It was a miracle

Mateusz Wyrwich

In December 1970, workers from several dozen factories protested against the next drastic rise in prices. They protested in the streets of several Polish cities, including Gdansk, Gdynia, Elblag and Szczecin. The communist authorities used guns. According to the communists’ statistics several dozen people were killed then. Several hundred people were badly wounded. One of them was Adam Gotner, who worked in the Gdynia shipyard.

He loved the sea very much. He had special sentiments for the almost mythical Gdynia about which he read that before the war it had transformed from a village into a city. When he arrived in Gdynia from the region of Silesia he was only seventeen. He was not sure how people would welcome him. But he was offered a job in the shipyard soon. For a start he received 300 zloty extra to arrange his room in the workers’ hotel where he got to know friendly men who saw to it that he had good conditions for his further education. He used to say that he loved the city at first sight. So when he was drafted into the army and had to leave for Czestochowa for two years he was not satisfied. He longed for the streets, houses, squares he had just got to know. But he does not recollect Czestochowa as a bad place. Because at Jasna Gora he met an extraordinary woman called Grazyna and she became his wife. They fell in love. They got married. They came to Gdynia. She started studies and he enrolled at the Technical Shipbuilding College Conradinum. They did not have their own flat but they did not worry about it. They planed their Christmas shopping a week before the tragedy. They were enjoying every moment of their youth. They avoided politics and power.

And I went to take a bath...

On Monday, 14 December, the Gdynia Shipyard did not go on strike although workers commented on the strikes and events in Gdansk. The strike in the Gdynia Shipyard began the next day – on Tuesday. But on Monday afternoon Adam had classes at the College, located in Gdansk-Wrzeszcz. The classes began on time but were shortened and instead of the lessons the students commented on the morning events in the shipyard and in the streets of Gdansk. On that day Adam went with his colleagues to Gdansk. He still remembers this day and the next days when there were manifestations in Gdansk. He remembers the policemen’s aggression towards the demonstrators and breaking of shop windows, which he could not understand. On Wednesday evening he went to see his colleague and do his homework although the college was closed. And so was the shipyard. It was late when leaving home he heard the speech of the first secretary of the Voivodship Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party in Gdansk Mr Stanislaw Kociolek who appealed to the workers to go to work the next day. ‘I came home and suddenly one of my colleagues asks me whether I had a bath that day. At first I did not understand his question. I thought he could smell tearing gas from me as it was the previous day,’ Adam Gotner recollects. But he said, ‘You know if we had been shot during the manifestation it would have been foolishly to go to hospital without having taken a bath.’ I felt a light dread since he was speaking very seriously. I though to myself: indeed, I must have done so. And I went to take a bath.’

Pavement was slippery with blood

On Thursday, 17 December, Adam Gotner got up before 5 a.m. as usual to be in the Gdynia Shipyard several minutes before 6. Having no bad feelings he went to the train that collected workers from the whole region of Trojmiescie. The cars were crowded and it was loud inside. People commented on the communists’ crimes in Gdank on Tuesday – two workers of the shipyard were shot and several were injured in front of gate two. Some thought that it was the police that opened fire on the demonstrators. Some said it was the army. The train had more stops than usual – it was often halted and was delayed. On the platform at the Gdynia-Shipyard station there were so many people that it was hard to breathe despite the frost. In order to come to work on time Adam jumped over the rail and reached the street quickly. Because of the noise he did not hear the loudspeakers. Some male voice appealed to the workers to go back home. Adam wanted to reach the gate of the shipyard. There were crowds everywhere. Additionally, the police and the army blocked the street using transporters and tanks on which heavy machine guns were mounted. ‘I am going with a colleague of mine. Suddenly we stopped because the tank across the street fired. It cleared up. I cannot say whether these were cartridges or live shots. The bangs made people withdraw. There was chaos in the streets,’ recollects Adam Gotner. ‘My colleague told me to run away. But I answered, «Err, let’s stay. You’re always scary».’ Then we heard another salvo from the tank. I did not know what kind of bullets they used. Suddenly, I could see some salvos fired from the tank standing several metres opposite. I bent down to the man who had stood in front of me just a while ago. And he shrank his legs and then suddenly straightened them. I wanted to help him stand up. I was breathless as if someone put a pillow on my face. The man fell inertly. I tried to ask someone to help me lift the man. I did not realise that he was dead. I did not realise that I was seriously wounded. I only knew that I could not move my hand for some reason. I could see people lying around me. I did not know why. I staggered and wanted to get out as quickly as possible. I tried to step on bodies – on their bellies and their backs. I did not know that they were dead. Someone shouted towards me. I staggered again. I made some kind of death dance on the pavement that was full of blood. I lost balance. I did not look back. I wanted to run forward. I did not remember the moment of falling down. Somewhere near the main train station, perhaps near the City Hospital, I was conscious again. I was in a van. An army officer, holding a gun, with some three or four stars on his cap, shouted something in German. I did not understand why he did not speak Polish. The van was full of people. Several people were lying over me. Many days later I learned that dead bodies were mixed with living people in this van. In the emergency ward wounded Adam Gotner, with six bullets, spent several hours among the dead bodies. Someone observed that he was shot in his artery and would die soon. From time to time a nurse or a doctor came to check whether the young man sitting with his head down, with his chest half-torn off, was cold. ‘He came round for several minutes. Over and over again. When I was conscious I saw some injured people and blood on the floor. I heard doctors come and say, «This one will live; this one will die.» During the next round – as Dr. Roman Okoniewski told me later – Dr. Marian Teleszynski, an experienced army physician, who had fought under the command of General Anders during World War II, stopped by me. And he only asked, «Who is he?» Some doctor explained that I was shot in the artery. But the doctor looked at me carefully, surprised that I was still warm. And it occurred that my artery was not wounded but the bullet came through the subclavicular vein. So I was taken to the operation theatre. And thanks to the Divine Providence I am still alive.’
After the operation Adam Gotner was unconscious for four days. When he woke up he saw only fog. He was furious that he had to return to the world of the living. As he tells he felt better on the other side. ‘I really saw some angels. I was very happy that I was there. When I was returning to life I was afraid because I did not know what to expect here.’

Faith and two medical doctors

It was clearing up when Grazyna Gotner, Adam’s wife, was going to work. The shipyard workers’ manifestation occupied the whole width of the street. She did not know what had happened in front of the shipyard. However, she met her husband’s colleagues and had the impression that her husband was somewhere in the crowd. ‘I went to work and asked my boss, «Let me take a day off.» She refused. But in despair I said I was leaving,’ Grazyna Gotner says. ‘I was under the impression that something wrong had happened to Adam. I ran home and phoned all the hospitals. But I was told he was not there. Finally, the husband of my colleague said that Adam was in the City Hospital. But he added that he did not know if he was alive. I ran to the hospital like a madman. It was 4:45 p.m. and the curfew began at 5 p.m. I was in the hospital before 5… He was lying in bed, bloodstained and yellow as lemon. For two weeks the doctors gave him no chances to survive. For these two weeks I was told to go to Kartuzy or Koscierzyna to buy a coffin for Adam because the local funeral services ran out of coffins. «Unless a miracle happens,” the doctors added doubtfully. For me, a 19-year old girl, it was horrible. Like another experience that is still haunting me. Every day when I came to the hospital I saw hospital workers carrying people who had died during the night…I will not be able to forget these scenes till the end of my life. By the way, when I took my husband home after two-month stay in hospital he was told that he would not live long. But a miracle happened. Thanks to Lord God and the fantastic work of the doctors Marian Teleszynski and Roman Okoniewski Adam was recovering slowly.
After spending two months in hospital the doctors told Adam to return home as soon as possible and to continue treatment at home. After nine months they advised him firmly to return to his work. ‘My husband was psychologically weak,’ Grazyna Gotner says. ‘He was nervous. When he saw some man in the corridor he began shouting because he thought it was a policeman. He even tried to beat him. One day doctor Okoniewski asked me to come to his office and said, «If you want your husband to recover please take him home. Otherwise he will meditate on what happened, his psychological condition will get worse and he will never get out of this trauma» I asked where I should take him. Because I was expelled from the place I lived in. It was not known how the authorities would react concerning the victims. Will they take us where ‘white bears’ are?… So I asked the doctor where I was to take my husband who had his chest opened and was in plaster.’ And I approached the trade unionists. We know what kind of trade unions they were. But there were some true unionists: Mr Cupisz and Mrs Halinka Koscielna, who worked in the personnel department. I went to them several times and they helped me very much. Dr Okoniewski wrote me a document in which he stated that if my husband did not leave hospital he would go mad. I handed the document to the unionists. And at the end of January or beginning of February we got a small flat, which someone had left. We slept on the floor for the first several months. On newspapers and our clothes. We did not have any bed and sheets. We had simply nothing. We had only faith that it would be all right. Thank God, my husband was recovering slowly. Today we have two children. Our son is a medical doctor and our daughter is a chemist.
In 1971 Adam Gotner, thanks to his strong will and his wife’s support, went to his college, which he dreamt of. And he returned to work. In 1980 he participated in the strikes and helped to create the Trade Union ‘Solidarity’ in the Gdynia Shipyard. He was one of the initiators and very active in building the two monuments dedicated to the victims: the shipyard workers. In the period of the Third Polish Republic he was actively involved in building a new Poland.

"Niedziela" 51/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: