When I think back of when I was a child, I remember the security of my family home, the love and warmth of my mother and father but what I remember the most is growing up in a Polish home. What separated us from the rest of our community was not only different food, but the language and traditions. In school and outside the home it was English but as soon as I crossed the threshold, I stepped into a European world, the Polish world of my parents.
I now think back to the last three days, attending the Kresy-Siberia Conference here in Warsaw, meeting so many fascinating and truly inspiring people. The reason we all came together was to share and keep alive stories of a time in history and remember a region we all came from, either directly or through family. One commonality is the rich Polish heritage. We all spoke either broken English, broken Polish, had great command of them both, or spoke only Polish or English. The survivors of Siberia, referred to as Syberiaks, were only children when they and their families were forced to leave the comfort and security of their homes and their lives by the Soviets in WWII. The youngest Syberiak I met was four months old when she and her family were deported. With their worlds turned upside down, experiencing starvation and contracting diseases, they survived to tell their stories of traveling out of Russia, of time in Persia or Lebanon before being sent to the safety of India and Africa for the rest of the war. Once they were removed from the horrors of war, they spoke of their time in India and Africa as a happy time in their childhood.
Fast forward in time, these children that survived had children of their own. The families had resettled in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Great Britain, the United States or Canada which is where they came from for this conference. The core take-away is that the Polish heritage lives on, no matter in what country, or what continent. The second generation was taught well as most spoke the language and even knew many of the songs. I compared notes and found that many of the these second generation children went to Polish school on Saturdays, which accounted for their excellent language skills today, or they were a part of a Polish scouting experience where they learned many songs and other traditions. When the group broke out in song, I did feel somewhat envious not knowing the songs except for the Polish happy birthday, “sto lat”. I did not have the option of Saturday school or a Polish scouting program, but my parents made sure I learned the language.
Many resettled families collectively settled in areas where other Poles lived. This made for an immediate community experience of traditions and celebrations. Throughout history it was ethnic neighborhoods that grew cities all over the world. Sometimes I feel that me and my family missed out by not living in a Polish neighborhood where you heard the language spoken outside the walls of your home and learned the songs because you heard them at parties and neighborhood celebrations. Even though my parents chose to live outside a Polish community, I still grew up in a Polish home rich in language and traditions, just on a smaller scale.
This conference brought me many new contacts, people just like me who are exploring the history of their families and a connection to a region that does not exist today as Poland. It was so much fun to hear a conversation across the table where someone said their father was in the cavalry at the start of the war like my dad. My eyes lit up and I had to approach her for more details. I was among other history nerds. Life does not get any better.