History Club: Death of a Bright Young Mind

By Julia Owerko 

Imagine a world where everything you hear could be a lie. Everything you deem as true is actually based on rumors. Communist Poland was haunted by truths that, in reality, were abstract theories created by individuals to satisfy the need for information. This resulted in many dualities between the truth of the militia (the functioning police in communist Poland) and the private investigations led by civil rights activists and ordinary people. Because they did not trust government media and prosecutors, they went their own way to search for truth. We can only imagine what it could be like living in a world where nothing is certain. 

Mr. Adam Gąsiejewski, known to many of us as Mr. Pan Adam, recalls the story of his friend’s brother, Marcin Antonowicz. Marcin died on November 2, 1985 at the age of only 19. For years after his death, Marcin’s story remained a symbol of police brutality and secrecy in communnist Poland. 

“[T]he official story was that Marcin was drunk when he was stopped and he was not the only one and there were other friends of his when they were stopped at the street, but he was supposedly to be the one to be obnoxious and was drunk,” recalls Mr. Pan Adam. 

Even though today we can reach out to sources like the BBC, CNN, or other trusted outlets, we need to realize that this is a privilege and luxury. Freedom of information was a hoax in Poland, controlled by censorship and government checks on information revealed. 

An official story is only official when people believe it. “I knew him and I knew that he would never be drunk. He could drink a beer or two but he would never drink to the moment that he would become rude or obnoxious or dangerous to others,” remembers Mr. Pan Adam. 

The police stated that the teenager opened the doors and jumped out of the moving vehicle. Independent investigations led by non-governmental organizations lead to different conclusions. Marcin was stopped by the police and asked to show his ID. When the officials saw a university card registered to Gdańsk, the home of Solidarity (an opposition organization), Marcin was immediately taken. Mr. Pan Adam later describes that autopsy and medical examinations point to the cause of death being police brutality. However, the officials refused to investigate and suppressed all initiatives at uncovering new information. 

But people searched for truth themselves. Stories presented by the officials didn’t make sense, contradicted themselves, and, paradoxically, motivated further questions. “I heard, originally, he was taken into a suka car and while being driven to the police station to be interrogated and to be detained he basically opened the door and jumped out of the car while the car was moving, which is not possible because there are no handles in the special compartment that is actually designed to lock people in and you cannot open the door from the inside. You can only open the door from the outside.” These contradictions made people talk about the story and as Mr. Pan Adam describes it, “rumors spread like wildfire”. 

After acquiring injuries by allegedly jumping out of a car, Marcin was taken to the emergency room. “His mother was at the emergency room when he was brought in by the ambulance group. She recognized him and she was a neurologist herself. She did everything to find out what happened. Marcin’s autopsy, or just examination before he died, and then the autopsy actually ruled the official version out. If he did really jump out of the car then the type of the injuries would be different than the ones that he had.” However, the authorities did not investigate any further. Even though this medical examination was never publicly addressed by the police, it was addressed by the public itself. 

The events regarding Marcin’s death impacted Mr. Pan Adam on a personal level. “I wanted to destroy communism, but I’ve never felt hatred towards communists. At this particular moment some hatred actually permeated my soul for some time because it was a friend of mine. All of a sudden, something that was quite big and universal, became very personal. A brother of a very close friend of mine is killed, beaten to death. And then he is made to be a drunk and someone whom he’d never been. This is wrong.” 

The nature of suppression disregards human determination and thirst for justice. This mistake proved to be devastating for the Communist government as Marcin’s funeral became one of the largest political demonstrations in which “the younger generation protested against violence, against the lies of the official news and official propaganda and made political demands.” 

Marcin’s tragic death, in the words of Mr. Pan Adam, “left a legacy, a positive legacy among my generation, my hometown. His death did not go in vain.” Although Marcin’s death was tragic, it demonstrated the danger of living in Poland and opened the eyes of many onto the brutality of the communist state. The funeral became an event of national significance. “I tried hard to convince many of my friends to attend the funeral although we were threatened that we’d be relegated from the school. I managed to convince all of my friends from my class to attend the funeral.”

“That’s his legacy – he managed to unite us all. And even those who were not that much against communism have realized that they could be the victims themselves because anyone could be stopped. There was no control of the guys who were part of the system of oppression and that everybody could become a victim like Marcin Antonowicz.” Mr. Pan Adam reflects that although a lot of his classmates were from different political backgrounds, all students united to mourn the tragic death of young Antonowicz. 

“After some time, after the fall of communism, there has been an investigation which has proven that he was actually beaten up. He was taken into a larger police car and while he was being taken to the police station, the policemen who were with him were beating him up. And he was actually beaten to death, but he died two weeks after.” 

Marcin Antonowicz lays peacefully in Olsztyn. His last name is listed in the long list of presumptive victims of the communist police’s brutality. In 2007, in the name of Marcin, his parents received the Knight’s Cross, the second highest civil distinction in Poland. (Polskie Radio) Although he may not be among us anymore, his story will outlive many. 

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