Established by the Polish government-in-exile in 1942, London’s Polish Library has been housed at the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK) in Hammersmith since 1974. Its holdings include a substantial collection of samizdat.
Like Neal Ascherson, I recently revisited Gdańsk. The last time I was there was in August 1983, three years after the Gdańsk Agreement, the Communist Party’s abortive deal with the Solidarity trade union movement. Protests were expected. I was 19, and still had a few weeks left before university. It seemed sensible to lend a hand. I was detained several times by the ZOMO riot police, and once found myself marching beside Lech Wałęsa. But it was a lull in the action that came to mind most often last week. At one point in 1983, as protesters around me contemptuously tossed złoty coins towards ZOMO officers, a wall of shields advanced and we were all swept into a subway. Smiling nervously at a priest who ended up next to me, I heard him murmur something like a prayer. When I explained that I spoke only English, his eyes widened. ‘England?’ he repeated. Reaching for my wavy black hair, he pressed a curl between his fingers. ‘But you are … nigger?’
The Polish government says there were 24,000 protesters on Warsaw’s streets last Monday; the protest organisers say there were 116,000. Whatever the number, the ‘Black Monday’ demonstrations in support of abortion rights were an uncommon display. The protesters, most of them women, were on strike from work, school, housework and their children to oppose a law that would have banned all abortions in Poland, and imposed jail sentences of up to five years for both doctors and patients. The protesters wore black and held signs showing diagrams of uteruses. Schools, universities and government offices were forced to close in at least sixty cities, and sympathetic employers gave their workers the day off to participate. In the capital, where it was raining, they bumped umbrellas and chanted: ‘We want doctors, not missionaries.’