Skip to main content

Polish Village Life: A Portrait

ISSUE:  Summer 2001

Over Christmas dinner three years ago, I announced to my family that I planned to accept a job teaching English in Poland. We were crowded into the dining room in my aunt’s house in East Norriton outside of Philadelphia. The meal was already over and the announcement was made in the aftermath of dessert, amid the clearing of dishes and the slow relocation to the living room. My uncle and my cousin were immediately surprised and interested. This whole side of my family had come from Poland, and many of the older relatives could still speak the language. For years some members of the family had corresponded by letter with the family that still remained there. Everyone thought of Poland with a warm, if vague, affection.

But my grandmother, who was seated beside me, reacted sternly to the news, her hard eyes staring forward, her lips in a flat strong line. Poland is poor, her expression said. Why would you want to go back there? A moment after I had delivered my news she told me that she thought I should stay in America and settle down.

“But stryjna,” my uncle said to her with a playful smile calling her by the Polish word for aunt, “he could marry a Polish girl.” This suggestion seemed to soften her and so I picked it up. “That’s the thing about Poland, Bapci. They’re all Polish girls there.” She laughed, and then for a moment she became thoughtful again.

“You could visit my brothers,” she said.

“Of course I would.”

“No,” she said. “You’d never find them.”

By the following June of 1999 I had left my apartment in Virginia, deposited trunks full of books and clothes at my parents house, and flown to Poland, where I planned to teach for the next two years. Shortly after I arrived, I wrote a letter of introduction to send to each of her three brothers whose addresses my mother and I had deciphered from the annual letters they sent to my grandmother. The villages where they lived were all so small that my new Polish friends did not recognize the names. The postal addresses listed larger towns in the area that served as distribution points for mail to the villages and even these places were obscure. Only the largest and most thorough maps listed their locations.

Growing up, my brothers and sister and I never spoke Polish. So the letters I wrote were written in English and then translated by a friend and then recopied by me so they would be in my own hand. Within two weeks I found myself at the wedding of my second cousin, the grandson of Bapci’s brother. The task I had set for myself was not nearly as hard as she had predicted. “She thought you’d never find them,” my mother had said. “She doesn’t understand the way things are now.”

In October of that year I traveled to Warsaw, where my Uncle Feliks lived. The next day, the two of us drove south to Jastrzębiec, the village where Bapci had spent her childhood before she emigrated. The roads leading out of Warsaw were fast and two lanes in each direction, reminding me of the smaller highways near Philadelphia. But by the time we had passed Lublin the roads had decreased to a single lane each way, winding through a tunnel of trees.

I had lost track of time and did not realize how far we had traveled. Feliks had turned the car onto a dirt road that ran between two small farms. We drove slowly over the rough, uneven road until we reached a thin row of trees that split the fields horizontally, dividing the entire area in four. He stopped the car. “Granica,” he said to me in an overloud voice, pronouncing the words carefully so I could follow his Polish, “Rosja i Austro-Węgry.”

The word “granica” (grah-NEET-sah) was unfamiliar to me, but I had read enough about Polish history to understand where we were. From 1795 until the end of the First World War, Poland was divided by the resident European powers into what was known as The Third Partition. Prussia stretched across the west and north of the territory, while Russia and Austria-Hungary met on the line where we sat in our car. With the simple joy of comprehending a foreign language, I told him that I understood what the tree-break meant, although I still had not fully realized where we were. Feliks indicated the field beyond the break and to our left, what would have been, until 1918, the edge of Austria-Hungary. His father, Michał Ćwikła, the brother of my grandmother, had owned this field.

Through the pine woods on the distant right lay the village of Jastrzębiec. In its own spelling, Jastrzębiec demonstrates half of the difficulty of the Polish language: strings of four consonants that produce a variety of sh and zh sounds, soft and hard; vowels whose serifs alter the tone of syllables with the nasal quality of an “n” or an “m”. Jastrzębiec (yahst-ZHEHM-biehts) is a poor village with a population of three or four hundred people. The village is surrounded by small farms and a pine forest. The terrain consists of low hills that are noticeable as hills largely because Poland, whose name is derived from the Polish word “pole” (POH-leh) for field, is almost entirely flat, stretching into mountains almost exclusively along the southern border.

At the age of 87, Michał was no longer a farmer, but he was still alive and well. As the oldest of the brothers, he would probably be the only one with a clear memory of the childhood he had spent with his older sister. Anna Wawrzak (nee Ćwikła) left Poland alone at the age of 19. The year was 1930. Her father had already left for Argentina. Although Anna wanted to go with him, her family decided that she should go to America instead. She went alone because of the peculiar story of her birth.

Sometime in the years between 1905 and 1910, her father, Sebastian Ćwikła, along with his two brothers immigrated to America. They lived in Philadelphia where Sebastian met and married a Polish bride, Franciszka. There he fathered the first of his four children to survive infancy, Anna, born in 1910 and, by virtue of being born within the boundaries of the United States, a citizen. By 1911 the couple had grown homesick for Poland and decided to return.

“When we went back to Poland,” Bapci would say, “it wasn’t called Poland.” It would have been called Austria-Hungary and the next village over would have been called Russia. Shortly after their return, the First World War began and her father would serve in the army. The end of the war marked an important period in Polish history: the end of the partitions and the advent of the modern Polish state. Independence Day, still celebrated in Poland on November 11, refers to the independence gained in 1918 after approximately 150 years of continuous occupation. Poland had reappeared as a nation.

As hopeful as those years may have been, some people speaking of realizing a Poland that would stretch from sea to sea, meaning the Baltic to the Black, the village of Jastrzębiec remained poor. After the war, Sebastian Ćwikła worked as a farmer on several small plots of land, while also tending the nearby woods. By the end of the decade he worried that he would leave nothing to his children, whose ages in 1930 would range from Anna at 19 to Michał at 17 to Franek at 10 and finally to Wladek, who was not much older than an infant. Now himself in his early 40’s, Sebastian Ćwikła decided to emigrate again, this time to Argentina, in the hope of building a sustainable future for his family. Shortly after her father left Poland, Anna returned to the United States to join her uncles, who still lived there, and to begin her life away from her family whom she would never see again.

In 1930, Bapci left Jastrzębiec and rural peasant life. She traveled first to Warsaw to obtain her passport. “It was the first time I’d seen a big city,” she would tell me. Life in Jastrzębiec was undoubtedly rural, confined to a small house where a family of six would sleep in one or two simple rooms. Aside from the house there was the farm and aside from the farm there was the village and the woods. The closest major cities, Krakow as well as Warsaw and L’vov, were all several hundred kilometers away and not a part of their life in Jastrzębiec.

From Warsaw she sailed along the Vistula River to Gdańsk, the principal Polish port on the Baltic Sea, and from Gdańsk to France, where the passengers were examined to see if they were ill or had lice before they boarded a boat for New York, Her journey from the village in southeastern Poland seems interminable, and by the time the train from New York reached Philadelphia, it must have seemed final. Every aspect of her world had changed. “We live here now,” she would say like so many immigrants. “Poland is poor. Why would you want to go back there?”


On Dec. 23, 1999, two months after my first visit, Michał and Feliks and I sat together over dinner in Michał’s kitchen in Jastrzębiec. The village, including my great grandfather’s house, was destroyed by the Ukrainians in the Second World War. Michał’s family, as well as his mother and Wladek, were taken to Germany where they worked in forced labor. Michał explained to me that during this time the Ukrainians, who were allied with the Germans, had occupied the village. At the end of the war, when it appeared that the village would fall into the hands of the Russians, the Ukrainians burned it to the ground and fled. When the family was liberated from the camps by the Americans, the United States offered them the choice of immigrating to America or returning to Poland, “We have land,” Michał decided, “in Poland.” And with land conies certainty, so the family returned to the ruins of Jastrzębiec and built another house and began another farm. So it was in this second house that we sat together that evening.

The next day would be Wigilia, Christmas Eve, the first day of the three-day Polish celebration of Christmas. Wigilia, the most important of the three in terms of tradition, is marked by its 11-course meal of meatless dishes. Ours would consist almost exclusively of kasha, wild mushrooms and cabbage in different combinations, with plates of herring in between. On the night of the 23rd our meal was even simpler: homemade sausage and bread, still warm, which one of Michał’s nieces had delivered as a present, along with various other foods Feliks and his wife had brought with them from Warsaw.

The first of the sausages was a variation of the familiar kielbasa, meat and garlic-based, dark red, smoky and cured. The next was slightly more foreign to an American palate: a dark brown blood sausage made from a base of kasha. The last, which I may have misunderstood with my still suspect Polish, was a pale tan color and had a soft, paté-like consistency, and was made from lung. Vodka is often consumed along with meals in Poland, especially for holidays and guests, and Michał produced a small bottle from a back room.

In the six months I had been living in Poland, I had become accustomed to being silent for long periods of time in which I either did not understand what was being said or was incapable of initiating a conversation when the previous one had become exhausted. To have whole days pass in this way would separate the mind, which continued to think in English, from the body which might even participate in the conversation in Polish while the other self observed. Toward the end of the meal, when Michał reached for his glass of vodka, I reached for mine as well. He raised his glass and I followed him. The overwhelming majority of toasts was simply “na zdrowie,” to health. But his expression was thoughtful and after a moment he began in Polish: “I am 80 years old . . .”

“Dziadek,” (DJAH-dek) his son interrupted. Grandfather, “you’re not 80. You’re 87.”

Michał stopped and turned his attention from me to Feliks. His expression first showed shock, perhaps a flash of indignation, and then became thoughtful again. What did the difference of seven years mean against 80? “I am 80 years old,” he began again, his attention returned to me as before.

“Dziadek, you’re 87,” his son said again and Michał stopped. His expression showed the same distant look as when he had begun the first time, but now it seemed half-comical as if it were as much forgetful as profound. “I am 80 years old,” he began a third time, “and I’m seeing the family from America.”

My whole life I have waited to see this family, he seemed to say, almost literally a lifetime. The fact that there could be ambiguity about as little as seven years made the span of 70 years that much more vast. Seven years was too small to be acknowledged, but 70 years would seem incomprehensible. Rather than comical, the scene was absurd: the intersection of the comical with the profound. The most serious situations of a man’s life are too vast to be understood: you will never see your sister again. Or else in the face of them, one finds himself forgetful, or distracted, or simply unprepared.

As I spoke to Michał, I realized that neither one of us knew this woman, whom we both loved, very well. My brothers and sister and I have always called her “Bapci,” a corruption of the Polish word for grandmother babcia. We did not know the word dziadek because Bapci’s husband had died before any of us was born. Bapci is a solitary woman, in my image of her, because the period of her life which intersects with mine is only the last third, after her children had grown and after her husband had died. This image of her is compounded by her foreign-ness, from her appearance, now to me distinctly Polish, to her speech, which has always mixed Polish and English into a hybrid.

On the Saturday of my first visit to Jastrzębiec, I introduced all three of my grandmother’s brothers to the American branch of the Ćwikła family. At the same time I introduced myself to a side of my grandmother, and in turn, of myself and my siblings, which I had never known. The men who sat with me that day, three great uncles as well as three of their sons, represented not only close relatives to Bapci, her history, but also a male side of the family; three brothers of a sister who to me had always been alone. By all of us meeting to discuss the woman who connected our lives, we would be able to understand who we were ourselves, as if we were given the chance to see ourselves at different ages and with the imprint of different cultures.

The younger men, ages from middle 50’s to early 70’s, argued about politics; I could recognize enough words, as well as names like Yeltsin and Kwaśniewski, only to understand the subject of the conversation. My language ability confined me to simpler topics, like lessons out of a language class, in which I explained the relations of my family tree, complete with every age and profession of each individual. I had brought a small collection of photographs with me from the United States, as well as several taken at the wedding of Michał’s grandson in Warsaw, which he and I had both attended.

The photos were all taken at two or three occasions which meant that not only were the people the same in nearly each photo, but also that they were wearing the same clothes and looked exactly the same from picture to picture, even if they were lined up in different positions. In spite of this, to each photo I would hand Michał, he would respond with a contemplative pause while he considered who each person could be.

“Ty,” he would say. You. “Anton.”

“Ja,” he would say indicating himself in the photo standing beside me. I would agree and, the task accomplished, would hand the photo to his brother Franek and hold the next one up for Michał to consider. It was a kind of game that was half a language class exercise and a half an exercise in memory. “Twoja matka,” he would say. Your mother. “Ty, Anton.”

In all there were only seven or eight photos, and in a few minutes we had passed through all of them. When we completed the set, however, we began again, and the game of identification seemed to become a sincere question of identity. The same thoughtful pause occurred whether the photo depicted someone distant or whether it was of Michał himself, or of me, who by now was surely familiar to him in person, and who called him affectionately, dziadek.

“Ty,” he would say, “Anton.”

“Ja,” he would say indicating himself, and several minutes later the same photo would reappear a third and a fourth time. “Ty,” he would say after a pause which indicated that the first understanding of the image was an abstract “you,” the person here sitting next to me, and then my identity was further connected to past events and extended relations as he labeled me with the Polecized version of my name: “Anton.” This is how you are connected with the world, he seemed to say. You are Anton. And then, “Ja,” he would say in the same manner, indicating the old man standing beside the young one.

Among the photos from Warsaw was one of Michał and myself along with his son and daughter-in-law. The photo was very pale, blanching everyone’s already fair features. Michał took this photo after four or five rounds of identification and showed it to his brother Franek. As Franek held the photo, Michał with a shaking hand indicated the old man with the stooped back standing in the far right of the image. “This is me,” he said to his brother in Polish. “White hair, old. I am the dziadek.”


A short drive from Jastrzębiec, stands the impressive basilica in Leżajsk, castle-like with its spires, a large space on cold days for what seemed to me would be a large God to preside. Churches in Poland are among the most beautiful structures in every city and nearly every one creates this impression in me. On a winter’s day the parishioners stand pressed each to each on the stone floors, separated only by their overcoats, the cold air of the unheated buildings an empty space above us in the high ceilings. A long hall of columns frames the altar in a tall upright rectangle which would seem to outline a giant’s shoulders.

The only church in Jastrzębiec itself is a small, white chapel that seats only 50 people. In Bapci’s time, the priest would only visit the chapel once a month. Even today the chapel is unofficially divided for mass by sex; the women and the children sit in the front and the men stand in the back. The older women cover their heads with scarves and the hymns only begin when one of the women in the front right corner begins singing, after a moment of which the congregation recognizes the tune and joins her. For any important event, such as a sacrament, Bapci would have walked to a nearby town and a larger church for mass.

She received confirmation in the neighboring town of Luchów, which also has the cemetery where the people of Jastrzębiec are buried. The cemetery was located far back from the church and away from the town, on a narrow road between the woods to a clearing where it stood small and flat, delineated by a low metal fence.

Cemeteries, whether grand or modest, are kept very neat in Poland and play a larger role in daily life than they do in the United States. All Soul’s Day, rather than Halloween, is an important and somber holiday for families to pray for their deceased relations. Long lines can be seen flowing into and out of the cemeteries all day. In the evening they are illuminated by candles, common enough to have a separate name (znicz), set deep in sturdy glass cases with ventilated metal tops, which have been left on each of the graves. Watching through a train window can reveal cemetery after cemetery which glows through the night as one travels across the country.

In the cemetery where we were standing, Franciszka Ćwikła, Bapci’s mother, who had married in Philadelphia, had been buried and marked with a stone her sons purchased together many years after her death. I stood before the grave quietly, trying to allow the significance of being there, of her, enter my thoughts. I had no relationship with her nor any memories of her or anyone else buried there. She was the mother of my grandmother, I thought, but this was still a tenuous association.

My role, my thoughts continued, is first that of a conduit, a means of connection between relatives who remembered each other. In doing so, I had the chance but also the responsibility to understand them as they understood each other. Our worlds were very different. In many ways Michał was like his sister. Neither one of them could understand why I would be so interested in tracing the trail of immigration backward, because this kind of idea was not valuable in their world.

The second grave we had come to see was that of Michał’s wife. Here any direct connection, either of blood or through the memory of my grandmother, was gone. As I stood reverently beside Michał, I recalled one day in Warsaw having seen a photograph of her funeral which depicted the coffin being carried away. An old, but stronger and less frail Michał stood nearest the camera in the crowd, looking over his shoulder directly into the lens as if he were looking back at the person who held the picture in his hands. No one else had turned, as if his grief at that moment were isolated from the people who were occupied by the ceremony. He seemed to understand something that transcended the simple gathering.

As we stood together in the cemetery, he said to me in explanation: “Moja kobieta,” tapping his chest. My woman. The choice of words surprised me, perhaps because he only used those two, or because he repeated them for me: “moja kobieta” (MOY-ah koh-BYEH-tah), drawing them out with his airy voice. I would have expected him to say that she was his wife, explaining relationships as I had been doing with the game of identification. But to say “moja kobieta” had the sweetness of saying “my girl,” simple and an expression of love more than of relationship: “She was my wife.” In two words there was a description, not simply an identification, and in that description I could picture his small house, notoriously cold and spare. Adjacent to the house were several small buildings that housed the old tools he had used for farming, most of them carved and assembled by hand. Between the sheds there were several empty beehives which had been a little apiary.

It seemed to me then that you could be happy there, if you loved your wife, in the simple house with very little of modern life to entertain or distract you. But there would not be the security or comfort of modern life either, And certainly you could not simply volunteer for it from one romantic picture which conveyed none of its hardness. But then also life in its hardness and spareness would be perhaps peaceful and abstract, the vocabulary reduced to match the specificity of the life: man and woman and you and I, The house, the church, the land, the field, the forest. Boil the tea hot. Wear your coat and your hat when it’s cold outside. A man could survive on very few words. To health. Tell my sister that I love her and I pray for her.


The climate of Poland defies natural instinct and tends to be cooler toward the south, along the Tatras and Carpathian Mountains, than in the north where the cold is muted by the Baltic Sea. The soil is sandy and, although the terrain is flat through most of the country, would seem ill-suited for farming. The staples of the diet are potatoes, rather than grains, and root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and parsnips, onions and garlic. Cabbage, like cucumbers both fresh and cured, can at times seem ubiquitous, appearing in salads instead of lettuce and playing various roles in various forms in the national cuisine.

One of my first images of the village of Jastrzębiec itself was of the dumptrucks hauling loads of earth-colored beets down the narrow roads. The vision of beets, almost preposterously appropriate, seemed to welcome me to town. The last name of the family, Ćwikła (CHVEEK-wah), literally means “beetroot” in Polish and is as comical as having a name like “horseradish” in the United States. Every time I visit the family there, they serve me red borscht and as a joke call it zupa ćwikłowa, Ćwikła soup, as if it is an old family recipe.

Away from the industrial and business centers of the major cities, Poland is largely agricultural. When I asked my uncle Józef what his profession in the town of Tarnogród was, he stepped back with a smile half of pride and half of irony to form a line with his cousin and father and said, “We are all the same. We are farmers.” Most of the older generations of my family are farmers, especially those living in the vicinity of Jastrzębiec. To be a farmer anywhere can mean hard, long arduous hours, but to work in one with a climate and even a terrain unsuitable to lucrative work means long hours and poverty as well. Jastrzębiec is a poor village, as are all the villages like it in Poland.

Poverty, though, is not quite an appropriate term for my family who live in these villages. The word connotes not only an absence of wealth, but also a desire to fill that absence materially. This kind of desire is common in Poland today. In the Soviet era images of the material wealth in Western Europe and the United States were distorted or blocked. Only in the last decade has the disparity, in terms of income and possessions, become clear, Friends in their 20’s recount the same image of shopping during this time, when they would have been children. “We had plenty of money,” they say, “but there was nothing to buy. You’d go to the store and all they’d have on the shelves would be vinegar.” At first I took “vinegar” to be a metaphor for scarcity. What worse fate? You can eat bread and water, after all, but vinegar would provide neither pleasure nor nourishment.

The irony of such an image seemed too perfect for the image to be true. Vinegar, as a sort of biblical punishment, would be perfect for a country that remained steadfastly Catholic throughout the supposedly a-religious Communist regime. “We never had communism in Poland,” a middle-aged man in my apartment block told me one day. “They never closed our churches,” he said with pride, almost fiercely. “In the Ukraine churches were closed. You can’t close the churches in Poland.” The story about the vinegar was repeated to me over and over by friends in different regions of the country. “Vinegar and a lotion called Nivea,” another friend elaborated. “But not the Nivea that’s in the stores now. It was something else called Nivea.”

The contrast of this past against the present would generate both a sense of wealth as well as one of poverty. Any product available in the West is available here, but mere availability is not a signature of wealth. Items such as computers are comparably priced in the U.S. and in Poland, even though salaries in Poland are an order of magnitude less. A schoolteacher, for example, earns the equivalent of several hundred dollars a month instead of two or three thousand dollars in the West. If such a worker owns a computer or a car, it typically will not be as good as one owned by his Western counterpart. Although many people still do not drive at all, cars are increasingly common in Poland. But the most common car remains the legendary mały fiat, or little fiat, often called a “maluch” in Polish, or “little one.” These cars are so slow that they routinely pull off to the side on fast roads to let other cars pass them. They are small in a way that makes even someone used to compacts uncomfortable. To drive a mały fiat and to understand its relative quality in relation to cars in other countries would certainly instill a sense of poverty.

When I speak to younger friends and relatives, especially those from the cities in Poland, our conversations often turn to a comparison of our two countries’ cultures and economies, conversations which presuppose all advantages to be on the side of the U.S. “Poland is 90 years behind the States,” a young businessman from Poznań told me. It would take 90 years, he meant, for Poland to be economically level with the West. As impossibly distant as 90 years seemed, no time short enough to be concrete would seem to be enough for the field to become level.

Poland, like its Eastern European neighbors, has made great strides in development, but the country continues to lack certain elements of infrastructure, such as a highway system or a fully-developed higher educational system. A whole set of colleges has come into operation only in the last two or three years to complement the first-rate universities which have existed for centuries.

From one perspective, these obstacles are only a matter of money or time. New shops and businesses open week by week. At the same time that the cities are sprawling outward and decentralizing, their old town squares are being renovated. Observing these changes, one cannot help but feel that Poland is approaching the West. But in another sense it is impossible for Poland to develop in the same way as the West, because, unlike the U.S. for example, its future cannot emerge continuously from its past. A country whose main focus has been to fight against its aggressors must now think differently, and nowhere is this struggle better embodied than it is in Poland’s agricultural sector.

Farmers in Poland famously resisted communism by resisting collectivization. They managed small plots with a spirit of independence that was personal but also symbolic. Historical views of Poland commonly refer to the national character as being rebellious, resistant to occupation, courageous in war. At once what this means is that the country has suffered sharply at the hands of more powerful countries—countries which fight to the death often end by dying— but it also explains how Poland has continued to exist as a nation, even without a country, on a flat plain between Germany and Russia for so many centuries. Now what it also means is that their farms are still too small and independent to compete on an international level, not productive enough to carry Poland into the European Union, which is wary of engaging another country which will need its farming subsidized. The changes necessary to reverse this situation would consequently change Poland itself. In a sense, the Poland living in these villages can only be a Poland of the past, a Poland from which the younger generations are trying to escape.

And thus Poland is faced with a variation of the same question with which it is always faced, known by historians as “The Polish Question.” Simply: what is the real Poland? Who should live there and how? What should the borders be and how should the nation be arranged so as to be truly Poland? And thus, perhaps, the present yields multiple answers. Once, when my brother asked my grandmother what she thought of present-day Poland, she replied, “There are a lot of big shots now. There didn’t used to be a lot of big shots.” Capitalism, as useful as it is, does not emerge evenly in a society. Since the wealth would be new, differences between economic classes would have to seem arbitrary, unfair. Some people have become rich very quickly while their neighbors remain poor. Her line had always seemed astute to me in this way, accurate and mildly condescending toward the new rich from the perspective of the old poor. But when I repeated the line to a friend of mine in Poland, she replied incredulously: “What Poland is she talking about?” And I realized that I didn’t know.

She describes what I have experienced as, “Jak mój mały kiedyś” (yahk mwee MAH-wee KYEH-dysh). The phrase does not make perfect grammatical sense in Polish, and in this crudeness it resonates for me all the more. I think of the phrase in English. In its rough Polish it refers to something only loosely associated with the Poland that exists today. It seems to imply that she was someone else then, as if to say from Michał’s thinking, “when I was the girl.” To be the grandmother, or the great grandmother even, would be very different and the “mały kiedyś” would seem very far away, something that perhaps had to be forgotten. Seventy years would not be necessary to feel separated from your childhood. By the time she had traveled by train to Warsaw and from there sailed to Gdańsk, from Gdańsk to France and from there interminably to New York, Jastrzębiec must already have seemed distant.

In Philadelphia one afternoon, soon after she had arrived, her aunt took her downtown in the city. She had only brought one large suitcase with her from Poland, and her aunt had said she would buy her two new dresses. A dance was coming up soon and so she chose a red, flowered dress which she thought she might wear to it. For the second one, her aunt suggested a black dress which she also tried on. When they had returned home, she was debating about which of the two new dresses to wear to the dance. Finally her uncle told her what she had not known when she left Poland, what her mother and grandmother thought might make it impossible for her to leave if she had known. Anna’s father had died in Argentina before she departed. Her uncle told her the news for the first time that afternoon and told her that she should wear the black dress.

In the years that have followed she has kept in touch only by letter and those seldomly exchanged more often than twice per year. When I arrived in Poland I realized that no branch of the family knew any other branch very well. No one person could accurately describe the entire family tree. Bapci says that she is glad that I have talked to her brothers and that they are doing well. She is glad that I have seen what it was like for her there. But still she would rather that I had never traveled so far from home in the first place.

Today, she lives in a Polish neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Bridgeport. On the afternoon in June of 1999 when I visited her for the last time before I departed, she took me out to her porch and called over to her neighbor. “Helen,” she said, her strong arm over my shoulder, “this is my grandson and he’s going to Poland.”

“That’s nice,” Helen said and rocked in her rocking chair. “Anna, when are you going to go to Poland?” And Bapci’s expression, which had shown pride a moment before, now turned thoughtful. She has no idea how much she resembles her brother with her sharp Slavic features and her heavily wrinkled face, her thin snow-white hair. She was quiet for a moment in what was that same far-off look that Michał would give me in Jastrzębiec at Christmas that is both thoughtful and vacant simultaneously. She waved the question away with her hand and walked back into the house. “When you see my brothers,” she said to me, “tell them that I love them and that I pray for them.”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading