February 5, 2006

Something unexpected and moving from the archives

Monica's Tip of the Day: If, while walking on your treadmill, you spot out of the corner of your eye an unfamiliar 3.5" floppy disk with your maiden name on it (written in somebody else's handwriting, no less) check it out. You might find a gem like this one.

Background: I recognize this as an assignment I wrote for a Magazine Journalism class in college. In case you don't know, Peter Czernek was my father, and he passed away in December 2001 at the age of 59. I do believe that he's still watching over me, and that he may have had something to do with me discovering this article when I was in need of some inspiration today.

I am posting it here as a tribute to him. Perhaps his story will inspire someone else today.

From the Communist Bloc to the Peace Garden State
Peter Czernek, a 56-year-old internist and geriatrician from Fargo, N. Dak., enjoys reading the encyclopedia. He tries to be in bed before 10 p.m., unless something particularly gripping is on Nightline. And he was once listed as a spy for the Polish government.

Peter would rather discuss philosophy or politics than his personal history, even though his past holds more drama, intrigue, and plot twists than a movie-of-the-week. But he claims to keep no secrets -- when asked, he tells his story, punctuating it with generalizations and understatements.

"It's the story of an immigrant. It's the story of America, of searching for this American dream everyone keeps talking about. I certainly wasn't the only one."

Many people left Poland in the decades following WWII, among them friends and acquaintances.

"Roman Polanski lived down the street from us in Lodz, and he left before we did. I used to play bridge with his good friend, Wojtek Frykowski. I wanted nothing to do with their lifestyle, but I was inspired that they made it to America." As an afterthought, Peter recalls that his former bridge partner was killed by Charles Manson.

"We knew each other, but we lived in very different worlds."

Its hard to imagine what Peter's world looked like thirty years ago. At some point, he decided to flee his country and risk his life in order to become who he is now -- a soft-spoken North Dakota physician with a penchant for British literature.

He was born Zdislaw Kazimierz Czernek, and as a young man in Lodz, Poland, he had two dreams: to be a doctor, and to leave Communist Poland. At age 28, Zdislaw, a professor of Pharmacology, found his opportunity. He asked the Polish government for permission to attend a medical conference in France, and they agreed on two conditions: that he promise to return, and that he spy under the code name Wladyslaw.

He agreed, but had no intention of keeping either promise.

Zdislaw and his wife Jolanta each packed one suitcase, abandoning their apartment, leaving their friends and families without drawn-out goodbyes. Only one person, Zdislaw's father, knew that he may never see them again.

With the help of immigrant friends, Zdislaw found work in Paris. It wasn't long, however, before the Polish government found out that Wladyslaw was not holding up his end of the deal. He moved to the small town of Nimes, in southern France, and worked as a physicians assistant. Again, he was found.

Jolanta recalls their time as fugitives.

"We couldn't stay anywhere, because they would find us. Our mail came to us already opened. We would get phone calls saying, 'If you're not back in Poland by such-and-such day, you will be very sorry.'"

Although she was frightened, her husband assured her that as long as they stayed out of Poland, they were safe.

Peter tells this story with characteristic understatement.

"I felt a little bit uneasy, when they threatened my life."

He insists that when he left France in June 1972, it had nothing to do with Polish hit men. He wanted to practice medicine, and France would not recognize a foreign degree. In the United States, he only needed to pass an exam and prove his fluency in English. So Zdislaw, who spoke no English, and Jolanta, who was six months pregnant with their first child, packed those two suitcases and took a one-way flight to New York City.

Once in New York, Zdislaw changed his name to Peter. His next goal was to become Peter Czernek, M.D..

He took his first certification exam in July, after one month in the U.S. When the results arrived in September, Peter found that he had passed the medical exam but failed English comprehension.

Studying as much as ten hours a day, Peter taught himself English over the next two months. During that time, he had to support his wife and infant son, so he took whatever work he could get.

"I worked some interesting jobs. I was an orderly in a nursing home, cleaning bedpans and lovely things like that. I was also an elevator operator at a very nice building on Park Avenue. One day, I was delivering a package to the seventh floor, when I saw that the man receiving the package was Mr. Henry Kissinger. He gave me a five dollar tip."

By January 1973, Peter had passed his exam and was ready to begin residency training. Three years later, he was a practicing internist. By 1979, he owned a house on 138th St. in Brooklyn, drove a Cadillac, and had two young children. But when his father died that year, Peter's faith began to falter.

"I had met a man in 1977, a Polish cardinal, who was seated next to me at a dinner in New York. We were talking, and he was a very nice fellow, and when my father died two years later I wondered whether this man would remember me. I wrote him a letter, asking if he could say a quick prayer for my family. Within two weeks, I had a handwritten letter from him, saying that a service was held at the Vatican, and my father was honored."

By that time, Peter's acquaintance was no longer a Polish cardinal. He was Pope John Paul II. Peter immediately mailed the letter to his mother in Poland. She still has it, tucked away in a drawer.

Chris Czernek, now 26, just heard this story for the first time.

"I never heard that, but Im not all that surprised. That's just the way Dad is. He keeps things to himself. Well go hunting together, well do father-son stuff, but he'll never just sit me down and say 'Let me tell you about my life.'"

Chris was also unaware that he was the motivating factor for Peter's move to North Dakota. Even though the Czerneks lived in a fairly upscale neighborhood, they were not sheltered from crime. In 1980, one of Peter's coworkers was shot in his office, only seven blocks from the Czerneks' home. Not long afterward, Peter's Cadillac was vandalized in the hospital parking lot during broad daylight. But it wasn't until seven-year-old Chris rode his bike to the corner store one afternoon, and ran home bruised and crying, that Peter knew it was time to move.

"It simply wasn't worth it to leave a Communist country and live in another kind of terrorist regime."

The original plan was to move to Vermont, but one of Peter's friends gave him the name of a doctor in North Dakota.

"I didn't take it very seriously. In fact, I had to look at the map to see where North Dakota was. But I had this guy's phone number, so I thought What the hell? Then they offered us a free trip, so I thought 'Why not?'"

Peter and Jolanta first visited Fargo in May 1981, and suddenly it was time for one last migration westward. For a man who refers to the Pope as "a very nice fellow," Peter is at no loss for adjectives to describe Fargo.

"It was so peaceful. You might call it idyllic. Bucolic, if you will. Pastoral, even."

Peter and Jolanta have lived in one of the quieter neighborhoods of Fargo for the last 17 years, and they plan to make it their retirement home. Although his life is hardly full of adventure, Peter insists that he has never been happier. He prefers his Honda Accord to the Cadillac he drove in New York. He prefers hunting trips with his son to gala banquets with the Pope. And he prefers reading historical fiction to living the life of a fugitive spy.

Although the Polish government is not the oppressive regime it once was, Peter strongly encourages his relatives and friends to head west, if possible.

"America has this special something to offer, which no other country has. Of course it's a gamble. I gambled on that American dream, but look at me -- I won."

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