Jan Melchior

My friends had large families and we did not. In connection with that, all my life I had a family complex – why did everyone have such a large family and I had no one? And that kind of bothered me all my life.

Jan Melchior, together with his father, Roman Melchior, sits on a concrete bench. It is a freezing winter. Both are dressed in sheepskin coats with fur collars, fur hats and scarves. Snow lies on the bench. Jan has his left arm around his father. In his hand, he holds sheets of paper (photos? documents?). Behind them, there is a white, infinite space – an emptiness. This black and white, slightly blurred photograph was probably taken on a bridge spanning the Danube River or on a hill on the Buda side.

It is the end of 1969 – a year after Jan Melchior had emigrated from Poland and had settled in Sweden – never to return. His parents and sister remain in Poland. Jan cannot travel to Poland since he is now persona non grata (and stateless). His father cannot come to Sweden as he will not be given a passport allowing him to travel to so-called capitalist countries. So they meet in Budapest because Hungary is one of the few people’s democracies (apart from Romania), which is more liberal than Poland in its approach to immigrants, later known as the March immigrants. His father cannot visit him in the place where he is establishing his life anew, and his son cannot visit the family home. So, in the photograph, they are between, suspended between being here and being there.

The saying – My home is where my family is – loses its intensity. Stories of forced emigration from Poland are, above all, personal family dramas of long-term or permanent separations. For families who experienced the Holocaust, the events and consequences of March are the destruction of a laboriously reconstructed and rebuilt world.

Jan Krzysztof Melchior was born on 6th May 1948 in Warsaw. His parents met and survived the War in France. In 1933, his father went to France to study medicine. At the age of sixteen, Jan’s mother was sent to France by the Polish Communist Party in order to avoid imprisonment in Poland. They take part in the Spanish Civil War and are interned. From 1939, they are active in the French resistance movement for which, after the War, they are entitled to French citizenship. In 1946, however, they decide to return to Poland.

They arrive back in 1946 and both take positions in the Civil Militia. Jan Melchior grows up in Śródmieście on ul. Jaworzyńskiej. He joins the Walterowski youth. He studies at the Stefan Batory Senior High School. He grows up in a secular home, lacking in any elements of traditional Jewish ritual.

His parents were agnostic. Jan’s father, Roman Melchior, visits a synagogue for the first time during a visit to Budapest in 1969. Jan participates in the life of Warsaw’s secular Jewish community. He attends camps organised by the Social-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland (TSKŻ) and attends the Association’s clubrooms on ul. Nowogrodzkiej. He takes part in meetings of the Klub Krzywego Koła. In 1968, he is in his second year studying biology. On 8th March, he takes part in a rally at Warsaw University. Initially, he is elected to the student committee of Warsaw University’s Biology Department. However, observing the growing antisemitic campaign, he resigns. He fears that his origins could be exploited by the authorities. He is not expelled from the university, but is interrogated several times in the Mostowski Palace (site of the police headquarters).

“I realised that this was the start of an anti-Semitic story, which is why I resigned. I said, “You have nothing to lose by having another Jew on the committee and adding fuel to the fire.” I wasn’t expelled from the university. I could still continue studying, but on several occasions, I was interrogated at the Mostowski Palace, as in “What did you do? Where did you go and with whom?” and so on. They were, shall we say, cultural conversations.

It was then that some of my friends left Warsaw so as to have nothing to do with this. Some of my friends were imprisoned. It was a very strange period. Then people, whose economic circumstances were poor, began to emigrate. I had such friends – four students. There were four of the in one apartment, in one and a half rooms – or something like that. They left for Israel. They were some of the first to take advantage of this opportunity. I didn’t think much about it.”

In the summer of 1968, in the village of Tleń, that he hears about the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops.

“To me, this was a kind of signal that, in this system, in this country, nothing could be done. It was time to leave.”

On 15th January 1969, he leaves for Sweden on the Warsaw-Berlin-Oslo train. He is one of the first Jewish immigrants from Poland to reach  Göteborg.

“As I was leaving Poland, I was to somehow pave the way for my father, sister and brother. Everything was already prepared but, in the end, for many reasons, they didn’t leave. That’s why I, again, found myself alone, without any family, in Sweden. All my life was somehow influenced by a lack of family around me.”

Upon arrival, Jan Melchior makes contact with the Jewish community council, which provides him with an apartment. Unlike a large group of March emigrants, he does not end up in a Swedish camp for immigrants.

In Göteborg, Jan resumes the studies which he had commenced in Poland, specializing in microbiology. After graduating, he has the opportunity to study for a doctorate. However, he declines the offer and undertakes medical studies. He becomes a general practitioner and does not accept job offers in hospitals. Instead, he chooses to work in a remote province in northern Sweden. Later, following the birth of his son, he and his wife decide to move south to Urlicehamn.

After gaining Swedish citizenship, Jan Melchior, attempts to come to Poland for Christmas. Upon leaving the ferry in Świnoujście, he is not permitted to enter the country. A year later, he flies into Okęcie. He is allowed entry. During a conversation in the Grand Hotel in Warsaw, the Security Service (SB) propose that he work with them. He refuses. Upon his return to Sweden, he informs the Swedish Special Services of the attempt by the SB to recruit him.

In Sweden, for the first time, Jan Melchior encounters the religious aspect of his Jewish identity. He is a member of the Jewish community in Goeteborg and also undertakes a Hebrew language course.

“When I came to Sweden, I had quite a number of contacts within the Jewish community. They had problems because those who came from Poland, mainly from Warsaw, had no idea about Jewish customs, about the Jewish religion. For us, this was something completely new. We needed to learn a little from the start. For example, visits to the synagogue – we went several times. It was a bit shocking for us because we didn’t know much. We didn’t know what to do, how to do it and so on. In the beginning, the Goeteborg Jews would invite us and look after us. They invited us for Pesach and for other Jewish holidays. And we didn’t know much – what to do, how to behave, etc. Right now, Jewish culture is something very basic for me. Back then, I didn’t think that. I felt that I was 150% Polish. But some things change.”

His parents named him Jan Krzysztof after the French writer, Nobel Prize winner, pacifist, peace activist and defender of human dignity Romain Rolland.

“When in Sweden, I received my papers, that blue Nansen paper (stateless persons passport), I suddenly realised that there was no ‘Krzysztof’ – I am just ‘Jan’. This was an issue, because I didn’t know what to do. Changing one’s name was not so simple. On the other hand, ‘Krzysztof’ in Swedish is ‘Kristofer’ or something like that. In some way, it didn’t appeal to me – so I was left with Jan. In Sweden I am Jan. To my friends in Poland, I’m Krzysztof.”

The hero of Romain Rolland’s novel is “Jan Krzysztof” who, after a stormy life, full of dilemmas and struggles with fate, finds solace in a provincial corner of Sweden – probably in a town similar to where Jan Krzysztof Melchior lives today and where, despite passing the age of retirement, he still conducts his private medical practice.

Józef Markiewicz

Translation by Andrew Rajcher




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