Today is babcia’s, my grandmother’s, birthday. She would have been 95 years old. And therefore what better day to start chronicling my research into her life.
To be completely honest I’ve been researching her life for a decade now, in between an undergraduate degree, postgraduate degrees, work and life in general. And it’s a never-ending story. There’s always something new, something fascinating and intriguing even in documents and photographs I’ve pored over meticulously a thousand times.
Growing up there were two things I was aware of regarding my maternal grandparents. One, they were Polish, and the other, that at some point in their lives they lived in Tanzania, the country my mother was born in. However, I never questioned how they got from Poland to East Africa and why they ended up in a small English village twenty minutes drive from Stratford-Upon-Avon. You could put it down to disinterest or that these were just family facts passed down and absorbed in a matter-of-factly sort of way. However, sometimes they were elaborated on with other words I didn’t understand: gulags, Siberia and a quartet of letters that I now can’t say except in Polish, NKVD.
My interest and intrigue ebbed and flowed, and in reality the only source of information was my mother and she knew very little. Then one night when I was in my second year at university I was sat at my computer and googled ‘Polish refugees’, like I’d often done, and as usual pages came up of the tragedy that befell the Jewish population of Poland. But my grandmother was Catholic and the aggressors had been the Soviet Union not Nazi Germany. Several search result pages in I stumbled across a Polish Red Cross document from 1943 listing Polish refugees in Tehran, Iran who were to be transported to refugee camps in East Africa. And there was her name, along with her father’s and several of her sisters! But it threw up more questions than answers. What was she doing in Iran? Where was her mother? Where were her other siblings?
It was soon after that that I discovered my grandmother’s notebooks. My mother had always assumed that they had contained poems and songs in Polish which my grandmother had collected and written down. They did. But in amongst them were passages she had written herself about her experiences, from the day she was deported to Siberia in 1940 to how she spent Christmas in Lusaka in 1944, little fragments of my grandmother’s life in her own words.
I was lucky enough to have met and spent time with dziadzia, my grandfather. My grandmother however passed away before I was born. And so this has been, and is, my way of getting to know and becoming closer to Kasia, a magnificent woman I never had the chance to meet.