Decades after leaving the Eastern Bloc, an author recalls the American dream
By Katarzyna Nowak
March 27, 2018
In communist Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the oranges were not worth waiting for. So says my father. “They were sour, greenish-brown Cuban leftovers that resembled limes.” But he and other fathers queued anyway. “Just like we queued for stale cigarettes—even though during the hours-long wait we’d go through an entire pack of them.”
Sometimes the wait produced only a single orange—promptly delivered to a child. To get me bananas, my father flirted with lady shopkeepers. By the time my mother was pregnant with my sister, she “re-discovered” a fruit we did have in relative abundance: apples—Polish natives. She spent her entire second pregnancy eating them and sharing them with me. “An absurd amount of apples,” she says.
During that time, she “knitted, sat in a chair, read silly books and laughed out loud.” Six years earlier, while pregnant with me, she sat at a tight bench in calculus class to earn her masters degree in civil engineering. “That’s why you’re serious, and your sister isn’t,” she says. “That’s why she’s tall and I’m not,” I say. With me, she ate pickles and peppers.
Meanwhile, my father was out with his camera at demonstrations. He describes the two sides facing off: unarmed people and riot police known as ZOMO—a uniformed force in masks, armed with shields, batons, and gas, that my father describes as “bandits tasked with beating the public.” They would slowly approach one another and then crash! Photo time. Once, my dad couldn’t get a good enough view, so his brother-in-law hoisted him up on his shoulders. People in the crowd made way for them as they weaved to the front. The police spotted his camera and approached so fast that all he remembers was a shield moving at him and a policeman’s hand grabbing the camera. Hundreds of demonstrators started to chant: “Give back the camera! Give back the camera!” As the chant grew louder, the policeman took out and exposed the film. Minutes later, he returned the empty camera. My father had spare film, and he rewound and kept shooting.
Sometimes, he’d take the stroller—with me in it—to protests. It acted as a shield against the police, he jokes. Equipped with a degree in anthropology, I tell him that it’s just like baboon males, who steal a female’s infant during a fight to safeguard themselves from an aggressor.
My dad hand-delivered his photos to the office of the weekly Solidarity gazette. He says he did not keep images in the house or develop them there (although thinking back to my early childhood, I remember that our bathroom doubled as a darkroom at least half of the time, prohibiting toilet access). As a result of his photos, the leaders of the Solidarity movement in Wrocław gave him a press pass, allowing him to enter places where workers were striking. First it was the factories, then universities, where students could strike but only if they officially attended and could show photo identification. These places were shut and barricaded during strikes, so thermoses of tea and food were brought in from the outside and handed through bars and gates.
My father interviewed hundreds of students in the universities and colleges in Wrocław about why they were striking. “Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to work as we wish,” they said. Factory workers manufacturing railroad cars, electrical machinery, and other equipment expressed similar notions.
He documented strikes both before and after martial law was imposed in 1981. But the photos after ’81 never saw print because the gazette and other media collapsed. The gazette had been freely and openly distributed on the streets before martial law; but after, publications were circulated underground or deposited in public places, including shops and cinemas, before the police confiscated them.
Around the day martial law took effect, my father met Władysław Frasyniuk, the regional leader of the Solidarity movement, in a factory in an industrial part of Wrocław. Frasyniuk excused himself as an assembly of the movement’s leaders was commencing and pulled my father aside to tell him, “Go save the printers.” An hour or two later, ZOMO arrived in tanks and stormed the factory, looking for Frasyniuk. They beat everyone in their path. Frasyniuk managed to escape in the cargo wagon of a train headed north to Gdańsk. He was one of the only leaders of the movement to get away—at least for a while. Eventually, he was found and arrested like the others.
The printing press rescue mission didn’t go as hoped. My father and a group of men rushed to salvage the equipment before the police could seize and destroy it. But the presses were on the very top floor, and the men had to carry them down. ZOMO showed up when my father and a couple other guys were at the bottom, loading the presses into a truck, so they ran for it, hopping the fence, glancing back from a distance to see ZOMO pulling out the other men, who were not so lucky.
Some of the men left behind were seriously beaten and tossed in prison. My father? He still shouts in his sleep.
He was never arrested and, after the press bust, suffered a few haphazard blows from batons when police charged into crowds. But he was fired from his job the day after martial law commenced because he hung Polish flags—a symbol of regime resistance—from the windows of a government office building that was under renovation. The police informed the construction firm where he worked that he was an agitator and anti-communist activist.
By 1982 and ’83, with Solidarity leaders in prison, Communist rule was even more powerful. The political prisoners sat in jails all around the country so they wouldn’t foment trouble together. My father collected money and donations for them, as did many others.
In 1985, my father managed to leave for Germany. There, in broken English, he told his story at the U.S. Embassy, and we were granted political asylum and allowed to enter the United States in 1987. Two years later, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe.
My father finally quit smoking in The Land of the Free, where queues are rare, and ripe oranges and bananas abound. Fruit even gets certified as “fair trade” thanks to the Free Produce Society of Philadelphia, where my parents and younger sister now live.
Long gone are the days of root vegetables. I remember mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes, potato pancakes, potato pierogi, potato soup, potato salad. And beets. Lots of beets, and a few onions and tomatoes. The worst food shortages spanned 1976 to 1980, when, to add insult to injury, you also “couldn’t even get cigarettes or vodka,” my father laments.
Our entry into the United States meant that I was free to pursue my dream career in international wildlife conservation, which would have been unimaginable if we had not left Poland when we did. My sister could study art and design. (My mother—also artistically inclined—had had to pursue a “practical” engineering career.) That the United States had let us in was only facilitated by my parents being trained engineers. Had they been artists, who knows where we’d now be.
The fruits of my labor: I attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and after earning my doctorate at the University of Cambridge, I went to work in a number of countries, including Costa Rica, Tanzania, South Africa, and Chile. You could say that I haven’t taken my freedom for granted.
In the United Kingdom, I came across many fellow Poles, who had been hand-picking fruit there since at least 2004, when Poland jubilantly joined the European Union. They did this until Brexit, when the United Kingdom no longer wanted Poles to pick their fruits, around the same time the United States began avidly deporting its fruit pickers.
Recently—on February 22, 2018, nine days after my 39th birthday—the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced, without further explanation, a change to its mission statement: It would drop the phrase “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.”
My parents entered the United States with high hopes. Political asylum meant leaving a fractured political system and an oppressive police state. It also meant the possibility of never again seeing Poland, the country where we were born, where our relatives still lived. Until they requalified as engineers, my parents held multiple menial jobs, which meant bigger responsibilities for me, too: caring for a younger sibling; cooking meals; learning English; inventing play in gas stations and wealthy people’s houses while my mother worked the cash register or cleaned. We did this for the American dream: freedom of opportunity, freedom of expression. These freedoms—the same ones that motivated Poland’s striking workers and students—motivated us. These freedoms were worth it.
For us, America still holds the promise of opportunity, diversity, and inclusivity. We are immigrant Americans. Words like “nation of immigrants” matter to us.
Katarzyna Nowak is a conservation scientist. She is a fellow at the Safina Center, a research associate in zoology and entomology at the University of the Free State, and an advisor to the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program. She also helps manage the Request a Woman Scientist database.