2019 Kirkus Review Award
My Sister’s Mother by Donna Urbikas has been awarded 2019 Best Indie Biography and Memoir by Kirkus Reviews.
Excellent review by the University of Wisconsin History Professor
“…chapters transcend chronological time, flowing instead between Janina’s and Mira’s experiences in exile and the author’s own self-reflections on motherhood, her sometimes tumultuous upbringing, and what it meant to grow up as a Polish American.”
“…highly detailed, emotionally compelling, and hauntingly human”... it deserves, and is sure to enjoy, a wide readership…”
Phil Potempa Review
October is designated as Polish American Heritage Month, and the Polish-American Cultural Society of NWI is ready to educate and spread awareness.
Chicago author Donna Urbikas is the special guest speaker for a book event at 6 p.m. Oct. 10 at Portage Public Library, 2665 Irving St., hosted by the Polish-American Cultural Society.
Urbikas’ 2016 hardcover book “My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile and Stalin’s Siberia,” which chronicles her family’s history and she describes as “a survivor’s story,” is now being published by University of Wisconsin Press as a paperback.
In the 1950s, baby boomer Donna Solecka Urbikas grew up in the American Midwest, which as she describes, “a yearning for a normal American family.” But during World War II, her Polish-born mother and half-sister had endured hunger, disease, and a desperate escape from slave labor in Siberia. She explains in her book how war and exile created a profound bond between mother and older daughter.
She says it was a bond that she struggled to be part of until she understood the depth of her family’s story, which she shares in the pages of her memoir. The book features her mother and half-sister on the book’s cover.
“I describe this book as a project that took me 30 years to do, even though I had grown up hearing all of the family stories about World War II,” Urbikas said.
“What I’ve discovered in the process is that many people don’t know this side of the story with World War II, which many people think of as a war that began with the fall of Warsaw to Hitler and Germany’s attack. They don’t know that Russia also attacked two weeks later from the east side, which was where my mother and sister were at the time.”
She said her mother’s “crime” was because she was “a land owner,” resulting in her mother and her half-sister, who was only 5 years old, being deported to Siberia by Stalin’s regime to be “free slave labor.” Urbikas said her father was an officer in the Polish army who was also captured and placed in a prison camp.
“It was after Germany attacked Russia, that Russia became the ally and that’s when they had to release all of the prisoners, which is how my mom and dad met up with each other,” Urbikas said.
“Exile and the camps were a horrific experience and my mother never got over it. It was always a part of her. I was born later in England and then we immigrated to America. As an adult, I urged my mom to write about her experience, but she was reluctant. It wasn’t until later, when I became a mother, that my own mother began to open up about her life journey.”
The book event at Portage Public Library is free and will include refreshments, a discussion, books to purchase as well as a signing opportunity and question and answer session.
Irene Tomaszewski Review
Indulging in long, slow reading as the pandemic closed me in, I turned my attention again to “My Sister’s Mother” by Donna Urbikas. This was the book I’ve long wanted to write but did not know how. Some details aside, this is my family’s story.
Urbikas wrote this uniquely Polish experience of Russian aggression, yet it is also a universal story of the singular terror of war: death, captivity, brutality, slavery, suffering, displacement and loss. At the same time, she never loses sight of the courage, determination, flashes of hope and despair, love, and perseverance of her parents.
The author rejected a chronological telling of the story, instead brilliantly weaves the past in and out of the present because the past never leaves us. In this way, she creates a great tapestry with three continents as a vivid background, clearly defines four distinct personalities spanning three generations, with a thread of historical context as needed, the whole infused with psychological insight.
I’ve read a great many wartime memoirs but few of them one could confidently expect children and grandchildren, or a Canadian or American friend with no special interest in this, to find it captivating. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t read like a history but is a story about people, their extraordinary trials that somehow anyone can relate to because it’s about a mother’s powerful, courageous love, a father’s gentle strength, a child’s fear, a post-traumatic breakdown, and a touching love story.
The trauma of war lasts a lifetime, even unto the next generation but decades later, in another country, your realize that your mother’s strength is the foundation of your own strength. I thank Donna Urbikas for this book. I am buying a copy for both my sons and for my niece.
Irene Tomaszewski, Canadian editor, lecturer, author, translator, documentarian
Polish American Journal
My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia
By Donna Solecka Urbikas
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016, 302 pps.
by Mary Lanham
It was the middle of the night when Janina Slarzynska, was startled out of her sleep by shouts and loud bangs on her door. It was 1940 in eastern Poland and the cause of the disturbance was the Soviet secret police. With her young daughter, Mira by her side, the NKVD declared that she was under arrested for crimes against the state. Her punishment was hard labor. Janina protested profusely but in vain. She and her daughter were packed on a train destined for Siberia far away from her small farm, from her home. Janina and Mira were hardly the only ones; hundreds of thousands of Poles were forcibly removed from the only lives they ever knew to a life of starvation, disease, mental anguish, and commonly death. Donna Solecka Urbikas examines her family’s past, focusing on Janina, her mother, and the horrendous effect of war in her poignant and empowering memoir.
Urbikas skillfully intertwines her own life story growing up in America in the 1950s and her experiences as a mother with her own mother’s story. She analyzes the complicated relationship that she had with her mother and her sister as a result of their experiences in the labor camps. In the excerpt below she describes how her traumatic past influenced the way she interacted with the world.
“My mother’s lifelong preoccupation with obtaining the basic necessities in life led her to focus on that rather than on relationships, or so it seemed to me as I was growing up…She did not know how to accept a present or how to give one. ‘No one ever gave me presents,’ she said of her childhood. ‘I could never give Mira anything,’ she would lament.”
In 1943 with the help of a Polish Army officer, whom Janina later marries, she and Mira managed to escape the camps eventually making their way to the United States by way of India and England where Donna was born before settling in the Midwest. In America they were able to achieve their dream of owning and running their own farm. In the past year, My Sister’s Mother: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Stalin’s Siberia by Donna Solecka Urbikas has been recognized as a Foreword Indies Finalist and a Midwest Book Award Finalist. After reading My Sister’s Mother, it is obvious why it has garnered such attention. Urbikas is crafted a refreshingly honest text about the effects that war has on its survivors, and inevitably their children. Her writing and the tale she relays is compelling and will impart itself on your psyche.
About the author. Donna Solecka Urbikas was born in England and raised in the Midwest. She
has an MS in environmental engineering and has been a high school science teacher and an environmental engineer and is now a realtor and writer. She and her husband reside in Chicago.
Awarded Best Book
My Sister’s Mother by Donna Urbikas has been awarded Best Book by the American Association of School Librarians and by the Public Library Reviewers.
Polish American Historical Association’s Journal Review
(An academic journal focusing on Polish history and culture with reviews by distinguished scholars and historians.)
“Urbikas seeks to shed light on unknown Soviet atrocities… At its core, however, lies an ‘intertwining tale of a mother who saves her child’ and ‘a child who saves her mother.’ …Urbikas’ voice becomes the counterpoint to the voices of Janina and Mira… for an ambitious and dense narrative. …unabashed and, at times, self-disclosures [which] amplify the impact on critical developmental milestones of the life cycle… Urbikas’ endurance in empathetic realization allows that ‘my mother’s ordeals did that of my children.”
Midland Authors Review
Donna Urbikas has been selected as a finalist with the Society of Midland Authors.
“My Sister’s Mother” by Donna Urbikas won third place, a bronze award in the category of Memoir/Biography.
Donna Urbikas is finalist for the 2016 Chicago Writers Association Book Awards in the category of Traditionally Published Non-Fiction