Witold Sulkowski, 39, is a former editor of Solidarity's weekly in Lodz, Poland's second-largest city.
He is one of 1,200 imprisoned Solidarity activists the Polish government released last year on the condition that they emigrate to the West. As many as 500 of them have come to the United States; more are expected. About 400 other internees received visas from Canada, West Germany, Australia, Sweden and France.
Sulkowski, his wife Anna and their two sons, 21/2 and 1, are staying at St. Peter's Convent in Olney, Md. Outside Poland for the first time in his life, he is earning some money washing dishes and freelancing for the Polish-language service of Radio Free Europe.
His English is basic. Words he had problems with during the interview were translated by Eva Beverly.
Q: When and how were you arrested?
A: A few minutes past midnight, Dec. 13, 1981, six hours before martial law declared, in my apartment. They ring the bell. Anna answers. They say, "Police. We want to talk to you." Anna says, "I am alone, come in the morning." "We must talk to you," they say. The law is that between 9 in evening and 6 in morning, no police can enter a home.
Q: So did Anna open the door?
A: No. She looks through the keyhole. Three men in police uniform, one in civilian clothes. Three policemen have guns. They say, "We must break your door." Anna says, "Go ahead." They start hitting the door with the butts of their guns. I tried to telephone Solidarity. Telephone was silent. Later we found out that they broke all telephone communications. I went out to the balcony to see if possible to escape to a neighbor's balcony. We live on the fourth floor. I saw a man looking up at me -- their man, obviously. Impossible to escape. When the door began to come apart, I say "Enough. Where is permit to arrest me?" The security man, in civilian clothes, says, "Mr. Sulkowski, we don't need papers. We are stronger than you."
Q: Did you resist?
A: No. It was hopeless. Some persons tried, and they were all beaten up. They broke many doors in Poland this night. About 300 people were arrested in Lodz.
Q: When did you become an opponent of the regime?
A: In March 1968. There was a big student movement in Poland. We wanted freedom of speech. There were demonstrations and strikes. I was one of the leaders in my university in Lodz. They threw me out of the university. 1968 awakened me and my generation. I started writing then. I wrote a poetry of social protest, about things impossible to express in an article, because of censorship. Of course, censorship blocked some poems, but not everything. I became a little known in our country. I met famous writers, members of the democratic opposition. In 1975, there was a change in the Polish constitution. For the worse. We sent an open letter to the government. I was one of the protesters. I was thrown out of my job -- I was an instructor in a cultural center in Lodz. I was forbidden to print anything in Poland. After half a year I got a job in Lodz city library. No communications with people. I did catalogues. In 1976, I started a kind of samizdat (the Russian term for "self-published" underground press). We had machines to print many copies of books.
Q: When did you join Solidarity?
A: From the beginning. In Lodz, strikes started a couple of days after Gdansk shipyard strike. In August 1980, with a few friends, we printed appeals to Lodz workers about situation in Gdansk. We gave information because, of course, radio and television did not. In September, we started weekly magazine "Solidarity With Gdansk." I was elected editor. We published until martial law was declared and they arrested us.
Q: What did you think when you were arrested?
A: We thought the police were unusually aggressive, in the Stalinist tradition. I ask the officer filling our papers, "Do you understand what you have done? It's a full confrontation." "Yes," he says, "It's a full confrontation -- the government will do no more talking with Solidarity." They packed us in prison trucks. We joked: "We're going to the forest -- to be shot." Joke. But maybe not only a joke. They tried to frighten us. To enter the prison door, I had to walk through two rows of policemen armed with submachine guns and clubs. A strong searchlight was aimed at me. Blinding strong.
Q: Where were you taken?
A: First room, we had to strip naked. Second room, prison officials took my watch, money and gave me receipt. Third room, an officer gave me one mattress, two very thin and very dirty blankets, not from wool, a clean sheet, and aluminum plate and spoon. And prison shirt I still have here. A souvenir.
Q: Were there any bedbugs?
A: No bedbugs in Polish prisons. They use a very hard poison to kill them. But everything was very, very dirty and smelly. In my cell, six beds. Our cell was extremely cold because the window glass was broken. Heater broken too. The warden was a good man. He gave us old newspapers to put in our shoes, under our shirts. To keep us warm. Through the window, we saw lots of tanks passing on the highway. It must be hot in Lodz, we thought. My wife went to police, asking, "Where is my husband?" No answer. After 10 days, she found out I am in Leczyca prison. On Christmas Day I saw Anna for the first time. Others' wives came too.
Q: Were they allowed to bring clothing and food?
A: Yes. And the food was foreign, luxurious: bacon, ham, salami, coffee, tea. The first packages from Germany. Anna got from the church. The warden couldn't believe his eyes -- it was so luxurious and plentiful.
Q: How was prison food?
A: Usually, they gave us food two times a day: breakfast and lunch. Breakfast was coffee with milk and sugar, and a big piece of black bread -- about (a pound), for the whole day. And a little piece of margarine. At 12 we got soup, potatoes with sauce, and a few times a week also a piece of cooked lard with skin. Sometimes, two times a week, supper: a little piece of cheese and maybe coffee but no milk or sugar. Of course coffee was ersatz. It was very difficult to get accustomed to this food. It smelled bad, and potatoes were dark inside. Nothing was fresh.
Q: How did you communicate between cells?
A: In my cell was a man who knew Morse from military and he taught everyone else. We shouted the alphabet to our neighbors through a ventilation hole. Letter by letter. Also while taking walk in yard. Later at Sunday mass. Morse is easy to learn, easy to forget. I already forgot.
Q: Were you beaten?
A: No. But my friends were. Two boys did not stand up and were badly beaten: Zbyszek Sekulski, a guitarist, about 30, and Alfred Michalak, a mailman, about 25. But their professional tricks to frighten us were useless. Prison resistance intensified. When, in the last days of March, a warden pulled someone out of the cell to beat him up, we started making noise with our plates and spoons. The chief warden said we must stop. "We give you five minutes." But we continued. Then the prison commander asked for a discussion. "Why do you make noise?" he asked. "Awful treatment," we said. "Okay," he said, "we can do things together." He let us free inside the prison: we could go from one cell to another, put lights on at night, have a little kitchen. We had political discussions all the time. It was like a POW camp.
Q: Did anyone die in your prison?
A: No, but there were several heart attacks. Every time, we had to fight for a doctor. After three months, in March, we could see our families once a month.
Q: What do you think made all these reforms possible?
A: Our protests and world reaction. Radio Free Europe reported on the beatings, and outside support for the internees was big.
Q: What did you know about the outside world? A: Everything. Family members gave us news (written) on pieces of paper, even underground Solidarity newspapers. It was enough to receive one information. It went from hand to hand. We also had very small radios -- our families brought them in, in food. Also, a few people in prison could make (crystal) radios.
Q: Who provided for your family while you were in jail?
A: First spontaneous activity of neighbors, my colleagues, Anna's colleagues. Then friends. But very soon after martial law, many organizations (were created) to support internees' families. Only way to do it was to find a church and do it under church umbrella. Every Sunday there was a mass for internees, and after mass they read out messages from prison. Then internees' families exchanged information. I hear from Poland that former internees are one big family. I am jealous: I want to be in such a family in Poland.
Q: What did the police tell you about your crime? And when and how were you told about conditions for your release?
A: Prison officials told you that they had evidence against you good for five to 10 years in prison. Then in April officials started telling us that if somebody wants to go abroad, just ask for a passport.
Q: How did you decide to leave?
A: I consulted with my wife and friends. I got an idea I can do more -- I am a journalist -- in the free world than in Poland. I had private reasons too: wife and two children, and no job, no food, no future in Poland.
Q: Did your cellmates support or criticize your decision?
A: Some colleagues attacked it. They are right because to stay is heroic. But the people who were really attacked were people who signed the loyalty oath to the regime: less than 10 out of 200 people in my prison in Lowicz. Our spirit was strong.
Q: How did you apply for a passport?
A: I filled out the passport form. I took it from a stack in the prison office, after an interrogation. I gave it to my wife in April. In one month the police sent a letter: Your passport is waiting for you. Then she went to Warsaw and begged for visas at embassies: American and French. In July, the U.S. embassy gave an answer: Come for a meeting. For the first time in my life I had to ask something from police: "Give me time to go to Warsaw," 140 kilometers away. In 24 hours they gave me freedom for three days.
First, we went to the American embassy -- there was a big crowd. The consul was friendly. But we had to pay 3,000 zlotys for medical examination -- that's two weeks' salary. Then we went to the French embassy. The consul made impression of an idiot. France cannot offer anything more than an entry visa, he said, no other help. He spoke like a hurdy-gurdy. He said again and again: Don't expect anything from us.
Q: What made you decide between the United States and France?
A: The American consul was a fine man. He spoke broken Polish. His first question shocked me: "Why do you want to leave Poland?" I was dumbfounded. The payment for medical examination troubled me. Such a rich country wanted so much money from people in my category? But I like American spirit, point of view. The French consul reinforced my opinion of France: the French, and other West Europeans, inside they have capitulated to Russia.
I went back to jail after three days of freedom. After two weeks, American visa came. We showed it to police. They released me. Valid for one way only -- out -- my passport said. I had to leave within a month. It was a threat. The Catholic charity organization sent us to St. Peter's Convent. I work in a restaurant washing dishes at $4 per hour, 20 hours a week. Sometimes 25 hours. I make broadcasts for Radio Free Europe.
Q: How is life for you in America?
A: The sisters are very kind. But I must support my family, I have to get a job. Now I hang in the air. Everybody asks, "What do you want to do?" I have a university degree. I want to do something connected with Poland. This is my target, but I can do anything else. I got a car from a Voice of America writer, for $175, a Volkswagen, 1970.
Q: Do you have a driver's licence?
A: No, but I am learning to drive. It's hard with the stick shift. But I'll do it. I have big energy.
Q: What do you think of the role of the Church in Poland?
A: I am not enthusiastic about the Church during the days of Solidarity or since the martial law. We prefer a heroic Church. We expect when our mouth is shut, the Church speaks the way we feel. But now the Church thinks it is wiser than the nation. Church officials communicate with state authorities over the heads of the common people. The Church should be our mouthpiece, our tongue -- not our head or our heart.
Q: Is Solidarity still alive?
A: Yes. Yes! YES! It will be for many, many years. For a few years, in an underground form. But the nation will find a way to become free. We can tire them out. We can build an underground alternative society. We'll isolate them from society. People tasted freedom for a year and a half, when Poland was the best country in the world, absolutely the best country -- not economically but in every other way.
Q: If people such as yourself leave Poland, how do you expect Solidarity to triumph?
A: Poland is rich of people who can continue the movement. I am not a leader by temperament. I am a writer, a publicist. There are many people (left) in Poland who now work in the conspiracy. I try to explain them here. That is my duty.
Q: Do you feel guilty for having left?
A: Yeah. But guilty may be too strong a word. Before applying for emigration I had a big struggle in my conscience. But individual situations require different solutions.
Q: Was anybody in jail angry with you?
A: Critical, yes, sure, but not angry. It was a pity I leave Poland, my friends said. I said I know better my possibilities. I am in not good enough psychological condition to risk five to 10 years in prison. Especially with my children. Government says only 1,200 internee families go to the West. We have 10 million members. The most important power in Poland is the generation born after Second World War. Most of our leaders in Solidarity were from this generation, 30 years old or less: electricians, machinists, drivers -- workers, not intellectuals. They showed how responsible and wise they are. I am only an intellectual.