"Every time I return to Poland, I get an injection of the old ethics, the old values," said Barbara Witulska Lazo, Polish-American owner of the Old Warsaw Galleries in Alexandria. "The values say that you should devote your life to something that will benefit others -- the next generation."

Since 1974, Lazo has devoted her life to running what she says is the only exclusively Polish art gallery in the United States. The gallery's sales and exhibits are supported primarily by the local Polish-American community, but Lazo has worked 14-hour days to help the rest of the community learn to appreciate Polish art.

"Americans are not going to go out and look for things; you have to bring it to them," she says. "I don't mind this; they will listen to you when you bring them information."

A reluctance to promote their own works has kept many Polish artists from being successful in this country, Lazo believes. "It is the way we are brought up: you do not talk about yourself. But here, if you are doing something good, you should holler that it is good," she said.

Her gallery does the hollering for dozens of contemporary Polish artists from the mother country and from Canada, South America, the United States and Europe. The gallery's nine exhibits each year range from one-man shows of painting and sculpture to group shows of Polish textiles, posters and handmade amber and silver jewelry.

All items are for sale (discreetly of course; no price tags are displayed), and Lazo is always on hand to explain the importance of each artist, show the range of his work and describe his personality, his appearance, his humor. "I must make direct contact with the artist whose works I sell," she declares, "or else I cannot sell them."

The artists she shows meet three criteria: they are of Polish extraction, they are graduates of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and they have exhibited elsewhere. Together, they produce a body of art as diverse as Polish history. "We are talking about a people with one thousand years of history, of struggle, of despair," said Lazo. "There is no one Polish art style, but I feel that their work has more depth to it than anything you see here" by popular American artists, she says.

The works tend to be complex, to grapple with man's darker side. The textiles, an ancient Polish art elevated from craftsmanship to fine art after World War II by textile designer Maria Laszkiewicz's innovative work, are as refreshingly original as any art in the West. And Polish posters, small editions of woodcuts and lithographs, are objects of beauty and thought.

Some Polish painting and sculpture, however, is strangely derivative of older styles. For example, the Poles have recently come through a Cubist period and are still doing Surrealism, styles that Americans and Western Europeans left behind long ago.

The Polish versions are distinctly their own, of course, and they explore ideas their Western counterparts failed to test. These oils are the gallery's best sellers.

The paintings, both representational and abstract, make up only part of Lazo's collection. Silver and amber jewelry line the case near the door; posters and graphics hang on the wall; whimsical stone-and-metal sculptures by Lubomir Tomaszewski stand on the floor. In one corner are a hand-carved table, chairs and chess set.

On the second floor hangs a one-man exhibit of "Street Scenes" painted in oils by Witold Kalicki. These paintings would look good in someone's law office: they are pretty, inoffensive, somewhat dull. But the special exhibit area at other times has held what Lazo calls a "disaster show," where the artist is "very original, very new, like Marta Kremer's etchings based on the works of Franz Kafka. Everybody asked her, 'Why is your art so depressing?' She said, 'I'm not going to make art to make you happy.' "

Lazo puts on one or two of these "horrendous" exhibits each year "because the quality of the art work is so high. The critics love it; the public won't buy. I know I'll lose money."

But money is not the ultimate goal of this gallery, the owner says. As in its first years, she still takes no salary, although she says the gallery now makes enough money to cover its expenses. Instead, Lazo strives to "give these artists the recognition they deserve. I think that's why I'm so determined. The artists are so good you are willing to do almost anything for them." She said she takes a 40 percent commission on sales, which is about standard for the art business. But unlike many gallery owners on the Washington scene, Lazo handles the cost of framing and exhibiting the art and does all the promotional work herself.

She sees her efforts as an extension of the work of her father, Joseph Witulska. A political writer in the pre-war years, Witulska was forced to flee Poland and give up his writing. Visual art, Lazo believes, has taken the place of literature in Poland, since "art is a free form of expression; it can be interpreted in many ways. That is the reason art is so strong in Poland."

And that, in turn, is the reason Lazo is so strong an advocate of Polish art.

Old Warsaw Galleries, 319 Cameron St., Alexandria. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday by appointment. Call 548-9188.