “We were 20,” Maj says now, laughing—it was a bit of lark. But Ludwik Cohn opened the door. The man, then in his 70s, had been a leader in the pro-freedom movement since World War II. Maj knew his name from Radio Free Europe. Cohn invited them in to talk about KOR’s nonviolent opposition. “After that, I went back every month,” Maj recalls. He would bring money he had collected, and Cohn would supply him with leaflets with messages of support for the workers. In their dorm rooms, Maj and his friends retyped the leaflets, their typewriters stuffed with six or eight pieces of paper sandwiched between sheets of carbon. It was a slow and blurry way to spread the word—and a storied one. The process, known as samizdat, had been used since the 1940s by dissidents to publish underground publications throughout the Soviet bloc.
As Bronisław Komorowski, a fellow activist who went on to serve as Poland’s president from 2010 to 2015, explains through a translator: “For my father and his generation—the underground soldiers of World War II—the biggest dream was to have machine guns. But to our generation, the dream was to have access to professional printing equipment.”
In the fall of 1977, Maj attended a meeting of the growing student opposition. To this point, Maj had been careful. Although he was well known in the student underground, his anti- Communist efforts remained a secret from the SB. In the meeting, Maj spoke forcefully in favor of a student organization to support the workers and KOR. An SB informer was in the audience.
After the meeting, Maj was called before the university administration and the secret police. Their warnings and the decree that Maj could not travel outside of Poland only emboldened him. Stripped of his anonymity, he became a spokesperson for the new Studencki Komitet Solidarności—the Student Committee of Solidarity—signing its leaflets with his name and address, as the founding members of KOR had done before him.
While Maj acted publicly on behalf of the Student Committee of Solidarity, organizing lectures and raising funds, among other activities, his underground publishing efforts continued in the squat blue residence hall known as Mikrus—“very little,” so called because it was shorter than the other nearby dorms. “Mikrus” would become synonymous with “protest” when its residents strung a sign across the building to mark the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s arrival in Warsaw in June 1979. The sign, believed to be the only one in the censored city to celebrate the Polish pope’s historic visit, was tied window to window to make it harder to remove: “You are the hope of the world, the hope of the Church, my hope,” it read, paraphrasing the pope’s own vision for the world’s youth.
Inside Mikrus, dorm rooms were filled to the ceiling with stacks of paper, bought in small quantities throughout the city to avoid notice, and makeshift printing machines. As students of the sciences, the ink-smudged underground printers of Mikrus were not content with the samizdat method of reproducing leaflets, so they built their own more efficient machines. While some dissidents smuggled printing presses into the country in pieces, the residents of Mikrus adopted wooden-framed screen-printing machines that could be constructed—and quickly broken down—from everyday materials. Elsewhere in the country, a chemist had developed a process to produce quick-drying ink from a popular laundry detergent. A kiosk near Mikrus that stocked essentials for the students struggled to keep the detergent on the shelves as the students published newsletters, posters, and thousands and thousands of copies of Robotnik—The Worker. Although these students didn’t know it at the time, they were one of two major printing operations for the anti-Communist newspaper, part of an underground publishing movement that would grow to be the largest in history—tens of thousands of people working to write, print, and distribute information the government wanted to suppress.
“At 9:30 a.m. [on December 16, 1978] , [Janek] and Waldemar Maj met at the bus stop in front of Riviera Student Dormitory, following which they went to their room. Maj was saying that after he escaped from the park, he was hiding in a dark corner [of an alley].... He kept standing there until 9:00 a.m. He said that he had seen cars driving around and [an SB officer] who was standing in the passage between the buildings. It wasn’t until he saw that the man was gone that he went out on the street. He took the first bus that came along and went somewhere to hide his bag.... He didn’t say where he had hidden the posters; he only said that he had put them in a safe place. Right after entering the room, he asked [Janek] what had happened during the whole time [when he was gone]. [Janek] told him that he had been interrogated at the police station at Wilcza Street and that he said nothing.”
—Translation of a Służba Bezpieczeństwa interview, dated December 19, 1978
Almost 38 years have passed since that night, but Maj remembers the fear and the cold rain. He remembers waiting seven hours in that alley before he slipped out amid the morning rush and stashed the posters in a locker at Warsaw’s Centralna railway station. And he remembers that the underground printers were victorious: Another activist picked up the posters and distributed them to mark the anniversary.
But Maj now knows a different version of this story. He is in possession of a stack of papers several inches thick that constitutes a second telling of his life as an activist. This is his secret police file, which he obtained several years ago through the Institute of National Remembrance, established by the government to shed light on the actions of the Nazi and Communist regimes.
This history of Miesiąc—Maj’s SB code name, meaning “month,” a reference to his surname, which means “May”—is told by undercover SB agents and student informers; some of it is misinformation planted by Maj through friends who pretended to cooperate with the SB to avoid arrest or the beatings for which its officers were infamous. In these documents, Maj discovered two things that altered the way he remembers his activism.
The first was a betrayal. One of Maj’s closest friends had spent years informing the SB of his actions. On that December 1978 evening, Janek (whom we refer to here only by his SB code name) recorded the underground publishers’ every movement. He noted that Maj went to karate practice and that another friend had brought beer to the printers. Later he would provide a detailed account of Maj’s getaway. Janek had told his friends that the SB had captured him after he and Maj had run in opposite directions. “Now we know he was drinking vodka with them,” Maj says. Maj had never suspected Janek; they remained friends for decades after that night. His treachery, though not fatal to the movement, was difficult for Maj to bear.
The second truth Maj uncovered in his SB file is one in which he takes great pride: “We didn’t know how impor-tant we were,” he says. Maj and his fellow activists didn’t know at the time how scared the Communist government was of the voices of mere students and the resources it committed to silencing them. Attempts were even made to expel Maj from the university and when that failed, to prevent him from getting a job after graduation. The students didn’t understand—as the Communist Party did—that manifestos printed with laundry detergent ink and passed hand to hand could do more than improve working conditions. They could topple a regime.
Maj stands at the corner of Nowy Świat and Mysia Streets in downtown Warsaw in front of a forbidding building that used to be the stock exchange. Before that it was the headquarters of the Communist Party. “The joke was that if you stood with your back to the Communist headquarters, you could see Nowy Świat, which means ‘the new world,’ ” Maj says.
The road to the new world was a long one, but Maj and Poland’s vast network of underground publishers continued printing. Maj still has pamphlets dated August 1980 from the shipyards of Gdańsk; he was there when the Solidarity movement, uniting the workers, intellectuals, and students, was established in agreement with the government. It would become a vast anti-Communist social movement. They continued printing through martial law, which lasted from December 1981 through July 1983 and saw the imprisonment of many in the underground movement. They printed right up until the end of Communism in Poland in 1989, the information spread through the underground now credited with strengthening Solidarity and hastening Poland’s freedom. Maj, then doing postdoctoral work as a physicist, could have joined the new government, as some of his fellow activists did, but instead decided to pursue an MBA. He and his family—his wife, Iwona, who had also been a part of the underground publishing movement and was imprisoned for eight months during martial law, and their three children—spent six years in the United States before returning to Warsaw. Maj wanted to help grow Poland’s young market economy. After a long career in banking and consulting, he founded Warsaw-based investment firm Metropolitan Capital Solutions in 2009.
Now, with his back to the former Communist headquarters, Maj strides across a newly established public plaza. Embedded in the sidewalk at his feet is a wide strip of black concrete and resin, a symbol of the censor’s pen that once governed all speech in Poland. The strip extends some 300 feet before it rises dramatically into the air and abruptly ends—a memorial to the triumph of free speech over censorship, the only such monument in the world.
In 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the end of Communist rule in Poland, the Free Speech Memorial was unveiled; Maj was a leading figure in its creation. “It’s a symbol of the hundreds and thousands of people involved in the underground publishing movement,” he says. “It’s a symbol of my life.”
Left: After Maj became known to the SB, he began to put his name on the students’ publications. Center: Maj and his classmates pasted news bulletins on the walls of Mikrus. Right: Maj edited the underground journal ABC , which placed Poland’s fight for freedom in a larger geopolitical context.
Maj pauses beside the minimalist monument in front of a modern seven-story office building; its sign reads “Liberty Corner.” In the 1970s and ’80s, Maj knew this address as something very different: Główny Urząd Kontroli Prasy, Publikacji i Widowisk—the censorship office.
Maj never entered the censorship office, as every legal publisher was required to under Communist law, but now he walks into the new building’s lobby. The carved marble door frame that was once the entryway to the censorship office is preserved here, another reminder of a not-that-long-ago time.
For Maj, though, the Free Speech Memorial—a $400,000, five-year effort that involved a large coalition of supporters, from former activists to current Warsaw government officials to the next generation of Polish architects and urban planners—is about more than the past. It is a lesson for the future, to show peoples seeking their freedom that information is a powerful and peaceful tool and to remind Poland of the importance of free speech as it faces modern questions of national security.
“As President Komorowski said at the opening of the memorial, ‘At the beginning there was a word, a free word,’ ” says Maj. “ ‘And now we have a free Poland.’ ”
Class of MBA 1996, Section C