“Certainly, thanks to my travelling I was able to learn English well. I was able to have real contact with this language. (…) Knowing English meant that when Solidarity was established I could lead press conferences in English. In addition, I was able to acquaint myself with the West a bit. “
Polish MP until 2001 . In 2004-2009 he was a Member of the European Parliament where he was elected a Vice-President (2004-2007). In addition, he has twice held the post of Polish National Defence Minister.
Since the sixties you used to travel as a scientist or a sportsman (mountaineer). What were your impressions of your first trip to the West?
My first contact with the West imprinted itself on my memory well: I went with a group of other students to the Netherlands in 1959. It was a meeting with another world. First, the Netherlands gave one the impression of theatrical scenery: the cleanliness, striking freshness. I was looking at old buildings and admiring how well kept they were. However, back then, Poland looked different.
Next – in 1960 – I went to Italy with a group of friends and looked at this other world, the Western World, through a car window (we were hitchhiking). This car window was for us a borderline, both literally and figuratively. We were limited, primarily, by the scarcity of our financial resources, and could not avail ourselves fully of the opportunities offered by the West. We could only spend a dollar a day per person. Therefore we could not afford to go to a restaurant – nor have dinner or even a coffee. We could not afford to use public facilities along motorways either. It was a nightmare. Therefore, when I was travelling, I felt best when I was a sportsman. When I had a sleeping bag I could feel independent. I used to feel then that I was invincible. But it was only in the mountains that I did not feel inferior towards those who owned a Fiat or some other Western make of car. I felt comfortable here because I knew that this is my world and not the world of those who drive a Mercedes Benz.
Wasn’t the contrast between communist Poland and the West shocking? Poland was considered in the West to be a part of the USSR.
O yes! We felt some sadness, because when one bought a guidebook to Europe, Europe used to end at Elbe River. Such guidebooks did not cover countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary. Some more alternative guidebooks though covered Yugoslavia, but Poland was not considered to be a part of Europe at all then. Furthermore, we were afraid that during the journey Italians would think that we are communists and thus would treat us badly. When we were hitchhiking around Italy and were telling people that we were from Poland, very often, the reaction we got was: “Oh! You are Communists”. We were identified with the system under which we were living so we had to explain the true shape of the communism in our country.
What bureaucratic formalities did you have to go through to be able to travel?
First of all, every Polish passport was valid only for a specific territory, for example, for Yugoslavia or Europe only.
As for trips to the West, Poles needed to have a Letter of Invitation. Such a letter had to include a guarantee that all the costs of the stay would be covered, including medical expenses, by the party providing the Invitation. Therefore, it was not easy to obtain. One had to ask someone, whom more often than not one barely knew, to include in a Letter of Invitation a declaration to that effect but fortunately, more often than not, I used to manage to obtain such a document. We had problems though. Letters of invitation we got from the West were official in character: they were drawn up on the official stationary of the institution concerned whereas Polish authorities required that they bear a special stamp – and this was quite an impediment. Several times I had to ask some Western European institution to have such a stamp made especially for me.
The obtainment of a Letter of Invitation was only a first step. What other experiences with the visa application procedure did you have?
The obtainment of a visa to a Western European country, the US, or even a country like Afghanistan involved a lot of bureaucratic formalities. The visa procedures were lengthy and cumbersome so one had to be patient. The cost of a visa was, although not exorbitant, nevertheless significant. Definitely, matters were somewhat made easier by the fact that visa fees were payable in the Polish currency.
Was travelling to the West not associated with having to wait in queues outside embassies and consulates?
That’s true. Queues outside consulates were always rather long. Waiting there, one could exchange tips on how to take care of everything in the quickest way: where applications are processed quicker and where slower, at which bank queues are shorter to buy the allotted five US dollars. This was exactly the staggering amount that our People’s Republic allowed us to take abroad for a single journey. It was irritating that representatives of travel agencies were entering without having to wait in a long queue, carrying large batches of visa applications or passports to be stamped.
Did any Western country ever refuse you entry? Or were their bureaucratic formalities so extensive that you did not manage to obtain a visa?
I remember an attempt – ultimately successful – to travel to Spain. I applied for a Spanish visa in France because in those days Spain did not have diplomatic representation in Poland because Poland did not maintain diplomatic relations with that country. When I tried to get this visa, the Spanish consular officer told me at the outset: “No way!” I was informed that I should not even bother to submit an application because nobody from Poland would get a visa for Spain. The communists – and we were all considered to be communists then – were not granted visas. The Spanish, therefore, didn’t feel that they had to give us any explanation. The answer was: “No, and that’s that”. But luckily knowing the right people helped and finally I did get that visa. I was really surprised, though, when it was finally stamped into my passport.
The biggest problem everybody had in those days was with the obtainment of a US visa. The application forms were extensive, with many strange questions. For example: “Do you intend to murder the US President?” There were even questions addressed especially to women such as: “Are you travelling, by any chance, to be involved in prostitution?” Such scrutinising of prospective travellers was taking place because if someone were to actually murder the US President there would be a reason to cancel the rascal’s visa. Why? Because the person involved had obtained it by providing false information and making false declarations. Therefore, filling in such forms was somewhat embarrassing.
How long did one have to wait for a visa?
The waiting period was very long – several weeks – unless the reasons for having to travel were urgent, like the death of a relative abroad. Luckily, I never found myself in such a situation so I do not know how quickly a visa would be issued. As far as visas are concerned, I had it somewhat easier than others did as my wife, Alison, who has later died in the Himalayas was British. I could even have obtained British citizenship if I had wanted to but I did not feel like it. When I arrived in the United Kingdom for the first time, a work permit was issued to me straight away. Living in the UK, I was also issued a document with which I could renew my Polish passport. I was issued the so-called travel document. It resembled a passport but it was not one. Based on this document the British authorities were asking authorities of other countries to facilitate travel for the holder but that did not, of course, apply to Poland. This document made the obtainment of different visas, for example for Switzerland or Sweden, easier though. I was no longer looked on as someone from Poland.
The Polish side caused many difficulties. I remember planning a visit to the UK in 1973 as a scientist. I even had a passport already, lying in a drawer, with a British visa stamped in it. Meanwhile, on the Friday I received a phone call from the University to return this passport quickly. I asked whether I could return it on the Monday to which I received a reply that “Yes, I can do that” so I quickly packed my bags and left Poland.
Another such example involves my expedition to K2. I was to travel on a sportsman’s passport for which I applied through the agency of the Central Committee for Physical Culture and Tourism. Our secretary discreetly enquired whether my passport was still at this institution or whether it had been withdrawn. At the end, I received the passport and the day before the departure – I was leaving the country earlier than all the other members of our expedition because I was to make various preparations at our destination – the secretary received a phone call from someone who asked: “When is Mr Onyszkiewicz leaving the country?”, to which she replied lying, of course, that I had already left, following which she accompanied me to the airport to see whether I could get through the gate untroubled. She told me nothing about this phone call at the time so as not to make me nervous. I was able to leave. I think that the Polish security services’ operation was based on public information. They knew when members of the expedition were to leave and did not realise that I was to fly earlier. I had many adventures like that.
Would your career have developed in the way it did if you hadn’t travelled?
It would have been more difficult for me. Certainly, thanks to my travelling I was able to learn English well. I was able to have real contact with this language. All the discussions at the University were held in English but the mathematical vocabulary is limited and thus it is easy to learn this terminology and discuss mathematical problems in English whereas, thanks to my travels, I was able to learn everyday English. Knowing English meant that when Solidarity was established I could lead press conferences in English. In addition, I was able to acquaint myself with the West a bit. For example, thanks to the conversations that I had with West Germans I could discover what Western people really thought and felt. Polish propaganda was all the time bombarding us with clichés that West Germans were revisionists who thought of nothing else but how to deprive Poles of their lands. Of course, I did not buy into this at all but during conversations I had with them I had an opportunity to discover how much some of them were committed to reconciliation with us, Poles. Later, travelling to the West, I visited them, spoke with them – and what for me was very important – discovered that the situation in the West was completely different from the one that was shown on our television screens.
Did your travels afford you also an opportunity to learn the rules of democracy and the free market economy?
I benefited not only from travelling but also from marrying Alison. We lived in Poland and my wife – a Westerner – used to ask me all the time: “Why does it have to be like this?” I did not understand this question, at first. When it was posed on yet another occasion I realised that it was a valid question. “Why?” Could one not function in some other way? Why did we tolerate all of this? I was discovering another point of view. My eyes were being opened to some things that we treated as natural because we had learned to be humble.
When I stayed in England there were local government elections. My friend proposed that I participate in an election campaign for one of the candidates. In Poland one would call him a prospective councillor. It was fascinating to observe this election campaign, the election mechanisms in a democratic country. In those days, representatives of the Labour Party used to lose in every constituency and the only candidate from this party that won a seat against a Conservative was the very candidate I worked for. Therefore, the rumour spread around that an expert had come from Poland and had taken care of things. My role in this whole process was, in fact, very humble indeed. Therefore, this was of course only a joke.
Did the lessons learned in the West prove to be helpful in your subsequent political activity?
Thanks to all these contacts I learned how to engage in a dialogue with our Western interlocutors. I was able to understand their way of thinking. It was also easier for me to explain to them various issues than it would have been if I were only limited by my experiences of living in communist Poland. These experiences were very useful when I became a Solidarity spokesman.
Authorities of communist Poland used to claim that the fact that opposition activists could go abroad showed that Poland was an open country.
I ceased to be a sportsman because of politics. When I was interned under Martial Law I had a dilemma because my friends were preparing a major K2 expedition. K2 was a mountain I had a score to settle with. I knew that if I were to reveal my wish to participate in this expedition, the authorities would give me a passport, not necessarily hoping that I would die on this mountain but that I would not come back to Poland. And should I return they would be able to say, calmly: “What’s the matter? Here you are! Mr Onyszkiewicz wanted to leave and he was able to do so. What’s this whole commotion about that the opposition is treated badly”?
Citizens of Belarus and Ukraine should be able to obtain Schengen visas free of charge. Poland has large scope for entering into bilateral agreements with these countries – even within the Schengen regime. Poland could enlarge the group of people covered by the visa-facilitation regime. We should be able to do that. Let us be generous towards our neighbours in that respect. I’ve tried to push the necessary regulations through the European Parliament but to no avail thus far. Europe is afraid of illegal immigration but in reality citizens of Belarus and the Ukraine pose no threat in that regard.