Polish Survivor Leads Hunt for ’70 Riot Victims : Labor: In the acclaimed movie ‘Man of Iron,’ the killings are depicted as central to the rise of Solidarity a decade later.
Adam Gotner, badly wounded, survived that bloody day when police opened fire on people in the street. Twenty years later, Solidarity runs the government and he leads a search for secretly buried bodies.
Dec. 17, 1970, is etched in Polish memory as a day of slaughter. At 6 a.m., Gotner and many others were walking to their jobs at the Paris Commune shipyard.
Tanks and police were posted at the shipyard gates. Suddenly, the police began shooting.
Gotner, then 25, felt something hit his shoulder and saw his jacket turning red. He thought of running at the tanks, “but I realized it would be instant suicide,” and retreated.
“All this time, for several minutes, I could hear the shooting continuing, and then it seemed I was stepping on people,” he said.
“I had the impression I was stepping on bodies. The whole street had been covered with people going to work. In my mind, there were at least 500 dead.”
Long afterward, Gotner realized that most were not dead, but either wounded or sprawling for cover.
The communist authorities had declared the port and shipyard closed because of unrest over government-imposed increases in food prices, but had not told the workers. Police may have thought the men intended to occupy the shipyard.
Official accounts said 45 Baltic port and shipyard workers were killed that day, 28 of them in Gdynia and Gdansk. Many Poles believe the number was much higher.
A committee led by Gotner is trying to determine how many died in Gdynia, which means digging for bodies. Two excavations have yielded no conclusive results.
A macabre legend grew around the “December events” and the authorities contributed to it by collecting bodies and burying them hastily at night, often with no relatives present.
Tombstones erected later were allowed to say only that the person honored had died a “tragic death.” No mention of the Gdynia killings was permitted in the state-controlled press.
Attempts to investigate were blocked even in 1980-81, Solidarity’s first brief experience of legal existence.
Censorship was eased enough to allow Andrzej Wajda to make the acclaimed movie “Man of Iron,” in which the 1970 Gdynia killings are portrayed as central to the rise of Solidarity a decade later.
Gotner survived five bullet wounds in the chest, eventually became a Solidarity activist in Gdynia and organized a civic committee this year to build a new monument to the victims in front of City Hall.
Soon after it was formed, his committee came under public pressure to investigate the killings. With the Communist Party out of power, city officials agreed.
On a sunny April day at the Witominski Cemetery, gravediggers lifted the coffin of Jadwiga Sikorska from a sandy hillside and probed a little deeper.
They found two sets of bones wrapped in cloth. One was too old to be from 1970; the other did not appear old enough.
A representative of the prosecutor’s office was present and the remains were taken to a forensic laboratory for analysis.
Sikorska’s son, Jerzy, had noticed bones in the earth when he buried his mother in March and told the committee.
Earlier, 70 volunteers dug up a 60-foot stretch of path in another part of the cemetery where witnesses had reported signs of newly dug graves immediately after the 1970 shootings. No bodies were found.
Experts confirmed that part of the path had been dug up about 20 years ago, but only to a depth of about four feet. They said there was no evidence the soil had been disturbed below that depth for hundreds of years.
“There were several hypotheses, and mine is that they were preparing to bury bodies there and then decided not to because of personnel changes in the government,” Gotner said in an interview at his modest apartment overlooking the shipyard.
He is a slender, articulate man with dark, curly hair salted with gray, and is cautious in expressing opinions about the outcome of his search. When pressed, Gotner said: “I think it may turn out to be true that five or 10 more people were killed than has been reported.”
That conclusion would not be popular. “Already, I have heard gossip that the fact that we have not found anything proves we are on the side of the authorities,” he said.
Several people claimed to have seen secret burials. Three witnesses who appeared reliable, including a militiaman, claim to have seen about 200 bodies.
Gortner noted, however, that “no one is coming to us and asking us to find somebody,” despite public appeals for information.
Whether the victims were more or fewer, Gotner said, “we want to find the truth. We cannot let half-truths continue to exist if we want to build the future.”
He removed his shirt, revealing scars on the upper chest and a very deep exit wound in his back.
“If I had known I had five bullets in me, I would have died of fright,” he said, laughing.
But his laughter faded. “Doing this is my responsibility to those who died at that time,” Gotner said. “I remember when I was walking and I saw someone falling down. I wanted to help him then, but I could not.”