Polish freedom through the lens of Chris Niedenthal

On 13 December 1981 martial law was introduced in Poland – one of the most difficult and tragic experiences in the recent history of the country. Chris Niedenthal, photojournalist, had the opportunity to observe these events up close. In his interview for Polska.pl, he talks about the atmosphere of these years and about his photographs that went down in history.

Polska.pl: Warsaw's Moskwa Cinema, an armoured personnel carrier and soldiers in front of it, and a huge film banner with the title Czas Apokalipsy (Apocalypse Now) – you have talked about this photograph many times and almost every adult Polish person knows it. What happened outside the frame? What do you remember from the night of the 12 to 13 December 1981 and the morning of 13 December in Poland?

Chris Niedenthal*: I visited a few parties that night. One was held in an office of an English TV channel that had just opened its Polish branch – what timing! The new employees organized a party to celebrate, and we went there with my wife. Then we went to our friends, where also a lot of people with ties to the Solidarity movement attended, and then we heard that people were starting to disappear, that some of them were gone.  Nobody knew what was going on, it was late in the evening. Then I went to my family, to Saska Kępa, where I lived at the time. The atmosphere was uncanny. We had a window open and we sang patriotic tunes! We came back home just before three a.m., and there was a friend of mine waiting for me, a cameraman and a photographer, and he told me that something was up. He said:  “Don't go home, take your camera and let's go see what's happening.” That’s what I did, I crossed the Vistula River and I went downtown. I saw the concrete anti-tank crosses on the bridge. They weren't laid out, but they were there, just in case, to shut down the bridge, prepared. It was then that I realised that something awful is going on. 

Spotkanie autorskie z Chrisem Niedenthalem

What did you think about then? Where did you want to go, as a photojournalist?

We went to Mokotowska street, where the Solidarity movement had its seat in Mazowsze. The street was closed. There were military and militia trucks, there was no access. My friend had ties to the opposition and he said that there was a flat nearby where we could spend the night. He took me and a few other people to an empty flat at Plac Zbawiciela; the flat only had a bed and a TV set. We went to sleep where we could – some of us on the floor, some of us on the bed.

Was it then that you learned about the martial law?

I had a small short-wave radio that received the BBC and Radio Liberty. Practically all western journalists had one, because it was small and you could take it with you everywhere. Every hour on the hour you could check what the BBC was broadcasting. I tried to get BBC in that flat and see whether their journalists know more than I do. There were all these trucks, militia and soldiers, and they all used walkie-talkies, and they jammed my radio. But I heard what the soldiers or the militia were talking about. There were so many of them that I couldn't receive western stations on my radio, which made the situation seem worse. We turned on the TV in the morning and listened to General Wojciech Jaruzelski speak. And that is how we found out what had happened.

Martial law and the accompanying tensions are a huge challenge for a photojournalist, but as a human, you must have surely been afraid?

I swallowed hard and I thought that we can't do anything, and surely we can't take photographs. But that was our job. We hid our cameras under our coats and we ran to the Solidarity's offices. No military or militia was there, but the glass pane in the door was broken. It turned out that the militia searched the office, everything was  scattered: typewriters, papers. Even though I was afraid, I started to photograph the building. It started to get dangerous, because apparently a militia convoy was coming. We were trapped, they had us served on a plate. We had no way to run. We even planned to climb up the roof and run on the roofs – but you should try running on the roofs in Warsaw in December... In the end we managed to run through the back door before the militia came. We learned that a copy of the Our Lady of Jasna Góra painting, a holy painting for the Polish Catholics, was to be transported from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church to another church. It was planned for a long time, as the copy had travelled all around Poland, and on that day it arrived in that particular Warsaw church. We went there and what I remember the most are the photographs taken right there. The faces of people during the mass. The fear in their eyes. What is interesting, nobody stopped the procession, even though martial law prohibited mass events. I guess the authorities did not want to be compromised by stopping a religious procession. No militia or army was present. The procession went along the streets of Żoliborz district. It was led by Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, less known at the time than he is now. It was very moving – people knelt on the snow, women cried and carried candles in their hands. It was really a day where everybody was afraid. Nobody knew what would happen, nobody knew what martial law meant. Was it war, or was it not?

How did you find yourself in front of Moskwa Cinema?

I'm not sure whether it was the 13th or 14th December... I went through my notes but the answer is not in there. I know that we went there with my friend, the cameraman, and an American photographer. We stuck together, because we were afraid and we decided that we would be safer in a group. We drove along Rakowiecka street, towards Puławska street, that leads to Moskwa Cinema. My brother-in-law was driving, so that we could have our hands free to take photographs – because we couldn't do it on the streets. When we arrived at Puławska, I saw a soldier managing the traffic. Luckily, he had his back to me. I took out my camera, I saw the cinema with the Apocalypse Now banner. I knew that it would be a great picture. I told my friends that we had to stop here and try to find a place to take photographs from, because a good photograph is in the making. And we hadn't seen that vehicle yet. It was behind the trees.  We saw it, when we turned right. I thought: what a frame! I got off and started to look for a place to hide. It wasn't a good place, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was just behind the corner; its employees could live in the buildings nearby. Luckily, the door to one staircase was opened, and the windows went out to Puławska street, and so the picture was taken.

It was only the beginning, because the film had to be transported to the West. How did that happen? 

It was all very strange, because as we took the photos, the alarm went off in our car – that we all forgot about. Imagine: a few weirdly dressed guys, because we had the cameras underneath our puffy coats, and a wailing alarm. Luckily the army ignored us and we were able to leave.  We did not know how to deliver the photograph to our office in the United States before they finish with the next edition. There were no planes, no phones. All I could think of was to go to a railway station, because a train to Berlin was due to leave in the evening. It was Dworzec Gdański, at the time trains to Berlin left from there. I went there just before 10 p.m. The train was scheduled to leave at 9.50 p.m., and the curfew started at 10 p.m., and you could get arrested, so I had very little time. I nervously looked for a passenger who would agree to take these films to Berlin. It wasn't easy, because there weren't many passengers to begin with. Polish people couldn't go at all, because borders were closed. There were some people there, but I was afraid to ask, because I had no idea who they were. It could be the Secret Service who only waited for people like me, because I wasn't the only one who tried to have different things transported out, not only films. I was afraid of everything and everyone, and time was running out, because the train was going to leave soon. I had to get off the streets soon. In the end, I jumped on the train and I checked compartment after compartment, looking for somebody to help me. I looked for someone young. In the last moment I found a young German student, I told him everything, because I didn't want to leave him with a cat in the bag. I gave him the films and I asked him to call Newsweek's Bonn office. I told him:  “Just call them, they will know what to do.” For a photographer, this is a nightmare to give up your films at such a historic moment. The unknown. I was afraid that the student would be searched at the border, that he would be arrested, I would be in trouble, and there would be no photographs. It looked bad, but I had no other choice. Off he went, and I never saw him again. Now I wish I had taken his contact information, because I didn't have an opportunity to thank him. I even don't know where he was travelling to. I only know tha the did call Bonn, the office sent a courier to get the films, and it all ended well. 

But how did you feel as a photojournalist who is the first to arrive on the spot but can’t go to where the action is and is unable to take photographs? Like during the strikes in the Gdańsk Shipyard in August 1980?

It's a weird feeling. You know that you are in a place where history is being written, but you are not allowed to enter, and when they do let you in, you can't take photographs. You had to make a decision. I got in, and I promised not to take pictures (laughter).  I was allowed to enter as an interpreter, because an English journalist came with me. He actually was the one that convinced me to come. We arrived there on the second day of the strikes, there weren't any other journalists there.  The workers were scared, they didn't know what to do with us. No foreigners could enter the shipyard, not to mention foreign journalists. In order to enter the shipyard during a normal working day, not during the strikes, a journalist had to apply for a permit from different ministries, and it took weeks. And we came and wanted to enter just like that. Their first reaction? They said no. They were afraid that they would be responsible for letting foreigners, potential spies, into the shipyard – at the time each and every person from the West was a spy to them. I was afraid, too, but I knew that we had to get in. I convinced the workers to let my friend in, the journalist, so that the world could learn what was going on. But he didn't speak Polish, so I asked them to let me in as an interpreter. They told me to sit next to the shipyard's director, Klemens Gniech, and the guy with the moustache.  They started to talk, and I interpreted.  It was clear that the guy with the moustache knew what he was doing. I later learned that the guy with the moustache was Lech Wałęsa.

And when did you manage to take the pictures in the Gdańsk Shipyard?

At one point I just couldn't resist, and when there was a pause in the negotiations, I got up and I took the first pictures from behind Gniech's back. I knew that this event is so important that I just had to take it. Then I went out and I took a photograph of the gate to the shipyard.

Let's go a year back, to the first pilgrimage of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, to his homeland.  We are in Częstochowa and once again you are in the right at the right time. You take a picture of a small girl held by the Pope. What happened then, during that pilgrimage?

That was the moment when my so-called career started. That pilgrimage was so incredible, for Poland, for all Polish people. You could feel that unique atmosphere everywhere, and I was happy, too. First, I was happy that Poland was back on the world map, it meant that people all over the world would finally know where Poland was, and it would be easier for me to sell my reports from Poland, because my editor would know where it was. Second, it was the country of the Pope – even better. I only did one small report for Newsweek, somebody turned to me, miraculously. And then one journalist from the Newsweek's Bonn office asked me to take photographs during the Pope's pilgrimage. The central office in New York did not agree, and they sent their own photojournalist.  There were two of us, but it was me, a young and unknown photographer, that I took better photographs, in a way.

Chris Niedenthal w Gdyni

You were closer.

I was lucky, because I knew a monk, and when all journalists took a coach to the press centre, he stopped me and said that the Pope might go to see the crowds again. And so I stayed. I took pictures as the Pope was walking, and someone from the crowd put the girl up. The Pope took her, and the girl, as little girls often do when held by a stranger, started to cry. Years later, when special editions of magazines about the Pope appeared, that photograph was published by one of them. That girl's parents wrote to the paper whether they could contact the photographer, because they wanted to have that photo in their album. I sent them the photo and the girl, twenty-something at that time, wrote to me that she is very grateful and suggested that perhaps we may could meet someday. We managed to meet years later, and it was a very moving moment. I'm sensitive and I get emotional easily.  That girl was a co-creator of my professional success, I met her as an adult woman, she came to me with her boyfriend. It was an important moment.  


EN_00116049_0006.jpg *Chris Niedenthal -  one of the most distinguished photojournalists in Europe. He has worked for international publications such as Newsweek, Time, Der Spiegel and Forbes. In 1986 he received the World Press Photo award for his portrait of János Kádár, the General Secretary of the Hungarian communist party. He became famous for his photographs of Poland during martial law, Solidarity and pilgrimages of John Paul II to his homeland. On 14 December 2009 he was decorated with the silver Gloria Artis medal.


Martial law

Martial law was introduced in the territory of the entire People's Republic of Poland (PRL) governed by the communist authorities on 13 December 1981. General Wojciech Jaruzelski announced it in his morning speech broadcast on television. Armoured army and militia columns entered the cities. Curfew was imposed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. You could not leave your place of residence without a permit. At the beginning phones were turned off; later the phone calls and correspondence were censored, or redacted.

The decree that imposed martial law also suspended all organisations, associations and trade unions. According to historians, its introduction was to prevent mobilisation of the Independent Self-governing Trade Union "Solidarity" that was getting ready to launch a general strike. Established in 1980, the Poland-wide trade union was a leading opposition force against the PRL government. Lech Wałęsa is one of the best known representatives of the Solidarity movement.

Martial law was suspended on 31 December 1982, and revoked on 22 July 1983. During that time, Polish people were afraid that the Soviet Union would invade their country.