Professor honoured for work in Polish student movement
Gregory Jerkiewicz didn’t realize how dangerous his work in the Polish student movement of the early 1980s was at the time.
During his undergraduate degree at the Technical University of Gdansk, he co-founded and became a leader of the Independent Students’ Association, which supported the pro-democratic work of the Solidarity trade union and effectively helped dismantle the communist regime in Poland. He was recently honoured by the Polish government with a Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, an award equivalent to the Order of Canada.
“We were young and when you’re young, you’re fearless. Now I realize how dangerous the entire endeavour was,” says Dr. Jerkiewicz (Chemistry). “That’s the beauty of being young and idealistic. You don’t think about the consequences. You do something because it is right.”
The student union – the first non-governmental student association in the Eastern Bloc – was formed in the aftermath of anti-government strikes in Poland. It was an opportunity for students opposed to the regime’s control of their education, and the mandatory military and Russian language training imposed on them, to have an independent organization representing their interests. The group grew quickly, working alongside the Solidarity trade union led by Lech Wałęsa.
Dr. Jerkiewicz became the student group’s link to Solidarity, coordinating their activities with the larger union. When the government cracked down on activists, imposing martial law in 1981, he was targeted and imprisoned for six months.
The experience left many scars – on his health, his nerves, and his memory. Pressure mounted to release imprisoned activists and Dr. Jerkiewicz was freed. He hoped things were changing but instead, the government kept coming down hard on activists and Dr. Jerkiewicz was constantly followed by a government agent. At one point, the agent told him he would likely not survive if he stayed in Poland.
Dr. Jerkiewicz began planning his move to Canada, forced to accept an agreement with the regime to never return to Poland. He moved to Ottawa, where he completed his PhD at the University of Ottawa and in 1992, he began teaching at the University of Sherbrooke. He came to Queen’s in 2002.
Although he’s returned to Poland many times since the fall of communism in 1989, his most recent trip to accept his award was particularly meaningful. He received the award from President Bronisław Komorowski on August 31, the anniversary of the end of the strikes and the Gdansk Agreement.
“It means a lot to me, this award. I was one little wheel in a machine but I was still one little wheel in a machine that basically improved the world,” Dr. Jerkiewicz says. “The communist regime doesn’t exist, people are free, people have a better quality of life. This is recognition for everything we did.”