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Tomasz Rebenda

 

On August 19, 1988 I crossed the border in Świnoujście on the ferry to FRG. The rising tide of emigration in those years made me take advantage of that opportunity. Gdynia is not a podunk, we saw the Western goods, good cars, etc. As a 25-year-old boy then, I also wanted to have such gadgets.

Delayed departure

My emigration was an escape for economic reasons. Here's my story in a nutshell: I worked as a driver in the city's emergency ambulance service. We decided with my fiancée to leave for the West. In those days it was very difficult to get a passport, so the only way to get them was Gromada travel agency located in Świętojańska Street behind the City Hall. There we found an offer of a three-day trip to Hamburg.

The date was so distant that we were able to apply for passports. But it was also the period when you had to have permission from the employer to submit such documents. I had certain problems with it because my boss was a “commie”, but I convinced him, promising him a gift from Germany. And somehow he signed the paper.

Shortly before the departure I got a message from Gromada that the tour was postponed by a few weeks. Not wanting to risk that at a later date my "commie" manager might change his mind, I decided to go into hiding at home for three days. I lived in the center of Gdynia, and I knew many people who worked in the emergency ambulance, so I preferred not to risk a meeting.

After three days I went to work as if nothing had happened. At work I was telling cock-and-bull stories about the stay in Hamburg. I gave the manager, of course, a bottle of whiskey (bought especially for this purpose in Peweks). Of course, I was waiting further for the new date of the trip. I'm not sure, but the management probably had to give permission for leave every time, so one bottle of whiskey was kind of wind-up for the manager. After a while, I got a message that the trip would come off, so again I went to the manager with the cock-and-bull story that once again I would bring something for him from Germany.

Leaving the port

An Autosan bus, a bit rickety one, left in the evening from Partyzantów Street. Was jerking to Świnoujście. It broke on the way, and the ferry to Trawemünde didn’t wait for latecomers – it was really nervous. The customs officers checked everybody quite thorougly. Before me there was a man who, like me, had the papers sewn in the trouser cuffs. It was my luck. He was stopped, and in that mess I was inspected quite cursorily. And so we got on the Silesia ferry. All the passengers apart from the guide and the driver stayed in Germany.

From Hamburg we went to Cologne because my cousin lived around and we were hoping for her help - to guide us, tell us what to do, because we were just off the boat, for the first time abroad and in addition didn’t speak the language. We got visas for only three days (as long as the trip was supposed to last), so we had to check in as soon as possible in any transit camp so that we wouldn’t be expelled by the German. My cousin lent us her car (Daihatsu Cuore – of the size of Fiat 126p) and sent us to Friedland.

Emigrant efforts

There was a mass of people, mostly Russians from Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, we didn’t get either a place to sleep or food stamps because of overpopulation at the camp. The alternative was to eat and sleep at our own expense, possibly arrival in a month. We decided to stay and sleep in the car.

Although I had more or less 300 marks, I didn’t know what our future would be. I was stealing bread from the canteen, where other campers had their meals, and we ate the bread with wild plums picked from a tree several kilometers from Friedland.

A day in the camp was mainly about standing in queues to officials who signed circular letters, three weeks like that. Finally, at the end of the stay I got the first allowance in the amount of 200 marks and we were sent to the next transit camp - Unna-Massen.

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Procedures in the next camp were similar, but I got a bed in a multiple room. Unfortunately, only me, because my fiancée did not have any rights (she wasn’t my wife). I managed, in spite of controls of the camp officials, to hide my future wife. Two weeks – it was the time spent on staying in queues for the circular letter.
Finally the day came when I was assigned a small, 25-meter apartment in Cologne. Anyway, I was lucky because a lot of families with children had to vegetate in large halls for a few weeks, a bunk next to a bunk, with no privacy. After half a year my wife’s 11-year-old daughter joined us (later I adopted her before the Polish court), and after nine months we legalized our marriage (not without problems in the offices). Ever since we are family.

Beginnings

What did I felt in the beginning here in Germany? I guess a little fear of the unknown, all the more that I totally didn’t know the German language. We took with us only personal belongings and $ 500 borrowed from my brother. I couldn’t take anything else because I didn’t know how life would go in the future, if maybe they didn’t throw us out of Germany. It was all very uncertain. Admittedly, my closest cousin was and still is here but ... you know people abroad change.

Acclimation: still I’m not fully acclimatized. In the beginning it was hard, especially after the stay at the two refugee camps - Friedland and Unna - Massen. The first apartment, which I was assigned by the city, was a 25-meter cubby-hole on the 10th floor in Köln - Meschenich. Indeed, it was (and still is today) a ghetto inhabited by emigrants, Gypsies and Turks. Although I’ve been here already for 25 years, I still haven’t learned to write in German, I still have kind of mental blockade after the experiences of the first weeks in Germany.

The main problems I had were to register my residence and to get any documents for my fiancée who was ignored here. Help of strangers was mostly about going every day to the offices with interpreters (they were mostly older people coming from Silesia).

I contacted my family mainly by post. My parents didn’t have a phone at that time, if I'm not mistaken, once I received a censored letter from the parents, there was a censorship stamp on the envelope.

Reflections

Longing for the homeland? Yes, there was, and only recently it has passed, mainly for colleagues and Polishness. Unfortunately, the only phone contact that I have is with a friend from school, who also lives in Germany. We most lack friends here. I personally distinguish three categories of people close to me: acquaintances, colleagues, close friends. Unfortunately, for those 25 years of emigration I have had only acquaintances.

Polish emigration is often a disaster. The relations between Poles are not infrequently like “dog eat dog” situations. That’s why I so terribly envy Turks. They all side with each other, and Poles took the example of Germans - they have a cool attitude to other people. Once (in Poland it was common, I do not know if it has changed) that people used to drop by on a whim, and here you have to set an appointment for a chat with an acquaintance.

Emigration has positive effects on humans. I think so because we learn from others, we cease to be, among others, racists, we notice a lot of positive qualities in other nations, which we can translate into the Polish reality.

The trip gave me a possibility to have a rented apartment, a car and other goods, which in Poland would be hard for me to get because I'm not a go-getting person. Everything I have I bought for my own money.

I'm interested in life in Poland. I buy and subscribe Polish newspapers and I watch Polish television, and that’s why I don’t want to go back. I’m cured of patriotism reading about what is happening in Poland. Even though, I feel I’m purely and simply Polish. We cultivate Polish traditions and they won’t perish in my family. Although I don’t have the Polish passport, I feel I’m a Pole in one hundred per cent. Though deep down I long for Poland, I’ll stay here.