Another “Sybiraczka” (survivor of Stalin’s WWII Siberian labor camps) has passed into heaven, my sister, Mira Zimmerman on April 14, 2019.
She joins our mother, Janina Ślarzyńska Zimmerman Solecka. Mira was 5 years old when deported to Siberia along with our mother. They survived that horrific upheaval and came to England after the war, where I was born. Mira was my “Big” sister, my surrogate mother, my loving friend, my protector. I will miss her greatly, but I am happy she has peace now. She suffered enough in life.
On behalf of my deceased sister, I accepted the Siberian Exiles Cross in September, 2019 on the 80th anniversary of Germany’s and Soviet Russia’s attack on Poland in 1939. The cross is the government of Poland’s recognition of her WWII Siberian ordeals, which was presented to me by the General Consul of Poland in Chicago, Piotr Janicki.
Author Wesley Adamczyk’s Polish language book, Kwiaty Polskie na Wygnaniu, Rebis, Poland, 2015 (Polish “Flowers,” referring to children, in Deportation) is a beautiful collection of children’s drawings, poems, letters and remembrances of their homeland, Poland, right after their escape from the Soviet Union’s slave labor camps and the Gulag from 1941/1942 and beyond. These sickly, malnourished, orphaned children ranging from ages 5 or 6 and upward—younger ones mostly died during their imprisonment and escape—could think only of the warmth and freedom of their family life in their beloved Poland. It was a freedom harshly disrupted by the Soviets when hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported from Poland starting in 1940, like my mother and sister. It wasn’t only the German Nazis who invaded Poland. These children’s identity was clearly with Poland. Adamczyk himself was one of those children who later lost his mother to illness in Tehran and his army officer father to a Soviet bullet in the Katyn Massacres in 1940, when nearly 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered by the Soviets. He wrote about all that in his acclaimed book, When God Looked the Other Way, University of Chicago Press, 2004.
World War II left hundreds of thousands of Poles scattered across the world, from Kazakhstan to Iran, to India and Africa, South America, Mexico, Canada, America as well as England, Scotland, Belgium, France and more. That is why today there are over 22 million Poles living outside of Poland, with nearly half of those in the United States. I was born in England when my parents feared returning to Communist Poland after World War II, when returning army officers such as my father went missing and were never heard from again, while the land that my mother owned was no longer part of Poland with the shifting borders established by all but the Polish government-in-exile, in London. It was the result of Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s acquiescence to Stalin to end the war, and Poland unfortunately became the spoils.
This begs the question, how do we Poles identify? What is “home” for us? It’s a question that can be asked of any immigrant to America. Up to the time I went to college if anyone asked me what my nationality was, I would answer Polish, without any thought. I grew up in the Polish Roman Catholic community of Chicago in the 1950’s and 60’s while attending American schools. Polish was my first language and I was only allowed to speak Polish at home where my parents were fiercely patriotic to the Poland they hoped would re-emerge—the Poland in which they grew up during the short-lived years of its freedom between the world wars. They were also fiercely patriotic to America for giving them refuge and later they became US citizens. Our generation of Poles considered ourselves as political refugees and there was constant talk about someday returning to a free and independent Poland. The next major political wave of immigrants came in the early and mid 1980’s during the Solidarity years, if people could get out of Communist Poland, then under martial law. That freedom came to too late for our family and for many others with the fall Communism in 1989/90.
Thus, we assimilated, adapted, married outside our Polish community, and raised our children as “American.” Yet for any immigrant, no matter how long ago our ancestors came to America, there continues to be this nagging tug to the home of our ancestors. Genealogical research and studies have gained huge momentum with accessible DNA identity profiles, expanding and reliable databases, the popularity of television shows tracing ancestry, and the growing questions emerging from curious young minds like, “so what happened to grandma and grandpa?”
We ultimately return to our roots, like a mystery we sometimes desperately need to unfold. In Poland there is growing interest in the World War II era generation and what has happened to the Polish diaspora worldwide and especially in North America. A recent conference in Krakow on Polish Studies in collaboration with the Polish American Historical Association had sessions on topics such as The Chicago Polonia, Immigrant Social Identities, Trauma as Collective Memory. Another one coming up in September at the Museum of Emigration in Gdynia focuses on the Polish diaspora in North America, where I will be giving a paper on the topic of this very article. In conjunction with my book, I have been asked by libraries to give my popular talk, “Poland in Chicago: Chicago in Poland.” There seems to be this continuing and growing interest in our past, how we got here, where we see things going.