Danuta Walesa shares her message of self-reliance and resiliency

'If there is a problem, fix it and get on with life'

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On Thursday night, a tiny woman with a neat haircut and sensible glasses stood quietly in the lobby of the Regent Square Theater, in the middle of a scene out of a Hollywood movie premiere, with camera flashes going off in her face and people eagerly crowding around her.

Actually, Danuta Walesa, former first lady of Poland, is a star, despite her modest demeanor at the screening of the film "Walesa: Man of Hope."

This is the woman who held it all together, raising eight children and running a household while her husband, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, was jailed by Poland's communist government and she endured her own police interrogations and humiliations. Later, after martial law and the fall of communism, Mrs. Walesa became the first first lady of Poland when her husband was elected president in 1990. And two years ago, she authored a 550-page memoir, an honest accounting of a time that was exhilarating and difficult.

On this evening, though, despite suffering from jet lag, the 65-year-old Mrs. Walesa gamely engaged fans -- old and young, many of whom spoke Polish but brought along American friends -- who jammed the small theater's lobby. She also took questions after the film's two-hour screening, and will do the same at a second screening at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Carnegie Mellon University's McConomy Auditorium .

It's been a long time since she was in the public eye, and with her children grown -- she has 12 grandchildren now -- "I am master of myself," she said in an interview earlier in the day, speaking through a translator while sipping tea at the Inn on Negley in Shadyside.

But this trip is part of continuing work on her part to make sure people understand Poland's historic critical role in jumpstarting a process that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain across the Soviet Bloc in 1989.

Asked about recent events in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula, however, she will only say that the region is too close to Russia, compared to Poland in August 1980.

But in her emailed interviews, asked about how well Poland made the transition to democracy, she is adamant: "Communism was an unmitigated evil -- no, excuse me, is an evil."

Polish workers, led by her husband, were engaged in "a righteous struggle for freedom and democracy that lifted people's spirits and gave them strength."

It hasn't been easy, summoning up those difficult days, "as when your house and personal belongings are searched through by the police, or my reaction when I learned that my husband was being released from prison on a temporary pass to attend our newborn daughter's christening."

Or, for that matter, when she was strip-searched by communist authorities at the airport upon returning from Norway, where she had collected the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of her husband. ("I didn't feel anything beyond numbness and delirium. Feelings come later.")

There is not a whit of self-pity.

"Everyone has some kind of problem or other," she said. "I live by the creed that if there's a problem, then fix it and get on with life. Does constant dwelling on it and complaining about it help to solve it? No, it doesn't."

Given that she was responsible "for home, family, eight children and an absent husband, if I had taken the time to feel sorry for myself I would have bent and broken under the weight, and my household and children along with me. I managed to survive difficult times, thanks to my own determination and the grace of God."

The film "Walesa," by renowned director Andrzej Wajda, is a dramatization, interspersed with documentary clips from actual events. In the Regent Square lobby is a poster depicting two young, handsome actors who play Lech and Danuta Walesa.

What was it like, she is asked, to see an actress play her on the screen?

"For me the most important scenes in the movie were the documentary scenes because they show what really happened," she said.

On Friday night Mrs. Walesa attended a fundraising banquet at the University Club to support Polish studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Today, there's a visit to Fallingwater, and on Sunday she goes to a 9 a.m. Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill, where some of the service will be in her native language.

Her own memoir, "Dreams and Secrets," took more than two years to write. She sat and talked for hours on end with journalist Piotr Adamowicz, who accompanied her on this trip. It wasn't easy to answer questions about events that she was so emotionally involved in, but "in a sense it did have a kind of therapeutic value. Any personal confession involving the stirring up of personal memories is a sort of spiritual therapy. A religious person will know what I mean."

In fact, in Poland, the book transformed her "from a drab housewife into a lady of the house," she joked. "Dreams and Secrets" is only available in Polish, but "it's my dream" that it one day be translated into English.

When it was published, the media made much of her candid admission that she resented her husband for not involving her more in his work or for not being at home more. Asked about that, she related a story.

"A certain lady asked me to write a special dedication to her in my book with more or less the following content: 'May husbands always listen to their wives.' I asked that lady how old her husband was, and she said 72. I told her he certainly wasn't going to start listening to her at that age," she said with a laugh.

Mrs. Walesa did her best answering questions during the interview Thursday afternoon, but she was clearly flagging from jet lag. As a reporter bid her goodbye so she could take a nap, she had three parting words:

"Tell the truth," she said.


Correction (March 22): This article has been updated to provide the correct name of the church in Polish Hill.


Mackenzie Carpenter, mcarpenter@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG.

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