A Leap of Faith in Poland
He never knew his grandmother. She died before he was even a twinkle in his own mothers’ eye. Which was why I knew that one of the first places I had to travel on my adventures in Europe was to Krakow Poland, to pay tribute to the woman I had been partially named after, and to give my dad a chance (even if it was just in seeing her name) to try to put the pieces together of what had happened in our family more than 70 years before.
As the story goes, she had been arrested during the Nazi occupation in the south of Poland for buying goods on the black market. Her children had been sent away at the start of the war and were safe in America, while she (along with thousands of others) was swept away under Hitlers’ orders, and put on a train to the nearest concentration camp. That was the last we knew of what happened, leaving a mystery in our family for many years to come. We thought because of her frail condition while in jail, that she had died on the train ride there, but nobody really knew for sure.
So after spending a few weeks making our way through cheery Christmas markets across Europe, my dad and I took the somber bus ride to Auchwitz. I remember looking outside the window as the snow piled up outside, imagining how it might have been to be standing in that snow for hours on end as the soldiers took roll call. In the museum were displays of eyeglasses, human hair, and piles of children’s shoes that had been collected from the prisoners as they entered the camp. At one point I looked at my dad with tear filled eyes, not sure if I could continue on. To imagine the suffering that took place, and worse yet to wonder if my great-grandmother had been forced to endure that, had taken the experience to an entirely different level.
We soon separated ourselves from the rest of the tour group (which had become a bit like a cattle call itself herding us from one exhibit to the next) and found our way to the Polish records office. If there was a plaque or memorial or something, we would have much rather spent our time seeing that, than to go through the rest of the tour. The woman in the records office took the name my dad had scribbled on a sheet of paper and returned a
few minutes later. She not only had found the name, but had also found a prisoner photo that had been taken when she entereed the camp, as well as the date and cause of her death. A bittersweet, but exciting moment as for the first time in 70 years, we finally knew what had happened to her.
Our next mission, to see if we still had family living in the area that we could share the information with. The last visit from someone in our family was nearly 20 years ago, so we had a little bit of detective work on our hands. Without thinking, we found ourselves on the next bus, heading towards the rural south of Poland. We had no idea where we were going, (and as we found out later, we didn’t even have the right spelling of the last name) but we knew that as long as we had a little faith, things would work out.
With our very broken Polish (or should I say non-existant) and a little “sign language” we somehow managed to find a taxi driver to take us to the Parish we thought the family was located. The bad news, the priest who had known the family (and helped locate them 20 years earlier) had died. The good news, we met a lovely English-speaking Polish couple who not only opened their home to us, they joined us in our search efforts (taking time out of their busy St Nicolas holiday weekend, and time from their own family) to help us.
Two days later, with the help of our very generous and friendly translators, we were sitting in the farmhouse that my great-grandmother had once lived in, sharing some Polish vodka with some very happy and excited relatives. I can’t even begin to describe the gratitude I felt, not only for the couple who took us in, but for the lady at the records office, and the amazing way that things seemed to just work out. Best of all to be able to share that experience with my dad was life changing (for both of us,) and taught us an invaluable lesson. To this day, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to take that leap of faith on my own, but ometimes the best thing to do is to take that leap and develop your wings on the way down.