It was June 2007 when 65-year-old Polish national Jan Grzebski apparently woke up from a coma that he had been in since 1988. The astonishing story made Grzebski a hot news item, covered around the globe. Headlines such as the Daily Telegraph’s “Coma man wakes to new world after 19 years” were typical.
Newspapers and TV reports made much of the fact that this real-life story was strangely similar to the plot of a 2003 movie Good Bye, Lenin! In the film, a family in East Berlin decides to hide the fall of the Berlin Wall and East German communism from their aged, pro-communist mother after she emerges from a coma in 1990.
Most of the media stories warmed to this theme. Poland had changed a lot over the previous two decades. The BBC quoted a Polish TV station interview with Grzebski. “Now I see people on the streets with mobile phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin,” he was reported as saying.
Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph quoted Grzebski as saying, “When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops. Meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere.” Now Grzebski had emerged from his coma into a land of relative plenty.
Grzebski’s story seemed to be that he’d been a railway worker before an accident involving a blow to the head had sent him into the 19-year coma. All those years, apparently he’d had to depend on his faithful wife, Gertruda, to nurse him. Finally, he had woken up, despite doctors initially saying he’d only live for two or three years.
Speaking to the Polsat television station, Gertruda said, “I cried a lot, and I prayed a lot. Those who came to see us kept asking, ‘When is he going to die?’ But he’s not dead.” Speaking to TVN24, Grzebski gave heartfelt tribute to his loyal wife, “It was Gertruda that saved me and I’ll never forget it.”
There were other fascinating aspects to Grzebski’s amazing story. In 1988, when his coma started, he had four children. By the time of his apparent awakening in 2007, he had 11 grandchildren. And of course, post-communist Poland in 2007 was vastly different to 1988 Poland.
In 1988, Poland was still under the rule of communist dictator Wojciech Jaruzelski. The next year, elections saw democracy arrive in Poland. The country went on to join NATO in 1999. Then, in 2004, Poland became a full member of the European Union. All of those developments would have seemed unthinkable in the Cold War days of 1988.
However, this heartwarming good-news story turned out to be just a little too perfect. It was The Guardian newspaper which decided to dig a little deeper. And it found that a few of the details didn’t seem to completely add up. It wasn’t that the story was made up. But some of the detail didn’t seem to be 100 percent accurate.
And the source of The Guardian’s revelations partially debunking the story about Jan Grzebski? None other than Jan Grzebski himself. “I never said any of those things. I was not in a coma for 19 years, I only spoke to one journalist and what they wrote was not true – and every time the story was printed new things emerged,” said Grzebski.
Grzebski confirmed that he had indeed been involved in an accident back in 1988. But in the aftermath of the accident the coma had lasted only four years, not 19. He had, however, been wheelchair bound since the accident.
He then went on to debunk the whole Good Bye, Lenin! angle of the story – the idea that he’d fallen into a coma in one world and woken up in a completely different one. “I saw all the things that they claimed I had not seen, although I could not always express myself. I saw the news on TV so I was informed, and I also met my grandchildren,” Grzebski told The Guardian.
And confirmation of Grzebski’s assertions about his condition came from his medic. Doctor Wojciech Pstragowski said that although Jan had certainly been disabled over the 19 years, he had not been in a full coma that whole time. The doctor confirmed that the coma had lasted only four years from the date of the original accident.
Grzebski’s wife Gertruda was also ready to back up her husband’s version of events. She told The Guardian, “Jan was not in a coma, he understood everything that I said to him. At first he used his face to let me know whether he wanted anything to eat or drink. Later, he spoke.”
Grzebski said he had only spoken to one journalist. So who was it that had started this story which had spread around the world and been covered by everyone from the BBC to USA Today? It transpired that it had been a reporter from the local newspaper, Gazeta Dzialdowska.
The Guardian spoke to Gazeta Dzialdowska’s editor-in-chief, Malgorzata Czrewinska. Obviously not one to take any allegations of exaggeration and falsehood lying down, she declared, “It’s not a lie. The thing is that there are different kinds of coma.”
Czrewinska added, “There is a kind of coma where people are unconscious and others where they wake up from time to time, and then fall back into coma. This was the case with Jan Grzebski.”
Czrewinska also made the point that even if the coma only lasted four years, there had still been dramatic changes in Poland during that time. When Grzebski had his accident in 1988, Poland was a communist country. When he awoke four years later in 1992, democracy had prevailed.
So the incredible story of Grzebski may not be quite as incredible as first reports in 2007 indicated. But it does seem true that he went into his coma when Polish communism was alive and well. And by the time he woke up, it was gone, so the Good Bye, Lenin! parallels could still be considered valid.
Perhaps the real hero of this story is Gertruda Grzebski. After all, she stuck by her stricken husband for two decades. Speaking to TVN24, Gertruda said, “He was a living corpse. Now he can sit in his wheelchair and we have breakfast and coffee together.”