Babci is a very unique person. She makes homemade potato soup which begins with a gravy of porcini mushrooms. These mushrooms are expensive and can be purchased in Passaic, New Jersey. The towns of Passaic and neighboring Garfield are filled with Polish people. This soup is so exquisite that it makes any other soup I have ever tasted both bland and lackluster. Babci has ruined soup for me; because I only want hers. Tasting her soup is like getting on an airplane with a first class ticket; once you fly first class, going back to economy will forever be a disappointment.
It was not until I did some digging around and met some other Polish people in the community that I discovered that most people of Poland were sent to work camps in World War II, regardless of their religion. In Western Europe, it was mainly those of Jewish religion who were sent to work/concentration camps. So why was it that all of the Poles were sent to camps? What made them such an easy target of Axis control?
Babci has a hard time talking about all of this. Her memories of the war and her time at the camp haunt her still. So I continued to ponder about why Poles were treated so poorly during WWII. And I came up with some thoughts. Firstly, the geographic position of Poland is unfortunate. They are sandwiched between Russia on the East and Europe on the West. Western Europe has historically scorned Poland and her people. Secondly, Poles have often been regarded as unintelligent farmers. Most Polish jokes are aimed at the 'stupidity' of Polacks. Finally, Polish people have a way of accepting hardship. When work camps were thrust upon them, the Poles did what they were good at. They worked.
When Babci occasionally talks of her childhood, she tells me, "I am fighter. I will not quit." Her entire life is a testimony to this ideology. When Babci's family was released from the German work camp, they arrived in Passaic, New Jersey, with nothing. But Babci had a remarkable talent in sewing. She sewed her first dress when she was seventeen. She then worked in factories sewing clothing. When she moved to Sayreville, New Jersey, Babci had two girls with her husband. She worked out of her basement sewing duvet covers for a textile company. Babci worked steadily until she was 82. It was not she who had wanted to retire. Rather, her employer got too old to have staff and run the company.
Babci admits that she is glad to slow down. But at 87, she still cooks soups, tends to her rose garden and hosts her family in her home. Babci now has two great-grandchildren. She still takes care of all of us. It is unusual to see a woman of this age who continues to assume the role of a caregiver. Babci's family does not take care of her. Rather, Babci maintains the role at the helm of her own ship. And she watches the smaller ships of her family go out to sea, while keeping a very close eye on them through her telescopic lens.
Johnny grew into a teenager and enlisted as a solider of the U.S. Army during World War II. He was sent to Tunisia to fight against Rommel's German troops. I have his papers of Honorable Discharge in my nightstand drawer. Which is odd, because I never really knew that much about my Grandfather Johnny. I knew only that he was born in Poland, was very handsome and physically abused both his wife and children.
Maybe it was Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from his time at war. They called it "Battle Fatigue" back then. What had Johnny seen or done in Africa that none of us will ever know? And did that excuse the beatings he inflicted on his family? His Army papers rest next to me as I sleep peacefully through the night, though his wife and kids never knew that luxury with their own proximity to my Polish Grandfather.
I guess what it all comes down to is the following question: why are some people faced with terrible struggle and they rise from it? Babci had been in a German work camp as a teenager. Yet she had overcome it, she had made a master tapestry out of that particular kind of hard. My Grandfather Johnny had not. He had been fortunate enough to move to America before the war, or he may have shared in Babci's fate in a work camp. He may have died fighting in the snow against the Germans, who would have believed he was just a stupid Polish farmer. Instead, he returned to America after the war and worked in factories, bought Cadillacs and sired children who feared his rage.
I plan on going to Poland in September. There are many questions that I have in my heart, though my Grandfather left no verifiable history for me to uncover. I am aware that I may have less Polish blood in me than what I had hoped. Somehow, though, this does not matter. What matters has been getting to know Babci. In watching how she has lived her life, I feel like her kin. What Babci has done is to embrace the idea that she is not one for easy. Easy things were never offered to Babci. Maybe she does not trust them; maybe she finds easy things to have no heft in the rocky landscape of her life.
Is this a Polish philosophy? I have no idea. I will let you know when I go to Eastern Europe. I do not know if I will hear from my Grandfather Johnny. I wonder if perhaps he could not bear the kind of hardship that Polish people wear like armor. I weep as I wonder who he may have been, had violence and war not been steeped in his body. And then I smile as I remember what I share what Babci, my Polish Grandmother. We are not ones for easy. Maybe Johnny led me to this woman, as a form of regret. Babci tells me that she is saddened that I have no ties to a certain town in Poland, a place that I could go to hear my Grandfather and his people. My ancestral heritage remains silent in those Honorable Discharge Papers, dated in 1944 from the United States Army.
What is our heritage? Are we linked by blood to those with whom we share no similarities? Or, does the land of our forepeople hold some secret to uncovering who we are?
Either way, I have some solid footing on where I come from now. I come from a long line of Babcis. Women who are not ones for easy. I am a Polish woman after all.