When the military cracked down in Poland last month, Wladyslaw Zukowski was a 28-year-old fishing boat navigator living with his pregnant wife and 2-year-old child in one room of his in-laws’ apartment near Gdansk. Today Zukowski is relocated in Vancouver, Canada, a refugee from both his country and his family and a painful reminder of the human dilemmas of freedom.
The decision that changed his life came Dec. 15. Zukowski was asked to fly to Vancouver as part of a routine replacement crew for the Polish fishing trawler Manta. Zukowski accepted the assignment—and decided that he would defect (as had many other Polish sailors). “I told my 71-year-old mother I might never see her again,” Zukowski recalls. “My wife and I realize it may be a very long time before we’re together again. But I know it was right to defect.”
Zukowski is one of 80 or so Polish seamen who have requested asylum in Vancouver, where the 15,000 members of the city’s Polish community are giving them food and shelter while they face an uncertain future. Those like Zukowski who left Poland after martial law was declared are technically deserters from the military and could face execution if they returned. (A civilian, Zukowski was required to sign a document giving him temporary military status before flying to Vancouver.) None of the defectors are able to communicate with their families—and, for now, any thoughts of bringing wives and children to freedom are pipe dreams. “We are all afraid,” Zukowski admits. “We are all under mental strain. But we could not help our families by staying in Poland. Here we can hope.”
The Canadian government has done what it can to ease the plight of Zukowski and others like him, granting temporary visas and work permits soon after the seamen defect. But their major emotional support in this crisis has come from people like Kirstejn and Maria Christensen of Vancouver, who have taken five of the refugees into their home. Kirstejn, 48, is a Danish-born carpenter. His wife, Maria, a 51-year-old nurse’s aide, is a native of Poland. “When I heard the news about what was happening in my country, I knew I had to do something,” Maria says. “I feel for my people. I feel for these poor men.” The Christensens have translated their feelings into action. “I fixed Christmas Eve dinner for 30 people,” Maria says. “There was more food on the table than these men had seen in months. But all the while the men were eating, we knew they were thinking of their poor families stuck in Poland.” Maria’s understanding came from her own experiences with the Polish underground during World War II and later in a German concentration camp: “I was born in Poland. I suffered there. I know how these men are suffering now.”
The burden of feeding and caring for five extra mouths is no easy matter for Maria. She has to combine the added chores with her regular six-nights-a-week job in a home for the elderly. But she has seven grown children from a previous marriage and regards the seamen simply as new additions to her family: “I treat them like sons.” For Maria it is not so much politics as caring for countrymen in need. “These men have given me a new purpose in life,” she declares. “When they arrived my life changed. I forgot my aches and pains. I feel so much more alive helping them.”
The port of Vancouver is starting to fill up now with Polish vessels. Canadian workers plan to honor requests from Solidarity members on board not to refuel the trawlers or pilot them out of the harbor for the long voyage home. Frequently, members of the Polish community come down to the docks to demonstrate in support of their marooned countrymen. “Solidarity is not dead here,” declares Stasia Malczynski of the city’s Polish radio station. “We still fight for its goals. Maybe we can help those in Poland who are too scared, too alone to believe in the possibility of freedom.”
For the moment, at least, Wladyslaw Zukowski is also scared—and almost alone. He looks gaunt and pale from worry, and he spends his days in Canada listlessly watching a television whose language he barely understands, trying to improve his halting English in order to find a job. His wife does not know what has happened to him, and, he admits, “I am very afraid for my marriage.”