Poland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Poznan uprising against communism on Wednesday. Crushed in 1956 and nearly forgotten today, it was one of many events that ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR.
From communism to the EU -- Poland has changed a lot in 50 years
Five presidents and thousands of Poles gathered on Wednesday in Poznan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a seldom remembered and brutally crushed workers' revolt.
The uprising occurred four months prior to the more famous one in Hungary and is considered to be a contributor to the attitude of revolution that bore the Solidarity movement in the 1980's and ultimately brought down the Iron Curtain in 1989-1990.
Bloodshed for bread and freedom
"Chleb i wolność! Bread and freedom!" demanded the strikers on June 28, 1956 as they marched past the regional government's headquarters. They also laid siege to the secret police headquarters, set fire to courthouses and released some 250 inmates from the local prison.
Located in west-central Poland, Poznan is now home to nearly 600,000 people
"I'll never forget the chanting crowd, the euphoria when the huge red communist flag fell from the roof of the building," recalled Aleksandra Banasiak, a former nurse who became a legend because of her heroism during the Poznan revolt.
Ten thousand soldiers and 300 assault tanks from the communist army were brought in to quell the protest.
Poznan veterans tell their tales
"When I saw they were shooting at women and children, I was livid with rage," said Wlodzimierz Marciniak, who is now in his 70's and heads up an association of "veterans" from the Poznan uprising. "A few friends of mine and I, we seized three assault tanks. We were hell-bent on breaking the curse of communism."
Marian Joachimiak, now 73, managed to get hold of a firearm from a soldier who had refused to follow orders to crush the revolt. However, he paid a price for his participation: "I was subjected to the most brutal interrogation. I still suffer the consequences today of the cruel treatment I endured."
It is estimated that 74 people lost their lives during the uprising and as many as 1,000 more may have been injured.
Poland's neighbors and Pope Benedict
Current Polish President Lech Kaczynski gave the presidents of Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary a warm welcome to the commemoration events. A morning mass was planned, as was a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of a monument to the uprising.
Horst Köhler was one of five statesmen from countries that had all experienced Soviet communism
During the open-air mass, a message from Pope Benedict XVI was read. The German pope recalled "the memorable day of June 28, 1956…when workers took to the streets of Poznan to protest against terror and omnipresent lies, against all the wrongs and injustices of the Stalinist system."
The Pope also recalled how the protesters objected to the communist regime's official atheism and demanded independence for the Roman Catholic Church, a central player in Polish culture. Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, made a significant visit to communist Poland, his home country, in 1978 and was instrumental in inspiring and supporting the Solidarity movement.
Wolność: an insuppressible desire
German President Horst Köhler, a guest at the ceremonies, commended the protestors for giving impulse to the force that would bring them freedom from communism 34 years later.
The Poznan revolt showed "it was no longer possible to suppress the Poles' strong desire for freedom," Köhler said.