To the 48 Polish sailors who jumped ship in Boston Harbor during the past month, it was a choice between freedom and oppression.

But the merchant seamen's fate depends on whether U.S. officials believe they are freedom-seekers or decide they are fortune hunters willing to abandon their homes and families for a chance at economic opportunity.The unusually large wave of defections prompted a visit to Boston from Polish consular officials, who invited any defectors having second thoughts to return home without fear of repercussion.

But the sailors rebuffed the overtures, saying they don't believe the promises would be kept.

"That's what we ran away from and we didn't want to have anything to do with those Polish officials," said Vieslaw, a sailor who spoke on condition that only his first name be used.

"It's this classic case of propaganda, and there's no doubt in my mind that on return to Poland we would be incarcerated," said Marek, who also declined to give his last name. Both spoke through an interpreter.

The sailors said they were reluctant to be fully identified because they feared harassment.

Marek Kaminski, one of the consular officials visiting from New York last week, portrayed the sailors as adventure seekers who would eventually regret their decision.

The Polish officials also denied reports that the sailors' families would be fined or their wives would be fired from their jobs.