PART V: DEFECTION
I: How long were you working in the WPT?
M: For seven years and seven months.
I: When was that exactly?
M: From June 1, 1974 until the end of December 1981.
I: What was the last production you were in?
M: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Our production was more about the knights and less about King Arthur. So, the title was slightly different to reflect that; the literal translation was The Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table. But in English, it doesn’t seem to sound very good.
I: How does it sound in Polish?
M: Rycerze Okrągłego Stołu Króla Artura. It sounds good.
I: Which knight did you perform?
M: Sir Galahad. He is the one who “achieves the quest of the Holy Grail” and the only one who sits in the Siege Perilous.
I: What is the Siege Perilous?
M: It is a vacant seat at the Round Table reserved (by God or Merlin, depending on the version of the story) for the perfect knight who would find the Holy Grail and become its bearer. For anyone else who sits in it, the Siege Perilous proves immediately fatal. So, it is a special but very dangerous place.
I: Does anyone other than Sir Galahad dare to sit in the Siege Perilous?
M: I don’t think so, not to my knowledge. But I did some solid reading on the subject and am pretty sure that no one does except Sir Galahad in the classical Arthurian legends.
I: Why is Sir Galahad perfect?
M: He is perfect because he’s pure, without moral flaw, and that, in turn, makes him spiritually strong and fearless.
I: How did you do that?
M: Do what?
I: Show perfection.
M: I showed it through movement metaphors and games of mimic illusion. In this world, perfection is unreal, we merely know longings and desires for it, but they are never really fulfilled. However, at the time when I was working on the part of Sir Galahad, I didn’t know that. I believed that perfection existed and that it was possible to find.
I: Did you find it?
M: In dreams and imagination, in the same places Sir Galahad does, and those places are not of this world.
I: But what is it?
M: How can I explain it to you?
I: How does Sir Galahad explain it?
M: He doesn’t. Or, rather, he tries to explain it to the other Knights of the Round Table but no one understands him, and that is Galahad’s tragedy.
I: What is the moral of it?
M: According to scholars, the knight who achieves the quest of the Holy Grail is or becomes perfect and because of this is “no longer suitable to live in an imperfect world. “
I: Why did you leave the company?
M: I defected to the West because of political reasons.
I: Which were?
M: The declaration of Martial Law in Poland and the crushing of the Solidarity Movement by the communist military regime, led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski.
I: How did you defect?
M: It so happened that when Martial Law was declared in Poland, it was on December 13, 1981, I was with the WPT on a tour in Western Europe. We were performing in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland for six weeks. The last show we performed was just before Christmas in Titisee-Neustadt, a town in southern Germany. When the tour was over, I defected.
I: How did you arrive to the decision to defect?
M: I began to think about it as an option from the moment I found out that Martial Law had been declared in Poland. But I finally arrived to the decision to defect ten days later. It was during a meeting with the company at the end of the tour. Gerard Nowak, the administrative director, announced that our company had received an offer from Landgraf, our German impresario, to prolong the tour and perform in Italy for four more weeks and possibly longer. Gerard Nowak asked the members of the company if we would like to prolong the tour. Everyone enthusiastically agreed but me.
I said, “I will gladly continue the tour but only on the condition that the WPT makes a political statement condemning the declaration of Martial Law in Poland.”
To that Gerard Nowak said, “We cannot do that.” And then there was a heated discussion. The management was categorically against making any political statements, arguing that we were not a political theater but simply on a commercial tour.
I was arguing that in times like those, of Martial Law, everything became political and we should feel obligated to protest against Martial Law in solidarity with people detained and imprisoned back in Poland.
But they, both the management and the members of the company, were afraid to protest. They just wanted to go for a tour, make some extra money, stay safely out of trouble, and wait and see how the situation in Poland would play itself out.
I told them that we couldn’t pretend that nothing was happening in Poland. What would we tell the journalists? They would ask us questions about what we thought about Martial Law in Poland, if we were for or against it, if we knew what is going on there, if we had contact with Poland, and so on. “What are you going to tell them?” I asked. In fact, the journalists were already cruising around us in Titisee-Neustadt trying to find out the scoop. You know, it was an unusual situation; no one knew what was going on in Poland. And we were a Polish theater abroad. Obviously, we became the center of attention not only because of our great mime talents but also due to the political situation in Poland. I was telling them all of this but to no avail; they argued back trying to convince me to give up my stand and to go with them on the tour.
But I held my ground and finally said to them, “If you make a political statement condemning Marital Law, I will go with you for an extended tour and then back to Poland whenever we choose. But if not, I advise you to go back to Poland immediately to spare yourself from dubious political implications, and in which case, I will not go back with you but defect to the West.”
I: What did Henryk Tomaszewski say to all of that?
M: During the meeting he played possum, not saying much, if anything, yet his intent was clear, he was against any political statements. After the meeting, we coincidently met in the restroom. He turned to me while we were washing hands and said, “Mr. Christopher, I think similar as you do but what can I do?” Then he answered himself, “I have a whole theater to run. I cannot protest now. It would destroy the theater and ruin me. I cannot do that.” He said it somehow sadly. Then he turned to the dryer and was drying his hands.
I: What did you say?
M: At this point I said nothing. I didn’t know in particular what to say, how to respond. What could I say? But I was wondering why he was telling me that. I also remember noticing that he seemed to be looking tired and despondent. It was a strange moment that somehow stuck in my head. Then he turned toward me again and said, “I could have moved the Pantomime Theater from Poland to Germany a long time ago, but now it is already too late for that.”
I was surprised to hear that. So, I asked him with disbelief, “Have you seriously considered moving the Pantomime Theater to Germany?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, “a few times, whenever there was a political upheaval in Poland such as now, I doubted it all made sense, making theater in Poland, and thought to run away. But I didn’t.”
“Why not now then?” I asked.
“I am too old to begin everything anew,” he said.
“I understand that,” I said.
I: Did he say anything else?
M: No, he did not. That was it. After it, a few hours later, the management of the theater met behind closed door and decided to relinquish the prolonged tour and to go back to Poland the next day. We all were notified with no further discussion.
I: How did you take the news?
M: As a final verdict. In that situation, I had no other choice but to defect to the West.
I: Couldn’t you go back to Poland with them?
M: I could but it would have been a compromise on the expense of my integrity.
I: What integrity?
M: That I just newly asserted by making a political statement and standing up to the authority of the regime.
I: Were you afraid to go back?
M: Yes, I was.
I: What would have happened if you went back with them to Poland then?
M: At that time I had no way of knowing it, but for sure, I would have had to eat my words, and that I was not inclined to do.
I: So you stayed in the West.
M: That’s right.
I: What did you do then?
M: First, I called my friend, Andrzej Więckowski in West Berlin, who moved there with his wife and a child a few months before Martial Law was proclaimed in Poland. They already were settled there and had obtained the legal status of political refugees. So I thought he would advise me how to go about it. But when I told him that I had defected, but before I managed to tell or asked him anything else, he cut me short and said, “Come to West Berlin and stay with us.” So on the spot I started to consider that option, but I was hesitating and wondering how it would work out, if at all. I was not sure it was a good idea to go to West Berlin, an isolated city in East Germany at that time. I had bad associations with the wall and wires surrounding the city. And I was not sure I could even travel there on my Polish passport. I was afraid that the East German border patrol would stop me and send me back to Poland. But Andrzej was knowledgeable in legal matters and told me that I could travel safely both via air and by transit trains.
I: Was it so?
M: Yes, it was.
M: So going to Berlin became a real option but I still hesitated. I needed to find out more about the legal conditions for political refugees like me in West Berlin before I could make my mind to go there. So, I kept asking Andrzej questions about this or that. He was assuring me that everything is going to be okay. He told me not to worry about anything. He promised to arrange everything for me in a few days: my own apartment paid for by the state, furnished, of course, and welfare money to pay all my expenses: food, clothes, furniture and even entertainment. It sounded so good that I was afraid it was not entirely true. Knowing my friend’s inclination to exaggerate, which he liked to do for literary purposes, I doubted him a little bit and asked, though jokingly, “Are you telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth or exaggerating a little bit because you want to see me?”
He laughed at that and then said, “Believe me, I don’t exaggerate a bit this time. Germans are very generous now to the refugees from Poland because of Marital Law. You have chosen no better time to emigrate. You will get everything that you need.”
In that way Andrzej dissipated my doubts, so I said, “I will arrive in Berlin tomorrow by the first available train.”
“We will wait for you and pick you up at the railway station,” he said. “Call me again when you know which train you will take and what time you will arrive in Berlin. “
“Alright, I will” I said and then we hung up. It was set.
The next morning I went to the bus to say goodbye. I stood at the base of the steps, and as the company was getting on the bus, I shook each member’s hand farewell. It was my final moment with them.
A few years ago, I met Ella, who was in the company at that time, and she vividly remembered that moment. She said that I was like the godfather shaking their hands.
I: The godfather?
M: Yes, that’s what she said. But it was her impression, not mine.
I: How did you remember that moment?
M: I mostly remember that people were very cordial to me.
I: All of them?
M: Well, yes, all of them with an exception of Henryk Tomaszewski.
I: How was he?
M: He, let’s say, was reserved, if not to say, hostile, but for sure, he was unfriendly.
I: How so?
M: When I was saying goodbye to him, he was reluctant to shake hands with me.
I: But he did shake hands with you, didn’t he?
M: Yes, he did, sort of. He gave me his hand but somehow inertly (it felt like a noodle) and then pulled it quickly back, before I really managed to grip and shake it. At the same time, he turned his head away to avoid looking at me. Then he scarcely said goodbye and hurriedly climbed the stairs and disappeared into the bus.
I: It’s all in your head.
M: I don’t think so, I knew him well enough to understand his pantomime language, not only on the stage but also in life.
I: How did you read his gesture?
M: That it was over between us. He gave me a clear sign that he had turned away from me for good.
I: What did you expect? It was you who left the company.
M: Still we could have departed in civil manners, as friends.
I: How did you take it?
M: I was taken aback because Henryk Tomaszewski never was unfriendly to me before. And yet, I was not so surprised, when I think of it, after all he never blessed the departing ones.
I: How did the others say goodbye to you?
M: Friendly, sincerely, or at least properly. They humanly rose to the occasion. I was positively surprised, even touched with some of them.
I: For example?
M: My good friend in the company, Czesław Bilski, took me aside and gave me 150 marks. I hesitated to take it but he insisted. He said, “Take it for the road.” Then he apologized that he was not able to give me more money because he spent it all for Christmas shopping.
M: Have you had much money on you when you left?
Me: No, I had not. I also spent most of my per diem on Christmas shopping. I did not know that I would not go back to Poland until the last moment. So I made the usual Christmas shopping in the West, you know, some attractive presents for my friends and family.
I: What did you do with those presents?
M: I gave them to Zygmunt, one of my colleagues, to take to Poland and to deliver them to my girlfriend, Malgosia. Unfortunately, those presents got lost on the way. He later said that he put them on the shelf in the bus, but when they arrived to Wroclaw, he could not find them there.
I: You would have been wiser to entrust those presents to Czeslaw Bilski.
Me: I know.
I: Why did only you make a political stand and nobody else in the company?
M: I don’t know for sure. However, I know that most members of the company felt as I did but failed to make a political stand because they were afraid of eventual persecution when they returned to Poland; or, if they chose not to return but defect, they were afraid of repercussions against their families in Poland.
I: And you were not afraid of the same?
M: You know, I was asked the same question by an official in the United States’ Embassy during an interview I had when I was applying for emigration there as a political refuge.
I: What was your answer?
M: I said that I was also afraid. But when I made a political stand, I stopped to be afraid anymore.
I: Do you think that you were seen as a hero in your colleagues’ eyes?
M: As a black sheep rather.
I: When did you go to West Berlin?
M: I took a train to West Berlin in the late afternoon, the same day (or one day later) that the company went back to Poland.
I: And so?
M: And so my self-imposed emigration had begun. But that’s another chapter of my life.