Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Little. Frog

Jun 06, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



At the eye of Solidarity’s storm was Lech Walesa, the leader of a rebellion which struck a shattering blow to the sickle and hammer. However, it was his First Lady in freedom’s fight who created a peephole into their domestic Iron Curtain. 

       Upon occasion the spotlight of fame descends on the most unlikely:  Miroslawa Danuta Golos started life in 1949 in Poland, the second of nine children, in a farmhouse without electricity. Her education ended at fourteen and five years later she left her village because she “needed something different.” Danuta loved flowers and was thrilled when she obtained a position in a florist shop near the Lenin Shipyard. Nineteen-year-old Miroslawa had no idea the “something different” was about to enter her life and turn it into an unimaginable roller-coaster.

      On an autumn afternoon Lech Walesa, an electrician from the shipyard, walked into her florist shop to get change. The rest was history- world history, in fact. She did not think much of him or when he came back the next day and handed her a gift of a package of gum. She would have preferred a flower, and it would not have taken much of an effort considering the nature of her shop. For his part, Lech was taken with the petite brunette whose smile revealed dimples. He invited her to the movies every night for a month; since they were both in boarding houses it was the only place which afforded privacy. A month later they were married on November 8th, 1968.

Soon after that, Danuta, (Lech preferred her middle name,) bore babies in rapid succession. Despite the cramped condition of their squalid Soviet issued apartment with their large brood, Danuta was delighted with her role as homemaker.

The Walesas first serious roadblock occurred in 1970 when Lech’s involvement in trade unions led to his dismissal at the Lenin Shipyard. Danuta had first heard of the strike from the news which reported there was blood on the streets of Gdansk. Lech comforted her with the promise everything would be alright. His words rang hollow as the next day the Civic Militia came for him. Before he ended up behind bars, he handed her his watch and wedding band to sell when she ran out of money. He was in custody only a few days but upon his release found himself unemployable because of his reputation as an agitator.

Ever resourceful, he came up with a plan. His family would go to the supermarket and when it came time for him to pay, he was simply going to hand over his ID card, “Tell the police I will be waiting for them at home. My children need to eat.” It never went into effect. The following morning a party official arrived, explaining he was delivering funds from the government-controlled trade union. Lech understood it was not just the Greeks to be aware of when they were bearing gifts-the Party was acting magnanimous to prevent the publicity that Lech’s stunt would have generated. He had further anticipated this gesture as he knew their apartment was bugged. From this plan of resistance, the Soviets understood Walesa was a resourceful opponent, his union understood he was a powerful leader, Danuta understood he was not a conventional husband.

        When the sun rises most people assume the day will be like any other; however, by sunset the fabric of one’s life can forever unravel. This proved the case with the Walesa family on August 14, 1980, of which date Danuta states, “In August everything was smashed. Our nest was torn apart.” Danuta, who views that summer afternoon as Caesar’s wife did the Ides of March, sent Lech to register the birth of their sixth child, Ania, at the city hall in Gdansk. He was on his way when he heard rumors of unrest at his former place of employment. The tension had been instigated when the management of the Lenin Shipyard had fired Anna Walentynowicz, a crane driver who had proved a thorn in her employer’s side by demanding a memorial for protesting workers shot by the militia. In solidarity, groups of workers had put up posters of complaints and anger escalated when the managers quickly took them down. The standoff continued until a thirty-six-year-old short, stocky electrician scaled the shipyard wall and stood on a crate. Through the force of his rhetoric he became their leader. Hours later, Danuta discovered baby Anna still did not have her birth certificate and her husband had spearheaded a movement, Solidarity, a name emblazoned in the world’s headlines. The Lenin Shipyard protest became as iconic an event as when the Bastille fell, the Winter Palace was stormed, Charles I be-headed, the American Declaration proclaimed. 

      The Polish people, who had endured the back-to-back horror of Nazi and Soviet occupation, viewed Solidarity as their salvation; however, Danuta saw its other side. She recalled of those days following the insurrection when her small apartment became the Movement’s Mecca, “We had crowds of labor union members, advisers, politicians, journalists, and lunatics pouring into our apartment from dawn until late at night. Complete chaos instead of a normal home.” In addition, she was left to care for the children, clean and cook for everyone, including the constant stream of visitors. She described her role in those days, “I was a mother, a teacher, a cook, a cleaning lady, a nurse, I had no time to do anything else.” At one point, the dimples disappeared. Her home was overflowing with the usual crowds and in their presence, she started yelling at her husband. Everyone immediately left, including the recipient of her wrath. A few hours later he returned and offered a peace offering by suggesting they put a sign on the front door: ‘typhoid fever. No admission to strangers.’ 

The USSR put pressure on its party members in Poland to silence the head of Solidarity and in 1982 Walesa was arrested. The only one allowed to visit was his spouse, pregnant with eighth baby, who was subjected to strip searches. Lech was behind bars for ten months and Danuta was devastated he missed the St. Brigida Church’s baptism of their last child. 

        If the bugging device in the Walesa apartment were equipped with a camera in 1983 it would have recorded a large oil painting of Polish born Pope John Paul II, red and white Solidarity banners, pictures of Jerzy Popieluszko, a murdered pro-union priest, and most importantly, a photograph on a bookcase that revealed a smiling Danuta. It was snapped while she was on a telephone call with Norway, upon hearing the news her husband had won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first Pole thus honored. In 1958 Polish author Boris Pasternak had been unable to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature in fear if he left the Soviet Union he would be denied re-entry and would never see his family or adored mistress again. Harboring similar trepidation, Lech responded, without conjugal consultation, that Danuta would accept the prize on his behalf.

On December 10th, in the flower-bedecked Old Hall of Oslo University, Danuta Walesa finally showed she was more than a self-described ‘kitchen manager.’ Lech’s speech prepared for her cited the words of the Polish Literature Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, author of Quo Vadis. (Where are you Going?) “In 1905 Poland was pronounced dead, yet here is a proof that she lives on. She was declared incapable to think and to work, and here is proof to the contrary. She was pronounced defeated, and here is proof that she is victorious. Today nobody claims that Poland is dead. But the words have acquired a new meaning.” His words were filled with double entendre-they also referred to Danuta. King Olav of Norway stepped forward to congratulate her, and then one of the violinists in the orchestra began playing the Polish anthem “Sto Lat”-“May You Live a Hundred Years.” In St. Brigida’s Church her beaming husband listened to her words on Radio Free Europe, “Bravo, Danuta” then added, “I’ve fallen in love with her all over again.” From her experience she received a transfusion of confidence. Unfortunately, on her return home she was strip searched by communist authorities. She said of the humiliating ordeal, “I didn’t feel anything beyond numbness and delirium. Feelings come later.”

        The world hailed it as a blow against tyranny when Lech Walesa, in 1990, became Poland’s first democratically elected president. However, as no man is a hero to his valet, Lech was not one to the First Lady, who was incensed he had accepted the position without informing her. To add fuel to the simmering fire Lech, perhaps feeling the presidency carried executive privilege to do what he pleased, called another woman the term of endearment he had formerly reserved for his wife: ‘little frog.’ (The nerve!) No doubt Lech spent the night on his couch under the eyes of the Pope. However, in public Danuta praised her man and his mission lamenting the lack of recognition for his contributions to downfall of Communism. As she noted sadly, when people think of the demise of the sickle and hammer it is not “the flower decorated Gate 2 of the Gdansk Shipyard in 1980 but the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that has become the symbol of the freedom and unity of Europe.”

     In Walesa’s acceptance speech for the presidency, he wrote, “My place is among those with whom I have grown and to whom I belong-the workers of Gdansk.” Danuta had long felt her husband’s allegiance to them had supplanted the one with his family and in 2011 she decided to air her private grievances in public with her tell-all book Dreams and Secrets. On its cover she channeled her latent Princess Diana, outfitted in a stylish white hat with black ribbon, brim adorned with white flowers. She had finally discovered the answer to her own Quo Vadis?  It was dedicated to her children: Bogdan, Slawomir, Przemyslaw, Jaroslaw, Magdalena, Ania, Maria Wiktoria, Brygida. Her litany of complaints was lengthy- the tome ran 550 pages- and provided a feeding frenzy for the Polish public.  She wrote, “When Solidarity was born the father and the husband was gone. With that bloody politics, he was less and less involved at home, with the children, with me.” She explained her husband was aware she was writing her memoir but “never quite believed that I would actually do it.” She said her book turned her “from a drab housewife into a lady of the house.´ She added, Dreams and Secrets is only available in Polish, but it’s my dream that it one be translated into English.”

The publication shattered their image as the picture-perfect couple. In its conclusion she states there is no plan to divorce though her husband and she have separate lives. She determined if “Sto Lat” they were going to be lived on her terms. Lech admitted to ignoring his family but explained it was out of necessity rather than for a lack of love. He said being the leader of ten million workers and a family man was a lot to juggle but he always juggled the best he was able. He added he has not yet read the book but plans to buy his wife some flowers. Better late than never? 

One of the unintended results of a movement which shook the world was an uneducated country girl leaned autonomy; another was that her husband, though a hero of millions, had not proved one to Danuta. Mrs. Walesa, at an interview in Carnegie Mellon University, stated through her translator, “I am master of myself.” She transformed herself from an anvil to a pillar of strength, one who refuses to be Lech’s, or anyone else’s, Little Frog.