Listen to Janusz Gilewicz tell the story of how he came to the U. S. A. in his own voice.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the story.
In Poland in the end of the 1970’s there was a Solidarity movement that led to democratic changes. But, in 1981 the Russians decided to impose martial law in Poland. On the 13th of December, 1981, or borders were closed and the telephone lines cut off.
My friends and I in Poland formed a theatrical group and we wanted to rebel against the system and the whole concept of having an oppressor. We decided to stage a play based on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.At that time it was illegal to own the book, and for possession of a copy you could go to jail. But, we obtained a Xerox version of the book and we decided we were going to put something together and get it on the stage.
The way we did it was that we decided to call the play 1984 and we didn’t mention the author. We called our theater the Closed Theater (Teatr Zamkniety in Polish). We had to go to the censorship bureau in order to get a certificate saying we had permission to put the play on the stage.
We were asked why the play is called 1984 and we said, “Because we are in the year 1984.” We were asked why it was called the Closed Theater and we said, “Because it is very esoteric; for a small group of people, not for the masses.” We obtained the two stamps we needed on the poster so that we could stage it. For some reason, the censorship office didn’t think in their wildest dream that we would dare to show 1984 by Orwell and perhaps that is why they thought it was a reasonable idea to let us do it.
We had one performance only and we had 200 people in the audience. The silence during some moments of the play were really really powerful. We were thinking we might not be able to finish the play because it was too radical and too crazy for the times we were in.
After the performance we encountered two or three gentlemen in grey suits who said, “Your theater is closed and you need to be interrogated and asked how the hell did you come up with the idea of staging Orwell in the first place.” We were taken individually to the police and asked if we were out of our minds.
My answer was that we were just rebellious and we wanted to do something powerful in our life to stand against the regime and against the situation. During our conversations with the secret police they were trying to turn my friends against me, and vice versa.
As a result of it, they actually asked me if I would be interested in secretly working for the government and take some pictures in Germany. They would send me and pay. I could be an artist but they just wanted me to do some spying work.
They flattered me with some expensive dinners and champagne. I started playing the game, telling them that I’m not sure yet and I’ll decide but after some time passed I realized that I had two people walking after me on the street, or I have two guards all the time 24/7 on my back.
I’d try to lose them. One time I jumped on a bus at the last second and got off a few stops later and found another guy. I decided that this was too dangerous and I might end up being killed; they would make me dig my grave in the forest and nobody would find my body.
So, I decided to leave the country. I went to City Hall and I asked for a passport to travel to Western Countries. I had to surrender my identification document. This meant I could be arrested on the street for not having my document so I waited two weeks at home without going outside.
Then I got a call saying that I had to come and get the passport and it turns out that it came with a stamp saying it allowed me to cross the Polish border only once, which basically meant that if I leave the country I could not come back.
I decided I had no other options so I took a journey through the Communist countries and I reached Yugoslavia and then in Trieste I got into Italy. Upon meeting the first police officer I told him that I am a refugee, I escaped from Poland and I need assistance. I actually got assistance and ended up in a refugee camp in Latina. [Janusz had to leave is wife and daughter behind and he was unable to see them again until years later when they emigrated to Canada after the Berlin wall fell.]
Through my work as an artist I met the American actor John Phillip Law. I did a portrait of him as a gift and he asked me, “How can I help you?” I asked if he could write a letter to the American ambassador in Rome to help me obtain political asylum in the United States.
He did it. I went for the interview and I remember that for every 10 people applying only 2 or 3 people would get political asylum, and the rest were assigned to Canada or other countries.
They asked me if I have any documents and I showed them the letter. They asked me to leave the room and when I came back in I noticed everyone was standing instead of sitting. My heart was beating and I was wondering what would be the questions about my political reasons to leave Poland at such a young age.
Instead I heard, “Welcome to the United States of America.”
A few months later I was sponsored by the International Rescue Committee; they purchased my ticket and I came to the United States, and I am here… right now.