Since doing continuous research on Polish history over the last eighteen months, I realize that the history is complicated and there are many moving parts to this story.
Throughout the centuries there was much nationalism in Europe, something that the people of the United States have not always understood because of the country’s shorter history and because it became a melting pot of ethnicities. Many countries have historically hated each other and have tried to conquer each other. Nationalism is not just love of country, it is also a desire to be a dominant power over another. This collective feeling has led to invasions, wars, ethnic cleaning, border disputes, and desire for regional domination.
My parent’s formative years were during the two decades of Polish independence, known as the Second Republic, which was not without internal political strife, border wars, and the dominance over other nationalities within its borders. The area that my parents called home, eastern Galicia, became part of Poland after the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Treaty of Versailles and then by a successful border war with the Soviet Union. I find much of this history ironic. My dad was born during WWI and lived in an area that was fighting for Austria, and some would claim that Austria was on the wrong side of the war. Polish brothers were actually fighting each other because one part of Poland was under Russian rule and the other two parts were under either German or Austrian rule, the Allies vs. the Axis. My dad’s parents and grand-parents were Polish but they did not have their own country. Yet after Polish independence, their region, primarily inhabited by Ukrainians, who had also lived under Austrian rule, were now living under Polish rule. The Ukrainians experienced discrimination by the Polish people and the government, which created mistrust and hatred. It seems to me that this scenario is much like what the Poles experienced while being ruled by Austria. This human trait, dominate or be dominated, has led to continued conflict and has led history to repeat itself, over and over again.
Since I am writing about my parent’s strife, this is a very personal and human story. My mother was fiercely patriotic and proud. So as I have told this story, I have stepped into my mother’s shoes, lived the pain of her losing the country and family she loved, while trying to stay alive during the war and eventually to live in an adopted country. I single out my mother’s feelings over my dad’s because I had more time with her during her life, as she died at age 89, versus my dad who died at 63. I knew her better.
Despite learning more about Polish history, the Poland I walk away with understanding is the one seen through my mother’s eyes. Her love of country was shaped by Poland’s history and famous citizens. Poland was the country of freedom fighters, such as the Generals Pulaski and Kosciuszko, who both fought for the patriots during the American Revolution. Even when they were ruled by foreign countries, the Poles kept their culture alive by continuously teaching the language and its history to future generations. Mom’s father did that as a young man while the land was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many famous Poles were scientists, scholars, artists and intellectuals – Nicolas Copernicus, Madam Curie-Sklodowska, Fryderyk Chopin, Jozef Pilsudski, Ignacy Paderewski and Pope John Paul II.
I have always thought of my mother as the reluctant American citizen, who never quite appreciated her new adopted country. She would say that in Poland before the war, children went to school six days a week and got a much better education than American children, who only care about sports. How in Poland, their form of ‘democracy’ worked better, which was a presidential system with certain elements of authoritarianism, unlike the checks and balances of democracy in the United States. It was in one of my mother’s writings, where she praised the United States as a land of freedom, and that she was lucky to live in such a great nation, that I realized her appreciation for America.
Experiences from your youth and young adulthood do shape the person you become. Knowing that my mother lived through the horrors of prisons, interrogations, starvation, illness, forced labor, and the subsequent psychological scars that resulted, put in perspective who she became and what she had to overcome. Because of these life experiences, my mother was without a doubt one of the strongest people I have ever known, a real role model for love of family, sheer determination and survival.
These posts have been the first journey toward a manuscript that has yet to evolve. There are many more letters that need translated and there is still much to learn. I have loved this experience so far, digging into the past, learning so much about a time and country that I thought I knew.