Immigrant Stories: Family left life in Poland but found freedom
In January 1970, Alexandra Yajko came to America as a political refugee. Poland in the late ’60s had grown more and more anti-Semitic, and after a series of incidents Alexandra’s parents decided it was time to go. The Rosenbergs fled by train leaving their home, their friends and most of their worldly possessions. But for all they gave up, Alexandra remembers there was one precious gift they received.Gallacher: Do you remember the day you had to leave Poland?Yajko: Very much so. It was a very traumatic day. It was a very unpleasant experience. The Polish government made it very uncomfortable for people. We left under the escort of police with guns drawn. They made it as ugly as possible. There were people who were thrown off the train and left overnight in this old forgotten train station with their babies and no food. The train ran only once a day.It was very intimidating. They could search you, and you couldn’t have more than the equivalent of $80 on each person. When they searched you if they found any jewelry or more money or anything that was not allowed they could throw you off the train.And they would not allow us to buy our tickets until the day our passports expired. We became citizens of the world. We became nonentities. We had just resigned our citizenship as Poles but hadn’t been accepted by any other country. So being a refugee for those few hours on the train ride out of Poland was very tense, because anything could have happened. I am not suggesting that people were shot or that they were taken to Siberia. It wasn’t that bad. But the memories of my parents who had lived through the Holocaust really played into the fear. My parents’ eyes were wide with fear. They didn’t know what to expect.We had with us exactly what we were supposed to have, not a dollar more, not a ring more, nothing. We had three pairs of underwear, two shirts. We had nothing extra. We followed the rules to the letter. My father wasn’t taking any chances.Gallacher: When did you know that you were free?Yajko: When we crossed the Czech border. It was right around midnight on the train ride when we crossed into Austria and there was a change of guard on the train, and the Austrian conductor came into our compartment and said, “Welcome to Austria. You are free now.” We all cried. It was very emotional.It was at that moment that I took off my Star of David necklace that I had worn so defiantly in Poland. I realized that I didn’t have to tell the world who I was. I was free now. I could be anything I wanted to be. That was probably the single most important act of my life. Freedom is something that is very hard to describe. And yet that night I felt it. I was a very real sensation. I remember thinking, “I have just crossed the Iron Curtain, I’m free now. Well if I’m free now, then I’m free. I can be anything I want to be and I don’t need to tell people and I don’t need to introduce myself as one or the other. I can just be.” Just being able to be is a huge thing.
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