'Communists Kidnapped My Mother After Her Brave Act of Defiance'

I was 12 years old when my family drove across the Polish border with Eastern Germany, not knowing if we would ever be able to return. I don't remember packing or leaving our apartment. I don't remember having one last look at the room I had shared with my sister since birth. There were no farewells with friends or family. Besides my one living grandparent, no one knew we were leaving.

Although we were being sponsored to come to the United States by the International Rescue Committee and arriving as political refugees, we were leaving Poland illegally. For us, this was what seeking freedom looked like—sneaking out before dawn with the cover story of going to Italy on vacation, so that we wouldn't get stopped and detained upon our exit.

Four suitcases held the entirety of our lives together, neatly packed and zipped. My favorite teddy bear held tightly to my chest, I rode in a car which would be sold in Germany once we reached the refugee camp.

Marta Hobbs
Marta Hobbs is an author and entrepreneur. She left Poland in 1987. Marta Hobbs

It was the summer of 1987 and I had known for a few months that we were planning to escape. My parents told my younger sister and I one morning while mom was braiding my hair. I spent the few last months of sixth grade keeping this huge secret from the kids I grew up with.

I wanted to burst out and yell: "I'm going to America!" It seemed so exciting, so exotic, and so far away–but I couldn't risk our mission being compromised. So, I walked around like James Bond, keeping my cover intact.

Living in communist Poland

What I remember most about growing up in communist-controlled Poland was the gray colors. All the buildings, the sidewalks and the streets were a dull gray. The clothes of the people outside too. All of it was gray.

Sadness and scarcity. Empty shelves in the grocery stores. Lines formed and snaked around the block when a shop had goods available. Rations were used to control and limit the amount of the day's treasure allowed. The waiting was usually several hours and often the supply would run out before our turn.

I grew up watching buildings get burned down, police beating people, and a constant feeling of stress, secrecy, and conspiracy theories. Hearing rumors about people who had been kidnapped, had "gone missing", or had turned up murdered in the trunk of a car, was common. Hearing the leaders in our government issue orders for countrywide curfews or martial law was normal. This was the backdrop for my early years—the tail end of the Cold War.

My mom was a journalist and a reporter for a live news show at the local TV station and when she refused to join the Communist party, as was required of members of the press at the time, she was terminated and blacklisted.

Suddenly she was deemed "anti-government." Once she was terminated, she wrote for underground papers, speaking up for the injustice and unfairness that was happening in the country at the time. She was very openly a supporter of solidarity.

My sister and I both knew that our home phone line was tapped, and that our family was followed by police. Our parents would speak about it often—picking up the phone and checking if there was dial tone or not. Sometimes they spoke in code over the phone.

There were men stationed outside of our house, observing who was coming and going. Sometimes they were even in the stairwell of our apartment building. And then the raids—when those men would come in and rummage through our home for Western materials of any kind.

We understood they could come barging through the front door of our apartment at any moment. Home was like a prison with guards around it. But although I was often frightened, I thought all of it was normal. That's just how it was.

Marta Hobbs
Marta was 12 years old when her family drove across the Polish border with Eastern Germany. Marta Hobbs

Shortly after my mom refused to join the Communist party, our home was invaded while we were all sleeping. I vaguely remember voices, noise and commotion. When I woke up the next morning, my mother was gone. She had been kidnapped, imprisoned with other journalists and activists, and interrogated.

For three days, my father had no news about her, until someone recognized her and snuck out a note she had scribbled on a tiny piece of lined paper. It said: "I am alive. Take care of the girls. I love you." We were lucky, because she came home. They let her go. I don't know why. Maybe they realized she was "famous" and it would be too big of a deal if they didn't. And when she did, a decision was made to seek political asylum outside of Poland.

Leaving Poland for America

The first stop on our journey was a refugee camp in Germany, where we found ourselves amongst other Polish refugees awaiting their turn to head for the "land of the free." Most of them said the wait was two weeks, ours however, turned into months because of paperwork error.

The summer turned into fall, and I watched local kids go to school in September, longing for a backpack, new pencils and colored notebooks, so that I too could do something normal like start classes. The waiting felt like being stuck in between places, not knowing what was ahead and not being able to turn back either. Sitting with grief and displacement, I felt lonely, confused, scared and sad. I missed home. Finally, in November our turn came. We flew into JFK airport on Trans World Airlines.

Arriving in the United States was traumatic and shocking. At the time, there was very little help for me to navigate school, especially without knowing the language or the culture. It was "sink or swim" and initially I simply drowned. I was bullied and beaten by girls my age because I was a foreigner. Because I didn't speak English I was an easy target. I had no curse words that I could shout back at them. They would surround me in a circle and yell, spit, pull my hair and punch me. I stood there frozen. Frozen but brave —no tears.

It was so heart-breaking because I was expecting "freedom". To me, that translated into kind people, a warm home, an open-arm welcome, and perhaps a real Barbie doll. I so desperately wanted help navigating the complex experience of abandoning home and coming to a place where I didn't belong, didn't know the rules and, it seemed, where I wasn't wanted. But not even my parents could be of much assistance, because the language, culture and experience were new and foreign to them too.

We all suffered in the early days. But I was raised around other warrior women, so I became one myself. It helped me to survive but it required me to close off my heart to the painful things I had to push through and push down. I worked harder and pushed to succeed, but it didn't come without a price.

I did homework with a dictionary, falling asleep on top of my books often, not finishing. I got yelled at by teachers when I couldn't pronounce words right while reading text aloud in class. I was sent to summer school when I failed classes.

While some nights I cried myself to sleep, other nights a force would come from within me, pushing me to persevere and figure things out. Three years after arriving in America I took the SATs to get into college and wrote essays proving that I, too, was worthy of being accepted. Even as a foreigner.

Chasing the "American dream"

This same force was what pushed me to pursue the "American dream". After graduating, I knew that I could do anything I wanted. I could become anyone I wanted. I could dream any dream and there was so little that stood in my way.

I married the love of my life and had two beautiful babies. My husband and I built a business together which became a successful company selling vacations to the Caribbean. We employed over 500 people and had multiple offices in the United States. When I was 39, we sold the company and retired, moving our family to Paris, France.

It was here that everything cracked open and broke apart—and looking back, I can understand why. At the time it led me into deep depression, constant panic attacks and serious health issues. Life forced me to slow down, but I didn't know how to be "slow."

Marta Hobbs
Marta and her husband started a successful company selling vacations to the Caribbean. They employed over 500 people and had multiple offices in the United States. At 39 years old they sold the company and retired, moving their family to Paris, France. Marta Hobbs

I had been running from my past. I had been running from my trauma. I had been so busy "becoming" and "achieving" that I completely lost touch with myself. When I left Poland I became who I needed to be to survive.

Like a chameleon, I watched everyone around me and how they played this new game of life in a new country, and I morphed into what was acceptable and earned me what I thought was "love." This only took me further away from my true self, but it felt good for a while. It was praised by others, and my life looked perfect on the outside.

Who goes from a broke immigrant to a millionaire? Some. But not many. "I was so lucky", everyone said. But deep in my heart—I didn't feel it. I felt lost instead. And it was this lostness and the crisis it triggered, which eventually provided a sacred doorway to a new way of living.

After a decade-long journey into healing trauma, searching for my identity, seeking answers and living with deep questions I finally got to ask myself: what does freedom mean to me? I realized that my freedom comes from within.

It comes from knowing who I am and being rooted in my true-self, my spirit, my soul. My freedom is inner peace regardless of external circumstances; it is the belonging and love I had been seeking outside myself which I finally wound within. My freedom is turning my suffering into service of others—a purpose to my pain—which allows me to live open-hearted and soul-led.

I am grateful for the lessons the hard times taught me and I am thankful for the traumatic immigration experience. Eventually, it did lead me to freedom. And this kind of freedom, can never be taken away.

Marta Hobbs is an author and entrepreneur who created mentorship program SoulCare. Her memoir Unraveling is available now and you can visit her website here: https://martahobbs.com/book