This story has gone from the start of my research, learning historical details, to finding some lost relatives in Poland, my trip to Poland in the fall of 2013, finding my mother’s childhood home in Kosow, to telling the story through letters, photos and memories.
Having devoted several previous posts to historical facts, I feel compelled to now talk about how my parents’ experiences shaped who they were. They landed in Great Britain after the war while my dad’s family resettled in the new part of Poland. There was much poverty in Poland and much of Europe at the time so there were many letters from his parents asking for this, that, and other things to help them out. His parents of course missed their son tremendously and his mother always dreamed that her son and his new wife would make their way back to Poland so they could all be together.
But that was never to happen. Instead my mom and dad took a leap of faith with two tiny children and set sail to the United States, having two family connections and the hope of a prosperous life.
Prior to my brother’s birth, my mother delivered a baby girl who sadly lived two days. While reflecting on my mother’s life up until then, I find it hard to conceive the extent of sorrow that filled her heart and soul after losing a baby. But from a practical and selfish perspective, had her first-born survived, I probably would not have been born! There were many letters from dad’s mother consoling my mom on the loss of the child, but a couple of years later, there was utter joy following information that a baby boy was born to them. My grandfather was so proud that a boy was born who would carry on the Serbinski name, that he had to go out and celebrate the occasion and have a few drinks.
My parents came to live in a Western Pennsylvania town of Ambridge which was close to where my mother’s uncle had settled only months before. They had no money, as all was spent on the ocean passage, no apartment, and no job. Ambridge was a steel mill town, full of second and third generation Poles, Hungarian, and others of Eastern European descendants. A Polish gentleman, who owned a rental property, a tiny apartment, let the family stay for free until they were able to get on their feet. American Bridge Company, the steel mill in town, was hiring, so my dad got a job.
The idea of a prosperous life was always elusive to my parents, who raised my brother and me to always reach for the stars. There is nothing you can not do if you set out to do it, my mother would say. We did not live in Ambridge for very long, because it was an industrial town, unlike the green hills and trees of their native Polish region. They quickly found housing in the neighboring town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania. This little village was quaint, quiet and the perfect pedestrian town to live in and raise children.
Sewickley was not an ethnic community. We left that behind in Ambridge, with its ethnic meat market, that had sawdust on the floor, and the Polish church that blessed food baskets filled with kielbasa, eggs and ham at Easter time. I do remember my mother referring to us as DP’s. People around us looked down at us for being DP’s, she would say. What on earth was a DP? We were Displaced Persons! We spoke Polish in the home; no one did that. We ate interesting food, unlike our neighbors. We kept to ourselves, especially my parents. Being a DP meant you were in essence a man without a country, someone forced to leave his native land. Polish was my first language, as I learned English by going to Kindergarten. I do remember being in the Christmas pageant in Kindergarten, reciting a poem in Polish, with my mother in the wing, giving me prompts in case I forgot a line. As with all kids, we wanted to fit in, but sometimes that was difficult.
Growing up, I never remember lacking for love. Occasionally lacking for material things, but love, no! My parents so wanted family that my brother and I were what made the world go around.
The past does find a way to come back and haunt. I learned little by very little some of the stories from their past. My parents developed a beautiful friendship with a couple who invited them to join a Polish organization in the City of Pittsburgh. My parents went a couple of times, but hanging out with people was not by dad’s thing.
The four of them would socialize at our house or we would travel to them in Pittsburgh. They would play bridge until all hours and conversations and sometimes arguments would erupt. Those conversations that had nothing to do with cards, fascinated me. They talked of the war and their experiences. Kaz and Jola’s experiences were very different from those of my parents. Kaz, Kazimierz, spent time in a German POW camp in France and had opinions about the French and the Jews. Jola was involved in the Warsaw uprising and talked of a pretty normal life in occupied Warsaw during the early war years where she went to school and on dates. Her real name was Lidia. The underground gave her the name Jola and after surviving the uprising she was sent to German POW camp until the end of the war. The four would debate global events, current and past, and as a little kid, I did not understanding the issues, but nevertheless I found them fascinating.
I did learn my mother lost her first-born, that the Russians arrested her and the Ukrainians killed her mother. Some of the stories grew in detail as I grew in age, but without asking more questions, there were few additional details. The idea that my dad was actually a social person as a young man came from the letters I found in the attic. This detail about my dad was enlightening. He loved to party and hang out with his friends before the war and with his soldier buddies before he got married. Sometimes the partying got out of hand, as he loved the drink as did his father, whom my dad would chastise.
But a loner is who my dad became. He remained a steel worker all of his short life, which is an honorable line of work, but it was not what he had hoped to become. He did blame the war for interfering with his life. In retrospect, I see a man who tried to find some dignity in the bottle as he tried to put himself out of his misery. His misery was doing manual labor for miserable pay, while not living in the country that raised him, and not being able to go back to the country he loved. I remember a few Christmas Eve dinners, (called Wigilia in Polish), after he had a few drinks, we would listen to the Polish radio station and listen to Polish Christmas carols. He would get so emotional, he cried like a baby.