Konrad Białecki

Persecutions of the rebellious city: investigations and trials

A gloomy foreboding of persecutions was to be expected by residents of the rebellious Poznań from the people’s government were the words of Józef Cyrankiewicz. The then Prime Minister, said on June 29th that anyone who raised his hand against the people's government might be sure that this hand would be ‘chopped off’. The following day, Edward Gierek, the then Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (KC PZPR), announced severe punishments at the funeral of victims.
Early detentions were made by soldiers of the People’s Army of Poland, whilst they were suppressing the protests. Then, on the night of June 28th , Security Office (UB) and Civic Militia (MO) officers held large-scale detentions to catch the activists of the Poznań June. They continued for a couple of weeks after clashes ended, on a smaller scale though. According to a report by UB, a total of 746 persons have been detained by August 8th in connection with the Poznań June events. 323 of them were arrested and investigations were launched, whereas the rest was released following interrogations. Out of those arrested, a total of 50 persons faced charges. As asserted by Ludwik Zboralski, the then Provincial Prosecutor, “only those persons who used the workers’ demonstration to commit crimes under our criminal legislation arrested were, i.e. mugging, robberies and assaults on public buildings and institutions as well as individuals”. These words were a presage to the tactics adopted by the authorities in the following weeks and months. The official propaganda and representatives of authorities of different levels would emphasise that in June 1956, Poznań became a scene of a workers’ revolt, very much justified by the then social and economic situation, yet used by a group of criminals and degenerates to embark on corrupt and hooligan activities. Such an approach probably resulted from the government’s awareness that it was impossible to try several dozens of thousands of people who took to streets on June 28th . It might have as well been a result of government manoeurves and re-evaluations that were yet to take their shape in October 1956. The goal behind the decision not to punish a majority for taking part in the strike and demonstration was also to corroborate a thesis pushed forward by the propaganda that these were not workers but ‘hooligan and criminal elements’ that acted against the people’s government.
During the investigation conducted by UB it turned out that facts failed to support some a priori assumptions made by the interrogators in the early stages of the investigation. For example, a thesis on the existence of a ‘secret counterrevolutionary centre’ that had inspired the workers’ revolt has been refuted, just like the conviction that ‘Western sabotage centres’ had any influence on the Poznań events.
The trials, initially scheduled for late July, were gradually postponed. One of the reasons behind it was that investigations dragged on. Another reason was the concern over a potential aftermath of the sight of defendants with clear marks of physical abuse. It is worth mentioning here that maltreatment of the detained was a common practice of MO and UB officers. Thus, any marks of a ‘breach of socialist law and order’ were supposed to disappear from defendants’ bodies first. One of the arrested was even offered surgery to correct a broken nose. Over time, defendants received better food and a daily change of clothes. Such far-reaching precautions were taken due to the fact that Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz had on September 5th asserted that trials would be open and what is more, foreign observers would be allowed to attend.
The anticipated number of defendants changed as trial commencement dates changed. At first, investigators prepared 51 court proceedings, with 135 defendants to sit in the dock. In some cases, considered of key importance, there were as many as 2-3 versions of the indictments prepared. Eventually, only three trials were held, with defendants whose guilt seemed indisputable and easy to prove. For many of them, there were additional aggravating circumstances in that they had run afoul of the law before. It was a deliberate measure of those in power to present the most active participants of June as ordinary bandits. It was also supposed to indirectly cast suspicion on the workers’ protest as a whole.
The first of the above mentioned trials, commonly known as the ‘trial of three’, began on September 27th , 1956 in the building of the Provincial Court in Poznań located at the junction of Marcinkowskiego and Solna Streets. Defendants included: Józef Foltynowicz, Kazimierz Żurek and Jerzy Sroka. They were accused of an assault on Corporal Zygmunt Izdebny, security officer, who died from injuries he suffered. Furthermore, Żurek was accused of damaging official files of the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office and the District Court, whereas Sroka was accused of destroying furnishings of the prison seized by protesters.
The ‘trial of nine’ began on the very same day (September 27th ), in the same building. Defendants included: Zenon Urbanek, Józef Pocztowy, Stanisław Jaworek, Ludwik Wierzbicki, Łukasz Piotrowski, Stanisław Kaufmann, Leon Olejniczak, Janusz Biegański, and Jan Suwart. The first four were accused of committing “together with other unidentified perpetrators, a violent assault on Public Security officers present in the building of the Provincial Office for Public Security”, while the others were accused of assisting in the “violent assault on Public Security officers” through provision of weapons and ammunition. The indictment also included a case of murder of Roman Strzałkowski and two other boys, despite the fact that information collected in the investigation failed to support charges against the defendants.
The last of the planned trials, known as the ‘trial of ten’ began on October 5. Defendants included: Janusz Kulas, Mikołaj Pac-Pomarnacki, Roman Bulczyński, Władysław Kaczkowski, Hieronim Zielonacki, Marian Joachimiak, Antoni Klimecki, Jan Łuczak, Zygmunt Majcher and Zbigniew Błaszczyk. They were accused of a number of acts committed during clashes with soldiers of the People’s Army of Poland, officers of the Provincial Office for Public Security and in an action against MO posts.
It seemed that defendants in all three trials might receive very strict sentences, especially that they were tried on the basis of the Small Criminal Code of 1946 that provided for punishment ranging from 5 years’ imprisonment to life imprisonment or even death penalty for the crimes they were accused of. Remembering the nature of the ‘Stalinist justice’, residents of Poznań were very concerned about the future of the defendants. Some of them even attempted to put pressure on representatives of Justice through sending anonymous threatening letters to prosecutors and judges or a leaflet campaign. Poznanians were not alone in this. Both prior and during the trials, there were many calls from abroad demanding fair trials and mercy for defendants. The observers were surprised with the course of the ‘trial of three’ as well as two others: ‘trial of nine’ and the ‘trial of ten’. The judges dismissed any testimony given by the defendants in the investigation if coerced by physical abuse or even if there was a suspicion of physical abuse. They also allowed defendants’ attorneys to provide lengthy comments, summon expert witnesses, etc. The aforementioned expert witnesses emphasized psychological underpinnings of acts committed by the defendants, pointing to their emotional instability resulting from the young age as well as diminished responsibility of persons acting under the influence of an ecstatic crowd. Representatives of the bar in Poznań deserve the greatest recognition. Attorneys firmly resisted any attempts by prosecutors to separate activities taken up by the defendants from the context of workers’ protests; they emphasized that a vast majority of the defendants had a working class background, and pointed out any gaps in evidence gathered by investigators. In short, they tried to present the defendants’ actions in the social and political context, contrary to prosecutors’ efforts. This strategy was effective as in September and October there was already a sense of change in the air. As a result, sentences passed both in the ‘trial of three’ (Józef Foltynowicz and Jerzy Sroka: 4 years and 6 months’ imprisonment, Kazimierz Żurek: 4 years’ imprisonment) and in the ‘trial of nine’ (Zenon Urbanek, Stanisław Jaworek and Ludwik Wierzbicki: 6 years’ imprisonment, Józef Pocztowy: 3 years’ imprisonment, Janusz Biegański: 2.5 years’ imprisonment, Łukasz Piotrowski: 1.5 years’ imprisonment, Stanisław Kauffman: 2 years’ imprisonment suspended for 5 years, whereas Jan Suwart and Leon Olejniczak were found not guilty) were much more lenient than expected. What should be added is that in the case of the ‘trial of ten’, where the legal decision was supposed to be given on October 22nd , the judge first resumed the trial in order to hear new witnesses, then adjourned the trial only to discontinue it later. It was clearly Gomułka’s speech that motivated this attitude; at the 7th Plenum of KC PZPR he stated among others that “the causes of both the Poznań tragedy and deep discontent of the entire working class were rooted in us, the party management, in the government”. Such interpretation provided by the leader of the country had actually closed the option of any further persecution.

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