More than 200 protesters, waving Polish flags and chanting "Freedom for Poland," rallied outside the Polish consulate in New York yesterday to protest the government crackdown.

"I'm afraid for the lives of thousands of Solidarity leaders in Poland and for the fate of millions," said demonstrator Irene Lasote, who said she helped lead 1968 student uprisings in Poland.

The spate of arrests in Poland and declaration of martial law brought similar expressions of shock and despair across America yesterday, from workers, scholars, diplomats and clergymen, and immigrants who voiced fears for their friends and relatives in Poland.

Most communications with Poland were cut, adding to the uncertainty. Some Polish-American activists voiced fears of a confrontation reminiscent of Hungary in 1956 if Lech Walesa, the head of the Solidarity union, were arrested.

"They would resist with every possible means and demand release of Walesa," said Stefan Harvey in Los Angeles, president of the Southern California chapter of the Polish-American Congress.

Others felt the crackdown was no surprise, a move to placate the Soviet Union. There were pleas for moderation on both sides.

"The Solidarity boys are moving a little too fast. You can't change ideology overnight," said Chester Grabowski of Clifton, N.J., publisher of the Post-Eagle, a weekly Polish-American newspaper that circulates throughout the United States.

Cardinal John Krol, archbishop of Philadelphia who is of Polish descent and has been active in various program to aid Poland, issued a statement saying the martial law order was "distressing but not surprising. Faced with the prospect of a national referendum on setting up a non-communist government if he did not meet a series of demands by the Solidarity union, the prime minister resorted to drastic action . . . It is our fervent prayer that the influence of moderates on both sides will prevail."

Polish writer Stanislas Baranczak, a founding member of KOR, a group of intellectuals that predated Solidarity, called the crackdown a "tactical blunder."

"The Polish people can't be suppressed in this way," said Baranczak, who arrived at Harvard University in March to teach after a three-year fight to get an exit visa. "This will only strengthen reaction against the government."

But Czeslaw Milosz, Poland's 1980 Nobel Prize winner for literature who has lived in Berkeley, Calif., since the 1950s and also teaches at Harvard, said, "People have shown a lot of restraint, wisdom and maturity until now. I wouldn't expect any drastic developments at the present movement."

In Chicago--with an estimated 600,000 Polish Americans, the largest ethnic Polish population outside of Warsaw--Polish leaders said the crackdown was not unexpected.

"I'm shocked and a little horrified," said Aloysius Mazewski, president of both the Polish National Alliance and the Polish-American Congress. "But I was expecting that something was bound to happen."

At the New York demonstration, Alfred Znamierowski, 41, who left Poland 15 years ago, led the chanting over a megaphone from a van parked across from the consulate.

Znamierowski, who lives in New Jersey, said the demonstration formed spontaneously, after people heard the morning news and began telephoning friends and relatives in the area. "It's just a small group of communists against the whole nation," he said.