September 1, 1939: Seventy-five years ago today, when my grandparents were twelve years old, Adolf Hitler invaded their country.
My grandparents lived in a village near Lwow in the eastern part of Poland. Dziadziu (my grandpa) had been in love with Babcia (my grandma) since kindergarden, and, according to stories from my mother, his preferred courting technique was throwing rocks and frogs at her. This method of romance somehow worked, obviously, but I digress. The Nazi invasion rudely interrupted their childhoods.
Dziadziu was too young join the army, but by the time when he was 15, German soldiers began forcing him to help them with odd jobs like unloading Nazi train wagons.
Much of the violence inflicted on the Poles in the eastern part of the country was actually imposed by militant Ukranian nationalists with the support of the Nazis. One of Babcia’s sisters had a mother-in-law who was killed by the massacres imposed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists when they burned down her house. She was not the only one. An estimated 70,000 Polish women, children and unarmed men were killed in an ethnic cleansing campaign in 1943 led by Ukrainian Stepan Bandera.
After the war, Poland’s borders were redrawn and my grandparents’ families were forced to leave their home. They left almost everything they owned in their village, stuffed their livestock into train wagons, and actually sat on top of the trains into their uncertain futures. My great-grandfather packed up his belongings into his own wagon. I’ve never met him, but I can’t help but picture him as Tevye singing “Anatevka” at Fiddler on the Roof’s end, pulling a wagon filled with a pot, a pan, a hat, a broom. They had no idea where they were going; authorities dictated where they would stop.
My grandparents’ families stuck together, and they were kicked off the train at a town called Olesno in Silesia, the western part of Poland that was occupied by Germany only a few months before. Ethnic Germans had heard horror stories of incoming Soviet soldiers, killing men and raping women, and most had run away from the area before my grandparents arrived. So, Polish women arriving from Lwow camped out in ditches as men scoured the area for abandoned homes.
Babcia first lived in a nice brick house, but as it happens, the German family who had run away later returned and reclaimed their house. That’s how my grandparents’ families ended up living together with a few other elderly couples in a large house on the border a tiny village called Lasowice Wielkie. My grandparents married in November 1948 and continued to live in the meadow house. This is also where my mother was born in the 1960s, and where she lived for the first twenty-some years of her life.
Since I’ve come to grad school, I’ve been asked “where are you from?” almost as many times as “Wait–did you say your name is Tasha?” The question always gives me pause. I’ve lived in many towns and cities, but one of the two places with any consistency in my life is this house in Lasowice Wielkie (the other is my Hungarian grandparents’ home in Izsak–more on this in another post, I’m sure). It’s strange to think that this place that signifies stability in my life also signifies uncertainty and usurping for the generation just before my mother’s.
I come from a family of displaced peoples, people who became refugees in their own land, products of violence from ethnic tension that has dominated Eastern Europe for the better part of known history. If you’ve been paying attention to the news beyond U.S. borders, you may have noticed that echoes of history are becoming louder and louder. If you haven’t heard, it’s time to start listening.