Escape from communist Poland into color, light of freedom
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Noemi and Kristof Kosmowski are local artists who have worked with the city of Glenwood Springs and the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts to paint murals on the city’s electrical transformers.
Noemi: I have loved America since I was a little girl, and I knew I would be here one day. I knew it ever since I got my first pair of jeans from America. It was the colors, the different states and all the different people from different countries, the little houses and the big farms, the palm trees in Florida and California, everything. It is really hard to say where it starts and where it ends when I talk about what I love about America.
Gallacher: How is it different from Poland?
Noemi: How is it different? Everything is different! Poland was really a very sad nation after the second World War*, a very gray nation. It was in the faces of the people, always very sad, very down. They were always talking about problems and never talking about anything happy. They didn’t see a bright future. Everything was grayish, houses, no signs on the stores. I was raised in a family of artists, so I was looking for color. It was just in my nature.
Kristof: We were married back in Poland, and we came together. We grew up under Communist rule and lots of changes in the government. Imagine if the United States was forced to live under a completely different political system.
When we were kids our parents were involved in politics, trying to create a better situation for Poland. So our parents taught us that there could be a better Poland. We weren’t raised to be Communists, that’s for sure.
It’s hard to live in a country where you have to live without freedom. Our only freedom was to breathe the air. It gets to you and you try to get out from under it.
Noemi: You try to rebel, it’s the nature of humans.
Gallacher: Were you in danger if you spoke out?
Noemi: Of course, of course! Three people together on the street were considered a demonstration. You would be stopped by police and asked for your documents and asked, “What are you doing here?” This happened especially during the ’80s, the Lech Walesa** times, but also in the ’50s, and the ’60s, and the ’70s. It all depended on who was on top.
Gallacher: How did you get out?
Noemi: We escaped in 1984.
Kristof: We arranged all the papers and everything, and then Solidarity came and we couldn’t get a visa. It was impossible for families to leave the country, so we had to leave separately. I left first. I was a graphic designer, so I forged some stamps on my passport and took off for the border, hitchhiking and riding the train.
The plan was for me to call Noemi and the kids when I got to Germany and then she was going to take the kids and go on what looked like a holiday and join me in Germany. She had all the papers ready.
Noemi: If he hadn’t gotten to Germany then we wouldn’t have left from Poland.
Kristof: It wasn’t possible to sneak across the border, so I decided to ride the train across the border and take a chance that they wouldn’t check my papers.
When I got on the train I spotted an American who was talking about not having his paperwork because everything had been stolen. He had no money, just a permit to cross the border. He was really upset so I bought him some food and some tea and learned more about his story and made my own plan.
He told me that his permit allowed him to cross the border and go to the American consulate in Berlin. So he was legal to cross but I wasn’t. So a few hours later we approached the border and the customs people boarded the train and started checking people’s paperwork. I stood up and pointed at the American and said in Polish, “That guy doesn’t have his paperwork.” After that the customs people focused on the American and didn’t pay any attention to my paperwork. The American couldn’t speak Polish and the guards couldn’t speak English. So I volunteered to translate.
By the time the customs people realized that the American had enough paperwork to cross we were at the border and the officials got word that they needed to leave the train. They turned to me and said, “And where is your paperwork?” I said, “It’s back in car, in my briefcase, I’ll go get it.”
“There isn’t time for that,” they said “You’re free to go.”
After I caught my breath, I went looking for the American and apologized for making it difficult for him. When he learned what my situation was, he said, “Oh my God, I’m going help you.” But I told him he had already done enough for me. He had been my decoy.
When I got to Berlin, I called Noemi and told her I was OK and she could leave with the kids.
Noemi: I took the kids and we flew as tourists to Germany. Our kids were very little, but they had heard us planning, so they knew that we wanted to go to America. Along the way, they kept asking me in loud voices, “Mommy, are we going to America now?” I was so worried we were going to be stopped. I kept saying, “Be quiet, we are going to Germany, not America.”
During that time there were many people who were listening to other people and trying to figure out the situation, so they could report you. I was so stressed. We were under a lot of pressure. It took us a week after we arrived to realize that we were still whispering.
We flew to Hamburg, where Kristof was waiting for us at the airport. Our daughter Eva saw him and said, “Is this our daddy?” because she didn’t know that we were going to meet him. I couldn’t tell them because they were too young to keep secrets. And then Eva asked again very loud, “Is this America?”
Gallacher: How old were the kids?
Kristof: They were 2 and a half and 1 and a half.
Gallacher: Did you feel free once you got to Germany?
Noemi: No, that didn’t happen until we got to America, and that took three years. We didn’t want to apply for political refugee status in Germany because then we wouldn’t be able to come to America. So we spent three years trying to get our papers for America. We sat on our suitcases for three years.
Kristof: Then one day, we got an ultimatum from the German government to leave Germany. They said we had been there too long and we needed to find another country. I went down to the immigration office and asked the woman there what we were supposed to do. She told me we could go to Spain, France or back to Poland, but we couldn’t stay there anymore.
I told her our story and she finally told me that I should sue the German government. If we sued it would give us time to work it out in court and they couldn’t deport us. She even helped me file the paperwork.
I returned home and a few days later we had our tickets and paperwork for the United States.
Noemi: God bless that woman, I guess they didn’t want to deal with us.
Kristof: We flew to JFK airport soon after that and when I got off the plane I kissed the ground. It was such a relief to finally be in the United States.
We lived in Harrison, N.J., for the first year. We had to start from scratch because we didn’t have the connections we had in Poland.
Noemi: It was fun, learning English, everything was new. I was cleaning houses and Kristof was doing everything possible.
Kristof: I was working as a graphic designer in Poland and even in Germany, but here it was hard to get a job in design. My first job here was doing layout and design for a Russian newspaper. So I came to America and the language I was reading and speaking was Russian. Noemi got a job at night singing in a Polish club.
Noemi: I was singing at night, cleaning during the day, painting whenever possible and taking care of two kids.
Kristof: After New Jersey we moved to Florida and we lived there for 19 years, but we moved about 25 times.
Noemi: We’re artists, so we are kind of gypsies. We liked it in Florida but we really like it here.
Gallacher: Are your kids here with you?
Noemi: No, our daughter was in the musical “Cats” and is now in California, where she has a role in the new television show, “PanAm.” Our son is a computer animator with a company called Tiger Direct. So they have their own American dreams.
Kristof: We decided to leave Florida and move here when we lost our properties and a lot of our money. So we are starting again from scratch. When I first came to town I met Stanley Bartlomiejzuk (owner of Silver Spruce Motel) and he gave me a job. He has helped us a lot. He is like our godfather.
Noemi: I fell in love with Glenwood. I think this is it.
Gallacher: So is this the place you were looking for as a little girl?
Noemi: I think so. You know I hear some people saying that this country isn’t free anymore but that’s not true. Some people take what you have here for granted. These people should live in another country for a while and then they will understand what they have here.
You are lucky to be born here. Some people feel like they are being controlled by the government, but they haven’t really experienced control. In Poland you felt it all the time, it was everywhere.
You would be talking on the phone with a friend and suddenly there would be a third voice telling that you were talking about things that were forbidden. In Poland they would just turn the phones off for months and months everywhere. You couldn’t call anybody.
Kristof: Yes, for the years we lived there it was like the script for a Hollywood action thriller.
* Of all the countries involved in World War II, Poland lost the highest percentage of its citizens: More than 6 million perished – nearly one-fifth of Poland’s population – half of them Polish Jews.
** Labor turmoil in 1980 led to the formation of the independent trade union Solidarity, which eventually became a political force. Despite persecution and imposition of martial law in 1981, the union eroded the dominance of the Communist Party and by 1989 triumphed in Poland’s first free and democratic parliamentary elections since the end of World War II. Lech Walesa, a Solidarity candidate, eventually won the presidency in 1990. The Solidarity movement heralded the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe.
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