I last saw Bronislaw Garemek on Nov. 7, in Rome, at a conference summoned by Pope John Paul II on "The Common Spiritual Roots of Europe." Someone recalled a signpost at the center of Warsaw: "Moscow -- 1243 km, Brussels -- 1243 km." Garemek, a medieval historian, has lived all his life at the center of Europe's "common spiritual roots."

Garemek gave one of the major papers at the seminar. He spoke of living, as it were, on a frontier, trying to piece together again the institutions of a democratic society. In conversation, he cited James Madison, who had said that human rights are not defended by "parchment barriers," but exist in institutions and in free associations of citizens who keep those institutions honest. Solidarity.

A colleague of his exclaimed that if human rights were words, Poles had plenty of human rights -- in the Polish Constitution, in the U.N. Universal Declaration, in the Helsinki Accords: "But just try to practice them!"

Garemek was a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center here several years ago, working on a book on the forgotten little peoples of Europe, the peoples of the Beggar's Opera. (Radio Moscow now disdains his work as "writing about degenerates," the very words the Nazis used.)

He and the nearly 100 Poles who came to the seminar in Rome seemed to imagine themselves as building the institutions of a new democracy, slowly, without bloodshed, moderately, under almost impossible conditions. They saw themselves as pioneers. For all of us.

Garemek was particularly concerned about the coming threat of starvation among the people this winter. Others told me of mounting cases of dysentery among infants. Dairy products are available, but distribution is so bad that many children are falling ill. They hoped that infant formula and milk products could be rushed to Poland, but also technicians to help start a milk products industry -- as well as a small industry for hygienic soaps and other medical chemicals. Infants are suffering from rashes and lesions.

Recently, I saw a list of prisoners of the new regime. Garemek's name was on it -- had been on it, we learned, since September. Later I heard that his auto was followed and he was pulled from it on the highway, at night. Other reports said that prisoners like him were held for a week in heatless tents in sub-zero temperatures. Later reports say some have now been moved, perhaps to Moscow.

On Dec. 14, Czechoslovak radio was already denouncing Garemek by name as an "expert in mass psychosis." By Dec. 18 Radio Moscow was describing Garemek in terms so viciously anti-Semitic they echo the wartime period when Garemek, then a spindly 9-year-old, was rescued from the Nazis at Auschwitz.

The Communists have hounded Garemek since he turned in his party card in 1968 in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Deprived of a university position, he went his cheerful, scholarly way at the Polish Academy of Sciences, producing masterful studies on the era 1350-1750. Active in the "flying university," Garemek was invited by Solidarity to come to Gdansk in August 1980 to head its board of researchers and academic advisers.

Human rights, democracy, its mediating institutions, its free associations -- these are abstractions until men and women make them real.

Bronislaw Garemek was trying to make them real. He is a man, not a book. He has a wife, Hanna, and son. I saw him over six days and nights, a man with hunger, worries, duties, perplexities, serenity.

When I last spoke to him, he was not hopeful. Not discouraged, either. It is part of an Eastern heritage neither to hope too much nor despair too much, but to keep one's eye on the task, one day at a time.

"Bronislaw," I would say to him if I could. "One day at a time. It isn't over yet. You with your vision of 600 years have seen it all before -- twice in your lifetime. If there is no room for you in today's Poland, in the cold and hunger, today is not the last day. It is, as ever, just today."

The immediate issue may be settled by naked power. It always is. But night cannot forever hold back day. When our turn comes, may there still be living hearts as noble as that of Bronislaw Garemek.

A secret communion of hearts rings the planet, in the silence.