My first steps in America

November 21, 1968 was the day I came to America. I was a refugee from Poland, my home country that decided, in a fit of ethnic cleansing, to expel its Jewish people. These twenty five thousand or so people were all that remained of the thriving three million strong and a thousand year old Jewish culture in Poland before the Second World War. Most Jewish families decided to leave but only a small number, myself counted, decided to do it so fast. Families needed time to close down their lives in Poland, to pack, and to decide where to go. My parents and brother stayed behind to do the closing down while I went ahead. Age 20, I had never travelled abroad (if you do not count a summer resort in Bulgaria) and ignorant of the life west of the Iron Curtain.

For the past three months I lived in Vienna, briefly, and in Rome, for three months. Jewish philanthropic services which helped me out found me an immigration sponsor, Jewish Family and Children Service in St Louis, Missouri, and this was going to be my home.

During the flight from Rome to New York I confronted the enormity of the unknown awaiting me. It had been possible to avoid this encounter during three months in Rome: there were places to explore, language lessons to attend, problems of daily living to solve, people to connect with, cafes to visit. Not that my life in Rome was perfect. As an early émigré from Poland, I did not have the good fortune shared by my followers of walking into already established communes and communities of people. But Rome was a transitory place and my expectations were simple: to make an enjoyable life and to improve on the rudimentary English I had acquired during the four years at Warsaw’s Hoffmanowa liceum and two years at Politechnika.

I was twenty years old, completely on my own with no money to speak of, no relatives in the U.S., and not even a single phone number to dial upon arrival. Moreover, I was heading for St. Louis, a city about which I knew nothing beyond its geographic location in the center of the United States — somewhere south of Chicago, east of Kansas City, and very far from anything I could imagine. I had no idea what I would do there, how I would continue my university studies in chemistry, and if I would find any friends. It was just me and my big luggage, filled with an amazing array of useless items such as embroidered Cepelia linen tablecloths with sets of napkins, heavy crystal vases, outdated textbooks in Organic Chemistry, and so on.

Pure chance sent me to St. Louis. I happened to leave Warsaw on the same train with the Brajtburg family from Warsaw...We stayed together for the several days we were in Vienna. After that, our ways quickly parted because the Brajtburgs — having a visa to the United States already secured, and Mrs. Brajtburg having a job offer at Washington University of St. Louis — headed straight for America. I went to Rome. Little did we know that this brief accidental association left an irreversible mark in some bureaucratic file on me, somewhere under the heading ‘does the applicant for the U.S. visa have relatives in the U.S.?’ It resulted in my being assigned to the protectorate of the Jewish Family and Children Services in St. Louis, Missouri. My trek to St. Louis thus personified the law of random events in life.

St. Louis circa 1968 was the heart of the American Midwest. Geographically, it consisted of three distinct worlds: downtown, poor urban and semi-urban neighboorhoods, and sprawling suburbs. Racially, it was strictly divided into black and white. Downtown consisted of office buildings and visibly declining department stores. It became a ghost town after 5 PM and on weekends (the famous Arch and the majestic Mississippi River notwithstanding). The poor urban and suburban sections followed to the west. Some of these neighborhoods were dominated by apartment buildings, others by two- to six family houses; others aspired for a single-family-home-type suburban existence. Racial divides were clear as one drove through these sections. In most cases, the relationship between skin color and wealth was unambiguous.

The Brajtburgs, who kindly invited me into their home for the first two weeks, lived in the suburb known as University City (named so for its proximity to the fine and picturesque Washington University of St. Louis). This was my first encounter with American suburbs, and I was shocked. There were no people in the streets, no reassuring hum of a city, no stores, no cafes, no sign of life as I knew it. The smallest errand required a car. Compared to my previous life in the center of Warsaw, this was a desert. With stately trees, gardens, and comfortable homes — but a desert nonetheless. I could not comprehend ‘where everybody was’. I repeatedly posed that question to my hosts and their various visitors. But the answers were blank stares. My hosts did not quite know the answer, and the natives of St. Louis could not understand my question.

The residents of St. Louis I met during those first weeks were mostly Polish-speaking holocaust survivors who had settled in St. Louis two decades earlier. They showed me kindness and hospitality. These were fairly well-to-do business people with limited formal education (many had been sent to camps still in their teens) united by powerful bonds: terrible memories, hate of Poland, a common language, and the sense of not being quite part of the U.S. society. There were other common threads: collective lack of interest in the larger world beyond St. Louis; and a striking wholesale adoption of the prevailing racial attitudes. Their children, about my age, were somewhat worldlier than their parents, and well educated. It was clear from the outset that they wanted nothing to do with me. My English was limited, my manners and clothes different, and mentally they associated me with the world of their immigrant parents. This was my first real encounter with the enormous sense of displacement and unbelonging I would feel during the next year. For the moment, I made a mental note that if I were going to develop any social life in St. Louis, it would not be in the Polish language.

Very quickly, I became immersed in arranging my new life. With the help of Toby, the social worker assigned to my case, I found a nice inexpensive apartment in a somewhat run down section of University City populated by students. I also acquired a roommate: an Israeli girl who could speak Polish, the language she had learned from her Polish-born parents. My apartment’s greatest asset was its walking distance from Washington University, my personal destination. About that plan, I quickly ran into a conflict of agenda with my social worker. Toby’s objective was to find me a job — any job – that would make me financially independent, and move on to the next immigrant. Fortunately for me, I did not understand it. When asked about my job qualifications, I would answer that my skills were “organic chemistry” and my profession was “student”. This must have sounded really weird to Toby. I can now recall with amusement how her interest perked up when I told her that I knew how to sew. It took me a while to realize that she was contemplating a job for me in the garment manufacturing industry! In Toby’s naïve mind, I was not far removed from the tenement stories of immigrants to the turn-of-the-century New York City.

Weird or not, Toby complied with my request to visit the Office of Admissions at the University. There, a polite woman explained that I could, of course, apply for admission, and that tuition was $2000 per year. That amount was a fortune for me then. I spent an evening crying and realizing that nobody was going to get me into a university and pay for it. From then on, I took charge of my future.

Within days, I went to the Chemistry Department, one of the few places in America that felt familiar: the smell of chemicals and the look of laboratories were similar to those I knew from Politechnika. There, I found a job in one of the research laboratories as a washer of glassware. It did not matter what I did and how much I would get paid, so long as I could get my foot in the door of the University. That accomplished, I approached the Jewish Family and Children Service with a proposal: if they would pay for me to take two courses for one semester in the evening division of Washington University (night classes cost half the amount of day classes, and anyway, I had to work), I would find a way to become a regular student at the end of that period, and I would not ask for further support. They agreed.

That first winter-spring in St. Louis was not easy: a boring manual job, solitary walks to and from the University (nobody walks in St. Louis); the first encounter with a multiple choice exam (which I almost failed, in Psychology 101); filling out applications for admissions and scholarships; taking placement exams in sciences; trying to understand the American university system. These challenges were but replayed daily by my other contemporaries from Poland throughout the United States. What made my situation particularly acute was the fact that I had nobody who could explain things to me, or with whom I could puzzle together over the strange ways of the American society. Not that I was alone. To the contrary, living in a student neighborhood I soon began to attend parties and even acquired a boyfriend. But I was lonely. At that time there were very few immigrants from Poland in St. Louis, and none in my age group. The young people I met had no idea how different my life experience had been from theirs. They did not understand my questions, much less try to answer them.

In the most fundamental way, I had left behind in Poland more than my parents, brother, friends, familiar places, and the language. I also left behind an entire frame of reference. I rarely had an opinion about the boys who showed an interest in me. I did not know how to read their body language, social manners, language, intelligence, or their intentions. I could not tell an interesting person from an uninteresting one. The incomprehension was mutual. My social acquaintances could not read me either. The clothes I wore, so lovingly packed by my mother in Warsaw, jarringly conflicted with the American student culture of the 1960s. I was so ‘clueless’ that I did not even notice how different my appearance was from everyone else’s.

I also lost my treasured personal gift: wit. Partly, this was because of the limited language skills: to be witty one needs to be a quick listener and talker, and I was neither. But another reason was that my sense of the absurd was calibrated to a different reality. In a way, everything around me seemed absurd, and so nothing was absurd. One episode stands out in my memory. I am in a movie theater watching the then popular comedy entitled “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” Something strikes me as funny and I laugh, only to discover that mine is the only laughing voice in the theater. A moment later the audience starts laughing while I wonder what they find so funny.

Later, my American friends in New York would tell me how reserved I appeared to them, how guarded about friendships and new experiences. I, who was known in high-school for exuberance and willingness to go on adventures! I think that the appearance of being reserved was created by my difficulty in deciding what I thought about my friends’ ideas, my slow processing of new experiences in an attempt to translate them into something comprehensible. In essence, part of my personality was temporarily missing. I stopped menstruating and often experienced stomach pains.

I met good people and bitter people. Mrs. Pennington, who directed the Office for Continuing Education for Women at Washington University (how quaintly anachronistic it sounds today) told me about scholarships and helped me fill out the forms. The man at Jewish Vocational Service sent me away when I looked for scholarship money, telling me that an emigrant does not go to private universities but to factories. And so I made my rounds, always puzzled and never quite sure if I understood what people meant. I contemplated for days the artificial grass I spotted in someone’s back yard. What was the purpose of it, I wondered, ignorant of the American passion for a prefect suburban lawn. How did I sound? How did I come across? I have no idea. There are no witnesses to tell me.

By the time summer came things began to look up. I was admitted to Washington University and won two scholarships. I also convinced a string of professors to give me credit for courses I had taken at Politechnika, even the philosophy course we once all disdained. In September 1969, I became a full-time student in chemistry. In my job I advanced from washing laboratory glassware to running tedious experiments for one of the biochemistry professors. The work was terribly boring, but it allowed me to spend a lot of time studying English vocabulary. Many a time I amused myself by reading Webster’s Dictionary, an activity only a step above reading a telephone book (though more useful). It also mattered to my Polish outlook on life that I was participating in scientific experiments rather than washing glassware. Of course, I did not know then that in the U.S. there is no social stigma attached to any job a student performs to pay for his or her education.

I had great hope for the transition into a status of a regular student. I hoped to recreate the life I had once loved and lost at Politechnika. I imagined getting to know other students during long hours in labs, lectures, lunches, and conversations. My English was getting sufficiently fluent to give me confidence in my social skills. It was therefore especially disappointing to find things otherwise. What I did not know at that time is that in an American college the social life develops in dormitories, not in classrooms. By living in an off-campus apartment with a foreigner for a roommate, I had inadvertently removed myself from the life I craved. Again, if only there had been someone to tell me that! My lack of connection to student life was further aggravated by the unstructured American college curriculum, in which students elect their courses. That meant that in each classroom I met a new set of faces, and at the end of a lecture everyone walked away in different direction, to their next class.

My sense of social displacement thus continued. But good things were also happening. I developed a relationship with Larry, a doctoral student in English, a brilliant and lonely man of twenty-seven. Through Larry, and with the help of his car, I discovered that St. Louis had a real cultural life: a fine symphony orchestra, several good theaters, a museum, experimental movies, art. In retrospect, I see the attraction between us: we had similar interests in books and music, we were both somewhat alienated from the popular culture, and we were Jewish. So, while I never found a srodowisko (a very special Polish word that signifies a circle of friends and acquaintances, a cultural milieu of likeminded people that provide a sense of identity) or friends, I met a fine man.

In November 1969, my parents arrived in St. Louis. Their anxieties became mine as well, and a lot of my energy was directed towards their struggles. To my parents’ disappointment, I did not move in with them. We all made a surprising discovery that, during our year apart, I had left my parents’ home forever. From then on, I would never again live with my family under the same roof for more than a few months at a time. I had also left Poland forever. For reasons I still do not fully understand, my future friendships and romantic attachments would be mostly American.

By the end of the spring semester, I was ready to venture outside St. Louis. In June 1970, only weeks after my brother Henryk joined us (thus uniting the Szejnwald family), I went to New York City. My plan was to find a job for the summer and to return in September to my scholarships and the remaining semester of my college career. That never happened. New York became my home for the next eight years. New York witnessed my marriage to Bob three years later, the receipt of a doctoral degree after another two years, and the birth of my first son David in 1977. That was a long time and many chapters ago. My two sons are men now, Bob belongs to my past, and Boston is my home.