Jan Krawiec -- a survivor of the Auchwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, the brother of a Polish farmer who lives four miles from the Russian border -- spread his hands in a gesture of futility.

"Helplessnes," he said, describing his feelings toward the mounting pressure the Soviet Union is putting on the government and the workers of his native country. "We are dealing with beasts. Russia is nothing but a huge beast."

All across the country, millions of Polish-Americans such as Krawiec, the editor of the largest Polish-language daily newspaper in the United States, sit and wait anxiously for the latest news from Eastern Europe. They are, in the words of the Rev. Martin Gienko, the pastor of a heavily Polish Catholic parish here, "deeply worried" about their friends and relatives in Poland.

But judging from interviews in this city, which has the largest concentration of Polish-Americans in the country, many share Krawiec's sense of helplessnes as they read and hear the reports of Soviet troops preparing for a possible invasion. Even the young among them know their homeland's tragic history as the main route of invaders traveling east or west, and they are not anxious for a military confrontation involving the Soviet Union and the West on Polish soil.

Concern and helplessness can be heard as they talk about what is happening in Poland now and what the United States should do about it.

Aloysius A. Mazewski, the president of the Polish National Alliance and as such a voice of official Polish America, says that, at least for the moment, he is satisfied with the posture of the American government, the warnings from Washington of "serious adverse consequences" should the Soviets invade Poland.

"First of all, we can't go to war," said Mazewski, speaking as a self-described "pragmatist." But if the Soviets do invade, he added, "there can be economic and diplomatic retaliation. The United States can create an embargo, we can squeeze them out with a total embargo. They're a cold and calculating people and we should retaliate in a cold and calculating manner."

Mazewski is a second-generation American who has never been to Poland, and except for his heritage has little in common with Mira Puacz. She came to the United States five years ago and with her husband, Edward, operates a Polish book store on North Milwaukee Avenue in the kind of neighborhood where the Polish-speaking customers of the Pulaski Food Mart can still pay their bills by the week or the month.

"People born here, even of Polish descent, they can't imagine how it is," Puacz said of the chronic shortages of meat and other basic items in Poland. "If something is very far from you, you can't understand."

Puacz does not believe there will be Soviet intervention, but rather that the troop preparations have been a giant Russian bluff. But if there is intervention, she speaks less as a pragmatist that a fatalist about Poland's place in the world.

"I don't think the Americans can help," she said. "Put on another embargo? For what? The United States won't struggle for the Poles. If the Russians intervene, the Poles will fight to the last drop of blood. But, who could help us? It would be the Third World War.

"I would like Poland not to be communist. But right now it is impossible."

As chairman of the Polish War Veterans Post No. 31, Wladysaw Stepien has an office on the second floor of a nondescript building along North Pulaski Road. The dingy walls of the office are decorated with a picture of Gen Wladysaw Anders, commander of the Polish Second Corps, under whom Stepien served during World War II, and with the portrait most frequently found in Polish-American neighborhoods -- that of Pope John Paul II.

Stepien has lived in the United States since 1951, but his memories of his homeland are not much different from those of more recent arrivals such as Puacz. In Poland, he said in heavily accented English, "you can buy vodka, but no meat, no butter, no cheese. The Russian want broken Polish morale."

Stepen believes there will be Soviet intervention in Poland, perhaps, not immediately, but in a few months. He is less certain about how Polish soldiers, one of whom he once was, will react. But with the kind of contempt many Poles show for the Russians, he says he knows what the West should do.

"Stop all political contact," he said. "Stop all food sales to the Russians, all technology. I think that's enough.The Russian, after two, three years, is finished."

Alvin Sajewski owns the music store founded by his immigrant parents at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street in what was once the center of Polish-American life in Chicago before the sons and daughters of the immigrants began to move north-west and into the suburbs. Like many other Polish-Americans, he is not anxious to speak of the turmoil in Poland. "We are not political people," explained his sister, Jeannette Terlikowski, who helps him run the store.

"I don't have anyone in our family left in Poland," Sajewski said. "But we are worried about Poland. We hope it can be settled . . . People here are desperate. They want to see peace.They feel their hands are tied. They see it all with great sorrow."

Sorrow may be the most common emotion -- sorrow tinged with bitterness over the past and a heavy dose of fatalism about the future. Roman Pulanski, a Chicago alderman and former U.S. congressman, predicts an angry outburst from the Polish-American community here if there is Soviet intervention.

But after such an outburst, what then? Jan Krawiec, the editor, believes that the Poles will have to continue the wait for the freedom that has so long eluded their land.

"It is easy to say you will die for your country, and this is what we were doing for centuries," he said. "It is much harder to live for the country."