By Martin Northway
“In Poland, government is a crime,” emphasized my friend Ryszard, whom I had met that fall here at the Daily Grind coffeehouse, just off the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. Ryszard was a visiting professor in history from Warsaw University. Poland was just out from under martial law, but Ryszard remained a clandestine member of Solidarity, the rising national movement to restore democracy.
Among other things, we talked about the “Black Book of Polish Censorship” restricting journalists. In such a state, it was a part-time job for citizens to gather accurate information that affected their loves. “You are so fortunate in this country to have a free press,” despite its flaws, he insisted.
Ryszard spoke in accented but good, very precise English. Besides an interest in history, we shared another bond—while my father’s family goes back to the beginning of this nation, my maternal grandparents came here from Poland around the turn of the twentieth century. When he and I met, I was writing for the company magazine of the diesel engine manufacturer Cummins Engine Co., three years out of my gig as as managing editor of the weekly Brown County Democrat and two years into my divorce.
He was only permitted to spend this year in America because he left his wife and young daughter behind. He was among four Polish professors visiting IU, and as I learned at their welcoming reception the transparent purpose of one was to watch the other three.
As Christmas approached, Ryszard grew homesick. His family was being permitted to visit Canada, but the Polish government would not allow Ryszard or them to cross the border. My friend Jerry, who ran a design studio, invited us to sojourn in his large loft in Chicago’s Brighton Park. Ryszard leapt at the chance to experience Chicago with its huge Polish population.
Brighton Park on the Southwest Side then was almost entirely Polish and Lithuanian, so we three spent an afternoon sampling and buying Polish foods at shops and delicatessens like Gil’s. Then we stopped at Liquorama, where Ryszard stood transfixed in front of a display of dozens of kinds of vodka.
At one point he commented, “This is most remarkable. These many shops must be like Warsaw before the war. Now there are not the small shops, but big stores where you must stand in line for your food, when what you want is available at all.” He likewise marveled at the city’s Polish newspapers, with their pre-war diction.
That evening, Ryszard sat with us at the big table in Jerry’s kitchen, savoring the steaming smells of simmering white kielbasa, pierogies, and bigos (hunter’s stew). Ryszard closed his eyes and smiled, enraptured. “I have not smelled these smells since I left Poland,” he said, relaxed as I had not seen him in weeks.
During our visit, I spent several hours telephoning Polish-American leaders and government officials trying to get Ryszard’s visa modified so he could join his family in Toronto. But these efforts that Ryszard generously termed “heroic” failed.
When we left Chicago, at my behest we skipped a meal to beat rush hour. As we switched interstate routes, Ryszard asked if we might get some food. I steered for the Golden Arches, but across the way I spied a truck stop with at least a dozen diesel rigs idling in the biting cold while their drivers ate inside. I told Ryszard he was about to get a lesson in Americana.
In the diner’s warmth, we took a table as I explained that you left counter space to working truckers. Our huge homestyle helpings and tip were about ten bucks, Ryszard rapt in the everyday drama of long-haul truckers. Outside, I asked a driver about his Cummins engine, and Ryszard seemed fascinated listening to the man in his American dialect heavily laced with the Upper South speaking with pride about his engine and rig.
I learned much from Ryszard. We continued our cafe conversations, partied together, and I audited his class in Polish history. But we lost touch after he left, and little did I know that when I returned again to Chicago only a year later I would alight again in Brighton Park.
After the collapse of Communism, I learned that Ryszard’s star ascended both in academia and in the free government, leading him to a series of Latin American ambassadorial postings. From 2007 to 2008 he was Polish undersecretary of state, and when my 2008 email caught up with him, he was delighted. “You cannot even imagine how many times I have been recalling our joint trip to Chicago,” he emailed back. “You know what I’m doing: second marriage (my wife is an anchor woman in Polish TV), stable situation, a lot of work.”
During Christmas season 2008 he took over as ambassador to Spain, and on January 2, 2009, he and his wife Dorothy Wysocka welcomed Ryszard’s second daughter. She was named, festively, Antonia Felicidad.
Come January 14 another significant event will occur. My friend Ryszard Schnepf will then celebrate his first year as Poland’s Ambassador to the United States.