WARSAW — Zbigniew Romaszewski was born in Warsaw in 1940--not a great time to be alive in this city. In 1945, after a year's detention, he and his mother were released from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp, near what is now the city of Wroclaw. His earliest memories are of apocalypse and mercy.
"I was very young," he said, "so what I remember is like snapshots only. I remember our house burning in Warsaw, during the uprising, with my toys inside. I remember the awful stench of the latrines at Gross-Rosen. And I remember, when the Americans liberated the camp, the wonderful taste of rice cooked with milk, and bean soup."
Children of Poland
Zofia Romaszewski, his wife, was born the same year and into the same caldron. She remembers, around the age of 4, being lost on a train. Like all Polish children of that age and in that time, she had memorized the names and addresses of relatives and, with the help of strangers, she found her way to the home of an aunt, who cared for her until the war's end.
Such beginnings, it would seem, prepared the Romaszewskis for a life of political activism, for their deep involvement with the Solidarity independent trade union movement, for the months of underground hiding followed by months of jail, 35 years later.
Fire, Hunger and Horror
But it is probably better to think of those earlier years of fire, hunger and horror as a backdrop for what was to follow, for it was during the aftermath of World War II and the imposition of Stalin's communism on Poland that the real seeds of a life in opposition were sown.
"In Poland, starting at age 7 or 8, your political views become definite," Romaszewski said last week. "You see this system does not fit Poland and you are opposed to it."
Last week, the Romaszewskis were honored for that credo, which guides them still in an uphill battle to defend hundreds of Polish workers and citizens in a variety of grievances against unfair factory managements, police brutality and government oppression--in short, to right some of the wrongs in a system that does not fit.
The award, to both Romaszewskis, came from Stanford University's Aurora Foundation, to honor their activities on behalf of human rights in Poland. The award, which carries a grant of $50,000 for each of them, was accepted on their behalf by Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, considered Poland's greatest living poet. They say they plan to use the money to continue their human rights activities.
The Romaszewskis' applications for passports to attend the award ceremonies Thursday, which was the United Nations' "International Day of Human Rights," were denied by the authorities, who called their travel plans "dangerous to the interests of the state."
Nevertheless, the event was celebrated here with a Mass in a Warsaw church. And perhaps the most significant expression of the day in this country was the arrest of seven opposition activists who chained themselves to a lamppost and, from the scaffolding of a construction site, unfurled banners calling for the release of political prisoners.
Poland officially claims to have no political prisoners, but Romaszewski, who heads Solidarity's human rights monitoring committee, is unimpressed with the government disclaimers. His committee's annual report, issued last week, noted that at least 700 Poles have been fined by misdemeanor courts over the past 12 months, many of them opposition activists who have been repeatedly hauled into police stations around the country and held for 48 hours.
"The fines are increasing," Romaszewski says. "They are now about 40,000 to 45,000 zlotys ($125 to $140)." The average monthly wage in Poland is about 30,000 zlotys.
Although the government has avoided leveling political charges at activist figures, it has sometimes resorted to criminal statutes to take them out of circulation. One, for example, has been jailed for failure to make alimony payments. At least 10 men have been jailed for refusing military service.
All of this, to activists such as the Romaszewskis, represents the present atmosphere of Poland, a country locked in a seemingly endless economic and political crisis. It is an atmosphere like the winter climate--cold, gray, veiled in bad air.
The Romaszewskis' apartment, at the top of a dim green stairway in one of Warsaw's anonymous post-war blocks, seems a shelter from gloom. The furnishings are modest but comfortable. The light is soft and warm. Three walls in the living room are lined with books, political studies side-by-side with scientific journals.
Zbigniew Romaszewski is a physicist, a discipline that seems to have become an afterthought in the turbulence of the last decade. He is slender, sharp-featured, a man who chooses his words with care and concentration.
Zofia Romaszewski seems a complimentary force, soft of expression, lively, quick to laughter. She also studied physics. For many years, both earned income teaching or tutoring.
Young Political Activist