Wednesday, April 26, 2017
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The Ordeal of Ryszard Eibel, Polish Refugee

Many readers can remember the 1985 incident when a Ukrainian sailor jumped from a Soviet merchant vessel in an American port, requested asylum here, but was returned to his ship by U.S. authorities. He was harassed for years afterward by the Soviets at home but survived the USSR and became a priest in Ukraine. Decades before, a similar incident occurred involving a seaman from communist Poland.

On July 24, 1958 twenty-two year old Ryszard Eibel, a sailor on the Polish freighter Fryderyk Szopen, jumped ship in Newark, N.J. He went first to the offices of the Polish language newspaper Nowy Świat in New York City and was directed to the Polish American Immigration and Relief Committee (PAIRC). He told the executive secretary that he wanted to remain in the United States and wanted political asylum. He found his way to Boston where he stayed with relatives, then returned to the PAIRC after a couple of days where he was seized by U. S. immigration officers and forcibly returned to his ship, then in Brooklyn. The PAIRC protested to immigration officials, but was told the seaman had only limited landing privileges and Eibel had to be returned to his ship.

Upon appeal to Attorney General William Rogers, U.S. Immigration Commissioner Joseph Swing ordered Eibel to be interviewed by an immigration agent in Mobile, Alabama on July 30, where the Szopen was then docked. The interview with Eibel was held in the presence of the ship's captain, during which Mr. Eibel said he wanted to return to Poland, and the captain stated that the sailor would not be punished upon his return home. Despite this obviously tainted interview, Commissioner Swing refused admittance into America for Eibel as a political refugee, regarding the seaman as someone seeking to evade admissions quotas for immigrants.

By now, Eibel's case had drawn the attention of the International Rescue Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Congress, and Fulton Lewis, an influential radio and newspaper commentator who was relentless in his criticism of the U.S. government's actions.
The PAIRC said Eibel had been a leader of the anti-communist Association of Young Democrats in Poland and had participated in the Poznań riots of 1956, and feared he would be executed if returned to his communist homeland. But Commissioner Swing stated that "there is nothing in this young man's history that indicates any overt or covert opposition to the present regime in his country."
At the time, American law allowed a person who escaped from or who was a refugee from a communist country, and was fearful of recrimination in his homeland, to be allowed to remain here. But U.S. Immigration interpreted the law very narrowly.
When the Szopen docked in New Orleans on August 6, Eibel crept behind officers aboard the freighter and shouted to his cousin Leo Marmor, who was standing on the dock, "Don't send me back to Poland! It is prison for me sure!" Marmor, of St. Louis, was in New Orleans to petition the federal court on behalf of his cousin with the support of the ACLU. A judge ruled two days later that Eibel could stay in the U.S. for twenty-nine days, then would be placed aboard a Swedish ship that would land him in a non-communist country. Once there, he could apply for formal admission to the U.S., after which he would be permitted to enter the country. Eibel, in halting English, said, "I want to be a very good American citizen. I was never a communist."

The State Department put Eibel on a ship headed for Lebanon where he could file his application, but the vessel never docked there. He was then told he could apply for entry in Pakistan, but the ship never stopped there either. Frustrated and fearful, Eibel was finally allowed to receive his entry visa at the U.S. consulate in Calcutta, India. He received permission to re-enter the United States in December 1958 and he settled in this country.

Though the high-profile case of Ryszard Eibel ultimately ended on a happy note, lesser publicized incidents at the time did not. In 1958 alone at least nineteen other Polish seamen who jumped ship in the U.S. were forcibly returned to their ships to face an uncertain fate, and no doubt sailors from other communist countries who sought asylum here were treated similarly.
Despite its reputation as a welcoming beacon for the oppressed of the world, the United States in some instances in the past has denied entry to such persons.

written by Martin S. Nowak

Recommended reading(s):


Jadwiga's CrossingJadwiga's Crossing: a story of the Great Migration by Richard J. Lutz

"Panna Maria, an Image of Polish Texans", by Joseph Jaworski

If you are searching for your roots in Poland this book written by Rosemary A. Chorzempa will be very helpul: Polish Roots

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