Lessons learned from growing up in Poland with a little side of communism
I started this blog a while ago but I’ve never had a good introduction. In fact, my about page is really lacking. It’s time to fix that! What follows is the first of a few posts I’ll write to flesh out my about me page. It’ll be a proper introduction to the person behind the blog. In this one, I’ll cover my early years in Poland. I was a wee lad and didn’t understand much but I’ll try my best to remember the important things.
The first ten years of my life were spent in Poland. Communism was all the rage back then, at least for the first few years of my life. I don’t know if you know much about communism but in practice, it seems to suck.
Here’s my story all about how I grew up poor and the lessons I took from my childhood. All that with a little bit of communism thrown in for flavor!
My Childhood in Poland
I was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1984.
Poland wasn’t the happening mecca of Europe that you know today. It was part of the Soviet Bloc of countries and it came with all the things soviet influence might entail. There was communism and quite a bit of Russian control and meddling and probably some other crap I missed since I was too young. Chernobyl happened nearby too a few years after I was born so that sucked although Poland only got a little bit of radiation.
Honestly, I don’t remember much of what happened before the 1990s since I was just a little Polish baby. I’m sure you’re all well versed in Polish history so I won’t spend much time on it. The key part to know is that the late 1980s were a time of revolutions that brought an end to communist rule and brought democracy to Poland. Yay! That meant no more communist comrades and some new western friends.
There are some things that stick out to me from my early days. It wasn’t a time of plenty. I recall my mother, who worked as a secretary, taking us to wait in food lines where we were handed tickets. These magical tickets were used to get the limited amount of meat that the butcher got that day. Christmas which stuck out to me as a kid wasn’t a time of plenty either as presents were often just some Oranges and a new pair of socks.
Honestly, some of these early memories likely came from my brother who told me about them. The four of us lived in a tall, bland, soviet style apartment building. There were dozens of them lined up one next to the other. They all looked the same. I don’t have many pictures from that time period.
It was a uniform design and depressing soviet bloc color palette. I wish I had some pictures of the inside because it was just as impressive.
We were on the 9th floor of one of these tall apartments. There was no air conditioning although I think there might have been an elevator. Yes, we were THAT spoiled. I can’t claim that as a fact as I recall climbing up stairs quite often. Perhaps that was because because the elevator was often broken. Communism doesn’t necessarily bring top notch quality.
Most of my memories of Poland are after the communist influence ended. However, as with all things, change doesn’t happen overnight. That means a lot of the soviet elements stuck around into the 90s. I didn’t have a huge frame of reference to compare the time before and after communism but according to my parents, things definitely did get better.
Even if it took some time, once the kicking 1990s rolled on through, the world was suddenly opening up to me and to Poland too. I was around 6, starting school and seeing a whole new world.
The first lesson little Polish me learned was that communism sucks. I got that quickly as I saw things begin to change. Part of it was my parents telling me about how much better things were but a lot of it was seeing it right before my eyes.
Amazing technology such as a telephone became available. Suddenly, we were on a waiting list to get a freaking phone. It was a long wait since everyone wanted one. It was a big day when the phone guy came to our apartment to finally make it happen. Holy crap, we could call people in other buildings now! Television which up till now was controlled by the government suddenly became a lot more interesting as private channels came into existence.
The dream of the 90s was coming alive in Poland! We were lucky since we were in the city where technology was adopted at a much quicker pace.
It was different outside of the cities. My dad came from a small village and we used to visit often. That meant trading the newly found comforts of the city for Polish village life.
We didn’t have much in the city but we were freaking spoiled compared to what they had there. We had electricity for one, entertainment and a bathroom plus other sweet first world benefits.
Out on the farm, there was a water hole you could jump into if you wanted to come out covered in leeches and a bunch of farm animals to play with. I remember riding pigs and cows for entertainment since there wasn’t much else to do. One of my cousins got thrown off some pigs straight into a ton of poison ivy once, that was a bad day for him. We also had a bike that split in half during an accident and was tied together with ropes. It drove it but was certainly a wobbly experience.
There was no toilet. One of the worst things was having to get up in the middle of the night to walk to the barn and do my business near the cows. One night I woke up below the multitude of covers needed to make it through a winter night to find a rat just hanging out on top of me. You want a shower or bath, forget about it. You know, typical farm life things. I certainly yearned for the city comforts whenever we were out there.
Still, it was good to see this other part of life. It wasn’t all bad as there were plenty of animals to play with and farmland to explore. I was too young to realize it but it was a difficult life out there. The entire family lived on small farm and many services were very lacking. There was no running water so cleanliness wasn’t a top priority. Healthcare and mental care were nonexistent too.
We visited often but never stayed too much so I might have enjoyed staying there for a few days but I didn’t envy my cousins who had to be out there all year.
I think it was around then that I began to appreciate what I had back in the city. We didn’t have much but we definitely had more than my cousins. We’d spend some time out there but then we’d go back home to Warsaw.
In Warsaw, things were pretty decent. Poland was always quite a ways behind the states behind but the 90s started to tighten that difference. Television shows like Dynasty or Miami Vice were big in the early 90s even though they aired in the 80s in the U.S and a 10 year time difference ain’t bad!
We weren’t poor by any means. Our apartment was OK, we had water in the city and had enough food. We even had a car, a tiny Fiat that certainly wasn’t built with comfort in mind.
Sometimes we’d have to fit five to six people in there which required some geometric ingenuity. The car really was the peak of 1980s polish engineering – 23hp of pure road burning strength. We mainly used the car when we had to go outside of the city. Otherwise, it was the bus for us since gas was expensive.
I didn’t really consider whether we were rich or poor back then. All my friends lived a similar life so I assumed that’s how life went.
This was it.
I had a bike and spent a ton of time outside since it was too hot in the apartment. Toys were rare and mostly saved for special occasions like Christmas. We were fed, clothed and had a roof over our heads and that was life.
It was the same for my friends as far as I knew. One of my friends got an Amiga and a Commodore 64 so I spent a lot of time over there playing games. Eventually we even got an Atari system that took cassette tapes. Waiting 16 minutes for a cassette tape to load a game was the height of luxury! Later, we even got a bootleg Nintendo, the Pegasus.
School wasn’t too far away so my friends and I walked there. Then we’d hang out at home or at someone’s house until our parents got home. A small mall opened up not too far away from us and we could take the bus and see if any new games were out. Eventually, a pet store opened not too far from my apartment and my friends would spend hours there just look at animals. My parents eventually got me a hamster. One day, a parrot randomly flew into our balcony. Hey, free pet! We got him a cage and friend too.
My parents worked a lot as did my friends’ parents so we all just spent a lot of time on our own. We were probably 7 or 8 at the time and we were home alone most of the time or running around the neighborhood with no care in the world.
Life was simple but decent. I had what I needed and didn’t really know anything else. None of my friends were rich nor was anyone in my family. This was my view of the world and I learned to be content with it.
We did have an uncle who would show off his fancy alcohol that he got at his job. That was the first time I noticed that others may have more than us. My dad would always complain about how he was showing off when we left his house.
It certainly wasn’t all gravy. Healthcare was a real mixed bag. It was free but it was terrible. I recall my mother bringing a gift of some sort each time we went to the doctor for better service. It was almost expected. Hell, maybe that’s how my uncle got all his fancy alcohol – perhaps a remnant of the nepotism in the communist era.
My parents often spoke of corruption and unfair practices but I was a kid and didn’t notice a lot of that stuff. It wasn’t the life I knew so I wasn’t really impacted.
We even had a dentist at my school. Hey, free dental care right? Once I was unlucky enough to get a root canal there. I vividly recall him jamming some small metal rods filled with orange goo into my tooth while I cried and moaned in pain. There was no pain reduction or anything like that. It was Poland, we were hard and didn’t need that stuff! I learned that day why people don’t love dentists in a big way. The worst part was that I had to have the tooth redone later since it was a total botch job.
Teachers at school were mean readily slapping kids with a ruler. The quality of infrastructure was lacking. It wasn’t unheard of to have class during winter in a room with a broken window. One thing I will say is that school in Poland was surprisingly good and we covered a lot of material at a quick clip. I found that the material we covered in Poland in 4th grade was way ahead of what was being covered in America.
My dad’s job as an airplane part maker and my mom’s secretary job was enough to support us. My parents brought in around 20 million zloty per month. We were multi millionaires baby! I was doing well in school, had good friends and was enjoying the slowly improving quality of life.
I was all ready to grow up in Poland. It was all I knew.
In 1993, one of my dad’s friends got him a work visa in the U.S.
The job in the United States paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 per year. It wasn’t a fortune but it was about 10x more than my parents were making in Poland. The cost of living was different but he could send the money over making it an easy decision.
My dad went to America and we stayed behind. It was a great opportunity and he had to take it. Life didn’t change too much although we had a bit more money. For my communion, I even got a real Nintendo GameBoy. It was the big one and my dad sent it over from the states and I thought that was the coolest!
It was clear that my dad liked the United States a lot more than Poland. There was talk about moving the whole family over but it was as easy as just flying over. However, the immigration act of 1990 at least made it a possibility. Thanks George H.W. Bush!
My mom wasn’t too eager to leave her entire family but Dad eventually convinced her to try. After all, he was in the U.S. now and wanted us to join him. It was no sure thing but we applied for the Visa lottery and actually got selected. I’m sure the fact that my dad already had a skill based job in the states helped.
It all happened in a whirlwind. One day, I was living in Poland and then suddenly we were packing, getting on a plane for the first time and moving somewhere new. Leaving my friends and family behind was scary to me. This was a whole new world but my dad said it’d be better and who was I to disagree.
In 1994, we arrived at the newly remodeled Warsaw airport with all of our belongings in hand.
We were going to America. THE AMERICA. It looked so cool in the movies and on TV shows and everyone was super happy. Poland was starting to modernize as well as reflected by the airport but it was still at the starting line with that process.
America offered a lot more opportunity and my parents knew it. My time in Poland was brief and it wasn’t a large portion of my life but overall, it wasn’t a terrible experience. Now it was time for a new chapter in my life.
We got on the plane in search of the American dream.
That’s it for part 1. I hope you know a bit more about me now and I’ll be back with another post about my first experiences in America which you can read here. Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it!
Thanks for sharing! It was interesting to find out about your past! I can definitely relate to this since I grew up in neighboring Lithuania. And it was a small village. Even though it was not as bad as your cousins’ one, we only had toilet outside – not very great during winter 😀 I am now living in the capital and the life is looking good. The childhood wasn’t very easy, but as you say, people around were living a similar life 🙂
It’s great that your family had the courage to start a new life in the U.S. – I am sure that it was worth the risk!
It definitely was – I’m a big fan of the move my parents made and my life now in the U.S.
Thanks a lot for sharing your memory about Poland. I can relate to a lot of things you mentioned.
I grew up in a remote village in China, in mid 1960s. Lack of food was common then, and rats were everywhere. People were hungry, so were the animals. Even right now, there is no running water, no in-door plumbing over there. It’s just barely minimum. I feel so lucky I left that place, and decided to go to Beijing, and later came to US.
Yea, I believe my dad’s village now has running water but that’s a very recent development and it’s still a rather poor quality of life.
It’s easy to forget that so many people even in developed or rapidly developing countries have such a low quality of life. It makes you appreciate what you have so much more.
I always appreciate stories like this that show how communism was/is. They way you described the healthcare – “It was free but it was terrible” – probably describes communism as a whole well. So many people can only think of the “free” part but don’t understand the “terrible.”
It seems good on paper but in practice, not so much.
I love learning about other cultures!
Thanks Andrea – glad you enjoyed the read!
That’s awesome. I grew up in America but my grandparents had originally been born in Poland. Growing up I remember my grandma being so excited when letters and pictures would come from Poland. We regularly sent boxes of clothing and other items over to Poland. There were many red Solidarity! stickers around houses of relatives and friends around that time.
Thanks for sharing!
Fascinating post to read and interesting to see a different perspective. I was born in 1983, Gdansk, and moved to Canada in the summer of 1990. Oddly enough I rather remember the 1986-1990 PRL era with fondness. I say 1986 because I have few if any memories before that year and most are captured in black and white or faded color photos.
Whether its pure nostalgia or perhaps ignorance I remember the closing decade of the PRL with few issues. Despite this, and because communism was crumbling everywhere and fear of social disorder, my dad left for Canada in search of “safety” for his family. But before we left life in the PRL seemed, for the most part, appeared fine.
My father was a civil engineer and my mother worked in a factory as…something (it skips my mind at the moment), although both had university educations paid for by the state. We lived in one of the many communist block buildings in the then brand new neighborhood of Chelm and while far from being an inspiring architectural design it was none the less a beyond suitable home. Elevators were in every “Klatka” (section of building), running hot water, washing machine, heating. All the comforts of home. We always had a phone, a TV and even a car which I remember quite fondly, a FSO Polonez.
One thing I always marveled at, even to this day, was the overall design of the neighborhood. Far from being haphazard it was well engineered with infrastructure already pre-planned and laid out for decades to come. An LRT route planned, roads engineered, pipes laid. My father, a civil engineer by trade, always praised it.
While the buildings were rather drab utilitarian blocks, reminding one of Western Brutalism, the people living in them were anything but and took opportunities to decorate the front gardens allocated to whomever qualified. Since landscape services were non existent it was up to individual citizens to care about the neighborhood and for the most part they did. Sadly did this not extended to public grassy areas as cash strapped municipal governments didn’t bother spending money on landscaping, or even cutting grass. Many areas in the city grew wild with weeds and grassy areas turned into crisscrossing foot paths.
My extended family was not bad off either. Both grandparents had flats for decades. On my dads side the family lived in a pre-WWII multiunit house. They had running water and a bathroom though heating was provided by wood burning stoves with gas following in the 60s as well as heating from a central plant. On my moms side the grandparents lived in 1-bedroom apartment in the first generation communist blocks built in the 50s. While tight for three children it made the family closer, or so they say. The flat had gas stoves, heating provided from a central plant and full bathroom. No elevator though, but my grandma attributed here health to climbing 6 floors a few times a day. Both grandparents got TV in the 60/70s and by the 80s everyone had phones (none of the grandparents, oddly, wanted one).
Uncle and his family lived in various locations around Gdansk, whether flats or houses, and the family was usually well off owing to my aunt working for German companies. They usually had a better car, TV and toys.
As a child of the late 80s in the PRL I never felt poor or wanting of anything. My family was not rich and mom had to frequently say no to toys I wanted but that taught me all the more to appreciate what I had when I moved to Canada. The stores, whether goods or food stores, were never as empty as seems to be portrayed by media today. Sure, western abundance did not exist, but we always had food and clothes.
There was always meat and fish, though special cuts were reserved for holidays. Milk was always fresh from farmers as were seasonal veggies and fruits from the many open markets around the city. Pastry shops were always stocked with Faworkis, Pączkis or Drożdzówkas. Candy stores had chocolates and candies like Prince Polo, Ptasie mleczko or the humble Krówki. Sure, the choices were limited when compared to West but the taste and quality was often better then anything found on US shelves. But more importantly the lack of abundance made everyone grateful and in turn forced people to cook and be creative at home with food.
Commodities, like clothing or electronics were interesting. Again the insane abundance of the west did not exist but that had an interesting effect; Things were not disposable. Items were expensive sure, but made to last and one could have a career as a repair man, seamstress or cobbler. You didn’t trash a pair of shoes or toss out a perfectly good TV. You fixed it. This of course made technology or fashion seemed stagnant. Without disposable clothes things a dress turned into a generational hand-me down and a TV remaind the same for 10+ years.
I’m not sure why my experience is so different then the multitude of others who bemoan the era. Was it because I was in Gdansk? Was it because my family got lucky? Was the PRL not as bad as PiS likes to claim? I don’t know the answer.
Also this post is far from extensive. Issues were abound despite my memories. The lack of funds meant infrastructure was crumbling everywhere. Transit, as well planned as it was, was falling apart with antiquated trams, buses and trains all lacking maintenance. State jobs were failing and by the 90s unemployment was high for those unfortunate to be laid off. The mass exodus of people afraid of what will happen once the PRL and Soviet Union falls also left the country intellectually bankrupt for years to come.
I hope this post offers a different prescriptive to anyone who read the original one. I do not wish to change minds on the PRL, merely to state that not everyone experienced it as a disaster.