Living the Language

I grew up speaking Polish, because it was important to my parents that my brother and I learn their language, and it was the only language spoken in the home. Actually Polish was my first language, having learned English by going to school. Since I learned so young, I have no accent, while my parents had heavy accents.

I can remember reading from a Polish primer, basic child stories like the Dick and Jane readers, while sitting at my mom’s side as she did her re-weaving at the sewing machine. I hated it, because it was hard. I could speak the language, but having to learn to read it too? This was a hardship in my view. My grandmother sent us those books, czytanki, (in Polish).

So many years have gone by and the Polish language has suffered because I don’t have anyone to speak it with. One of my first but vague memories as a child was when in kindergarten I participated in a Christmas pageant, reciting a Polish poem, with my mom behind the curtain in the wing. She was there to rescue me if I missed a line. I have no idea what it was that I recited or even if it was related to Christmas. But apparently I delivered the poem in Polish. I also remember at some point during high school, my brother and I no longer spoke Polish to one another outside the home.

When I went off to college, I would write letters home and since my mother saved just about everything, I still have the letters I wrote home in my possession. Wow, my language skills were great. I had an extensive vocabulary and probably spelled the words correctly too.

While mom was alive, we spoke on a weekly basis and as the years went on, there were more and more English words inserted into our conversations, because of just not remembering the Polish words. Mom fell into that trap too, not just me. I do have to admit that I often felt that our relationship was not as strong as it could have been because the language got in the way. I would withhold information about some matters because it was too hard to explain them to her in Polish. She would always say to me when I struggled, “Say it in English” and I would, but usually it was easier to avoid the subject and not go down that road.

After she died, I realized I no longer had someone to help me keep the language alive. I had a rude awakening when I made my first trip to Poland to visit my cousin. She and her husband speak no English, so it was all on me to communicate with them. I had a really hard time. Basic conversation was okay, but if I wanted to get into a deeper explanation on a topic, I found myself translating English into Polish in my head before I spoke, which is not good. In the past I have always been able speak without thinking too much about it. To start translating with Polish sentence structure being different was frustrating, and it was evident that the vocabulary was not there. Indeed, I had a two year old’s vocabulary instead of the second grade level vocabulary I thought I had.

When I started to work on Letters from the Box in the Attic, I had to hire a translator to help me read all the documents and letters written in Polish. So maybe those Polish primers were necessary. I still would not have been able to read the letters, since they were hand scripted and I have a hard enough time reading the language when it is printed. My translator was wonderful. I was grateful for her patience. She also said that it is evident that I was taught well by my mother, even though much skill had escaped. She would also correct my mistakes, because it is so important to know correct grammar  and pronunciation. It was amazing to me to know how many words I have repeatedly mispronounced for so many years. We would spend a couple of hours together weekly and this was my immersion experience. It was still evident that I lacked good speaking ability, but to my credit I understood more than I spoke. I also developed more sight recognition of some printed words. I used to have to sound out each and every syllable before knowing what the word was, and some Polish words are very long.

I love to go shopping at a Marshalls or a TJ Maxx in the suburban Chicago area where many Polish immigrants live and shop. It’s fun to spy on their conversations. Not that I hear anything personal; it’s always about finding that outfit in the right size, or look at the cute shoes. There are benefits to knowing another language.

I do not mean to trivialize the idea of speaking and understanding another language. It’s a great gift to do so, and I am proud of and love that I can speak another language even if it is at a basic level. I do wish I had a better command of the Polish language, but that would require going to Polish language classes. I could go full circle and start reading those primers again.





The Blazer Lady, Memories of Mom

Shopping in suburban Chicago can be quite an adventure when you are from a small town in Western Pennsylvania. In fact I had made all my own clothes for years and even taught my best friend how to tailor a blazer. When my husband Alan and I were first married, and moved around for a while, we settled in Sewickley, outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, my home town. We were financially destitute so I made him a wool suite one Christmas and then a leisure suite, which were popular back then. I am dating myself with the leisure suite comment. The clothes I sewed for myself were for work, even maternity clothes when needed. My mom had taught me how to sew when I was in junior high, and after graduating high school, before going off to college, I made some dresses for a friend of mine. Growing up my mom sewed just about all my clothes.

After Alan and I moved away from Pittsburgh and entered the sizable Chicago shopping market, I discovered Marshalls, the off price store. It became clear that I no longer needed to sew my own clothes. The selection and the discounted prices were phenomenal. It would be more expensive to sew than to buy. And the time savings! That was added value. In the middle 1980’s, the town where we settled, Arlington Heights, got a Lord and Taylor Sales Store, which was a shopping extravaganza.  Periodically they had fabulous sales on top of their already discounted prices. Suburban Chicago became a shopping mecca for me.

When my mom would come to visit in the 1980’s, we of course would go shopping. Mom was a widow and very frugal, so every penny was important to her. She enjoyed and took pride in being a smart dresser. We would go into a Marshalls and she was amazed at the inventory and the prices. There were no such stores in and around Sewickley or even Pittsburgh at the time. She would repeat each time she entered a Marshalls, that she was like a homing pigeon. She would gravitate to the blazer and jacket section immediately. She loved her tailored clothes. At home she would do the same, but the only stores she could afford where she lived were resale shops.

So when shopping with me she would do a lot of looking and enjoyed the experience but rarely bought a blazer. The looking was half the fun. The other half was to buy some other small item and to enjoy the time. To this day, when I need my fix, even if I need absolutely nothing, I go shopping. The fun is in the hunt for whatever is on sale and while browsing you buy something to complete the adventure.

After mom had her stroke, while she was living in a nursing home in Arlington Heights, my brother Andrew and I decided it was time to sell her house in Sewickley. My daughter Stephanie and I drove to my home town on the Ohio River to see what we should keep and what to give away. For someone who was frugal, and who told me that she periodically gave bags and bags of clothes away to the charity clothing box at church, mom still had a lot of clothes for us to dispose. We also gave away bags upon bags to the clothing collection box at her church.

Stephanie and I put together one outfit which of course included a blazer with broach, accompanied by a stylish blouse and pants, as her funeral outfit, even though there was a chance she could be cremated. When she died over a year later, she was cremated, so there was no need for burial clothes. But I still have the outfit as a memory of mom and her blazers.blazer

The South 40

In my family the south 40 was a reference to my parents’ back yard, which was anything but large. Their home sat on a small lot in the heart of Sewickley, a village outside of Pittsburgh, Pa. along the Ohio River, and their back yard was tiny. The lot may have been 30 X 100 at most.

The reference to the massive acreage was because of the large yield of produce from the small plot of land every summer. My parents had several fruit trees: a peach, apple and cherry tree. The peach tree did not survive because it became diseased, and produced tasteless and tiny peaches. The cherry tree, however, produced an abundance of cherries, which mom gladly said she would shared with the birds, since they took the first of the ripe cherries. There was enough for everyone. These were sour cherries which made the best cherry pies. I even stained a brand new pair of pants with cherry juice once, while pitting a batch.

Mom and dad had created a paradise for themselves with a produce garden, which had to share space with their car. There was no garage but only a drive up space from the alley which was large enough for the vehicle. The fruit trees outlined the garden  area and a low retaining wall separated the grassy back yard from the vegetables and car. Dad would relish his time off from work and lay in his hammock on the postage sized grassy portion. They even had a picnic table back there.

I remember when we first moved in to the house and we all looked at the back yard. I envisioned a dog house and little dog in back, but their plans were grander, a yard and a sustaining vegetable garden with a place to relax. They began to transform the yard, from front to back into a peaceful retreat. One of my mother’s most favorite plants was her raspberry bushes which lined the opposite part of the property from where the car was. These raspberries represented the wild raspberries she picked in fields where she grew up, Kosów Poland. She would take my kids out there to pick fresh berries, even if there were only one or two to be had.tatus-back-yard.jpg

During the garden’s hay day, they grew pole beans, lima beans, cucumbers, tomatoes galore, dill, parsley, kohlrabi and Brussel sprouts. Dad lovingly took care of his tomato plants, by watering them at dusk most nights by using a watering can instead of a hose. He felt they received better hydration. He did produce some of largest Beefsteak tomatoes. One year they even tried to grow corn, but there were issues with cross-pollination, and the plants did not bear fruit. The back portion of the garden was bordered by a fence, a white picket fence lined by poplar trees which created a hedge. The fence also had a gate which enclosed the car in its gravel based space. You may be perceiving a pattern here. Privacy was absolutely a must. I also remember tall, majestic sunflowers gracing the property in front of the hedge during the summer.

As the years went on, the garden became smaller. The upkeep involved was too much for what it yielded; although tomatoes and herbs were still grown. The fence was mended several times, and flowers eventually replaced the raspberry bushes. My dad became ill, and his bit of paradise became neglected, while mom did what she could to clean it up every spring. She allowed wild flowers to grow everywhere. Even if the flowers were wild as seeds blew in with the wind, she loved them and let them take over wherever space they wanted. Her philosophy was that if they are green and wanted to flower, let them alone.

The garden, in its abundant state, went on for over a decade after they moved in which brings me back to the south 40 reference. My husband Alan coined the phrase about their yard, because he was amazed at what the little patch of land produced.  Our family now uses the phrase when there is an abundant back yard of not just produce, but of beauty which grows and brings us peace and joy.



The Kitchen and the Attic

These are my parents, Zdzislaw and Stanislawa Serbinski, who spent much time in their kitchen. My dad would start reading the paper with his morning coffee while mom did her daily crossword puzzle. This photograph, taken by my brother Andrew, is a special reminder of our parents.

The kitchen is a focal point of family life in most homes. It’s not just where meals are prepared but also where lively conversations start and stop, a gathering space for friends and family.

This kitchen was in the first and only home my parents bought after living in the United States for 12 years. The purchase was in the summer of 1963; they were proud. This kitchen is where my mother made her famous pierogi’s on a pastry board, on that table. She never had any counter space. The kitchen is where we would spend hours talking while I was home from college on breaks. This is the kitchen where mom collapsed from a stroke while making a cup of tea on the night of February 17, 2007.

This kitchen brings back many memories of time spent in that house. I was already in junior high when we moved in, so time living there was short.  But I spent more time there after my marriage, bringing the grand kids to mom’s house. My memories are a blend from several decades.

Unlike the kitchen, the attic was never a place where anyone went unless sent there on a specific mission. It had always been in disrepair, as I remember, with falling plaster and in need of paint. Mom did, however, do a lot of DIY repairs to it over the years, just like in the basement. By the time the house was to be sold, the attic looked good.

And then there were all those letters, documents and old photos up there too. Having found the box in the attic, with all the memorabilia that mom saved, set the stage for constructing the details of mom’s past. The joy of my life has been exploring the past – my mother’s past through those letters.  With all its contents, the box in the attic represented a link to those days which either brought a smile to her face or brought back horrifying memories, all of which defined who she was.

The box had letters written primarily in the 1940’s between mom and dad during the war, as well as communication with dad’s family during and after the war. Since my mom liked to keep anything sentimental, she even saved letters from me while I was away at school. Talk about a journey into the past!

You may have gathered that my family was not born here in the United States. Yes, my parents were Polish, born and raised in Poland. In the U.S. they raised two children to speak the Polish language and to like Polish food. The language is hard, while the food is often quite good, if you like it! To keep up a language when you hardly ever speak it is really difficult. The saying, “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” is so true. But I love the fact that I try to speak another language.

The journey into my mother’s life, found in Letters From the Box in the Attic: a Story of Courage, Survival, and Love, is my labor of love. She grew up in Poland, suffered trauma during the war, came to the United States where she and my dad hoped to experience the American Dream. They bought a little house in a quaint town with an inviting old kitchen and saved their memories in a box in the attic.

After much research, including travel to Poland, and letter translations, I started the writing process. Letter From the Box in the Attic will soon be unveiled. This post and others will introduce this piece of non-fiction, as I tell her story.


Let’s Never Forget

Kresy siberia banner

“If I forget about them, then Lord, forget about me.”     Banner Caption.

The banner goes on to say that those deported from occupied Kresy fought for their lives and their freedom. Attending this conference was the best thing that I could have done.  At first I thought I did not belong with these people at the conference, the survivors who were deported to Siberia in 1940-41 and those of us who were the second generation. From my family only my grandparents and aunt were deported. Into the second day, I realized that my family was touched by all the tragedy that could have come from the Soviet invasion and occupation of the Kresy region, as well as subsequent Nazi occupation.

The conference began on the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion and occupation of my parents’ homeland region.  My dad fought in the September Defensive Campaign of 1939, attempting to defend his county, while my mother and her underground network got Polish officers out of Poland while it was occupied by the Soviets. Each parent was arrested and imprisoned. My dad’s brother-in-law, Adam also fought to defend Poland. As a Second

My Uncle's entry in the list of victim of Katyn.

My Uncle’s entry on the list of victim of Katyn.

Lieutenant he was captured by the Soviets, imprisoned in Starobielsk prison, then executed in the Katyn Massacre in the spring of 1940. He was one of over 14,000 officers executed.  Since my dad’s family had two fighting soldiers involved in the war, and one was executed, dad’s parents and sister made the deportation list of undesirable families. Families of soldiers and especially those who fell victim at Katyn were deported to Siberia in April 1940, and forced into hard labor. Dad’s parents and sister were in several locations in Kazakhstan for six years.

Then there is my mother’s family. She and her father along with their underground network were arrested and shipped off to a couple of prisons before being sent to a Siberian Gulag. She never saw her father again. Survival was all she could think about during the gruesome and grueling time while imprisoned. A few years later her mother was murdered in the streets of Kosow, her hometown, by Ukrainian Nationalists, whose violence was fueled by the Nazi’s as they retreated in advance of the Soviet Red Army. The reign of terror and brutality inflicted by both aggressors in the region directly impacted my family which created a wound that was slow to heal.

The second day of the conference was held at the Polish Military Museum, which is home to the temporary Katyn Exhibit.  A permanent Katyn Museum is being built with its opening scheduled for spring 2015. The massacre involved the murder of over 14,000 Polish officers captured and imprisoned by the Soviets following the defeat of the Polish Army and the September Campaign of 1939.  These officers were in three separate prisons in Russia and were led away from each of the camps into the countryside, shot execution style by the Soviets, then buried in shallow graves. Some remains were unearthed by the advancing German Army in 1943, which started the blame game between the two former allies.

It was only after the fall of Communism that the Soviets admitted that they were responsible for the executions. Many items from the excavations have been recovered and preserved.  Katyn Museum2These soldiers thought they were being moved to another prison, so they had on them all of their possessions, which included razors, matches, cups, eating utensils, rosaries, combs, scissors, coins. Unearthed were buttons, wedding bands, dog-tags, uniforms, coats, even grain in a leather pouch.  That soldier thought he might get hungry during the transport.

After hearing the curator’s presentation and seeing this exhibit, I knew I belonged at this conference and among this group of Siberia survivors.                                                                                                                                       Katyn Museum 3

My aunt never received formal notification of what happened to her husband back in 1940, never receiving a death certificate. She was however able to file documents declaring her a widow 10 years after her wedding date. My dad informed her that he saw Adam’s name on a list of deceased from those three camps, while dad was training in Palestine. That was the only concrete information she received. According to the curator, it was not until 1990 that formal notification went out to families, but then only if they inquired. By 1990, my aunt was dead, my father was dead. Maybe from Adam’s side of the family, there was someone who sought formal notice.

There are few people who know about Katyn and the horrors of what Polish soldiers and citizens suffered at the hands of Joseph Stalin.  As with all horrors of war, human lives are lost, families separated and many of them victims of atrocities. More needs to be written and publicized about the Katyn Massacre and the human suffering and loss in Siberia, so we don’t forget.

Katyn Museum1

Unfinished Business

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.    

Do Widziena Warszawa – Goodbye Warsaw

My week is up and I am heading home today, reflective and satisfied with the visit.  Having met so many remarkable and passionate people, I feel an special bond to Warsaw and to Poland.  My relationship with the country previously was through my mother’s eyes, and visiting as a tourist, as an outsider, but now I feel more connected, as if this were my country too.  The country’s past inspires me.  My parent’s story is my story too. Being of Polish descent, speaking the language, trying to pass some traditions down to my children, I don’t think I ever personally bought into being Polish in the true sense, the spiritual sense.

I was in Warsaw last year for a few days for the first time ever while visiting a newly rediscovered cousin who lives in another part of Poland.  I was a tourist in her town of Opole and a tourist in Warsaw.  This time I came for a conference and as fate would arrange, I stayed in an apartment, where actual families live.  The accommodations were adequate in a minimal sense, but what was interesting to me was walking the streets like other residents as if this city was my city, learning short cuts back and forth from different parts of the city.  The cabby that picked me up this morning for the airport thought I lived in Warsaw, because I spoke the language so well.  I think it was more that he picked me up at the apartment and not a hotel, but I’ll take the compliment nonetheless.


Nozyk Synagogue

The physical history of the city fascinates me, the buildings, old and new.  To know that Hitler totally destroyed the city after the Warsaw uprising in 1944 and how the city is transforming itself today is remarkable.  There is so much rebuilding going on now after years of communism, which is great, but the old remnants that represent the past are slowly disappearing.

I walked around to find the only remaining wartime era synagogue that survived, relishing the time inside the walls.  If only the walls could speak. Although desecrated during the war, it was rescued from the flames, restored and renovated.


Courtyard view of the old building, ready for renovation.

Some of these historical locations are tucked away on small streets and inside courtyards with very little to identify them, unless you are persistent.  I wanted to find the old abandoned building that I read about with its boarded up and broken windows and decaying mortar. It had been apart of the Jewish Ghetto. Online reviewers posted photos of it, with a comment that if you want to see the building in its abandoned state, you need to see it soon, before the renovations begin.  I was fortunate to find the building and to see some of it in its original state.  When I stood still, I could hear children playing in the courtyard, women shouting from window to window, and the men discussing the latest rumors floating through the streets.  There is virtually no visual history left in Warsaw except for monuments, plaques and museums.  I am so glad I was able to experience this bit of visual history before it disappears forever.

Realizing that buildings need to be renovated for safety reasons, and that photographs do preserve history, for me there is nothing like seeing this building and thinking of the people who lived there, feeling their presence, practically hearing them speak, but knowing that they were all exterminated.

This part of the building faces the street.  There is a draped facade over the front to show what the building will look like.

This part of the building faces the street. There is a draped facade over the front to show what the building will look like.

People watching in Warsaw

How fun to sit here this afternoon in the heart of Warsaw, where the people live and socialize. I am sitting along a street called Nowy Swiat, translation, New World.
The street is so alive with a solid continuous stream of people walking along this long avenue of commerce. I love seeing mothers and daughters walking holding hands as my mother was inclined to do with me. But I thought that was weird. I sit here listening to the language that I hear in suburban Chicago everyday but I feel I am eaves dropping on their conversations when I am there. The language is the same but hearing it around me here lends a special feel, an energy, and excitement. Here they all speak the same language. There is no feeling that I am eaves dropping.

The other feeling that I have that can not escape me is drawing a parallel to a vibrant city such as I see today and the city months before the invasions in September 1939. Warsaw, the capital, the cultural heart of the nation, the place where financial and political decisions were made. I can only imagine that the city was active and electric during the months leading up to devastation. People living their lives, going to work and shopping, taking children to school and out for ice cream. All I see that would be different from then to now is the clothing and the fact that today, this city has over the years been rebuilt from total ruin. 1938 to 2014 the changes have been dramatic but the spirit is the same. However the event of 1939 changed lives in a heart beat, with no turning back the carnage and suffering.
My closing thought is, one can never take their freedom for granted. It is not always a given when you think of the crisis in the Ukraine and Poland is on their border. I live in the United States and expect that to be my right. I am the lucky one.

It Takes a Village or Just a Home

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.

Bóg Honor Ojczyzna

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, September 17, 1939.  By this time in 1939, the Poles were already fighting the Germans from the west and needed to protect themselves against the Red Army coming from the east.  It was because of Stalin’s orders that 1.7 million Poles from that region were forcibly taken from their homes and deported to Siberia in 1940 with only 500,000 surviving two years later.

imageHow fitting to have this be the first day of the Kresy-Siberia Foundation Conference in Warsaw. We attended a large memorial tribute and service at the Monument of the Fallen in the East (those that died and were murdered during and after deportation) marking this milestone in history.  The tribute had a full military review of Poland’s finest along with dignitaries, speakers and the clergy.

There was an outdoor Mass for the masses!   Prior to attending this tribute we visited the Monte Cassino monument which had Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna engraved on the face. This is a very familiar phrase used in Poland when speaking of patriotism and love of country.  I found this phrase embroidered on a little fabric pouch of my mother’s which she clearly embroidered herself while in one of the Soviet prisons. The phrase means God, Honor, Country, in that order.  Pre-war Poland would have included a Catholic Mass but probably not had an ecumenical blessing for all those that died so many years ago.  This event included several faiths: Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical, Jewish and Muslim, each offering a blessing.image

Poland does not and never has separated church from state. It was refreshing to see people pray for their fallen while publicly honoring their country in prayer.

As the conference participants gathered in Poland’s Senate building, I was struck by how many of the attendees spoke Polish and how old they were.  Since I figured there would be no actual survivors traveling in their 90’s, these must be survivors who were children when they were deported.  Their language lived on even after never living in Poland after the war.  Many were resettled with their families in the Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

I was also surprised with how many live in Poland today.  Last night I met woman who is 85 years old and spent seven years in Siberia before going back to Poland.  She left a child and came back a young adult. She spoke of not knowing how to read Polish anymore when she returned, not appreciating the taste of sugar, and having a real front door to the house she lived in after living in the Steppe’s of Kazakhstan for so long.

I met a woman from Massachusetts who like me was a descendant of survivors.  Her parents unlike mine where children survivors during the war.  I enjoyed spending time, listening to her stories, and sharing the same passion for this era in history. Another woman was two years old when she was deported.  The stories go on and on.

Tomorrow we go to the Katyn Museum which should be a very moving and powerful experience.