Grazyna P.


As Interviewed by Gwen Park Markert, March 18, 2016

Grazyna P: In Her Own Words

I’m Grazyna and I’m Polish. I was born in Warsaw, where I lived ‘till eighty two, then i moved to France, and then i moved to Texas.

Since as a child I didn’t have any other perspective [growing up in poland], I was always thinking that my childhood was great, which have not have been my parent’s thinking because they were taking care of everything else. But, we had beautiful schools. I didn’t really suffer very much as a child, ‘till maybe… when i came to maybe, high school. I started to look around a little bit, and see maybe what was not working, and freedoms that were limited.

First of all, we had shortage of food, and with shortage of food, my mom was spending most of the time either at work or in lines to provide for the family. It was always a problem for people who were working. Every time when you look at the communist countries and every appraisals in the countries it always started with food, because it was not sufficient, because of the collectivization. So that was the first thing that came to my mind when i was maybe, your age. There was something wrong, I was saying “Why is my mom always shopping for food for hours?” And then, my parents were talking to me, they explained me that under communist rule that we lived, everything belonged to everybody, collectivization. Everybody was supposed to have an equal amount, but it’s impossible. They also explained me about the communist regime, They told me how we were not politically free, they told me how to understand elections, that they were not free, about property that was not allowed. So then I started to ask questions with my sister, and they started to tell us how history was twisted, certain things were removed. So when I was your age I was thinking that some things don’t add up.

My parents influenced me a lot, because when you are born, that is all you know. They were sharing with us, when we started to understand, that we have healthcare, we have roof, we have basics, but that’s not freedom. We couldn’t go abroad, we couldn’t own passports. So it was this illusionary freedom that we thought we had, and we really didn’t. Poland was different from other communist countries, the polish people were always not very dependant, very independent, so there were very few appraisals. It was just that we couldn’t leave, we couln’t move. The shortage of food every few years was aggravating people to the point that they started to organize themselves in the factories.

It [solidarity] started in the seventies when I was really young so I don’t really remember the beginning,
but it started with people going on strikes and getting scorched by police a few times. Many people disappeared. People were doing little appraisals, but then they were not ready so they were retreating. In the seventies, in the shipyard, that was the first one. A lot of people disappeared, they were never found. Each time we were learning that we could not go bare hands, we could not go just factory workers. We needed more people. And they were trying to put discard between workers, because it’s much easier to manage a country when everybody hates each other. So in the seventies it was only the workers. The farmers, they said “What are they doing, those bumbos? We have all those tanks,”. So it stopped in bloodbath.

Then we started to make little committees, and little groups of education. We started to make a grassroute work with farmers that were not happy either because they could not own large properties, small farms only. And we reached out to students, and the students started to make underground committees and started to give classes, it was like underground classes.

Yeah [that was how we communicated], ‘cause we didn’t have email, it was all paper. And actually when I was in highschool I was getting these little papers from some other friend that her dad was involved. So in the morning we were putting these in the classrooms on the chairs for people to find and to pass on, But that’s how we communicated.

Anyway so that’s what was happening in highschool, the little things. But the big thing happened in the eighties, in nineteen eighty, that’s what started solidarity, in the shipyard. Because it started with some people being fired, then the workers said “No, it’s not going to go like this we want them back. And the police said “No.”. So instead of going on the street, they all locked themselves in the shipyard.

So the shipyard was closed for about a month, and I remember because with my parents, we didn’t really know what was going on we went on vacation to the beach and we got stuck there because the police surrounded the whole city. So those workers, and whoever was not on shift, they were coming, coming, so the shipyard was full. Locked. So the police could not go there and shoot everybody. They had fuel for points that was ready to release this woman that was fired, and some other people. But it was not happening, so more of these people together started to talk, and more were coming with different demands. So they decided they cannot make strength if they are not organized. They asked to unionize. Now they talk a lot about it in the united states, because the huge strength, and that we were not permitted to unionize before, under the communist rule. It was about three weeks people were locked. They started to negotiate with the party, slowly more and more police came. It not only required the immediate return of those people to work, but also they started to ask about return to the university of all the expense students for political reasons. Whoever was voicing this part was being fired because they didn’t want them to be mixing with other people. So as they were discussing this first strike, the news went on, it was, again, before email, and phones were cut, we could not communicate with them. However, some people caught train, and they went to other bigger cities. So, slowly during those three weeks of negotiation, all the factories started to close. And the three weeks after, the whole Poland stopped. And so, we had much more power then, and we negotiated free access to TV.

So very slowly we started to get out all the social requests, like lower the need for food, or reinstate people who were fired, or free trade union. But we started to ask more complicated demands, such as access to medias, such as guarantee of the right to strike. So more demands were formed, there was a full supply of products for the domestic market. In Warsaw we were actually paying a lot, sending a lot of food to Cuba, for example, or meat to Russia, because they could not supply their demands. So one of those requests was to keep food in Poland, so then it would also keep the prices lower. And there were twenty of them. It happened, it was signed, it lasted for a year and a half. But then of course political demands followed because all those social demands could not be fulfilled without elections for example, because there was a huge conflict. Between all those social demands that were met for a year, we couldn't continue ‘cause the government was still the same. So it was always clashes, we still couldn't move freely in Europe, or anywhere else, and people were still being fired from work, not accepted to universities, and the big thing was access to media, because that was access to propaganda. And when we started to ask too much, they declared martial law. So then, we start to hide. And I worked for solidarity.

So it was declared at midnight. So I was at home. Some people were taken from homes, at night, in pajamas. I was working, I was doing posters. Because we couldn't do anything so we are doing posters. We are doing posters, putting them in like four o’clock in the morning, very high on the walls before cops came and snatched them. And we had a big anniversary so I was working late. Some people got arrested during this night. Some ran away. It was very difficult because immediately when I went out I noticed I had got a tail, we call it a tail. Somebody was following me all around. So then because I knew a lot of people, so just phones you couldn't, you were calling and it says “controlled call” so somebody was listening. So we had to rely on very old fashioned things. Like paper, printing, at home. And getting your old grandma to put newspapers in the basket and walk around and distribute them. This is what we were doing a lot. I could not do it ‘cause I was known, so then I had a tail so I couldn't go very far. But communication was mainly done by people that were not known. Family member that were working. A lot of it.

[The reason for leaving was because] I was invigilated. I couldn't do very much because I was dragged sometimes from the street. My parents, first of all, they had complication to the police, they had to go and then I got dragged once from the street and was suspended for twenty four hours ‘cause they were looking for people. So it was a huge invigilation. I had a big stamp in my ID, because we had to wear IDs on us all the time. And there were those packs on the street. There were two soldiers and two cops, because they did not trust each other so they were mixing them. We had curfew at eight o’clock in the evening, and they were stopping you even during the day. Each time you had to show your papers, and I had this big stamp. So each time they saw the stamp I had to open and empty all my stuff, check, get patted, you know. And then I couldn't go to study, because I couldn't file an application because my name was tagged. I couldn't find any job, because they didn't want us mixed with any other people. I couldn't leave the country at the beginning. I couldn't get food stamps, because again there was a shortage of food. So I didn't get them because I was not working. So there was like two years of that, and there was no change on the horizon.

It's a very strange situation when you are your age or barely and you think it will never change and you are only nineteen. And there was a lot of people that came to Poland with humanitarian aid, students from medical school. I could speak English so that's what I was doing at the end, translating, helping. They were coming with medication, sometimes they were smuggling other stuff like printing materials or ink because we needed this. And I met Rhodes French students from medical school. And then after a year had been done they actually did something. They helped me, they got me out on some sort of exchange for a month like a student. Then once I was in France I could stay.

Yea [I spoke french] a little bit, but not too much. But that was the thing you know, they did some sort of exchange, student exchange.

It [making a life in france] was very hard. Because they actually gave me one-way passport and I had to go the morning of my arrival to be exchanged for some other type of paper. It was complicated.

But to bring your political injustice and how it ties to your social injustice, I think political injustice, in your context, is when you live in the country, or in the context, that you cannot make a free decision. You cannot meet people that you want, you cannot assemble. You cannot participate in movements, you cannot choose a party or you thinking, you have to follow. Freedom of speech, there is absolutely not. Freedom of movement, there is not. So it starts to affect your social rights because you cannot make decision you cannot study, in my case I could not study. Also it ties to economic injustice, because the way that they tied it I could not go to school and I could not work, which is discrimination. I couldn't have food. Also they did, in the communist system, when they decide that you are guilty of something, then the whole family is guilty. So then my parents, they started to like, limit the ratios and my sister had problems, she was in medical school already. So it's a very odd system, to get to the individual.

It [poland] did affect in a way. You know we talk about refugees a lot. But if you experience political injustice that leads to social and then economical, it really limits you possibility of life. Then the only other way out is only out. So you leave your family behind, you go to another place, you learn the language. You always have to prove that you're worth it, whatever it is, you are always put on spot, and you always will have accent. As you grow up, you realize that you don't see your family.

I did not see by family since eighty two, and I couldn't go back till eighty nine. Because they gave me just one way passport. That another thing they didn't tell me when I went for a month. So only I came because all this, the communism, it all collapsed with the Soviet Union collapse in eighty nine. So then they opened the borders. So people started to come back, and it's actually a really nice place now.

Well we could chat about what is now twenty, thirty years after, when all, when this country turns so well and Poland is really nice place now. They had so many new companies coming, new universities, student exchange, it really bloomed. It's a pleasure. But it's very important thing to keep it and to realize that it's not always forever. Because when you look now in those east countries and see Putin and what he does with Ukraine, that wanted to join Poland and all those communities. It never happened and it still cost them so many lives and it's still going on. I think it's important just to cherish that. And to know that there are people all the time that still don't have those freedoms.