ATKINSON — Almost 25 years ago, Edward Polonka made a decision that would change his life forever.
Polonka was standing on a large fishing boat in Boston Harbor, preparing to jump off the dock with 11 of his fellow sailors to escape communist Poland forever.
“I had had enough,” Polonka said. “I needed my freedom.”
Polonka jumped with no idea of what would be waiting for him in America.
He didn’t know anyone in Boston, knew no English and had just $15 in his pocket.
But Polonka, 59, found his way and now lives with his wife, Christine, and his daughters, Katherine and Diana in Atkinson. Polonka’s journey was retold in a book by Lynda Healey published this month, “A Leap to Freedom.”
Polonka was a marine specialist for Gryf, a Polish fishing company. He would go out to sea for six months at a time, catching fish and delivering them to different ports around the world.
While Polonka was out at sea for long periods of time, back home things were in turmoil. Poland was fighting back against its communist government and Polonka was worried about what he was seeing in his home country.
“America was always my dream,” he said. “It’s where I wanted to be.”
In the fall of 1988, he saw that the Kantar, a large fishing vessel would be going on an expedition to North America. He saw two destinations which looked possible for his jump, Boston and New York.
“I knew those were two places where people could bring me in,” Polonka said
On Jan. 5, 1989, the ship made its first stop in Boston. He knew it was time. Polonka jumped ship with just the cash in his pocket and a duffle bag with a few belongings.
He was picked up by the Coast Guard and taken to the U.S. Embassy, where he hoped to be granted political asylum.
They put him up in a hotel for a night, but by the next morning he was handed working papers and was on his own while he waited for the courts to hear his case.
“I didn’t have free food stamps, I didn’t have a free apartment, I was on my own,” he said. “I just had two hands and $15 in my pocket.”
So Polonka decided to go to the Polish Citizen’s Club. He was welcomed with open arms and free drinks. One of the members let him sleep on the floor in a home in South Boston and gave him a job renovating homes.
He worked there for a year, but was not granted asylum since the political climate had drastically changed in Poland. He returned to Poland, received a visa, return to the United States and officially established his life here. Shortly after, he met his wife Christine, an American citizen.
“I still remember seeing him jump off the ship on the news,” Christine said. “I was about to go on a date and my father said ‘Why can’t you marry a good Polish guy like him?’”
The two moved to Atkinson in 1991 after Polonka got a job at the Haverhill Paperboard Company. In 1997, he became a U.S. citizen. He now works in North Andover at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District.
Over the last nine years, Polonka has been working with Healey to tell his story, from growing up in Poland right up to the moment he plunged into Boston Harbor.
“I want people to hear this story,” he said.
Polonka now lives a happy life and enjoys volunteering with the Atkinson Lions Club.
His wife said his leap of faith has helped make him who he is.
“He has a different mentality,” Christine said. “He knows what it’s like to be homeless, so there’s no apprehension in anything he does. He was just so focused and determined that he was going to make it. He has never stopped with an idea. His ideas always continue and continue. It’s incredible.”