Like so many of the people I met at the conference in Warsaw, I am looking for information and answers about my parents. Looking for a piece of history, that represents a time in a loved one’s life, about their youth, their military experience, what prison or gulag they spent time in, can be daunting. With the fall of Communism in 1990, Poland received its freedom and over time, the release of many documents and papers previously held by the Soviet government. Many of those papers documented Soviet repression of Poles during the war, about lost family members, their fate, where they suffered or died. All this is now available for research. I am very fortunate to have personal family letters and some military documents to help me put together the puzzle pieces of my parents’ lives, but even with this information, there are still many holes that need plugged about their past.
I feel like I am trying to find a bit of myself through this project, find where I fit into the narrative of being a Pole, while telling the story of their war experience and how it affected their post-war life. However I find that there is an untold story, some unfinished business. My mother in one of her journal entries mentioned, what if? What if there had been no war, what would she have done, what would she have become? My dad, while trying to bury his melancholy in a bottle, would say that the war ruined his life. Those comments tell me that there was a great deal of sadness and sense of loss surrounding their unfulfilled lives, wondering what if.
I cannot change history, but I can tell their story and by doing so, enrich my life by honoring my mom and dad, who sacrificed so much, which included the sacrifices of war but also how they were effected as a result of war. I have thought many times that maybe by making this emotional and historical journey, I could ease their pain, the pain that I remember seeing in their faces when I was growing up. The pain was their struggle of raising a family when money was scarce, living from paycheck to paycheck. As I see it, they deserved a better life. On the surface, and in many ways they had a good life, living the American dream by buying a modest house in a lovely community, providing for themselves and their children. However being without family, not having the love of departed parents and extended family,and not living in Poland was a loss my mother often spoke about. She would say that they are totally alone; they have no one but themselves. At the time, I would shrug off comments like that. I was sad for her but all that bad stuff happened a long time ago and we were living in the United States, I would say, and things were okay. After all she was the adult taking care of me. My dad had regrets about not finishing his education to be something better than a steel worker. I also remember feeling some criticism toward both my mom and dad for not taking more risks and making a better life, if that is what they wanted. Looking back that was easy for me to think. I did not walk in their shoes. One Christmas Eve, at the end of our dinner celebration, my mother turned the radio on to a station that was playing Polish Christmas carols. My dad started singing, and soon there after he started to cry. I do think my dad did not have the mental energy to really start over in the United States. This became evident to me because he did not learn the English language very well. He learned enough to get by, was able to read the language but seemingly did not care to improve. He probably thought his lot in life was to be a steel worker which put food on the table and paid the mortgage.
Now I feel that a debt needs to be repaid and my regret is not caring more to ask them about their lives before and during the war. My dad died when he was very young, but my mother lived a long life. I remember one time when I visited her in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, right before she had her stroke, I asked her something about her home life. She told me that when she graduated from secondary school in 1938, her father gave her a present of visiting all the major Polish cities so she could experience her country. She went on to tell me that she went with her Aunt Aniela, her father’s sister and not her mother. The conversation then continued about how she and her father were close. She was remembering a happy time in her life, right before the war started. If only there had been more times like that when she could share more stories with me. The dark stories didn’t flow as easily. Many survivors of war do not want to discuss traumatic events of the past; they do not want to burden their children with what really happened, possibly for fear of going through the trauma again. Even when my mother wrote about her experience of being arrested, the prisons, and gulag she still spoke in generalities.
So I continue to try and find more nuggets of information, to try and complete the puzzle about these two people, my parents, to better understand them and to tell their whole story, including the unfinished business.