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A Life in Solidarity

With the passing of Karol Modzelewski, the Polish historian and dissident who gave the Solidarity trade union its name, the world has lost one of Europe's greatest public intellectuals. After the end of communism, Poland's new capitalist political class dismissed Modzelewski's views, but they are more relevant than ever.

WARSAW – There are very few people whose death can mark the end of an era. Karol Modzelewski was one of them. A historian and founding member of the Polish trade union Solidarity, Modzelewski died on April 28 in a Warsaw hospital. Sadly, he leaves behind a country in the grips of a populist government whose accession to power might have been averted if his own earlier warnings had been heeded.

Modzelewski was what the philosopher Hannah Arendt would call an actor – both a “doer” and a “sufferer” – in many of the key political movements of the last 80 years. His life could fill at least one chapter in any European history textbook.

He was born as Kirill Budniewicz in Moscow at the height of Stalin’s Great Purge, which took both his maternal grandfather and father. His Jewish-Russian mother later married the Polish communist Zygmunt Modzelewski, whom she fought alongside in World War II while little Kirill sheltered with other children.

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