By Catherine O'Neill
September 08, 1980 12:00 PM

If any liberalization comes about in Poland as a result of its defiant workers’ strikes, it will come too late for Tadeusz Walendowski. As an editor of a Warsaw dissident publication and member of a human rights committee in Poland, Walendowski was for 12 years a leading opponent of the Soviet-backed regime. “If the current strikes were able to spread in Poland and assume enormous national character, that would be largely due to the work of Walendowski and others like him,” says Tadeusz Szafar, a former Warsaw broadcaster and now a visiting scholar at Harvard’s Russian Research Center. Yet as the strikes gather force, Walendowski can cheer his old friends in the dissident movement only from a distance. Last year he was forced to leave his homeland when his wife, Anna Erdman, an American physician of Polish ancestry, was expelled from the country. Now living in Arlington, Va. with Anna and their two sons, Walendowski, 36, says the strike came as no surprise. “The Polish economic situation in the last five or six years has been heading in a direction that made it inevitable,” he says. Yet he still finds the strikers’ courage remarkable. “A worker risks everything when he decides to go against the system.”

No one understands the risks better than he. At 23, Walendowski was arrested in a student strike at the University of Lodz, briefly detained and deprived of his doctoral fellowship. Two years later, while studying filmmaking, he was arrested for photographing a demonstration in Gdansk. Ironically, those demonstrations led to the downfall of Poland’s repressive old regime—and its replacement by the latest administration, which was theoretically more liberal. “I got a nice beating and spent three days in jail,” Walendowski recalls. “I was arrested under the Gomulka government and released by the Gierek government.”

Walendowski’s experience in the subsequent decade was a microcosm of the Polish dissident movement. He was refused work in his chosen field. “They just don’t want people like me to enter media,” he says. “It’s understandable.” Instead, he started an underground publishing empire that produced first broadsides, then magazines, then books. “It was a miracle, really,” he says. “It took six months just to get to a mimeograph. You can’t buy printing technology legally, but we got it with help from the West.”

For more than three years the Walendowskis held a dissident salon in the large Warsaw apartment that Anna Erdman (who studied medicine there) inherited from her Polish grandfather. “It was very important,” says Harvard’s Szafar. “It was the meeting place for Warsaw’s opposition intellectuals.” Although Tadeusz and Anna realized secret police agents had infiltrated their gatherings, the state did nothing to stop them—perhaps because of Anna’s American citizenship. Instead, the government canceled her visa, and Tadeusz and their sons, Dawid and Elias, came to America with her. “I have never cried so much as on the day I left,” says Tadeusz. “I knew it would be a long time before I came back.”

Tadeusz now free-lances for the Voice of America and runs a Polish human rights monitoring group in Washington, from which listening post he has formed sharp opinions about the current crisis. He credits Poland’s most famous native son with inspiring the opposition: “Political maturity was made possible by the dissident movement,” he says, “but moral strength was made possible by Pope John Paul II. They have his portrait all around the Gdansk shipyard.” Walendowski has few kind words, though, for the U.S. government’s cautious approach to the strike. “When the time comes for people in Poland to widen human rights, Carter keeps quiet,” he complains. Still, Walendowski believes the workers have a chance to transform Polish society—albeit a slim one. “This is the beginning of a long-lasting process,” he says. “The government for sure will try to cheat the workers, and they will have to fight for the best outcome.” Yet, short of a new visa for Anna, no outcome will bring hope of ever going home to Walendowski. “If I were alone I would try to go,” he says. “But now I have a strong anchor in my wife’s being here. I must be happy with the thought that this is where I live now.”