When the Soviet Union took over Poland in the wake of World War II, many in Poland refused to accept their rule. One couple’s resistance landed them in Rapid City, South Dakota.
By Martin Mead
In Poland on April 21, 1945, the laws, social order, government, and equality changed overnight. A communist coup happened and many Poles didn’t even know that it took place because it was so sudden. Poland’s situation had been dire since it was reformed after WWI. It was placed between two superpowers, Germany and the Soviet Union. After German occupation of the Polish state in WWII, the Soviet Union seized the chance to create their own puppetship. Poland was forced to be communist.
The idea of Poland becoming communist was even ridiculous to the biggest advocate for the world becoming communist. “Imposing Communism on Roman Catholic Poland was as absurd as putting a saddle on a cow,” Joseph Stalin once said. Yet that did not keep Russia from attempting it. When the occupation began thousands of Poles would just disappear. Russia kept such a close eye on some of the Poles in this time that Russian spies wrote down what they ate and what they bought. Ela and Roman Lewandowski lived through this power change and its repercussions, and they shared with me their story of the oppression and fear, and their involvement in the solidarity movement.
Roman explained his family was small: he had only one brother and one sister. His father owned a barbershop and his mother was a factory worker for a paper company. Some months he was worried that they wouldn’t make it through because of the lack of food. “We would have plenty of money because the Polish government would give us money, but there was nothing to purchase with the money,” said Roman. He enjoyed reading about history, but he couldn’t talk about Polish history without the risk of being arrested. If he were to tell anyone how the Soviets attacked Poland in 1939, he would be arrested.
“They would brainwash us in schools,” said Ela. “All history books would have to be approved by the communist government.” The Russians were conveying that communism was the greatest and that they were Poland’s saviors. The Soviets would constantly lie to the Poles through elections, equality, and history. “You couldn’t go to college unless you were a member of the communist party,” said Roman.
“The biggest mistake the Russians made,” he explained, “was trying to take away Poland’s Catholic church.” He explained that every Pole would go to church on Sunday’s to pray. The Soviets changed the Polish way of life and when they tried to take away their religion, this lead to a strengthening of the solidarity movement.
“Poland had the first solidarity movement and we are the reason why other countries started standing up for themselves,” said Roman.
Poland’s solidarity movement was known as the workers’ movement and is a huge reason why the Soviet Union collapsed. The solidarity movement was the first to take place against the Russians, and after Poland’s movement caught ground, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary followed. “Poland had the first solidarity movement and we are the reason why other countries started standing up for themselves,” said Roman. “It took thousands of Poles lives for these other countries to realize this.”
His involvement in the solidarity movement started with his father. “The solidarity movement was hard for many Poles. Special forces and police would beat my father, and I was arrested, but I was lucky because many Poles that were arrested would disappear and their bodies would never be found. Even after 36 years their bodies wouldn’t be found,” he said. Roman explained to me that the Polish solidarity movement was all underground at first. No one wanted to be a leader in the solidarity movement because they were worried that their neighbors were spies. “You didn’t trust people because of all the spies, and this put the Poles in a state of fear,” added Ela. Many Poles just pretended to be communist because of all the spies.
The government gave lots of benefits to the Poles who claimed to be communist. They would have the opportunity to go to college and get well paying white collar jobs, whereas everyone else wouldn’t be able to go to college and would get lesser paying blue collar jobs. Another big issue in this time was how corrupt the political system was. Every citizen was required to vote in national elections even though their vote didn’t matter. In 1975 Roman worked for the government by counting ballots and he witnessed thousands of ballots being burned by a mob of people. “Things like this happened all the time because people wouldn’t believe in the system,” said Ela. Poles knew that Russia already picked who was going to be in the government even before they voted and this caused them to burn ballot boxes to set an example to the Russians. “All we had were fakes,” said Roman. “Officials would go to old people’s homes and hand out flowers, but it was just a show because they knew they won long before the election.”
“The choice was hard because of my family. I wanted to stay because I’m Polish, but if I stayed I would die in prison and wouldn’t be able to support my family.”
The Russians also tried to kill the Polish culture, and this led to more and more people joining the solidarity movement. The solidarity movement got so large that it forced the Russians and Polish government to make cruel decisions. On December 13, 1980 at midnight, for example, 3,300 solidarity leaders were arrested and put in jail, including Roman. Every single leader in the movement was arrested that night and most faced life in prison. The next day the Polish government declared Martial Law which is when the military takes control of the laws. “You couldn’t go anywhere without a passport and you were not allowed out past 10pm unless you got special permission from the military,” said Ela. While in prison, the local bishop talked some sense into Roman and convinced him to take his family and run. The point that really convinced the court was that he had a 5 and 6-year old. “I was given the option to stay in Poland and die in prison or take my chances elsewhere,” said Roman. “The choice was hard because of my family. I wanted to stay because I’m Polish, but if I stayed I would die in prison and wouldn’t be able to support my family. I knew we were taking a huge risk, but I had to do it for my family.” Poles treated the solidarity movement like it was going to be their last, and for many it was. Roman was lucky that he was able to leave, but he knew there were going to be more hardships to come.
Germany at this time was split into two different countries, the East being communist and the West being Democratic. Both sides were still trying to recover from WWII and this put Germany in a position where they couldn’t have a military. Plus, their economy was in shambles while the Cold War was happening.
Roman and Ela went to the American Embassy and applied for refugee asylum. They got accepted and this allowed them to travel to Frankfurt, which was in West Germany, so they could wait for a family to host them. They were staying in a hotel filled with only people from the solidarity movement funded by the American government. They were given 5 marks (Germany’s currency) per person in their family so they could purchase food. Twenty francs would buy what they needed and more. They would buy chocolates and sweets and send them to their parents and friends. They had never seen so many goods. There was food, shoes, and other items they didn’t have access to these items in Poland but Americans take for granted. They were starting to get a taste of what democracy has for citizens.
“I saw that we were going to Rapid City, South Dakota, and the first thing that popped in my mind was where is South Dakota? We looked at the map and it was in the middle of nowhere. I started crying.”
And while they were enjoying products they could get in West Germany, they were anxious to get a host family. “We would check to see if our names were on the board but we would never see Lewandoski,” said Ela. The board was the terminal to see who was getting a host family and where that family lived. The issue for Ela and Roman is that most people fleeing were single men. For the Lewandoski’s, there were four of them that a family would have to support. After a few months they did get a host family and the family lived in America. “All Europeans dreamed of living in America,” said Roman. “You were the world superpower and you had plenty of food and you had the dream of democracy and money was self-made.”
They were very excited to be going to America, but Ela was disappointed about where they were going. “I saw that we were going to Rapid City, South Dakota, and the first thing that popped in my mind was where is South Dakota? We looked at the map and it was in the middle of nowhere. I started crying because I didn’t want to go to South Dakota, I was hoping it was going to be New York City or something exciting,” said Ela. They traveled to America and their biggest worry was that they didn’t know any English. When they arrived they were lucky to find that they were staying a home with other foreigners. They got hosted by Lutheran Social Services and they were lucky that they were hosting other groups of people, and they helped Ela and Roman with their kids and teaching them English. They established themselves in Rapid City and after a while it felt like home.
Ela and Roman have been living in Rapid City for 35 Years. Their kids went to college and now are living very successful lives. They do miss Poland because it is their homeland. “I will always be Polish, I am proud to be Polish, but my home is America now,” said Roman. “America gave me a second chance when I wouldn’t have one in Poland and that is something I can never repay.” They have considered going back to Poland but they couldn’t because their kids are here and all their friends and they love it here in America. They are grateful to be living in a democratic society and that Poland has such close relations with America.
Back in Poland, the Polish people eventually freed themselves from the communist regime, a feat partially credited to Pope John Paul II, who was Polish. Another factor was the embargo the US put on the Soviet Union, which slowly made them weaker and allowed the Polish solidarity movement to gain strength in the Soviets’ weakness. Poland is now free and has a close partnership with America.
Roman has received one medal for his involvement in the solidarity movement and will be receiving another in June from the Polish President. The medals are marks of how far Roman and Ela have come and how much Poland’s freedom means to them. In 1989, when Poland was finally freed from Communism, Roman broke down and cried. “See kids,” he said, “this is what I spent my whole life fighting for.”
Header photo: The famous gate no2 of Gdańsk shipyard. Symbol of the solidarity movement, event that happened in the 80’s by Jojo Bombardo on Flickr