about the project
oral history archive
collections
contact
about emigration museum in gdynia
search
A A contrast version
+add your story
Tomasz Jankun

 

1 March 1980 we embarked in Gdynia on M / S "Gen. Kalinowski" container ship of Polish Ocean Lines. After two days, March 3, we sailed from the French Quay, and at night after we entered the Kiel Canal, we were sure that we were beyond the reach of the Secret Political Police and the malignant customs officers from Gdynia Marine Station.

I, 30 years old at that time, my wife and 9-year-old son were penultimate members of Tubis, Jankun and Cieplicki families to leave Poland. Our families since 1945 have been still on the road, marked with adversity and the course of history.

To the maritime border

In 1945, the Russians occupying part of my grandfather's Tubis house, in gratitude for the hospitality watered with liquor advised uncles to take grandfather and flee from Ostrowiec near Vilnius to Poland. If NKVD had appeared in Ostrowiec, the kulak grandfather would have been inevitably exiled to Siberia.

For residents of the village it was not easy to get the repatriation papers to Poland. The family initially hid in Zhytomyr. There they met Zofia Strój, a girl raised by Mr. and Mrs. Reszke (bandmaster Reszke sat in Vilnius repatriation committee). Zofia, future wife of Mietek Tubis, helped uncles get the papers, and Benjamin Wittenberg, who was hiding with my grandfather during the Nazi occupation, arranged for them places in the wagons. They all got to Łódź. There, the friends of Jewish origin chose the direction of Berlin and the US, and the grandfather with sons went to Gdańsk. They chose Gdańsk just in case to be near the maritime border, because if life in the new Poland didn’t work, then they would need to go further.

A liaison with America

Years 1945-1953 was a paradise for enterprising people, but in 1953 uncle Mietek was arrested for insult of Stalin. Further years and the beginning of the 1960s meant the destruction of private initiative. The only thing left was the possibility to move on poorly-paid state job, undertaking business on the black market, death-defying or extraditable.
Stanislaw Tubis asks his friend Benjamin Wittenberg for an invitation to the United States. He emigrates in 1960 – going aboard M / S "Batory" in search of a new place for the family.
40-year-old bachelor, who in Poland had a restaurant, small craftsman factories, transport companies, Western cars and money for rakish life, found himself in Connecticut, where lived several of his friends from Vilnius guerrilla and one uncle from the early emigration, who did not want to send Stanisław the invitation.
The first year, as he remembered, was depressing - Stanislaw was not accustomed to the loneliness and emptiness, and honor did not allow him to admit that, for example, he would spend Christmas alone.
Despite the difficulties he quickly assimilates, learns the language to get citizenship and bring the rest of the siblings and their families after five years.

In 1963 Stanislaw invites to the States brothers and brothers-in-law, so that they could earn some money. They work for lousy rates on Jewish farms. In 1967 he arranges for them better-paid jobs, and urges them to emigrate permanently.

My father was afraid that if he emigrated then, they would take me to the army in the US and send to the front in Vietnam. The family of brother Edek prefers to spend dollars in Poland! Stanislaw's brother, Mieczysław, at the age of 50 with his wife and children aged 15 and 13, finally emigrates to the US in 1968. Embarking M / S "Batory" in Gdynia, Mietek hears from customs officers that he should have come back from the US instead of bringing there the family. As time will tell, here uncle’s sons will finish studies and enter serious offices.

A short visit

In 1970 I was studying at the University of Nicolaus Copernicus, my sister finished high school, commercial shops were emerging, despite of shortages of goods and shrinking savings. In 1972, parents with sister get a passport and visa - emigrated to the United States within the framework of immigrant visas for family reunification. I had already had my own family, so I couldn’t take advantage of this kind of visas. Parents and sister in a farewell hug on the steps of the Marine Station assured me that they would do everything to bring us to the United States.

In 1974, I get an invitation to visit family in the United States. My son was then two years old. After many visits at the passport office in Piwna Street I manage to get a passport. Waiting for a visa at the American embassy I can see on the wall a poster with an offer of airlines, which is even cheaper than a cruise on the M / S "Batory". Just before the departure, it turns out that my cousin has also received a visa to the United States. We fly together, another cousin picks us up from New York airport. America does not surprise me because I’ve already been to England, France, Germany and other neighboring countries.

For a year I work in a bakery in the US and try to get a permit for the arrival of my wife and child. A lawyer for $ 1,000 arranges for me a job sheet, and suggests that my wife could come to claim the alimony in the US courts, and the child will be then brought by the Polish Red Cross (the Polish authorities always had to have a hostage). My wife does not agree to such conditions.
I hear advice like "Do not send money and she’ll come", but I did not want to risk losing a son.

"Batory" not the same anymore

My parents want to delay my return to Poland saying that there are no tickets for the ship, and any day now in America my sister’s wedding is to be held. My English tutoring has been paid for many years, however, not to make me unable to get a ticket.

I flew to the United States by plane, but I went back on the M / S "Batory" to check father and uncles’ stories about the luxury travel, and by the way, to take more gifts for family in Poland.
The bus from New Britain to Montreal arrived early in the morning. I have a double, inner cabin, I sleep on a bunk bed, and a fellow passenger introduces himself taking a hairpiece off his head and saying: "In the morning you can see me bald, but it’s still me, just bought some hair."
We sail the St. Lawrence River, breakfast was served at a 10-person table. One of the passengers orders a glass for everyone. Next meal with the same company and there is a quid pro quo. Fortunately, we agreed to only one round.

The menu cards are beautifully edited, and the descriptions of the dishes worldly, but usually it was a well-known dish, but with a different, more mysterious name. I am myself seasick, so I can use the official kitchen very little, I had to order room service for extra pay for the cabin stewards - a piece of bread and kabanos sausage. On the ship the atmosphere was typical of the return: "we can afford the best bars, as the ones run by Orbis company in Poland ".

>>> read more

In the cruise there was only half of the maximum permissible number of passengers, the bartenders reminisced the days when they returned home with the Highlanders – what times they were! I remember myself my father’s returns by "Batory" in 1964, when the cranes were drawing Cadillacs from the cargo bay, and somebody at the side was screaming to the ones standing on the quay: "Mom, this is my drag and there is room for everyone in here!"
The passengers were confused if it was a right decision to come back to the country, everyone warned everyone not to speak real thoughts.

On board there weren’t married women, only young misses, and older women pretended to be widows and divorcees. There were also some 'Chicago marriages', profusely saying goodbye to each other on the roadstead in Gdynia, exchanging cards with phone numbers. Men usually threw these cards away in the bin.

Upon berth at the Maritime Station, I noticed that some of the welcoming waved in greeting in a normal way, but some threatened the comers with the fists. Standing at the roadstead I wondered if my wife had been already up to greet me. I was the first one to rush for customs clearance, they gutted the bags taking out everything, but remembering my father’s advice I had plastic garbage bags to pack up the mess and bring it home.

What astonishment it was at work that I came back from the West! In 1969 I came back from England and it was a surprise in the dorm, too.

The visa process

I returned to the former position and waited for the invitation from my sister who applied for US citizenship in order to sponsor me. As an employee of the port of Gdańsk I often thought how to flee the country, but savings from the US allowed us to maintain a good standard of living. In 1978, we filed US emigration papers. To obtain the passports we had to re-give the official apartment, close building society books and quit jobs!

Re-giving the apartment meant inviting the district officials for coffee and asking them for a signature on the passport application. The submittal of a passport application was followed by a visit of two civil servants. In my case they came to my garden in the back of the house, where I was lying on a hammock with a beer in my hand. They asked if I was emigrating to Germany, and when I said that to the US, they said I was lucky. We came in and one of them introduced himself as the head of the accommodation department, whose intention was to take over the apartment right then, and the other one was from the secret service. They were both quite cockeyed.

The head of the accommodation office advised me to give one room for luggage to the future tenant, and another one asked if I didn’t want to work for them on the emigration and by the way sell him for peanuts one of the Russian swords hanging on the wall. I told them that the future tenant could store their stuff in the basement, and that I wouldn’t be a spy because of the fear of an occupational disease, paralysis or alcoholism!

So we have passports but must wait for visas, because the United States exhausted the pool of visas accepting the Vietnamese to help the Americans on the Vietnamese front. We get a letter with a warrant of eviction. We go with the letter to the party committee department of complaints and applications, saying that a drunk head of the department wants to place a prostitute in our apartment. My wife has a statement of a woman who wanted to move to our apartment stating that Stasiu from the Secret Political Police had arranged this assignment for her, and Edek from the directorate will also help her, she called the woman a b…h. I claimed that the secret police agent wanted to extort part of my bladed weapons collection.

The woman who was dealing with us in the Party House made a few phone calls and assured that those visitors were not employees of the offices which they pleaded and told us to go to the department of accommodation in order to have the case explained. The accommodation manager asked only who had allowed us to live in our apartment until the departure. To the response of my wife: "an official better than you" he only said that the security service would be watching us.

Operation - emigration

We’ve been waiting for the visas for almost a year, during that time I go back to work on commissioned works.
I embark ships with the pass attached to the passport for all countries in the world. On the Polish ships it is surprising that I'm still in the country.

In 1980 we have a visa, I arrange customs officers to seal my belongings at home before sending them to the port storage. I have the right to export paintings with the conservator permission, collections of postage stamps up to the value of the valuation of the Warsaw expert, a feather duvet of an appropriate weight.

Standing in a line I opened a foreign currency account, because only with such an account I can withdraw dollars on travel time. I arrange an appointment with a luggage van driver on the day of customs clearance, but when the driver sees two customs officers at home, tells me he would come the next day, because they wouldn’t leave the apartment so quickly. The customs officers came to seal bags in the morning, and so I offered them breakfast and a glass of vodka. They are not allowed to drink on duty but if is a matter of hospitality - why not. I ran out of vodka and ham that day and I gave every customs officer 500 zlotys.

Next day I took the boxes to the port storage, the warehouseman asks how much they should weight, and I say that as much as they weight, because I thought that, as on the M / S "Batory" passenger’s cargo is not subject to charges. At the Polish Ocean Lines office I’m told to pay for luggage - I'm penniless, I borrow from the mother-in-law 3000 zlotys for the canteen on the ship. At the customs clearance at the Maritime Station I’m taken for a strip search and told that I cannot have Polish currency at the departure. I'm nervous, I say to the mother-in-law present at the clearance: "Take the money!" and she says she will take the rest of zlotys but won’t accept my rankness.
After 17 days we reached Newark, New Jersey. The ship was delayed by three days, so my sister had to come again from Connecticut with the rented truck. The delay of the ship was caused by the fact that the crew repaired the machine in such a way to return to Poland for Easter holidays.

We are on the waterfront of New Jersey port and I see that our luggage is unloaded to the port warehouse. I'm going there to ask if I can pick up the luggage. The customs officer says that as soon as I deliver the relevant document (sic!), I will be able to pick up everything. A Polish Ocean Lines agent says he is already finishing his job so he can’t give me the relevant document, unless I pay for his overtime.

In the evening we got to my parents' house. The next day my son went to the parish elementary school at St. Stanislaus Church. My uncle, who had lived in America since 1920, ushered us to a plant, where tailors were being taken on. I went there as an interpreter of my wife, who knew only school English. She got a job as a tailor and I was hired at the position of a warehouseman. We worked there about a month, until we got better-paid jobs. My wife got a job as quality controller in a company producing integrated circuits, I was a grinder-polisher in a company dealing with weapons.

As we had jobs, we rented an apartment in the back of a Polish travel agency, next to a Polish school which attended our son. We stayed there for three years, namely until the travel agency and the house were sold and the rent was raised threefold by the new owner. We did not agree to the rise and we bought a semi-detached house.

There was a little trouble with the purchase because we didn’t have a credit history and our savings were invested in mutual funds, because they paid higher interest than banks.
I asked an Englishman who I worked with: “If I had a house bought for cash, a car for cash, would I get a mortgage?” He said that if I bought everything with cash, it means that no one believes me, and the bank thinks alike! I understood then how capitalism and the banking system work.

From the windows of the house I saw a multi-family house of my uncle, and my sister bought the same big house on the next street. They didn’t live there themselves because they came at a good opportunity to buy a detached house in the neighboring, better town. In the house bought by them lived: on one floor our parents, on the other in-laws, and on the last one a Polish marriage.
It was our family circle that was completely enough for us, because we didn’t need close bonds with the local Polish community coming mainly from the Kurpie region.

Deli and weapons

My friends are members of Andrzej Zaremba Club of Polish Military Lovers in New York. I was always fascinated with cold steel and antiques, which I had to sell emigrating to the United States. It took only a week of stay in America that I began to visit on Sundays a flea market and rebuild my collection. I put an ad in "The New Journal" ("Nowy Dziennik") from New York that I wanted to buy Polish sabers. Andrzej Zaremba contacted me with an invitation to Queens to see his collections. He, a pre-war member of the Association of Lovers of Ancient Weapons and Colours gave the idea to create the club. We meet every month with another member of the club in the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts. The club still exists.

I got to know the Polish community of our city and the surrounding area when we were tired of driving in Greenpoint looking for Christmas meat products. We decided with my cousin, the one who was blindsided in the US by the martial law, to open a Polish shop. We didn’t know what the local Polish Community needed, so we set up "Old Country Stand" which was a deli, bookstore and rental of cassettes with Polish films.

In the store we got to know the whole structure of the local Polish community, from professors delivering lectures at Yale University, through their students, artists, to policemen who love Polish kabanos sausages. We taught that sausage is not only sausage, that there are different kinds of sausage, that there is not only rye bread, but also wheat bread. We brought products from the best manufacturers in New York, New Jersey and Chicago. The store existed for ten years until the Polish community started to leave the district of the city. Now to get the Polish bread you have to drive half an hour.

Today

My son and his cousins finished studies or are in the course. I’ve been working for 35 years in the same company. My parents, like parents of most of my cousins are buried at local cemeteries.
In August we have a family reunion in Connecticut, hoping that also all our relatives from Chicago will attend it. A few years ago we made a trip to my grandfather's house, which is located in the present-day Belarus. In June we are going to see the Museum of Emigration and the Museum of the Holocaust in Poland. It will be probably our last trip to Poland. We are already at the retirement age and I urge my cousins to move to Florida, where taxes are lower, and the grandchildren will come more willingly to Florida rather than here, where we live.