By 2 a.m. on March 7, 1987, the regular Friday night crowd at the Golden Arrow Cafe in Passaic, N.J., had thinned to about 10 people. Zofia Puzik, 45, who was filling in as barmaid, noticed two men—later identified as Luis Nunez and Jose Disla—speaking heatedly in Spanish. Nunez stormed out of the bar; when he returned 20 minutes later with a knife, Puzik pressed an alarm in the cash register, then turned to hit a second alarm on the wall. When she looked back to the barroom, Disla lay dead in a pool of blood and Nunez was gone. So were all the other patrons of the Golden Arrow. Police officers who arrived within minutes found a tearful Puzik alone with the body.

Puzik was still alone seven months later when she took the stand against Nunez in New Jersey Superior Court. Police had canvassed the neighborhood thoroughly, but found no one else who would admit to witnessing the stabbing. Only Puzik, a Polish national vacationing in the U.S., was willing to stand up and give the testimony that convicted Nunez of aggravated manslaughter.

But American justice is not swift, and in the time it took to bring Nunez to trial, Puzik's own life turned into a shambles. Required to extend her stay several months, she lost her job in Poland and had a falling-out with the American relatives she had come to visit. She can't work in the U.S. because her immigration status is unresolved, and she speaks only a smattering of English. For now she's living in limbo, dependent on a friend for room and board. "Coming here, I never thought I'd have to live through something like this," says Puzik through an interpreter. "I wouldn't wish it on anyone."

Puzik, who holds degrees in both nursing and teaching, arrived in New Jersey on Oct. 14, 1986, for a six-month visit. The mother of two grown children and separated from her husband, she had taken a leave from her job as director of two nursery schools in Radom, Poland, to spend time with her father's children from a second marriage. Puzik settled in with her stepsister, Helena Pisarczyk, in Clifton, N.J., and made herself helpful to stepbrother John Frankowski, owner of the Golden Arrow. On the night of March 7, the regular barmaid, 8½ months pregnant, went home feeling queasy. Puzik, who had mastered such basic terms as "drink," "beer" and "mix," took over the bar.

Fortunately, Joe Zon, one of the officers who responded to the Golden Arrow alarm that night, speaks Polish. He was able to calm the distraught Puzik and help her through the ordeal of making a statement and scanning the mug books. There was never any question, he says, that she was willing to tell the truth and take the consequences. "She hung in there," says Zon. But then Puzik heard nothing from the police for several weeks. Nunez had turned himself in, and she assumed, she says, that "they found some other witnesses and had no use for me."

Puzik planned to return to Poland on April 14, but on April 12 she was summoned to the prosecutor's office in Paterson, N.J. "They were all stunned," she says, to learn that she was leaving. The prosecutor demanded that she turn in her passport and cancel her plane reservation. "Maybe they were afraid I'd run away," she says. "I told them I wouldn't."

Puzik's U.S. visa was extended so that she could testify at the Nov. 9 trial, but no one bothered to inform the Polish consulate that she had been drafted into the U.S. justice system. The hospital that oversees her nursery schools in Radom sent a letter demanding that Puzik return by May 1 or be fired for "unexcused absence and serious violation of duties." Puzik asked her grown children, whom she phones regularly, to plead her case, but her employers wouldn't budge. It didn't occur to her to tell the prosecutors about the letter until some months later. When she did, Puzik, who had earned her position, she says, through "25 years of hard work," broke down and cried. Should she return to Poland now, Puzik would forfeit her seniority and be forced to start over as an ordinary nurse at half her former salary.

Her treatment in the U.S. hasn't been anything to write home about either. "Throughout the entire time I was waiting for the trial," she says, "no one even asked me if I had anything to eat. They knew I no longer lived with my family." Her stepsiblings, it seems, were upset about all the publicity surrounding Puzik and the family tavern. So when a sympathetic young man she'd met at the bar offered an extra bedroom in nearby Lodi, Zofia took him up on it. She spends her time there cooking and trying to pick up some English from TV. Now that the prosecution has won its case, U.S. immigration officials have told Puzik she must leave when her current visa expires April 19. But with little left to go back to in Poland, she'd prefer to make a new life here. "I would like to work in a hospital," she says. "This is my occupation."

Despite what she now calls, in English, her "big American mess," Puzik has expressed little resentment or regret. She found it puzzling that "those who saw what happened didn't tell the authorities," but she's decided that "in America people don't want to help each other." Knowing that, would Puzik be a willing witness if she had it to do over again? "Yes," she replies simply. "What else?"

"What we learn from Zofia," says assistant prosecutor Ronald Marmo, "is that the justice system puts responsibility on everybody, not just on people in the courthouse." He has now brought Puzik's plight to the attention of U.S. Rep. Robert A. Roe, who is trying to get her a permanent visa and working papers. Says Roe: "This lady has all the qualities of citizenship, not just in our country, but in any country."

  • Contributors:
  • Krystyna Bittenek,
  • Jess Cagle.