Jumping Ship Was a Leap of Faith for Poles

Times Staff Writer

For Edward Polonke, Tadeusz Waliszewski and 14 fellow crewmen aboard a Polish fishing trawler, the leap from their ship to a refueling barge was only a few feet.

But that daring and desperate jump Thursday from the deck of the Polish ship Kantara carried them much farther--into a new and uncertain life here, cut off indefinitely from their homes and the families they believe are still unaware of their defections.

Over the last week and a half, 48 Polish sailors have fled ships anchored in Boston Harbor. All are members of the outlawed union Solidarity and say they can no longer bear conditions in their country, despite the fact they may leave their families open to reprisal by the government.

“We’re concerned for our families, because by now, the Polish government knows what has happened. We want to contact them as soon as possible and let them know we are safe,” Waliszewski said Saturday.


He and Polonke, both in their mid-30s and each a father of two children, spoke to a reporter at Boston’s Polish-American Citizens Club. Jack Kowalski, Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn’s liaison with the Polish community, interpreted.

“They realize the futility and frustration of staying there. They love their country, but they hate their government,” Kowalski said.

Although the Polish government has shown signs recently of easing its hard line against Solidarity, Poland continues to suffer from massive economic problems and widespread frustration over a lack of freedom that led to massive labor unrest last year.

In Washington, Verne Jervis, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, told the Associated Press that ship jumping is a common occurrence in all U.S. ports, “but even so, I don’t remember hearing of these kinds of numbers.”

Jervis expressed surprise at the defections because “if anything, things in Poland have improved in recent years.”

Some Skeptical

Some members of Boston’s Polish-American club say they are skeptical of the defectors’ claims that they are fleeing political repression. “My personal feeling is that it’s economic more than political,” said Joe Alecks, vice president of the club.

Even though the new immigrants are almost certain to find jobs that pay far better than what they could earn in Poland, Alecks said, past experience indicates that “in two or three months, they’ll have a change of heart and feel remorse. They’re not going to be happy.”

Kowalski said about four Polish ships arrive in Boston Harbor each year, and it is not unusual for Polish sailors to slip away from their vessels in twos and threes in search of asylum. Last January, 17 jumped ship, and all have been given permission to stay in this country.

However, he said the city has never seen a wave as large as the most recent, which began Dec. 27. That day, 23 crewmen from the Polish trawlers Kunataka and Laskara presented themselves at the Polish-American Citizens Club, a men’s social organization in Boston’s Dorchester section, and announced their intentions to stay.

Some of the sailors had visited the club before and seen it as a natural place to seek haven. It is a popular spot in the city’s Polish community--a place where men can speak their native language and sip the blackberry-flavored brandy that is one of Poland’s most popular beverages.

Over the next few days, Polish sailors seeking asylum continued to show up at the club. The Laskara’s crew was so depleted that the ship was forced to stay more than a week off Boston awaiting replenishment. The other ship quickly sailed, taking what remained of both crews.

Discussing Idea

Crewmen aboard the Kantara, which arrived last week, said they were unaware of the defections from the Laskara and the Kunataka a few days earlier, but they had been discussing the same idea for weeks.

It was not to be so easy for them. When they arrived off Boston from Halifax, Nova Scotia, their captain suddenly announced he had received a cable from the Polish government ordering him not to dock and canceling a planned two-day shore leave for the crew.

Polonke and Waliszewski recalled that the 16 fishermen--almost one-third of the ship’s crew--gathered on deck and demanded that the captain hand over their identification papers. The officer warned them, they said, of the problems they could be causing for themselves and their families. After a scuffle, however, he realized he could not stop them, and walked away as they began to leap aboard the refueling barge.

“From the moment the captain welcomed us aboard the refueling barge, and gave us coffee, we felt comfortable,” Kowalski translated the two as saying. The captain delivered the sailors to the Coast Guard, which sheltered them their first night. The INS issued them working papers almost immediately.

The city’s Polish-American community, its third-largest ethnic group after Irish- and Italian-Americans, has scrambled to find housing and food for the unexpected immigrants. Job offers are pouring into the Polish-American Citizens Club.

Reunion of Sorts

Some sailors are staying with members of the group of seamen who defected a year ago. It has been a reunion of sorts: “Some guys, I knew maybe five, maybe six years (ago). We feel we should help them,” said Zbignew Miedlo, one the earlier group who is a maintenance worker at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Miedlo said he is happy with his job, but misses his wife and two children, whom he hopes to bring to Boston within a few months. Of the 17 who defected a year ago, only one has been joined by his family.

Kowalski said he believes the tide of defectors has probably come to an end. The sailors, he said, got word that the Polish government will notify its fishing vessels that they may no longer visit U.S. ports.