My grandma left Poland in 1905,
when she was fifteen, before both the wars–
train from Ostrowy to Lodz to Gdansk,
ship to New York, to Cleveland, Ohio.
German and Polish and Russian she spoke.
She knew baking and sewing and gardening.
She never saw Mutter und Vater again.
Five sisters came later: Anna, Helena,
Paula, Wanda, Ottilie. One brother:
Herman. She never saw three boys again:
Rudolph and August and Hans. Two babies died
earlier: Edward and Waldemar. Frieda
was a baby when grandma left home. She
never saw Frieda again.
In the second war when Germans came killing
the Poles, my family with German roots tried
to be German again. Uncle Rudolph
joined the Party. When Russians came to kill
Germans, they shot Rudolph, in Ostrowy,
in front of his house. It was winter. Hans
and August pulled sleighs to Germany with
their wives and little children riding and
the Russians close behind. They ate frozen
potatoes and snow.
But Frieda had married
a Polish man, Tonek. They stayed in Poland
through all of that war. Wanda said Germans
forced their divorce. Their three little children:
Marysia, Eugenia, Henryki died
during that war. Sons Edek and Eugene
were born when it ended. My kuzyn Edek
says his parents did not divorce. Wanda
was wrong. That never happened, he says.
In Ostrowy where my babcia was born
I stood by the brown plastered tenement house
where Nazi Onkel Rudolph died, where the
sunlight slants down the long upstairs hallway.
I have touched a bannister touched by great-
grandmother’s hands. It is gouged, dented, scored,
ugly, and painted with thick brown paint.
Behind the tenement I saw sod-roofed
root cellars with broken blue and yellow
doors. I saw lawns where my babcia tended
geese. I heard black-feathered kawki calling
from chimneys and smelled the coal fires warming
those houses. Ostrowy is quiet and old.
I saw the red roses climbing the walls and
gardens of cabbages, leeks, beets and
orange flowers that I do not know.
Beyond the gardens, the forest where babcia
picked mushrooms and flowers for her matka.
Once, for the first time, I walked down the street
my babcia walked down, once, for the last time.
I have walked in Warsaw where everything is new.
With my family I have walked those streets in the rain.
I have seen that city from the Russian tower,
I have listened to Chopin in the rose-filled park.
I sat at three tables with my family who stayed–
Frieda’s family who lived through two wars, my rodzina
who have lived in a one bedroom flat and waited
in line for bread. With them–Edek and Celinka,
Gosia, Dariusz, Dominik, Jarek, Ewa
small Zusanna and Bartek–I ate wild mushrooms
and blueberry pierogi and kapuśniak śmietana.
We drank from little frosted glasses: wodka and
Jarek’s soul-cleaning mix that does just that, I think.
Gosia and I believe that people are crazy.
Edek and I believe we are lucky to be alive.