My Room With a View
It doesn't overlook the Arno River. And I didn’t find love like Lucy Honeychurch. But I did find my story.
Many readers and friends of A Considerable Age have asked why I don’t publish more of my own stories. The truth is I love to share a diverse range of voices. However, another reason has kept me from sharing my stories—a memoir that has consumed my writing time. The memoir unravels the journey of a woman who, late in life, at a considerable age, discovers her story is not what she thought it was. I have shared bits and pieces with you, but I am now determined to put it together.
All my life, I considered my parents to be among the fortunate ones. After World War II, they immigrated to Canada, joining thousands from war-torn Europe, and began the task of rebuilding their lives. At least, that is what I thought.
What I didn’t realize was that in their new country, they locked away the memories of the dark years of war, including the German occupation of their Polish homeland, into a vault, never to be spoken about. They shielded me and my two sisters from the emotional wreckage and aftershocks of one of the twentieth century’s worst tragedies. I lived the good life they had fought for, blissfully unaware of what they had endured.
In the final years of my father’s life, when he was well into his nineties and confined to a wheelchair in a long-term care residence, he started to tell me about the war years. During my first visit to him in these new living quarters, he broached the topic.
To my surprise, he disclosed something he had never previously revealed to me—the account of his survival of a Nazi Death March. I knew he had been a prisoner of war, but he had never shared the details. That day he recounted how, in the first months of 1945, he and thousands of others from the POW camp were forced to march hundreds of kilometres in brutal winter conditions.
Poorly dressed against the biting cold and with little to eat, he endured fueled by faith in God’s providence and the infinitesimal spark of hope it provided. As he trudged along, he was unaware that similar marches involving thousands were taking place from other Nazi POW, concentration and extermination camps as the tides of war shifted, and Allied troops began to push the European front toward Berlin.
When he had finished his astonishing story, I asked him how many men had been in his group when he left the POW camp.
“Two hundred,” he replied in his heavily accented English because we had long ago stopped speaking Polish to one another.
“And how many were there when the Americans liberated you?”
I stared at the frail figure hunched over in his wheelchair. His pale green eyes, now softened by the passage of a lifetime, gazed back at his eldest daughter, and he extended one deeply veined hand and firmly grasped mine. I had heard Jewish survivors speak about Death Marches and read accounts of them in history books about the Holocaust. But my Polish father wasn’t Jewish. How had this happened to him?
The conversations with my father, and stories I had never heard, continued for three years, each time I took the train from Montreal and visited him in Toronto at the long-term care residence. They ended the day before he died, just a few months shy of his ninety-ninth birthday. His stories reverberated in my mind following his death, demanding my attention.
One evening, after stacking the dinner dishes in the dishwasher and wiping the kitchen counters clean, I made a cup of mint tea and climbed the stairs to the room on the top floor of our house. I settled into my comfortable chair at a desk that gave me a perfect view of the courtyard below and a rose garden in full bloom and opened my laptop. I didn’t have a plan. All I knew was that I had to hold on to the stories. I thought this would be an easy task. I had made some notes during our conversations, and the rest was still vivid in my mind. I already knew the ending: it would be my father’s death.
As I wrote, the vault door guarding my parent’s past began to open further. While my father’s stories were undoubtedly tempered by the passage of time, they provided a breadcrumb trail to a world and history I knew nothing about. I followed the crumbs further and quite unexpectedly unearthed the secret my mother had guarded her entire life and had taken to her grave two decades ago. Her life story was something I had long ago given up ever discovering.
My parents were among the survivors of Hitler’s deliberately meditated plan to destroy the Polish people and their culture and to claim their land for Germany. And they lived through the Soviet Union’s complicity with the Nazis and the competing desire to dominate Poland. Millions of Polish citizens resisted and suffered horribly during and after the war, just as my parents did, and yet, the story is little known. It has taken me some time to unravel and comprehend the reasons why historians writing in English have failed to tell the story adequately. In researching my book, I have also come to appreciate how complex and far-reaching the effects of war can be and how much courage is needed to rebuild a life after experiencing the trauma of war.
These last conversations with my father were his legacy, and they shed new light and also some shadows on me as a daughter. I didn’t expect it, but they led to an entirely new narrative and understanding of my parents and of myself. And as occasionally happens when important things are revealed or unexpectedly discovered, it can change a life. It changed mine.
But my memoir starts earlier than the conversations with my father. You see, as a child, I longed to belong to a normal family. That was code for not an immigrant family. As an adult, I continued trying to distance myself, physically, geographically, and in all ways from my immigrant parents, whose accents and mannerisms were never quite Canadian enough for me. My perspective changed as I wrote in this quiet room with a view. The story unfolded in ways I did not anticipate. And the ending is not at all the one I thought I knew.
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