Say Poland – think Lech Walesa. For years the wife of the former President of Poland lived in the shadow of a legend. However the leader of the Solidarity movement in 1980s, Danuta Walesa has always been more than just a First Lady and a wife. She is a powerful woman that nobody really knows all that well.
Family life was quite peaceful in the early years of their 42-year marriage. Things took a turn for the worst when her husband rose to prominence during historic strikes in August 1980 as workers demanded greater freedoms. Loneliness and isolation soon hit her with double force. “In August everything was smashed,” she writes in her 550-page autobiography Dreams and Secrets: “Our nest was torn apart.”
She gave up everything she had in her life: her studies, her dreams, her own aspirations and a safe family life to support Lech Walesa in his struggle with communism that led him to the Nobel Peace Prize and eventually to Presidency.
Some of the revelations from the book shatter the long-held view of a happy and deeply united former president and first lady – not least because of their shared Roman Catholic faith.
“There was no formal divorce, but there were two separate worlds in our family,” Walesa writes in a copy of the book obtained by the Associated Press.
Danuta Walesa recalls how, on August 14th, 1980, her husband left home promising to register the birth of their sixth child, two-week-old Ania, at the city hall in Gdansk.
Instead he headed straight to the shipyard. Hours later she learned that her husband had become the strikes leader.
“When Solidarity was born, not immediately, but in a short time, the father and the husband were gone,” she writes. “And later, in the 1980s, with that bloody politics, he was less and less involved at home, with the children, with me, with the family.”
The family’s loss was Poland’s gain.
Under Walesa, Solidarity showed the communist authorities that they were no longer welcome and in 1989, having weathered a martial law crackdown and massive arrests, it peacefully ushered in democracy and a free market economy.
Danuta faced more sadness in January 1982, when she gave birth to their seventh child, Maria Wiktoria, while Walesa was imprisoned during martial law.
The baby’s christening drew crowds, but Walesa’s absence was painfully felt by his wife.
Jealousy also came into play. She complains that her husband used the same term of affection – ‘little frog’ – with other women, just as with her.
She is also rueful that despite all of Poland’s sacrifices, and its leading role in triggering change in the revolutionary year of 1989, many people today think the fall of the Berlin Wall was the watershed moment.
‘Unfortunately, it’s not the flower-decorated Gate 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980, but the crumbling Berlin Wall in 1989 that has become the symbol of freedom and unity in Europe,’ she writes.
After Walesa served his single term as president, he has kept busy traveling the world giving lectures on his unique role in Poland’s history, though they still live together in a house in Gdansk and celebrate his birthday together every year with a crowd of visitors. He now devotes a lot of time to his love of computers.
But it was Danuta Walesa that stood up for Lech when he got accused of collaboration with communists. It was her who kicked the journalists out of their mansion when they were breaking into their privacy. It was her who dealt with teenage problems of all her eight children, and eventually it was her who was in the center of raging paparazzi ‘s cameras when she was mourning her son’s death a few weeks ago.
‘Some eight or ten years ago … my husband traded me in for a computer, which he sometimes admits himself,’ Danuta writes.
Lech Walesa insists that he always loved his wife, though he admits ‘it is not the same as it was’ early on.
This is the price Danuta Walesa pays for being a wife of a legend.