Elder Speak 2023: Andre Nowacki’s amazing journey from oppression to freedom
Andre Nowacki remembers the lack of freedom and personal choice when he was a kid growing up in Poland under Soviet control after World War IIl. That yearning for freedom led Nowacki to leave Poland and ultimately settle in Leavenworth.
Nowacki’s life has been one long series of serendipitous opportunities that he took advantage of in building a life with his wife Ann, who passed away a few years ago.
Nowacki is one of five individuals participating in the Ripple Foundation’s Elder Speak program that encourages elders to explore the wisdom they’ve gained and then pass those nuggets along to their families and the community. They will be giving presentations on Sept. 10 at Snowy Owl Theater in Leavenworth and again at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center on Tuesday, Sept. 12. For more information, see the theripplefoundation.org.
During his school years, Nowacki avoided joining the Communist Party, which meant he had a far more difficult challenge to pursue his engineering degree. His skill at mountaineering helped open doors to international travel and his engineering acumen gave him the opportunity to buck the odds and get a degree in electronics.
Climbing became an all-consuming passion and those he climbed with shared a distaste for the rigid, controlled Soviet regime and yearned for freedom.
Alpinists, as they were known at the time, were highly valued in Poland and Nowacki received government financial support to travel and climb, which included some first ascents on some routes. It was on one of his climbing trips that he met a young American woman. Five years later, they met again in Switzerland and fell in love and spent the better part of five decades together before she passed away.
She was working for an American company in Germany and, because getting an exit visa from the Communist Party was out of the question, she helped smuggle him into that country. He has some harrowing stories about crossing borders without an expired passport and one time locked himself in the trunk of a Volkswagen Beetle accidentally while trying to figure out if he could use that technique to avoid border crossings.
Nowacki originally had a visa but was unable to get it extended. Rather than return to Poland, he chose to stay in Germany without documentation and eventually the two were able to move to the United States.
They spent some time in California where he started fixing televisions, getting some use out of his university degree. He struggled with a language barrier but his knack for repairing the devices gave him steady work. He met the owner of a ski lift company in Squaw Valley and went to work installing them all over the world.
Ultimately, they moved to Leavenworth in the 1980s and he was able to work independently for the company. He was drawn to the North Cascades because they reminded him of the mountains in Poland. I am not climbing anymore like I used to, of course, but I like to be in the mountains,” Nowacki said.
As luck would have it, the owner of the company moved to Mexico and that led to Nowacki installing solar panels and even working on a desalination plant in that country.
Getting used to freedom was a challenge for Nowacki. He learned that democracy meant constant discussions between opposing groups and finding common ground. “We do not kill each other, we find a compromise,” he said.
Nowacki has seen authoritarian regimes and wants no part of them. He found freedom in the United States.