Polish Solidarity, founded in 1980, was forcibly suppressed by the Polish government for almost a decade.
Almost forty years later, in summer 2019, the Polish artist and architect Tomas Osinski, who has been based in Los Angeles since 1982, donated items from his personal collection to the Wende Museum. Osinski’s collection includes several underground publications that he personally designed and printed. In conjunction with the donation, he contributed an oral-history interview to the Wende’s Fiona Chalom and Joel Aronowitz Historical Witness Project. Revisiting his memories of the Polish underground, Osinski was struck by the realization that his friends back in Poland were still in possession of hundreds of other underground publications they had made as active members of the Solidarity movement.
Osinski reached out to his old friend Teresa Bogucka in Warsaw, who was glad to know the materials could be properly conserved and made available for current and future generations to learn from. She not only offered to donate her own documents, which span decades of opposition activity, she also gathered donations from many of her friends. Eight suitcases full of materials were soon packed and ready to be sent to the Wende Museum. Within weeks, a team including Osinski’s wife and daughter and Historical Witness Project interviewer Mark Valley were on a flight to Poland, with thanks to LOT Polish Airlines.
As a nonprofit without a budget for surprise international adventures, the museum sought external support to fund the trip. When LOT Polish Airlines heard about the opportunity for the museum to preserve these important historical documents for posterity, the airline donated round-trip tickets for Osinski, Valley, and two members of Osinski’s family who would bring the suitcases full of historical materials back to L.A.
Those eight suitcases, now safely in the Wende collection, contain underground periodicals about politics and culture, many of which were illegally printed and disseminated in Poland, or printed abroad and then smuggled into Poland. The new collection also contains books, photos documenting the Solidarity movement, and cassette tapes from the underground radio station Jutrzenka, which broadcast during the period of martial law from 1981 to 1989, and is still broadcasting now.
With support from Arcadia—a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin which makes grants to preserve endangered cultures and to promote open access—the materials will now be preserved and digitized so that people all over the world can learn from them.
“These materials may have disappeared or simply deteriorated without museum-level conservation. I and other members of the former Polish underground wanted them to be in a place where they can be protected and shared to educate the world about this history,” said Osinski.
One of the suitcases belonged to the public intellectual and former dissident Adam Michnik, who gave his compromising books, brochures, documents, and photos to a friend for safekeeping in 1981, when he rightly feared he would soon be arrested. Michnik was incarcerated as a political prisoner until 1984. The friend to whom he had handed off his suitcase gave it to another friend, and eventually it was lost. The suitcase was found again a few months ago and returned to Michnik, who decided to donate it to the Wende, which has committed itself to digitizing and providing access to the documents free of charge for all.
While in Warsaw, Mark Valley, who is an actor (Boston Legal) and host of the spy podcast The Live Drop, conducted seven new Historical Witness Project interviews with former Polish dissidents, including Helen Luczywo, a leading force of the underground press, and the satirist Jacek Federowicz.
“LOT Polish Airlines is proud to support the Wende Museum by transporting historical artifacts from Poland to California. LOT hopes to contribute in preserving artifacts from the Polish opposition and Solidarity movement,” a spokesperson for the airline said.
Items from the new acquisitions are currently on view on the Stephen O. Lesser New Acquisitions Wall at the Wende Museum. They will be accessible via the museum’s Online Collections beginning in 2020.