November 01, 2015
By Marcel Drimer
Fifty years ago in May, I fulfilled my dream of coming to America.
For me at that time it was not a simple task, especially since I came from Communist Poland.
After the Holocaust, my father’s aunt, Hannah Rothbaum, who lived in Washington, DC, contacted the Red Cross and to her joyous surprise, found out that my parents, sister, and I were alive. She started sending us food and clothing packages. In one of the packages there was a slightly used man’s suit, which after some alteration, I used for my high school graduation in 1953. This was the very first suit I ever owned.
Corresponding with relatives in the United States was a complicated process. My sister and I were both straight-A students in a gimnazjum (high school) and planned to attend a university, but if the authorities had discovered that we had relatives abroad, especially in the US, we would not have been accepted. We had to correspond through my uncle living in another town.
I graduated from a Polytechnic Institute with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1957 and started working in a design office in Walbrzych, which specialized in designing coalmine machinery. Since I was Jewish and was not a member of the Communist party, my professional future did not look very promising. When Aunt Hannah suggested that her son, Abe Rothbaum, was willing to send me an affidavit to come and work in his watchmaking shop as an apprentice, I saw a chance to get out of Poland. I found it amusing that after being a designer of heavy machinery, I would be fixing watches. Abe’s brother, Jack, came to Poland in 1959 to look me over. He approved me and convinced the rest of the family that I would not be a burden to them. I am sure that it was Aunt Hannah who pushed her sons to help me. My father was her favorite nephew who helped her family when they lived in Poland in the early 1930s while her husband was in America.
Abe sent the necessary documents and I started the process to get a passport. Unexpectedly, I got summoned to report to three months of military active duty. I was an ROTC graduate, and it was my turn to serve and to get a promotion. My problem was that after any term of active duty, one could not leave the country for three years. I requested a private meeting with the recruiting officer. I gave him some made-up excuses and bribed him with vodka and money and suggested that I would be happy to serve the following year. It was risky, but it worked.
I got a one-way ticket for May 4, 1961, on the M/S Batory from Gdynia to Montreal. The Polish ship was not allowed to dock in the US ports because it had given political asylum to an East German spy. I said goodbye to my family, friends, and a very special young lady, Ania. In the political climate of Poland at that time, it was unlikely that I would ever see them again. I don’t think I was fully aware of the seriousness of my decision to leave the people I loved and travel to an uncertain future in a totally strange land where I didn’t know anybody. My father and a Polish friend, Janek, accompanied me by train to the Gdynia port. Janek is still my friend.
My father’s friend, Mr. Wolf, asked me to take a camera for his friend, who lived in Montreal. I could not fulfill this request because the Polish customs allowed only one camera. I was allowed to bring with me $5 and personal luggage only.
At first, the voyage on the Baltic Sea was very pleasant. Food was plentiful and good. I worked out in the gym and had a great appetite. When asked if I would prefer steak or lobster for dinner, I requested both. I had never had either one and was curious to try. Unfortunately, the weather turned stormy as we entered the Atlantic. Most of the time I was seasick and could not hold down any food. I used a refreshing cologne “4711” aftershave on my face that helped me a little. A few weeks after arriving in the US, when I tried to use that cologne, I got seasick. Was this Pavlov’s involuntary reflex?
The first port in the western hemisphere was Quebec. I got off the ship and admired the beauty of the town. People were well dressed and seemed happy and friendly. I noticed a stand with bananas, bought a kilo, and ate it all in a sitting. A couple days later, we arrived in Montreal, the ship’s final destination. At the station, I showed the cashier my voucher for the train tickets to Washington, DC. Imagine my surprise and dismay when he told me that the voucher has expired some time ago. Here I was alone, with luggage, speaking about 300 words of English, and with $2 in my pocket. The other $3 had been spent on bananas.
I did not have the camera for Mr. Wolf ’s friend, but I had his telephone number, and I promptly called him. He seemed happy to hear from me. When I explained my predicament, he said, “I would gladly come to the port to pick you up, but I was in a car accident and both of my legs are in a cast, my wife does not drive, and my son is 12 years old. But when Batory is in the port, most of the taxi drivers speak Polish. Get one and ask him to bring you to my house. We will pay for the taxi.” I followed his advice and was warmly welcomed.
From there I contacted Abe Rothbaum asking for the train money. It took three or four days to get the money, to buy the tickets, and then to arrive in Washington, DC. Jack Rothbaum waited for me at Union Station. I looked at my future with a mixture of hope and apprehension, since my knowledge of America was based on reading books by contemporary American writers and by trying to avoid being brainwashed by anti-American propaganda in Poland. So started my new life in America.
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