On Saturdays the park is very active. Walking the ring around its perimeter, I pass a black man walking his sweet little poodle. There is a Hispanic couple ahead of me pushing a baby buggy while a toddler, still short of reaching his daddy's knee, is pretty wobbly on his feet. A man who has had a stroke struggles with his rehab and is as unsteady as the little toddler. On the grassy fields a group of girls are practicing their cheerleading routine. A couple of teenage boys are playing at quarterback and receiver. Families are streaming in. It's soccer Saturday and all levels of children in team uniforms are on the field. In one corner are what appear to be five or six year olds, socks bagging around their ankles, braids bouncing on their backs, running every which way.
This was the moment for me: a family enters the sidelines of a soccer field and are greeted by a friend who has been standing there. The man shakes hands with the dad and greets the young lad who's come to play soccer by putting his hand on the young man's head and ruffles his hair in an affectionate gesture. No one really sees it because the adults are looking at each other and talking but I have nothing else to do but walk and observe. I see the small smile of happiness on the boy. Genuine happiness. And seeing it, I'm happy, too, because he's happy and growing up in a world where he matters, where the adults, who are in charge of him, are in a place where they are not preoccupied with what the next moment or hour or day will bring; that they are not in fear that the next minute will bring bombs or explosions, death and destruction; that this young boy can be just that: a young boy, enjoying the attention of an adult, looking forward to a sunny morning of playing soccer.
Maybe it's because I grew up with stories of the war from my mother and how awful it was. Maybe because I've read too much on how lives were lost, families separated, children abused and exploited during that war that the moment struck me so keenly. Maybe because I know this is what my parents wanted for themselves and for us, too, when they sought refuge in America: to walk freely in a park among others no matter your, or another's, color or religion; to have your kids do cartwheels on the grass, or play kickball on a dirt lot and to laugh with their friends.
Each year on our Immigration Day, April 28, I celebrate my parents, the sacrifices and hardships they undertook so that I could be a happy kid in America, too.
I've always had a fascination with black and white photos. Maybe it began with the ones that my mother kept in an old gilded box called Schrafft's Luxuro Chocolates. As a kid I'd periodically pull out the box and examine the people in the photographs and question my mother about them. They were pictures of my mother with her siblings in Poland before the war. I could see the wooden house that she had lived in. There was one of a Sunday afternoon spent on the sunny bank of the River San with her sisters, all wearing pretty print dresses. There was my grandmother sitting in a garden wearing an apron, her hair pulled back in a bun and a rare photo of my grandfather during the German occupation of Poland with the Nazi swastika stamped on it that was sent to her after the war. I had never been to Poland. I had never met any of the people who were in those photographs, but the photographs connected me and made them real for me.
When I was researching my last book ,Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945, I felt I understood when I read that the women of Poland, forced to leave their homes and family and could only take a few personal items with them, chose to take a photograph of the people they loved. Sometimes I think that if there was a major catastrophe, a fire, or a bombing, that box of old photographs of my mother's family would be the only thing I would try to save. I've learned that a photograph can be a very powerful thing. It really can provide emotional comfort. It can offer details and information and most importantly, it stops time. You can go to that time and place and be there with the people or the action in the photograph long after the image was taken, study it and learn from it. The power of it is amazing.
I felt that power when I was at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland researching photographs for the book. One of the hardest things about writing history, especially events in another time, in another country is that you have no visuals in your brain for the time, the events or the place you're researching to help you better understand, to know, to see. I wanted to find photographs that would show me of what it was like to be a Polish forced laborer in Nazi Germany.
In the end it was my husband who found the above photograph in the folders he was looking through. When he showed it to me, honestly, the strength of that image, the power it had on me made me push back my chair and stand up so abruptly it caught the attention of the staff behind the desk.
This is was what T/Sgt. Rickard of the U.S Signal Corps with the 1st U.S Army saw on April 13, 1945 near Meggen, Germany: Polish civilian forced laborers, including their children, behind barbed wire. There's a low rough looking, wooden barrack behind them. There is some kind of rough sketch on the barrack wall. Caricature of a German? The children are young, one, I think, not of an age to walk. The mother looks tired? Unhappy? She does not look toward the camera. In contrast, the dad's smile is ear to ear, maybe an automatic response to a camera, maybe overjoyed to see American troops. Their gehenna, as the Polish people called their experience as forced laborers, their hell, is over. But mostly I notice that the barbed wire fence is so very high and the people behind it, prisoners. With the click of the camera, Sgt. Rickard stopped time, took me to 1945 and helped me to see.
Thank you Photographs and Prints Division at National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
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.