In 1979 Jeri Laber, the director of Helsinki Watch (which later became Human Rights Watch) traveled to Warsaw to meet with leaders of KOR (the Workers Defense Committee) who would later be the intellectual backbone of Solidarity when it was created in 1980. They immediately took up her idea of forming an underground Helsinki Committee in Poland (similar groups were forming across Europe to monitor the Helsinki Accords). Zbigniew (Zbyszek) Romaszewski, a physicist, volunteered to lead it.

Romaszewski died in Warsaw on Feb. 13. He was 74

When martial law was imposed in December 1981, some 30,000 people were arrested and imprisoned. Romaszewski and his wife Zosia were among them.

Some time after the imposition of martial law, we learned that the Polish Helsinki Committee had found a way to continue to operate secretly.  They managed to smuggle highly detailed reports to Helsinki Watch.  Their first report, produced under the difficult conditions of search, seizure and secrecy, was 182 pages long. Helsinki Watch published it in English translation under the title “Prologue to Gdansk.” They were a leading source of information on human rights practices in Poland in that period. 

In March 1984 – after we had no person to person contact with anyone in Poland for more than two years – I traveled to Warsaw.  Before I left, I learned that Amnesty International had designated  Zbigniew Romaszewski a prisoner of conscience. Arriving in Poland, I hoped to see Zosia Romaszewska, who had recently been released from prison.  Her husband was still in prison.  I could not say for sure that I would see her because it was not possible to make advance appointments.  All I could do was to turn up at people’s apartments and hope that I would find them there. 

During my visit to Warsaw I met many persons who had been imprisoned, and also family members of those still imprisoned, who had been entirely cut off from such contacts.  This included Zosia who I was able to spend several hours with. I was able to publish a number of articles in the US on the vitality of the Solidarity movement.  

During a visit to Warsaw in 1985, my colleague Ken Roth spent time with both Zbigniew, who by then had been released from prison, and Zosia.  They graciously spent many hours with him.  In this difficult period, when the country was still recovering after the imposition of martial law, Zbigniew and Zosia were the key source of information on the struggling dissident movement which remained very much alive despite the Soviet-backed General  Wojciech Jaruzelski’s efforts to crush it. 

Later on, I got to know Zbigniew Romaszewski and, a couple of times, brought him to conferences in other parts of the world to speak about how a human rights movement could cope with a repressive regime. He became a Senator in Poland and Chairman of the Polish Senate Human Rights and Rule of Law Committee. The organization he founded, now the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Poland, is going very strong. The last time I visited Warsaw – about a year-and-a-half ago - its legal staff included 23 lawyers.  It is in the forefront of human rights advocacy in Europe.