Lately, and surprisingly, there’s been much in the news about Poland, not all very encouraging if you are a student of democracy. But what about Polish-Americans like me? What news of us? Have we all assimilated so quietly and deeply into American culture that our Polish heritage and culture has given way to nothing more than football, hot dogs, and peanut butter? Shame on us if it has. Most Americans (defined by their family’s American longevity and multi-ethnic blood) with whom I talk about my book, My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia, don’t know much about what happened during World War II in Poland, and why it matters in today’s political climate.
For most Americans, World War II began in 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor. By then, Russia or the Soviet Union under Stalin, known as “Uncle Joe” by Americans, was already an ally of America, Britain, and France. Little attention gets paid in American history books to the crucial fact that it was not only Nazi Germany who attacked Poland in 1939 at the real start of World War II, but also Communist Soviet Russia, only two weeks later. My mother and sister were caught up in all that when they were deported from what was then eastern Poland by the Soviets to a Siberian labor camp. The book is also about what it was like growing up with a mother who talked non-stop about her wartime ordeals, my trying to assimilate into American culture, and coming to terms with the fact that I would never have the same bond with my mother that my sister had.
My Sister’s Mother is about that immigrant experience, what it was like growing up Polish-American, accepting the fact that one is never completely at home in the world when war and exile has imposed itself. What does “home” mean to us Polish-Americans, often with one foot in American culture and the other in Polish culture, stubbornly clinging onto what our parents, grandparents, ancestors experienced? Those from earlier waves of immigration, before the world wars, whose identity is wrapped up in vestiges of Polish culture tied to church, community, food, and music cling to that almost forgotten identity. What does “home” mean to any immigrant? How do we identify? Who are real Americans? In the current world developments those questions have taken on a new urgency and challenge our commitments. It is my desire and hope that some of those questions are answered by the story of our family described in My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016).