Her Husband's Fame Has Made a World of Difference—but Not All Good—to Danuta Walesa

UPDATED 07/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/06/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT

A year ago Lech Walesa was an unemployed electrician in the Polish city of Gdansk, but now his broad, open face is familiar around the world. This week he had scheduled his first trip to the United States, to coincide with Independence Day. The Soviet Union's ominous threats to Poland's sovereignty forced Walesa to forgo the journey. He had planned to pay a call on his stepfather and cousins in the Northeast, and also to personalize—in speeches in Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago—his revolutionary concept of a workers' union that is not subservient to his nation's Communist government. Walesa helped organize Solidarity, the 10 million-strong Polish trade union coalition whose freewheeling activity challenges Soviet dogma and is the source of the U.S.S.R.'s current wrath.

Walesa has relished his taste of celebrity. Until Solidarity recently mandated abstinence for its members, he would order up champagne while being interviewed by American reporters. But his wife, Danuta, 32, frets about the consequences of fame. "Lech's is a great and worthy cause," says the mother of six (aged 1 to 11). "It's important to him and it's important to me. But I have always preferred to remain unnoticed. For a woman, the most important thing should be bringing up children. But in my family things are not all that normal now."

Danuta has replaced the nameplate on their six-room flat in a Gdansk housing project with the sign "Private Apartment." Still, outsiders intrude. For example, a recent spate of personally abusive—and anonymous—letters has disturbed her deeply. And the furor over Lech's activities gives her second thoughts. "Had I known it was going to be like this," she says, "I would never have agreed to change our lives so." Yet some of that change has been for the better: After Lech's rise to prominence, the government finally allowed his family to move out of a two-room flat into the larger apartment they were entitled to by law, and a Solidarity member now stands in the shop lines to collect the family's rations. But the Walesas still subsist on about $330 a month, and Lech turns over all donations to the unions.

Early in their 11-year marriage, Walesa began a clandestine career as a labor organizer and convinced Danuta to stand by him. "I never tried to get involved," she says. "I knew he was into something from what I overheard, but sometimes it's better not to know too much." Danuta even learned to live with the frequent layoffs caused by her husband's union activities. "He would come home and tell me that he was fired or given two weeks notice," she recalls. "But he could always convince me that everything would be all right."

Today Danuta's resolve is sorely tested. "Every time one of my children stays out later than expected, I can't help but worry the worst," she says. Outspokenly proud of Lech's work, she still laments Solidarity's hold on him. "He has much less time for home now," she says. "He is absorbed in his problems. He drops by, goes to sleep, glides over family matters. I can't blame him. It surpasses human strength to get involved in everything.

"Ours is not a complete family now," Danuta admits. "I prefer my life before. Yet I exist because Lech exists." And with firm resolution, she concludes, "Everybody has a calling in life, and this—my husband and children—is mine."

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