Kazimierz Switon's Christmas letter was not laden with glad tidings. He had been arrested recently, he wrote the 42nd time in two years. His wife had stomach ulcers. His sons could not find work. And their apartment again had been ripped apart and robbed by the state police who "want to destroy us at any cost."
But after 10 months of unanswered letters, the small group of Northern Virginians which has adopted this Polish dissident, cheered the letter as a sign of hope. w
"Until that letter we had nothing," said Deborah Barrell, one of 20 members of a local Amnesty International group which has been working more than a year to help Switon. During that time, they have never met or even spoken to Switon. But every month their respect grows -- along with their urgency.
A hero, they will tell you, is losing a fight for all of us.
"He's a full-time human rights activist," said Steve Crawford, a Washington sociologist who has written scores of unused press releases about Switon. "Anything we do pales in comparison."
Northern Virginia's Adoption Group 159 is one of four in the metropolitan area, 190 in the United States and 2,000 in the world. Each group is assigned two to three "prisoners of conscience," certified by Amnesty International headquarters in London to be in jail for political or social reason.
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, the organization depends of letter-writing campaigns and international publicity to embarass world governments, including the United States, into righting alledged wrongs. Since it was founded in 1961, the group reports, 13,000 of its adopted prisoners have been released or had their sentences reduced.
Because its reputation for accuracy is so crucial to its moral force, Amnesty International headquarters investigates all prisoners thoroughly before passing them to an adoption group. Since Switon was convicted of a violent crime -- assaulting four police officers -- his case sheet was detailed when the Northern Virginia group adopted him.
Married, with six children, Switon was a coal miner in the city of Katowice until his first arrest in 1977. A Catholic activist in a Communist country, he helped found an alternative union to the official trade unions and is a board member of an underground newspaper which publicizes cases of worker harassment.
Switon was first arrested in May 1977 when he took part in a hunger strike to support imprisoned workers. He was arrested again in April 1978 and sentenced to five weeks in jail for "illegal possession of weapons" after police found an air rifle which belonged to his son in his apartment.
The most serious charge occurred in October 1978 as the result of leaflets Switon distributed before a Catholic mass urging religious activism. Switon was arrested leaving the church service with his wife. According to witnesses interviewed by Amnesty International, four plainclothes police kicked him into unconsciousness then dragged him into a car. He received a one-year sentence upon conviction.
Switon's sentence was reduced on appeal about the same time that AI began focusing publicity on his case through two adoption groups in West Germany and France. A representative from the U.S. Embassy as well as reporters from Reuters, a European press agency, attended the appeal trial.
Local members of AI say they have written letters and made phone calls to the Embassy of Poland in Washington without result. A woman who answered the phone at the embassy this week said no one would discuss either Switon or Amnesty International's charges.
"You get tired writing the same letter all the time," said Barrell, an economist with the Department of Labor who has been involved with AI since 1976. "You need a lot of orginiality to keep your members interested."
During the past year, Northern Virginia members have done their own detective work to fill in Switon's background. They regularly check with the Polish community for immigrants who might know of Switon. They maintain contact with the two European groups who share Switon's case. Every new lead fuels their ardor. A picture of Switon with a group of hunger strikers provokes delighted gasps.
"He's every bit as nice as I thought he was," said legislative consultant Mary Haldane, getting her first look at an impossibly grainy blowup of Switon's face from the group picture.
"He's actually a very obstinate fellow," countered Crawford, who admits to being slightly stubborn himself.
"A lot of people who may support us in principal, think this is a futile cause. We all have moments like that. But we just keep taking it one step at a time."