Given a piece of paper that stated that he was not a Polish citizen, Gabriel Lawit left for Denmark.
Gabriel packed a saucepan, ten boxes of books, a guitar and half of a dinner service left to him by his mother.
The pot – a talisman with a Siberian pedigree.
The books – in the field of physics, including about the theory of relativity, especially about who you are and where you come from.
The guitar – made by its owner, a drifter, a bard.
The dinner service – the law allowed him to take half of the setting for the family of twelve people, whom he had lost before he was born.
The officials did not engage in discussions based on tedious reading. The half dinner service did not arouse interest. Only the Siberian item intrigued them.
“The customs officials tapped and banged the pot when the made the inspection at the border. Maybe they thought that there was silver in the middle or that it was made of gold. After all, who would smuggle an old pot – only an idiot.”
In an interview for the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, he jokes,
“I am Gabriel Ławit. When I left for Denmark, it was so windy that the “Ł” in my name was so blown around that I became Lawit.”
He was named Gabriel after his grandfather, a shopkeeper in Łódż.
“I met a friend of my mother’s in Copenhagen. “Ławit? We used to buy butter from Ławit. He would pack it with a ribbon!”.
He knows Łódź from his parents’ stories and from Tuwim. Because she lacked boots, in winter, his mother would not go to school. Due to the lack of places for Jews to study medicine in Poland, she graduated in dentistry in France. His father, a chemistry graduate in Lwów, looked for work with Jewish entrepreneurs. However, they cared more about the well-being of their Polish workers. A Jew could be an owner, but not an immediate superior. As foremen, they employed Germans.
From childhood, Gabriel was absorbed with other people’s stories. He saves them as songs and marks them with an illustration.
“I bought a camera to film my grandchildren, I began recording conversations with it.”
In Denmark, Sweden, America and Israel, he listens to the memories of Polish Jews.
“People are dying rapidly. Soon, I’ll be history also.”
He was born in October in a place already covered in snow – in Orsk or Magadan. In a windowless hospital, they treated him for pneumonia. It was there that this pot was also “born”. Gabriel sings:
“They heated water in that pot,
Infusing seven types of herbs.
When I contracted dystrophy, I wasn’t supposed to live past Sunday.
But I survived. Was it the pot or was it also God’s will?”
While his family in Łódż was dying in the ghetto, in the east, in mud huts, in a Soviet collective farm or in a gold mine, Gabriel’s mother saved soviet teeth and his father’s life through her dental contacts – until the days when bread rations were increased, which heralded the end of the War.
From Gabriel’s songs:
“Because in this pot they took a bit of meatless soup to Poland, returning in cattle cars.
Near the tracks are burned towns and corpses,
As though the world was never to be reborn.”
They returned to Poland in 1946. Apart from rugs upon which these new tenants walked, they could not find their past in Łódż. “I will not walk on these streets,” his mother said and they moved on.
In Dzierżoniów, all that the German Jews had left behind them was a synagogue and witnesses to their absence – Germans. For example, the German owner of a dental office, which the mother had chosen and took over later. They ended up on friendly term prior to her leaving.
“Mother was money-making machine – three jobs and then home for dinner. She recognised patients by their teeth. ‘What is your name, sir? Open your mouth. Now, I know who you are’.”
Peasants, who were treated by her, would, at the same time, ask her for advice or help. She would listen. She commissioned his father, who had the time, to write applications. His father spent most of the time lying down. As well as suffering from his war memories, he also had a heart attack. Seven-year-old Gabriel went with him to see a professor in Wroclaw for an ECG.
“I envied the others who played football, that they could invite their friends. ‘Dad is sleeping, Dad is resting’, mum would say.”
He would bring his father books from the library and apart from studying at the TPD (Society for the Friends of Children), that was his education.
“‘Why are you sitting in such a hole?’, I asked my parents, I resented that.”
His parents felt safe there. A part of the big city life was provided by the performances of the Jelenia Góra traveling theatre. They lived amongst craftsmen and traders.
“Among those who couldn’t speak Polish, I ridiculed myself as a better anti-Semite. My father spoke Yiddish. He told biblical stories instead of fairy tales. But, he didn’t go to synagogue. He didn’t want to have anything to do with those who were religious. When I was called ‘a lousy Jew’, I answered, ‘Yes, I am a Jew, but for the ’lousy’, I’ll smack you in the mouth'”.
He had no problems with his identity. He never looked for it in the TSKŻ (Social-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland), or the ‘Judenrat’, as he called it.
“Once I went to a camp in Poronin and experienced an epiphany. My friends from school were mostly playing football. But, there, I also met some well-read school academic competition winners . However, I that feeling soon passed – too many presumptuous people from Warsaw.”
Many years later, that memory returned to him when reflecting upon whether fate passes from parents to children. In song, he asked:
“Where are these children of those communists?
In your best years, what kind of restructuring does hunger, strike, prison bring?
Did they hope for justice, writing their secret messages?
Are they still fighting for a something better, or are they organising a hunger strike?
Or maybe, naked, they’re begging on the pavements of New York or Warsaw?”
In 1968, he was in his fifth year studying physics. To him, the play “Dziady” was not a reason to start a revolution. For him, it was important to have nice girls to take for rides and pass his examinations well. He says that they were the best years of his life.
“To this day, when I come to Wroclaw, it still happens that someone calls out to me from the other side of the street. The city is not made up of walls. It’s made of people and memories, the world that you create inside your own head.”
With the guitar by the fire, under the sails on the trail, amongst friends.
Of course, he took part in the strike. Majka, his future wife, laughed, “You held a rally at the university. You camped out in sleeping bags.” And he quickly realized that had been guilty of rebellion. They were being searched for.
“A plain-clothes Militia officer questioned my mum as to whether I was a good son, because I’d been seen fighting in a bar. They were hunting for Jews.”
Poland was his and it was here that he was planning a scientific career here.
“I tolerated the ‘people’s’ anti-Semitism – it was possible to live with it. it was an expression of either contempt or jealousy. However, what happened after March was like ‘Die Sturmer’ (Nazi propaganda weekly – ed.). Those slogans, demonstrations, dismissals. I felt like a small, poor Gabriel, who was waiting for the entire Warsaw Pact to screw him over.”
He was in mourning for his father. His mother was suffering from cancer. He met a great girl. “Should I stay? Should I go?” He had a cousin, an oncologist in Paris. He applied for an exit permit – it was refused. His mother died. “Should I stay? Should I go?” He graduated and, with the support of his professor, obtained a scholarship as an assistant. “Should I stay? Should I go?”
One day, in 1971, he was summoned to the Public Security (UB) offices in Dzierżoniów.
Lieutenant Szlachetny told him, “What the fuck are you still doing here? If you don’t get out by 1st September, I give you my personal promise, that I’ll make your life so difficult that you’ll prefer to hang yourself.”
“I was so scared that I thought I’d shit myself. I abandoned my parents’ graves and my girlfriend.”
He wanted to go to Israel, but what about Majka? Without diplomatic relations between Poland and Israel, they might never meet again – and, even if they did, she would lose contact with her family. France would not accept refugees. Sweden ceased accepting refugees, but they were still accepting them in Denmark.
He packed cardboard boxes. He added porcelain to the service in Berlin, where he awaited his Danish future. That half of the donner service he could not take with him, he had given to Polish friends before crossing the border.
“On the train, I met some Czechs. They provided the vodka, I provided the cabanosi. I got a bit drunk. I don’t know when we arrived in Copenhagen. They said to me, ‘You don’t need to be afraid anymore. You’re a free man!'”
The Danish chapter of his life began in the luggage storage room – three krone per piece. By taxi, he went to the refugee administration. No one was there. On Fridays, they only worked until 2:00pm. From his eighty krone and his ideas for a new life, what remained were twenty krone and the telephone number of a friend. She gave him some address – it was a tenement, with people who looked Jewish. “Do you speak English?”, he asked them. One young man answered him and, after chatting a short while, they switched to Polish. It turned out that his wife came from Dzierżoniów. He slept in their bathroom until Monday.
“During the interrogation, one of the policemen offered me candy – some black shit, I spat it out. They took me to the ‘Ost’ guest house near the port district. I lived with sailors, refugees from Portugal and American students. In a foreign country, I had my own room for free!”
He did not have much contact with those who had emigrated from Poland earlier.
“Those young people were not my style. I would have gladly gone up to the mountains or gone sailing. They preferred go wandering around the shops.”
They had left Poland not knowing what it meant to be a Jew. The JCC (‘The Co-ordination Committee for Polish-Jewish Youth in Scandinavia, founded by Polish Jews for the whole of Scandinavia’ – ed.) was meant to build an “identity” within them. Gabriel organized the first Jewish song festival for them.
“The older ones found it hard to get used to Danish sausage. The old people met in the Union of Polish Jews. They had come because of their children. For a few fifty and sixty-year-olds it was successful. A friend’s mother, a doctor, became the head of a hospital. Some got a job in radio or as editors. Some worked in factories. Those who were sick were given a pension. The majority of them lived in ‘U Matysiaków’ – which is what we called the old hospital, which had been purchased by a Jewish organization and turned into apartments. They wandered around the corridors. There were also suicides.
I came to Denmark wearing a suit, but hippies were everywhere in jeans and loose shirts. Young people were sunbathing on the lawns, drinking beer. I went to Christiania (a district of Copenhagen – ed.), where they smoked hashish – dirt, stench, the children of the rich seeking freedom. They didn’t impress me. I knew stinking stairwells of Wroclaw.”
Every week he received eighty krone for bus fares and for other things. He tried to save money by going on foot.
“I met a worker. He introduced me to the socialist sailing club “Fram”. I signed up for the course, because that was the only way to sail. They agreed that the fee – five hundred krone – could be paid in instalments. I had brought with me the maritime code in Polish, I opened the Danish version, I learned the language.”
On Rosh Hashanah, he went to synagogue.
“The place was full of people. In Dzierżoniów, I had difficulty gathering ten Jews in order to say ‘Kaddish’ for my father. The Danish Jews were afraid of us. We’d come from this wilderness from the east. The Danes were not interested in what was happening in Poland. It was not a country for those who wanted to spread their wings, but it did guarantee a peaceful life. Most of the March (emigrants) went to America to pursue their careers. Two, two and a half thousand people may have been all who remained.”
After a month, he was granted asylum.
“Winter came, I was freezing to the bone. I made tea in a vase, using a heater. I missed my friends, I missed Majka.”
He bought an “emigrant” jacket, a green parker. Like the others, he tried to look like the Danes. At language course for refugees, lecturers made him aware of what communism was like, how the working class in Denmark was suffering.
“I applied for jobs. At the Mathematics Institute, they were looking for someone to use the computer. I was greeted by a bearded man in a room, with a portrait of Lenin hanging on the wall. ‘What’s that bandit doing here?’, I asked. They played at being communists. They believed that we should have stayed in Poland to build socialism. I didn’t get the job.”
He found employment in a canning factory – on the conveyor belt, in the heat and stench. Alongside him were Turks. The foreman was a Dane. In the next place, a printing-ink factory, he glued on labels, after having earlier written them out. A friend suggested that he sign up for a new field of study – datology (the science of analysing statistical data – ed.).
“The world doesn’t need mediocre physicists. I gave up thinking about a career in science. There were not many classes, I did two years’ study in one year. I moved into the student dormitory, in the common kitchen, someone always cooked something, I felt less lonely.”
He waited ten months for his girlfriend.
“I keep calling out her name throughout the night. Her name was Maria but, since our student days, we call her ‘Majka’. I corresponded with her in a kind of code so that no one would know about our plans. ‘Gabryś has abandoned you. He’s gone’, they told her. My wife was a Lemko. We met at a winter cottage in 1968 or 1969. She sang beautifully. Even though we were boyfriend and girlfriend in her eyes but, in her eyes, we had no future. The Lemkos community marry amongst themselves.”
“We were from two non-Polish Poles. Her mother would probably never have accepted me. ‘A Jew? It does not matter that he’s Jew, but why doesn’t he go to church?’ My mother also wasn’t too pleased with my choice. They tried to matchmake me within the Jewish community. A rich colonel from Wroclaw was looking for a husband for his daughters. People were worried about their children. I knew people who got married just before leaving, so that it would be easier.”
“Because in this ominous, dark age – one’s own is always closer”, Gabriel wrote in one of his songs.
Gabriel’s wife remained a Polish citizen. Later, when she was organising a consular passport at the Polish embassy, she explained: “I married a foreigner.” “What kind of foreigner is this, a Jew from Poland?” they commented. She visited her family. He went with her for her mother’s funeral. It was 1980. He was afraid.
He devoted the song “Gojki” to those who “languish” with the Jews around the world. He was inspired by the memories of his friend about his mother. Her father, a Jew, had married a Polish woman. He was hiding and the mother took care of the children’s Jewish identity. After 1968, they settled in Israel. “Far from her family and the cursed, she learned to knit. They share the opłatek with me on holidays and share with me the fate of nomads,” he sang about his own marriage. “We were doing well.”
They adopted children.
“My children are Korean. My grandchildren are Jamaican. Problems continue to grow in Europe. On one hand, there are Arab terrorists, on the other, fascists. Now, they won’t harm me, but my children? Why do people leave their own country? It’s because they want to have a better life. But how much is it possible to escape?”
The dinner service is taken out for important holidays. He is very much respected by his children.
Translation by Andrew Rajcher