Rediscovering the Old Country PDF Print Email

My journey to peace with my Polish heritage.

This story was published in the November 2010 issue of In the Fray, an online magazine that promotes global understanding.

When I was growing up in a Polish neighborhood in upstate New York, I wasn’t so interested in the Old Country. My grandparents immigrated to America at the turn of the 20th century, and although my grandpa told me about the ducks on the farm near Warsaw where he lived as a boy, he was, by and large, a quiet man. The Old Country was, well, old, and we were living in the new postwar era in the United States. My parents wanted to move on after World War II, the Depression, my dad’s Navy service in the Pacific, and my mother’s hard factory labor. Like most of their friends, they wanted to be as all-American as they could possibly manage.

“We don’t dress like DP’s,” my mother often said, code for displaced people coming from refugee camps in Eastern Europe to the U.S. in old-fashioned clothes. Their English was broken, and although some moved into our hometown, we were embarrassed to be connected with them in any way.

Yet just like their parents, Mom and Dad sent me to a Polish Catholic school. We also attended a Polish Catholic church in a neighborhood where streets had names like Gorski and Pulaski. We ate kielbasa on Easter morning and danced the polka at weddings. We listened to clarinet and accordion records by Polish-American bands from Chicago on Sunday morning radio shows.

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Beautiful Poznan

Our culture was a unique combination of ethnic pride and selective memory. No one I knew wanted to see the Old Country. That was the place where poverty choked you until you left, if you could. It was the place where cities had turned to rubble, and where Communists watched your every move, looking for any excuse to send you off to Siberia.

Mothers we knew packed up secondhand clothing, toothpaste, shampoo, and candy to send to family back in Poland. My family didn’t have anyone left there, but my mom still contributed boxes of these items to the parish church for shipping.

In those days, the Poland in our minds was dust-poor, gray, and tragic. But its people who came here were better educated than my ancestors, albeit worse dressed.

We laughed nervously at Polish jokes. Even President Reagan told one, so they had to be okay. It was important to laugh at yourself here in America; we who felt the sting were being too sensitive. We tried to toughen up.

Somewhere along the way, all that changed. I got tired of laughing at my heritage. I wanted to know who I really was. And I wanted to claim the whole package, not just the sanitized version of my grade school teachers, who exhorted us to sing a Polish anthem “loud enough for the Russians to hear.”

I am descended from a flat country, easily conquered and divided, a place with no name for all of the 19th century. My DNA goes back to a place, where in 44 years of atheist totalitarian rule, not one church closed its doors. Its strands tie me to the old men, women, and teenagers who crawled through Warsaw’s sewers in 1944, desperate to take back their country from Nazi occupation. Both sides of my family have roots in Torun, Poznan, and Wojtowa, a village southeast of Krakow. I have a funny-sounding, hard-to-spell last name, thanks to my Polish-American husband, added to my equally hard-to-pronounce maiden name.

Sadly, my people also came from the land where millions of people, mostly Jews, were exterminated. Though many Poles hid and rescued them, many did nothing out of fear for their families’ lives. And many reacted out of the anti-Semitism they learned as children. Some Poles even killed Jewish survivors returning home after the war.

Because of this, I traveled to Poland this summer with Elderhostel – an educational tour group for people over 55 – anticipating equal doses of pride and shame. At Auschwitz, I listened to a young Polish guide quote the words of German anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemoller: “When they came for the Jews, I said nothing.”

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Folk musicians in Wdzydze

The next morning, Robert Gadek, a Jagiellonian University graduate, told the story of Jews in Poland, with none of the denial or self-justification I have heard among Polish Americans. He started a Jewish cultural festival that 30,000 people attended last year. He and the many people we met there were happy, purposeful, busy, and so proud that the fall of Communism started here. They were not embarrassed to be Polish. They were hopeful.

Much hope can be found in Poland’s musical traditions. A Chopin concert welcomed us to our first evening in Warsaw 200 years after his birth. Opera songs bid us goodbye on our last evening in a castle lovingly restored by a young archeologist and his wife. And in between, at Wdzydze, the costumes, smiles, and lilting melodies of the folk musicians seemed to reach deep into my past, connecting me to the place where loving grandparents, aunts, and uncles also shared a bond.

Now back home in the United States, friends smile indulgently at my correct Polish pronunciation: ‘Krah-Koov’ as opposed to the soft and Anglicized ‘Crack-cow.’ I tell them I prefer the hard Polish consonants and long broad vowels. I think about the signs for Piwo, Kawiernia, Taverna, and Ksiazki that we drove by, trying to grasp the meaning behind their names.

Like cracking a secret code I forgot I knew, my first trip to my grandfather’s homeland opened up a new understanding of him, my people, and myself.

Not Great Grandma’s Babushka

I just had to touch these headscarves on sale in Warsaw. I’d seen them many years before, in the Polish neighborhood in Amsterdam, New York. Old ladies wore them to church. I fondled them in Warsaw and Gdansk and in the touristy market in Zakopane. Nostalgically, regretfully.

I wrote one of these scarves onto Regina’s head in my novel. But last week in Wroclaw, I saw a panorama of the year she was thirty. Peasant women wore headscarves of plain white. Oh well. I must be historically accurate.

I learned her village, Wojtowa, was about 100 km from Krakow, a half day drive each way, and decided not to go, in the 35 C temps and humidity, to a place where nobody from my family is left. I did travel through many little towns and villages and collected information and pictures.

The trip is so recent, however, that I’m not in mind of her world as much as I am of the Poland of today. I’m so proud to be connected genetically to these strong, brave people, to the heroes and heroines of Solidarnosc who started the toppling of Communism in eastern Europe, to the music in Kashuby that brought tears of recognition, and above all, to the overarching hopefulness of the people, young and old, happily building homes and roads and their first true democracy.

I’m rooting for them, heart and soul.

My bags are packed and I’m ready to go…

Well, not quite, but the Peter, Paul and Mary song, Leavin’ On a Jet Plane, is running through my head this week. We have our plane tickets. The weather in Poland will be in the 70s during the day and sunny, and in the 50s at night (and dark, as George Carlin might say.)

The elderhostel folks say we can take side trips to the hometowns of our ancestors. My friend Grace, who is from Poland, says we can take a busik (little bus) to most villages. Even if Regina’s house, #49 in Wojtowa, is gone, I will walk in her footsteps near the Ropa River.

We will stay a few days each in Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan (my maternal grandma’s hometown), Wroclaw and Krakow. We will eat at a small farm and attend a Chopin concert. We will visit bookstores and sidewalk cafes. Two weeks in Europe with my love heart, walking the land of our foremothers (and fathers too!)

Do widzenia!

The name on the paper was Regina Wrozkowna. She was the earliest ancestor in my family tree, researched by my cousin’s daughter who lives in Switzerland. That summer afternoon at a family reunion in upstate New York, the kitchen smelled of baked ziti, kielbasa, strong coffee and sugary cake frosting.

I’d been out of touch with my father’s family for years. He was a difficult man who feuded with his brothers, but now I was in my fifties and wanted to reconnect with his side of the family, to be part of a clan of cousins most of whom were older than I. And though I didn’t know it yet, I longed for someone to look up to, someone who would watch over me.

Regina’s name stayed with me on the long drive home, a name that tied me back two hundred years to eastern Europe. A woman’s name.

She had twelve children. I know her dates of birth, marriage and death and the name of her husband, but I feel compelled to know more. Writing her story will be a process of discovery and creativity.

My Unitarian Universalist church introduced me to feminist spirituality. I learned there that the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland, whose picture hung in my classroom, is only one of hundreds of dark goddess-like figures worldwide. My mother and I were not close. Today, I’m wondering if I want to write about Regina to claim her for myself, my own personal Madonna.

I began writing my novel about Regina two years ago. I’ve workshopped it twice. The other day, I printed out the whole manuscript, over fifty thousand words. It contains loose ends, awkward transitions, undeveloped characters and situations that make no sense.

Revision is next, and it feels overwhelming. Each time I pick a place to start, I can’t make it work. I wonder if I should put the novel aside and go back to writing memoirs and personal essays. Maybe it’s too late, at sixty-three, to learn to write fiction.

But this story feels like something I must do. Not for my family and Regina’s, but for me. It sticks to me like stinging nettle, demanding attention. And promising my life will never be the same.

In Search of Regina

This afternoon, I printed out the manuscript of my novel about my ancestor, Regina Culisz. She lived in the 18th century in the Austrian Empire, in what is now Poland. I’m a memoir writer, but I know very little about this woman, so I’m going to have to tell her story as fiction. In other words, I’m making it all up. Mostly.

I read James Michener’s Poland and James Conroyd Martin’s Against a Crimson Sky, which takes place about the time when she was alive. I have books on Polish customs and folklore. Now I need to go there, to stand in Wojtowa, where Regina was born in 1778.

Steve and I loved our Georgia elderhostel last year, and so we signed up for a weeklong trip to Warsaw and Krakow with the same group, now called Exploritas. We planned a side trip to Wojtowa, which we heard is not far from Krakow, but we were the only people who registered, and the trip has been cancelled.

We’re now looking into a two-week tour of the entire country in July. Today, we discovered that it will cost ten thousand dollars! Do we spend the money, knowing we’ll see and learn a great deal with this organization? Or do we put it off (again) and look for a cheaper way to go?