Propaganda, postage stamps and a Polonez car

Last month, people across Poland shared their memories of the changes of the 1980s, contributing to Europeana 1989 – an online archive of documents, memorabilia and stories that shares their experiences with the world and with future generations.

Among these items were: a collection of underground press documents, black and white music festival photographs and an album of illegal postage stamps. The most surprising item was a white Polonez car produced in the ‘80s.

Photographs of all memorabilia gathered in Poland can be viewed at Europeana 1989.

'Samochód marki Polonez koloru białego, rok produkcji: 1986', Europeana 1989, CC-BY-SA
Polonez car digitised at the Warsaw event. ‘Samochód marki Polonez koloru białego, rok produkcji: 1986′, Europeana 1989, CC-BY-SA

Europeana 1989 is an exciting new project from Europeana, Europe’s digital library, museum and archive.

It aims to create a digital archive of souvenirs and memories connected to the fall of the Iron Curtain. Europeana 1989 encourages European citizens to share their experiences, stories and memorabilia in time for 2014 when the world will celebrate the 25th anniversary of an extraordinary year: 1989.

The project was launched in Poland in June. Europeana, together with the National Audiovisual Institute, organised three events in Warsaw, Poznan and Gdańsk. During these events, volunteers took photographs or made other digital versions of everyday objects, pictures, movies and audio recordings. Once digitised, items were returned to their owners and their electronic versions were made available in the online archive.

Poles brought hundreds of souvenirs and unique personal stories which show that while the ‘80s are associated with politics and Solidarity, they also provided a remarkable backdrop to the joys and sorrows of everyday life.

Among the items brought in were underground press (independent newspapers), election leaflets, food stamps, old bank notes, documents and family photos, clothes and toys. The diversity of the memories captured by the project is amazing.

Photograph of Jarocin music festival, ‘Publiczność na małej scenie Festiwalu w Jarocinie’ Maciej Jawornicki CC BY-SA

Photograph of Jarocin music festival, ‘Publiczność na małej scenie Festiwalu w Jarocinie’ Maciej Jawornicki CC BY-SA

One participant shared his great collection of black and white photos depicting the famous music festival in Jarocin back in 1988. The popular event attracted many subcultures, which you can see in this photo collection.

Another person brought whole albums of illegal postage stamps depicting well-known opposition activists of the ‘80s. Their owner made and copied them with his friends in secrecy in a private apartment.

Many stories present how bizarre life behind the Iron Curtain could sometimes be. Take the story of a Gdańsk citizen who bought a car in exchange for copper. He said that in 1989 there was a general lack of goods, so he sold about two tons of copper wires, at the time worth half a million PLN. What is more, the bank gave him this amount of money in cash. Afterwards, he bought a Fiat 126p and went on holiday with his family.

‘The motto of the project is ‘Europeana 1989 – We made history’. Our goal is to document that history – showing it from the perspective of ordinary people living at the time, recording their stories and struggles, so that people’s real experiences are kept for our children and for future generations’, said Frank Drauschke, Europeana 1989 project coordinator. ‘Ordinary people make extraordinary history and that’s what we want to highlight.’

‘We are happy that Poles brought such a variety of souvenirs. From the very start of the project, we’ve encouraged people to share their objects and memories, but we were surprised by how many interesting stories are hidden in seemingly ordinary items of everyday use. We believe that by preserving this great material we are preserving the memory of this important period of history’, said Michał Merczyński, Director of the National Audiovisual Institute.

The digital online archive now contains nearly 8,000 items and the number is constantly growing.

The next stages of the project

Poland was the first country to run Europeana 1989 collection days. On 8 June, the country also hosted a debate on the transformation of Europe during the inaugural collection day in Warsaw. Each participating country was represented by an ambassador who played a significant role in the transformation period of 1989: Sarmīte Ēlerte from Latvia, Tunne Kelam from Estonia, Petr Janyška from Czech Republic, Wolfgang Templin from Germany and László Rajk from Hungary. Poland was represented by its first non-communist Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki and photographer Chris Niedenthal, who documented the process of democratisation in Poland.

‘Collection days in Poland are only the beginning of the creation of the common European online archive. We started in Poland because this was where all the important changes in Europe began. In August, we are moving to the Baltic States and then to the Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary, visiting all the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, said Frank Drauschke, Europeana 1989 project coordinator.

Online memory bank

Explore the stories uploaded already to see how this historical period looked in different European countries. The archive will grow as the project visits the participating countries – so keep coming back to Europeana 1989 to find out more fascinating stories.

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