They are Polish resistance fighters living in a brick split-level in Annandale. There is a silver Dasher in the drive, and flowers on the back knoll, and Jan and Greta Nowak will probably never see their homeland again. It is as if everything flows outward from this sorrow.
"I am 68," Jan Nowak says, "and when I hear Chopin now, I get a lump in my throat, I see once more my countryside."
It is a countryside of dark glowering winters, of green valleys and two rivers rising in the southern mountains. In the villages and towns of the Polish countryside, the voice of Jan Nowak, like the music of Chopin, would be instantly recgonizable. You could even play a tape of his voice for the successor of St. Peter and he would know.
"You see this picture?" Jan Nowak says, pointing to a photograph of himself and Pope John Paul II. It is sitting on a shelf in a book-lined den. "I saw him in April of this year. Already it was my second visit. He invited me to his private chapel. You see how he's holding my arm with two hands? Both of us are feeling something deep. The holy father tells me, 'Ah, your voice is quite familiar to me. For years, every morning, when I'm shaving, I listen to you on Radio Free Europe.' I tell you, something comes from this pope you cannot describe."
"Courage, ha," says Greta Nowak, as if to seethe at the word. She is Jan Nowak's wife, and she is standing by a table in the dining room, head tilting upward. Her gray hair, the color of scouring pads, catches slants of afternoon light. She has socket-deep eyes.
"I will tell you what is courage. I lost my brother in Poland, my sister. My sister was killed by a German sniper during the rising. With dumdum bullets. And my father, when he is 80, already he is getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning to queue for a piece of bread."
A fist strikes the table, not so much in anger, maybe, as resolve. "If you cannot have your own country, well, you just make . . . yourself another Poland." She points around the room--at paintings, icons, fine rugs, treasures stowed carefully in glass cabinets. "This is independent Poland. Here within these four walls."
Cry for the beloved country. And weep for the sorrows beyond remembering. They are not the children of Solidarity. Theirs was another struggle, in another time. But the current winters of Poland's sorrow, playing out to an onlooking and mostly helpless global village, are seeded deep in earlier resistances, of other wars and other days. Jan and Greta Nowak, who have been together for four decades, fought the good and earlier fight. Jan Nowak has written a book, partially about that time, partially about his other World War II experiences, called "Courier From Warsaw."
Both Nowaks (pronounced Novak) worked in the Polish underground of World War II--he as a courier, surreptitiously crossing back and forth over enemy lines; she as a liaison in the Home Army. "What I was doing, never mind," she says. "But I tell you this: If I had been caught by the police, I would be shot the next day, or next hour." The events Nowak and his wife witnessed led ultimately and sadly to the splitting of Europe, the domination of Poland by the Soviet Union, the Cold War.
Once, Nowak secretly crossed Nazi Germany itself, to Switzerland and France. In all, he made five trips between Warsaw, neutral Stockholm, and London, when the fate of the "Polish question" seemed to be hanging in the balance. As an emissary, he delivered messages to Churchill and Anthony Eden in a failed effort to get Allied support for Poland against Stalin's intentions of subjugation. In his missions he would hide microfilm and coded messages in a cigarette holder, a religious statue, a door key. Before one of his missions, Greta sewed a narrow strip of paper into his hatband. The message was simple: I'll be waiting.
The will to resist, whether it be Nazi stormtroopers or Soviet subjugators or even, at present, their own dictatorial countrymen, is inherent in the Polish character, the Nowaks would say. It is Poland's "will to be." You can trace it as a continuous line--from the '44 rising to Lech Walesa and the shipyards of Gdansk. You can trace it decades and even centuries beyond Solidarity. For this is a country, like Ireland, that has too long lived under the heel of the oppressor, partitioned and pawned, though not defeated.
"We never once, during the whole struggle, look at the time," says Greta Nowak. "Time doesn't matter. What is time? We were just doing because it is our will. Not our duty, our will." She is a thin, intense woman who can hold a cigarette as regally as Ingrid Bergman. In a way, the Nowaks' lives seem a little like Victor Laslo's and Ilsa's in "Casablanca." Only theirs is no movie. The Nowaks have no children; there was probably too little time.
Jan and Greta Nowak were married in a ruined church late one afternoon in September 1944. It was the 37th day of the rising. Greta traded a tin of meat for a pair of copper wedding bands. Her husband borrowed petunias from a windowbox. The ceremony took seven minutes. They crunched to the altar on broken glass. The Germans were 300 yards away.
"You see, it is very difficult for an American to understand these things," Greta says. "It was four or five years of occupation. When we part in the morning, we are never sure we see each other again that night."
To probably anyone but a Pole, the Warsaw Rising, which occurred between August and October 1944, may seem like a musty piece of history now. But to Jan and Greta Nowak, and to millions of other Poles, the rising is important to understanding the Poland of 1982. It amounted to 63 bloody days in the streets when the Polish patriotic forces tried unsuccessfully to oust the German army and take control of the city before it was seized by the invading Soviet army. The uprising's failure essentially permitted the pro-Soviet Polish administration, rather than the Polish government-in-exile in London, to take control of Poland. And an iron curtain came down.
"What is fear but your imagination?" Jan Nowak says. Where she is intense, he seems relaxed. He is a smooth-faced bulky man, and age has now caught him. The stems of his spectacles are hooked on his index finger and he swings them now like a pendulum. He is sitting in a rich red chair. He could be a prince of the Holy Roman Church. "If you have no time to think, you will not get scared. If you once imagine yourself in a dungeon, then of course you become afraid."
"It doesn't matter," she says, shaking her head. Her hands are jammed in a blue cotton skirt.
"Our last secret trip was the most difficult," he says. "If I had been traveling alone, I would have been arrested. But a young couple creates a kind of alibi. Our papers were badly forged. All we had was each other and our determination. We made fantastic distance. We started after 2 a.m. at night and didn't stop until the next day at 3 a.m. We covered about 70 kilometers."
"Through mountains," she says.
"We could do it because of nervous tension. And at one point, my wife said, 'I cannot walk any more.' So I am desperately looking for the border. I was afraid she wouldn't be able to stand up. And you know what she said? She said, 'With you, Janek, always.' And that was more important to me than what we said on our wedding day."
"Ah, we had many great adventures, Janek."
For years after the war, the Nowaks lived as exiles in Europe. He worked for the BBC and then directed the Polish Service of Radio Free Europe. He became a kind of Eastern European Edward R. Murrow.
The Nowaks came to America in late 1977, after they had worked on his book in the Austrian Alps. (They had a cottage with no telephone; after a day's writing they would take long walks in the snow.) Eventually his mother came over, too. At immigration in New York, they turned her back until she could produce X-rays showing she wasn't tubercular. She died in a Polish neighborhood in Chicago. She was 95.
Jan Nowak is now the national director of the Polish American Congress. In the Carter administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski appointed him a consultant to the National Security Council. He remains a consultant to the NSC in the Reagan administration. These days, Greta is a housewife. "Don't worry, it's full-time job. Look at those flower beds out there. And look at this dust. Yeech."
The American edition of Nowak's autobiography is about to be published. The Book of the Month Club has chosen "Courier" as an alternate selection late this fall. "Now I will make the media tour," he says. If the line sounds a trifle funny, out of key, perhaps it is because of the European accent with which it is uttered and the distance, both in space and time, the speaker has come. Brzezinski has written the foreword to Nowak's book. "In Poland, he is after the pope," Nowak says. He and Brzezinski are more acquaintances than friends.
The book has already been published in Polish in London and has also been reprinted illegally and circulated widely in Poland itself, causing the printer and publisher to go on trial. The publisher, Miroslaw Chojecki, served time in prison and then received a suspended sentence. One of the reasons Nowak wants to publish the book in America, he says, is to show historically how it is possible for Poland to "deviate from the Soviet model."
"Nobody could challenge a fact," he says. "Well, there was one little error."
"But, Janek, you have 70 pages of documentation," his wife says.
From the outside, almost nothing about this upper-middle-class home tucked in a somnolent subdivision called Sleepy Hollow Woods would give hint to the proudly defiant Eastern European world within. (There is a small Solidarity sticker on the front door knocker.) But once inside, everything is Polish, in sensibility and subject. There are dark paintings on the walls by Polish artists. The books on the shelves are mostly by Polish authors. The mementos in the den are Polish mementos.
(Presently, there will be an elegant three-course European meal. The wine will be served with a napkin knotted at the bottle's neck. The wife will be solicitous of her guest and affectionately nagging to her husband. "Janek! Serve yourself," she will say. "Janek, your napkin." In Polish, Jan means "John." Janek is the diminutive: "Johnny.")
"Yes, it is true," Jan Nowak says, "we have become very bourgeois here in a very rich country. If Poland would be free, we would immediately go home. But I realize that we would not have the same well-being . . . "
He goes over now to trip a tiny light in the back of a cabinet. He opens the cabinet and picks up a tarnished pewter spoon, resting it lovingly in his palm. "This belonged to a 17th-century Polish king." He puts it down and picks up an ornate sash. Then an ancient bottle with a Polish crest on it. "Physically, we have left Poland, but in our hearts, never. These treasures would not amount to much, but to us they are priceless. They remind us of home, help to ease -- how would you say? -- our burden."
He takes out a bottle of Dry Sack. He holds its burlap sack in one hand, the bottle in the other. The bottle is three-quarters empty and he is finishing it up on his guest. When the bottle has been emptied, he goes over to a table where some faded letters and documents lay. He picks up a passport. "This was one of many documents I used. The date of birth and place of birth have been altered. But not my name. We did it to confuse the Gestapo."
"Ha," Greta says. She is over by a table winding an old clock with a huge key. A plague be on the Gestapo.
"And this is a certificate of work," he says, pointing at a small orange card.
"Yes, a protection against being deported," Greta says. "You see, it was a customary thing to be rounded up -- taken from a bus or a streetcar -- to see if you had your work certificate. If you did not have it, you were liable for immediate deportation."
"As in Russia, old people are not useful to the government," he says.
"Ah, it was macabre," she says.
He holds up another forged document. "I got it from a special unit that did nothing but falsify."
How would the unit have gotten access to the document in the first place?
"Nothing at all," Greta answers. "It would have been some Pole who probably worked in a German office. He would have gladly given his life to get this document to the right courier."
It was all so long ago. And now, life in America. It is . . . so different. But they like it here, and they are quick to emphasize it. They see no conflict in keeping the fight alive from the American shore. Poles have a long history in America: Kosciusko built West Point and Pulaski founded the U.S. cavalry. The Nowaks keep in touch with their countrymen via new arrivals. Jan has a special short-wave radio to pick up European broadcasts. They have access to secret Solidarity printings.
"I am very dedicated to this country," he says. "I cannot forget that if it were not for Churchill and Mr. Roosevelt, we would have been burned in the chambers of gas. The Nazis were expanding the chambers at Auschwitz to accommodate the Poles."
"And yet, Roosevelt and Churchill became accomplices of Stalin in the later stages of the war," she says. "If they had had the will to resist that repulsive man, we would be in Europe today."
For just an instant she looks sad -- instead of defiant. "They took away the town where I was born. Incorporated it into Russia. You know, in my village, we celebrate the birth of Christ when the first star appears. We would have a feast with 32 or 38 dishes. And then everyone in the family goes to mass.
"So they have taken away my town and my family. But my memories they can never have."