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God Met Me on a Bridge in Communist Poland

 Martial Law, December 13, 1981

Martial Law, December 13, 1981

Did he come?

“Yes.”

So where did you pack the item he brought?

“Don’t ask me; it will be better for both of us at the border if you don’t know the answer to this question.”

(The following story is part three in a three part series. Part one and part two are available at:

My Agonizing Question That Refused to Be Answered and The Day That Stays With Me Forever.)

The days leading up to this epic journey were like none our American lives had ever experienced. The icey strategy of the Cold War gripped with a new cruelty. On December 13, 1981, the Communist government declared Martial Law, and the nation of Poland stood completely shut off from the outside world. Public transportation was brought to a stand still, phone lines were cut, newspapers were silenced, and the television only broadcast military propaganda bulletins insisting all citizens return to their city or village of residence.

  General Jaruzelski making nationwide televised address

General Jaruzelski making nationwide televised address

Navigating the crisis, Larry cautiously trekked daily to downtown Warsaw and the American Embassy. Each time he left, a chill coursed through me. Would he return? He ventured out, hoping against hope, to glean accurate information and clarity for the situation we faced. Most of all, he hoped, by some fluke, to be granted permission to send a telegram to our families notifying them that we were ok. At this point, we sat isolated with no contact beyond the border. Our food supply, our cash supply, and our health remained in good condition; we felt compelled to inform our loved ones of our state of affairs.

The scene at the embassy offered no encouragement. Like a tomb, the foreboding building stood cold and silent. The black iron gates were open, but the doors to the inside of the concrete structure remained bolted.

(Here our story gains momentum.)

On one of these bitterly cold days, as Larry milled in the bare courtyard — inside the gates, but outside the building — a gentleman whom Larry previously met at a restaurant—approached him and quietly asked, “Are you by any chance planning to travel outside the country anytime soon?”

As field correspondent for ABC News, he explained, “The transmission of all video news remains forcibly blocked, and western broadcasters in the free world have no footage. Would you be willing to take—smuggle—a videotape across the border which documents the Soviet-backed oppression taking place here? Please, will you help us?”

Larry cautiously related our tentative travel plans. (The Kremlin changed everything. Our long-dreamed-of Christmas with my parents in our home behind the Iron Curtain would now have to be relocated. Martial Law cancelled all flights in and out of Warsaw, thus blocking their trip to Poland.)

The correspondent persisted. “Will you please agree to smuggle a videocassette out with you?”

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Gripped with the sober reality of the newsman’s plight and the dire situation of the nation, Larry nodded affirmatively. How could we ever efuse? If there were any way, whatsoever, we could help this citizenry in their fight for freedom, we would willingly participate.

So, Larry came home and briefed me to expect a visit from a man I did not know, who would give me a video news cassette I should not have. In clandestine courier fashion, we needed to agree to take this small, black, plastic case across the Polish border, across the Czechoslovakian border and across the Austrian border to the ABC news agency in safe and free Vienna. My husband did not need to tell me the danger we faced, if caught.

I hesitated and calculated the cost.

After living more than four years inside the walls of a totalitarian régime, I grasped the significance of this mission. I knew this violated Communist law. With all news to the outside world either blocked or jammed, how would we be treated if border guards discovered we held in our possession a film documenting the very truth of news the government refused to release?

As a young mother of three, I found myself in grim, uncharted waters. I was no Polish patriot, I was not part of the underground resistance, I did not belong to Solidarity, but how I loved these people! And at their greatest hour of need, how could I dare refuse to help? Yes! I wanted to quietly be a part of their heroic fight. I would agree to carry the news cassette revealing the tanks, the road blocks, the round up of citizens, the military police on every corner. Now, I had only to wait for the next step.

Eventually, a ring at the gate announced his arrival. Once inside the safety of our foyer, the ABC news correspondent, wearing his gray trench coat and fedora hat, placed the contraband item into my hands. Briefly, he reviewed the instructions, once we were inside the city limits of Vienna. Then, he thanked me, and left. The entire exchange took less than five minutes. Again, that shudder of reality coursed through my entire body. It was not what he said—but what he did not say—that left me frozen in my tracks. Right inside the door of my home, at the foot of my stairs, I agreed to be apart of something both dangerous and dramatic, something of much greater significance than my mind could comprehend.

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At nightfall, when Larry returned, our whispered conversation went like this:

Did he come?

“Yes.”

Did he give you the news tape?

“Yes.”

Did you pack it?

“Yes.”

Where did you pack it?

“Don’t ask me; when we are questioned at the border, it will be better for both of us, if you don’t know the answer to this question.”

For this one, I was flying solo.

With details arranged, we finally, embarked on our harrowing drive across three countries. The darkness and blowing snow kept us on edge. Would we make it before the border closed? What if we ran out of gas, since all stations had been forced to close? Moreover, how could we make the children fall asleep? With a sense of urgency, we traveled one tedious kilometer after another.

After hours of driving, we rounded the telltale curve. Floodlights announced the inevitable; we were approaching the the Olza River and the international border separating the nations of Poland and Czechoslovakia. (It was now 9:45 pm and the border closed at 10:00.) As we inched forward, Larry and I exchanged sideways glances. No turning back now. Still, he did not know where in our belongings the news cassette was hidden, and I had no intention of telling him. The outcome of this rested in the Lord’s Hands. We prayed and held our shivering breaths, and drove onto the border bridge.

Slowly, snidely, arrogantly, the military guards emerged from their border station and assumed command of our papers, our family, our vehicle and our destiny. Then, they initiated the search of our belongings. I sat still in the front while Larry spoke with them outside. This was not a World War II movie; this was real life. In subzero temperatures on a bridge in southern Poland, I begged the Lord of heaven and earth to blind the eyes of those in charge of this search. I prayerfully pleaded for the news cassette to remain completely hidden.

They barked their commands: Lift the truck! Open this suitcase! Explain this carton! We quietly obeyed.

While one guard tediously combed through our trunk, another shone flashlight beams into our faces, and examined the contents inside of our car. Obviously, their lights and loud voices roused the sleeping children who had, miles back, finally fallen asleep. Throughout the process, they made sure we understood their authority over our lives.

Eventually, the guards conferred with each other, turned, and retreated into their warm border station. We waited, how long I am not sure. It felt like an eternity.

And then, unannounced, they marched back out, curtly handed Larry the stack of our family’s passports, stood back, and dramatically waved us through. Weak with relief, Larry counted the number of passports, resumed command of our car, and slowly pulled forward. Not until the bridge was out of sight of the rear view mirror did we allow ourselves to exhale the nervous, heavy air within our lungs.

We made through the border! Thank You, God; we made it! HALLELUJAH! Though a long, dark and slick winding wintery road loomed ahead, so far the ABC news cassette was safe in its truth-bearing journey to the rest of the world. God had answered my desperate prayer. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you… (Isaiah 43:2)

Another tedious 24 hours passed before we drove into the city limits of Vienna. Collapsing into the arms of our waiting friends, Dave and Claudia Arp, we hastily explained the presence of contraband. Larry quickly bounded up the stairs, dialed the number to the ABC bureau chief in Vienna, and informed the voice on the other end that we had an item in our possession which was of great value to him.

Instantaneously grasping the gravity of the situation, the gentleman said, “Tell me where you are, and we will race to you. Only one hour remains before the satellite goes down. IF we move with urgency, we can get this uploaded for the evening news with Peter Jennings.”

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At long last, I lifted the tape from hiding and placed it into Larry’s outstretched hands. Momentarily, our eyes met. Then, taking it from me, like passing a baton in a relay race, he placed it into the hands of this stranger as he jumped from the backseat of a black Mercedes.

Just as quickly as he appeared, the messenger disappeared. He and his driver sped away into the cold darkness of the historical Viennese district of Grinzing. Within minutes, the news cassette would make the final leg of its journey. Its truth telling footage would be transmitted up to the satellite and over the ocean to announce to the world the plight of a nation, held against its will, in the grip of Martial Law behind The Iron Curtain.

Once our three exhausted children were tucked into their beds in the warm home of our dear hosts, Larry and I shared a moment of sober solitude. We weaved our arms around each other, and stared out the living room window. In each Austrian home and apartment along the Strasse, a single candle shown in defiant support of the nation to the East. We ached, we prayed, we wondered. Would our small part make a difference? Only history would tell.

So, there it is; the account of one small family caught between worlds at a unique time and place in the Cold War. Once again, this story pulls back the Iron Curtain to give a glimpse of real life behind that Iron Curtain.

Where did I hide the video cassette? Inside a box of Pampers—destiny within the diapers. The news cassette traveled undetected across the Polish border, across the nation of Czechoslovakia, and across the countryside of Austria, inside the fold of a diaper, tucked within a stack of other diapers inside a box of Pampers. Thank You, God.

Living With Eternal Intentionality

1. Do you personally remember the period of the Cold War, or have you read of this in international history?

2. Do you believe God is in control of the events in world affairs? (1 Timothy 6:15b J.B. Phillips)

3. How do the happenings between men and nations fit into His orchestrated plans for spreading the gospel? (Matthew 28:18-20)