Forever more I will have the fondest affinity for red geraniums and white lace curtains…they are the welcoming symbols of every Polish living space.
When my childhood and lifelong friend, Sue, and I were chatting last fall she said that she hoped to visit Poland one day, I agreed and said, “Let’s go in July!” and so we did. Many of you have asked how my visit was. This is my story, and these are my memories.
Growing up, I knew we were Polish.
My grandparents were born somewhere in Poland, but honestly that’s all I had. My mom lost both of her parents when she was only a teenager. My dad’s mom passed away in 1951, about a year before I was born.
My paternal grandfather was alive until I was 61/2. He had a stroke which left him very fragile. Although he lived above us in our apartment in Chicago, my only memory was that he spoke Polish and that my mom cared for him, while taking care of my younger siblings and me. We didn’t grow up with many Polish traditions. I knew I was Polish, but then again, in our little corner of the world most everyone around me was Polish.
It is hard to believe that it has taken me so long to uncover my Polish roots, because they were really there all along. For me, being in Poland was walking on hallowed ground. There truly are no words that are significant enough to express what Poland, its people, and all of humanity have suffered. At it’s very root, pure evil and hatred. It was my time to reach, remember, reflect, release, renew, rethink, refresh, and receive.
We arrived in beautiful cosmopolitan Krakow and experienced Wawel Hill and the cathedral.
We walked, talked, and sat in the Main Market Square taking it all in. It is a miracle that Krakow missed many of the ravages of war and is believed to be one the the most beautiful European cities. We experienced so much history on the cobblestone streets as we visited churches, synagogues, museums, and cemeteries. At the old Jewish cemetery our guide shared this story…
There were many influential people of the time buried in the front of this cemetery. Large raised graves and ornate headstones attested to this. The farther back we walked, the more modest the graves, and so we were surprised to see another very modest grave that was enshrined. It was the grave of a very wealthy and influential Krakow businessman. He had the reputation of arrogance and self righteousness, so at his death he was quickly forgotten. As time went on, the people noticed that many acts of kindness and generosity (given anonymously) came to a halt with his death. You see, he gave freely from his heart. When his countrymen found out, they were quite ashamed of their judgment, and until this day his spirit is honored there. Yes, hallowed ground indeed. When you visit Poland, surely you will find his grave. May we all take something to heart from this story.
You can’t visit Krakow without a visit to the famed Wieliczka Salt Mines.
This is a fascinating underground world of salt chambers and sculptures. Bring your stamina as I climbed so many steps that the backs of my legs hurt for about 3 days.
I had the privilege of meeting Jimmy and Grazyna and being invited to spend the evening with them in Jimmy’s lovely family home. They are friends of friends, and when they learned that I was visiting they opened their hearts to me. They had lived and worked in Chicago for many years and decided to retire to Krakow. Jimmy and his brother inherited the family home from their aunt, Dr. Zofia Maczka, a Ravensbruck Women’s Concentration Camp survivor and witness to the atrocities that occurred there. Her impassioned testimony at the Nuremburg trials has made history. It was an honor to be in her space. They had renovated their living stunning quarters and it could have been in Architectural Digest. The first floor, which is now a 2nd home to his brother and family took me back to the 1940’s. I experienced two worlds! The gorgeous back yard was full of every old fashioned flower that I can recollect from my childhood. Our Uncle Ziggy loved gardening, and how I appreciate that now! There is a book, Ravensbruck, Life and Death, by Sarah Helm. It is an extremely difficult read, and tells the story of strength and determination of women against all odds. Zofia would be thrilled to know that her story and home survived. I am so grateful to Jimmy for bringing her into my world.
Auschwitz-Birkenau…the death camp. How can anyone prepare for this?
I could not, but I knew I must pay homage to the millions who sacrificed their lives and inevitably all of history. It is hallowed ground, to be sure. To imagine that I walked upon the very ashes of unthinkable, unfathomable crimes against humanity still stirs me. All the books that I have read, all of the stories I have heard could never express what I felt. It was a rainy, somber Sunday, with many visitors paying their respects. I was grateful to our guide who told the story yet again in her most heartfelt, respectful manner, so that we shall never forget. How I wished that there could have been something I could have done, that the leaders of the time could have done. We will never know why they did not. What I did learn during my time in Poland and forays to the tiniest villages was that there was untold bravery and sacrifice, that there was indeed goodness in the face of insanity. Many clergy and common folks took grave risks to keep dignity intact, the righteous in deed.
About 6 weeks before I left for Poland I was still trying to piece together where my grandparents were from.
I had the name of Dobre, but since there are more than several Dobre’s we targeted the one closest to where my dad’s folks were from. We visited the church and the local priest. He poured through black archival record books from that time, and found the names, birthdays, and baptismal records of our family. I still do not know if there are any relatives there on my mom’s side, as we just didn’t have the time for further research.
I did learn that my mom’s parents were from Szczawnica, a gorgeous, picturesque lush town with a beautiful lake. It felt like a resort. We sat outside on a patio overlooking the lake and had one of the most delicious fresh fish lunches ever. How I wish I knew more! From there we drove on to Wyskitna. I had found a letter and envelope to my dad dated 1977. We took our chances and hoped to find some relatives. We were successful in a serendipitous way. After driving around and going nowhere fast, we stopped at the tiniest of stores. Our wonderful guide, Zen, asked if the shopkeeper knew anyone in the area with our family name, but she did not. At that moment two girls in their 30’s walked in, and Zen asked them the same question. To our delight and utter amazement, they said they knew the family, and in fact were going that way and that we should follow them. After about 10 minutes they got out of the car & told us to go left. We drove down a farm road and came to a house & knocked on the door. Unfortunately, no one was there (it was a Monday afternoon around 3). Zen saw a man in the field who directed us to the family property.
When we knocked, the door was opened by Casmir, his wife Helena behind him, a boy and girl around 10 & 12, and the most beautiful little toddler that I had ever seen, Rosalina, their granddaughter. As Zen spoke and shared my story in Polish I knew in my heart that Helena and I were cousins. We looked alike!
They very graciously invited us in, and as we sat at their kitchen table, our history began to unfold. I noticed that Helena had left the room for about 5 minutes, returning with a stack of photos. She handed them to me and the first photo that I saw was my beloved parents on their wedding day with dad’s parents between them. I had never even seen a photo of my paternal grandmother. There were other photos, of my dad and all of his brothers, and my siblings and me growing up. I learned that the house of Helena’s mother had burned down, but that they had rebuilt on the same property, thank goodness! They said that they had lost contact with the famiIy in the late 1970’s and always wondered what had happened to us. Letters had been returned and they had no way of reaching us. My dad and his brother, Uncle Ziggy, wrote, sent a few dollars and small packages when they could. I explained that Uncle Ziggy passed away, and that my dad had health problems and that’s all I could remember. They told me that Helena is a twin. I knew that my mom had twin sisters, but not that twins ran in my dad’s family as well. They shared that we had twin cousins in Auschwitz who survived the war. They were young Polish Resistance fighters, and they didn’t even know that they were there at the same time, until they did. They were unrecognizable to each other.
Their dad was a farmer who would gather some food and money, and often go to try and bribe the guards. He finally got them both out. Before leaving, Casmir said to Zen, “How could this be one of the happiest and saddest days of our lives?”. When Zen gently asked what he meant, he told us that on the previous Friday, June 30th, 2017, Helena’s twin’s 20 yr. old daughter had gone camping with friends. On Saturday, they had found out that she had been burned alive, and were home grieving, just devastated. There has been an ongoing investigation, as she was the only one who perished. They just could not believe that we had shown up at their door at that very time. This was nothing short of a miracle for me.
We headed to Wiwiorka, Brzeznica, Dobrkow, Wola Smolana, Lowicz, Jaroszewo, Znin, Parline, and Mogilno. We visited many churches and rectories, where kind priests spent unhurried time with us as we tried to find our roots. We visited cemeteries that were always filled with relatives, tending graves, honoring the past.
We visited historic sights, museums, a monastery, fortresses, and small village bakeries. Sue and I were delighted to buy a yeast coffeecake with golden raisins that tasted as fresh and sweet as we remembered eating it when we were young girls in South Chicago. One day we happened upon a beautiful lake where we took impromptu paddle boat rides.
We visited the Radziwill Palace in Nieborow that took our breaths away. As we had completed the tour, we noticed a uniformed guard that resembled my dad. Many of you know that my dad was a Chicago Police officer. When we told him this, he asked if we wanted a behind the scenes tour of the castle that we hadn’t seen. Of course we did! He took us through, and told us that during the war the Nazis had overtaken this half of the castle, as the Radziwill’s lived in the other half. Over and over again, we heard the story that the Nazis left no stone unturned in all of Poland, no matter how small the village. They overtook churches and homes and took anything and everything. There was a very remote area that we barely found, but it was the home of a cousin of Jannie, our other travel companion, so we had determination on our side. As we stood in the front yard, there was a very large old shade tree that we took notice of. Her cousin then told us that the Nazis frequently rested there and sought shade. As I said, no stone was left unturned.
Warsaw was our final destination.
I am happy to say that it has been totally reconstructed from photographs and memoires to much of its original splendor. This thriving city was decimated by Hitler’s Nazis. The war memorials pay tribute and homage to the suffering. Signs of communism still abound, but the strength, endurance, and tenacity of the Poles have blossomed everywhere. Their spirits are fresh, welcoming and endearing. We saw the chilling headquarters of Hitler’s torture chambers and sobbed as we walked through. Jannie’s family members were questioned there and it’s just unimaginable what went on. Her mom was born in Warsaw. She was captured by the Nazis because she was visiting a girlfriend after curfew and was imprisoned for that infraction. She met Jannie’s American GI dad in a German prisoner of war camp. They survived the war and she lived into her 80’s.
One of my most poignant memories is my visit to the Warsaw Zoo.
It was one of our last days and a rainy afternoon. Knowing the story of the incredible Zabinski family who lived there in the 1940’s I had to witness it for myself. They saved 300 Jews in their home. I saw the tunnel which went down to the basement where the Jews were hidden. I knocked on the door several times before it was opened by Ewa Zbonikowsk-Rembiszewska, the curator. She spoke English eloquently, and was only there as she was preparing to welcome some dignitaries from around the world for a tour. She invited us to wait about an hour and she volunteered to ask them if we might tag along at the back of their group. As kind as her offer was, we had a mere 15 minutes, as we had a visit to Jannie’s 90 year old aunt in a few short hours. She graciously invited Sue and me in and showed us around.
We stood in front of the piano that Mrs. Zabinski played to alert her guests that the Nazis were coming and going. Of course that piano was strategically placed in front of the windows with the white lace curtains where her view was perfect. I saw the sculptures that one of their dear Jewish friends and eventual “guest” had given to them. Ewa told us that their son who witnessed these atrocities is 85 years old, lives in Warsaw but refuses to speak of the war. Their daughter was 13 yrs. younger, lived in Denmark for the last 25 years but has now returned to Warsaw and visits her childhood home every month to have coffee with Ewa. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the book or watch the movie which tells their story, it is called, The Zookeepers Wife. In Israel there is a holy place, called Righteous Among Nations. The Zabinski’s, The Schlinder’s, and so many others are honored there, forever more.
I could only hope that had I lived then, that I would have been as brave as Jimmy’s Aunt Zofia, as my twin cousins who fought in the Polish Resistance, as the Zabinski’s, and countless others. They will forever be in my hearts. Now, you know some of the story. If you are related to me, it is part of your ancestry. I encourage you to remember, share, and visit Poland. If you are receiving this, know that you are a significant part of my life and that I wanted to share this with you. I encourage you to reflect, to remember, to visit Poland, and to explore your own ancestry.
I am forever grateful to my dearest Sue for embarking on this Polish journey with me.
I am grateful to Zen Znamirowski, our kind and patient guide who made all of our wishes come true. To Ian, who has been by my side through thick and thin for 47 years and encouraged me on this journey. Honey, Poland is in our future!
This story is dedicated to all four of my Polish grandparents. I wish I knew you physically, because there was always a missing part. Know that I have walked where you once walked. If only I could have shared all of this with my parents.