Witold. Izabela. Natalia. Dominika. My father, mother, sister and me.
When my sister and I were little, we realized our initials spelled wind in age order and ever since, it’s just been our family thing. But we’ll get there… for now let’s rewind to Poland circa mid 1900’s, where my family (as I know it) really began.
The stories of my family, and specifically the journeys of my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents throughout WWII and Communist and Socialist Europe, are stories I have heard and listened in awe to since I was a little girl, and they deserve to be shared. Like every family, we have our issues and misunderstandings (I mean, which family doesn’t?), but the amount of heart and passion within my relatives and ancestors is something truly remarkable and special – that overrides any modern day drama – and something that fills me with pride and honor to be a part of.
My grandfather, Chet, and Oscar, my grandparents dachshund.
My father’s father, Chet, was born in the mid 1920’s in southern Poland. His mother was a single mom with six children so they were of the lower class. Chet’s childhood dream was to become a pilot and that wish came true when he was accepted into an aviation high school. On September 1, 1939, he was just fifteen years old. He was riding his bike on the first day of school (Polish schools historically start the year on September 1st, and colleges start October 1st) when bombs began falling from German airplanes.
War had begun. He immediately had to return back home and his dream was over.
In 1942, when he was eighteen years old, he opened a small diner in order to help his mother and younger siblings out. Many German officers and soldiers were coming to eat breakfast and lunch at this very diner. One day, there was “Lapanka” (a roundup in English) in the street and his brother, Jozef, who was two years younger got caught in the roundup. Someone came into the diner and told Chet what had happened. He noticed two S.S. Officers in the diner were having a meal so he quickly approached them with free vodka and asked them for help to get his brother back. The officers left in a hurry in their car and came back not too long after bringing Jozef back with them.
He was saved.
At some point later on in the war, Chet also found himself in trouble.
He was forced to build the sewer system inside of the second largest concentration camp named Majdanek in Lublin, Poland. This was obviously an incredibly scary time for such a young man. He witnessed horror and violence daily in the camp and was supervised at all times by S.S. guards. One day, the guard didn’t like the way Chet was working so he beat him badly with a whip. He suffered greatly, but fortunately, was able to continue working throughout the day to avoid further punishment.
After a few weeks of slave labor, the sewer system was completed and he was let go. Few were so lucky.
In 1944, Chet joined the Polish army and became a personal driver for the colonel until the end of the war. After the war, he returned with his unit to his hometown and he was dismissed in 1946. He went on to finish high school in an accelerated program and he passed the exams which allowed him to continue his education and apply to college. He entered the Polytechnic school in 1947 and became a mechanical engineer in 1953. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis which eventually was the cause of his death the year I was born in 1997.
After completing his studies and upon receiving his engineering diploma, he was sent for his first assignment by the Polish Communist Party (which ruled Poland at the time), to a different part of southern Poland. In a Communist government, this is a part of payment for receiving higher education.
He specialized in hydraulics and high pressure systems so he was involved in repairing and improving the famous Polish beer Brewery in Zywiec. In the spring of 1953, he met Barbara, my grandmother, who was just 22 years old at the time.
My grandmother, Barbara – early 1950’s.
My father’s mother, Barbara, was born in the early 1930’s in the south of Poland. She lived an extraordinary life of always following her heart and always staying kind. She denied marriage to another fellow after meeting my grandfather, Chet, in the bank where she worked. Chet asked her out the first time he laid eyes on her. They got married in 1954, and right after, he began working in the ministry in Warsaw while Barbara was pregnant with their first child, my aunt Margaret, who was born in 1955. My father was born in the early 60’s.
Their wedding day – 1954.
Barbara always described him in this simple sentence, “Everything he touched turned to gold.”
He was incredibly creative and talented in more ways than one – he built a vacation house for her from the ground up (this is where I spent most of my summers as a child), he was an incredible painter and sculptor, he even made and sewed dresses for his daughter from scratch since they couldn’t afford much, and he acted in many different community theater plays in Warsaw after the war.
The street in ‘Old City Warsaw’ where my father was born and raised. My aunt and her husband still live in that very same apartment – it’s one of my family’s most cherished places to be due to its history and the beauty of the Old City.
Chet was recognized by the Polish Communist Party as a gifted and dedicated engineer and citizen so he was asked to join the PZPR Communist party over and over again – he refused every time due to his religious and ideological differences which he did not want to compromise.
My father, who I will introduce later in the story, accredits this being the main reason why their family was so poor. Chet never used his Veteran status or higher education to enhance his personal life. He would never compromise his faith or principals in order to be better off in society.
Since my grandfather died the year I was born and I never got to meet him, my grandma, Barbara, spent a lot of time with us in America during the school year, and I spent many summers in Poland with her and my whole family on both sides. Growing up, she lived with us some months of the year and raised me. My happiest childhood memories are always of her and us together.
We had an incredibly special bond – she always said she lost the love of her life and gained the new love of her life in the same year. She had the most gentle spirit and way of making people feel loved, cared for and special even though she really was the warrior. She survived WWII, socialism and communism, multiple cancers, diabetes, and battled Alzheimers for over a decade until she passed away in 2019.
She is single handedly the person who has influenced me and my life the most, and I think of her and miss her every single day.
My grandma, Barbara, and her father, Frank, in 1937.
Barbara’s father (my great grandfather), Frank, was called to serve the country in the middle of August in 1939 in the south of Poland where they were from. Poland mobilized all men (typically 40-42 years old) to defend the country due to the signs of the upcoming war with Germany. He was a husband and a father of three children – a son named Mieczyslaw, a daughter named Barbara (my grandmother) and another daughter named Irena. Frank left his home and family in the middle of August and completely disappeared until June of 1945. There were no letters or any form of communication or information about his whereabouts for six years.
Fortunately, he came back home after a two day voyage on a train from Italy with a backpack and a box of oranges for his kids. For the first three months after his return from the war, his children, especially his girls, were afraid and shy to go to their father with any questions or concerns. The mother had to practically force them to engage back with their father especially in regards to getting permission to go out of the house.
My grandfather, Todd – 1960’s.
My mother’s father, Todd, was born in the mid 1930’s and died in his early 40’s after suffering a fatal stroke due to alcoholism. My mother was only 15 years old, and my aunt was only seven years old, when they lost him. Of course, I have never met him, but from all the stories I hear, he is very much alive in everyone’s hearts. He spent his entire young life in the farm village with his family creating a legacy of his own.
My grandmother, Ula – 1960’s.
My mother’s mother, Ula, is my last surviving grandparent. She was from the same farm village, about 45 minutes from the city of Warsaw, as my grandfather Todd. Our family has been known in this village since the early 1800’s. She is and will always be the queen and matriarch of our family. She is a woman of tradition, faith and family. To her, everyone else comes first and she constantly takes care of everyone around her. Her humor and wit is as sharp as a knife – she has the funniest one liners you will ever hear. It’s amazing how she doesn’t give a damn, yet she is one of the most caring and sensitive people on the planet.
Their wedding day.
Considering their age difference, Todd and Ula have a unique yet beautiful love story. They met when she was only eight years old and he was already an adult. By the time she was 18 years old, she was pregnant with my mother.
They inherited a bakery from her grandparents and together, they opened their own business in the 60’s and it was the talk of the town. Every time I go back to visit, I hear endless stories around the village about the bakery and my grandparents.
She was only in her thirties when he passed away, and she never remarried or even dated again. Just the mention of him or the sight of him in a photograph, and she wells up with tears.
Before WWII – Ula’s father – my great grandfather, Frank.
Growing up, Ula’s family was very wealthy, so sadly, they were prosecuted during WWII by German fascists and Russian Bolsheviks, and after the war too, by socialists. All family business, property, and any signs of riches were confiscated by socialists. The prosecution of our family, our homes, our lives continued until Poland became independent again in 1989.
Frank’s father (my great-great grandfather) was incredibly well off. He and his wife made money by trading, investing, and opening different food related businesses – they had the first mechanical mill in that area of Poland, which is now converted to a museum dedicated to my family. They also operated a bakery, grocery store, restaurant and soda production company. They employed many people and lived in a beautiful, comfortable home. Every time Poland was invaded (WWI, Bolshevik War in 1920 and WWII) the foreign forces always occupied their home for the officer command.
My family also hosted many people from Warsaw who escaped the bombardments during WWII and were moving through the area. They hosted the elderly, crippled, and parents with young children and these people remained connected to our family well into the 1990’s.
They had three children: Henry, Frank (my great grandfather), and Henya. When WWII broke out, Frank and Henya were teenagers and Henry was about 22. All three children joined the underground army to fight for an independent Poland. They were all targeted by Nazis and Bolsheviks and even other Poles who were on the Russians side. Their parents continued with the businesses but everything was disrupted and greatly affected. Their house was often taken by Germans or Russians moving through the area, while the children were often in unknown locations.
Henry married in around 1940 and in 1943, Frank married my great grandmother. Henya was single, but engaged to another underground fighter. Henry was an officer, Henya was a carrier, transporting disguised newspapers and fake passports and IDs. Frank was an entry level fighter-private, he would say himself he was the “least courageous amongst his siblings”.
In 1943, Henry was killed by Bolsheviks when he visited his wife at home – she was expecting their second child. They assassinated him in cold blood in front of her and they even walked in boots on his fallen body to confirm he was killed. He was buried in the cemetery in our family grave in the village. His wife and two sons survived the war.
Henya was captured and arrested by Nazis when she was walking with a bag of fake IDs. The Nazis kept her in notorious places of torture in Warsaw that are famous for cruelty and murders. She was tortured for a few weeks before being killed with a gunshot to her head in a place called Pawiak in Warsaw. On that day, they lined the prisoners up and every tenth person was asked to step up and all were shot. She was only 21 years old. One woman who witnessed her murder came to our family’s home to notify them. Henya’s body was never found or returned to the family, but she has a tombstone in the same family grave to honor her life and selfless, brave spirit.
Frank survived WWII but was sent to gulags in Russia for forced labor for two years. He miraculously survived, but was unbelievably malnourished. He weighed about 75 pounds and his health was ruined. At this time, my grandma Ula was already born and then they had two more children.
My great grandfather, Frank, and my grandma, Ula, as a young girl.
For those that survived, family possessions and businesses were confiscated by socialists who took over Poland after the war. Our family was ostricized and prohibited from opening or owning businesses, purchasing certain items, etc. Frank and his family survived by farming some land they owned and opening the mill again. Those were some of the only businesses allowed under socialist government.
My great great grandparents lived into early 1970, but they were never the same after losing two children in a brutal way and losing their livelihood. In fact, my great great grandma was known in the area for her intense prayer, hardly speaking to anyone, and always wearing black. The shock and excruciating emotional pain never left her.
My mother in her teen years (in the middle) with her sister and cousin.
My mom, Izabela, was born in Poland in the early 1960’s. She grew up in the same village as in all the stories of her family above. Right next door to her house was her grandparents’ mill and her parents’ bakery. She attended Warsaw University and left Poland after college due to her family being prosecuted and the lack of opportunities for the youth in the country due to the socialist government. She immigrated to Brooklyn and settled in New York City in the 80’s where she attended NYU for her masters in Biology. My mom was and always will be a trailblazer. She is incredibly brilliant, yet always remembers where she comes from. If it weren’t for her strong faith and believing in the American Dream, I’m sure life for our family would look very different. I am forever grateful for her hard work, sacrifice and constant support.
My father – 1980’s.
My dad, Witold (pronounced V-told), was also born in Poland in the early 1960’s. My father was born and raised in the beautiful old city part of Warsaw. He came to New York City on vacation and met my mother through mutual friends and that was it. They immediately became inseparable and shortly after, he too immigrated from Warsaw to New York to be with my mom and start a family. He attended Pratt University for Graphic Design and has worked for various companies and well known brands since. My father is the biggest character you will ever meet – he is funny and a total trouble maker, but he is an unbelievable man, and one of my very best friends who has consistently put us girls first. He constantly wants to be evolving, growing and become better which is something I have always admired.
My parents – early 1990’s.
My parents lived in New York in the 90’s where they welcomed my sister, and right before I was born they settled in Ridgefield, Connecticut where my sister and I were raised. My sister and I have been incredibly lucky to become Dual citizens of both the United States and Poland, learn the Polish language, and travel to over two dozen countries. My parents never lacked giving us incredible experiences all over the world and teaching us the value of travel, education, history and the arts.
My parents with my sister, Natalia, in the mid 90’s.
My sister, Natalia, came into the world beating to her own drum in Brooklyn, NY in 1991. When Natalia is happy, everyone is happy. It’s just the way it is. And, no one is better dressed than Natalia. Ever. She takes after my mother and my mother’s side in many ways. They are both sensitive, dynamic and nothing is ever surface level – which I’ve always loved and looked up to. But then again, since she is seven years older and the only sibling I have, I’ve looked up to her for many reasons my entire life.
Natalia on set of a film.
Natalia on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Natalia and I grew up with different personalities and hobbies, which personally, I have always liked since it means we are always learning from each other. Since a young age, she was always into the worlds of fashion, beauty, photography, film and dance, while I take more after my dad’s side and prefer a slower, more natural life by the water, hanging out with the boys, cooking and sports. However, our core values are the same which we clearly inherited through our family and traditions.
Me and my sister, 1997.
Natalia wears many hats professionally and she really is ridiculously good at all of them. She attended the American University of Rome in Rome, Italy and is currently working at the Prospector Theater in Connecticut along with different art galleries, freelance photography, film, acting, styling and graphic design. She’s incredibly creative and talented, and I don’t know what I would ever do without her.
Natalia in Poland – 2017.
Growing up, my sister and I were unfortunately used to being made fun of for being different due to our names, our looks, our parents’ accents, etc. We were used to hearing terrible Holocaust, WWII, and Polak “jokes” in school and at social events. To be honest, we still do. And it’s cruel and wrong just like targeting any group of people is. However, I can’t say it really ever bothered us much because we know our country and our family and none of that ignorance really matters.
We know the souls of the people, the amazing culture we share, the dedication to traditions, and we have a great sense of both pride and humility for Poland and all its people.
I will always be incredibly proud of where I come from, proud of my ancestors’ lives that were unnecessarily and tragically taken, and proud of the survivors of my family that even made me and my sisters lives a possibility.
There is an incredible amount of hope and gratitude that lives within people that come from an origin not “meant” to survive.
It’s like the wind, you can’t see it, but you can always feel it.
Me on my family’s farm – Poland 2017.