Ask about Poland

6 3

There’s a lot of talk about Poles who went abroad and stayed there for good. However, we rarely hear about the stories of those who decided to come back. The Emigration Museum in Gdynia wishes to showcase the fates of these Poles who decided to come back and show that emigration doesn’t end when one returns to Poland.

The “Ask About Poland” project is a meeting with re-emigrants from the Tri-City, who, after a dozen or more years, returned to their homeland. Reasons for their departures varied – to find oneself, escape the People’s Republic, love, studies, work. The reasons for returning – even more so. Emigration made them answer questions that they didn’t ask themselves before they left Poland, questions that, perhaps, wouldn’t be asked at all without the experience of emigration. What is really behind the phrase “Little Homeland”? Is a native language so important? Are dreams different abroad? During the workshops, we decided to jointly look for answers.

It wasn’t without significance for us that the Polish word for „history” (historia) can also mean “story”. Workshop meetings meant sharing stories. We listened to stories about different homelands. The close ones – Gdynia, Sopot, Gdańsk. The far-away, ideal ones – USA, Iceland, or Belgium. But mainly, we listened to stories about personal notions about homeland that the emigrants kept in their memory when they left Poland and which they create anew after they return to the Tri-City.

The Emigration Museum supported the meetings and talks, but these were created mainly by re-emigrants. They were the ones who conducted interviews with each other asking about stories of their departures and returns. They went to places they feel close to – places where they played when they were children, places of meetings and events that led to their emigration.

Re-emigrants meetings were supervised by: a specialist in oral history – Ms Olga Blumczyńska, a specialist in creative thinking and inter-cultural relations – Ms Agnieszka Dryzek, an experienced coach and cultural animator – Mr Piotr Gaweł, a reporter from Radio Gdańsk – Ms Magdalena Świerczyńska-Dolot, and Ms Barbara Ostrowska – a photographer, audiovisual resource specialist, and author of the pictures for the project.

The project was financed by the Polish History Museum in Warsaw under the “Patriotism of Tomorrow” (Patriotyzm jutra) programme.

Materials created by the participants are made available under the Creative Commons licence, Attribution of Authorship – Non-Commercial Use – No Derivatives 3.0 Poland.

Małgorzata Chachaj i Sulina Bourdon
Elżbieta Potrykus i Diana Lenart
Irena Blum i Paweł Baranowski
Karolina Magier i Ryszard Biliński
Emanuela Derdowska i Edward Lubera
Stefan Jacek Michalak
Feliks Opolski
Krystyna i Aleksander Bytof oraz Magdalena Szymańska
Joanna Ochocińska i Jakub Onoszko

Rough terrain, lakes, forests, wind, sea breeze, apples straight from the tree, ideally red strawberries, colourful Slavic soul, despite being prone to complaining and disinclined to smile. I don’t think I would change that. No matter where I am or for how long, there’s always something that makes me come back here. Something’s drawing me in, causing nausea, hot flashes, and sometimes even chills. Poland – Pomerania. My place.

A stranger among kind people. Over there, everything was supposed to be made of gold, and the heart was pursuing adventure, even when they took his fingerprints. And it started as it always does. On the street. He was part of the procedure, an item in the registry, a substitute for freedom en face and from the side. With a light baggage of street doors to the world,
a free electron with backwards physics.

For the last few months I was thinking intensely about what I have, what I feel, what’s important to me. Because I met people to whom I opened my soul, and who opened my eyes. Here they are. Krystyna and Aleksander Bytof. They met in America. It was love at first sight and that’s why Krystyna stayed with Aleksander for good. As she says, after many years of struggling, the husband triumphed over the homeland. They worked, went sightseeing, enjoyed life, together. Together, they also made the decision to return to Poland after more than thirty years. It was 25 April 2015.

Aleksander Bytof: We bought a one way ticket, so we knew... I quit my job, a very nice one, very good one, where no one at the company could believe that I’m going away, that I’m quitting, that you can quit your job at my age, and well, they weren’t prepared for that. No one believed me.

Krystyna Bytof: Well, on one side, we were glad, I think, that we’re coming home. But unfortunately, there were tears, because well, it was an experience. So many years were getting left behind. I’m saying, even to get out of the house, you lock the door, and there’s no telling when you’ll be back right? So well, there was a lot of emotions, really.

Aleksander Bytof: And entering the plane and the departure, let me tell you, well, I honestly don’t remember much about it, because it was, well, a shock, right? What I went through? The hardest part was when the plane took off. I don’t know, well, it’s still hard for me, because like I said, I had a good life in America. But well, then I came here, I had to... So when I got off the plane in Gdańsk I felt hot. I didn’t know how to behave, that I won’t be going back, that I don’t have a ticket for a given day.

Krystyna Bytof: For the first month, we had the impression that we don’t need to pack, that we don’t need to go anywhere, that we’re not going back to the States after a holiday, that we’re still here.

Aleksander Bytof: We have a very large backlog. Or at least I have. I have a huge backlog. I have a big family. There wasn’t enough time to visit everyone yet. You can’t make up for all of it, but we’ll try to do all that, put our hearts into it, make it so it all fits together, so it’s all good, right?

Magdalena Szymańska spent three years in England. She left in pursuit of adventure, she returned because of the possibilities.

Magdalena Szymańska: I didn’t think that I would live in Poland for so long, because I thought that maybe we’ll go back to England after a couple months. But well, it starts to get blurred. I feel that now it’ll always be like that, that I’ll miss England and the States somewhat, but when I’m abroad, I’ll miss Poland. In this respect, I definitely feel like an emigrant. [to the child: Julcia, you can’t interrupt when people are talking. You need to wait until they’re done.] If I hadn’t returned to Poland, I would maybe get frustrated, that I’ve got a good and interesting job in England, but I’m not pursuing my ambitions 100%, and in Poland, my accent and nationality don’t disqualify me in any way and generally, I see a career, because it’s important to me, not as a financial success, although of course, I work for a living, but I’m prepared to work in an interesting profession for a little less than in an uninteresting one for more. So I feel that Poland is better for my career at this moment. I think of myself as a patriot, but one that would like to travel some more. Of course I missed my country, but I wasn’t abroad for a long time or anything, and visited very often, and I had frequent contact with other Polish emigrants including during my work, so the nostalgia was never very strong for me. And patriotism, I discovered through trying to promote what was best here.

Sulina Bourdon. She lived in Belgium for six years and in Germany for another six. While abroad, she had her two daughters to whom she conveyed Polish traditions, culture and language with great faith and motivation. She came back because life just went that way.

Sulina Bourdon: Suddenly, everything seemed so simple, because when I went to get something done, I didn’t have to wrack my brain three times in a row, to make sure I understood them correctly at the bank or whatnot. I mean, it was also difficult for sure, because I also left a part of my history there, I left my friends, my home, a lot of things, so it was also difficult, and here you have to start all over again. And the girls had a hard time adjusting at school and language-wise, and in general to get a firm footing, right? They were attending a very small school, French-German, private school, where everything functioned in a completely different way, and here, they went to primary school. Fortunately, that school wasn’t much bigger than the French one, but they had twice as many lessons. I had less time for them, I started working, so it was hard. I admit, it was hard [ns 00:06:30] [translator’s note: sic] had this huge problem in adjusting to the class and children. I don’t know if she was seen as different, or... I don’t know what was the reason exactly. And the fact that they spoke Polish at a level that allowed them to go to school, that’s also my doing, it could’ve been much worse. Juleczka had it more difficult, yeah, her language skills were less developed, and simply, it should be better organised, right, on part of the schools. Well, it’s difficult, but I think that there’s a lot to be done on the teaching side.

Irena Blum spent nearly 40 years in Sweden. She admits that she was never able to fully find herself there.

Irena Blum: It was like I was choking there a little, and I couldn’t do what I wanted due to economic reasons. If I wanted for example to choose a country with a better climate, because the climate over there was bothering me tremendously, I couldn’t afford to do that. I said that, I’ll see how it goes. I never make big plans. I never had. I say, I’ll see, because I know the language, I’ll see how I feel. I lived here for a couple years in different places, so why not try here? How is it so far, and where I’ll be next? I don’t know. I don’t feel like I have to be, because you never know what will happen in a month’s time. You never know. No one knows. I think, it’ll be good. You just need a positive attitude, look for the good, and not cling to the bad, because everything there is... We have free will and we can change, if... It’s all up to us. Sometimes it may get difficult, sometimes easy, but it’s up to us, what’s in here, in our heads.

Paweł Baranowski: I traded my time for a currency. Boots from back home were showing new holes and transitions from left to right. With a favourable exchange rate and with a one way ticket for all my cash. In new boots, a walk along London Street, instead of going for the last benefit cheque and a signature on the hopeless list. There were these job fairs and professional exchange on the island. From the London Eye cart, the views go through a conjuration through three tenses and cases of themselves against the backdrop of the Big Ben and Thames River. The steel is rotating, spires, skyscrapers, airplanes go through the fog and time. You can hear a hiss, eh, London Eye.

Paweł Baranowski. He spent three years in England. After returning to Gdańsk, he published a book of poetry about emigration. As he emphasises, it was easier to convey his emotions and reflections on paper.

Paweł Baranowski: I wanted to come back, because I missed the familiarity, the Polishness, the hole in the fence, the hole in the road. It’s a different climate in there. When I came back, I found it still there, so it’s good, so I didn’t feel lost in this new Poland. So this familiarity is important. The fact that you can go trekking in the mountains, kayaking, simply move around the familiar, our places.

Elżbieta Potrykus calls herself “defiant”. A retired teacher and lawyer, active member of the Solidarność. She spent 21 years abroad. She came back, despite having left her only son in the USA.

Elżbieta Potrykus: For me, all these holidays, how it’s going to be. I always, decorating a Christmas tree, the carols, going to church with an Easter basket, I even got pictures. I look through them, I saw all that and wanted to come back to it. To these streams, willows, and carols, and mainly to friends, to friends, these real ones, with whom I’m talking, let me show you... I even looked on Skype. “Well then come here, girl, why are still there if you miss it so much?”. That actually, I felt like this tree bark that fell from the tree and into a river, and got carried away. All the time, I was defending against it, that I want to come back, and then these wounds started to heal, covered with sap and it didn’t hurt so much and was more... it wasn’t so angular, but more round. And then it started to change. A bit boring and unremarkable. And a person would like to go back and later it can’t be put back in the same place, but still to that tree, it fits. You can see it here, this putting back together, like a pot glued together, like something, but you are in this, your place. They don’t have lilacs there. Not in Boston, not in New York... no lilacs. I haven’t seen that many sparrows. Storks, I missed storks, that’s right.

The protagonists of this programme can’t be fitted to a single mould labelled “emigration”. Each of them has their own story, their own reasons, difficulties and reflections. Next to the older ones, who left Poland under the previous political regime, you can also encounter young ones. Emigrants of the 21st century, you could say. Diana Lenart. 15 years of emigration to London and Barcelona. Artist, designer, nice-looking rooms enthusiast. One day, she just packed her single bag and returned, leaving behind her relationship and home she created in Barcelona through the years.

Diana Lenart: I felt that I need to come back and the reasons for it were very egoistical, because I simply decided that I have something to do and that I want to do it. But it was an idea of putting together, here in Poland, in Gdynia to be precise, because this is where I’m from, an Architecture Festival which I worked with in Barcelona, on the Barcelona edition of that festival, and I found that I really need to do it in Gdynia, that I have a debt to pay to this city, where I grew up, went to school, where my family is. I’m certain that this experience is absolutely inspiring, that it’s the most important experience of my life, that it’s necessary for my further development, intellectual, emotional. I just had to do it. Everybody’s surprised. No one understands it. I feel like my closest friends don’t understand me at all, of course they support me regardless, but I hear, feel, that they think I’m crazy. I’m unable to say who I am. I know I’m this Diana who was out there somewhere and this is the truth about me. This truth that comes out, that I’m creating right now. But who was I until now? A seeker of truth about myself. I don’t know whether this is my last port. I can’t say. But I’m prepared for anything.

Emanuela Derdowska. Like many other repatriates I met, she was living in Great Britain with her husband. And one day, they decided to come back. Emanuela says that her emigration allowed her to discover her local identity, Kashubian, that was and still is something to be proud of.

Emanuela Derdowska. We decided to again try to make it in Poland. We didn’t feel fulfilled in England. We had a certain plan which we wanted to carry out. We came back at a time that maybe seemed a bit strange, at a time everything started to go smoothly, financially and professionally. We both had jobs we left behind. And it was sort of a spontaneous decision to come back, this impulse, where we felt we couldn’t spread our wings over there, and that the only place where we could try is Poland. Some new ideas were born for our professional life, and that was the deciding factor. We felt, we did something right. Something, we wanted to do very much, and that it is not a random decision.

Rzeczpospolita. Again, freedom radios, listened through the Internet. Polish radio here. Sikorski dismissed. Fiscal round ups are being prepared. Abroad, forced labour camps. In the country, towns and villages are getting empty. Dropping Poles on the British Isles in carpet bombings. Various fates of the Republic. This time the president and government are in the country. A nation of emigrants.

Edward Lubera, Edi for his friends. He left Poland in the early 1960s. He came back over 10 years ago, because he wanted to be here, despite the fact that it isn’t easy.

Edward Lubera: Sometimes people give me, right, even family, that they’re sceptical about what I say, saying “Oh, you’ve been living abroad. You don’t really know what’s going on here”. Sometimes I feel like people treat me this way, despite the fact I’ve lived back here for so long, I have my roots here, I grew up here and was always close with Poland and only Poland, it sometimes happens that even those closest to me in the family, when they accuse me that my opinions are wrong, because they’re contaminated by my absence for all these years and that I don’t really understand it and it’s a little, well... But anyway, I’m saying, well, I’m glad and hope that things are going in the right direction.

Karolina Magier spent five years in the United States of America.

Karolina Magier: Oh, it was an anticipated moment. Very anticipated. I remember that moment exactly, when I was sitting, I had a transfer in Copenhagen, on my way to Gdańsk. There’s always some break between flights. I took out my diary and wrote that this is the end, that a certain stage came to an end. I felt it, that it really ended, and that I wanted it to end. And looking at these planes and all of that I thought “Yes, I’m coming home. I’m coming home”. And it’s been almost five years, like you said, but I remember it very well. Poland is a place that I’m connected with through many things that are close to my heart. And maybe this patriotism is more closely connected with these feelings and not an idea or phrase, just with the fact that I want to be and live here. Poland, Pomerania, Gdynia is my place, it’s the beaches, the sea, Gdynia modernism, it’s my place, simple as that. I think so.

Feliks Opolski spent 25 years abroad, mainly in Germany. He left under one political regime, and came back to a totally different world. It was hard to get his bearings.

Feliks Opolski: It’s this sort of paradox that I felt here like I was abroad again, meaning in Poland, but somehow in a foreign country, because a lot has changed here. It was 1987. At that time, we had 25 years of the so-called transformation and it was a completely different country. Of course, I was able to find fragments of the Poland I left behind. They became something to be ashamed of, People’s Republic became a pejorative, and that was where I was brought up. I spent my younger years, adult years in this country, and I didn’t regard it as something bad. It was my Poland, that one, and I didn’t want people to talk ill of it, because I felt like I made a mistake, like I was someone, something sinful, like I would have to be ashamed of my life in this country back then, it was a huge dissonance. And I still don’t know how to manage it, because today I have this defiance even, to resist it. There are moments when this is more than I can handle. Of course, when I was in Germany, you could say I went through it already, however, it was more orderly somehow. I also came back because there’s so much going on in this country, there are so many contradictions, because I am interested and inspired by that as a writer. You could say that for a writer, a country like Germany is boring. Comfortable, but boring. Poland is definitely not boring. That can’t be said.

Ryszard Biliński left Poland two days before martial law was introduced.

Ryszard Biliński: I came back not only for retirement, but because I wanted to. I have a flat here, and I don’t need to worry about the future. And I don’t worry that my daughter would have to take care of me. I can manage on my own, and everything’s good. I liked being there, but it wasn’t it. I had good neighbours, I had good friends, but I preferred to come back here. I feel great here. I attend the University of the Third Age. I have my little pleasures here. It’s really good, because Gdynia is great in general. Emigration helped me learn languages, mainly Danish. Although it isn’t of any use in Poland. Emigration gives you a certain self-confidence. Us, Poles, are very active when we stay there. We want to take from that other country, whatever they want to give us. In many instances, it surely works. I know many Poles there, who have their companies and I’m certain that they’ll come back after a time. Many of them will come back.

Jakub Onoszko left to study in England, and more precisely, to Bath. What did emigration give him?

Jakub Onoszko: Self-confidence certainly, because when I left I was very shy, and came back as pugnacious, even. I stopped limiting myself. If it was possible to try something new, then I stopped being afraid of it. And it was kind of easier for me to break the limitations, issues like, I don’t know, going to job interviews, or doing voluntary work, and getting to know completely new people or e.g. the elderly, where a, sort of, change of environment, that could also be a problem, for me, it was more of a feature and possibility rather then something hard to do. Suddenly, I felt at ease with myself. I’m hearing that someone is criticising, right, and says that it’s super bad and that you can’t do anything here, I kind of rebel, because, I don’t know, I think of myself as a person who could’ve made another choice. I decided on such a course of action to come back here, because I believe that you can have a good life here and I don’t complain about my life. And it all falls into place somehow. Of course, maybe not ideally, but in general, I’m very satisfied with our lives here.

Jacek Michalak – a seaman, traveller curious about the world. He was an emigrant for 45 years. Today, he is living in Gdańsk. He takes care of a vintage lighthouse in Nowy Port.

Jacek Michalak: Everything’s very pretty and the whole world is beautiful. The world is worth seeing. I saw, maybe not the entire world, maybe half, maybe a quarter. But it was quite a lot. But especially when a person slowly, right, comes of age, let’s say, then the more they’re drawn to the places they remember from their childhood. There’s no cure for that. Simply put, each stone in Gdańsk speaks to me. I like Canada very much. I love Canada and Montreal in particular. Generally Canada, but Montreal in particular. A beautiful, absolutely beautiful city. So it’s not connected with any sort of... Yeah, I like them very much, very nice people. But that’s not where my roots are. I’m very well received there, because I have Canadian citizenship, I have a Canadian passport, all Canadian papers, but there is this internal strength that draws a person to the places he remembers from his childhood. I wanted to come back. I wanted to come back, and even managed to realise this beautiful project, the lighthouse in Gdańsk, a beautiful monument full of history and beautiful architecture. So it’s my contribution, if I may say so, to the cultural life of Gdańsk, so I’m doubly glad.

Joanna Ochocińska. Five years in London, a popular city among young people. She returned consciously choosing her homeland.

Joanna Ochocińska: Before I went away to England, I don’t know, third or fourth year of university, I remember this talk with my dad. He said that I should go somewhere, where everyone goes and that I don’t have any perspectives here, and that I really need to leave somewhere, and try to do something. We had an argument. I told him, that I’ll never go anywhere, that people didn’t die in wars so I could just leave. And I left soon after. And now, I’m thinking that maybe they died so that I could leave, but also, so that I could come back later and that I would want to come back. I loved Poland just like at the time we had the argument, throughout my stay in England, even more, I loved her when I returned. And still do. And it’s very important to me that over there in England, I always emphasised, whether anyone wanted to listen to me or not, I always emphasised that I’m Polish and that I’m from Poland.

Małgorzata Chachaj – 13 years of emigration. She started from Iceland by complete accident, later, along with her husband, she moved to Ireland, and then to Norway. Today, by Gosia’s count, the flat where we met is her 19th. On average, she changed them annually. She admits that the statistical deadline for her to leave the flat at Kopernika Street in Gdynia has already passed, and that something is keeping her here.

Małgorzata Chachaj: What keeps me in Poland is this local Poland, Kashubia, this here, Gdynia, these parts. This is probably what was the hardest thing in emigrating, that even when you feel good in a country, being aware of the full rights and, you know, this sort of order, and you know, I felt ok, but I didn’t feel that I have the right to be here, you know, that my grandparents aren’t from here, right? And there is always this sort of sense of alienation. And sometimes even, you know, in very trivial situations, it turns out that when a situation, even at a bank or something, and I don’t have the strength to say “Ma’am, I also have certain rights and would like them to be observed”. In Poland, I have no problems with that, because I know that I’m at home and have the right to influence this reality. There, I always felt more like a guest. You know, this was hard for me, for example, for me, Poland is a fantastic country. Gdynia, you know, the Tri-City in general is a very particular enclave. I don’t see any problems here. When I see my friends, they’re people with tremendous strength, energy, openness, they have open minds, you know? That’s what I like in Poles, that we don’t let ourselves be stuck in single trains of thought. It may be poor, it may be grey, but I think our souls are really colourful. And this Slavicness that was stifled by, you know, various political systems, it’s always there and it shows, right? And I like that very much. That’s what I was talking about. I always returned to, you know, for a refill and to have the strength go on as an emigrant. For years I was a vegetarian, and I missed Polish food then. We don’t appreciate what great food we have – natural, fresh. You know, go to the Gdynia Hall in the morning where, you know, full stalls, you know, full of marvellous, Polish, natural, fresh veggies, fruits, when, you know, you have somewhere at the back of your head, a situation when you just go to the supermarket and all you have is the Netherlands which have neither smell nor taste. These are... it’s, you know, appreciation of the simple things. This art of appreciating what you have. That you meet a friend on a street corner, completely unplanned, that you have... you can eat a Polish apple and it has a great smell, right? That your mom is nearby, you can go and, you know, come back home with a jar full of soup. And these small, simple gestures, that’s what I missed the most.

Poland. You dismiss me with the voices of your ministers and unemployment rates and exile me to an island. Only now I can afford to be with you if only for a moment, if flight schedule and the chain of distance allows. Each time under scrutiny of the customs and border guards, I take you away, piece by piece, in kilograms, in pieces. Smoked, dried, brined, printed. In jars, bags, and I carry a Polish word on the plastic bags. I stuff postcards, pictures and books in my jacket pockets, because they exceed the weight allowance. And in my hand I smuggle last goodbyes and the chilly silence of the morning. When the prisoner-taxi takes me to a flight through the clouds, where the contour disappears - yours or mine, I don’t know anymore. The seas mix between us. And you’re still there like these mountains, like an unmovable rock of longing.


It’s no carnival, but I wanna dance and I’ll dance with her every day.
It’s no fun, but I’m having fun. Sleepless nights, sleepy days.
She’s no lover, but I sleep with her, although they laugh at me and ridicule.
So tired and still drunk, that’s why... Don’t ask me again
Don’t ask, why I’m with her. Don’t ask, why not with someone else.

Don’t ask, why I think that... there’s no other place for me.

Don’t ask me, what I see in her. Don’t ask me, why not with someone else.
Don’t ask, why I still want to go to sleep and get up.
The dirty stations, where we meet. The crowds cursing quietly.
That drunk mumbles something in his sleep, that if we’re alive - than so is she.
Don’t ask me, don’t ask, what I see in her.
Don’t ask me, what I see in her. Don’t ask, why not with someone else.
Don’t ask, why I still want to go to sleep and get up.
Don’t ask, why I’m with her. Don’t ask, why not with someone else.
Don’t ask, why I think that... there’s no other place for me.

Pocztówka emigranta