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For Polish Emigrants in L.A., Freedom Carries a Double Edge

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They came to the United States in search of Freedom.

For the right to speak their minds, for the right to vote.

Last week, Ryszard Nikodem and about 1,500 other Polish Americans in Los Angeles exercised both rights. They gathered at the Polish Parish on Adams Boulevard to vote in Poland’s first free election since World War II.

Later, many talked openly about the emotional roller-coaster ride they experienced--from the ecstasy of voting to the disappointment in the result.

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Although frustrated that the result only forced a runoff election instead of giving their country a president, voters at the Polish Parish still felt they had a reason to celebrate--they, and their relatives still in Poland, did get to vote.

“It was fantastic that so many young people came,” said Nikodem, adding that more than 50% of those voting at the church were under 40. “This election was one more step toward democracy.”

Nikodem, a former leader of the Solidarity movement in Slask (a large coal mining region) continues to be active in Poland’s political arena. Even from 7,000 miles away. Saturday, as an election official, he worked from 6 a.m. until 11:30 p.m.

“I voted for (Lech) Walesa, because I never doubted him. He is a real patriot and he always thinks about Poland. He never has done anything against the country, even in those days when the opposition tried to destroy his image as a hero. Walesa was the real Solidarity leader. (Tadeusz) Mazowiecki was only his adviser. Without Walesa, Mazowiecki would not have been able to create the revolutionary movement.

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“I am not happy with the results of the election. I expected Walesa would become president. I can’t understand Poles. If they had voted like immigrants in America (60% voted for Walesa), we would have had a president in our country. We need a strong president. The time of battle has not finished, for this time we need a commander, not an intellectual who knows three languages but does not know how to speak to people. Walesa is an ordinary man, but he has done more for Poland than anybody else. And he knows how to fight.”

Nikodem was 43 when he came to the United States, after spending 369 days as a political prisoner, losing his job and believing that Poland held no future for him.

That was five years ago. He learned English, finished school and became a building contractor. Now he runs his own business and owns a house. “It would have been impossible in Poland,” he says, “to buy a house even after working very hard for five years. America gave me a chance to live well. It was always my dream to have a little house for my family, to have a dog and a cat and a garden around the home. And now it turned out to be possible. I am happy that I can live in a country where dreams become reality.”

But for Nikodem, there remains an emptiness, for he believes he could never return to even a free Poland. “I can say frankly that I am ashamed, because I left Poland in a very hard time. My friends from Solidarity told me that I should not have gone. I knew a lot of them had more difficulty than I had in those days.” Although a civilian, Nikodem said he felt like he was a “soldier who deserted. I don’t regret this, but it would be very hard to look my Polish friends from Solidarity, who stayed in the country, straight in their eyes.”

Which might be why this election day was so important to him and why he helped organize the voting process here. Nikodem said it made him feel useful and that he was doing something for his distant country and friends.

Mirek and Malgosia Cieszkowski didn’t vote because they could not take off from work. “If I could vote, I would never vote for Walesa,” said Malgosia, 29. “I do consider him (to be) not very serious. For me, Mazowiecki was the only person. I could really accept him as president. But he lost. And now, which seems to be a very common Polish custom, the people regret losing him. I have heard that in Poland, people are already buying a pin with the inscription: ‘It is not my fault. I voted for Mazowiecki.’ ”

Malgosia has bitter memories of Poland. A Solidarity official at 23, she was arrested and spent eight months in prison. She got out of politics and, in 1986, decided to visit her sister in the United States. She was granted permission, but her husband’s passport request was denied. “Maybe,” she said, “it was the last drop of bitterness. Maybe that was why I have chosen America to live . . . . “

Mirek did join his wife two years later. His experience in the United States has been difficult. He misses his homeland, but he has no regrets about leaving. In fact, he believes he would not be alive today if he had not left Poland.

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He suffered AVM (arteriovenous malformations), a brain disorder, and underwent surgery early in 1989. He was able to go back to work eight months ago, and is taking computer courses.

“It is not easy,” Mirek says. “We have . . . a little apartment and we sometimes have financial troubles. Our life isn’t very different from what we might have in Poland . . . (But) here I feel very safe. I mean even physical safety. The American doctors saved my life. . . . In Poland these kind of brain operations are, as far as I know, absolutely unknown. I probably would have died there.”

He remains interested in life in Poland. And he was disappointed that he couldn’t vote. “But I could not let myself lose the money (from work),” he said. He tried to follow Sunday’s election developments on radio and television.

The next day, Mirek said he was driving when he heard the results of the election on the radio. He drove through a red light.

“As the result of the Polish election, I have got the ticket,” he said. “I was so surprised. Especially when I learned about Stanislaw Tyminski. It sounded like a gloomy joke. I can’t understand what really happened. Poles are so tired. They probably wanted to elect somebody else, who was not Walesa and not Mazowiecki, who was somebody new in the Polish political game. But now I am sure that Walesa will be the Polish president. It seems impossible that people would vote for Tyminski again.”

It is very easy to find Nina and Stanislaw Piasek at the Cafe Casino in Santa Monica. They often sit outside, watching the ocean. Stanislaw could not vote, because he has U.S. citizenship only. “I voted,” Nina said, “because I believed the proverb ‘every vote counts.’ But I was very disappointed with the result. I hoped Poles would be more clever and look ahead, but instead I saw the shortsightedness, proven by the election results, a power-hungry Walesa and Tyminski, who has a murky past.

“It is quite terrifying,” she says, “that a lot of Poles got seduced by the myth of a ‘rich uncle from Canada’ and voted for Tyminski. He, as proved by his recent ABC ‘Nightline’ interview, seems to be a man without any political and economic program for Poland. The trouble is that the Poles don’t receive ‘Nightline.’ ”

Nina left Poland in 1982, after martial law was declared and she lost her job because of her involvement in the Solidarity movement. She moved to Paris and, in 1985, came to Los Angeles, where she met her future husband, who had come here from Poland 20 years before.

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Stanislaw did not want to comment for publication.

Nina said, “I have not considered going back to (live in) Poland. I visited my mother last summer. And I am going to go to the old country regularly. But going back (permanently) is out of the question. In Poland, life is so hard. And nobody can predict what the political future will be. If Walesa becomes president, it will not be good for the country. I am afraid that he is a type of dictator. He was wonderful for the revolution, but his time is past.”

Tomek Jesman came to the Polish Parish to vote, bringing his 11-year-old son. For Jesman, election day was like a holiday and a social event. And a time to reflect. He met a lot of his friends at the church and they talked politics.

Jesman came to the America with his wife and son seven years ago and received political asylum. But it has been a difficult time for him. He separated from his wife shortly after they came to the United States. She died two years ago. He returned to Poland with his son five months ago for a visit and found a different Poland.

“It is time to forget about my personal drama in America,” Jesman said. “In Poland there are so many things to do. There are people waiting for me.

“The election result does not cause me to change my mind. In two years I will be living in Poland again. I don’t like what Walesa represents. I don’t like his anti-democratic and anti-intellectual positions. I can’t say many good things about Walesa, but I can’t say anything good about Tyminski.

“But still, it would be easier to live in Poland for me and for my son. My family is there and they can help me raise my son,” Jesman said. “Of course, the election result hit me. I think that Mazowiecki’s campaign was not aggressive enough. But I know that politics is a process and you are not able to change the system and the people in one year.”

Jesman’s entire life has been connected with politics. He was arrested for the first time, at age 20, and was a political prisoner in 1978. Jesman said he will go back to Poland and join other Mazowiecki supporters in opposition to the anticipated Walesa regime.

But this time, he hopes he won’t have to fear arrest.

George Milton, born Jerzy Wyrzygalski, came to the United States in the early ‘60s. He established a small business producing light-measuring instruments. A strong supporter of the Solidarity movement, Milton remains keenly interested in Poland’s political environment.

“People in Poland are very hungry for charisma and authority,” he says. “People against Walesa say very often that he has a power of suggestion like Mussolini. They are afraid that Walesa would become a dictator. I don’t think so. The pressure from Western democracies will keep Walesa under control. Tyminski is the man from nowhere and I doubt if he has any program. I have heard only that he wants Poland to have a nuclear weapon. It sounds crazy. It is an academic discussion, but I am very sorry that Zbigniew Brzezinski (who emigrated to the United States in 1953 and became an adviser on national security affairs to President Carter) doesn’t consider himself a candidate. Maybe at the next election he will change his mind.”

Christopher Kolski is the leader of the Polish-American Congress in Southern California. He came to the United States 31 years ago as a teen-ager. He proudly informed those around him that he voted for Tyminski.

“It was my vote against Mazowiecki. I considered him a nice person, but he was not a good leader. His economic program was not successful. Poles, in general, didn’t have enough money to buy bread and butter. The Polish economy was getting more and more ruined. Tyminski has, in my opinion, a very good economic program. He wants to enforce privatization of the Polish economy and limit taxes very fast.

“Sometimes people who oppose Tyminski mention that he spent 20 years outside the country. For me it is not an argument. Polish emigrants also fought for democracy in Poland. They supported Solidarity and part of the victory belongs to them. Why could a Polish emigrant not become president?

“It seems that election result does not make anybody happy. But the most important principle of democracy--that majority decides who will be in power--is becoming reality in Poland. The first independent election was done.

“Welcome to democracy.”

Lubelska is a Polish journalist on a Times Mirror Fellowship. She has been at The Times since September and will return to Poland in the middle of December.


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