Zdzislaw Rurarz, a former Polish ambassador to Japan who humiliated Poland's communist regime by defecting to the U.S. in 1981 to protest its imposition of martial law, has died of cancer, his daughter said Saturday. He was 76.
Rurarz died Jan. 21 at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in northern Virginia, his daughter, Ewa Rurarz-Huygens, told The Associated Press by telephone from Reston, Virginia, where his family lives.
Rurarz was one of two Polish ambassadors who defected after Poland's last communist leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law on Dec. 13, 1981 in an attempt to crack down on Solidarity, a trade union pushing for democratic change. The defections of the two communist party loyalists from such prestigious positions came as a humiliating blow to the regime that, it later turned out, was poised to collapse eight years later.
Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, eventually prevailed, helping to end communist rule in 1989. However, Poland endured 19 months of martial law _ harsh military rule that saw Solidarity leaders, including Walesa, imprisoned and about 100 people killed.
The other ambassador to defect was Romuald Spasowski, the ambassador to the United States.
Born Feb. 24, 1930 in Pionki, Rurarz held government and diplomatic posts starting in the 1960s, but felt he could no longer represent the communist regime after martial law was imposed, Rurarz-Huygens said.
"He couldn't represent a government that was waging a war on its own nation," she said.
Still, escaping from Tokyo was tricky.
First, their beloved family dog, a 14-year-old cocker spaniel named Toofy was dying, and the family couldn't bring itself to euthanize him. "My father did not want to defect with a dying dog and he definitely didn't want to leave the dog," his daughter recalled.
Only after Toofy passed away, and the family had cremated and commemorated him in a Shinto temple could Rurarz, his wife and daughter leave.
Rurarz contacted the U.S. Embassy to find out whether the Americans would grant him asylum. But that information was leaked to the media _ the family still doesn't know how _ and when Polish officials found out, they ordered an Interior Ministry official in Tokyo to watch the family closely and prevent them from leaving.
Their chance came when eight Polish sailors themselves defected as their ship docked in Japan to pick up a rice shipment.
"The staff were busy taking care of that, and we were able to slip out" and reach the safety of the U.S. Embassy on Dec. 23, 1981, 10 days after martial law was imposed, his daughter said.
Once they arrived in the United States, Rurarz spoke out on what the communist regime was doing to the people in his homeland, addressing a congressional panel and giving a series of lectures.
After he defected, Rurarz was tried in absentia on charges of high treason and sentenced to death by Polish authorities. His citizenship was also revoked and he lost the family's home in Warsaw, his daughter said.
The death sentence was never lifted, and the citizenship and property were never restored, Rurarz-Huygens said.
In addition to his daughter, Rurarz is survived by his wife, Janina, and two granddaughters. The family plans to hold a memorial service for him Feb. 24, on what would have been his 77th birthday, in Reston.