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My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia
By Author Donna Solecka Urbikas
- First, tell us about your awards.
My book was nominated for the 2016 Chicago Writers Association, Midwest Independent Publishing Association, and Society of Midland Authors awards and won the Bronze Medal in the Foreword INDIES awards. All in the category of Memoir/Biography. I’m very proud of that since this is my first book.
- Why the title, My Sister’s Mother?
My sister, that is my half-sister, and I had very different experiences of the same mother. My sister was born before World War II in what was then Poland, and I was born a few years after the war in England. There’s fifteen years difference between us. My sister was five years old when she and our mother were deported from Poland to a labor camp in Siberia. Our mother saved her through that turmoil while I grew up rather comfortably in America with a mother who could never stop talking about all that had happened to her.
- Poland, Siberia, England, America! Tell us a little about their journey and how all that had happened.
When World War II broke out on September 1, 1939 with Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland from the west, my mother and sister were living on my mother’s small farm near the city of Grodno, which is now in Belarus. On September 17, 1939, Soviet Russia attacked from the east, which is something that often gets unreported in the history of WWII. Germany and Russia had a secret pact to divvy up Poland in their continuing efforts to annihilate the country. The Soviets considered educated persons, military servants, political and religious leaders, as well as landowners as a threat to their goals of annihilation. As a landowner, my mother was a target for deportation for what was essentially free slave labor.
She and my sister were arrested during the first of those deportations, on February 10, 1940. It was a very cold night when Soviet secret police broke into their home in the middle of the night, gave them little time to pack, and hauled them off to a train station. My mother’s house had already been ransacked so she had very little left, which became a huge disadvantage later. After several weeks of train travel in a crowded cattle box car, during which many people died, especially children, they arrived at the labor camp in Siberia.
My mother’s job was to chop down huge trees or chop off their thick branches in a desolate forest. For that she was paid very little, only enough to buy a pound and half loaf of bread a day. The conditions in the camp were horrific with dismal shelter from the freezing temperatures, little food, abundant diseases, and the brutality of the Communist guards. My mother had to work since she did not have her husband, my sister’s father, to work for them. She and my sister’s father had separated before the war, and in any case, as a former Polish soldier, he was sent to prison.
With Germany’s attack on Russian in June of 1941, their political agreement broke apart and the Polish government-in-exile, then in London, made an agreement with Russia to let all those who had been deported or imprisoned to be released. This was not readily obeyed by the Soviets as they would be losing valuable workers, so my mother and sister escaped and tried to reach the Polish Army, which Russia allowed to form on their soil in order to help fight the Germans.
As a Polish Army officer, my father had been arrested by the Soviets at the start of the war and he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Russia near the infamous Katyń Forest, where the Soviets had murdered over 20,000 Polish officers and educated Polish citizens. That is another historical event that does not get readily reported in American history books. The Russians had for a long time blamed the Germans for the murders, but finally in 1990/91 with the fall of Communism in Russia, they admitted that it was they who had perpetrated the murders.
My parents met in that whole turmoil, first in Russia, then in Uzbekistan, and later after the war in England. My father had gone on to fight with the Polish forces through the Middle East and Italy, while my mother and sister found their way through the Middle East to India where my mother worked as a Red Cross nurse at the Polish children’s hospital there. My sister attended a convent school nearby.
After the war, neither of my parents wanted to go back to what became Communist Poland. First, my mother lost her farm due to the changing borders, and in any case, her documents had been lost. Secondly, due to his work with the Polish Army, my father would have likely been re-arrested and sent to either prison or Siberia. Having learned firsthand about conditions under Communism, neither of them wanted to return to Poland. They met again in England where I was born, and shortly afterwards we came to America, to Chicago.
- Why did your family leave England?
England had suffered terribly during the war and industrial Coventry, especially, where we lived, had been heavily bombed by the Germans. There were severe food shortages and rations, few job prospects and unfortunately, Polish people, seen as “foreigners,” were not welcome.
- So, you get to Chicago and then what happens?
My parents tried to re-establish their lives, to create some sense of normalcy for my sister and me. It was extremely difficult. My father was a highly educated man but at almost fifty years of age it was hard to adapt especially since he couldn’t get credit for his education, so he had to take a factory job. I was little, so my mother couldn’t work, but later she also too took a factory job. My sister entered high school and then college and I started grade school. We didn’t live in a Polish neighborhood, so I had a hard time in school since I didn’t speak English at first. Eventually, my parents managed to save up enough money to buy a two-unit building and a dilapidated farm in Wisconsin, to which they eventually retired.
On Saturdays I attended Polish school and Polish scouts. I loved the scouts since it was a place to feel accepted among people like me. We learned the Polish language, history, culture, and we sang all the time—patriotic songs, scout songs, folk songs. My best friendships to this day are from those times. At home, my parents insisted that I speak only Polish and we celebrated Polish holidays, especially at Christmas and Easter. My father made it feel like we were a big family, but it was just the four of us. My parents were very patriotic to the Poland in which they grew up, one that had been established after World War I, after 123 years of occupation. It was difficult for them to accept Communist Poland after World War II, but they were also very patriotic to America. We maintained close contact with my father’s family in Poland, regularly sending them packages of clothing or food as conditions in Poland were dismal after the war. My mother’s family had all died even before the start of the war.
- You mention that your mother always talked about the war and what she had endured. Can you tell us a little more about that?
I’ve found that most of my friends’ parents didn’t talk much about what had happened to them during the war. In fact, they avoided the subject to move on with life. In my case, it was different. My mother seemed to never forget what she had gone through. And, she was always grieving over what my sister had lost out on by having her life so derailed as a five-year old, having so many scary things happen to her, having almost died several times due to the many diseases she had gotten. It was a miracle that my sister made it out alive. Most younger children died, either on the way to the labor camps, or afterwards trying to get out of the Soviet Union. I give credit to my mother to have saved my sister.
I think my mother could never reconcile what had happened not only to her, but to my sister, so that she wanted to make sure that I knew about it and appreciated what I had in sharp contrast. Growing up in America, in the land of plenty, in relative safety, I had a roof over my head, plenty of good food, a good father, and every opportunity that my sister never had as a child. But, I also know that my mother had recurring visions of what happened to her and she re-lived them every day. Today, we would probably diagnose her with PTSD. Certainly, it later turned out that my sister was profoundly affected by those events with her mental breakdown as an adult.
From my adult perspective, as a mother myself, I can understand my mother—she was desperate to save my sister, but then sadly witnessed my sister’s breakdown after my sister’s hard-earned college education and some success in her career as a chemist. My mother always wanted my sister to get married, but she never did. I can’t help but think that had a lot to do with her wartime childhood experiences and my mother’s failed marriage to my sister’s father. He was not a good father to her, nor a good husband to my mother.
As a child, having to endure my mother’s stories and her strange behavior alienated me from her. I was trying to have a “normal” American life and here was my Polish refugee mother recalling things that I couldn’t really understand let alone hardly believe in my comfortable world. I thought she was “crazy,” and she would easily admit that. At first, her behavior and her stories frightened me, confused me, and eventually annoyed me. By the time I was teenager, I felt removed from my family as I had not gone through the war, and my mother was quick to point that out, always commenting on how my sister had a hard life compared to my “easy” life. I was grateful to find refuge in my Polish scouting community.
- What about your father? Did he exhibit similar behavior?
My father was wonderful. If it hadn’t been for him, I think I may have ended up mentally not well either. He did talk somewhat about his war experiences, but he grew up in much better circumstances than my mother, who was poor. He had a very positive outlook on life even though he too had his share of misery during the war. He was almost one of those officers murdered at the Katyń massacres. He was almost killed at the Battle of Monte Cassino, another one of those under-reported WWII stories whereby the Poles have not gotten due credit for staving off the Germans. He could not return to his wife and two daughters in Poland after the war, which ended his marriage. He supported my sister and was a good father to her.
- So, your book is really a dual story about WWII and your story growing up with your family’s story.
I started writing the book when my first child was born. It was in the mid-1980’s and Poland was under Marshall Law, with violent strikes against the Communist regime, immense food shortages, and there was an overwhelming lack of understanding in America of what Communism was all about. As a former teacher, I wanted to teach Americans about Communism and what had happened to people in Poland during WWII. I had asked my mother a few times before to write her story, but she had refused, perhaps afraid to re-live those memories. She was in her seventies when she finally agreed, in part because I was then a mother myself and I think she thought I could understand her. So, at first, it was going to be only her WWII story. In between raising my family and working, I finally got a good draft of that part done with my mother’s and father’s help. More family crises ensued so that it would be another ten years before I could get back to the book. Then, I realized that I needed help with the writing and enrolled in the Writing Certificate program at the University of Chicago, where I was convinced that I needed to make it my story as well.
- Did you want to do that? It’s sometimes difficult to write a family memoir when there are so many open wounds.
I really didn’t want to include myself in the book and it took some convincing from my excellent teachers that it had to be that way to be effective. I had to face up to some difficult issues that I had with my mother. By that time, she had died and so had my father, so I felt free to delve into those issues, like how my mother’s parenting affected my own parenting. It became a catharsis for me and I think also for my mother, though she never lived to see the final version of the book.
- Do you think she would approve of the book?
She would not like my part of the story, but I needed to be authentic in telling her story and how it affected me. It does provide a different perspective on the WWII story. By now there have been many books written about the Siberian deportation story, mostly in Polish, but almost none from the perspective of how those war experiences impact the next generation. I think that will become a new area of exploration as those of us in that generation grow older and we strive to preserve that history and its effects on us.
- What does your sister think about the book?
She is happy that her story is out in the world and that I’ve been able to promote it and that it’s gotten good response. I think that she and our mother identified themselves as victims, so the book also became a catharsis for her. She doesn’t know too much about my parts in the book. She read an early draft of the WWII part and commented on it, but now she has poor vision so I’ve read her parts of the final book.
- What would you like readers of your book to take away from it?
Certainly, I would want people to know the history of Poland during those times. Poland’s history is very complicated and too often omitted from history books in America. What is currently happening in Europe, in Poland, and in America is directly related to the history of Poland during those turbulent war years. In particular, there seems to be a return to nationalist and fascist ideals in America and in Europe, even a cry to return to communism in some quarters. People should fully understand what those misguided ideals are and how they erode democracy. My book has plenty of examples of the hypocrisy of communism as lived by my family and by others.
My book is also a study of family dynamics, of the refugee and immigrant experience that is so often in the news today. People in America did not directly experience WWII like people in the rest of the world. When the fighting stops it does not mean that the war stops. Friend and author, Leonard Kniffel says of my book, “this stunning, heartfelt memoir looks unflinchingly at the scars borne by one Polish immigrant family . . . A gripping study of family dynamics, this is also a must-read for World War II history buffs.” His book, A Polish Son in the Motherland, is an interesting exploration of finding family in Poland from an American perspective.
Author and friend, Wesley Adamczyk, also a Polish deportee and son of a father murdered at Katyń, says of my book, it is “an unprecedented saga of a loving mother and her two daughters raised years and oceans apart.” His book, When God Looked the Other Way, is a gripping story from his child self-perspective of what my sister went through.