My sister Marian and I, accompanied by my husband Bill, traveled to Poland in 2017 to explore our roots from our father’s side of our family. We knew our grandfather Javorski had emigrated from the village of Kadlubowka in eastern Poland around 1908. That part of Poland was ruled by Russia and his future was an involuntary twenty-year service in the Czar’s army. His brother Peter left for Uruguay to avoid the same fate. His four sisters remained although at least one emigrated to the states for some years and moved back to Poland when her children were of school age.
For twenty years after the first world war, Poland was a free democracy. After Hitler invaded Poland he soon signed the infamous agreement with Stalin that handed Russia control of eastern Poland again…not before the Nazis murdered most of the Jewish population in Bielsk Podlawski, the market town near our grandfather’s village.
Before we arrived in Poland, our interpreter, Jolanta, had researched the family and the history of the village. She confirmed that the Russian army confiscated my family’s homes and land in Kadlubowka. Russian officers were lodged in the houses during the war. In Poland, landowners were minor nobility and thus enemies of the communists. The entire Jaworoski family of around 13 to 16 persons including children was deported to Siberia. Any person of influence whether a landowner, priest, or teacher was arrested and banished. Many never returned.
Jolanta organized our visit with my father’s elderly cousin Anna and her son. We met Anna in her apartment in Bialystok. Despite our language barrier, she understood that we were the daughters of her cousin Bruno. She wanted to know about the family in America. We showed her photos of our dad and sister Ellen and Anna brought out photos to share with us. At one point, Marian, through Jolanta, asked Anna if she recalled much of the war as she had been a very small girl when the family was deported. Anna’s eyes filled with tears, “My mother kept me alive in Siberia. We had nothing. Nothing. What my mother had to do to get food for me…” Her son’s face mirrored her distress.
The next day in Kadlubowka by fortunate happenstance we met an old gentleman who was able to tell us more history of the village. Our family had owned two houses on either side of the lane that ran through the village. He pointed out the vacant land where the long-destroyed houses had stood for generations. The family, especially our great-grandmother, were very pious Catholics. And then the startling revelation that his uncle had been married to our great aunt…and they were among those deported to Siberia. He recalled that some of our family had died during their banishment from Poland.
We don’t know much about my grandmother Bakie’s side of the family. Her parents emigrated from Poland a generation before my grandfather. I recall a disturbing visit to her in the nursing home where she lived in New Jersey a year or so before she died. Bill was with me. In the 80’s he wore a fairly full beard. She recoiled when we walked into her room. “Russian! Dirty Russian! Why are you with a dirty Russian?” She almost spat the words at me. “No, no, Bakie!” I rushed to reassure her. “Bill’s family is not Russian…beards are the style with young men now.” She pointed to a photo of Marian with her first husband, Steve, who also sported a fine beard. “Another Russian?” I finally convinced her that Steve was Mexican. Her hatred for Russians was a mystery to me at the time.
After learning more of the history of my grandfather’s family during WWII, I realized that locked in Bakie’s memory must have been the story we learned while in Poland. She probably knew much more than Anna was able to tell us that day in Bialystok.
But, what of Bakie’s own family? What horrors did they suffer under decades of Russian occupation?
I am afraid for our family in Poland and our dear translator and her husband when I see how few kilometers separate their homes from the border with Belarus, erstwhile and enthusiastic ally of Russia.