Escape from Poland
Getting out however, was not an easy matter. Obtaining passports was practically a bureaucratic impossibility; as Poles from behind the Iron Curtain (as the divide between Western and Eastern Europe was known) and as Jews, they would not be allowed into any country without an entry visa.
There was an advantage to being a Jew, they could automatically be granted a visa to new state of Israel, created in 1947 as a homeland for all Jews from all countries. In 1950, Israel enacted ‘the law of return” which allowed anyone who could prove Jewishness to acquire citizenship. In Stefan’s case there was an hurdle however; his Russian wife Natalie was not Jewish, and under Jewish law children of a non-Jewish mother are not considered Jews. In order for Natalie and the children, Vladimir, Frank and Kathy to accompany him, they would have to undergo conversion to Judaism.
Another issue was the perceived (and probably real) reflection of how the exit of one brother would affect the others’ chances. Janek, who joined the Communist Party immediately after the war, was worried that Stefan’s outspokenness and possible exit would adversely affect his career. Since they shared the same (assumed) name Drobot, and were identical twins, the actions of one would obviously rub off on the other. Julek, having changed his name to Rutkowski, did not have such problems, since officially he was not related to the twins. He could therefore pursue his efforts to obtain visas without the fear of repercussions against the others.
in Warsaw with his wife Irena and their two children, Adam and Alice,
was working on the rebuilding of a city turned to rubble by the
retreating German army. He considered the possibility of going to
Israel. His sister-in-law emigrated there in 1956 with her young family
and he wanted to follow them. But he hesitated to leave his wife’s
parents behind. In 1957 however he and Stefan applied for exit visas to
Israel. According to Julek’s letter to Frank in September 1993, they met
with a government representative from Israel who happened to be, before
the war, a sports commentator for the same daily paper that Jozek was
economics editor – when Stefan enquired as to his choice of immigrating
to Israel, Australia, Canada or the US, he replied honestly “anywhere
Then Julek had an opportunity to go to Australia.
The country was undergoing a building boom and was desperate for skilled
professionals. He was always fascinated by the distant country – he had
a childhood friend who was sent there by his father after the First
World War and described the beauty of the country in letters. Irena had
relatives who settled there in 1952 and were able to sponsor his
application so, at the end of 1956 he obtained entry visas for
Australia. His tickets were paid for by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid
Society (HIAS) in Vienna which for generations provided essential
lifesaving services to world Jewry through its aid in rescue and
resettlement. Julek was very proud of the fact, that after successfully
establishing himself in Sydney, although not obligated to, he was able
to repay HIAS in full. The journey was documented by Julek and Adam,
with a movie and a diary.
In Genoa, waiting for migrant ship
Life boat drill aboard the SS Roma
Janek at first would not think of emigration at all because he was a member of the Communist Party, and was enthusiastic about becoming part of the new regime. He was working as an engineer for the government at power plants, creating a new electric grid for the country. In the early fifties however he came to realize that life under the Communist regime was not all that it was supposed to be. He also began to look a way out. Israel was not an option. As a party member, he had a lot to lose by applying for a visa to Israel. He devised a scheme whereby he would get a position with the government’s trade commission and hope to get a posting abroad. In April 1956 he got his opportunity when he was appointed the commercial counselor to India. In his job, he had ready access to the working details of the trade commission, as well as the Polish Embassy in New Delhi. This was of course the time of the cold war, a period of conflict, tension and competition between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies. An American moved in to the apartment above and the two neighbours became friends. After a few weeks, the American asked whether Janek was prepared to defect to the US. Although wary at first, he agreed to meet with a representative from the US embassy who indicated to Janek that the US would be prepared to “help” Janek in exchange for certain information regarding the activities of the trade office and the Polish embassy. Janek agreed to the proposal. Thus began Janek’s involvement with CIA who organised his defection, including a stay in a safe house outside Washington while he was providing them the information they had asked for. He was still in India when Julek and Stefan had obtained their exit papers and left Poland, and in 1960 he finally defected and landed with his wife Wanda, and their children Adam and Eve, in the US.
Stefan tried to arrange his emigration as soon as he returned from Siberia in 1946. He wrote letters to his presumed relatives in the U.S. as well as his college friend, Karol Mysels trying to obtain a “sponsor”, i.e., someone in America who would vouch for him, and perhaps provide some initial financial assistance, if needed. Apparently Mysels was successful to some extent, since it seems that Stefan had in his possession some documents relating to emigration. Then, Stefan suddenly broke off all contacts with Mysels and all the other people who were trying to help him. One theory, which cannot however be proved, since nobody saw any of the papers and Stefan refused to discuss the matter, has it that Janek got hold of Stefan’s papers and destroyed them, or persuaded Stefan to do so, since a relative in America, especially a close one, would have been as a big detriment to his career and prospects in the communist party.
When the possibility of immigration to the US disappeared, Stefan went on with his academic career in Wroclaw. In the mid fifties the grimness of life under a communist regime got to him and he began to look for ways out. In order to get a passport, he needed a visa. In order to get a visa, he needed an invitation from an academic body such as a university. When his brother Janek, after joining the Communist party was posted in India as a commercial counselor, Stefan requested his help in obtaining an invitation to a university in the US. Janek meanwhile was recruited by the CIA and could not, or would not, help and Stefan languished in Poland for another couple of years. By now Natalie had enough of her daily struggle in Poland whilst Janek was seemingly living a life of luxury. When he came to Poland for a periodic visit from India she threatened to denounce him. Janek had no option but to refer the matter to his American handler and in soon an invitation came from the University of Chicago. Coincidentally, soon afterwards, a visa from Australia also arrived, arranged it seems by Stefan’s thesis advisor who had contacts there. However with no firm offer of a job in Australia, Stefan chose to emigrate to the US. He got his exit passport, and the family arrived in the United States on November 30, 1959 to begin a new life. They were met in New York by a CIA agent who looked after them for a few days before sending the family on to Chicago.
More details regarding Stefan’s emigration are outlined in his biography written by his son Vladimir. There is a different version recorded in Janek’s letter to Stefan’s son Frank in 1993 in which he described his role in getting Stefan and his family out of Poland. There is no proof as to the accuracy of these events as described in either
document and it is not intended to debate here which has the more credibility.
So, all three surviving Djament brothers had the courage and smarts to get out of Poland with their families in order for all to have a better life. But it was not without cost: the twins, Stefan and Janek, had a terrible falling out once both were safely in the U.S. which resulted in tensions between the two families that lasted for decades. The cause of the feud is not entirely clear. Was it Janek destroying Stefan’s visas, as Stefan’s family maintained? Or was it the money that Janek felt Stefan took from him unfairly in the U.S. as Janek claimed? Or, was there another reason altogether?
We will never know for sure. Fortunately, the 2nd generation of Djaments – Vlad, Frank and Kathy; Adam and Alice, and Eve – made a conscious decision not to perpetuate the ill feelings. That is why, when they all met in Mexico in 1996, they wore T-shirts that read:
“Speaking Again After 50 Years”.
Acknowledging the influence of the internet in getting together
“Speaking Again After 50 Years”.