Aug. 26, 2010
Going homeBy Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“You know,” the elderly man leaned in toward my husband and said, “that sandwich would taste even better with a little bit of onion.”
My husband looked up and simply smiled.
“Actually, sir,” I interjected, “my husband doesn’t speak Polish. I’ll translate for him.”
Embarrassed, the man offered a quick, “Przepraszam,” which means, “pardon me.”
“There’s no need to apologize,” I assured him. His friendly overture was a sweet surprise.
After a brief conversation, he wished us a pleasant dinner and walked away slowly. My eyes followed him. His gait reflected a slight limp, similar to one my father developed later in life. The man paused to read the inscription on a monument honoring victims of Nazi persecution before disappearing into the crowd. I felt an inexplicable rise of emotion. There was something unusual, almost otherworldly, about our exchange.
Our picnic consisted of rye bread, cheese, tomatoes, chips and kefir. My family sat on a bench overlooking the San River in the town of Przemysl, enjoying a casual meal as pedestrians streamed past. The sun lay low, bathing the summer sky in pink-orange light.
My paternal grandfather was born in Przemysl when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nestled near the tranquil Bieszczady Mountains, it is today a Polish frontier town, 12 kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
We were in no hurry to return to our lodgings. I booked what was likely the cheapest hostel in this eastern outpost. Our three-person room was spartan yet clean, tainted only by small bits of plaster missing from otherwise unblemished walls. Crisp linens rested atop bunks and a bureau with three drawers occupied a small corner. The shared bath and communal kitchen resided down the hall. We were the odd family in residence amid a sea of college students.
A picnic by the river seemed a fitting way to mark our return to Poland following a five-day excursion to Ukraine. It was the summer of 2005. Six short months before, a frustrated Ukrainian electorate took to the streets to protest a flawed presidential election. The Orange Revolution was remarkable for its peacefulness and positive outcome. Civil disobedience prompted new elections. We encountered spell-throwing gypsies, intriguing definitions of vegetarian fare (Note: Americans do not consider white chicken breast vegetarian) and friendly Ukrainians expressing fervent hope that the revolution would improve their lives.
Our mission in Ukraine was simple: visit my father’s hometown of Turka, the one the Nazis took him from in October 1941, transporting him to a German slave labor camp. At war’s end, Turka was absorbed into the Soviet Union, making travel there nearly impossible. My father’s family was deported, forsaking forever the beloved house grandfather built for an abandoned German dwelling in Silesia. My father landed in America in 1949, a refugee. He longed to return to the place of his childhood, a childhood interrupted by war.
Ours was a sentimental journey, a grasp at the past. We hired a Polish-speaking guide in Lviv to make the journey to Turka. Ivan answered our every request with an enthusiastic “Absolutnie!” which means, “Absolutely!” We hit the road in his little Lada, traversing a circuitous path along bumpy lanes.
We found my father’s church, the one closed by Soviets and turned into a warehouse. Stain-glassed windows, long since destroyed, were replaced by simple, transparent panes. Damaged floor tiles were slowly being replaced. We climbed the steeple — devoid of its bell — where my altar boy father called townspeople to Mass.
The parish, reopened shortly after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., is shepherded by a young Polish missionary from Gdansk. Father Tadeusz was friendly, vivacious and a bit harried — the rectory was filled with an assemblage of priests, nuns and youths preparing for a five-day, 150-kilometer pilgrimage on foot. My family sat at a rickety table sharing tea — a mark of hospitality given the building’s lack of running water — and conversation with pilgrims. I remember three youthful Polish nuns — Sisters Joanna, Marzena and Ewa — giddy with anticipation. Our language of currency was Polish, given its similarity to Ukrainian; English proved useless.
We walked the streets of Turka past an open air market and the small square whose homes were inhabited by Jewish shop owners and professionals before the war. Poverty was evident in the shabbiness of the houses. We stood out — for our clothes and non-Ukrainian mutterings.
We ventured towards the outskirts of town to the neighborhood where my father once lived. The house is gone; the trees grandfather planted remain. I embraced pastoral views, imagining my father as a happy-go-lucky kid catching fish in the stream and playing ball with friends. He was very outgoing and sociable then, or so my uncle tells me. Imprisonment by Nazis coupled with displacement from home and family left their mark on my gentle father.
Dad died of cancer in July 1996. It later dawned on me that the friendly, gentle man who greeted my husband did so on the exact anniversary of my father’s passing, on the day we returned from Turka. It was almost as if dad — who loved onions on his sandwiches — was trying to say, “You did well. Thank you for returning to the place from where I came.”