My mother and I are immigrants. At the time we immigrated, in the late 1960s, America imposed strict immigration laws and screened against any communist associations or sympathies. My mother qualified to enter as part of being reunited with her only surviving sister whose train after traveling through Uzbekistan, Russia and Poland, somehow ended up in a DP refugee camp in Germany. My mother and her sister got separated on their return to Poland in the summer of 1946. My mother’s train went to Poland but her sister’s train ended up in Germany and Pola lived in one of those camps for five years. Pola arrived in America, on Ellis Island, January 7, 1951, on a ship General S D Sturgis. She made her age to be 36 instead of 44, she called herself stateless and was heading to 15 Park Row, NYC. She was alone on this trip from Europe. I assumed her husband left first and was waiting for her. It took almost 10 years before my mother and Pola found each other and seven more years would pass before they were finally reunited.
Even before the war Poles of Jewish faith joined Polish culture. After the war, racism and antisemitism under communism never disappeared as it was supposed to. My mother in her youth, in Warsaw, was a Bundist. During the interwar years most Jews in Poland were Bundists. Founded in Vilnius in 1897, by a small group of workers and intellectuals from the Jewish Pale of tsarists Russia. The Bundists came together to end discrimination against the Jews. They became a successful social organization, fighting for the rights of All Workers. The Polish Bund concentrated on labor activism, promoted the use of Yiddish as a Jewish national language and strongly opposed Zionism. Arguing that emigration to Palestine was a form of escape. The Bundists believed in the idea of making the nation a non-territorial association that “territory is a myth”. As Poland entered the great depression, the pre Holocaust and Holocaust periods, Poles of Jewish faith who joined Polish culture were soon seen as Jews only. In July 1939, the pro-government newspaper Gazeta Polska wrote: “The fact that our relations with the Reich are worsening does not in the least deactivate our program toward Polish Jews and the Polish government’s desire to remove Jews from Poland.”
Primo Levi, Italian Auschwitz survivor, wrote about “unseen realities”. My mother while still a Bundist in Warsaw also identified around her what she called “A Riddle”, “A greater riddle was about to envelop my generation as the political climate changed.” Under communism, two years after our departure, most of the remaining Jews were forced out of Poland during an anti-Zionist campaign sponsored by the government and its Communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. When Israel won the six-day war in 1967 and the young Jews of Poland openly celebrated for the first time, the Communist Party was infuriated. Poland was ruled by Russia and Soviet tanks were found in the desert. Israel defeated not only Egypt but also Russia. The Polish party took ‘this Jewish pride’ and made up a theory that in Poland, a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ was growing against the government. Mass media and the secret police went on the offensive. Civil rights demonstrations held by students and ‘intellectuals’ the government, turned into propaganda. An unmistakable anti-Semitic undertone followed, and ‘intellectual’ and ‘Jew’ were words used interchangeably to degrade those who criticized the government. Thus began the targeting of Jewish students, professors, and professionals. The result was that most Polish Jews lost their jobs and were forced out of Poland.
From the time my mother submitted papers to leave Poland till the time we left it took over four years. There was a condition. My mother’s sister and her husband had to sign documents that our family would not end up on welfare and that my aunt and uncle would be responsible for our well being We felt very fortunate to have been able come to America. We were forever overwhelmed with nostalgia for our Polish homeland and we constantly felt that we have been chasing after two worlds, our old homeland and our new adapted home, America. Not quite fitting in either. At the same time we have always had that strong attitude of being grateful, of being allowed to exist in a free world, of being able to leave Communism behind. Even before the war my mother was mistrustful of communism, and her doubts were solidified during the six years she had survived the war in Stalin’s Russia. After the war in Poland my parents refused to join the communist party even when our lives were threatened. I grew up knowing that joining the party was never an option.
Most people take for granted just how much Jewish immigrants, Holocaust and Communist survivors contributed to the building up of America. We arrived in NYC at the end of 1960s. We left everything behind. We left before the official expulsion of all Polish Jews from Poland by the Polish Communists. It had been twenty years since my mother and her sister had last seen each other. My mother’s sister and her husband had just retired to Florida. My mother was desperate, she decided we would not join Pola because we would have fewer opportunities for work there. We stayed in New York. All I could think of is that we should be living next to family. I never knew what it was like to have a family. I argued with my mother that we belonged with Pola. But my mother could think of nothing else but to secure jobs for us and she made the ultimate sacrifice. She would awake at six in the morning and take the one-hour subway ride from the Bronx to Manhattan. With an address scribbled on a piece of paper and directions from strangers, she managed to get to work and back home again. She was determined to make the best of her new situation. My mother always felt education was the most important thing, but now in America my seventeen-year-old sister, who graduated at the top of her class in Poland, could not go to university. She went to work to help support us. She would get her degree in night school. I went to high school. The three of us spoke fluent English within months. We never forgot our native tongue, Polish.