Brooklyn, New York, November 1964
Maria and Josef Mikrut finished Mass that Sunday morning feeling spiritually satiated. They wore the typical solemn expressions that were etched into the faces of all the Polish immigrants who filled the congregation and their broad shoulders slumped under the weight of their piety. The flock was poor, elderly and pale—their skin looked like boiled chicken—while I was only 26 years old, far from devout or obedient, and achingly hungry for breakfast. But I deferred to the Mikruts and didn’t hurry them along. Maria lowered her eyes in profound humility under her kerchief, hoping the priest would take notice and, as always, he did. Cupping her callused hands in his own, Reverend Jakubik offered his blessings while I stood aside, patiently. The Mikruts never ate before attending Mass; they made a point of fasting before receiving the Sacrament of Communion, and I felt obliged to honor them, my guardian angels. I was, after all, their resident fugitive. Carrying my cello in its second-hand case, I was happy to play Gounod’s Ave Maria in their place of worship, on an empty stomach, in exchange for discretion and a roof over my head.
Maria took Josef's arm and I gripped my cello as we finally headed home in the bitter cold. I was starving for Maria's traditional Polish spread. Her tasty buttered chleb, accompanied by a dish of salt and an array of mouth-watering sausages—especially the finger-thin, semi-dry kabanosy, my favorite—was a savory reward after laboring over their faith. And, of course, the meal would always begin with a vodka toast to a century of good health, “Sto lat!”
We turned the corner onto 16th Street and the first thing I saw was a long, black patent car parked in front of Josef's ailing Ford. The Mikruts noticed it too, I am sure, as each of us slowed our pace and held our tongues. Nobody in the neighborhood owned such a car. If I had been alone I would have thought twice about proceeding down the block. I may have stopped, coolly lit my pipe and changed directions. But I did not want to seem nervous around Maria, so I kept moving. Only a few feet from our brownstone the car doors opened in unison and two men, with synchronized efficiency, stepped out onto the sidewalk in front of us.
They wore pressed, dark suits with starched shirts and striped ties. One of them took a brass badge from his pocket and identified himself as a U.S. Immigration officer. He asked if my name was Leszek Zawistowski.
“Yes,” I responded, even though I hardly understood a word of English.
He continued, “Mr. Zawistowski, you are under arrest for remaining illegally in the United States of America.”
The other man wordlessly took my cello, handed it to Josef who was in a state of shock, and snapped a pair of handcuffs on my wrists. I wanted to fall to my knees, but tears were pouring down Maria's face, and if I crumbled she would have thrown herself on top of me and created a scene.
“Nie płacz, don’t cry,” I said. “I am going to be okay. Call Father d’Anjou and my lawyer, Lydia Savoyka, right away.”
The dread that had been dominating my thoughts for years shot through me like rifle fire. The two officers were very orderly and polite—nothing like the KGB agents who beat the hell out of my father in the frost of 1945, leaving a trail of blood in the snow, or the Gestapo who seized my oldest brother, Henryk with similar brutality—nonetheless, I was convulsing with fear. I tried to find reassurance in the words of my attorney, “Bąć spokoiny, be calm, I will protect you.”
The officers on either side of me pulled me into the waiting car, and once more I pleaded with the Mikruts to call Savoyka. Maria acknowledged my request with a twitch and nod of her head between sobs. She cried for me as if she were watching her only son getting dragged away in shackles. My own mother would never have abandoned her fortitude in front of authority.
The car thundered toward Manhattan and with every bump in the road the handcuffs sliced into my skin. I asked myself, Arresting me is an absurd mistake. I am not a threat. I spent the night before entertaining New Yorkers at Radio City Music Hall, delighting them with holiday tunes in time to the Rockettes, whose perfume still lingers on my skin. This country is supposed to welcome me. That was Voice of America’s promise. For God’s sake, I am just a musician in search of freedom.
When we arrived at an undisclosed location, my handcuffs were removed and I was put into a windowless holding cell. Alone, I closed my eyes and began to piece together my case. How will I convince a judge that my only hope for a future is in his hands and if he returns me to where I came from it will all be over? My argument will have to start with my earliest childhood, long before I defected, before I was a cellist, and even before I was abandoned as a four-year-old in the Polish countryside in war-torn Europe.
I was born in Warsaw, Poland on Good Friday, April 15th, 1938. The midwife warned my mother, “Your son will grow up to be a priest, or a thief.”
I had two much older brothers, Zdzislaw and Henryk. Zdzislaw was the mean one. His face was long and narrow like a fox, and with his thin-lipped grin he would taunt me relentlessly, “You act like a scared sissy all the time.” It was true that I was skinny (apart from my cherubic, full cheeks) and vulnerable as a little boy.
My early childhood overflowed with eerie stories about Slavic folk rituals and Polish pagan mythology. Across centuries, ancient tribes passed their beliefs from one generation to the next through spoken words that whispered between the branches and brambles of prehistoric forests and seeped into my bedroom at story time. Polish parents frightened their little ones into good behavior by warning of the Boginki, who steal babies from their cribs, leave changelings in their place, and sacrifice the newborns to river nymphs. Mother loved to tell me chilling tales about Baba Yaga, the witch who flies through the woods on her broomstick snatching children and eating them alive. Such stories inflated my already brittle anxieties. But my mean brother was wrong about me; like my parents, I would learn how to conquer fear with sheer grit.
The first three years of my life were mementos in my mother’s keeping. She always carried a pocket-sized photo of me on my first birthday. I am sitting atop a downy rug in a white, eyelet dress that was customary for girls and boys, and look like a heavenly creature unspoiled by the tyranny of men. If not for this picture, and her tales, these early years would be lost to me.
Michalina Zawistowska, my mother, was born Michalina Ruzik, the granddaughter of Jewish émigrés who moved from their native Czech Republic to Warsaw before her birth in 1910 to provide their children with a superior education. She was pretty, but didn’t boast of high cheekbones or blond hair, the trademarks of Slavic-Polish beauties. Her hair was curly and brown, her peach complexion slightly dark, and she had definite Semitic features. Michalina was street smart, resourceful and fearless. If she had a weakness it was that she was deeply superstitious.
Mother’s father, Anton Ruzik, was the manager of an upscale apartment building in the Jewish section of Warsaw. It was a very comfortable existence for him, his wife, Eva, and the children until 1926 when Eva developed cancer and died. This was a catastrophic loss for my then sixteen-year-old mother. Her devastation was compounded by the shocking discovery that after only a few months, Anton took as his lover a very young, beautiful gypsy girl. In her grief Mother visited my grandmother’s grave daily, begging her to help punish Anton from beyond. Poor Mother repeatedly cursed her father, whom she despised, and prayed that if vengeance could not be taken upon him, she herself wished to die.
The newly widowed Anton, on the other hand, felt flush with good fortune and went on to win an enormous sum of money in the lottery. Mother was not impressed and loathed him and his lover even more. Grandfather Anton decided to use his winnings to purchase a large estate in Lithuania, not far from Vilno, which in those days was considered Polish territory. He arranged for a coach and driver and, with his gypsy girl and a suitcase full of money, went to claim his manor.
Traveling from Warsaw to Vilno was an extremely risky adventure. In the eastern part of Poland were the most ancient European forests, which were said to harbor outlaws, primitive woodsmen and evil spirits. They were also the favored hunting grounds for Polish and foreign aristocracy, but neither would enter these lands unprotected. With the confidence of a nobleman, Grandfather Anton ventured without guards through the Białowierza Forest. My mother never learned how far he got, but days later his mutilated body was discovered alongside the abandoned coach. There was no trace of the beautiful gypsy girl, or the money. Mother felt sure the mortal price he paid for his affair was her own wish fulfilled, and she suffered stinging feelings of guilt.