MY LIFE - IN PASSPORTS
By June Friedman
Yesterday I have received my new passport. Since the year 1975 this is my fifth one. This made me think, especially looking at the pictures, how much my life has changed in the last 29 years.
All started when I have joined the Philatelic International Society and started to exchange stamps and letters with many people. Stas from Poland was among those that where interested about my life, here in the United States, and also before the war, as well as in the war. After a few years my husband Max and I, invited him to come and spend 3 weeks with us. That's how my trips to Poland started because he invited me and this was my dream (to visit my homeland) for the last 30 years. I have left Poland right after the war, lived four years in Germany, then 11 years in Israel, before finally settling here. In the beginning we were busy with our new life and with raising children and I did not think much about my longing to see my homeland, but this was always within me, deep down and I never got over this feeling of wanting to see it once again.
So when Stas came this was my opportunity. Max had let me go, for the first time ever by myself, for the first time on a plane, and I admit I was scared not being sure what I will find there. My frustration and fear is showing on my photo in my first passport, which was valid for 5 years.
In September 1975 I was on my way, very excited, full of hopes and scared of disappointments. Luckily everything went even better than I hoped for and in the 3 weeks I have seen many places, visited my beloved Kraków, but most of all I spent few days with Susan and Filip, the people who saved my life in the war. For a few days I felt like a child again: being cared for and pampered. Filip was walking behind me saying: "a grown woman" with amazement and Susan cooked and baked my favorite dishes, which since then I myself have forgotten that I liked them. It all came back to me when I ate them that she was right. It was great! We went to town to make a picture together and this was the last time I have seen them. They passed away few years later.
My next trip was in 1977 as I complained that the first was too fast and I could not "soak in" all the sounds and sights. Which was true. I was not truly prepared . I did not know that you can not prepare your emotions and this will never subside in me. This time I have met Jozefina and got to know Warsaw, at least the center of the city. Jozefina had to work but she gives excellent directions so I could stroll all day long by myself finding new places: museums, cinemas, galleries, restaurants, parks, stores and I was very happy, relaxed and worry free. Those were my very precious moments. I could see the sights and sounds of my childhood. I was very grateful to Max and the children that I was able to do this.
But at the end of the trip I had a very unpleasant experience. I have bought a leather coat and the woman at the airport custom service did not want me to take it and started to strip search me, several times, which reminded me of my time in the Gestapo and before I was done with her I told her so. Also I've asked her if she did not like my last name. She understood this right away stamped my passport and let me go on the other side to board my plane. When I got to the other side I started to cry hysterically and could not stop. I have missed this country so much and one custom officer, a crippled woman, has spoiled everything! No, I could not allow this! My longing for my homeland was stronger than one communist. She will not keep me from returning!
So at home I have started saving money again for my next trip which occurred in 1979. Max taught me how to save money for those trips and I think that this was the best trip yet.
On the plane was a mother with a small boy sitting next to me and at one point the child spilled coffee on me so the steward promptly moved me to the first class which was an experience by itself and I had a chance to see how the "other half" travels... The luxury there was overwhelming! Even food was better and the stewards were bringing something every few minutes. It was a bit too much for my taste. I like to be left alone. But I arrived rested and ready to visit and talk. Jozefina and Stas had tickets to the theater so after I showered we went to town. All my time there was perfect. The weather was sunny and warm for September. I met many nice people and came home happy again, hoping to go again in 1981. But in Poland at that time were unrests, strikes and people were very unhappy so it was not a good time to travel there. In the year 1983 the situation has calmed down so I started to plan my next trip. This time I met a stamp collector with whom I was corresponding for many years. When I arrived there were four people waiting for me with 2 cars: Stas, Jozefina, Jerzy, (Jozefina's friend) and Pryzmont. They started to argue who will take me and who will take my luggage...
Also Jozefina had dinner waiting and Pryzmont said that his wife is waiting for me and Stas as well. Finally we have decided that I will rest and tomorrow we'll spend all day with them and we'll come for dinner. Again it was too much attention and I felt uncomfortable. The rest of my stay went well, we went sightseeing in many interesting places in and around Warsaw. We visited Plock, a 750 year old city, we went to Wilanow royal palace and strolled in their gorgeous gardens and later in Kraków, I have finally met in person my only living relative, Henryk Vogler, and his wife Roma, who took me to the Wawel Castle and around Kazimierz where once was the Jewish part of town and all the streets still have Jewish names. Now the tourists visit, from all over the world: the synagogues, cemeteries (there are two there) museums, bookstores, restaurants and coffeehouses. It was a moving experience as all my relatives were once living in Kraków. I had many wonderful memories from our trips there and life seemed good. Only by the next year all of it was to change for the worse.
In August 1984 our son unexpectedly got sick and after 2 weeks they found out that he has cancer and needs surgery. It was a terrible shock but we were hoping for the best as he was always a healthy boy. After 2 years of chemotherapy he got well, I on the other hand, could not find a balance and started to have problems with my stomach. I could not eat anything and the doctors said I have an acid reflux. It was a very difficult time for us, but having Max with me helped. He has seen how I am coping and suggested that I go "home" for a visit again as this was always the right treatment for me. So I have applied for my third passport and this time it was valid for ten years. In September 1985 I have embarked for another trip. Jozefina has moved to a better part of the city to, a larger, sunny, pretty apartment. I just loved to stay on the balcony and see the city below. This was what I did every morning and evening, before anything else. Jozefina's life was getting much better as now she had her doctorate and she was a full fledged professor in the Warsaw University, earning a lot more and she was also working for the Parliament (Sejm) which brought her extra income. Life there for me was still very cheap and I felt wealthy with few dollars in my pocket.
A dinner in a very fancy restaurant was costing $2.- as the dollar was still very strong. I have invited Pavel and his wife (my cousin's son) to the most expensive restaurant in Kraków where Head of States and Royalties had their meetings and we had an exclusive meal. Pavel had a couple of beers and it was costing me $8.- with a tip. Those prices soon changed and now a meal in that restaurant starts $100 or more. So whatever I have enjoyed it is mine.
Life does not give me many chances so I am glad I took advantage of those I got. Spending a couple of weeks in Kraków was great. The atmosphere of this enchanting city does wonders for the visitors and for natives alike. All this is thousand years old and overwhelms people. I say people, because people come from all over the world. When someone is in Poland, he/she has to visit Kraków and no one leaves disappointed.
My next three trips were uneventful. But a second tragedy was unfolding before our eyes. In 1992 our daughter was diagnosed with cancer and her cancer was very aggressive. Although she had 3 surgeries, 4 different chemotherapies the doctors could not save her life. On February 4, 1994 she left us forever. We were devastated and heartbroken. I have tried to keep everything going but it seemed that my life was over. When I called Jozefina to tell her the news she told me: "your only help is to come to Poland. We are here for you." And Terenia added: "we are waiting for you with open arms and open hearts, you have to come". Max thought so too. I always had this self-preservation instinct and this is probably the reason why I am still here.
In October 1994 I have received my fourth passport and I was on my way again. This was my eighth trip and I was glad to get away. I did not know then that you can not run away from yourself and from your destiny.
There were several people waiting for me at the Warsaw airport and among them was Piotrus, Stas and Terenia's son. He took off from college to stay with me as Jozefina had to work this evening. He made tea and sandwiches for us and wanted to hear all about Doris. I was really surprised that he was so kind and understanding, because he was young, an only child and seemed always self-absorbed. Later years have shown that he is a responsible person, and a good husband and father. Next few days Jozefina took me to many interesting places which are visited by tourists and at the end of the week she and Jerzy, her friend, took me by car to Starachowice, were I had a dentist appointment. Then I returned to Kraków again I have now the photos to keep me remembering where I was and when. Otherwise I would not remember. Everywhere I went people were around me all the time, so I did not have time to dwell too much. This trip was my healing. The last day Jozefina was flying out to Canada for a conference the same time I did, so we went together to the airport. I could take with me also my first publication, that I could show my family and friends, for which I've got paid my first fee of $50.00 for writing the story. This was good for my soul too. Much more relaxed and facing life I have returned home.
As usual in my life things could not stay quiet for long. In 1995 I needed to have hysterectomy. Another surgery! So after I have recuperated, my retreat was Poland again, and in 1996 I was on my way. This time many nice things happen. In Kraków Roma got me theater tickets for every evening I was there and one I bought myself to see and hear a famous singer , whose records I have and she sang in Yiddish, and she is not even Jewish... That was in a restaurant where Jewish tourists gather to hear and see Jewish folklore. I made some pictures and I have enjoyed this evening very much. Her name is Slawa Przybylska.
This was not the last of my surprises because when I have returned to Warsaw Jozefina told me that she has arranged an interview for me and I have just to meet with a radio journalist about my survival in the war under the Nazis regime. It was a good trip and pleasant experience.
Of course, this could not last. Not in my life anyway. After few months Max started to complain of pain in his side and after many tests we got terrible news that he has cancer near his kidney. Only surgery was possible, but surgery did not help and on March 20, 1997 Max passed away. Now only we were left, Eric and myself. We had to make the best of it and take care of everything. Life turned against us again.. I had to prove again , like so many times before, that I am a survivor. What else could I do? So, plane tickets again and off I went. This time my friend from Israel, Pola, was meeting me in Kraków and together we left for 10 days at a resort called Krynica. I was a mess and this change was God sent. My health got better and I could eat many things again. At home I have decided to repeat this cure in 1998 and 1999.
After my return home another lightning struck in 2001. At a routine mammogram they found cancer in my right breast. It seemed like a never ending nightmare! For a few seconds I thought ENOUGH... In my case: I live alone, I could start the car and close the garage door…
But as I said I am a survivor and I could not do this to Eric. Then the surgeon said that my cancer is in a very early stage and after the mastectomy I will not need any other treatment. So another surgery, home visiting nurses, infection and complications, but eventually, everything turned out ok, or as well as a woman can feel losing a breast. Again survived! But before I could take a breath Eric needed surgery on his colon. The second one in 17 years. This was really too much for me. While waiting in the hospital I lost it and could not stop crying. God took pity on me (us) and everything went well and he recovered completely. As for me I was not down yet. My next trip the 14th one, was in May 2002. I really don't know if I could take all this if I would not have the trips and Poland to run to... This, I thought, will be my last trip as I am getting old. But as the years go by I started to think: maybe? So I have renewed my fifth passport and this is the story of my 5 passports.
Twenty nine years of life, some dreams and hopes that came true and many that did not...
But at the end I want to remember the pleasant experiences and dwell on those. Otherwise life is not worth living at all. I am still looking to the future with hope, no matter what it will bring me.
August 22, 2004
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June Friedman: Translation of Halina Birenbaum's Poems Book: Sounds of a Guilty Silence
Contact June Friedman by Email: mailto:junef19 at earthlink.net (replace "at" by @ to avoid spam)
Last updated September 14th, 2006