Elzbieta, Poland

I was born in a small town in Poland called Czlopa, only one thousand population.  Life there was many different things. Life was fun, it was amazing.  We had very close families working together and having fun together.  On the other hand, my parents’ lives were pretty hard because they had to work all the time. It seems like there was nothing to buy so you had to make a lot of things and fix stuff.  Everything was very minimal.  But it wasn’t always that bad.  There were different phases.  Sometimes it was really bad, that you couldn’t buy a pair of shoes and there wasn’t any food in the store.  My parents pretty much grew their own food and made everything from scratch.  We had a big garden, even fields of wheat, we made bread out of it, raised our own animals, and lots of fruit trees.  Lots of work.  It was hard for our parents and it was fun for us.  We always had to help our parents as well.

My dad was in charge of a local company.  They made lumber. There weren’t very many companies.  This one was maybe a hundred employees and my dad was in charge of it.  My mom just had a basic job. Our grandparents lived with us upstairs in the same house, my father’s parents.

The communist era, at the beginning, wasn’t as bad because things were building up after World War II.  Later, as communism wasn’t working as well for people, there was big inflation and it wasn’t as productive.  People weren’t as happy. They were more happy after WWII when they were liberated.  They were willing to work and make something out of it.  But then when they didn’t see that communism was working for them, and it wasn’t making any sense, the overall attitude wasn’t good.  A lot of the products weren’t sold in the country.  They were produced in the country but they were shipped to Russia because Russia was in charge of all the countries. There was nothing in the country that we could buy.

For me it was hard because you needed certain things for school like pens and pencils and shoes for your physical education classes. It was really hard for my parents to buy us clothes for the physical education classes.  And the teacher would not accept you in the class if you did not have the right shoes or the right clothes.  I know my parents struggled with that a lot.  They did the best they could.  Sometimes they had to overpay or get some connections to buy, but the worst part for me, still gives me nightmares, is that there weren’t enough books. I always wanted to have my books, but I couldn’t buy them.  There weren’t enough for every child.  There were times when I could borrow a book and my mom would sit at night and transcribe it for me so that I could learn from the book.  I needed to pass my exams because there was no excuse in the school.  If you didn’t pass the exam, you didn’t pass.  There was no excuse that you didn’t have the book to learn from.

I absolutely loved school always.  Education was high level and we had really good teachers.  Even in a small town like ours, it was really competitive across the country.  When I would do some competitions in math or art I wasn’t feeling like because I was from a small town I was worse. That was really good.

I wanted to be a pilot, always, all my life, because my uncle was a pilot during WWII and he was my hero.  Unfortunately because I was a woman I could not apply to be a pilot at the time.  It was not allowed.  People would laugh at me.  “Ha ha ha! You are a woman.  What are you thinking?”  Maybe if I was from Warsaw people wouldn’t laugh at me.  I don’t know. My backup plan was to go to university and study.  People would say that because I was a woman I would end up a cook or a seamstress, which made me mad.  I would cry, I would scream, “No!” I wanted to do some kind of science, I loved math.  I competed in art history, as well. I went all the way to nationals in Warsaw.

I remember this big communist painting with strong women, ready to work.  The reality wasn’t exactly the same.  But it wasn’t always so.  On the flip side, it wasn’t like we couldn’t drive.  I learned how to drive when I was fifteen years old.  My dad taught me and I passed the test and got my driver’s license.  It was not a problem.

Travel was forbidden for us, but we did travel.  We had to have two passports.  We had one passport for communist countries and one for capitalist countries.  It was very hard to get the one for capitalist countries.  Because my dad came from a part of Poland that used to be Poland and was then part of Russia, we had family there.  I traveled to Russia when I was three years old, then again when I was eleven, and then when I was sixteen.  I loved the people.  They were so cool and social.  But to get there on the train it was very regimented and when you got there you had to register and you had to stay in this one local area.

I remember coming back once and it was very cold, December, and my mom had a coat that she brought with her from Poland.  It was lambs wool, real skin.  It was so cold.  The soldier said, “No, you didn’t have that coat when you came from Poland.”  And he was taking it from her. He was trying to undress her when it was minus twenty degrees.  He had a gun so it wasn’t easy to resist him.

It was stressful to travel, but it was fun too.  I was with my older brother and we would wander around the village and swim in the river and lakes and talk to people.  I remembered a cat that somebody had.  We wanted to take the cat to Poland.  We got a box and we made holes in the box.  People were saying, “These kids are so smart.  They know cat has to breathe so they made holes for the cat.”  I was three years old.   When I was three years old I didn’t speak Russian, but I could understand my grandparents speaking Belarus.  The family we went to visit, they did speak Polish.  Later on in school we learned to speak Russian.

Later on in my life I traveled to Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia.  At the end of the communist era it was easier to travel.  I was even able to travel to Western Germany and to Austria. Now it so different.  Now when I go to Europe there are barely any borders.  No one checks your passport anymore.  We just go to the mountains and oh, now we are in Slovakia, now we are back in Poland.  Nobody cares.  Very different.

The worst thing about communism was the fear, because everybody assumed you were guilty until you were proven innocent.  Everybody was always stern and not trusting anybody.  The best thing about communism was that families were very strong because you had to have family to survive. Families were very close.  People didn’t live for money.  There is this saying, in communism we had money but there was nothing to buy, now you can buy anything but nobody has the money.

Communism started ending a few years before I left.  When I left things were more relaxed.  Before I left for Canada I went back to Russia because I wanted to see Russia one more time. That was an adventure because if it were really hard-core communism I wouldn’t have been able to come back, but due to the fact that Gorbachev was in charge it was more relaxed.  This was 1987.

We had martial law, this was a kind of traumatic thing.  If martial law hadn’t happened, there would have been a war.   Poland was rebellious against communism.  There were strikes everywhere. There were attacks on the streets.  At some point they announced martial law. You had to stay home.  You could not go outside for any reason after nine pm.  I remember hospitals being closed.  It was a very cold winter.  They closed the school and said don’t come back.  We don’t know when we will start again.

My brother was actually traveling when they announced the martial law.  He was on a trail to see my aunt in southern Poland.  They were saying that everybody who is out of home would be shot.  There were no cell phones, of course.  We had no idea what happened to him.  The phone lines were down.  We couldn’t call there.  They came and took my dad because they were taking all the guns so that they couldn’t go to war against Russia. So the Polish government just took him somewhere.  We had no idea what was going on.  The president of Poland announced the martial law and people hated him for that, but he actually saved a lot of people.  He saved Poland from war.  It was the only option.  The Russians told him to do martial law.  You take your people under control or we will attack you.  The Russians were in charge of all the communist countries.  They could do anything.  Like earlier, when the Czech Republic was having a revolution way before Poland, they actually took part of the Polish army and sent them against the Czechs.  They could use you.  They could take me to Russia to their schools if they wanted to.  My parents couldn’t do anything.

We had no idea where my dad went, but we were a small town so were safe because of that.  I was so happy we were in small towns because in big cities people went to jail. They didn’t take him to jail, they just took him to some building where they were keeping people so they wouldn’t grab their guns and fight against the Polish government.  They had him for weeks.  It wasn’t common to have a gun. My dad had a gun for hunting animals.  It was very hard to get guns in Poland.  You have to go through a lot of tests, especially psychological tests.  I think it took him a half a year of tests.  His was a hunter’s gun.

I knew some people from school who were resisting the government, from bigger towns. They would speak, they would write.  They were people who were politically involved.  They would organize strikes.  I was interested.  I went to some rallies and was listening to speeches.  People would gather and listen to someone talking and see which direction they want to go.

There was only one political party officially, the communist party.  Apparently it was one hundred percent of the population that belonged to that party.  But really there was the Solidarity group.  They grew stronger and bigger.  It was an interesting movement. There is a lot of controversy about it actually. The Solidarity Movement was good, it meant well, but there were some infiltrators. They were spies for the Russians.  They would pretend to be part of Solidarity.  What’s new?  Solidarity wanted to break away from Russia.  They wanted to have their own economy.  They didn’t want to go to stores and be asked, “Why are you here?  Can’t you see there is nothing in the store?  There’s only salt and vinegar.”   The factories were producing stuff, but they wanted to produce stuff to feed their own families. Just have more jobs, safe jobs.  We didn’t want our best doctors and scientists to leave the country because it was hopeless.  We just wanted to be a country and have it all.

If you take the whole salary of the person, they didn’t tell us how much went to taxes, it was a small amount you take home.  With the rest of it, everything is taken care of because the government owns everything.  A lot of properties were owned by government.  In Russia even more, the farms were collectivized.  In Poland we had small farmers who could still grow on their own.  Private companies didn’t exist.  It was hard to explain what you paid for.  But when you went to the doctor it was just that you have the right to go to the doctor without paying for anything.  School was free for everybody.  And if parents wouldn’t let kids go to school they would go to jail.  School was absolutely mandatory. University was also paid for. Old age pension was called social security.  You could set your own money aside, but was strongly not recommended because of inflation. People lost all their money in the change.  The pension is what everybody used.   Children were raised with their parents or grandparents.  My grandparents took care of us.  Big cities are probably different, but in small towns when a woman had a child she got two paid years off of work, or something like that, to raise her child.

At some point you couldn’t own your own house and then there was a period of time when you could.  I don’t remember the details.  My dad jumped in and bought our house, so now they own their house.  Some people didn’t own their house and some people did.  Most people didn’t.  For example, people who worked in my dad’s company had housing.  You could live in the apartment because you worked there and you didn’t have to pay rent.  Nobody worried about it because that’s how it was.  After communism those who didn’t own their houses got kicked out and it was pretty traumatic.   It got privatized.  A new owner came from Germany and kicked out everybody.

I always wanted to study, to learn English really well and study somewhere abroad.  So when my brother left, he left earlier, he invited me to come to Canada and see if I liked it.  I didn’t need to see, I already knew I liked it. I said, “I’m going there and I’m going to study and stay.”  I applied for a visa.  It wasn’t easy to get it because I was single and people suspect that if you are single you don’t have enough connections and you may actually stay there.  It was much harder to get a visa.  It was a tourist visa.  I didn’t overstay it.  The moment I arrived I told my brother I want to apply for asylum. Poland was still a communist country.  There were all these Polish people were coming in.  There was a big community in Toronto. He said, “Maybe you want to wait a few days and decide.”  I said, “No, I already decided.  I’m staying. You go to the office and you put the paper for me and do what needs to be done.”  He did it.  He had to buy some medical insurance for me.  I was legally there.

My brother had married a woman from the Ukraine and was very well-connected in Canada.  A lot of people from her family had already left. He was sponsored by one of her family.  The way that he left was that he bought a tour of Italy on a bus.  When the bus arrived in Italy it was pretty much empty. Everyone would go to Italy and asked for asylum and wait to be sent to Australia, US, or Canada.  When he left he knew he was not coming back.

The hardest part of leaving was moving away from my parents and grandparents, but I was still at that age where I thought I could do anything.  Later on I was like, “Oh my gosh, what did I do?”  I was able to travel back when I was more stable, when I had permanent residency.  Now I go pretty much every year.

I was waiting for my Canadian citizenship and then somebody asked me to get married. He happened to be from the United States.  It was an interesting thing.  In Poland when someone asked you to get married, you have to wait six months.  You can change your mind, you can do whatever, but you have to wait six months.  You have the time to get to know somebody. But in Canada it wasn’t like that.  On Monday we went to the city hall and we were married. Just in a day or two.  I knew him very little. That’s why I was hoping for the six months.  I was eighteen.  I met him in Poland.  He was an American.  He came to Toronto to see me.  He called my brother. I got married and then moved to the United States. The marriage was so quick!  It was shocking to me.  I thought that six months would happen.

Citizenship didn’t come right away. I waited a few years because at that time Poland was falling apart.  The embassy wouldn’t send my Polish records so there was senator from Michigan who helped me. He called the embassy in Canada and said, “Just let her go.”  I think that he wanted to help, and to get votes or something.  We moved to a small town in Michigan.

I didn’t really like Michigan or Toronto, as far as weather is concerned.  Lots of snow and humidity.  For me the major thing at that point was school and work.  I had no idea what would happen to my country.  Poland was pretty much a mess.  I didn’t want to go back.  I heard that the inflation was huge.  You could earn a hundred zloty today and tomorrow it was worth one zloty.  I remember before I left that when I was working, everything I earned I wanted to spend the same day because whatever you have left the next day is pretty much worthless.  Saving was pointless.

When Poland was transitioning from communism to capitalism, it wasn’t really what we thought capitalism was.  It was a really brutal thing for people.  They weren’t used to it.  In communism everybody had a job, everybody was working, everybody had school, school was free and all that stuff.  And suddenly you could not have a house or anything.  If you were young you figure it out, but when you are much older and you get kicked out of your place it was pretty hard.

Missing my family was hard.  Figuring out a new language and a new place was hard.  I learned a little bit of English back home but it wasn’t good enough.  I was studying very hard.  I learned English in a school in Canada.  As soon as I came there the next day I started at a school.  We moved to Portland together. When I came to Portland I went to PCC and then to University of Phoenix. I was married twenty years. It was a long time.

What surprised me the most about Canada and the United States, pretty similar, was when my brother took me out I saw businesses and places to live.  Where are the castles?  Where are the museums?
I was a little bit depressed. 
I wanted to see an amazing castle or a beautiful museum where I could go and have an experience.  Here is McDonald’s, and then some other kind of shop and lots of shops and lots of shopping.  I missed the culture so much. Culture was supported by the government in Poland.  If you studied art there were jobs. I’m pretty sure the government subsidized artists and invested a lot of money into renovations and in paintings and so forth.

I never had any bad experiences with Americans.  They were pretty welcoming.  They were nice, gave good advice. I think the immigration policies were ok.  They were very clear.  But of course I had a private sponsor, which is different when you have a government sponsor.  When you have a government sponsor you have different programs.  With a private sponsor you have to pay for things yourself, but they happen faster. I got citizenship eventually through marriage.  I also have Polish citizenship.  That one I already had, and Poland’s law is that you are always Polish, sorry.  Unless you do something bad and we don’t want you anymore, you’re stuck.  I am considering moving back to Poland.  Every time I go there it is so beautiful.  It is just so amazing.  I know I can do so much there. As an immigrant I think that you always feel like you may not belong. You have the disadvantage of not having somebody if you really need somebody.  It is hard to explain.  Some people come with their family, but for me I have nobody.  Sometimes it is a little bit scary.  When I go back to Poland I feel like I belong.