World War II, a Novel, and an Old Journal

 

Cover WIW cover for publicity

The Niwiska Klub Records and War and Resistance in the Wilderness, a historical novel set in Niwiska,

“What’s this dusty old book on the shelf of your closet? Dan Corning said as he brought the book to his 95-year old mother-in-law. “What’s ‘The Niwiska Klub’?” Loretta Frye broke into a huge smile as she paged through her parents’ old book with its handwritten title. She then told Dan of how her parents and other Polish immigrants had organized the group to help out their home parish of St. Nicholas in Niwiska, Poland as WWII was on the horizon. “The Niwiska Klub” recorded the groups’ meeting notes, the tragic news about Niwiska, their fund-raising activities, and charitable donations from 1939- 1969 of the Chicagoans who came from this parish. Dan quickly realized this almost forgotten book written in Polish by hand was the only one of its kind in existence.

The immigrants in Chicago knew of the dreadful situation facing their loved ones back in Niwiska, a small village in southeast Poland, by reading the Polish newspapers and the few letters that managed to get past the Germans and Russians during the decades of occupation. Although Poland had signed an agreement with England and France who promised to come to Poland’s defense if Hitler invaded, the savvy Poles of pre-WWII Chicago knew that Poland would be on its own if the threatened invasion occurred. In 1939, Poland had been a free country for only twenty years and wasn’t equipped to defend itself.

back of vestment

Vestment sent to Niwiska from the author’s Polish grandparents after WWII. The Germans stole all the church’s belongings. It was shown to her when she visited in 2018.

What Dan and Loretta didn’t know was this precious book would soon be hand-carried to Poland through the efforts of historians and genealogists who were total strangers to them. The one thing everyone had in common was my newly released book about Niwiska set in WWII, War and Resistance in the Wilderness. As the author, I was about to take part in a whirlwind plan to get this book into the right hands.

A few days later, my elderly relative, Larry Bender, called his cousin Loretta to inform her of my historical novel. His new mission in life was to tell all his relatives and friends about my book because it is the story of our relatives during World War II in Poland. He even purchased thirty copies to be distributed around Niwiska. During his phone conversation, Loretta mentioned the Niwiska Klub book, and Larry quickly phoned me. “Donna, you need to go to Chicago to see this book for your research!”

A trip to Chicago to view a book written in Polish was not practical since I cannot read the difficult language of my grandparents, so I contacted my friend, Valerie Koselka, President of the Polish Genealogy Society of Michigan. She responded, “Donna, this is the book that Father Antoni has been looking for! He didn’t think a copy existed anymore.” Father Antoni Więch, a distant relative of both Valerie and myself, is a native of a village near Niwiska and the local church historian and author of several books. I then notified him of the book’s discovery, and his immediate response was, “Would they loan me the book for a year so I can translate and analyze the details? I’ll pay the postage!”

Valerie and I started to strategize on how to make this happen. Fortunately, or more correctly, miraculously, Valerie was traveling to Poland within a few weeks and offered to hand carry the book to Niwiska. The next step was to get Loretta to agree to part with the book for a short time. This detail was a bit more complicated because at first, she insisted the book be handed over to a priest who would then give it to Valerie. We soon found a willing priest! But then we only heard crickets from Loretta.

Larry came to the rescue again. I told him of our new complication, and he reached out to Loretta to assure her that sharing this treasure would be a noble gesture and a great help to genealogy and historical organizations and her religious community. This lovely lady finally agreed!

cropped Valerie and Corning (2)

Dan and Loretta made a several hour journey to meet Valerie halfway in Michigan for the book transfer. Two days later, the book made its journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Poland, and Valerie handed the book over to Father Kazimierz Franczak, the pastor of Niwiska. Father Augustyn, the pastor emeritus, who is featured in War and Resistance in the Wilderness, was nearby to celebrate the book’s delivery.

Valerie and priest cropped 3

Valerie Koselka and Father Franczak examining the book at St. Nicholas Church

Father Więch, who is assigned to a parish in Ukraine, crossed the border to visit Niwiska and view the book. He then turned it over to the highly professional staff of the Kolbuszowa Library, where the team digitized the entire book so that everyone will eventually have access to it.

Larry, Valerie, Loretta, Dan, and I were so honored as we worked together to accomplish this important and amazing task. The journey of The Niwiska Klub brought together six people who were mostly strangers to one another. I’m especially pleased that War and Resistance in the Wilderness was the impetus for this old book’s amazing journey! Hopefully, this story inspires everyone who has a book, a box of old photos and letters, or other items historical or genealogical to consider who might be a better custodian of their treasure.

War and Resistance in the Wilderness: A Novel of WWII Poland is available at Amazon. Check out all the five-star reviews!

http://www.amazon.com/dp/1689779586

first page 3

    The first page of text from “The Niwiska Club.”

 

 

 

 

 

Village Life for Polish Christians During WWII

 

Americans who descend from Polish immigrants often have limited or no knowledge of their families who were left behind. Those of us who have found the parish, ancestors’ names, and dates are often missing the life stories of not only their ancestors but those of the families who did not immigrate. An understanding of their struggles helps us to comprehend the worries of our now deceased grandparents, especially when we learn what their families went through during the Second World War.

Most Polish Americans descend from the peasant class, and it is likely their families remained in the villages and small towns. Their wartime experience was vastly different than the Poles who lived in larger cities such as Warsaw and Krakow. Unfortunately, much of our information comes from romanticized movies and novels that place a compelling story over reality and facts.

During my research for my newly released historical novel, War and Resistance in the Wilderness, I visited Poland three times and interviewed numerous Polish priests and historians, and my relatives who still live in the villages. Their collective memory of WWII gave me insight into the Poles’ struggles, daily lives, and their efforts to provide food, shelter, and assistance to the persecuted Jewish population and compelling reasons why they couldn’t.

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Nazi Germans forcing Polish peasants from their homes for the expansion of Camp Heidelager in 1941.

The Polish people throughout the country suffered deliberate targeting by the Germans with almost every city, town, or village affected by random raids and massacres.  My relatives in the wilderness villages of Niwiska and Trzesn in southeastern Poland were at mass on Sunday, Sept 3rd, when German gunfire exploded around the peaceful church while planes dropped their bombs.

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My Grandparents’ $5.00 Gift

 

My Polish immigrant grandparents who immigrated around 1906 sent $5 twice a year to thirteen sets of families they left behind in Poland. The Polish cousins who told me this story didn’t mention the years but emphasized how this gift helped them get through some very desperate times. The entire family in this small Polish village was severely impacted by the two world wars, the worldwide depression, and then the decades behind the Iron Curtain. A few of their oldest siblings also immigrated, but the immigration act of 1924 made coming to America almost impossible for most Central and Eastern Europeans. The law discriminated in favor of those immigrants who came from Northern and Western Europe. The younger siblings were forced to stay behind in the villages and work as poor farmers.

My great-grandmother Jadwiga, a widow in Poland, born in 1865.

 

My Polish cousins whom I met on two trips in 2016 and 2018 remember the stories of my grandparents’ generosity to this day−a hundred years later! Like the scarf my grandfather sent to my cousin, the stories were handed down through the generations.

Scarf my grandparents sent to my cousin Maria

My cousins were shocked when I told them my grandparents, in my opinion, were rather poor.  They assumed my grandparents had become rich Americans. They owned their own house, but my grandfather, according to the 1940 census was a floor sweeper at a local steel mill. He became a crane operator in later years.

A family history book I wrote about my grandparents’ family history

My cousins’ perceptions made me wonder how much this $10 a year gift was worth in today’s dollars, so I did some research.

$10 a year in today’s dollars* Total to 13 families
1910 $258 $3,354.00
1920 $122.56 $1593.28
1930 $146.78 $1898.00
1940 $175.08 $2276.04
1950 $101.70 $1322.10

*From US CPI index

Those are pretty hefty sums of money, but then consider how much more they would have been worth in a depressed economy such as Poland’s during these decades. In addition, my grandparents sent medicines and clothing. I remember my First Communion dress being sent. It probably was sold on the black market for more necessary items.

Zofia, an elderly cousin who was about twenty during WWII, told me a poignant story that brought tears to my eyes. After the war, the villagers who had to evacuate their homes in 1942 were allowed back in the village. Zofia had only one tattered and worn dress, but my grandparents sent her some printed fabric. This is what she said: “Because of your grandparents’ gift, I made some nice printed dresses for myself, and I was the prettiest girl in the village. A nice man asked me to marry him, and it was all because of your grandparent’s gift of that fabric!”

My visit with Zofia in 2016

I remember her telling me that story with the same seriousness as she would have related any other war story. The end result of this gift was a good marriage, and that was a fact!

Those of us with such generous immigrant ancestors should be so proud!

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation-Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

This article has been modified from one of the chapters in my book Travel Back to Your Roots which is available on Amazon. The book describes how to begin genealogy for your immigrant ancestors, how to research and find records in Europe,  and how to achieve your end goal of traveling to Europe to visit their birthplace and even meet long lost cousins!  I did it and want to show others that it isn’t impossible, even if you did not inherit any information about your ancestors.

Three Sets of Cousins Mark and Donna Found and Then  Met in Sweden and Poland in 2014 and 2016

Planning a Trip to Europe: Transportation

Choosing a Transatlantic Cruise

Traveling to Europe doesn’t have to be expensive, and the internet allows you to be your own travel agent. For those who are not tech savvy, an agent might be an option, but they typically will provide mainstream and obvious options. Independent travelers will find less expensive alternatives online that will make the trip more customized.

The ideal travel months for inexpensive European travel are just before and after summer vacation months. The prices and weather are likely more favorable, and the traveler has fewer people with whom to compete. Also, many European hotels do not have air-conditioning, and some that do will not allow the guest to control the settings. The popular areas around the Mediterranean in July and August are crowded, warm, and come with premium prices. Also, August is historically the month when many Europeans travel and you will have stiff competition.

You have two options to get to Europe: a round trip flight or a one-way transatlantic cruise with a one-way flight. If you have a flexible schedule and have three to four weeks for your trip, consider booking a transatlantic cruise for your journey to or from Europe.

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What the Son Wishes to Forget the Grandson Wishes to Remember: Why Our Ancestors Didn’t Talk About Their Past (Me Too)

As genealogists and family historians, we often ponder why our ancestors didn’t tell us much about their past or the old country. Our lament as grandchildren is we neglected to ask our grandparents and parents questions about which we now care so deeply.

In my senior years, I now have a laundry list of questions that should have been asked. What were the reasons you came to America, what was life like in your village, how much schooling did you have, what did your house look like? etc. Oh, if we could only have them in our lives for just a week so that we could uncover all the mysteries and stories that died with them.

I “get it” now. If there is blame to be placed, it likely is on my shoulders. It wasn’t until I became an empty nester that I began to genuinely care about my heritage. My interests centered on me during my younger years, a common theme of those interested in family history. We probably sat on the couch in our grandparents’ living rooms just waiting to go home. Continue reading