Three days into the visit, I begin to have a feel for the blend of personalities in the group. Members of a Polish farmers’ organization, they have come to visit Denmark. The program calls for a mix of sightseeing at the obvious sites in and around Copenhagen – Strøget, the main shopping street reserved for pedestrians, the National Museum, Tivoli Gardens, and the like. Along with visits to working farms in the vicinity, there’s a tour of Elsinore castle just up the road as one of the highlights. As much a vacation getaway as an educational opportunity for people seldom permitted to travel out from behind the Iron Curtain, the tour presents some special challenges for us on the staff at Krogerup Højskole. Hosting Polish guests for a week is a novelty. On our end, we organized the list of local activities for what, on the Polish end, is officially framed as an educational undertaking. But the plentiful supplies of duty-free vodka and straight grain alcohol unpacked and brought out the first night make plain our visitors’ intent to party hard between the scheduled outings. We know as well as they do that among them are minders from the secret police, traveling incognito to keep an eye on them. That fact appears not to slow them down any.
Having sampled Polish hospitality during a study visit with a group from Krogerup six months before, seeing our guests shift into party mode once the day’s official activities were over did not surprise me much. I welcomed the offer of a job for the summer, when Krogerup set aside its own educational programming and rented itself out as a comfortable and convenient location for meetings, retreats, conferences and tour groups, like this one from Poland. For this, my job was to facilitate communications between the guests and our own staff, many of whom did not speak English as well as I spoke Danish. I accompanied our guests on their sightseeing tours and farm visits. So there I was, an American undergraduate student wrapping up a year abroad study program in Denmark, serving as a tour guide and interpreter in a country and city I barely knew myself.
From the time they arrive, I am in face to face contact with all sixty-some participants in the tour group. Few of them speak English at all. Mostly, I rely on Magda, their English-speaking interpreter. Magda studies English at the university in Warsaw. Through necessity, she and I bond quickly when we have to interpret between Polish and Danish farmers via English about details of agricultural operations neither of us truly understand. Together we delight in exchanging questions and answers mystifying to us and seeing the faces on both ends of the conversation brighten, signaling the messages got through. When it becomes party-time, Magda goes off duty and my communications with group members depends on snippets of the English, German and French I have to offer, underpinned by a lot of body language, facial expressions and gestures, and lubricated by substantial amounts of alcohol. At twenty-one, I know just enough about myself and alcohol to know that when I could feel the buzz, I need to stop. Cross that point, and all bets are off. No knowing then where things might go, what trouble I might get into and how I’d handle it. Given that I had a job to do and a fair sense of my own limitations, I do my best to keep a clear head.
By the third night, I’ve seen almost all the members of the group in action. Pawel got my attention early on. Outgoing and engaging around me, Pawel seems more curious and more determined to get the full educational benefit the tour programs had to offer. He appears to be an independent spirit, with no obvious bonds to others in the group. He holds back when the partying gets underway. As the evening progresses, I start fearing I am getting flat out drunk. I decide to extract myself and go to bed. When I get up to move in that direction, Pawel comes over to me. He wants to talk to me privately. That idea poses some challenges. I speak Danish well, German reasonably well, and French in a pinch. Pawel speaks Polish, Russian, and bits and pieces of German, French and English. His determination, though, ensures I get his message, so I walk out of the hall with him.
Faced with his insistence, I suggest we walk down to the harbor, about twenty minutes away. With my mental faculties already impaired, I don’t have it in me to refuse his request, but a twenty minute walk might at least help me clear my head. Still, whatever he thinks so important that we need to talk about it right now arouses my curiosity. Denmark lies far enough north that nights in August never get completely dark. But at the late hour Pawel and I make our way down to the harbor, the roads we walk are barely visible except when cars drive by. Halfway there, we reach the streetlights marking the road down to the harbor from the Strandvej that runs up the coast from Copenhagen to Elsinore. It takes Pawel a while to get around to the business at hand. I learn that he lives in a small town in southern Poland, not far from Krakow. Not a farmer himself, he works as a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Agriculture. I guess he is in his late thirties. He has a wife and two children. He doesn’t like the Russians having the last say in whatever goes down. As he fills me in on the details of his life, both of us working hard to cross the language barriers, I keep wondering what great urgency made him want to get me off alone so late in the evening.
When we reach the small fishing harbor, I share a bit of local lore that always moves me when I go down there. During the Second World War, when Denmark was under German occupation, the Danish Resistance organized the transfer of Danish Jews to Sweden, rescuing large numbers of them from a deportation order issued by the Nazi authorities. The harbor at Humlebæk served as one of the points of departure. Local fishermen provided the transport. Pawel seems impressed. Finally, though, he turns to his own business with me. He wants to stay in Denmark. He does not intend to return to Poland when the tour wraps up in another three days. He wants me to help him.
This news sobers me up in a flash. “For this game, I’m in over my head,” goes through my mind. I’m a twenty-one year old American student, with less than a year’s learning about the language and the country under my belt. What do I know about arranging defections? I barely understood what his story was, his reasons for asking, and I have no clue regarding Danish legalities about allowing a visitor from behind the Iron Curtain to remain in the country as a refugee after coming in on a tourist visa. Besides, he seems like a responsible guy. I wonder what his plans are for his family back in Poland, if he succeeds in pulling this off. I ask him, and he tells me he intends to get them out too. Getting himself admitted will be the first step.
The one useful piece of information I have to offer concerns an organization in Copenhagen that I know about: Dansk Flygtlingshjælp – Danish Refugee Assistance. I agree to look up the phone number and the location of their offices when we get back. So after midnight, using the key to the school office I had been issued, I go in, find the number and address in the phone book, write them down on a piece of paper, and hand it to Pawel. I tell him how to get to the local train station, where trains to Copenhagen pass through at least hourly, depending on time of day. “Good luck, I guess. I truly hope you know what you are doing,” I think to myself.
In the morning, I let the headmaster and other leading staff members know what has gone down. Understandably, they are not amused. They want to keep a good working relationship with the Polish farmers’ organization. Facilitating a defection would not bode well for the future of the partnership. For the next three days, Pawel’s activities command our attention. Sure enough, one afternoon he disappears, then returns again in time for dinner. Otherwise, he continues to take part in programmed activities. But he seems to separate himself even more from the rest of the group than he had before his late night conversation with me. We have our suspicions about who the undercover minders might be, but we see no signs that they are onto him. On the last day, I get Pawel alone and ask him if he’s been to Copenhagen to visit the refugee assistance organization. He says he has, but won’t go into details. I pass the information along to my supervisors.
The next morning, our visitors board their buses for the ride down to Ystad at the southern tip of Sweden. From there, they will catch the ferry to Świnoujście, the home harbor back in Poland. To my surprise, Pawel gets on the bus. I wonder if he’s had second thoughts. My supervisors wonder too, looking at me curiously as if I might know something I hadn’t told them. According to plan, we join them on the buses for the trip down to Ystad, where we will say our last farewells. Pawel sits by himself in the back, while I sit up front behind the driver.
The trip takes two hours. They pass uneventfully. Before noon, we pull into the ferry terminal under an overcast sky. The schedule calls for the ferry to depart at one, so there is time to kill. While we mill around on the platform where trains arrive and depart, we have time to say our goodbyes face to face and take a few snapshots. Pawel keeps his distance, off by himself. Suddenly, shortly before it’s time to board the buses that will go onto the ferry docked in the harbor slip, Pawel comes up to me to shake my hand. In an instant, Jacek pops out of the crowd. Early on, I’d wondered about Jacek. He seemed a little too ready to connect, without any particular topics to talk about. He had made it onto my list of prospective undercover minders, though I could not have given concrete reasons why. He snaps some pictures of the two of us together, with a strange grin on his face, and then backs away. Immediately, I figure the deal is done. If I ever have in mind to return to Poland on my own, it’s a safe bet there will be a file with my name on it in the headquarters of the secret police with a notation: “Watch out for this one.”
It’s time to board the ferry. I stand with the headmaster and the other staff who have made to trip down. Along with the rest of his group, Pawel boards the last bus in the line. We look at each other, surprised and wondering. The bus pulls up onto the ramp. As it hits the ferry’s deck, the rear hatch pops open and Pawel leaps out. He hightails it down the platform and disappears into the station without a glance in our direction, while we watch, speechless and shaken. Back at Krogerup, Pawel’s escapade becomes a prime topic of conversation. We can’t imagine what comes next. How would he make it from Ystad to Copenhagen? What would he do when he got there? Western currencies are hard to come by in the east. How will he pay for things? Three weeks later, one of the kitchen staff goes into Copenhagen to run some errands. She returns with news. Walking down Strøget, she saw Pawel striding along, like a man on a mission. We have no answers to our questions. But no matter, Pawel is on his way.