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.
Wielkanoc is a small village located on the Gołcza River, about 19 miles north of Kraków. There's a lot of speculation about how the village got it's unusual name. One theory is that it was a place where the Passion Mysteries, the mysteries associated with death of the Messiah, was actively celebrated but no one really knows for sure.....
The first documented evidence of the village can be found in the Jagiellonian Library. It appears that a certain man named Wilko and another serf named Jan were in dispute over a cow that was supposedly stolen from a pasture. We don't know who stole or who was the injured party but there you have it -people being people- even back in 1382, shortly after the time of Casimir the Great.
Wielkanoc is so small it doesn't have its own church. The faithful travel to nearby town of Gołcza, where the first Catholic church was built in 1214, then burnt down by invading Tartars, rebuilt again in 1326, then in 1585 and 1757 and again in 1983. There has been a Catholic Church in Gołcza even before the founding of Wielkanoc.
During the time of the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), under the tolerant reign of King Sigismunt II Augustus, Lutherism and Calvinism gained many followers in Poland especially among upper classes and intellectuals. In 1613, the tiny Wielkanoc is chiefly Protestant.
Here comes the Swedish invasion (1655-1660). It not only significantly reduces the number of residents of Wielkanoc but Charles Gustav's retreating army robs the Protestant church treasury and burns the church.
Things change. There is a slow decline in the numbers of Protestants and in the village itself. Poland suffers the partitions by Austria, Prussia and Russia. There are Uprisings and revolts against the foreign powers. According to the Polish gazetteer, Słownik Geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i Innych Krajów Słowianskich, there are 12 houses and 130 inhabitants in Wielkanoc in 1827.
Another change. The new owner of Wielkanoc is a Jakubowski, a Catholic who marries the Lutheran daughter of the previous owners of the village. The last Protestants move out. Those that remain convert to Catholicism and the village is once again Catholic.
What does a small, ancient 600 year old village with a name like Easter do at Easter time? They do what their Catholic ancestors have always done.
On Palm Sunday they make tiny crosses from hazel twigs blessed in their church on Palm Sunday. They place the crosses in every field, so that "clouds of hail can see that this field belongs to the believer, " and pray with these words: "Lord, let the sign of your passion protect this earth and its fruits from all misfortunes and crop failures."
Good Friday is an important day in the life of Wielkanoc. There is spring in the town that emerges out of limestone rock. It is said that the water has special curative powers. Village lore says that the waters saved a supposedly uncurable child with cancer who was brought there and submerged in the freezing waters by his grandfather as a last hope.( People have attributed special magical powers to the origins of springs and streams since pagan times, since way before the founding of the village in 1382). After two weeks of struggling with the disease, the boy got better. And since that time people come to the spring on Good Friday seeking good health. Here's the catch: you have to come here on Good Friday before the sun rises. Only ablution before sunrise is effective, because then the water has the greatest power. Everyone first submerges their hands in the icy stream, rinsing their eyes with water and then the entire face. They wash their eyes so that they can better see the world, so that they can see the truth. They wash the face to ensure good health. And sometimes they take a pitcher of the water home, to make themselves a pot of tea.
On Holy Saturday the inhabitants bring their baskets of food to the roadside chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Fatima for their food to be blessed as faith and tradition dictates.
On Easter Sunday, the faithful travel to their parish of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Gołcza, in the diocese of Kielce, in the Lesser Poland Voivodeship, to the church that they have been tied to since time forgotten. The Resurrection Mass begins with the rising of the sun. The vigil of Easter, called the Wielka Noc (later put together into one word of Wielkanoc?) or Great Night, has passed into the dawn of Easter Sunday and the church bells ring with the jubilant words of "Chrystus Zmartwychwstał" (Christ is Risen).
Footnote: The known origin and history of Wielkanoc is chiefly due to one Ludwik Duda, an inhabitant of the village who took it upon himself to research records at the Jagellonian library and to write the story of his little town and left it in the safekeeping of his family so that descendants could know (and through knowing, appreciate) the life of a place called Easter.
Happy Easter( Wielkanoc). Wesołego Alleluja.
My parents were named Józef (Joseph) and Józefa (Josephine) and they shared the same Name Day, the Feast of St. Joseph, celebrated by the Catholic Church on March 19. When I was young, more important to me than their feast day, was the fact that it came during the season of Lent and on this day the church released us from whatever worldly sacrifice we were making as part of our Lenten devotion. This meant I could eat whatever I had given up for Lent. One year it was candy in general, another year, chocolates. The Lenten season I gave up french fries was super hard and getting some french fries was all I could think about. As I got older I became less concerned about unfasting (is there such a word?) and more interested in Joseph and Josephine, wondering what made them tick.
Everything was always serious business with my mother. Every action was purposeful, every day a struggle. Every bit of food was saved, every dime accounted for. Nothing was easy, very little was fun. She never broke out in spontaneous song. She wasn't one for teasing or a lot of laughter. She thought anyone who laughed a lot was a fool. She'd quote old Polish proverbs to us, like "Poznasz głupiego po śmiechu jego," meaning, you can recognize an idiot by his laughter. Or, "śmieje się jak głupi do sera," i.e., he laughs like an idiot [looking] at cheese. See what I mean? It really put the kibosh on excessive merriment when we were young but it didn't have any long term effects on us. If there is a lasting legacy it's that when my brothers and I get together and we're laughing hysterically about something, one of us will still pipe up and say "Stop laughing like an idiot" - which makes us laugh even more.
Józef, had a dark side to him, too, but I didn't know him that well, not really. I caught him crying a few times when I was young but he never said anything, just hugged me to him. He wasn't one to talk a lot, or tell us stories or share his feelings but there was some merriment in his heart. He whistled. He'd whistle some Polish tune, light and gay, while pacing through the house in his slippers on a Sunday morning, while collecting his shaving paraphernalia, while stropping his razor. He'd pause briefly to concentrate on the sharpness of the razor's edge against his thumb and while running the razor beneath his chin and the area close to his Adam's apple but in between, when rinsing the razor between strokes, he'd resume his warbling. When he was done wiping away the last of the lather from his face he'd break into a song that dealt with love and romance, aiming it at my mother until she glanced up from shining our shoes for church. She'd tell him to stop his nonsense, that I was too young to hear those kinds of songs and besides, it was Sunday, best to sing a hymn. Józef would look at me and wink and we'd laugh - a brief moment of closeness- and then he'd revert back to whistling his tune.
Maybe my mother did have more songs in her heart before she experienced war. Maybe my father was more garrulous, less guarded before war happened to him, too. Maybe they'd have been more compatible, or maybe they'd have picked someone else altogether if their situation had been other than meeting when they both were suffering from exhaustion, starvation, loneliness, fear, despair, threats of concentration camps, and where the spectre of death was not something obscure but a reality that surrounded them every day. And in the middle of all this they have a child together.
I never heard them say "I love you" to each other. I never saw prolonged hugs or kisses. What I saw was my father tenderly push loose strands of hair off my mother's forehead, securing the strands back into a bobby pin. What I saw was my mother carefully place a throw over my father sleeping on the couch so as not to wake him, so he wouldn't get chilled and admonished us to be silent, to let him sleep, let him rest from his hard job.
What are the feelings that tie you to someone who has helped you survive, to live to see the next day? I can't even begin to understand or explore that complexity so their relationship will always be a bit of a mystery to me. On the approach of their feast day I think of Józef and Józefa and St. Joseph himself, patron saint of families and workers. Did my parents pray to this saint? They never said. But when my father died, my mother ordered a headstone under which she, too, would later rest. You can't see it in the photograph very well but just above both their names, she had the sculptor inscribe in small letters the words "Together Forever."
I was at a Whole Foods Store recently, looking for some fresh dill for my boiled potatoes and ended up wandering around the meat department. I was really only looking half heartedly at the endless array of meats until I spied a container full of chicken feet. Uh, hello? The last time I saw chicken feet was when they were sticking out of the rosoł, the chicken soup, my mother was making for a Sunday dinner. The time before that was when she was holding that plucked chicken by those very feet over the gas flame to singe off the last of the pin feathers that stuck to its body. And that was a long time ago, right up there with Sputnik and Russian cosmonauts and the soda fountain at Kresge's. I took a photo.
There was this poultry store in our town, on Third Street, called Curley's. In those early years after our arrival in America my mother often took me in hand and we'd walk to the center of town to this Curley's Poultry Market. Inside Curley's it stank from the droppings of dozen upon dozens of live, cackling fowl in cages stacked one on top of the other. It really stunk in the summer time.
My mother would buy some fresh eggs and because she liked to kill and pluck them herself, she'd pick a live chicken to bring home. Feet (supposedly) tied together and thrust into a paper bag, the hen traveled home securely under my mother's armpit, giving a low, disgruntled cluck every now and then. About half a block from home, my mother's shoulder must have started to ache and meaning to shift her burden to the other armpit, she fumbled the package and it slipped out of her hands onto the sidewalk. Before she could react, the chicken, a Rhode Island Red, bolted out of the paper bag and started sprinting up the street. My mother starts running, hollering "Zosia! Zosia!" meaning, don't just stand there! Kids who had been playing in the street caught on and started to give chase. As if she had a map in her head, the chicken made a left away from our house into oncoming traffic. I could see one of the drivers, who brought his car to a halt, hanging out the window for a better look, laughing. As must have been the men watching from their stools in the gin mill, but maybe, for want of some entertainment, out they came. Outflanked, outmaneuvered, it was there between Czyz's Bar and Borowski's Grocery that we finally caught our chicken.
I could kill, pluck, and disembowel a chicken if I had to. It certainly wouldn't be pretty, but I could do it. I watched my mother do it enough times. Chicken feet will always remind be of The Day We Stopped Traffic. They also remind me of how carefully food was used up, how nothing was wasted, how even ugly, runaway chicken feet could find their way into a pot. It brings to mind listening to Polish mass from St. Stanislaus Church on Sundays and finding a chicken heart or gizzard or neck floating next to the carrot in my bowl of chicken soup. The rendered chicken fat is another story altogether.
Who could imagine chicken feet making a comeback? Maybe it's right up there with new found popularity of pierogi, which has been meriting articles in the New York Times; or sauerkraut now being touted as a healthy probiotic, a food known by my Polish ancestors for centuries. Chicken feet are recognized now as being high in collagen, contributing to healthy hair, skin and nails. So I'm wondering if soon, in specialty stores and supermarkets, I'll be seeing bottles of duck blood to make czarnina, AKA duck blood soup, as part of the old-made-new again cuisine.
Today is January 24, Feast of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) known in Poland as Św. Franciszek Salezy.
I'm working on a little meditation journal for myself, collecting thoughts and quotes mostly for the fun of it but also as a way of finding inspiration and ideas for things that maybe someday I'll write about. I've been doing it for a while now and there are tons of resources but I decided I wanted to look for inspiration among my own tribe, my own people, so I'm reading books and diaries of Poles who lived in previous centuries and who felt it important to commit their thoughts to paper. I also like looking at the calendar in the morning to see which saint is being celebrated that day by the Catholic Church, people of my own faith who lived and died and left their particular legacy. Both sources are filled with examples of amazing individuals full of determination and fortitude who, once they found their groove, their star to follow, were unshakable in their purpose.
The very earliest saints left us their life as an example to follow but many of the later saints like St. Francis de Sales were also able to leave us their thoughts and words. He was a prolific writer, using his skill to bring people back into the church and gave spiritual direction through letters, pamphlets and books.
As a spiritual advisor he wrote to his advisee Bishop Jeane-Pierre Camus: Have patience with all things, but, first of all with yourself.
In his book The Introduction to the Devout Life he writes: Make occasional retreats into the solitude of your heart, whilst outwardly engaged in business or conversation.
And even back then, four centuries ago, he advises: Half an hour's meditation each day is essential except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.
I also like: Great works do not always come our way but every moment presents us with opportunities to do little ones with excellence.
The quote that resonates with me the most and has become part of my journal is this one:
"Be who you are, and be that well, in order to bring honor to the Master Craftsman whose handiwork we are."
St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of Catholic writers, the Catholic press, and journalists.
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.