May 25, 2016

The Poland Project

It began with a third grade assignment. Evie needed to interview an older relative for a history report. Three generations sat down at my mom's kitchen table in Fargo. 

“What were your parents like?” Evie asked my mother.

She tugged a thread, gently, and a story tumbled out. The story was new to me and older than all three of us.

I knew that my grandmother Henryka was a teacher and school principal with a stern demeanor but a soft spot for her only granddaughter. 

Headmaster Henryka was as smart as she was tough.

I didn't know about her traumatic childhood. I didn’t know that she secretly taught children during the war, or that she hid a Jewish boy until her neighbor threatened to turn her in. I didn’t know that she gave birth to my mother in a ramshackle house deep in the forest, assisted by a witch who didn’t believe in disinfectant but carried human bones to ward off evil spirits. I didn't know she helped rebuild Poland's education system after the war and received high honors from the Communist Party.

That day, The Poland Project was born.

A few weeks later, I told my mom that I couldn't stop thinking about my grandmother’s story and wanted to turn it into a novel.

"Oh," she replied. "I didn’t even tell you about my father." 

Henryka and Antoni's wedding photo.

My grandfather, Antoni, was a leader in the Polish World War II resistance, coordinating sabotage and spy missions involving hundreds of people. He was part of a huge network of men and women who bravely defied their occupiers and kept Poland alive, underground. 

At Christmas, my mom gave me about 40 sheets of yellowed typewriter paper: Henryka's career retrospective, and Antoni's memoirs of 1939-1945.

In the months since, I have been learning about the grandparents I barely knew. Through their typewritten words, Google Translate, and my rusty knowledge of Polish, I am in a halting conversation that connects us across generations, geography, and even death itself.

Translation is hard work. I have to sound out big words, like a kindergartener. I banish my family to rooms where I can't hear them speaking English. I play Chopin; it helps.

I could have paid someone to translate these memoirs, and perhaps someday I will. But muddling through my grandparents’ words feels like digging for treasure, one consonant-filled paragraph at a time.

I’m halfway through, and treasures are piling up.

There are harrowing moments, like the fight in which Antoni lost 10 teeth but escaped to freedom. There’s a cinematic scene in which he and his collaborators stole weapons from a sleeping Nazi army. There are code names and mistaken identities and narrow escapes. There's a poignant subtext in what's absent, like any mention of my mom and her brother, who were young children during the war.

My grandparents are calling me on a journey and giving me a map. My grandfather names the parks, churches, and apartments where he met with co-conspirators. I visit them on Google Earth. He names the lodge where he stayed while plotting to steal weapons from the Germans; it’s still open and has 2 stars on Yelp.

A novel calls to be written. I want to follow the outline of my grandparents’ remarkable lives and use fiction to fill in the details lost to history. I want to learn more about the Polish resistance and write a story that honors the men and women who fought, who lived, who were Poland. I want to travel to their country and I want to bring my daughter with me. 

But first, I need to finish uncovering the treasures buried here, in these words, on my kitchen table.

Need. More. Coffee.

Ciąg dalszy nastąpi (To be continued)...

1 comment:

Jessica Bring said...

We miss so many treasures due to proximity. Thank you for the reminder!