May 16, 1983 12:00 PM

The violent May Day clashes in Poland between police and pro-Solidarity demonstrators held a special and painful significance for Piotr and Iwona Gumper of New York City. Like thousands of other Poles (and, more specifically, 300 formerly interned Solidarity members) now living in the U.S., the Gumpers fled the current repressive regime. Piotr’s personal nightmare began in December 1981, in the industrial city of Poznan, where he worked as a graphic designer of Solidarity literature. He was rousted from his bed in the middle of the night, arrested and thrown into prison. Seven months later Piotr was temporarily released and faced with a Hobson’s choice: leave the country or spend perhaps eight years in jail. Last September Piotr, Iwona and their son, Konrad, 5, arrived in New York City with three suitcases and $30, the only money they were allowed to take. “It was,” says Piotr, “a departure into the unknown.”

The Gumpers chose the U.S. over Western European countries because they thought it gave them the best chance of finding jobs. Assisted by the New York City-based International Rescue Committee and other organizations, they spent two weeks in West Germany before flying to New York. Shortly after their arrival, the committee helped them find a three-room tenement apartment north of Harlem for $300 a month. The group also gave them $75 a week until Iwona, who had been a Ph.D. student in biology in Poland, found a $16,800-a-year job as an electron microscopy technician at New York University Medical Center. Piotr, 31, who hasn’t found steady work as a graphic artist, studies English and does some free-lance illustrating at home.

Their most important impressions of America have been the sense of freedom and the helpful sympathy they felt even from strangers. “Our greatest pleasure was to meet people who were very kind to us,” says Iwona, 33, who speaks English well after two years’ study in Poland. “People wanted to do everything to help us, to show us how to bank, fill out forms, translate documents. They bought toys for Konrad. When you are feeling completely alone, people are the most important pleasure.”

Living in New York, on the other hand, has been a study in adjusting to the “dirt, noise and garbage in the street” that plague their neighborhood. “There are such beautiful houses in Harlem,” says Iwona. “Why don’t the people or the owners care about their buildings? They are so dirty, so damaged.” The Gumpers were also surprised when a neighbor’s stereo blasted disco music all night, and nobody did anything to stop it. “In Poland, when someone got an apartment, they were so happy that they started to have a family,” says Iwona. “Then no one wanted to disturb the baby. If anyone got too noisy, there were 20 neighbors knocking on the door to complain.”

Iwona says she is sometimes nervous riding the subway, but so far crime has not touched the Gumpers. On one warm evening they walked 50 blocks through Harlem, with Piotr carrying Konrad on his shoulders. “I had heard stories about what could happen,” Iwona says, “but it was just a beautiful day and we had time to go on feet, not subway. The people we passed on the street,” she notes, “did seem a little surprised.”

The Gumpers’ second greatest pleasure—after people’s kindness—is the telephone, a luxury for which applicants can wait up to a decade in Poland. On the first Saturday of every month they call her mother in Torun, a city northwest of Warsaw. “She is waiting, she cannot sleep,” says Iwona. “Next to our rent, this is our biggest expense.” Easy shopping and plentiful food are other delights: Iwona has almost forsaken potatoes in favor of rice, a rarity in Poland; Piotr, a honey lover, gives high marks to the American variety and to, of all things, prune butter; Konrad gets chocolate, which is rationed in Poland. A memorable day in the Gumper household came when they purchased a shortwave radio, which made it possible to pick up broadcasts in Polish from Radio Free Europe. “It was save, save, save,” says Piotr in his newly acquired, halting English. “We must have this black box!” “This radio changed our life,” says Iwona. “Our home became more warm.”

Despite the May Day violence, the Gumpers are glad the rallies were held. “It means the people agree with the underground Solidarity leaders,” says Iwona. “They need this action. They need to show that the soul still exists.” The Gumpers find Americans often frustratingly misinformed about Poland. “They ask why we strike when we have nothing to eat,” says Piotr. “They don’t understand the politics and the economic mess.”

Another American quality they detect is a kind of superficial cheerfulness. “People are kind and friendly but sometimes—closed,” says Iwona. “They want to show you that they are fine, they have no problems. In Poland it is completely different; if people feel bad, they don’t hide it. It is nice to see a lady smiling in a store, but sometimes I feel it costs her a lot to have a smile on her face all the time.” The couple are happy that Konrad, who was distraught when he arrived, has come around since making friends and beginning to learn English at a day-care center. “Sometimes we have to remind him to speak Polish at home,” says Piotr. “We want him to be a Polish boy in America, not a Polish-American.”

That distinction is the crux of the Gumpers’ lives. They are political exiles, not immigrants who have come looking for financial opportunity. “The material gains that America can offer us, some sort of stabilization, will not turn our heads,” says Iwona. “We see what is bad in Poland—the government—but it doesn’t disturb our love for our country. People in Poland are working for independence, human rights, freedom. To Americans, Poland is just a spot on the map. For us, it is everything.”

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