My Father's Immigration

May 23, 2012
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My father, Zdzis?aw Jay, describes his early life in Poland and his travels that led him to the United States.

What is your full name?

My full name is Zdzis?aw G. In English, it is Jessie G. It’s easier to spell and pronounce.

So you don’t have a middle name?

Oh, I’m sorry. I do have a middle name. Jan, which is John in English.

When were you born and where?

I was born in Poland in a small town near Kraków. The town is Bochnia and next to it is a small village, Jod?ówka. I was born May 25, 1959.

Could you talk a little bit more about your family?

I came from a big family, and I was the youngest. There were 12 of us. I had 5 brothers and 6 sisters.

12? How do you have 12?

My father was married twice because his first wife died and from that marriage I had four siblings – two brothers and two sisters. And from my father’s second there were 8 of us, 4 and 4.

Where did you go to school?

My village had one school, all the way up to eighth grade. It is a grammar school. From there, I went to Kraków to study.

So was that in the town of Jod?ówka or was that somewhere else? Can you give me an address?

That was in Jod?ówka in my village and it was 187... Right now they have the names of the streets but before there were only numbers.

Can you tell me a little bit about your family, or do you have any memories, with your brothers and sisters that you remember when you were a child?

By every house there was a small pond or small lake, and people fished and they would eat whatever they caught for dinner. So, in the morning we went fishing and then we had fish for dinner. When I was five, maybe four, I tried to help my older brother. He went off somewhere because our Mom called him for something and I tried to get a fish and I jumped into the pond and I couldn’t get out from there and I almost… [laughing] almost drowned.

Who saved you at that time?

I was able to swim and saved myself. And another story was with my sister. My father was a carpenter, and next to the house there was a small shop. We were kids, so we played everywhere and I was running after my sister and she… [Polish] She turned this instrument and as soon as she turned it, I ran into it. And this instrument had a point which completely pierced my skin, my cheek, and went into my mouth. I still have a scar. They took to the hospital and [laughing] that was when I was six years old.

Do you have any memories at school?

From school… like in the United States, kids play different kinds of sports, so in Poland the main sport was soccer. Others like volleyball, and in the winter I played [table] tennis. And I was a good [table] tennis player and so was the director of the school. We represented our village to play against other villages in our area. We represent the village and there were only three guys playing on a team, so two other guys, me and the director of the school were eligible. The director of the school was about my skill level, sometimes he was better than me, and sometimes I was better than him. But the coach chose me to represent us. At the end of the semester, because I beat the director [laughing] and I represented my village for ping pong, [table] tennis. Because he was also the P.E. teacher, he gave me an F because he was mad I beat him [laughing]. I was 13 or 14, so about 7th grade.

So back home, what did you do during your free time?

In my free time, I helped my parents with the farm. Fishing and mushroom picking were very popular. I played soccer and volleyball because there were many of us in the small village at about same age, so we had fun playing games. From that I remember when I was like 14, 15 when I rode my bike. It was very dark, a very, very dark night. It’s not like over here with all the lights on the streets. There, there was no light. I was riding in one direction and other person, I found out the next day that it was my neighbor, was driving in the other direction. And we hit each other and I had a new bike and I [laughing] destroyed it completely and I did not know who I had crashed into. So the next day, the neighbor came [laughing] and he and said somebody crashed into him the night before and he did not know who it was. His bike was completely ruined. I, of course, didn’t say it was me. I just smiled and had to hold in laughter when I found out it was him.

Did you have any jobs as a teenager?

I would not call it a job, but ways to make some money; I did earn some money. Because I came from a big family, it was not easy to get enough money to buy even something small. So, one of the things I did was sell rabbits. I bought two from someone and I would breed them until I had enough to sell them. This way, I bought my first soccer ball and my bike by selling rabbits. Also, whenever I came across eggs that no one else knew about, I would sell them. I got some money from that. And before Christmas, people would use only natural Christmas trees from forests. So, it was three or four miles to go and cut a Christmas tree and bring it back. A few times before Christmas, I brought three, four Christmas trees back with me and I sold them. From that, I had a good amount of money. Whenever I could get anything and sell it to anyone, I could get some money, so I made the most out of things. I even sold things to my teachers from school. They knew I liked to make some money.

Where did you go after grammar school? What high school did you go to?

Now we’re getting to the tricky parts. It’ll be easier to explain in Polish. [Translated to English form Polish] After grammar school, I went to Technikum Budowlanego w Krakowie [Technical School of Building in Kraków]. It was quite far away so I had to live in a dorm, I had to feed myself, so before or after school, I would work so I could afford food, or school supplies such as books. More specifically, it was called Specalizacja Wyposa?enie Sanitarne Budynków [Specialization in the Sanitary Facilities].

When did you finish?

I finished in 5 years…. So when I was 19. It was 1978, I believe. After three months after my graduation, I went to the Polish army. At that time in Poland, everyone had to go to the military; it was a requirement. On average, it was 2 years, but it depended on which branch of the military. About 90% was 2 years, only the marines were 3 years. So I went to the army far from home, like 700 km, it was Gi?ycko. I am from the south of Poland, and it was Gi?ycko, far north in Poland, not far from the Russian Kaliningrad. I was supposed to be for two years but because of Solidarno?? [Solidarity]. At this time, in Poland, Solidarno?? began, meaning the Polish trade union against Communist, against the authorities in Poland which were dictated by the Communists from the Soviet Union. Solidarno?? was an independent trade union which was lead by Lech Wa??sa and these Solidarno?? [movements] became so huge that the Polish authorities became afraid of them that it won’t just be about work, about the 8-hour workday or Saturdays off, or better wages and several other things. Thus, the authorities started to be afraid of them, of Solidarno??, and at this moment, in December, December 21st, I think, 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski, head of the Polish army and head of the entire Polish government, declared a state of war in the entire country of Poland. I was supposed to be done with the army because it was about 2 years, but the declaration was made and in order to help the army, the term was extended at first for half a year but then an additional 3 months. And in the state of war, my job was to stop all cars (or the ones that seemed suspicious), checking all documents of travelers, or also when certain organizations were insubordinate, we had to, as the [nonprofessional] army had to blockade the building or such and the police would go in and did whatever. What happened inside we did not know (and were not allowed to), we only heard some from stories later.

[translated form Polish into English] Because I stayed longer in the army, I served for an additional 9 months, General Jaruzelski gave me this form, namely the right to enroll at any university in Poland. I used this opportunity; I enrolled at the Akademia Górniczo-Hutnicza im. Stanis?awa Staszica w Krakowie [AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków] which I began in 1981.

Did you end up finishing school? Or what happened after you went to school at AGH?

[translated form Polish into English] When I started my second year, and of course I was working because, like I said before, I did not have the money. No one helped with this, I had to earn enough money for myself and I started to go to work. I worked at the Krakowskiego Przedsi?biorstwa Instalacji Sanitarnych [the Plumbing and Public Sanitation Firm in Kraków], namely many construction jobs in the field of water engineering.

From this job where I was wor¬¬king, I got a proposition to travel outside of Poland for work. For a long time I pondered what to do. I had to decide between leaving Poland or finishing school because this was associated with a long trip outside of Poland. However, the financial side took over and I stopped school and traveled abroad through a German company. First, we went to Austria, where I worked for half a year in Vienna. It is a very, very beautiful city. I enjoyed Vienna tremendously. It is a stunning city. For about 6 months we were trained and prepared for work in Iraq, more specifically in Baghdad. There I did work in my field while in Baghdad on the construction sites. First, we built the Ministry of War building for, at that time, Saddam Hussein. He was still in power in Iraq and he was a friend of the United States. So, first we built the Ministry of War building and then one of his [Saddam Hussein’s] palaces. My portion was heating and air conditioning. At that time, the dinar, the currency used then in Iraq, was worth $3 dollars, this was a lot of money. I worked there for about 2 years. Work was pretty long because it was from about 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening. As I was leaving for Iraq, I had to sign paperwork that I knew that there was a war going on between Iraq and Iran, and I signed that I knew I was going at my own risk. Once, we were driving by the Tigris River and a small bomb landed in the Tigris and our bus tipped over. Also, at around noon, there were afternoon breaks, and, often times, workers tanned in front of the buildings. This one particular time, there was also a bomb that landed not on us but near us. In our building, the glass in the windows shattered. I think one guy actually died because of the injuries from the shattered glass. I was lucky; I was just far back enough that when the glass shattered, it fell straight down and missed me. That was just a few events that happened in Iraq, but I survived two years. So it wasn’t even actually that bad.

So by working in Iraq you got enough money to come to the U.S.?

[Translated form Polish into English] That’s exactly how it was. Flying from Poland to the U.S., one must have had worked for a really long time to afford just the plane ticket. During the announced state of war, a lot of people left Poland because of General Jaruzelski. Those who were against the Communist government, were allowed to leave, but with only a one-way ticket, meaning without returning ever. People were leaving and I also found that I could leave Poland, to go to England, to the United States or wherever. But since I already had friends in the U.S., I headed to the U.S.

So why did you choose to go the U.S.?

Like I already said, I had friends and family already here and they had settled in. So it was easier, and in Poland there was, and still is, a myth about America that it was situated the best in terms of economics and that whoever comes here will get a job and that is it possible to earn money anywhere and without a problem. I came to Chicago because my friends and family were in this city and there is a very large Polish population. Thus, I knew it would be the easiest to find a job here. At this point, a lot of Polish people were emigrating out of the country, to various locations.

So what were your first impressions of the U.S.?

I came here in ’85 and it was very different from the American myth that it was all going to be easy, that everything would be served on a platter to me. One had to work hard and for the first 9 months I didn’t have a job. It was good that I had two people from my family here who helped me out and friends who helped me out. But in 9 months I did find a job, and from there, it started. I worked in my area of expertise, construction, and it turned out it was a decent job and it started to go well. But, it all took time; it took a while, about two years to have a job secured, to have enough for everyday living.

Were things better here or in Poland?

I think it is better here. It is still without comparison. If someone wants to work, one can find a job and has fair compensation for the work. So here, and second it’s been a long time. I am already used to it. I have a family here. Here, I think I’ll stay.

When you came here, where did you live? Where did you work? Did you have family members living with you?

When I came here, I came to a Polish neighborhood [of Chicago] known as “Jackowo,” so almost every other house at that time was Polish. There wasn’t even much of a problem that if someone didn’t know English that well at first. I came here to my brother and to my brother-in-law. I lived with my brother and brother-in-law, who in the first days, really, really helped me. If it weren’t for them, who knows what would have been because I couldn’t find a job for 9 months.

As other people were leaving and going back to Poland, why did you decide to stay?

Oh, I came to the States as a bachelor and I had a family in Poland, but only brothers, sisters, and my parents. So after some time, things started looking up here. I had a business partner, we started to prosper [in our business], I met here my future wife, and I believed that here would be my place.





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