A Brief History of Polish Underground Publishing During Solidarity

by Wanda Wawro, Cornell University Library Slavic & East European Studies Bibliographer
    Wroclaw, the major industrial and trade center of Poland's Lower Silesia region, as well as being home to five institutions of higher education, possesses a remarkable combination of academic, proletarian, and professional populations which has resulted in a singularly diverse spectrum of vocal political activists. This diversity manifested itself in the numerous factions within the Solidarity movement, each faction publishing its own underground gazettes, books, and journals. Wroclaw was also unique for its dynamic underground cultural life; from 1981-1989, it had more underground publishing houses than any other city in Poland, and was second only to Warsaw in terms of volume of materials published. Not surprisingly it was also an active center for the distribution of underground publications, published not only in Wroclaw but all over Poland. I thus chose Wroclaw as the focus of my activities for my study leave which the Selection Committee of the Cornell University Library granted to me for the spring semester 1994.

    In order to function, a totalitarian state must isolate its society from the outside world, and must control the minds of the members of that society. The Polish communists invested an enormous amount of energy and money to isolate Poland and Poles by creating a wall of primitive and aggressive, but consistent, propaganda between Poland and the rest of the world and also between the Poles themselves. When required, the police physically enforced the censorship of information. Despite these enormous obstacles, the people of Poland were able to produce a massive body of independent literature, despite enormous political hardships and material shortages of all types. Hitherto attempts to document underground publishing movements have concentrated on the finding and describing, usually by means of bibliographies and catalogs, as many independently published items as possible before they disappear. Some works have also offered general profiles of the underground publishing movement, and its contribution to the cause of national liberation. My interest, however, was in the phenomenon of the independent publishing movement itself and not specifically in the its ideology or contents. Consequently, my research focused on finding the factors and detailing the efforts which allowed the independent publishers of Wroclaw to flourish.

    During the mid-1970s, the collapse of the Polish economy became more and more visible and further decline seemed inevitable. The Polish government turned to the West for loans, in order to "patch up the holes" and sustain itself. To obtain loans from Western countries, a "liberal" image was necessary, and this more liberal climate was conducive to the formation of a political opposition. In order to maintain stable relationships with Western countries, repression of the opposition at the hands of the government during the 1980s was not especially severe or vicious. The Committee for the Defense of Workers (KOR), the first official organization of the opposition, was also the first successful publisher of uncensored materials. For the dissemination of the KOR's newsletters and informational bulletins, a well-organized network of carriers and distributors was created. After the government's legalization of the Solidarity trade union in 1980, the underground publishing and distribution movement was so widespread and enjoyed such popular support that, even though censorship still existed, the communist authorities nolens volens looked the other way.

    I interviewed a Wroclaw librarian who had gathered a sizable collection of uncensored materials and, during 1980-1981, the so-called ``carnival'' of Solidarity period, lent them officially to library patrons. After December 1981, when martial law was imposed on Poland, this free access to independent literature was, of course, impossible: the librarian was imprisoned and the collection hidden. The collection survived, however, and I was able to purchase it for Cornell. Circulation slips remaining on the books show that the collection was borrowed frequently. One small book caught my attention. It was titled "Citizen and Secret Service", and it contained laws guaranteeing civil rights extracted from the official Polish codes, as well as advice on proper behavior in encounters with police and secret police. This book was reprinted numerous times, being a best seller of the underground press. Knowledge of the law detailed in the volume was useful to those thousands of people interned and imprisoned after the 13th of December, 1981.

    During and after martial law, there was a veritable explosion in the volume of materials printed underground and the number of titles published. This growth in the amount of "samizdat" in circulation permitted communication between the various opposition groups and the broadened the influence of the opposition, as well as providing a medium for the transmission of non-Marxist political and economic thought, Western literature of various sorts, and forbidden belles-lettres. Independent publishers began to fill in the "white spots" placed in history by the Polish military government, to list merely a few of the achievements of the Polish independent publishing movement. The tremendous effort, physical, intellectual, and emotional, necessary to continue publishing in the atmosphere of total oppression and deprivation that was Poland under martial law I documented in oral histories.

    An important feature of gazettes and journals was their regularity, by which they served reminder of the existence of the resistance. It was necessary to overcome overwhelming obstacles in order to produce an illegal gazette or journal on a regular basis; there were shortages of manpower and of all types of material. Nonetheless, gazettes appeared regularly. One of the earliest independent gazettes in Wroclaw, "Z dnia na dzien" ("From Day to Day"), began publication the morning after martial law was imposed, and was put out three times per week until in 1990. The average edition of "From Day to Day" was four pages long, with 40,000 copies printed. Special editions might number up to 100,000 copies. For just one of three weekly issues, 160 standard packages of paper were required, and these packages of paper had to be purchased and transported surreptitiously to the many different basements and attics which served as locales for typing and printing. Ink was home-made from recipes calling for such unlikely ingredients as laundry detergent and children's tempera paint. The printing process was difficult; the home-made ink and other chemicals used were often noxious or dangerous. In spite of these difficulties, "From Day to Day" was published three times a week for nearly ten years. Its production would have been impossible, were it not for the efforts of a huge number of persons committed to the independent publishing movement.

    If the movement publishing belles-lettres underground was perhaps less hectic than its political counterpart, it nonetheless displayed the same dedication, cooperation, and ingenuity as the other "samizdat" publishers. Huge sacrifices were required. A physicist and a chemist from the Polish Academy of Sciences started the literary and political quarterly ``Aspect'' publishing house because they needed a medium of protest, but felt that it was inappropriate for men of their age to paint slogans on walls and participate in violent demonstrations. In seven years, the two published 70 titles amounting to about 100,000 physical volumes of books and brochures. They estimate that they used 15 tons of paper; the hours of back-breaking manual labor involved are, however, difficult to estimate. According to those who assisted with distribution, each of their volumes is believed to have reached up to ten people and had a profound influence on the Polish opposition.

    Cornell University's collection of Polish underground publications should serve as an important research tool to those interested in Polish history, and in politics and government in general. The collection serves as a "time capsule" of the Polish resistance, representing all the factions active in Wroclaw during martial law and afterward. I have endeavored to show how this breadth of publications came about, and at what price to those who labored to produce it. The dedication, sacrifice, and teamwork of all those involved in underground publishing in Poland paid off: independent publishers are regarded as equal to those who resisted oppression by more violent means. The singer and writer Piotr Kaczmarski, known as the Bard of the Solidarity movement, sang that his descendants would look back and laugh at those who fought for freedom using only "paper ammunition". But no one who remembers the work of the underground publishing houses of Poland is laughing today.

Wanda Wawro, 1995

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