History in Polish
You may be surprised to know that my first area of studies was history and social science. Before settling in Poland where I teach English and also US history, I was a history teacher in high school in the US. One great thing about moving to Poland, besides the food, was a chance to learn the history of Poland first hand. I could visit some of the many places I had learned and taught about. Later as I learned more Polish, I was very interested in using my Polish language skills to seek out source materials in the original Polish where I could. I know that for many folks with Polish heritage, one thing they may be lacking besides the language is access to the history of Poland in English. There are books out there of course, but not the wealth available in Polish.
A Simple Offer
Years ago when it was still a novelty to be connected to each other via the Internet and all that, I came across an article online about a Polish gentleman, a Holocaust survivor, living in England who was unable to go to the Auschwitz liberation anniversary. The article said that it was because he was elderly and had no one to accompany him. I thought for a minute, then for a minute longer, and then I shot off an email to the journalist with an offer. If this gentleman could get himself to Poland by air, I could pick him up at any airport and accompany him to all the events. The same day the journalist got back to me. He thanked me for my interest and passed on my offer and contact information to the gentleman. He requested that if we actually made plans to go to the anniversary together that we please let him know so he could write a follow-up.
And then I forgot all about it
A few days later I was driving to work when my phone rang with an English area code. A friend of mine worked for a courier in England and had been known to pocket dial on occasion, nevertheless, I quickly pulled over and answered. It was this lovely gentleman speaking with a perfect Geordie accent thanking me for my offer, but declining just the same. It seemed the journalist had exaggerated just a bit. While it was true that the gentleman didn’t have anyone to accompany him to the anniversary, it was because that his children were not able to bring him, not because nobody cared about him. He did have mobility issues that required some extra care, but all in all he said he was fit, but not really that keen on attending the anniversary.
We chatted awhile about my life in Poland and his life in England, and he asked me if I knew his home area near Lublin, in what is the east part of Poland today. I replied that I was familiar with the area because my father-in-law was from Szczebrzeszyn, the town made famous by a popular Polish tongue twister. The phone went silent, and I was sure we’d been cut off. After a few frantic hellos from my side, I realized he was crying. “I can’t believe I’m talking to an American girl in Poland, and she just said Szczebrzeszyn.” Then he chuckled.
When the Germans came through his home area during WW2, he and his sister and her boyfriend hid in a field while the rest of his family hid in their home. Unfortunately, his family and most of the Jews of his town were murdered the same day. He and his sister were later taken away to Auschwitz where he survived. He made his way home after the war, and he described how he waited on his old doorstep for anyone to come home. No one did. He felt the situation there was more dangerous by the day as some people feared survivors coming home to reclaim their property. He was strongly advised to move on. In the end, he decided to go to England.
“Didn’t you want to stay in Poland?” I asked. His answered chilled me. “Imagine that tomorrow you wake up and you cannot find a single person that you knew from the day before. Not your family, not a neighbor, not a shop owner, former classmate or teacher, not a single familiar face. That was Poland for me.” He also told me of his past trips to Poland with his family and his total lack of desire to visit Auschwitz again. “I think I spent enough time there,“ he said. His greatest regret? Never having killed a Nazi. He was a child when the war began and came out the other side someone who regretted not having killed someone. That saddened me, but who am I to say anything about the regrets or desires of someone who has gone through the unspeakable? The incongruity struck me though because I felt as if I were talking to a twenty-something. His voice was so happy, so optimistic.
Powiem po polsku
“Powiem Pani coś po polsku, bo żona tutaj stoi,” he started. (I will tell you something, but in Polish because my wife is standing here.) He proceeded to tell me about how, via the Spielberg Foundation, he found his sister 40 years after the war. She and her boyfriend had survived and had been living in the US. In Polish he said, “It was the best day of my life. Better than my wedding day. Better than the birth of my children. To know that I wasn’t all alone. That was something.” It was my turn to cry.
History of Poland
If you would you like to know more about his story and the history of Poland, you can read all about it in the book Until We Meet Again. I am not affiliated with the sale of the book in any way, but I do have a Kindle copy that I have read several times over. It’s worth it. I recommend it. Polecam.
What did I know about Poland before I came here? Not as much as I wish I had. Read more about that here.