Code word: ‘Say hi to Larry’

Gienek-greyEUGENIUSZ BRZEZINSKI (65) left Poland and fled to the Netherlands in 1982. He’s director of operations at GGZ Keizersgracht in Amsterdam.

“I saw it with my own eyes. At six in the morning, workers who were on strike crossed the large wooden bridge on their way to the shipyard in Gdynia. They were greeted by the police’s machine guns. I was in nautical school, a kind of boarding school that overlooked the wharf. It was December and I could see the shots light up in the dark. I heard bangs and a panicked frenzy.

That was in 1970. There was another strike at the shipyards ten years later. Then Solidarność was founded. One of its first demands: a memorial for the workers that were killed in 1970. This coin was minted to raise money for that monument. I bought it right away and have always carried it on me.

Those sixteen months of Solidarność were the best of my life in Poland. It felt like opening a window in an extremely stuffy room. Grey Poland, where people were fed up with endless lines and empty stores, suddenly saw people being nice to each other. We were convinced things would work out this time.

I worked as an officer on a trading ship and was lucky I was allowed to bring my wife along on trips. We were in Venezuela when we heard martial law had been declared. That was all we knew. It was only a few days later a friend in the US told us more. Army tanks apparently roamed the streets, there was a curfew, and thousands of people had been arrested. I was a very active member of Solidarność. What should we do?

After several days we managed to send a telegram to relatives. We received a response: ‘We’re fine, say hi to Larry’. We knew it was code, because Larry was our friend in the US. ‘Don’t return’ is what the message said. ‘All hope is lost here’.

We applied for asylum in the United States, but it was denied. The only Western European city we passed on the way was Rotterdam. On February 22, 1982 we reported with the river police carrying two bags of summer clothing. They took us to a sailor’s home, where we met sixty other Polish sailors who had fled.

When I arrived in the Netherlands I was convinced the situation in Poland wouldn’t change in a hundred years. But the country knew a revolution seven years later after all.

Sometimes I wish I could have contributed more, that I had more hope. The text on the coin moves me to this day: ‘They died so you can live honorable lives’.”