Adam Michnik, Zbigniew Bujak & Father Jerzy Popieluszko
1986, Poland
Adam Michnik, Zbigniew Bujak & Father Jerzy Popieluszko

Despite repeated imprisonments and attempts to expel him from his country, Adam Michnik never stopped speaking against communist rule in Poland.

Michnik began his human rights work in the 1960s, participating in protests in 1968 that led to his expulsion from the University of Warsaw and a yearlong stint in jail. Despite these setbacks, he kept working to advocate for freedom and human rights, co-founding the Workers’ Defense Committee in 1976. In the midst of repressive government rule, his work was considered so subversive that his lectures had to be given through “Flying University,” an organization that held underground seminars in which activists and intellectuals could congregate and speak freely.

By the 1980s, Michnik had become an important adviser to the Solidarity Trade Union Federation, which bravely opposed the communist stronghold. However, in 1981 the government imposed martial law, forcing a suspension of the organization and imprisoning Michnik twice in the mid-1980s. Despite this, Michnik remained undeterred. He continued his advocacy, and he acted as a negotiator for Solidarity in the Round Table Negotiations in 1989, which brought about the end of communism and allowed democracy to flourish in Poland at last.

Since those talks, Michnik has served in Poland’s Lower House and co-founded the free newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which continues to be an important voice for democracy in Poland and beyond.

Lech Walesa has called Zbigniew Bujak “One of the most outstanding and bravest fighters for citizens’ rights and Solidarity.”

Trained as an electrical technician and soldier, Bujak joined the opposition in 1978 while he was working at a tractor factory. After organizing a strike in 1980, Bujak became the leader of the Warsaw branch of Solidarity.

In 1981, the Polish government declared martial law in an attempt to crush Solidarity. Escaping capture in Gdansk, Bujak secretly returned to Warsaw, where, forced into hiding, he set up one of the most elaborate and effective underground civil society operations the world has seen. Bujak continued his efforts on behalf of Polish freedom until he was captured by the secret police in 1984.

After his release from prison during general amnesty, Bujak resumed his leadership of Warsaw Solidarity until 1989. He was one of Solidarity’s leading negotiators in the “Round Table Negotiations,” which paved the way for Poland’s peaceful transition to democratic government.

The collapse of Communism that started in Poland led to change in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and across the Eastern Bloc.

In the new Poland, Bujak helped to found the Citizens’ Movement-Democratic Alternative and the Union of Labor, and he served in Parliament from 1991 to1997. There, he spoke eloquently on behalf of women’s rights and against anti-Semitism, incurring the wrath of many who were once his ardent supporters.

Bujak describes the willingness to hold unpopular principles as “citizen courage,” explaining: “When you have to make a decision—whether to sign a petition, or whether to participate in a demonstration... it requires a different courage to be ready for this type of activity.”

Father Jerzy Popieluszko’s introduction to the priesthood was counterintuitive. He spent several years in the a Polish special forces unit commissioned specifically to deter young Polish men from entering the priesthood, part of the larger tension in Communist Poland between the open expression of religion and Communism’s animosity towards organized faith.

Unlike many others, Popieluszko was so affected by his proximity to religion that he entered formal seminary training in Warsaw in the late 1970s before serving parishes throughout Warsaw as a respected vicar of the Roman Catholic faith. In 1981, Father Popieluszko visited the Warsaw Steelworks at the height of the famous worker’s strike, absorbing the ideology of common workers and trade unionists organized in opposition to Polish Communism.

Popieluszko remained a powerful voice of anti-Communism throughout his life, often preaching about the intersection of moral duty and political activism in sermons sharply critical of the Polish Communist government and the political violence visited on communities by the notorious Polish Security Service. Between 1981 and 1983, when Poland underwent a series of authoritarian steps into martial law, Popieluszko and the Polish Catholic Church remained the only voices with the legitimacy and network to effectively challenge the political decisions of the Polish government.

Popieluszko’s message grew thanks to distribution by Radio Free Europe, and multiple attempts were made by the Polish Security Service to intimidate or silence Popieluszko’s popular weekly sermons. After several unsuccessful attempts to jail Popieuszko on fabricated evidence between 1982 and 1983, Popieluszko was murdered in an organized attack by three agents of the Polish Security Service. These men were later arrested and convicted for Popieluszko’s murder.

In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI authorized he beatification of Popieluszko, and is recognized as a martyr within the Roman Catholic Church. His legacy of human rights advocacy from the pulpit continues to inform Poland’s democracy, and his message inspired a new generation of anti-Communist advocates to find strength in the message of faith as an effective organizing tool against state oppression.