When I started first grade I didn't know a word of English. I think about this when I hear people discussing issues about the influx of immigrants in schools in a not-so-positive way and how, once, I was one of those kids.
By the time I started school our family had been in America for about five months. At home I spoke Polish with my parents and French with my brothers. We kids had attended school back in France where we lived before immigrating to the U.S. Playing with other kids we heard a lot of French and pretty soon we were chattering in French, too. I can still remember the entrance to the school, the building that held the toilets and the fountain with the water spigots in the middle of the school yard where we washed our hands. I had to wear this required apron - really more like a white pinafore - that my mother had sewn for me, for kindergarten. So age-wise it was right that I should start first grade that September and was enrolled at our parish school where the Felician nuns, an order that originated in Poland, also spoke Polish. I think the consensus was that, placed in the same class as English-speaking kids, we'd pick up the language and the nuns would be our go-between in the Polish and English worlds.
I must have stood out a bit what with no English and pierced ears and earrings in first grade. This was 1954 when it wasn't in yet. The nun called me Sophie, the American version of Zofia.
I was assigned a desk along the windows, third or fourth from the front. Next to me a boy had three, long, sharp yellow pencils. I thought they were beautiful but I didn't have the words to tell him.
My first book was about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot. How I loved that reader! First I loved the pictures because I certainly couldn't read the words. I can still see Jane losing her roller skate and the long ears on Spot. Puff, the cat, was in there, too. Later on educators would highly criticize this reader for being overly simplistic but I'll defend it to my last breath. My very first English words were Run, Jane, run. See, see. We repeated the words over and over again out loud with Sister leading the way, page after page. For me it was Fun with Dick and Jane.
I felt different, not knowing the language, but I don't remember anybody being mean to me. I only remember one, what was to me at the time, a huge incident. Again, because I didn't have the words, when I needed to go to the bathroom I'd raise my hand or, if it was quiet time, look-at-your-reader time, I'd walk up to the desk and ask Sister in Polish if I could go. OK, good to go. But one time, she must have decided it was time I learned how to say it in English. She stood me up in front of the class, called everyone to attention and made me pronounce each word slowly after her: May-I-go-to-the-bathroom? Those words were way, way ahead of anything I'd seen in Dick and Jane. I had to do it though, pronounce each word after her and felt completely stupid and humiliated and was in tears. All those eyes looking at me! Lesson over, I went to pee and returned to my seat. I never did see that particular topic covered in my reader but still...it'll always be me and Dick and Jane. BFF.
Photo: Google images
It was in 1851 that the first railroad, the New York and Erie, reached Dunkirk, NY. The tracks began twenty five miles upriver from Manhattan and reached its terminus in what was then a village of 800 souls. While the town never became a major hub of any kind, the railroad did bring commerce and industry and immigrants seeking work. The Germans, Italians, and Polish developed their own little communities and churches on the lake side of the tracks. By 1902, Polish arrivals began building in the less populated region on the other side of the tracks called Górki, the hills, and by the time we arrived in 1954 another rail line called the Nickle Plate was running through that neighborhood. A lot of yards ran alongside these double tracks or backed up to it and to undeveloped land that lay further on. These homes had a little bit more property and seemed more rural, tucked in as they were back away from the main streets. One such pocket of homes in the neighborhood was called Goose Shit Alley.
For the longest time I thought it was called "Goshen" alley, which is how I heard the older Polish women pronounce it. It was said that during the rough times of the Depression, when there were no jobs and money was scarce, the Polish women kept their families going by raising and selling geese. Coal for the winter was expensive, but they kept their families warm by making feather pillows and feather covers, what we call a pierzyna. People said there were so many geese in this neighborhood in those days you could hardly walk by without getting a shoe full.
My mother connected with these older women of Poland. They looked like the photos of my grandmother - sturdy, aproned women with wrinkled faces framed by colorful kerchiefs tied beneath their chins. Their feet were firmly planted on American soil but many were still rooted in the way of life they had known in Poland. A small town girl herself, my mother understood geese; fattening and killing them; using the blood and gizzards to make soup; rendering the fat to make goose grease to rub on chests for bad coughs; stripping feathers to make your own pillows; making your own homemade baster from the feathers to brush an egg wash on top of baked goods; using it all up, every bit, every time.
I suspect it was when she was homesick that my mother went to the alley, when she longed to talk to someone whose ears, like hers, still heard the wind rustling through the grains of rye, who knew what it was to cut wheat at harvest time with scythes and sickles, and to gather mushrooms in the forest after a rainy spell. We'd arrive unannounced, like they did in the old country, mostly because we didn't have a phone for a long time but also because it wasn't necessary. They were always home, always working- gardening, hanging out the wash, ironing, stirring a pot of soup. We'd sit at the kitchen table and they would talk about Poland, about pickle recipes, illness, birth and death and once, rolled down their thick flesh colored stockings to examine one another's varicose veins. No one cared that I was bored to tears but something of those talks, of those visits, must have stuck, must have silently crept in and rooted within me, too, when I wasn't looking.
When someone in our parish died, the funeral director hung out a basket of gladiolas at the front of the funeral parlor. In those days, before everyone had phones, it was a way of announcing that someone had died, that the deceased was ready for viewing and friends and family were welcome to visit. The first to see it were the guys having a beer at the bar across the street. It had these huge windows that gave them a great view of the neighborhood. Then it was word of mouth over fences or at the corner store that generally spread the news. Sometimes when we kids were pedaling through the neighborhood on our bikes and saw the basket of flowers hanging outside the parlor we'd holler out to each other "Hey, who die?" Hey, who die?" and someone would scream, "Hey, I dunno!" and we'd laugh hilariously, high on the sound of our own voices. Sometimes, from the safe distance of the street, we'd pedal by really fast and scream it out while looking at the men at the bar but they never reacted to our crazy antics. If my mother had gotten wind of this behavior she would've pulled out the strap, for sure. The deceased deserve our respect, she'd say, as we walked to the funeral parlor to say our final goodbyes.
Well, who died was one of the women from Goshen alley and I remember feeling badly about the who die business. She was a nice lady who had given me tea and always asked me how I was doing in school. When it was my turn at the kneeler in front of the coffin to pray for the deceased it wasn't the pink gown and ballet slippers that caught me off guard. I'm sure she had left instructions or even picked out which outfit she wanted to be buried in. It's what practical Polish people do, so I understood the wanting to look your very best and she did look lovely. What surprised me was the little satin pillow behind her head: so small, so smooth, so stuffed her head didn't even make a dent in it.
Instead of saying my Eternal Rests like I should have been doing, I mentally removed the satin pillow and replaced it with one of her own making, of the softest down, covered in a white cotton pillowcase, something you could gratefully sink your head into at end of day. And then I'd turn her head into the pillow so she could smell the sun and the wind that came off Lake Erie as the pillowcase dried on her clothes line and so she could hear the honking of the geese still trapped within the fluffy feathers to help keep her company on her next big journey.
Photo taken in Poland by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
The Amphitheater and Gershwin practice cabin at Chautauqua. Postcards by Jane E. Nelson
It's the summer of 1962. With an inflated inner tube across the handle bars I pedal my bike to the lake and spend afternoons paddling around in the water. After supper, along with other kids in the neighborhood we play kick ball in an empty lot next to a railroad line that leads into the locomotive plant, or roller skate or whatever it is we think up to amuse ourselves. There chores as well: weed the garden, help hang out the wash, weekly ironing and that summer I remember an endless round of helping my mother can green beans: wash the beans, trim the beans, pack the beans . Jars and jars of beans waiting their turn for the canner. What a snooze! On those days, I waited anxiously for the mailman. It was the bright spot in a ho-hum day if he delivered a letter from my friend Shirley.
I had met Shirley the previous fall, in eighth grade, my first year at public school and at graduation we promised each other to be pen pals. She was leaving town to help her mother run their guest house called The Cooper at some place called the Chautauqua Institute. She promised to write and I swore I'd write back.
I didn't know a thing about the Chautauqua Institute. I didn't know the full scope of what it meant to spend summers at a world class cultural center. I'd never heard of it, nor been there. I first learned of it through her letters and fell under a spell.
"Dear Sophie," she'd write, "Today as I was walking past the practice cabins, someone was playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2." I had no idea who Rachmaninoff was. I knew Chopin because his Polonaise (in A Major, Op.40 No.1 Military, I was to learn later) was the opening number for the radio program we listened to every Sunday but I'd never heard of Rachmaninoff. Just to say the name was something exotic.
Another day, another letter : "Dear Sophie, the amphitheater was packed tonight. Mischa Mischkoff
performed Brahms. Wish you were here." Then, as a way of bridging the miles between us, she copied out the entire program for my perusal and edification. I didn't even know what an amphitheater was and, truly, I wished I was there, too, but I had about as much chance of getting to Chautauqua as Chekhov's Three Sisters, stuck in the country, had of seeing the bright lights of Moscow. We didn't even own a car and even if we had I doubt my mother would have spent the money on gas to satisfy my longing for a glimpse of an amphitheater. As the saying goes: she had other fish to fry.
Writing back was hard work for me. It's difficult to dress up canning green beans. What do you say? They're a lovely shade of green? Can't wait to taste them in the winter? It certainly lacked glamour but write back I did because I wanted her to write back, to hear more magical names.
At dusk , our family sits around on the front porch, waiting for the house to cool down. My parents are happy to just sit. We kids play Monopoly or I listen to my brothers trying to outdo each other in naming the make and year of the car coming down the road. Sometimes I'm enchanted by the golden, pin-point flashes of the fireflies and try to capture their glow in one of the (amazingly) empty canning jars from the kitchen. Soon, another day of that summer is gone.
You can go to the Chautauqua Institute and work on your novel like Kurt Vonnegut( I wouldn't know where to begin), or write a new musical score like George Gershwin( I know a treble clef when I see one), or scribble in your journal which is something I could and did do years later.
"Dear Shirley, Chautauqua is as wonderful as you described it all those years ago. Why did you never mention that cars aren't allowed on the grounds?"
"Dear Shirley, tonight the amphitheater was packed. The symphony played Mahler's 9th."
"Dear Shirley, I can't remember. Did you ever mentioned that the police here ride bicycles? Verdi's La Traviatta was wonderful last night. Wish you were here...miss you. "
Once, when I was about 11 or 12, I came home from mass one summer morning to find a hobo sitting on our back steps having a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I was so surprised I stopped a few feet in front of him, not knowing what to do or say. This was in the 60's, long after the depression was over, but my neighborhood was riddled with train tracks heading east and west and with spurs leading to the locomotive, radiator, lingerie and canning factories that gave jobs to the men and women in the entire town. But in spite of the changed economy there were those who still rode the rails, homeless and jobless, and they became a real point of interest among us kids. We played at being hobo all the time: marching along the railroad tracks, a long stick with a knotted bundle at the end slung over our shoulders; making chalk marks on the sidewalk and on trees pointing to houses. We didn't know exactly what kind of marks to make to indicate that this house was friendly but someone told us this was what the hoboes did, so that's what we did. We took cans of pork and beans from the cupboard and made "camp" by cooking them over an open fire in the woods and ate the beans sitting around the fire. Nobody told us that we couldn't do any of this stuff and truly, nobody seemed to care what we did during those long summer days as long as we came home for supper and before dark.
There were supposed to be certain locales along the tracks where the hoboes set up their camps. My brothers, who got a lot more freedom than I did, say they saw them there all the time. One of them even asked my brother for an aspirin because he had a toothache but the one time I saw a gang sitting under a tree along the tracks, I ran away in fright. And here was one sitting on our back steps - thick set, gray haired, unkempt, wearing a baggy suit coat and pants. He had on what I later came to know as a pork pie hat. I stared, rooted to the sidewalk, but he was pretty much unflapped by my appearance and kept munching on what looked like a ham sandwich, a few crumbs caught up in his black and gray mustache.
I was so tongue-tied, to this day I don't know whether I even said hello to the man and walked past him up the steps that led into our kitchen. As I came in my mother was going out with the yellow enamel coffeepot in her hand to refill his cup. I watched from the safety of the kitchen window as she poured him another cup and he accepted. There was no dialogue between them. Only after he was gone, the empty cup left on the steps, did my mother tell me that he had knocked on the door. She had understood the words "food" and "give." She had pointed to the steps and he understood that he was to sit.
"Mama, weren't you afraid?" I asked, a result of all the ghoulish hobo stories we kids told each other.
"Nie (no), I wasn't. During the war, everybody was hungry, every day, all day," she tells me, "with people begging for food, doing what they had to do to stay alive, to live through the war." I knew she was talking about herself and the years she spent in Germany as a forced laborer during World War II.
That's the way it was at our house. A person, an incident, a word, sometimes even silence, would ignite memories of growing up in Poland or her memories of the war. It's how I learned history. It's how I learned of what happened to my mother before she was my mother and that she understood people who traveled in cattle cars and had nothing to eat. At one time, she had been one of them.
When we broke up my mother's home, I took that yellow enamel coffee pot. I kept it because at one time she had her hand on that handle and I can put my hand where hers had once been, to connect, to remember that lesson, on that summer day.
Photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Edward Knab June 14, 2006
One time I was watching my mother crush left over pieces of dried bread into breadcrumbs. She'd gather the odd bits into a paper bag until they were completely dried out and when she needed breadcrumbs she'd pull out her wooden bread board and rolling pin. Bread was considered something sacred at our house. It was never wasted and if a piece of bread happened to fall on the floor she taught us to pick it up and kiss it. In apology for being careless with it? In gratitude for its presence in our lives? Perhaps for all of these reasons and my mother was the most fervent in this action.
The action of crushing crusts of dried bread into usable breadcrumbs tended to generate a lot of memories for my mama especially the scarcity of bread, not just during the war, but while growing up as well. Her mother had kept it under lock and key and parceled it out carefully to make sure that what she baked lasted a whole week.
The really hardened pieces of bread that wouldn't give under the rolling were covered with a clean dishcloth and attacked with a hammer. She was really whacking at the bread one day when she told me how, during the occupation of Poland, while she was living and working in Kraków, she wanted to send bread to her sister Hanka who was imprisoned in Auschwitz - not too great a distance from herin terms of miles yet impossible to reach through the barbed wire.
"The loaf of bread had to be completely dried in order not to spoil before it reached her," she tells me, "as well as the piece of sausage. The package could only weigh so many ounces including the wrapping paper, the string and the food. I remember I had to pay in reichmarks which were hard to come by." I can see her now, bringing that hammer down on the bread. I was what? 12? 13 years old? but it was a story I heard often.
Fast forward some fifty years. It's 2006 and I am at Auschwitz, at the archives located on the grounds. I am trying to find information about my Ciocia (aunt) Hanka, my mother's sister, the one who spent almost two years in Auschwitz, the one to whom my mother sent dried bread. We are cordially met by a female archivist who is very kind and very helpful, producing a letter that my aunt wrote to her family while at Auschwitz. The archivist tells me she was among those who were death marched from Auschwitz westward towards Germany to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in the closing weeks of the war. She explains to me what it was to be in a death march in January of 1945: freezing cold with a single blanket for warmth; marching on foot, then packed into cattle cars and again by foot; little or no food, no place to sleep except barns or the open sky; prisoners who can't keep up and/or those attempting to escape are shot on the spot; it's a distance of some 500 miles. It's a miracle she survived, she tells me gently, seeing me fight back tears.
When we take our leave, the archivist sees us to the door and as we emerge outside I catch site of men in full Górale folk dress carrying the Polish flag and banners as if having marched in a parade. I ask the archivist what was going on and she tells me: "Today is the 66th anniversary of the first transport of Polish political prisoners to arrive at Auschwitz from the city of Tarnów in 1940. The first major group of people to be imprisoned at this concentration camp were Poles, not Jews, and survivors and their families have come to commemorate the event." Most of the prisoners brought in that day were from the southern region of Poland, including people who from the mountain region, called górale.
It was June 14, 2006. That we were there on this important day was not planned but I doubt I'll ever forget the day. Through the information I received at the archives I found out that my aunt also arrived at Auschwitz via the Kraków-Tarnów line of transport as a political prisoner three years later in January of 1943. In addition, in the one letter she was allowed to send home to her family in 1944, she writes, " Everything you have sent me, I received, and in good condition..." and I think of my mother hammering at crusts of bread and the value of a loaf of dried bread.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.