The Groński family could have emigrated from Poland at the end of the 1950’s. But they did not want to.
In 1956, they visit relatives in Australia, two years later in Israel. Despite having the possibility of remaining abroad, they twice reject that opportunity to emigrate and, both times, they return to Poland.
After matriculation, Jan Groński enrolls in the Mathematics Department of Warsaw University. In 1968, he is in the third year of his studies there. He takes part in the March student demonstrations:
We printed leaflets in the Mathematics Faculty. At that time, the Computer Science section was part of the same department. We had this kind of printer which was controlled by a perforated tape. We put it on a tape, looped it and, in this way, we printed the leaflets which we later distributed elsewhere. I don’t know exactly where, but I was involved in the printing of those leaflets. Of course, I still remember the demonstrations inside the university itself. Due to the Mathematics Faculty being located in the Palace of Culture, we were a little separated. There were demonstrations and various incidents involving the civil militia (ORMO).
As a result, all third-year students in the Mathematics Faculty, including Jan, are suspended from their studies. He could have applied for reinstatement as a student but, at that same time, his mother, Director of the Correspondence Bureau of Polish Radio, loses her job.
To me, it was quite clear. Moczar and his group were trying to pander to the sentiments present within certain Polish group. It was a simply way to gain power. They just taunted everyone who could be taunted in order to gain power. Of course, not everyone was susceptible to that. That antisemitism existed in Poland, even before Moczar, was also clear to me.
He and his mother decide to emigrate. They plan to go either to Australia or to the United States – where they have relatives. They prepare to leave. Jan takes parcels of books to the post office which are sent to Australia.
It was more or less around May. I remember the trip to the Mostowski Palace where, of course, we had to apply to renounce our Polish citizenship. Of course, you had to state that you were going to Israel, even though that was not what we had in mind. My theory is this: it was simply in accordance with the Party line, they were simply collecting statistics. They wanted to prove that all the Zionists were leaving Poland for Israel. And a Zionist who leaves for America or Australia is not such a good Zionist. Therefore, it all had to be fiddled with. So we signed such a document. In the end, we received those travel documents and began clearing the apartment.
The trip, planned for the beginning of August 1968, is delayed. The borders are temporarily closed due to maneuvres by Warsaw Pact troops heading for Prague. In the end. Jan and his mother leave Warsaw, by train from the Warsaw Gdańsk railway station, heading towards Vienna.
Of course, the departure from Gdański Railway Station, with friends around, was very emotional. I can’t describe it, but you had the feeling that something was ending and that something new was about to start. I remember that my mother was very afraid that they might confiscate our documents at the border. She was especially concerned about telephone numbers, because we had some contacts in Vienna, so she wanted me to remember all those numbers by heart. Yes, that’s what I was doing on the train – memorising a small telephone boo.
After crossing the border, the Austrian police confiscate their travel documents. They are sent directly on to the Vienna office of the Israel agency – the Sochnut. In this way, Jewish emigrants from Poland are forced to appear in person at the agency’s office where attempts are made to persuade them to come to Israel. (They didn’t seem particularly interested in my mother, but they wanted to convince me). For four hours, Sochnut representatives urge Jan to go to Israel. He refuses.
I simply told them that if one goes to Israel, one has a duty to serve in the army, I understand that. It’s totally clear to me, but I’ve had enough of the army, meaning enough of them here in Poland. Actually, I didn’t have a lot to do with them – I only attended an army camp. But I stated that I didn’t want anything to do with an army. They continued nagging me for three or four hours. Finally, they returned the documents.
Jan spends eleven months in Vienna, awaiting the possibility of being able to travel to the United States.
To me, the view of Vienna at that time was very interesting. We had arrived on the first train after the border had been reopened. Vienna was full of Czechs. There were Czech cars everywhere. People lived in telephone booths. There were signs put up “I’m looking for …. Such and such”. It was a war, simply a war. Where I worked, there was also one Czech who, of course, hated the Russians. He was a little aloof from me also because the Polish army had helped to suppress the Prague Spring. But, somehow, we managed to get along.
Thanks to his knowledge of foreign languages, in Vienna, Jan is employed by the International Atomic Energy Agency and, on 1st August 1969, he flies to the USA. He begins studies at the University of Illinois where he receives a scholarship.
I arrived in the United States at the time of the Vietnam War. In the USA, you did not have to be an American citizen to be drafted into the army. At the time, I was actually wondering whether I’d be able to remain in the United State. I even considered going to Canada. But I managed to obtain a medical certificate stating that I was suffering from chronic sinusitis – which was true. But I still had to appear before a medical board who also examined me. They found that I actually did have traces of this chronic sinusitis and they released me from military service. So, in one sense, I succeeded – meaning, I didn’t have to go to Vietnam, which may not have been the best. Apart from that, with my attitude towards the army, sending me may have given me some moral problems. There were instances where people, who were not US citizens, perished in Vietnam. There was even one very famous incident, a Czech refugee, died in the war in Vietnam. America tried giving his body to the Czech embassy. Of course, they refused to accept it.
In the United States, Jan graduates from university and starts a family. He continues in his academic career. He earns his doctorate and works as a lecturer in Cleveland. He works with prestigious IT companies. For six years, he lives in Shanghai. For the first time since his emigration, he comes to Poland at the end of the 1980’s.
I remember when I came to the country for the first time, after twenty years, in 1988. Jaruzelski was still there and I remember leaving with a feeling of depression. The mood in the country was completely dark. All my friends drank, played cards and said, “There is no future”.
As it turned out, it all changed and quite quickly but, at the time, I left with the feeling that “I don’t want to come back here, because there’s nothing here. I’m just here with these friends and it’s all very depressing”. What occurred later turned out to be quite different.
Today, Jan Groński, visits Poland regularly. He is involved in preserving the memory of the Jewish community of Zduńska Wola, the place from where his family originates.
Translation by Andrew Rajcher
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