With Blood and Scars: Z Krwią I Blizną
by B. E. Andre
Toni Morrison said, "If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
This was the conclusion I came to when I began researching the story that eventually became With Blood and Scars. I’d read the works of several second and third generation Poles, and while I enjoyed the novels, at that point I couldn’t find myself or my UK friends in any of them. Yes, we had similar traditions, religious ceremonies and food, but since when had gołąbki become golumpki? And who in the UK danced the polka? Nobody. It meant nothing to us. Where was World War Two?
When I later saw a quote from Thomas Gladsky, I understood why I couldn’t relate. Addressing the Polish American Historical Association, he said authors "seem frozen by stereotypical and reductive portrayals of ethnicity as polkas, pierogis and pisanki. Too frequently we turn to the quaint and charming, the noble and self-sacrificing, the self-indulgent and protective such as our persistent references to the wholesome family and selfless neighbourhood, to babcias, to wigilia and pisanki, to gentle nuns and inspirational parish priests."
It had seemed to me that while American Poles were careering round cheerfully to a bouncing 1-2-3 beat, we in the UK were being herded first into Saturday school where we learned the history of Poland pre World War Two, and then into the Scouting Movement, where WW2 was unavoidable thanks to the partisan and army songs we sang round the campfires. But, of course, few of the UK Poles had emigrated za chlebem.
Could it also be that those who went to the US, Canada, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand knew they were leaving Poland never to return, whereas UK Poles still hoped things would change in communist Poland? Would the Yalta Three do an about-turn perhaps? In the late 1940s my father received a beautiful letter from a Polish woman in Chicago who offered to sponsor and adopt him. He declined; he needed to stay in Europe, just in case.
In the last few years I’ve come to realise that although Polish communities across the world may differ depending on when they came into being, the children of refugees have at least one experience they share: our parents were scarred. And, if current research in the field of post-traumatic DNA mutation is to be believed, so are we.
The narrative of the Polish war experience and subsequent journeys is fascinating, but it’s also grim. Our families died or suffered in Siberia, the Nazi slave labour and death camps, the Warsaw Uprising, the DP camps; the list seems endless. I have shed thousands of tears while reading memoirs and poems. Knowing how much they affected me, how depressed they made me feel about man’s endless inhumanity to man, I wondered how I could bring that story to a non-Polish audience without overwhelming them with its pain and horror. How could I get them interested so that they might pick up a biography or memoir themselves? How could I include the Holocaust and the relationship between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews? I had to try.
In his book The Art of Fiction, J. Gardner said, "Novelty comes chiefly from ingenious genre-crossing or elevation of familiar materials." That’s the fancy way of putting it. As for me, I’ve made a literary equivalent of bigos. Into the existing 1939-1945 mix, I added a child narrator, stirred in two mysteries, sliced in great chunks of the 1960s, threw in several handfuls of humour, a dollop of Manchester UK, and finally a spoonful of Manchester United. Oh, I nearly forgot - and a Babcia. If you don’t have a Calpurnia - no matter what Dr Gladsky said - you simply must include a Babcia.
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