Living in the communist system - the one which the younger generation cannot remember - was not too interesting. The senselessness of this system was particularly evident for people who had the opportunity to compare with their own eyes the living conditions in countries with the democratic system, or, as it was said at the time, in countries behind the Iron Curtain, in countries outside the influence of Russia (then - the Soviet Union).
Trips to other countries were very much restricted, because the passports were always deposited by the authorities of the police (the so-called Polish Citizens' Militia at that time) and only that body decided whether to issue a passport to a citizen or not to if they "didn’t deserve it", so we were always dependent on the whims of power that didn’t have to state the reasons for their actions.
Stormy waves of the Polish People’s Republic
We, as family, got along relatively well. We were aware - as almost everyone in Poland was - that we didn’t have too much impact on the state of "the sea", the prevailing storms or the size of the wave with strong winds blowing from different directions (but mainly from the East). We need to steer our ship (Family) as safely as possible, without substantial damage and changes to the course, under varying sailing conditions.
I worked in the shipyard with relatively good earnings. Although it was a job under high pressure and frequent stress, I liked it. Then I worked in the company dealing with foreign trade, that’s why for a few months I worked in France, behind the Iron Curtain, which was very favorable from a financial point of view, as well as in the cognitive sense, because I saw how it was possible to live in democracy.
Planning Roman holidays
With a little money put aside we decided with my wife to make efforts for a tourist trip to Rome, the Polish Pope in the Vatican, it was worth celebrating. Without a special belief in the success, we filed applications for passports for the whole family. Wow! We got passports with visas to Italy. It was late spring 1981, probably at the time citizens in Gdańsk Passport Office were treated slightly more graciously, I think especially of pro-Solidarity citizens.
For the first time in my life we had passports with visas to the country from behind the Iron Curtain and, what’s more, for the whole family - we started involuntarily racking our brains. The reality was that the situation in Poland was uncertain; how things will pan out – will the fraternal armies come or not come to Poland? If so, we are lost for the next decades, there will be blood, life malaise, and how about the future of our sons? We have only one life, and so on and so on ...
We have passports, visas to a free country - it may be the only and the last chance, maybe it will not happen again? A roulette as in Las Vegas. There are no clear answers, hundreds of "for and even against" questions, "there are positive pluses and negative ones", as they used to say. We knew virtually nothing about a possible stay outside Poland -we had never considered it before, nobody from our immediate family or our friends had such experience. Only the elder son Mareczek one day brought news from school that reportedly near Vienna there was a big house and Poles who did not return to Poland might live there. Children in school knew more than we did. But thinking is one thing, and preparations to leave had to be done slowly.
For a family of four it was not that simple. Before leaving, I had looked around the apartment. Furnished hall, nice bathroom, bunk beds for children, phone (it was a valuable asset in these times), from the balcony visible developed plot with gooseberry bushes and purple plum every year bearing delicious fruit. My wife took care of the children, didn’t have to work. I performed well at work, I was satisfied, nice friends and acquaintances, we had relatively good life ... But what next, what will happen in Poland, what will be the future? A touch of melancholy which I didn’t share anybody with passed quickly, because at that point we were going on vacation. We were in good moods. We left the keys with my excellent mother-in-law and only she knew that if we didn’t return at the scheduled time, then she shouldn’t have worried, we would let her know.
Journey into the unknown
And we moved 7 June 1981, in a loaded car, the first planned stop in Częstochowa. Late in the afternoon we left our stuff in the hotel and mandatorily (because that was the goal) trip to Jasna Góra, pious prayers before the miraculous picture, a bit of sightseeing and return to the hotel.
Early in the dawn the next day I went to fuel the car up, I located the petrol station coming back from Jasna Góra to the hotel. The queue of probably 50 cars, but I was still lucky – I filled the car up to the full – fuel was already limited. We were in Cieszyn in the daytime (it was June, 8) and having our hearts in our mouths, we approached the customs control. The customs control in the Polish People's Republic was always risky, customs officers could nitpick and, in a fit of bad temper, turn us back. We sympathized with other tourists. All their luggage was lying on the ground next to the car (with the Swedish registration), and the pleased customs officer was returning from the office with a screwdriver in his hand. Apparently, the customs officer had the right to dismantle all the car, but piecing it together is a tourist’s task! We drove to Bratislava relatively slowly, the area was mountainous, lots of forests.
Deviating from the route
Halfway to Bratislava in the forest I turned from the main road into a side road and at the next glade we put up a tent, had dinner, a little talk and went to sleep. In the morning I counted family members - headcount was ok - I realized then how irresponsible it was to choose such a place for the stay. An unknown forest, so many animals in the woods (sometimes bears) and "a great many robbers on the road" as the prophet wrote. The smell of food or our sweat could entice any predator. And we behaved as if it had been Witomino bosket, and the road led to Mały Kack.
In Bratislava first we visited a health clinic - Markówka got conjunctivitis. After having a few drops put into his eyes everything was fine. Sunny weather. We did a little shopping - the shops were well stocked - we set the course for the "green border" to Vienna.
Czech customs officers deposited all the Czech crowns. Probably they knew that Poles often didn’t come back again. It would have been better if we had spent the rest of crowns in Bratislava, as my wife wanted. Austrians only checked documents and wished a safe trip. A deep breath - we were in the free zone. The air much the same, similar roads, the same green, but we felt lighter and more comfortable. Vienna was not far away, we located the campsite easily - it was close to the main route. The campsite nicely mounted, a lot of old trees, a lot of space. We quickly put up a tent - boys helped effectively, though Tytus was a little lazy. The sun was going down, it was warm. Sanitary facilities - running water, well maintained showers. Finally, we were able to relax, eat something without rush, and then ... a cigarette and coffee.
In the middle of coffee we were greeted by a young man with a polite "Good morning." It was Bogdan - coincidence of names. We started to drink coffee together. Bogdan had a wide range of news for us, very interesting and educating. We got to know the exact route to the refugee camp in Traiskirchen - 15 km from Vienna. After parting with Bogdan (it was already late), we decided with my wife that the next day, not waking up children, we would check the route and see what it all looked like.
In front of the gate quite a lot of people, both those who wanted to stay, and those saying goodbye. Mostly Poles, but also a lot of Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians and Germans from the GDR. We returned to the campsite, children had already woken up. We had breakfast, took our belongings from the campsite and without special hurry we headed for Traiskirchen. We didn’t acquaint boys too closely with our plans, they didn’t care too much. They were on a trip. After the initial formalities, filling in various forms, we gave passports and drove into the camp premises. It was a sunny day on June 10, 1981. We were waiting for further formalities in a huge room with bunk beds. I think years ago soldiers had been working here on physical prowess. The dimensions suggested that it was once a gym. While waiting in that room I had a lot of reflections. A young Czech marriage with a few years old daughter. She firmly incapacitated, crippled - I think that after a terrible accident - hugged the weeping daughter, and he was walking impatiently back and forth like a wolf. Please God, let them be accepted into Switzerland, which had declared the adoption of 2000 refugees with disabilities.
A Hungarian was looking for a buyer for his old Łada, sold it in the end for a pack of Marlboro cigarettes, and the buyer was a Polish embassy employee. A young man from Poland ad nauseam was telling his story about escape through "the green border". He showed scratches from barbed wire and a torn shirt.
In Austria we spent more than five months waiting for the approval of the country which we had chosen - Canada. In Austria we lived in a small town in single rooms at the motel, our group counted more or less 10 families. First Sunday at the Mass the priest introduced all our group, greeted us warmly and asked parishioners for possible help, if necessary. We felt much better, as we anchored on a little firmer ground, and then we could quite openly and legally work towards a possible trip to our target country. Until we left Austria, we had been covered by international regulations as refugees, the UN funded our stay (room and board). Austrians were satisfied with the situation, some of them did very profitable business.
The social structure of our group was quite typical of Solidarity emigration. 80 percent constituted people with higher education. Our children were playing with each other and went to school with Austrian neighbors. The longest time I worked casually in a slaughterhouse. The worst aspect of the job was the psychical one (slaughtering) as well as physical, but it was the best job in financial terms. In the evening we learned English. The work let us manage free time, gave the possibility of income for current expenses, as we had the ambition not to make our children feel that we were not able to satisfy their little childish whims.
After several interviews at the Embassy of Canada we received the instruction to have the required medical examination. It was good news, because it meant that we were virtually accepted and everything depended on our health.
The final destination
We landed in Toronto November 2, 1981, in the evening, there were about 20 families. The customs formalities took longer than normally, but it was understandable, after all, we were "newcomers for permanent residence" with the landed immigrant document, sponsored by the Canadian government, so we had all the civil rights, except the right to vote which is reserved for Canadian citizens. After the customs formalities late in the evening we were taken to a hotel in downtown Toronto; we had booked two rooms. Marek and Tytus, our sons (14 and 9 years old) were glad because due to time differences they woke up at 4 in the morning and watched TV - well, is was lucky that they didn’t come across the channel for adults.
We were asked to come the next day to the Immigration Office of Canada, which was located in very close proximity to the hotel. After a few days we began to look for an apartment and eventually casual work for me, because for the language school we had to wait a bit. After three days in Canada, I began working as a concrete crushing vibratory hammer operator. After a week I had to give up the work. I didn’t master enough the technique of the work with the hammer and after a few days I was taking off the skin of the fingers together with the working gloves. At the same time my wife was looking for lodgings - after a dozen or so days we lived in a three-room apartment. We spent more than 25 years in Canada, we don’t regret anything, we think we succeeded. We spend retirement years mainly in Poland, with longer stays in Canada and partly in Florida during the winter.
Over 25 years in Canada is a great number of experiences, reflections, taking care of Polish identity and pride of Poles in a distant country. Our sons consider Poland as the hub of the universe, despite the fact that they live in other countries. Together with my wife we also had to take care of our success in the new country in social and economic terms - for ourselves and to ensure our children's education. We made it, we feel fulfilled, we do not regret anything. Now our only wish is to stay healthy.