I went to the USA with my boss who did not speak English. He needed a translator. My boss was a strong supporter of the party. When martial law was announced on 13 December 1981, my boss went back to Poland, and I did not. I wanted to leave Poland, which at that time was a socialist country, for a long time, since I did not see any professional or financial prospects for the future. It was a country which was backward and mendacious under many respects. I did not come back to Poland for many years. From the USA, where I did not want to ask for a political visa, I went to the Republic of South Africa.
I did not realise that leaving Poland was a piece of cake in comparison with the further parts of my emigration. I had to adjust to living in an entirely different culture and language. Work in America was totally different than in socialist Poland. It meant long hours and very intense conditions. Competition. I had to start from scratch, without psychological or even financial support from my family.
Chapter one: America
Americans, as neighbours, people you meet on a daily basis, were very friendly towards the newcomers. After all, they are all descendants of emigrants. When I went to look for a flat to rent (I did not have any money), the agent did not charge me for his services. He invited us (after many ups and downs, my wife left Poland during the martial law, but that is another, longer story) to his place for dinner. He then collected furniture for us from empty flats, as we did not have any, and we slept on the floor. Initially the only place to sit on was the toilet. I paid the overdue rent after as long as a month.
First, it was all very difficult. Apart from working, I had to learn in order to pass the locally-required examinations. We could not go back to Poland, as we escaped from our socialist motherland! My wife could not even go back to take part in the funeral of her mother, who in the meantime died in Warsaw.
Further down the road: the Republic of South Africa
I left for South Africa in October 1984. I could not stay in the USA for a long time, unless I asked for a political asylum, which I did not want to do. I did not want to go back to Poland, since I did not see any prospects for the future there. I could speak English well, I did not want to learn a new language. At that time it was easiest to go to the Republic of South Africa. They had a selective immigration, they were looking for educated people with concrete professions, for which there was a demand. Doctors belonged to that group. Whatever was my weak point in other countries, was my strongpoint here. There was a huge demand for doctors in state-run hospitals, especially the ones for black people – we must remember that there was racial segregation in place at that time. There were separate hospitals for the white, for the black and for the Hindu. The idea was that most local white doctors wanted to run lucrative private practices in towns, and foreigners worked in state-run hospitals, which offered very good quality, and had excellent equipment. Many doctors came here from Europe, Canada, and Australia, as it was possible to gain a lot of experience within a short time, in particular in surgery-related areas of medicine. The amount of work available was amazing.
I now work as an ophthalmologist in a private practice in Johannesburg. I
am my own boss and I do not depend on anyone. The work is intense,
there are many surgeries. There are a few hundred ophthalmologists here,
while in Poland there are several thousand of them for the same
population. The system of training and specialisation is based on
British models. The specialisation requirements and examinations are
very strict, but the training system is ideal. There is no distance
between professors and doctors in the course of their specialist
training. Professor is not a distant authority, there are discussions
and exchanges of opinions.
Pictures from South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is culturally very distant from Poland. It comprises four worlds: the black, the Hindu, the colourful (a white-black-oriental mix) and the white. The world of the white does not differ much from the European world. Naturally, there are white immigrants from all over the world, but it is the Anglo-Saxon culture which is the dominating one. Life is very similar to life in England. Obviously, the climate is different, there are larger distances, larger houses, servants, etc. but we refer to England. There is atmosphere of fair play, helpfulness, and sincerity. When I arrived in Pietermaritzburg, where I found my first job, I had to buy a car. I could not afford a new one, so I went to a second-hand car dealer. The owner gave me a car for testing over weekend, and did not even ask for my name, ID card, or a deposit! White immigrants were much welcome.
During mu emigration, several unrelated incidents were particularly shocking to me.: for example my conversation with my future boss, a world-famous professor of medicine, the head of a large clinic and a renowned research institute. He told me at the start, that if I didn’t earn money for them, we would say goodbye to each other in a month! Before that, I was thinking of him as an idealist. On the other hand, the professor’s wife and daughter were very nice to my wife. The second thing, unrelated to the first one, which was shocking after my arrival from the then-Poland, where everything was rationed, was the amount of consumers goods available. Grocery stores with ”kilometres” of dog or cat food, when there was literally (!) nothing to eat in Poland.
Immigrant rather than emigrant
At that time I maintained contact with my family and friends in Poland by letters. In the USA, I hardly had any contact with the Polish community. I had an impression that Poles in the USA were not too ambitious or resourceful. They lived in their own districts, they hardly integrated and spoke poor English. Poles in South Africa were different. There was selective immigration in place there. They mainly wanted educated people with specific jobs such as doctors, engineers, etc..
I don’t call myself an emigrant (a person leaving his/her own country), but an immigrant (a person arriving at a new country). As a newcomer I tried to be better than local people. An immigrant finds barriers everywhere, but all of them can be overcome if we really want to work. I was successful as an immigrant because I went on and achieved what I wanted to achieve. It was not easy, there were many sacrifices, but I feel satisfaction – I achieved what I wanted to achieve. I think that immigration has a very positive impact on people provided that they use opportunities such as those which Poland failed to offer when I was leaving.
After many years abroad I do not feel like the protagonist of Sienkiewicz’s short story Lighthouse, especially that I never had time for that. I had to work intensely and at the same time learn in order to pass local examinations. Sometimes I miss things which are not available here. Most of them are rather banal, such as a cold winter night at Zakopane; snow under my feet; skis in March; a pork chop accompanied by a small glass of cold vodka in winter; bigos stew; social and intellectual life in Warsaw (much better than in Johannesburg); ptasie mleczko sweets are great, but my wife does not like them, she prefers prunes in chocolate; smoked eel; travelling by tram or train and looking at people (here, you travel by car or plane).
What I got from Poland was good education. My secondary school and the education system were very good. I also consider my medical studies as good, although I think that they included too much theory and not enough practice. I consider my postgraduate internship and early medical practice as very poor in comparison with the Anglo-Saxon system. Leaving Poland gave me a broader, more independent outlook, an opportunity to use cultural achievements of other nations and financial independence. I think that immigration gave me considerable opportunities for development. It let me get to know the world, as well as beliefs, culture and traditions of other nations.
Poland is a monolithic country, which only now, after so many years, is opening to the world. Several hundred years ago people mainly immigrated to Poland, and emigration has been dominating recently. Let us hope that the trend will go back to reverse soon, along with further development that Poland owes to the European Union and opening to the world.
I go to Poland once or twice a year for short visits. Each time I can see immense progress: new infrastructure, roads, tidiness. In my opinion the lack of a relaxed atmosphere, the everlasting political rows in local governments possibly indicating absence of democracy for several generations are the weak points. Warsaw is the Polish place which is particularly close to my heart, as I was born and brought up there. My favourite places there include Krakowskie Przedmieście street, Stary Żoliborz district, and the Royal Route. Every year we try to go somewhere outside Warsaw, e.g. to Krakow, Lvov (although it is no longer in Poland), Torun, Wrocław, Kazimierz, etc. There are many interesting places in Poland that are worth visiting. The progress is immense.
I am interested in what is happening in Poland, I subscribe some Polish weekly magazines, including “Polityka”, and “Wprost”. I regularly read Internet issues of the “Gazeta Wyborcza” newspaper. Together with my wife, we follow Polish traditions, including the language, but let us be frank – our daughter, although she was born in Poland, feels that South Africa is her home. Our son, born in the USA and married to a Spaniard, lives in London. His children will be English.
I feel a Pole, but I am happy that I may use positive aspects of not only Polish, but also Anglo-Saxon culture. My children will not be able to do that.