Poland 1989: “An overwhelming feeling”


© Creative Commons/Brett Arnett

By Zbigniew Kominek

What did you do in 1989 when the momentous changes in Poland happened and how did you experience them?

I had just started secondary school when the changes, somewhat unexpectedly, unfolded in 1989. I was living with my parents in Katowice, the capital of the Upper Silesia region in south Poland. Upper Silesia was at the time a coal mining and heavy industry centre (most of it is now long gone), with a strong trade union (Solidarność) presence, especially in large state enterprises.

What was the most exciting moment for you?

The most memorable part for me was the run-up to the first, partially free elections in June 1989. We had two free (Solidarność-controlled) newspapers and lots of energy and optimism. I remember running around and pasting posters with Solidarność candidates (we had a mini distribution centre at our school). The degree of involvement and engagement was great. We did not know what the future would bring but there was an overwhelming feeling that something important and momentous was happening all around us. We had a lot of naïve optimism, but this no doubt helped us later in the turbulent years of early transition.

How did it change your life?

From my perspective, the opening of the borders was probably the most important change. It gave us the opportunity to pack up our rucksacks and explore the world, no matter how small the budget was. After living your young life with very little view outside the Iron Curtain, the appetite to explore the world was insatiable. Within a few years I managed to visit most of Western Europe and parts of Asia. If not for this opening, I would not be working at the EBRD today and I would not have met my wife.

How did it change your country?

Poland is a completely different place now. Nato membership and EU accession were the biggest political milestones but lives are really changed by many small things: no more empty shelves in the shops, no more secret (or not so secret) police watching over you, access to consumer goods from anywhere in the world, rapid increase in purchasing power, fast modernising infrastructure, and revitalisation of cities. Although not everything has been easy and some have been left behind, Poland is by any measure a huge beneficiary of transition and the EU integration processes.