Just months after the Solidarity-led government pushed through a law to drive collaborators with the former Communist secret police from public life in the new Poland, heads are rolling.

Solidarity heads.

Last week Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek dismissed Janusz Tomaszewski, his deputy premier and interior minister, after Tomaszewski refused to end speculation that he had links with the secret police when he was active in the Solidarity movement that broke Communist rule here in the 1980s. Tomaszewski is the third government minister to be forced out since the spring for alleged collaboration after a review of Communist-era secret police files. Eight members of Parliament are also under investigation.

The irony has not been lost on Solidarity leaders and their supporters. In approving the law--after years of delay--the government's unspoken target was the Communists' successor party whose forebears once tormented and jailed Solidarity democratic activists. The government never imagined that some of those same activists would themselves be tarnished.

"I think the government is surprised," said Andrzej Paczkowski, a historian and former Solidarity activist. "But it's completely obvious that the collaborators were some of the people involved in anti-government activities" during the Communist era.

The opposition Democratic Left Alliance--the former Communists--has emerged unscathed and is relishing the purging of its opponent's ranks. Solidarity is like "carp on Christmas Eve," said a lip-licking Leszek Miller, the Democratic Left leader, referring to the traditional holiday feast of fish on a platter.

Unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, Poland came late to what is called "lustration," from the Latin word for purification. The Czech Republic ruthlessly purged "conscious collaborators" from public life, drawing protests from the Council of Europe for the crudeness of its approach. In eastern Germany, marriages and friendships were ripped apart as individuals accessed their files and discovered that they had been betrayed by friends and loved ones. Hungary branded some of those in the Communist regime "war criminals" and tried them for crimes against humanity.

Poland took a more circumspect--and perhaps forgiving--attitude to historical reckoning. In the first years of freedom after the fall of communism in 1989, the country concentrated on the development of its economic life amid fears that vengeance could poison public life. And Solidarity's benevolence was helped in no small part by the belief that the Communists--or their successors--could never return politically.

But they did. The notion of lustration was largely put on ice when the former Communists came to power in the mid-1990s. It was revived with fervor when Solidarity Electoral Action and Freedom Union formed a governing coalition in 1997.

As it has in other countries in Eastern Europe, however, the process of digging up the past has revealed how the fight against communism was not always as simple as good vs. evil but was colored by shades of gray.

It is unclear whether those currently accused of collaboration were threatened or bribed by the police or whether they were, in fact, committed to the old regime. But for Solidarity the struggle against communism was one for the soul of Poland, and those who helped the secret police are guilty--forever--of the gravest betrayal.

Even so, a number of political figures, human rights activists and former dissidents have begun to question a vetting system that relies on Communist documents and testimony, and can ruin careers before the accused has a day in court.

"I voted for this bill and I regard my vote as a contribution to the entire mess," said Andrzej Potocki, a member of Parliament and spokesman for Freedom Union. "What is unfair is that whoever is subject to this process is treated like they are automatically guilty."

The law forces more than 22,000 office holders, including the president, cabinet ministers, members of Parliament, judges and senior civil servants, to declare whether they ever helped the Communist security services. Collaboration is defined as the secret passing of information or documents to someone the informant knew to be a member of the secret police. Anyone who admitted collaboration could not be punished, but anyone found to have lied would be banned from public life for 10 years.

According to Krzysztof Kauba, a judge in the Office of Public Interest, which scrutinizes the statements, about 130 people have admitted to collaboration and their names are gradually being published as their admissions are verified.

Beginning with the most important figures in public life, the Office of Public Interest is sending the names of those who signed statements saying they did nothing to the state security service. If someone has a Communist-era file, it is checked and if prosecutors have a "suspicion" of collaboration, the case is sent to the lustration court, which can then initiate a trial.

That's where things have slipped off the tracks in Poland, according to human rights groups and others. "In its current shape, lustration is discrediting people," said Marek Nowicki, head of the Warsaw office of the Helsinki Committee, a human rights group.

Court proceedings are supposed to be secret if the defendant requests a closed hearing, but names leak here almost immediately and the taint of collaboration is career-breaking, particularly for anyone in Solidarity.

"Many of us were interrogated then," Tomaszewski said in a television interview last week. "But contact with them [the secret police] and cooperation are two different things."

The Solidarity government, however, has forced its members to pledge that if they are even referred to the court they will immediately resign from ministerial posts.

Robert Mroziewicz, a deputy defense minister who was a liaison with NATO during negotiations on Poland's accession to the Western alliance, and Krzysztof Luks, a deputy transportation minister, also have had to step down. The accusation against Mroziewicz, an underground journalist in Solidarity during the 1980s, has shocked former dissidents who have rallied to his defense.

Onetime supporters of lustration now think even that benefit of the law--which does give people some legal recourse to combat unfair allegations--is outweighed by the summary justice of ruining lives on a mere suspicion.

"Solidarity still believes the law has magic powers and it will clean up Polish politics," said Potocki, who fears that with a six-year mandate the work of the Office of Public Interest will lead to endless accusations and political crises as ministers, including future appointees, are forced to resign.

"We had the best solution 10 years ago. We should have burned all the files."

CAPTION: Some members of Solidarity have now been identified as having had links to the Communist secret police.

CAPTION: Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek: Has fired three ministers since spring for alleged ties to the secret police.

CAPTION: Janusz Tomaszewski: Refused to end speculation he collaborated with secret police under Communist rule.