Leaving Poland behind was a difficult experience
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
When Alexandra Yajko was 16 she was forced to leave her country and start over in America. That experience inspired a life of service to others. This summer Alexandra will retire from Colorado Mountain College where she spent her career helping students overcome financial barriers and realize their dream of a college education.
Yajko: I came to the United States as a political refugee in January of 1970. And, like so many other immigrants, we came to New York City. It was my mom, my dad and my older sister. The political situation in Eastern Europe had been brewing for several years. This was turning out to be the last purging, the last exodus of the Jews from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. It was very reminiscent of the exodus before the start of World War II.
Both of my parents had been young teenagers when the war broke out. They both lost 90 percent of their families in the Nazi death camps. So when they started their family after the war they hoped that Poland’s support of the Jews would be strong.
But in the mid-’60s it became obvious that the environment in Poland was becoming extremely anti-Semitic. Poland, at that time, was a socialist block country with allegiance to the Soviet Union. There was a succession of incidences that led to the announcement by the general secretary of the Polish Party. The general secretary announced that Jews or Jew sympathizers were welcome to leave. Anyone leaving would be required to give up their citizenship. There were only about 10,000 Jews in Poland at the time, but the intensity of the anti-Semitism astonished us. We had assumed that it had been eradicated at the end of World War II.
My parents decided that it was probably the last opportunity that we would have to leave as a family. But we had to leave everything behind, our home, our belongings. We left with only what we could pack in our suitcases. My sister was in her first year at medical school. Our decision to leave was cemented when she was approached by the KGB and asked to denounce her friends at the university and begin spying on them.
When she came home that day and told my parents, my dad said, “That’s it, that does it. We are out of here.” We filed for passports and had them in three months. By the end of September we were on a train out of Poland. 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 your 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.
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.
We ended up in Vienna and stayed there for four months and then in January we came to New York City to begin our lives. It was difficult. It had been very traumatic for all of us to be uprooted from our own country. I was 16 at the time and I had just left everything that I knew behind – my sweetheart, my friends, my home, my school.
We had to start over in a country where life was moving on and we had to find our way in it. I was 16 in this strange new city, and I didn’t understand anything. I had to start high school with the little bit of English I had learned along the way. It barely got me through the door. Everything was difficult, but I learned as quickly as I could.
Gallacher: How did your family cope with this dramatic change?
Yajko: Our family was very traditional. My father was the final authority, and mother was the one that navigated between this ultimate authority and two very strong-willed girls. Mother was very generous and kind and was able to accommodate all the strong wills in the house. Supporting one another was very important. We all pooled our resources. I worked in a bakery, and my sister worked in an office.
We helped one another. Very quickly I became the translator between the new and the old. I would go with my father to the bank and do his banking. I went with him to the shoemaker and the post office. Whenever my parents needed translation they looked to me to be the conduit between the old world and the new. My sister had other assignments, mine was to be the public front.
Gallacher: Did you like that job?
Yajko: I didn’t really question it. It wasn’t a matter of liking or not liking. We all had prescribed roles. You adapt to the circumstances in ways that you really don’t understand. You just do them because things need to be done.
It was an odd position for me to be in because my father had been a powerful figure and a very successful businessman in Poland. And, all of a sudden, he is in a totally different country where all that he was breaks down for him. So he had to look to his daughters for support. He didn’t have to ask, we understood. There was an unspoken understanding of what we needed to do to help our parents maintain their roles.
It was very difficult for my father.
My sister and I still had to abide by the rules our parents had established for us in Poland. My new American friends were doing things and going places that I knew I couldn’t even ask my parents for.
Gallacher: How has the experience of leaving your homeland impacted your life?
Yajko: Hmm, not in the best of ways. Working through that experience has not been an easy thing for me to do. Being pushed out of your country makes you feel “less than.” It’s not easy. And, in order to continue on and make it through the trials and tribulations of being an immigrant, you make a little place in your heart that you can fill with whatever feelings you choose. I chose to fill it with disdain for my heritage. Consequently I didn’t teach my son Polish and I didn’t speak Polish. I wanted to relieve myself of my heritage. I had decided that if they didn’t want me then why would I want them back.
Although my approach was a reasonable defense mechanism that served me well and propelled me to some positive action, it also left certain scars. And then something happened 17 years ago that really helped me. My husband took me on a surprise trip for our honeymoon. We went to Greece and Vienna. It was at that time that the war in Yugoslavia broke out and suddenly it wasn’t safe for us to go on the train. So we flew into Vienna and back tracked in a car to a place in Czechoslovakia do some sightseeing.
One afternoon we were looking at the map and realized I was only a few hours from my hometown. I dissolved in tears. I realized I had to go. So we drove for eight hours. It was the evening of All Saints Day. The towns were very dark and all the little cemeteries were aglow with decorative lights. I arrived about nine o’clock at night and I called my best friend from childhood. She came and brought with her many of our friends and we talked through the night. And then, the next morning, I had to go back. That visit opened the door for me and helped me begin to heal.
Two years later, my sister and I returned. When our friends came to greet us they brought with them little souvenirs and keepsakes that I had given them when I left so many years ago. That really touched my heart.
Note: Colorado Mountain College has established the No Barriers Scholarship Fund to honor Alexandra Yajko’s 33 years of service.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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