The Blog

That’s how it was living as an immigrant back in the 50s

Jan, 88 from Poland. Retired teacher. Married. 4 children, 4 grandchildren, 2 great grandchildren?


How are you?

Amazed really - I’m sat here with a family and have children who are all doing interesting things. I haven’t always appreciated them. It’s taken me a long, long time to work out who I am. After I retired I spent 20 years working in Poland. What on earth was I doing? I had already retired but it wasn’t til recently that I realised - I was re building my identity. 

I left Poland because of the war when I was 9 years old. We moved to Sweden and then a few years later to the UK, I was 14 when I arrived here. The lack of identity, belongingand feeling of loss I felt for all those years, I wanted to belong, to be a part of a Polish community so I immersed myself in Polish education and everything Polishness by spending my retirement going back and forth to Poland.

When I was younger I used to dream of going back to Poland. Bring things like cricket and rugby to to bridge my worlds. The last 20 years has rounded it up. I don’t need to go there anymore. My countrymen irritate me more than the English ones do now which is a sign of where your heart might be. (laughing).

When the war came to an end it was obvious we wouldn't be going back to Poland. I moved to a boarding school in Hertfordshire, it was a disaster. I learned nothing about England. I didn’t know how to be in English society. At the time there was something about not having a British background, it was difficult. When you realise you’re stuck with a new country for the rest of your life it’s useful to dig yourself in somewhere - to try to belong. The problem with immigrants and the ‘digging in’, is you abandon your past completely. There’s no point thinking about your past, no one here is interested. Nobody knows who the hell you are. There is no commonality. Cutting away from your past is something you have to do. I tried to be very English. 

I couldn't get any job, mainly because other peoples preconceptions -  ‘How will he behave in difficult situations?’ An Englishman knows how an Englishman will behave but he will not know how a Pole will. It was made harder too by the fact that my childhood was spent being around writers, artists, actors; no one got up in the morning and went to a ‘proper’ job. I’d always wondered what the hell people did all day in these offices. 

Eventually I became a teacher. I was told my surname would have to go because no one could pronounce it so I changed my name. It took me 20 years to go back to my original surname - but three of my children have the adopted one - I think that’s hard. Life has changed now, thank God but that’s how it was living as an immigrant back in the 50s and 60s. 

How do you see yourself?

Personal stability is fairly important in your life especially when you’re young. I used to be very unsure of who I was but since I created my own Poland, I’m very sure of myself.

Is the point to understand yourself?

It is extremely important to find out who you are. Firstly, everyone knows parents determine what kind of person you grow up to be and secondly, is to have clarity about who you are. The thing with uncertainty is, people know that you don't know who you are and they find that uncomfortable - it gives off alert signals.

How do you think other people see you? 

One thing is when you’re sure about yourself you don’t care what other people think. I forgive myself very quickly.

What do you think about marriage?

It’s a signal that someone loves me. It builds in stability and support. The only problem was - it can all fall apart.

My parents spent the first ten years of their marriage fulfilling their dreams. They were the golden couple. They exchanged letters all their life. He had affairs. Everyone took drugs, People were gay, no one cared. They were privileged, they led a Bohemian life style

What do you think about children?

My mother told me there are two types of women; ones that love their husbands and ones who love their kids. She was one that loved her husband. You don’t want to hear from your parents that you’re second rate. For them it was no big deal to leave their child with a nanny for months on end. I was left in the care of my cousin for 6 - 8 months whilst my mother went to be with my father in Paris. When she eventually came my back I had forgotten her smell - she was a stranger and not only that, she didn’t fight for me. That’s what my parents lives were like.

I was experiencing abandonment. I had no permanent friends growing up because we were always moving. I was farmed out again and again. I was always being shoved to some place or another. My teenage years were awful because I didn’t have friends. Eventaully when I went to boarding school I had friends but they were school term friends only - they weren’t proper friends. I remember one Christmas I was staying with a guy who charitably took me on for the holidays as my parents didn’t have a bed for me.

What do you think about Life? 

Life is a miracle - astonishing, amazing. Just look around at the richness of what we create, everybody is different. The vast universe that we are a part of yet we’re such a tiny, tiny part - it’s a paradox, a miracle. All the thinking and emotions that build up, life is so incredibly rich. Even if is a very sort life, it’s already amazing.

What do you think about Death?

A few months ago I thought I might die in my sleep. I worried about it but then I realised, if I die in my sleep I will not know that I’ve died in my sleep so there’s not much point in worrying about it. (laughing) 

What brings you down? 

Human stupidity, including my own. When things upset me I try to go behind it and find out more so somehow I can learn how to live with it. For example; why is Teresa May so emotional less? I think it must be something to do with her father. I discovered that her father had a very strange life and if you have a father who was very, very strange maybe you shut up shop on your emotions because you just cant cope with them. You can’t empathise with people, how could you with a father like that? She is driven by something deep down but with an inability to feel other peoples emotions. Maybe if she did she’d be totally out of control. 

How do you best express yourself?

Changes in environment. I like bringing people together. When two people meet things may happen or they may not. But if they do then I am very happy. My psychoanalyst said ‘Ah yes, trying to get your parents together again’. At least I express it in a creative useful way.