At a busy intersection just outside the historic center of Wroclaw, stands an unusual collection of sculptures. These are statues of ordinary people going about their daily business. But something isn’t right. On one corner the people are sinking into the pavement, and across the street, another group is rising out of the sidewalk. This art can be enjoyed at face value, but to truly appreciate the artist’s poignant message, it takes a glimpse at Poland’s recent turbulent history.
This artwork is called Przejście, which translates as passage or transition, and it’s also known in English as The Anonymous Pedestrians. These 14 figures were crafted by Polish artist Jerry Kalina in December 2005. In addition to being a fascinating piece of public art, it’s significant to Wroclaw because it marks the 24th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. This was a frightening time when the military arrested ordinary civilians in the middle of the night, many of whom were never seen again. The descending pedestrians are the missing.
After 2 years of military oppression, martial law was lifted, and ordinary citizens rose out of the earth on the other side of the street.
When martial law was instigated, the pro-democracy movement was gaining strength throughout Poland, and the communist government hoped the move would help rein in opposition groups like Solidarity. Anti-government organizations were banned, leaders were arrested, and thousands of soldiers patrolled the streets. A curfew was imposed, borders were sealed, phone lines disconnected, and airports were closed.
Martial law is an extreme measure, and it hasn’t been imposed in the United States since the Civil War. But when we lived in Sudan in the mid 80s, Terri and I had a firsthand look at what life under martial law is like.
Immediately after a military coup removed long-term dictator Jaafar Nimeiry, the army moved swiftly to take control of the city. All borders were closed, tanks were parked on the airport runway, curfews were put into place, the phone system was shut down, and roadblocks were set up throughout the city.
In the capital Khartoum, the restrictions only lasted a couple of weeks, and we worked hard to stay off the radar. Luckily, I only had one scary encounter at a military checkpoint where I experienced my first, and hopefully last, machine gun barrel thrust into my open car window. At the other end of the gun was an agitated soldier asking what I was up to.
We were on pins and needles constantly, and I can’t imagine what Poland must have gone through for 2 years.
Today, the democratic Poland is a very different place than in the 80s. But it’s certain that this sculpture is still a painful reminder for many Polish people. And after reading the artist’s inspiration for the The Anonymous Pedestrians, it was even more emotive for us. It reminded us of a troubled time in our past, and gave us an even greater appreciation for our peaceful lives.
James & Terri
7. Onyshchenko via Wikimedia Commons