Poland Remembered … and my Father

By Stu Whitley

there’s a fading, sepia photograph of me, shipboard, clutching my mother’s hand

immigrants to a new life, worlds separated by an ocean from all that was then known

taking seven days to cross. now holding the photograph close, it’s not easy

to discern what I was thinking, for my expression – fast frozen these many years

tells nothing of the wonder, edged with fear that I surely then must have felt,

for all that was familiar, precious and true to me was about to be surrendered

in exchange for promises of fresh beginnings at journey’s end. I arrived, dislocated

in a new life of fearsome opportunity, where anything was possible

some time ago, not long, it seems, though no photograph records it
I stood firmly clutching the hand of what I believed to be certain
yet all that seems sure rarely is, for we cannot know with perfect clarity
all that lies mysteriously beyond the oceans we choose to cross
it’s only now I realize the full extent to which it can happen,
that I can be an immigrant once more in a dislocating new world;

a world that has journeyed to me, and anything becomes possible again

father was born a Pole. I have no recollection of what point in my life
I realized this, but for all my adult years, this simple fact had no
significance for me. After all, the name ‘Whitley’ is a British one,
and I was born, as were my brothers, in Glamorgan County, Wales.
Sometime after our emigration to Canada, I recall my fleeting interest
as a young teenager when my father showed us official-looking documents
advising a name change in consequence of his activities with the ZWZ
(the union for armed struggle, the Polish Resistance) against Stalin’s
occupation of eastern Poland. The Russians were demanding repatriation
of all Poles who had been engaged in the war, but it was an open secret
that all those turned over to them were immediately deported to the
Siberian gulags. Until liberation in 1989, my father would never
consider returning for a visit. Now on his third trip at age 82, he was
determined to have my brother and I accompany him so that we might have
some sense of our roots on a side of our family hitherto closed to us.

is a function of aging, I think, that we feel it important that
subsequent generations understand the realities that have forged our
view of the world. We have ample evidence of George Santayana’s famous
observation that a failure to appreciate the lessons of history dooms
the future to repeat them. The German philosopher of history Georg
Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel doubted our capacity to find out. “Peoples and
governments,” he wrote, “never have learned anything from history or
acted on principles deduced from it.”  But we have to try, for history
defines who we are.

The visitor’s eye sees the world
differently than an indigenous view. The mind’s eye recalls things more
different still, for what is retained in the memory’s repository is at
best an uncertain thing. Reflecting on my visit to Poland, I find that
the graveyards linger in my recollections. What arrests the eye about
these places in Poland is their exuberant life: these are not the
dolorous places we know in North America.

First, there are the
flowers. Not a grave is overlooked: each has its overwhelming abundance
of fresh-cut flowers and votive candle holders. Military graves – and
sadly for Poland, there are a lot of them – are adorned with a sleeve
of red and white, the heraldic colours of Poland. People are busy
attending to graves, carrying away wilting blossoms, sweeping, or
sitting quietly in contemplation. On one occasion, I saw a group of men
seated around a tomb, eating and engaging with each other in the
presence of the departed as if he was present in the temporal sense.
Later, I was told that this was a custom of the Roma.

To be continued next week…

© 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.

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