John Ratajkowski: “Zina, the gallery director, came over to me and slapped my face, ‘You don’t understand what’s going on here.'"
The violin wasn't much to look at. It sat in an old case Mirek had thrown almost casually onto a corner of the couch in John Ratajkowski's Carmel Valley home. A family heirloom, to be sure, but no big deal otherwise, Mirek said. Can you take it back to my mother? Sure, Ratajkowski answered.
Stashik wasn’t a high-level Solidarity leader but he was more than just a member.
He was going to be carrying a big stack of his oil paintings across two continents and an ocean to Warsaw. One violin would hardly make a difference. It was late in 1980 and Ratajkowski was beginning to relish the adventure of his upcoming trip to Poland, where his portraits of jazz and blues musicians were to be shown.
Solidarity was booming and blooming on the world’s front pages, yet another earthquake rattling Soviet teacups, like the ones in Poland and Hungary in 1956 and the one in Czechoslovakia in 1968 called the Prague Spring.
Like a lot of artists, Ratajkowski is inclined toward anarchism; he’s not really Right or Left or In-Between or Indifferent. “I don’t trust anyone who wants office, wants to take over in politics or even anyone who wants power. Anyone who wants those jobs just can’t be worthwhile,” Ratajkowski says, “and I just don’t see that governments do any good at all.” For a few hot weeks back in the 1960s he was a U.S. Marine only because a recruiter left him with the impression that by enlisting he could dramatically shorten a tour through the Vietnam nightmare that his draft lottery number seemed to make inevitable. At Camp Pendleton he learned otherwise and a lawyer managed to get him out of the Marine Corps and off the military hook altogether. So this high school high jumper and football player went to junior college and San Diego State, where he picked up a teaching credential, then on to San Dieguito High School in Encinitas, where he teaches art today.
A lot of people know Ratajkowski. (He pronounces his name rat-ah-cow-ski.) He meets people well, perhaps because there’s more than a little of Everyman in his character. At thirty-six he’s tall and rangy and looks capable of running several deep downfield patterns without getting winded. Until recently he coached track at San Dieguito at the end of every school day. Conversation with him is quick; he speeds from ironic crack to sobering thought, offering anecdotes and understandings in an economical manner. There’s a similar blurty, open quality in his artwork — big canvas portraits that catch individuals in blotches of gray. He’s like a surfer-gone-artist-gone intellectual. His bookshelves in Carmel Valley are filled with political histories and memoirs, big books that make a difference; and Ratajkowski knows, as much as any skeptic can, what his own and other governments are up to because he’s one of those people who read newspapers and magazines.
The seed of his Polish trip was planted back in 1977 in Paris, when the vacationing Ratajkowski looked up a San Diego musician friend who was living briefly in that city. The friend had married a Polish artist who had exiled herself as well. When the couple moved back to Del Mar together in 1979, Ratajkowski visited them regularly. He and the Polish-born artist, though their work was dissimilar, appreciated each others’ canvases and began offering regular critiques. “One day she said, ‘You really ought to show this stuff in Eastern Europe.’ That sounded like a great idea to me, and so she sent some letters to friends who operate a gallery over there, and also to the editor of an art magazine she knew.”
The trip to Warsaw and the gallery show seemed a natural. Ratajkowski isn’t a Polish-American chauvinist, though his grandfather was born in Poland — “I was raised more by my mother’s side, the Irish side” — but for Ratajkowski there was some attraction at work and, too, the subjects of his paintings, blues and jazz, have long been loved in Eastern Europe; also, being the reader of current affairs that he is, Ratajkowski was mindful of the political stirrings in Poland. And the longer he hung around the apartment of his friends the more he began to hear about Solidarity, not just from the woman painter but from Polish-born friends of hers. Among those expatriates and exiles who passed through was a man named Mirek. “He came over there one night and I just happened to be there and we talked, and he came down again from L.A. about a week later and we spent some time at dinner. After the trip started taking shape, I began to see him quite a bit, even before the actual paperwork [visas, schedules] had started. He was telling me things to do, places to see, the mountains, the lake country.”
Mirek was voluble, intensely political, and very talkative. “He’s the kind of guy you immediately think you want to talk to for a couple of hours, but when you start talking you realize you'd like to cut the exposure down to about thirty minutes ... but it goes on for six hours. He would say, ‘What do you, as an artist, think of such and such?’ He wanted to hear what I had to say so that he could destroy it. The guy is a genius but very hard to like. He always wanted to provoke.
“I remember there was a film series at La Jolla Museum, they had some Jasper Johns and Larry Rivers films, and I took Mirek because he’d been talking about American art. He could talk about almost anything convincingly. So we go, and he’s in this outrageous clothing — red pants, red shoes, red shirt, and black coat. The movies were really pretty bad and at the end the audience, a roomful of polite people, just didn't know what to do, didn’t know whether to applaud or whistle because the films weren’t good enough for that. There was just this dead silence. And Mirek stood up on his chair — we were in the second row, down front — and turned to the audience and yelled, ‘My heart is full and soars like an eagle!’ ”
Mirek was a classical violinist of considerable accomplishment, had worked for Polish national radio as a music commentator, and had directed, at a young age, a number of national music festivals. Music eventually provided the means of his escape to the West when, in 1978, he simply walked away from an international festival in Vienna where he was to play violin. He kept walking until he reached Los Angeles. He was interested in computer music, which is what occasionally drew him down to San Diego and UCSD. By the time Ratajkowski met him, the Polish violinist was hectoring Voice of America for a job in Washington broadcasting back to Poland propaganda in his native language. In the meantime, Ratajkowski says, Mirek was doing whatever he could to stay alive in L.A., a task made more complicated by his lack of a work permit. One time he would come down to San Diego a fugitive from a job in a stereo store in Los Angeles, the next time he would be on leave from a mobile home park handyman’s shed. “All of it was under the table,” Ratajkowski says. “He was even making porn movies for VCRs for a while, and all this time he was in contact with Voice of America, but they had to clear a lot of paperwork.”
On one of these visits to San Diego, at a time when Ratajkowski had already set up the show in Warsaw and was a month away from leaving, Mirek showed up at Ratajkowski's place asking a small favor. “He was always asking for some small thing or another and I’d always say, ‘Sure,’ and so this day he says, ‘Will you take a violin over for me?’ I think before I had a chance to say yes or no he just assumed I would and went out to his car and got it — just tossed it in the corner of the couch — and I asked, ‘Will it be any problem?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s not really a big thing. ’ He told me his mother had sent the violin and that he didn’t want it. She must have thought he was starving and wouldn’t be able to buy one.’’
Two weeks after Mirek had thrust the violin on Ratajkowski, extracting his promise to deliver it to Mirek’s mother in the south of Poland, the matter got more complicated. It was very old, this violin, and Ratajkowski’s musician friend who asked to see it pointed out that it bore the signature of Nicolo Amati. There were a lot of violin-making Amatis in Cremona, Italy during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries, two of whom were named Nicolo, and one of those was the best of all of them. He taught both Guarneri and Stradivari their trades. If the violin wasn’t a fake, it was worth — conservatively — thousands of dollars. Ratajkowski took the instrument to UCSD music professor Bert Turetzky, who pronounced it genuine but was unable to assign it a dollar value. “So I began to wonder what I was doing. I'm telling my friends about all this and they're saying, ‘You're nuts, don’t do it.' I confronted Mirek and he says, ‘Yeah, it’s an Amati,’ but casually plays down its worth, and what am I supposed to do? I can’t leave it behind because I’ve already made the commitment.’’ Well, maybe Ratajkowski could have left the violin behind, but he really didn’t want to. “The more everybody said not to do it, the more I felt like doing it. I just thought, ‘I’m going to make this whole trip an adventure, whether what I'm doing is paying somebody off with an expensive violin, or raising money for Solidarity, or not.’ ”
So Ratajkowski said yes. He and Mirek agreed that he should try to get the violin through Polish customs undeclared. If customs found the violin, he should try to keep them from inspecting it closely enough to determine its true worth — that way Ratajkowski could exchange the Amati for the less expensive violin Mirek’s mother would provide and he could thus leave the country with what he had ostensibly brought in. There was no contingency plan to deal with the possible discovery by customs that the violin was valuable.
How was Ratajkowski to find Mirek’s mother? Don’t worry, Mirek told him. Someone would contact him on his arrival in Warsaw, or shortly afterward. Mirek gave Ratajkowski a phone number to use if no one approached him for the violin. “Then, after that’s settled, he borrows $500 from me. Here it is maybe a month before I’m supposed to leave, and I need that money. But he tells me I’ll have it before I go." Mirek failed to show up in San Diego with the money on a number of occasions, and Ratajkowski tried and failed to reach him by phone in Los Angeles. Finally, the night before his plane was scheduled to leave, Ratajkowski got a call from Mirek, who said the money would be waiting for Ratajkowski in Poland, at his mother’s house. It must have been a sort of binder on the deal to deliver the violin — a $500 insurance policy that it would be delivered along precisely the route Mirek had selected.
When Mirek left Poland permanently, in 1978, it was from his home town, Katowice, and only two people were on hand at the train station to say good-bye. He was traveling lightly to avoid arousing the suspicions of Polish border guards. Contrary to what he told Ratajkowski two years later, Mirek was carrying a violin with him, the ancient Amati.
“When he left, there were only two persons who knew he wasn’t coming back, only his mother and me. We stayed with him at the station and had a few last words. He had some government authorization to take a short job in an orchestra in Austria and he promised [the Polish government] to come back. But it was not true; it was a fiction. He stayed in a refugee camp there [in Austria] for three months and then went to the States.”
The man who was at the train station that day in 1978 was Stashik, a boyhood chum. Nearly three years after that scene, Stashik would be on the same railroad platform to accept the Amati from Ratajkowski. It was Stashik’s phone number Mirek had given Ratajkowski. Mirek-to-Ratajkowski - to - Stashik - to - Mirek’s mother — that was the route Mirek wanted not just the violin to take, but Ratajkowski himself. It was as if the American were some blind courier out of a Cold War spy novel. If caught with that rare violin worth thousands in hard currency, he couldn’t have divulged its destination if he’d wanted to. He knew neither the last name of Mirek’s mother nor her whereabouts, nor did he know Stashik’s name or his address. But Mirek seemed to have wanted Ratajkowski to make the delivery personally — if he were to get his $500 back, he'd have to travel to some small southern Polish village himself; and to do that he was going to have to spend some time with the intermediary, Stashik, who could escort him. Otherwise, how was an American who spoke no Polish to find somewhere in Poland a woman whose name he did not know? For some reason, perhaps known only to Mirek, it was important that this American get to know this man named Stashik.
And why not? Stashik was the same age as both Ratajkowski and Mirek, and had known Mirek from the days the two were schoolboys in Katowice. He could show Ratajkowski around the southern section of the country, Silesia, where the mountains and the lakes are. Stashik, like John Ratajkowski, had been an athlete, a member of the Polish Junior National Soccer Team in his high school years. The two were skiers. And Stashik spoke English. It was likely they would get along well. All this was unknown to Ratajkowski when he left the United States, but it was going through Mirek’s mind. That and more: Mirek was thinking about getting his friend out of Poland.
At the age of thirty-three in 1981, as Ratajkowski was just beginning to think about taking his paintings to Poland, Stashik had long been a Pole who both loved his country and was made miserable by it. A computer engineer by education and experience, in July of 1980 he was among the first wave of technocrats to throw in their lot with Solidarity. Stashik wasn’t a high-level Solidarity leader but he was more than just a member. He was attached to the government’s mining ministry by his position as number two in command of a computer center outside his home town, Katowice. When the programmers and technicians he worked with formed their own Solidarity unit, they elected him their representative. The Silesian region was the last in Poland to go over to Solidarity, but when it did, Stashik was among the first to strike. For Stashik it was going to be rebellion or escape, one or the other. “Leaving Poland is pathological in every Polish mind. Ninety percent of the educated Poles want to go to either America or England. It's very difficult to say when I first wanted to leave,” he says today. “I think it was always on my mind. Perhaps when I was twenty. I would say, for sure, in the early 1970s.”
Back in 1968 — the year of assassinations in the U.S., of deadly student riots in Mexico City, of near revolution in France, the kind of year historians call watersheds — Stashik was a 20-year-old electronics student at the University of Warsaw, the only university in the country offering courses in the still-new field of computer sciences, which was his choice of careers. He wasn’t highly political back then, but in a watershed year one needn’t be highly political to become involved in politics, especially as a student. In Poland, in the post-Stalin years, revolts rose and fell as did government reforms. People would sicken of Communist Party censorship and control of the economy, would riot over food shortages and sham elections, and the government would make concessions for a few years only to reinstate past controls gradually. In 1956 and again in 1960, Polish workers erupted and the government relented. In 1968 it was the students’ and the intellectuals’ turn. The flash point was the closing down of a highly anti-Russian, nationalistic play at the University of Warsaw called Dziady.
The poetic drama had never before been performed in its entirety, and at its most virulent anti-Russian point, the audience rose to its feet in wild applause. The Soviet ambassador rose to his feet, but did so in order to stalk out of the theater in outrage. The next day Poland’s prime minister and Party secretary, Wladislaw Gomulka, ordered police into the theater to prevent the play's second night. University of Warsaw students took to the streets to protest the crackdown. Stashik was among them.
“That was in March, 1968,” Stashik remembers, “and we rioted all over Warsaw. It lasted about three weeks, fighting with the police — water cannons, regular cannons, everything.” Stashik was part of a small group that sought refuge in a church after riot police trapped them. He was quickly arrested, along with about 1200 others over those weeks, suspended from the university, and for a prison sentence was forced into military service. It was his first brush with trouble, and one which seemed futile. The Polish working class, much like our own during the years of Vietnam protest, showed no sympathy for the student revolt.
“The government called workers from the factories and everybody had to attend counterdemonstrations because the government had lists of names and checked to see if workers were there to demonstrate against the students. There were these signs that would say the same things: ‘We are against students. We love our national government.’ It was a split. That was the government policy, to divide people — the intellectuals, workers, students — so that it could move against one group, set one group against the other. All the time, somebody is wrong, somebody is guilty, but never the government.”
Stashik did not serve long in the army. An old thigh injury he suffered as a soccer player made him useless as an infantryman and he was allowed to return to the university. In 1970 there was another revolt, this time a workers' disruption, but Stashik was disillusioned and did not join in. ‘‘I didn’t really believe in anything then. I remember one night a friend of mine came to my house and said workers from the Fiat factory are going out tonight on the streets and they are really ready this time. I said, ‘To hell with them.’ I remembered they had done nothing to help in 1968.”
He graduated in 1972 and went to work as a junior engineer at a government research computer center. By 1975 he transferred to a computer center within the mining ministry. A year later the government sent him to London for a year’s study at England's data processing giant. International Computers, Ltd., which on the continent of Europe rivals IBM. Toward the end of Stashik's stay in London, ICL asked him to stay with the company, but he was by then married and had a four-month-old son. His wife, a computer programmer he’d met while both were doing research, was still in Poland with their son, and he returned.
Having set aside his antigovemment animus, Stashik appeared to be doing well. He and his wife were employed in computer areas that the government was desperate to develop, and they had an apartment not far from their work. But it was difficult for him to take his government position seriously, which was to keep the computers spilling out inventories of mining equipment and predictions of production. “It was only play. We did not have the economic tools, the necessary information. The computer can only give you the information you already have, nothing more.” In the absence of honest basic data, the analysts simply invented information, processed it, and passed on to the government what the analysts thought the government wanted to hear. “This system was on line with the mining operations and would send out data. But afterward some government official would make a phone call [to Stashik’s computer center] and say, ‘You sent me this information from the computer but now you can tell me privately whether it’s true.’ So, you see, the government didn't look to this computer for information, because it knew everything was bullshit, that it was fiction.”
It wasn't just a matter of garbage in, garbage out. Even if honest information had been available, the government couldn't be counted on to run the computer industry effectively. “The economic system was so corrupt, so wrong,” Stashik says. “Some factory would be given money to buy from the West for hard currency some very complicated equipment for millions of dollars and next thing you would find, you were missing a certain kind of bolt. They spent all this money but no more was left to buy this bolt you needed to keep it running.”
In terms of human welfare, the disparities that grew out of central planning were starker. The government set wage standards for the technical, professional, and basic laborers. But the black market flourished, and even those who engaged in above-ground goods and services often did far better than doctors and engineers — flower sellers, for instance, who sold their bundles for hard cash. Stashik knew someone who now and then traveled to West Germany and loaded his trunk with razor blades — items small enough to slip past customs — which he could sell at home at double and triple their price in the West simply because the government had failed to plan adequately for the production of these and other consumer goods.
One such entrepreneur was another long-time friend of Stashik, a man named Jurik. Even before Mirek left Poland, Jurik had connived a way out. In the mid-Seventies, he had made his way to Mexico and, after wading across the Rio Grande, landed a job in Houston as a machinist. In one year he saved enough money to return to Poland to set himself up in the gas and tire business in Katowice, one of those less regulated businesses that could provide their owners a standard of living usually available only to Communist Party leaders and high government officials. So in 1979, Stashik quit the mining ministry to go to work at Jurik's gas and tire repair station. “I had been head of a computer center and I leave to take a job fixing tires at a gas station — for more money!”
Not one of the three friends, Mirek, Stashik, or Jurik, considered themselves to be communists, either with a lower-case or upper-case c. “Mirek had read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, all of it,” Stashik says, “but inside him you could never find, I don't know what you call it, the desire, or something. And me, never. I did not believe.” Ironically, it was Jurik, the risk taker and entrepreneur — the first one of them to leave Poland, the businessman — who took socialism seriously. “If somebody was close to being a Marxist, it was Jurik, because of his heart, his compassion for people. He also read everything.” In the north shipyard workers began organizing early in 1980, and it was Jurik who stockpiled their pamphlets and illegal newsletters for distribution in the area around Katowice.
One early summer day in 1980 a strike, one of the largest in Poland, broke out at a steel mill near Jurik’s gas station, and Jurik and Stashik hurried to the scene. It was one of the first big disruptions in Silesia and to Stashik it meant that the south was finally awakening to the worker movement. Thinking that organizers might not know of events in Katowice, he tried telephoning Jacek Kuron, a long-active labor intellectual in the north who served as a kind of publicist and information coordinator for the movement. “When I called, he was not there. His wife was there and she was afraid. She didn’t want to speak to me because she was sure I was somebody from the secret police calling to make a provocation. She hung up the phone ... It hurt Jurik and me just to watch all this.”
Coincidentally, in July of 1980, a month before national general strikes were called by Lech Walesa, Stashik decided to resume his career in computers. He was quickly hired by still another computer center within the mining ministry, and almost as quickly was elected by the employees to be their representative to Solidarity. It was sudden, this investiture as a labor leader, but understandable. He was slightly older and with more experience than the other hundred or so technicians, he was their nonmanagement supervisor, and he knew the boss of the computer center from school days in Katowice and was not intimidated by him.
From August to the end of the year, Solidarity actions enjoyed one dizzying success after another. On Walesa’s declaration of the general strike, Stashik along with others in his unit shut down the computers. No one was fired. “At first there was a big fight between me and management because they tried to say I pushed everyone to strike, but it was impossible for them to say this, because ninety-five percent of the people at the computer center were Solidarity members.” Through August and into the winter, a series of nationwide general strikes rolled on — there were nearly fifty at Stashik’s computer center — until the government conceded its inability to control the country. By December Solidarity was officially recognized by the Communist Party and the Polish government in the Gdansk Agreements as a representative of workers. It could print its pamplets, hold meetings legally, and participate in industrial policy decisions. The strikes slowed dramatically and Solidarity representatives turned to negotiations with management.
There was nothing intellectually or politically complicated to be discussed in Stashik’s early meetings with management. For a decade Poles had been standing in lines for food, sometimes rioting. When he became a Solidarity shopleader, households were rationed four pounds of meat and one chicken per month. So Stashik talked about food. Because his computer center was involved in the planning of machine production, he helped negotiate an agreement that reduced the output of mining equipment and increased the production of agricultural spare parts. In exchange for the parts, farmers agreed to deliver potatoes and vegetables directly to the factories.
The negotiations turned into the drawing by committee of a shopping list for hungry, cold people. “This maybe sounds funny from the American point of view, but we talked about soap, about more ration tickets for meat, or, you know, some candy for the kids because Christmas was coming.’’ In Poland, people routinely began hunting for the Christmas dinner weeks before the event, hoping to find an overlooked bit of butter or flour in out-of-the-way government stores. At the government food warehouses, the army stationed its infantry.
There was little acrimony at the bargaining tables. In many cases — and Stashik’s was one — officials were in sympathy with worker demands, were even of the same mind about the Soviet Union’s control over Polish economic priorities. Speaking across the bargaining table to the high school acquaintance who was his boss, Stashik held nothing back. “I could tell him, ‘Fuck these Russians,’ because he knew and he felt everything I felt. He would tell me the same. He was a [Communist] Party member, but he liked Solidarity! He was a Party member only because that was the way to keep his high-level job. But we had the same beliefs, so he didn’t need to play games with me.”
The turn of the year into 1981 was a heady, liberating moment for the Poles. Farmers were beginning to talk of forming their own Solidarity units, a signal that Poland’s traditionally quiescent peasantry was ready to join the city-dominated uprising. Even the police in Katowice had formed discussion groups. After the crushed rebellions of 1956, 1968, 1970, and 1976, demoralization had set in. But this Solidarity seemed different; it was national, broad, it seemed to unite the Poles. ‘‘People felt that maybe now is the time,” Stashik says. “They wanted to say everything, to write, to read that there were absolutely different opinions about everything.” Stashik was writing and phoning Mirek in Los Angeles from time to time, his letters going out with news of this event or that, Mirek’s coming back imploring him to drop what he was doing and get out of Poland with his wife and child while he could, that it wouldn’t last. A retired secret policeman, a family friend, told Stashik that he was crazy for signing the letters. Thereafter they went out with pseudonyms, mailed from different postal stations. But Stashik wasn’t overly concerned.
Finally, Mirek wrote than an American was coming over, a painter named Ratajkowski. In a later phone call, he told Stashik to expect a call. Stashik can’t remember the rest of the conversation clearly. “You know, it will be good for me and for John, I can show him around. Maybe he did suggest I could get help from John some way. I don’t know, he said he set up this meeting and that now the rest was in my hands.”
In the rush of events, leaving Poland had become less important for Stashik. The other side of the equation, staying and fighting, had become more important. It wasn’t clear to Stashik what Mirek was hinting at when he said John Ratajkowski could be of help, not when all of Poland seemed to be coming alive. ‘‘You know, everybody was talking the same. We can be poor, that’s not important. People were saying, ‘I don’t care if there are food lines. Maybe next year there will be lines for everything but, you know, everything is okay now because now we know where we are going.'
Late in March of 1981, on a frigid Polish night, John Ratajkowski tucked the Amati under his arm and boarded the day’s last train from Warsaw bound for the southern Polish city of Katowice. He was a long way from home and getting still farther away, a Pacific dweller hurtling into the darkness of Eastern Europe to keep an appointment with a man he’d never met. The only contact between the two had been a phone conversation a few days before, a few brief phrases in English. This connection to a friend of a friend of a friend of Ratajkowski’s was a blind crap shoot in the Polish night, the violin the trip’s only substantial link to reality. “Do you have the instrument?” the voice on the other end of the line had asked. and the answer, of course, had been yes. The American had not carried it all the way from San Diego to New York, to Luxembourg and Copenhagen, and then through East German customs on the way to Poland — hidden and undeclared behind an unwieldy and thick stack of his oil paintings — only to lose or forget it now that he was in Poland. So Ratajkowski was following Stashik’s instructions to catch the final train from Warsaw this Sunday night, assured he’d be met at the Katowice station.
He had been in Poland for several weeks by the time he placed the call, and the violin had slipped in importance considerably. In a country that was tasting more freedom than it had enjoyed in decades, an American painter of subjects identified with the music of freedom was naturally bound to be popular, and in the early weeks of his arrival, Ratajkowski had been handed from one interesting dinner to the next lunch to the next dinner. The gallery operators had introduced Ratajkowski to the art communities of Warsaw and its university, and when they weren’t showing him the city or helping set him up in the apartment he would occupy for the next two months, he explored the extraneous fascinations of Warsaw on his own. For excitement he needed to look no further than the building in which the gallery occupied the first floor. Above were the separate buzzing hives of the Vatican, Communist Party, and Solidarity press offices, and above those was a fashionable restaurant made lively by the building's artists and journalists.
Even so simple a diversion as an afternoon basketball game at the university’s gym could become complicated and exotic, could turn into a lesson ... but in what? Playing with a Polish-speaking American student, Ratajkowski one day fell into a game with a former antiaircraft gunner from North Vietnam who, as it turned out in translation, was an artist. “He’d spent three years during the war shooting at people I might have known, and when he wasn’t shooting at F-111s, he was sketching, and after the war he got this art scholarship to Poland, met a Polish girl, had a child, and for all those years was living underground. All the Polish university people knew him, but they wouldn’t turn him in.’’ It wasn’t a matter of high political intrigue, just another case of planet Earth’s children trying against the odds to find a place to rest and be left alone. But North Vietnam wanted its ex-gunner back in the fold. “All he wanted to do,” Ratajkowski says, “was to paint pictures and stay in Poland.”
Experiences such as that one didn’t make Ratajkowski forget the errand he was supposed to be running, they just pushed the violin nearly into history, as if it belonged to a previous time in his life. And after all the weeks, Ratajkowski’s original confusion over its significance was contributing to the violin’s burdensome quality. Was it of some symbolic importance? Would it raise money for Solidarity? Buy guns? He had waited long enough for the expected contact. When he finally rang the number Mirek had given him, he was relieved to hear a voice telling him what next to do.
Ratajkowski arrived in Katowice late at night to a seemingly empty platform. He remembers pacing around for several minutes wondering what would be his next move, when suddenly a man about his age stepped from the shadows, introduced himself as Stashik, and took from him the centuries-old Italian violin. At this point, John Ratajkowski might have stepped back an inch or two from fate, redirecting his and Stashik's future by simply staying overnight in Katowice and returning to Warsaw the next day. Instead, the American returned to the apartment of Stashik and his wife and got completely drunk.
“There was almost no alcohol in Poland at that time,” Ratajkowski says. “The vodka was gone. Somebody told me that a shipment of Cuban rum was due in and advised me to buy some of that. But here at Stashik’s was all this stuff they called Spirytus, bottles and bottles of it. It was nearly pure grain alcohol.” There were 400 half-liter bottles of it, one of Stashik's own little black-market scams that could bring in a few extra zlotys. The Russians use pure grain alcohol (ethanol) to clean the tape capstans of their own computers. The Poles, for one reason or another, do not, except when their computers are Russian computers. Stashik's computers were not Russian computers. He wrote away to a Soviet computer center with an apparently innocent inquiry as to what they use to clean their capstans, and he received back a telexed message that ethanol was the preferred solvent. He took the telex message to a government store and, with it as authorization, purchased at an industrial discount the highly controlled Spirytus. Ratajkowski happened to have arrived before Stashik black-marketed the fiery liquid. “You mix it half and half with water and you have very good vodka,” Stashik explained. Unmixed, it takes the breath away.
Through the vapors of the ethanol, Ratajkowski was made to understand that the Amati was, in fact, a family treasure of Mirek's. “For the first time I was sure I wasn't being some kind of a mule for a Solidarity gun-running venture,” Ratajkowski says. Late, necessarily, the next day they traveled to a village east of Katowice to drop the violin off and pick up Ratajkowski's $500. He had declared that he had the money in his possession when he entered Poland — a requirement because the export of Western currency is illegal — and now Ratajkowski began to worry about what might happen if Mirek's mother did not have the money. “I didn't need it that much, but if the money’s not there I’ve got to go to the police and say I was beaten up and robbed, and I’m really thinking, maybe I should have a cut over my eye or something, just in case. On the other hand, this woman is a really nice old woman and I’m too embarrassed to say, ‘Come up with the money, old lady.’ Well, anyway, we’re talking about Mirek and she’s thanking me profusely for carrying back the violin — she was really wonderful — when she says, ‘Oh yes,’ and jumps up and walks out of the room. When she comes back in she just spreads this money across that table and the biggest bill was only a twenty — most of them were fives — and you could have choked a horse with that money.”
On the second full day, Stashik took Ratajkowski on a hike up the Carpathian Mountains overlooking the Czech border. “We were on Beskidy Mountain, in a very old hunter's inn from the Sixteenth Century with small leaded windows and thick glass. There was some beer there — a rarity — and hunter’s stew. I think that’s when we became friends.”
The third day they went to view a salt mine in Wieliczka that had been worked since the Tenth Century. It was a series of caverns in which the miners over the centuries had developed a tradition of carving. “The floor of the mine was carved to resemble tile, spires reached well into the air, there were elves and gnomes everywhere, and the whole thing was illuminated. It got more spectacular with each room; it was like a crystal palace until you got to the end, which was a big, black hole where the Germans had taken a bunch of Polish workers and slaughtered them during World War II.”
Ratajkowski spent a total of five days with Stashik. On one of those days he was taken to have lunch with Jurik, and the next night returned for dinner at Jurik's, where he met Jurik’s wife and two children. “Jurik had casually mentioned at lunch that we all could become cousins and I just sort of laughed it off, not really knowing what he meant, but the next night he said, ‘About that thing we talked about yesterday — we could be cousins, you know, you have a Polish name and nobody would know the difference.’ This hush came over the room, and he said he wanted us to become cousins because that would mean he and his family could apply to the government for permission to visit the United States — could get out of Poland together. Stashik was a lot more timid about it than Jurik. He wanted to do it, but he just sort of said, ‘Me too.’” Once again, Ratajkowski said yes.
Surprisingly little was involved in the kinship deceit. Ratajkowski had only to memorize some details from Jurik's and Stashik’s lives in order to bluff his way through any cursory interviews about his “cousins,” then go to the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw for the forms declaring kinship, have them notarized, and turn them over to the Polish government. While still in Poland he would formally invite his “cousins” and their families for a visit. Later he was to repeat the invitation by mail from the United States. He took care of everything but the submission of paperwork to the Polish government before the opening of his show.
Walking into the gallery just before the opening reception, he was surprised to see Stashik already there. Because his English was better than any of the Poles who were attending, Stashik was made translator for the evening. For several more days Stashik stayed in Warsaw, filing the kinship papers and explaining Warsaw to Ratajkowski.
The bronze plaques Ratajkowski had noticed dotting the sidewalks here and there commemorated the deaths of Poles in antigovemment riots, or during World War II’s successive German and Soviet occupations. The fresh bloodstains outside apartment doors were from newly butchered meat illegally peddled door to door by peasant women trying to get more for the meat than the government paid them.
Ratajkowski visited Stashik in the south again, but the two saw little of each other. Solidarity, while still in control of the factories and recognized by the state, had entered into a period of edgy confrontation with the government, and Stashik’s obligations had intensified. He helped to organize a strike in Katowice that attempted to force the regional government to convert a giant police headquarters into a children’s hospital. At the computer center, someone had managed to tape a conversation between a government official and a secret police captain as the two plotted moves to squash Solidarity in the south. The tape was played for days on end throughout Katowice factories.
Just before he left, having said good-bye to Stashik and Jurik, he was in the gallery for one last sizable gathering. “I could see Zina, the gallery director, staring at me from across the room for some time. Then she came over to me and slapped my face, and when I raised my arms in reaction, she grabbed them and said, ‘You don’t understand what’s going on here and you think you do.’ She liked me very much and she knew I was going to go back to the U.S. and tell everybody how great Poland is, how terrific the people are, and she wanted me to know damned sure what was really going on. That people were suffering. She said, ‘You’ve been meeting artists, getting interviewed on television, and having a good time. But you haven’t seen Poland at all.’
“She was right, of course, and it wasn’t until maybe a year later that I understood exactly what she meant. What occurred to me was, Stashik and I are the same age, within just a few months, and we grew up in similar circumstances, the middle-class suburbs. He played soccer, I played football. We 're about as close as a Pole and an American can be, and yet we weren’t in the same place at all. I could look at a Russian-made tank for the first time and say to myself, ‘Hey, this is really neat, here it is, coming right at me.’ But all the Poles were scattering, running for their lives, for all they knew. Hell, I had the magic ticket. I could wave my passport and leave there as soon as the shooting started. I was in the fun zone, Disneyland, playing a game. But Stashik was playing something more serious, he was in a war.’’
Ratajkowski left in late May of 1981, went to Copenhagen to visit some friends there, and stayed in Europe a while. When he got back to San Diego in late July he sat down and wrote his invitations to his “cousins,’’ asking them and the Polish government to consider a visit. It was only a little bit too late for that.
For years we joked about the Poles and Poland, using them as fodder for Las Vegas lounge routines. Solidarity killed the jokes, but maybe lost a little of its impact in this country as it passed through a national memory that could reach no farther back in time than to the one about the light bulb and how many Poles were needed to change it. Were we slow in reacting because we were waiting for the inevitable punch line about failure and misplaced efforts?
Then, too. Solidarity was about freedom and the human spirit, concepts that have lately slipped from political fashion in this country; our elected patriots and professional flag wavers seem to have succeeded in replacing those values with bleaker ones, such as security and order. These days, if we think about freedom at all, many of us think of it as some imaginary right to be comfortable. Solidarity wasn't comforting. It reminded us that if you seriously go after freedom in this, the decade of Orwell, you’re likely to wind up in trouble.
In late July of 1981, Stashik was stopped at a roadblock and caught with radical Solidarity newspapers in his car that he’d just picked up from Jurik. The government hadn't gotten around to formally banning the papers, but it prosecuted Stashik on grounds that the distribution of the newsletters “was against basic Polish interests.” He was fined one month’s wages. The trial was unexceptional save for one chilling detail: the government was able to produce copies of letters he’d written Mirek,' and more. “They knew what kind of person I was, what kind of connections and what kinds of feelings I had.“ After the trial he resumed distributing the newspapers. “Of course. Why not? They didn’t probably expect anything different. You see, it was like a play! The government knew everything that was going on. What difference does it make if they seize these papers? The information — when we strike, why we strike — was on wall posters everywhere. And they can’t take any action against it because all the workers, all the employees, were involved.”
Stashik’s wife had been unconvinced they should leave the country, but after his arrest and conviction, she finally agreed. Armed with Ratajkowski’s latest invitation, Stashik applied for and got his visa for travel to the United States. To avert suspicion, his wife and child applied a few weeks later and received their visas. Jurik and his family followed the same course.
Sunday, December 13, just three days before Stashik and his family’s government-approved trip was to begin, the government set aside all remaining pretensions to reform and declared martial law. No passports were valid, internal travel was restricted, curfews were set, and the government began rounding up national Solidarity leaders. Stashik, his wife, and their son had been at her parent’s home near the Czech border that Sunday, saying their good-byes. On Monday, when he returned to work, the approximately one hundred technicians and programmers decided to strike along with other Solidarity factories across the country — one last effort to break the government’s hold. The occupation lasted two full days. “But in the night [over] December 15 and December 16, tanks moved around the computer center, I don’t know how many, but there were several. It was a normal building with glass walls. Just to see these tanks you feel not so good, so people ended the strike. Immediately thirteen or fourteen people with me were fired because we prepared the strike and were known to be involved in the movement for a long time.”
Under martial law, strikers could be sentenced to three years in prison, organizers to five. Rather than risk arrest, Stashik and some of his fellow computer workers ran across the street to a mining-smelting complex where miners, armed with clubs, chains, and whatever else was on hand, had vowed to fight. “We went up to the second story to talk to this Solidarity guy at the factory and say, ‘We’re in trouble, maybe we can stay with you so we will be protected. And we can help, too.’ And right then, the attack started. First the tanks broke through the wall and crush everything. Then the police, they shot from machine guns into people. I saw all this from about 200 yards.”
Even against those weapons, the miners did not give up. The government later announced that nine miners died, but Stashik said he saw probably twice that number of bodies carried out of the mine. At least one hundred were severely injured. The government also announced the injuries of forty para-military police. As the ambulances arrived to carry away the wounded, a second wave of fighting erupted when police and remaining strikers, as well as medical personnel, began arguing over who among the wounded would be carried away to hospitals first.
Stashik and several others slipped away from the scene. He couldn’t return to his apartment without risking arrest. “Communications were out all over, so I was able to take a train to Krakow and another back to near Katowice. The next few miles I walked to Jurik’s house and I stayed there that night.” A week went by before Stashik could get word to his wife that he was alive, and even then they dared not live together in the old apartment. Sometimes together, sometimes separately, they stayed at her parents’ home, with Mirek's mother, with friends of Jurik and with other friends of friends, and never for more than two nights in a row. And even while they lived on the run, sleeping on floors, Stashik continued to distribute the now smudgily printed, sometimes mimeographed pamphlets of the outlawed Solidarity. “In some situations you know that you have lost everything, and you can only fight. Together with Jurik — it was stupid for our age — we would do this, and maybe paint some signs on walls at night about ‘Where Are We Going?’ Some stupid little signs against the regime. That’s good for high school kids, not us. But it was something, you feel you have to do something.”
In the back yard of John Ratajkowski’s rambling, comfortable, old frame house in Carmel Valley east of Interstate 5 is a small wooden outbuilding the painter built when he returned from Poland late in the summer of 1981. It’s a copy, scaled-down and not true in every detail, of a little chapel in Krakow that he saw, loved, and sketched. In the ceiling of the single room is a peculiar box belfry with glass panes that let in light. There’s a bed in the room, and by it a picture of Stashik’s wife and eight-year-old son. “How do you like that?” Ratajkowski says. “I build a Polish chapel and a year later a Pole comes to live in it.”
In the end, it was Jurik who successfully schemed a way to get himself and his boyhood friend, Stashik, out of the country. Early in 1982, the hard-lining Jaruzelski regime had decided that business was business and Poland’s economy would have to maintain its ties to the West. And so while it continued to outlaw worker movements, socialist Poland allowed its few entrepreneurs to fly freely in and out of the country on buying trips abroad. (We live in a world of ironies.)
Jurik knew just what to do with that information, which had been given him quite casually by a minor government official who one day stopped at the station. “With cold blood, he used people,” Stashik says of his friend Jurik. “You see, he had gasoline and tires, and sometimes these are hard to find. Bureacrats sometimes came in for gas and he would fill them up and just tell them to go and not pay. He would tell me, ‘Maybe I need this guy only one time a year. But when I need him, I want him.”
Several times Jurik and Stashik would rendezvous, get in Jurik’s Peugeot, and drive back roads to a nighttime meeting with one or another government official who could counsel them on how to secure, first, business papers and, second, passports. Stashik decided that he would set up a phony television-parts factory. With the clandestine advice from officials who owed Jurik, Stashik bribed one office to process his incorporation papers ahead of others who’d applied before him. He bribed another not to come out on an inspection trip to the ghost factory. From Ratajkowski he got a letterhead saying that the machine tools Stashik needed were sold here in San Diego. At the passport office all the papers necessary for the issuance of a passport were found to be in order, but he was lacking papers that showed he had paid taxes. “I say, ‘Oh, shit. ’ I go to the government tax offices and tell them I need to show last year’s taxes and they say, ‘How can we show taxes if we have no record of you?’ And I say, ‘Okay, I will pay next year’s taxes,’ and give them some money. Well, they cannot give me tax records that do not exist, but they give me this one simple certificate that my taxes are in good order. I'm sure, you know, they just kept the money for themselves. And next day, I get my. passport.”
There was no way out for Stashik’s wife and child, however. Business being business, families were to stay behind, according to the regime. The only hope they had when they left each other was that Stashik might be able to prove, after arriving in this country', that he was deathly ill. “She knew it might not work.” His son. however, was quite sure they’d be together soon. “1 was too,” Stashik says. “Jurik drove us to the airport. I wasn't even sure I could get on the plane. I was stupid. I told a man I had worked with what I was doing, and he wanted to buy my car. But my wife needed it, so I wouldn’t sell it to him. He got mad and said he was going to the police. ’ ’ There was no trouble boarding the plane.
In July, 1982 Stashik flew out of Poland on the national airline. Air Lot, bound for Czechoslovakia. From Prague he flew to Montreal aboard Czesa, and took the same Czech airline to Havana. From Havana aboard Air Cubana he flew to Mexico City. Western Airlines brought him to Lindbergh Field. Customs officials examined his three-month business visa and questioned him only briefly before allowing him through.
Ratajkowski got his call early Saturday morning, not even knowing where Stashik was calling from. An earlier warning phone call from one of Stashik's accomplices had been unintelligible. “He must have thought once he got here that it was pretty easy going in America,” Ratajkowski says. “The next Monday we went down to Immigration and when he said he was Polish they just processed him right through, ahead of the Mexicans and Vietnamese who were ahead of him — they must have been giving special treatment to the Poles because of martial law.” Mirek had advised Stashik to apply immediately for political asylum, not to wait until his business visa expired. As Stashik said later, “I didn’t come for a vacation, I didn’t care about a three-month business visa. I came to stay.” He took the application for political asylum and filled it out.
“Two days later he’s in my living room and my neighbor comes down to borrow a tool and I introduce the two of them,” Ratajkowski says. “He asks Stashik what he does and they start talking. My neighbor and his son have this business in Sorrento Valley and he's got a computer problem he’s telling Stashik about and Stashik just says, ‘Well, you can bypass such-and-such,’ and my neighbor says, ‘Oh yeah? You want a job?’ A few weeks after that I’m fed up with the [VW] Rabbit I had and tell him I'm going to sell it. I was willing to just turn it over to someone for payments. And he says he wants it. So within a month he has a job, the residency papers because my neighbor is able to say he’s needed, a place to live, and a car.”
What he hasn’t got is his wife and child. Twice Ratajkowski has persuaded some San Diego physicians to write letters to Poland attesting that Stashik is “incapacitated” and “unable to travel” because of still-undiagnosed abdominal ailments (that are wholly fictional). On the second attempt, the Polish government told his wife that she could visit her husband, but that their son would have to stay behind.
Ominously, the Immigration and Naturalization Service two months ago sent notice to Jurik — who flew out of Poland three weeks after Stashik — that his application for political asylum has been denied. More recently, Jurik received from the Polish government an inquiry as to when he intends to return from his “business trip,” a letter that cryptically mentioned his responsibility to a child he left behind.
Last month the New York Times quoted estimates from private refugee agencies that as many as eighty-five percent of the nearly 5000 Poles in this country who have requested asylum have been denied. Still more recently, the Reagan Administration lifted some of the trade sanctions against the Polish government that were imposed following martial law. In justifying the thaw, the administration argued that the number of Solidarity leaders in jail has dropped from 4000 to 200. “More like 200,000,” snorts Stashik, who has yet to hear of the freeing of the two Solidarity friends he knows were jailed. His own application for political asylum reached Washington a year later than Jurik’s. He figures it is only a matter of time before he gets his own letter of denial from the INS — the form letter that says the United States has found no reason to believe he will be persecuted for his political beliefs and activities, the one that concludes: “Please advise this office immediately of your plans for departure from the United States, or if you wish removal proceedings to be instituted against you.”
‘I guess it doesn’t matter if they spit on Stalin’s grave,” John Ratajkowski says of our own government’s attitude toward Solidarity’s refugees. “If they had the nerve to revolt in their own country, they’ll probably only cause trouble here, too.”