On October 6, 1971, a bomb planted by brothers Jerzy and Ryszard Kowalczyk exploded in the auditorium of the Pedagogical University in Opole. The incident took place on the eve of the Militia’s Day celebration. It was one of the largest attempts to attack government officials after the collapse of the anti-communist underground. On Wednesday in Opole, ceremonies were held to commemorate the brothers’ deed.
The organizers of the attack came from Rząśnik near Wyszków in Mazovia. The elder, born in 1937, Ryszard, already in high school, aroused the interest of the security services. He was caught hanging up anti-communist posters he made. He was also questioned on the accusation of listening to Radio Free Europe. Jerzy, who was five years younger, planned to undertake more actions against the communist system in the 1960s. In the forests surrounding his hometown, he collected TNT from unexploded bombs and ammunition from the Second World War. The views of both brothers were greatly influenced by the events of March 1968, and the “final argument” in favor of organizing an attack was the December 1970 massacre on the Coast.
In 1963, Ryszard Kowalczyk graduated from physical studies at the Higher Pedagogical School in Opole. In the following years he was a researcher at the university, and in 1971 he obtained a doctoral degree. His brother worked at the same university. He was a turner employed at the Department of Physics. The Pedagogical University was the most important university in the region, and this meant that it educated not only future teachers, but also the staff of the local communist authorities. From the point of view of the Kowalczyk brothers, it was a potential target of an attack against the PRL system.
Explosives at the celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the MO
Numerous celebrations with the participation of the authorities took place in the main hall of the university in Opole. Such celebrations were to be organized in October 1971 on the anniversary of the establishment of the Citizens’ Militia and security organs of the People’s Republic of Poland in 1944. During the academy, the militia officers who participated in the suppression of the strikes on the coast in December 1970 were to be awarded. On October 7, 1971, Lieutenant Colonel Julian Urantówek, the provincial commander of the MO in Opole, was to celebrate in the auditorium. During the December events – acting as the provincial commander of the MO in Szczecin – he issued orders to shoot with live ammunition at protesting workers.
In the days preceding the celebration, Jerzy Kowalczyk placed explosives in the heating duct, in the corridor and under the auditorium. The brothers knew the plans of the building perfectly well, as it also housed the Department of Physics of the Faculty of Physics. Ryszard tried to discourage Jerzy from carrying out the attack, but he helped him calculate the amount of TNT needed to destroy the auditorium. For the moment of the outbreak, the brothers consciously chose the time when the university building was completely empty. The explosion in the auditorium of the WSP took place at 0.40, October 6, 1971. The losses were estimated at about four million zlotys at that time. The hall and several surrounding rooms were destroyed.
– The scale of the surprise of the authorities was enormous. Initially, it was not known what the reasons for the outbreak were, especially since it took place in a quiet town when it comes to protests against the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic, said Dr. Grzegorz Waligóra, a historian from the Wrocław branch of the Institute of National Remembrance.
The matter of explaining the circumstances of the attack was given the highest priority. The activities were coordinated by the director of the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of the Interior, Tadeusz Kwiatkowski, and his superiors, ministers of the interior, Franciszek Szlachcic and his successor, Wiesław Ociepka. Initially, however, the investigation did not bring any results. Their absence was conducive to the emergence of numerous rumors. The inhabitants of Opole said that the attack was organized by the circles of the German minority, which were dissatisfied with the restriction of the possibility of going to Germany.
Almost 600 people were questioned
In December 1971, regular auditions of students and employees of WSP began. In total, almost 600 people were questioned. Some of them agreed to cooperate with the SB. Considering the fact that the Department of Physics of the Military University of Economics was located near the auditorium, the investigators concluded that someone from the university employees was responsible for the explosion in October, a person who could freely use its premises. A wire was found at the site of the explosion that was used to set off the charge remotely. Everything indicated that the cable led to the premises of the Department of Physics. The analysis of information about its employees led the security service to conclude that the Kowalczyk brothers or one of them might be responsible for the attack.
From the end of 1971, Kowalczyk was investigated by a network of agents, and information about them, through personal contacts, was to be collected by secret SB collaborators. Over 200 meetings were held with them, which resulted in obtaining 112 information about the brothers. The information obtained by a secret collaborator codenamed Kasia, who became involved with Jerzy Kowalczyk, turned out to be crucial. “The brothers became the main suspects in the investigation only in January 1972,” said Dr. Waligóra. Wiretaps were installed in the brothers’ apartment. “It was their unknowing conversations, without the awareness that they were being overheard, that led to their ruin. They later turned out to be the crown evidence. They talked lightly, though restrainedly, rather in incomplete sentences, and yet, on the basis of these conversations, the Security Service realized that they could have destroyed the room. “- noted Jacek Wegner in the monograph” Without defense witnesses. The history of Jerzy and Ryszard Kowalczyk “.
At the end of February 1972, Kowalczyk was charged with taking part in blowing up the auditorium of the WSP and planning subsequent attacks, about which they learned from overheard conversations. On February 29, Jerzy and Ryszard Kowalczyk were arrested and transported to the Provincial Headquarters of the MO, where they were placed in separate rooms in the basement. On the same day, SB officers searched the apartments of relatives and friends of the arrested. At the same time, a propaganda campaign was launched. – The Kowalczyk brothers were presented as bandits or terrorists who tried to murder as many people as possible, despite the fact that the bomb exploded when the WSP building was empty. The later trial was extremely publicized – said Grzegorz Waligóra.
After being held in pre-trial detention, the suspects were transferred to the Mokotów prison in Warsaw. In April 1972, Jerzy Kowalczyk admitted blowing up the auditorium. During subsequent interrogations, he revealed the course of preparations for detonation, admitting also collecting unexploded bombs from World War II with a hand-made metal detector. He stated that he had stored explosives in the warehouse, which were to be used as early as March 1971, when the Prime Minister of the Polish People’s Republic, Józef Cyrankiewicz, visited the auditorium of the WSP in Opole.
At the same time, the second brother, Ryszard, was interrogated. “Ryszard adopted the tactic of portraying Jerzy as a recalcitrant younger brother. Perhaps he thought that such an image of him would incline security officers a bit more favorably. Ultimately, a disobedient, stubborn young man – he probably reasoned – is not the same as a subversive, criminal, criminal,” wrote Wegner.
In May 1972, after three months of interrogations that negatively affected Ryszard’s mental condition, he revealed that he supported the idea of blowing up the auditorium. “From 1970, Jerzy began to make preparations […] he consulted me and used my help, incl. regarding the construction of a device for detecting misfires, calculating the pressure at the explosion, the melting point of TNT, constructing a firing device “- he said during one of the hearings.
Prosecutors demanded the death penalty for the brothers
On August 28, 1972, the trial of both brothers began in the Provincial Court in Opole. Jerzy Kowalczyk was charged with blowing up the auditorium of the WSP and taking part in other crimes, including setting fire to a building in the village of Rząśnik. The defendant pleaded guilty to the charges, explaining that the events on the night of October 5-6 were a kind of “anti-political demonstration”. In turn, Ryszard Kowalczyk, accused of helping to prepare the explosion, canceled all his previous testimony.
Prosecutors demanded the death penalty for the brothers, arguing that they did not take any casualties into account by causing the auditorium to blow up. On September 8, 1972, the Provincial Court found the Kowalczyk guilty of the explosion. Jerzy was sentenced to death, and Ryszard was sentenced to 25 years in prison. In December 1972, the sentences were upheld by the Supreme Court. The high sentences against the perpetrators sparked protests among independent public opinion in Poland and in Western countries. The petition demanding leniency was signed by six thousand Poles, including people of culture and the Church.
In January 1973, the Council of State commuted the sentence on Jerzy Kowalczyk, sending him – like his brother – to 25 years in prison. “The opposition that was formed since 1976 advocated other forms of activity than those that could be considered terrorist, but it was decided to defend the Kowalczyk brothers” – emphasized Dr. Waligóra. In the 1980s, on the initiative of democratic opposition activists, including members of Solidarity and the Committees for the Defense of Prisoners for Beliefs, created by activists of the Confederation of Independent Poland, demanding the release of political prisoners, a social campaign was conducted under the slogan “Free the Kowalczyk brothers”.
The aforementioned actions had an effect – the brothers were conditionally released from prisons: Ryszard in 1983, Jerzy in 1985. In the following years, their sentences were not canceled, which would enable their rehabilitation. In 1991, on the initiative of President Lech Wałęsa, the conviction of Ryszard Kowalczyk was blurred, thanks to which – in the light of Polish law – he became an unpunished person. According to Dr. Waligóra, however, the brothers were almost completely forgotten. – Let’s remember that their deed causes a lot of controversy among the inhabitants of Opole to this day. When in 2006 an attempt was made to commemorate their act by hanging a plaque on the building of the University of Opole, these plans were not realized due to protests, the historian added.
Only in 2010, on the initiative of the activists of Free Trade Unions and NSZZ “Solidarity”, Anna Walentynowicz and Andrzej Gwiazda, at the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers in Gdańsk, a commemorative plaque was unveiled devoted to the Kowalczyk brothers. In 2016, the room at the Opole Voivodeship Office was named after Jerzy and Ryszard Kowalczyk. The brothers were also awarded the Presidential Knight’s Crosses of the Order of Polonia Restituta. Ryszard Kowalczyk died on the night of October 16-17, 2017.
Ceremonies commemorating the brothers’ deed
On Wednesday in Opole, ceremonies were held to commemorate the brothers’ deed.
The press office of the voivode of Opole informed that the ceremony began with laying flowers and lighting a candle on the grave of Ryszard Kowalczyk, who rests in the Aleja Zasłużonych municipal cemetery in Opole. Then the flowers were placed under the plaque commemorating the deed of the Kowalczyk brothers in the building of the Opole voivodeship office. Apart from the voivode and representatives of the Institute of National Remembrance, the ceremony was attended by members of “Solidarity” and the daughter of Ryszard Kowalczyk.
“Let us remind you that on the night of October 5-6, 1971, brothers Jerzy and Ryszard Kowalczyk, employees of the Pedagogical University in Opole, detonated the previously planted explosives in the hall of the University in protest against the planned awarding of MO and SB officers, who distinguished themselves brutality in the 1970s massacre of workers on the Coast. Thus, these heroic inhabitants of Opole dared to protest against the murder of civilians by the communist authorities, informed the press office of the voivode who organized the commemoration.
Main photo source: Ryszard Okoński / PAP