Throughout Western Europe, generations of residents of Polish origin are digging deep into their pockets to send large amounts of aid back to their hard-pressed friends and relatives to help them through a winter of discontent in that troubled country.
On a scale probably unparalleled since World War II, parcels, carloads, and other shipments of money, food, medicine, and clothing are being contributed to help the citizens of a European country beset by economic and supply problems.
This personal and direct effort comes nowhere near matching government and labor union contributions of hundreds of millions of dollars of financial and food aid sent to Poland since the start of the labor unrest. But leaders of drives to collect personal donations among the Polish communities of Europe feel their undertakings are symbolically important and materially worthwhile.
"It creates international solidarity and shows those in Poland they have not been abandoned," noted one organizer in Belgium. This man, a retired union official who fled to Belgium after the postwar communist takeover, said the collections in ethnic groups, churches, and veterans and political clubs began almost as soon as the turmoil in Gdansk in August started. He noted proudly a Polish saying that "he who gives early gives double." He said they also helped fill in gaps in the normal distribution system in that country. Labor unrest has seriously undermined Poland's economy and aroused international fears of a possible Soviet military intervention.
Financial drives were also generated within the large Polish communities in France, Britain, West Germany, and other countries. The Western European residents of Polish extraction, although not so numerous as those in North America, feel they have perhaps retained closer ties with the home country, partly because shorter distances have permitted them to return to their home country more frequently.
A total of 10 million Poles are said to be living outside the country, most in US cities like Detroit and Chicago. These people came to Western Europe in waves as migrant coal and industrial workers, soldiers or political exiles in the past 70 years. Some 250,000 alone were said to belong to the British Army's Polish Corps for exiles in World War II. The number of Poles remaining in Britain from these wartime exiles, along with their dependents, number around 180,000. One of the biggest Polish concentrations live in Ealing, west London.
Some of these Polish military units liberated cities like Ghent in Belgium during the war and sizable numbers of these soldiers settled there afterward. Others were recruited in large numbers to work in the coal mines during both postwar periods.
There are also some 500,000 believed to be living primarily in northern France, where they represent the majority population in many villages. They boast their votes helped elect French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the last election after he campaigned specifically to help them. The President went so far as to dedicate a special postage stamp in their honor. The Polish-language daily in France is reputed to be the only foreign-language daily published there other than the International Herald Tribune in Paris.
Large numbers also live in West Germany, although many also fled the Hitlerian era purges in the 1930s.
In virtually all these areas, the Polish communities responded when reports reached them last year of food and other shortages in that country.
They began spontaneously. One exile noted that money was collected in churches and through fund-raising drives. It was sent secretly into the country in small amounts. Food and clothing packages were also sent by mail or with travelers.
"I worked in the resistance for seven years," this exile noted, "and one thing I learned was not to know too much. We weren't too concerned if the postman or someone else stole what we sent because at least it would be benefitting somebody inside Poland."
Now this aid is being planned in more organized fashion and is acquiring a quasi-permanent status. The massive response is also said to cut across the political lines t hat normally splinter exile communities.