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  • Writer's pictureElzbieta M Gozdziak

Martial law anniversary ... coercion, compulsion, and forced emigration

On December 13th, 1981, martial law was declared in my native Poland. I remember that night as if it was yesterday... A young faculty member at the Department of Ethnography, I participated in a solidarity strike with the students of my alma meter, the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. On that night we were awaken by the militarized police (ZOMO) and expelled from the building...

According to available data, the operation involved about 70,000 soldiers, more than 30,000 Ministry of Internal Affairs functionaries, more than 40,000 reservists, 1,750 tanks, about 1,900 vehicles, more than 9,000 cars, several squadrons of cargo aircraft and helicopters and several warships blockings access to ports. Timothy Garton Ash described the event as follows: “In that freezing winter’s night the Polish army and security forces invaded their own country. Tanks advanced into the centre of Warsaw. Troops set up roadblocks and between all major cities. Civilian telephone and telex lines were cut everywhere. Radio and television stations were taken over. Within hours Poland was partitioned and blockaded, internally and externally sealed off” (1999:273).

The introduction of the martial law was a traumatic event for Polish people. (Those who know me, understand taht I do not use the words "trauma" and "traumatic" lightly). Many of us decided to leave the country. Some of the “Solidarity” activists released from detention centers were offered one-way passports by the communist authorities in order to leave Poland and thus stop their anti-communist activities.

Approximately quarter million people emigrated from Poland to the United States in the 1980s. The U.S. government established a special program for Polish political refugees (under the Refugee Act of 1980) as well as those already in the country (granting them EVD or Extended Voluntary Departure).

I arrived in the United States in May 1984 and by 1986 I was studying the post-Solidarity refugees in New York City and Chicago as part of a larger research project funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Many of the Poles in our sample were "ordinary" people, but equally many were former Solidarity activists. While many integrated quickly, many struggled. Young men who spent their youth organizing underground political activities lost their purpose in life and fell into depression. Often self-medicated with alcohol.

With large Polish American communities both in Chicago and New York City, one might hope that there was a lot of support and programs facilitating integration. As Joanna Wojdon had shown, despite high expectations of both sides the relations between the old Polonia (Polish diaspora) and the newcomers were far from harmonious and mutually rewarding. Mary Patrice Erdmans wrote about the same dynamics in her book Opposite Poles.

Every year on the anniversary of the martial law, I think about the post-Solidarity immigrants. Like me, they are now in their 60s ...

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