World War II

It’s all About the Letters

So far my blogs have focused on growing up Polish and remembering my mother and how she influenced my life and my family’s. But now it’s time to talk about all the letters she left in the attic.

I have vivid memories of my mother both from the early years and as she grew older as well as her modest life, sometimes too modest in my estimation. She tried to add a positive spin to whatever was going in her life while being frugal. I remember when she said her heating bills were too high in her old, drafty house and how the new thermostat reading needed to be 65 degrees on some of the coldest days. She simply wore an extra sweater to keep warm. When I came to visit the thermostat went up a few degrees. I don’t think I am holding her up to be this perfect person, but she was able to tackle adversity with grace. She was someone who could make lemonade out of sour lemons, when she had to, and she had to make lemonade quite a bit.

My greatest accomplishment, next to giving birth and rearing my children has been memorializing my mother’s World War II experience. This period in her life was when her survival skills, making lemonade out of sour lemons, were the most useful. The art of tackling adversity head on served her well the rest of her life also. The project, Letters from the Box in the Attic, a Story of Survival, Courage and Love” is a tribute to this woman I called mother. My book is a work of love, which will be published sometime in early 2018.

The book’s genesis began in the fall of 2012, shortly after I resigning from my job. Because I am a one track minded type of person, there was no time for two major undertakings in my life. I needed to focus on researching the book and gathering as much information as possible. Later another job found me, which took 18 more months away from the project. Eventually I got to where I am now.

I always thought I knew so much about European World War II, only to find out that I knew only some of the basics which are taught in school. There was so much more that I needed to know to begin the writing process. The learning curve also involved needing to know more about my parents’ lives during the war; however, they were both deceased when I started the project.

This was when the letters became the dominant focus of the project, the heart and soul of the project once the letters were translated. Revelations were learned, the inner most feelings between two people, and family members were exposed. After digesting all the translations I was left with trying to make sense of it all. Eventually I was able to connect some of the dots between historical events and what my parents experienced.

Historical context is so important to put events into prospective – why things happen, not just that the events themselves occurred. Knowing what my parents experienced needed to be put into an understanding of why. As a history nerd, this was the most fun!

Then there are the personal revelations that come from doing some introspection about family. We are all interesting human beings, who suffer from human failings along with some burdens we carry both good and bad. All families have issues.

This has been my first attempt at writing a manuscript. I thoroughly enjoyed the research portion of the journey. Collecting the data, intertwining the letters with all the historical facts was fascinating. A non-fiction author once gave me a bit of advice; he said that at some point you have to start writing. You cannot just keep doing research, was his advice. As difficult as it was to follow his advice, I took it to heart. I was nevertheless convinced that I could find more information if I just tried. As I began to write, I did pursue archived information from the Polish government, which did reveal interesting facts. I was so excited to add them into the narrative. But for me the reality is that there are facts I will never know.

The idea of becoming an author is crazy to me. I am sure my high school English teachers are rolling over in their graves if they are deceased. As with other new ventures, I will have to buy into the fact that I did write the book. This next phase of my life will be exciting.

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.

 

Letters from the box.

mama & tatus

My parents, circa 1944 or 1945.
Zdzislaw and Stanislawa Serbinski

Exploring the past has always been my fascination. Depending on the era I was studying in school, I wished to be a fly on the wall in order to experience life as it was then. Having my mother’s treasures in my possession and knowing the two characters involved, my parents, gives me the thrill of that fly, or at least the thrill will one day come to be. Right now I have more questions than answers as I explore their early years.

My goal is to explore my parents’ war years and put many pieces of a puzzle together based on letters, documents, photographs,  stories and much research. The puzzle is incomplete because both my parents are dead and many answers went to the grave with them and while they were alive I never asked the right questions. Growing up in a Polish home, my parents told some war stories, many stories of pre-WWII Poland and expressed how much they loved their country. Their Polish pride always showed through by how they viewed world politics, the American educational system and life in general. I always wondered why they were reluctant US citizens. My hope is to be able to find out more about their lives from the stacks and stacks of letters, photos and documents my mother left behind.

Excerpts from my diary:

November 26, 2012:

Today November 26, 2012 is my birthday and it’s the first day that I am officially working on the project that I have been destined to do. I quit my job to start this project without one ounce of regret.

I woke up and started on the computer at 8:00 a.m. Actually my daughter Stephanie and I started the night before, where she had us on the Library of Congress website. I then did some more Googling after she left and found myself on the most fascinating site.  At 8:00 a.m. the next morning I found myself consumed by www. Kresy-Siberia.org, a virtual museum, dedicated to the stories, videos and photographs of Polish refugees from the Kresy region who underwent forced deportation to USSR labor camps during the first two years of WWII.

I have not taken the time to discipline myself into my work space or to outline what I should be doing. Since this is the first day and it is my birthday, I am enjoying being immersed into the stories and language struggles of what I am about to undertake.
I will need to find some additional websites as potential resources, and then very carefully go through all of mama’s papers, sort them, scan and catalog them.