Congratulations to Ryszard Kuczkowski for being awarded a special medal from the Polish government for his role in Poland’s Solidarność movement. The Cross of Freedom and Solidarity (Krzyż Wolności i Solidarności*) was presented to Mr. Kuczkowski at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Rochester, New York on 28 October 2018.
Ryszard Kuczkowski’s story began when Communist government troops opened machine gun fire in 1970 on workers and unarmed citizens protesting price increases in Gdańsk and Gdynia. This outrageous attack angered Ryszard, who at the time was a shipyard metalworker trainee, and prompted him to join and actively engage in clandestine activities organized by the Komitet Obrony Robotnikow (Committee for Defense of Workers), a grassroots organization formed to protect workers’ rights in the aftermath of the brutal attack.
During his involvement with KOR, Rysard Kuczkowski became a prominent activist in the labor movement after becoming acquainted with Lech Walęsa, who worked in his section at the Lenin shipyard. It was also during this time that he came under surveillance by the Soviet secret police (KGB) who closely followed his movements. Twice he was summoned to his supervisor’s office at work, threatened with losing his job if he continued his association with KOR.
In 1980, Ryszard married Jadwiga Lajca who herself supported the growing human rights movement protesting every year by joining fellow Poles laying flowers at the site of the 1970 massacre. Such protests along with the demands of the steelworkers served to weaken the grip the Communist government had on Polish workers and on Polish society. For participation in the illegal trade union, Anna Walentynowicz, a Polish free trade union activist and co-founder of Solidarity, was fired from work at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard in August, 1980, five months before she was due to retire. This management decision enraged the workers of the shipyard, who staged a strike action defending Anna Walentynowicz and demanding her return. Solidarity emerged on 31 August 1980 in Gdańsk at the Lenin Shipyards when the communist government of Poland signed the agreement allowing for its existence.
Ryszard and Jadwiga joined thousands of Poles in December 1980 at the consecration of a monument dedicated to the martyred workers. In fact, Ryszard had been in charge of transporting the huge steel crosses of the monument that, in the hearts of Poles and the eyes of the world, would come to represent the ideals of Solidarity. Soon afterwards Ryszard became the leader of 500 shipyard workers at the shipyard, serving as an official substitute for the union’s leader, Lech Walęsa.
One year later, in December 1981, the Polish state declared martial law, disbanded Solidarity, and jailed opposition activists. Ryszard was forced into hiding but defiantly returned to the shipyard in the hope of organizing a second standoff. He was arrested and removed from the shipyard in handcuffs. When Jadwiga learned of her husband’s arrest, she hid Ryszard’s Solidarity literature in their infant son’s crib — where the police neglected to look when searching their apartment.
Ryszard spent six months in Strzebielinek prison. Upon his release, he and others were offered good jobs and comfortable homes if they would agree to work for the KGB by spying on fellow workers. When Ryszard refused, he was ordered to leave the country; but before leaving, he was again caught defying the government while distributing Solidarity medals after church services. After two weeks in a German refugee camp, the Kuczkowskis were able to arrange sponsorship to the United States through the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, New York.
Among the items that he treasures today from that historic era is a document on Solidarity letterhead, signed by Lech Walęsa and dated January 23, 1981, naming Ryszard Kuczkowski Solidarity leader in Walęsa’s absence in their section at the Lenin shipyard.
I first heard Ryszard’s story several years ago when I met him en route to a service for Polish soldiers at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.