Glimpsing a life to which she can never return, Anya Cwiecek watched the television broadcasts with fascination and sadness as Pope John Paul II stirred her native Poland, 6,300 miles away.
A journalist and member of Poland's now-banned Solidarity labor union, she was in the thick of it two years ago. She reported for one of the Solidarity newspapers, Odrodzenie (Rebirth), interviewed Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and tried to outwit the censors.
Then martial law dropped over her country like a dark cloud. One cold January night three men pounded on her door and took her to prison. Six months later she was released, but she was left without money, a job or prospects unless she wanted to become a police informer. So she took the only way out, coming to America as a political refugee.
At least 1,300 others like Cwiecek have come to the United States, and their numbers increase each week. These Polish dissidents fill the latest places in a line stretching over three centuries. Once more, the casualties of European revolutionary struggles come to America, where they start over and relive old battles.
With an acquaintance acting as interpreter, Cwiecek, sitting in her kitchen here recently, spoke in quick bursts of Polish. She wore a purple smock and displayed a California tan, but she said her adjustment to life here has been difficult, particularly with her homeland still in turmoil.
Coming to the United States "was a very difficult decision for me to make, and I thought about it for six months," she said. Cwiecek said she wanted to continue to work for Solidarity, but the union had gone underground by the time she was arrested. Her record as a political prisoner made it impossible for her to resume a journalistic career or teach. She could not even find a place to live. She had been declared persona non grata, and her country's government encouraged her to leave. The United States was willing to accept her and other Solidarity activists and martial law detainees as political refugees. But that meant leaving her parents, brothers, sisters and friends.
There also were the old memories of Solidarity's golden hours, in 1980 and 1981, when many Poles thought they might elect their own leaders and rid the country of an oppressive bureaucracy.
"That was a very beautiful, and a very, very difficult time," Cwiecek said. Solidarity pushed for every possible advantage, and Polish government officials, though not entirely unsympathetic, desperately tried to rein it in before the resulting disorder swept them out of power. Fear of chaos finally led to martial law, but even that was not enough to discourage many activists initially.
"At the beginning, very few people wanted to leave the country," Cwiecek said. "But then more people were blackmailed and threatened and dismissed from work."
On Jan. 11, 1982, the night of Cwiecek's arrest, she had forgotten to check the streets outside her apartment building. A neighbor warned her that strangers were looking for her. Suddenly they were pounding on her door. "Three gentlemen," said her interpreter, Polish-born veterinarian Robert Zielinski.
"No, no," she corrected him. "Three gorillas."
She was sent to a former resort on the northeastern coast at Goldap. The 400 women dissidents held there called the place "the golden cage." Good food and recreation were available. The government proudly escorted Red Cross visitors through the place.
But this was no more than a tolerable day-to-day life, with no chance to plan or dream, Cwiecek said. Cwiecek turned her back on it and came here, to live on $300 a month from the Pasadena Church of the Brethren, financial aid that will expire in September. This is part of a support system helping more than 350 Polish refugees that was set up by by the Protestant service organization, the Church World Service.
Robert Earhart, pastor of the Pasadena church, called Cwiecek "extremely bright and vibrant." Like most of the Polish refugees and other political dissidents who have come here over the centuries, she represents the most energetic of her country's young and middle-aged intellectuals and professionals. Her English is developing quickly, Earhart said, and "we're not too concerned about her ability to make a go of it here."
Cwiecek said she thinks she made the right decision to leave Poland. "When I receive letters from my friends, in each letter is a line. Each one says, 'I don't see any future in Poland.' "