My grandparents (now deceased) on my mother’s side were pure-blooded Poles, having left Poland and immigrating to Germany before coming to Ellis Island around 1950. My Polish-American grandmother was Władysława, or “Lottie,” and my Polish-American grandfather was Janek, or John. I never knew either of my grandfathers as they both died before I was born. Grandfather John died following a two year battle with cancer, possibly brought on by working with the many chemicals at the Tannery in Gowanda, New York, where he lived. Both of my grandparents worked very hard to put food on the table and keep a roof over the heads of four children, one being my mother. Sometimes, my grandmother worked two or three jobs at a time, such as waitressing at a local restaurant and tending plants at a local nursery.
Life was not easy for my Polish-American grandparents who left Europe after World War II. But, they left because they did not want to take the chance of experiencing another Great War, and they wanted better opportunities for their children. After all, America was the country that was flowing with “milk and honey,” as they had heard. For two people who did not have more than an elementary or middle school education, nor knew any English upon setting foot in the United States, they certainly worked hard and did the best they could. Sponsorship of their family by cousins already in America helped pave the way for a different fate for their family than occurred for the siblings of my grandparents still in Poland.
My grandfather was one of about 10 children in his family. I remember being told that his mother apparently told him when he was a young man that no woman would want to marry him because he had a glass eye. In those days in Poland, being poor and having a disability meant having fewer opportunities, as well as potentially being a societal outcast. When I think of such a statement, now, I think of how ridiculous it sounds, particularly with so many people who have disabilities making the best of their lives.
My grandmother was the middle child in a family of three daughters. Her sisters were Staca (pronounced “Stashia”) and Marianna. Many years ago, Marianna visited and stayed with my grandmother for three months in the United States on a temporary visa. And, many years following that, I had the privilege of studying at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and seeing her again! As a senior at the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, I participated in the popular study abroad program to the Jagiellonian University in 1992.
In the midst of studying intensive Polish language at the Jagiellonian – with the intention of being able to properly communicate with my Polish relatives in Poland – I sent a postcard to Marianna. A few days later, Marianna and her family arrived at my dormitory building, surprisingly unannounced, and took me out for the day. I then made plans to visit them for a weekend, and got to meet 15 of my Polish relatives in Poland, including Marianna’s family, the Drewin’s, who lived in Kielce. It was wonderful to see and visit with them all, and to provide monies to them that I brought specifically for them from the family at home.
Studying in Poland at the Jagiellonian University was a wonderful experience. If I could have the opportunity to do it all over again (and at the same age as I was at the time), I would. Studying abroad in Poland was highly recommended to me by my fellow student colleagues who were members of the University at Buffalo Polish Club. Many of them lauded praises about the program. Because so many of them said such great things about their experiences, I decided to apply for the opportunity to go. It was very exciting to be accepted into the program, and to have taken the opportunity to go there.
While in Poland, I did much sight-seeing with my English-speaking (mostly composed of Americans) study group at the Jagiellonian University. We visited the historic Wawel Castle and Cathedral, the amazing Wieliczka Salt Mines, the religious pilgrimage destination of Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, and had regular opportunities to see Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica and visit Krakow’s main market square.
On my own, I also traveled to and visited Berlin, Germany during one weekend; and with a student colleague, I went to Prague in the former Czechoslovakia, for another weekend. On yet another weekend, the same student colleague and I visited Vienna. I found Berlin to be a historic city, one in which a person could still obviously observe the differences between the former West and East Germanies. And, Prague is just an amazingly beautiful and historic city, with many historic structures still standing, having not been demolished in previous wars. Vienna was an incredibly beautiful city, also being extremely modernized and commercialized.
I have many memories of my time spent studying abroad and travelling in Europe. I had such a wonderful experience in studying abroad that I returned to Europe two years later. At that time, I travelled with my mom through the British Isles, including England, Scotland, and Ireland. Following that, I went solo, traveling through many European countries.
While in Europe in 1994, I used my Brit Rail and Eurail passes to travel by train, everywhere. I traveled lightly with only a couple of bags, and remained in Europe for about one month. In all, it was a fabulous experience, and I highly recommend it. I would definitely do it all over again if I ever had the opportunity.
I am very proud of my family, my ancestors, and my Polish-American heritage. While there are additional nationalities in my make-up from which I am descended, the Polish part of me is the strongest next to that of being American. I am thankful that my Polish-American grandparents had the fortitude and courage to come to America, where they succeeded in creating a better life for their family, and their descendants to come.