Memories of a Great Woman
Last week, my grandmother Joanna passed away in Warsaw. When I was 8, she moved to the U.S. to take care of my sister and me, and came back fairly frequently until about a year ago. She fought a battle with cancer for about 8 months, and luckily I got to see her twice over the last year. I was in Warsaw in September for a wedding, where I spent a couple of days with her, during which she told me a number of stories from her youth. Born in 1934, she was a young girl during World War II, but retained vivid memories of a number of events. Based on my memory, I’ll do my best to preserve them for future generations below:
Her family lived on a farm about 150 km outside of Warsaw, where she was born. I had visited the town once when I was about 10, and all I remember is playing with their cows and chasing after their chickens. Rolling green hills, a house that has been on the property for centuries, and a simple but comfortable life. My grandmother had 3 brothers, two older, and one younger, the oldest of whom was in the Armia Krajowa (AK), which was the Polish Home Army that created ongoing resistance against the Nazis after the occupation. My grandmother’s house was along a road leading to a forest that served as a convenient location to smuggle fugitive AK soldiers into hiding in the forest. On numerous times, her father would house AK soldiers that were wanted by the Nazis, feed them, and help them continue in hiding in the forest. The SS drove to their house on a number of occasions, and questioned them as to the location of the AK fugitives, yet the family stayed quiet.
One morning, the SS arrived and searched the entire house – ripping through furniture, books, and beds. They then took my grandmother’s oldest brother, who they suspected might be in the AK, and rounded him up along with all of the other men of fighting age in the village. They were tied up in front of a church, and each one was beaten and questioned by the SS. Later in the day, they were all escorted into a field, where they were told to dig a ditch. Afterward, they were all thrown into the ditch, and shot, including my grandmother’s brother. As soon as the SS left, the villagers came to the ditch to see if any of their sons had survived. A number of Nazis saw this, fired shots in the air, and guarded the ditch until the mass grave could be filled in with dirt. My grandmother saw all of this happen as a child.
As the war continued, various injured AK soldiers would find themselves nursed to health by my grandmother’s family. Food shortages were always a problem, since no animals could be slaughtered without permission from the Nazis, and overall, the whole country was starving.
In 1944, when the Russians were progressing through Poland, my grandmother was sitting outside her house with her father and a Nazis officer. Mortar shells could be heard exploding in the near distance, and Germans were retreating through the town. My grandmother’s father turned to the Nazi officer, smiled and said, “Hitler kaput.” At that point, the German pulled out his pistol, whipped my grandmother’s father with it, and held it to his temple. My grandmother ran up to the German, and tugging on his leg and arm started crying “nein, nein…” The German lowered his gun, and eventually retreated with the rest of the Germans.
A few days later, before the Russians had made it to the village, the family found an unexpected guest in their barn. In the hay, lay a young wounded Nazi soldier. He pleaded with my grandmother’s family to not be handed over to the Russians because they would surely execute him. He was young, and spoke some Polish, and my grandmother’s family did not have the heart to turn him in. Instead, they nursed him back to health over the next 6 months, and obtained a Polish passport and other paperwork, and told Russians that he was a cousin from a far off village. He told my grandmother stories of his parents, and the girl he was planning to marry back in Germany. After he was well again, they helped arrange for him to be smuggled out of the country. For the next 10 years or so, he sent packages of thanks every Christmas, along with pictures of his new wife and children.
What always struck me the most about my grandmother was the ridiculous amount of joy and energy she had. Even under Communism, she traveled as much as she could, visiting almost the entire Eastern Block. She kept a spotlessly clean house, cooked phenomenal Polish food, and wanted nothing but the best for my sister and me. She was always one of my favorite people to be around, and I’m not just saying that because she passed away. She had a brutal, yet comic, honesty that I admired, and was always ready for a few laughs. She was a good person, and I learned this month that real good people are hard to find. The day before she died, she returned from the hospital with test results that shocked nurses that she was still alive, yet was able to fly up 3 flights of winding stares faster than some people in their 20s could. She then died peacefully in her sleep.
The last month has been one of the worst of my life, for a number of reasons. However, my grandmother’s passing has reminded me that no matter how shitty things get, keeping your head up, a smile on your face, and legs full of energy can get you through anything. The longest October ever is finally over, and I can’t wait to see what November holds.