Saturday, June 23, 2012

My Vow: I Will Never Be an Immigrant

My mother was an immigrant to America from Slovakia.
I've never drunk coffee or tea. People ask me why. I never tell them. 

My Vow: I Will Never Be an Immigrant

My final week in Poland, a movie scene kept playing on the screen suspended in my mind. Especially persistent was the soundtrack, a street accordion cranking out the wistful Piaf ballad, "La Vie en Rose." The scene is from Billy Wilder's 1954 film, "Sabrina."

Audrey Hepburn is Sabrina, the daughter of a chauffeur, in love with an unattainable rich boy. Her father has sent her away, to learn to cook. It's a Golden Age film, shot in a Hollywood studio; no one got anywhere near France. And yet, as classic films could do, "Sabrina" evokes Paris, makes you feel Paris, more intimately than many a modern film shot on location.

"Sabrina" conjures the City of Lights with a few, low-budget waves of a black-and-white magic wand. You see the Eiffel Tower rise outside the cooking school's artistically rounded, antique window. You hear a French accent from a chef in a tall hat who sadistically ridicules failed soufflés but worships well-made ones.

My last few days in Poland, I kept remembering this scene: Sabrina sits in the spherical halo of a desk lamp. Even though this is a black-and-white film, you know the lamplight is golden. Outside her window glow the ghostly, bulbous marble domes of the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. On the street below, a busker performs a bittersweet rendition of "La Vie en Rose."

You can tell from her erect and yet comfortable posture how serene Sabrina is, and you can tell that Paris has taught her this contentment. In a voiceover, Sabrina speaks the letter she is composing to her father. She has completed her schooling, and is about to return to America. She is plainly in love with Paris. She can handle leaving, though, because Paris has graced her, and she will carry that special Parisian grace within her for the rest of her life.

How did they lure my mother onto the flowered ox cart? A necklace of flowers around the ox – just like in a pagan child sacrifice. Did they admit to her then and there that she'd never again see her beloved grandmothers, the women who showed her love, love that, by all accounts, her own mother stinted? That, like millions of other peasants, up and down Eastern Europe, she was leaving the green and earth of home for American soot and smoke? Or did they lie, as adults and life so often lie to children, and claim that it would just be a short ride, little one, you'll be back in your own bed by nightfall?

One must not romanticize the village, or peasant life, but the village my mother left to come to American exploitation and coal really was paradise. She had not yet put in an eighteen-hour day in the fields. She had not yet been put in her place by the powers that be, either Hungarians or aristocrats or Nazis or Soviets. Her village was blue sky, a clean river where children swam, the cuckoo's call through dense woods, the castle, her grandfather's beehives, her father's sheep, the folksongs and the legends and the Hasterman who haunted waterways at night, the self-sufficiency of adults who could accomplish anything with their own bare hands, from treating tumors with garden herbs to building a house, and a love that enfolded her. She got to go to school in the village, and she scored the highest grades. She had a mind, and would accomplish impressive intellectual feats someday. She marched in pilgrimages and she was "the prettiest girl in the village."

Then the ox cart. The train station. The ship, the nauseating voyage, celery soup, soot, coal, no more school, cleaning rich people's houses. Slowly realizing that that would be her entire life.

Phone calls were impossibly expensive. When we finally visited, I don't remember any of our relatives actually owning a telephone. Calls were monitored by authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. I remember receiving censored letters. I remember receiving letters that intimated what could be said, and what could not be said.

All those memories. All that love. All that longing. All those immigrants and all those who loved them. Bottled up. Forced down. Choked back. Denied. Buried. Where did that energy go? No wires to transmit it. Unwept tears. What dam could hold them back? My mother dreamed of walking home with her brother across the Atlantic Ocean.

My mother buried two sons who died in the prime of life. I don't remember her crying. I remember her cleaning house on Wednesday, August 21, 1968. I remember her suddenly stopping and sitting in front of the television. My mother stopping work? Impossible. She didn't even sit down to eat. Even more impossible were these: tears on my mother's face. On the TV screen: tanks rolling into Prague. I stood still, and stared at my mother. The image emblazoned itself into my brain; I've never forgotten it. I learned a big lesson that day, and I can't put it into words, except these words: my mother, stopping work, and crying, as she watched tanks rolling into Prague.

There was no way that this could happen, but it did: I was alone with my mother when she died. Given our history, there were a number of portentous items on our agenda. What did I do, what did I say? I swept other themes aside. I spoke to her in Slovak – what little I know. I played "Fujara from Kokava," a cassette of Slovak folk music. I reassured her that she would soon reunite with grandmothers in black babushkas, chicken-thief uncles, the Jewish boy next door who saved her life when she was drowning in the river Nitra, that boy the Germans took away, her aunt who beat collaborators with her broom – with these she never stopped loving and had left irrevocably, forever ago, she would soon reunite. And she would return, too, I promised, to the prettiest girl in the village, the one with her future ahead of her, who would accomplish great intellectual feats someday.

During this summer's visit, I was stunned by how much Polish I remembered. I was stunned when Poles said a sentence to me, and I understood it, and then another sentence, and I understood that, as well, and then a third. I wondered if this were a trick my mind was playing on me. Before I left, I considered purchasing a phrase book so that I would be able to navigate train ticket kiosks and souvenir shopping. I was stunned when I could summon not just the words and even the grammar for "My name is," "How are you," "How much does that cost" and "Where is the toilet," but also for "Make yourself comfortable" and "It would be better if you could take advantage of this" and "You can order my book from Amazon." I was stunned when Poles asked me, "How did you know that difficult grammatical form?" I looked at them and said, "I don't know it. I don't speak Polish at all."

Remembering Polish meant remembering my life. Remembering my life before graduate school, the attack by the crazy professor, getting sick, being sick for years, losing my life savings, all of that white-collar evil that knocked my life completely off course. That was the last thing I did before graduate school – I went to Poland, and I studied Polish, my father's language, and I decided to make some contribution to scholarship about Poles and Poland. Funny how suddenly acknowledging that you know an obscure vocabulary word, or grammatical form, can force you into a confrontation with memories you survive by forgetting.

What would I remember if I suddenly began speaking French every day, the language I spoke in Africa? Or Nepali? I'm so intimidated by the prospect, I'm not even going to experiment.

I felt so at home in Poland. It was overwhelming. I kept waiting for the feeling to fade but it didn't fade. I felt an at-homeness that eludes me in America. That doesn't mean I don't feel at home in America; I do. It's just a different room of home. Poland is another room. A warm, and cozy, and imperfect room. The heat is too high. I try to open the window to let some fresh air in, and the woman with the child in her lap complains. The air becomes a bit stifling. But I am familiar with, at home with, that kind of air. I remember it from childhood, from my Aunt Tetka's house: too much antique furniture, rugs, knick-knacks, curtains, yet more curtains, too many meals, too little fresh air. But very good pastry. And if you can get them to sing, and the slivovice always gets them to sing, they know all one hundred verses of the folksong.

Does the internet make things easier? Or does it lure us onto new ox carts, into crying new tears? During this visit to Poland I spent time with Krystyna and Malgorzata, whom, previously, I had known only from the internet. I "met" Krystyna online, after reading the hauntingly titled "Lost Between Worlds," a memoir by her father, a Holocaust survivor.

One afternoon in Krakow, I received, too late, a handwritten note inviting me to meet Krystyna and her daughter Nikki for dinner. I rushed to the old town, knowing I'd arrive an hour after the time she'd suggested we meet. I had no idea what Krystyna looked like. The Rynek Glowny – main square – was thronging with tourists. I passed within four feet of two women. The little voice said to me, "That is Krystyna and Nikki. Greet them." I hesitated. I thought, that would be too weird. Approaching two strange women in this mob and saying – what? In what language? That my little voice told me that these were the women I was rushing to meet? The two women passed. When Krysytna, Nikki and I finally connected I realized that that indeed had been they. Whatever had transpired between Krystyna and me via the internet had created a connection strong enough that in a crowd of hundreds my path would skin hers and I would recognize her on sight.

We spent a couple days together; one evening we sat around laughing over pizza. It was the kind of night that's supposed to end with, "See ya later." But a canyon demarcated this evening. It was time for Krystyna to board her plane to France; Nikki would fly to England. I clawed at the minutes, greedily. I wanted these women as next-door-neighbors. I did not want just internet. I demanded in-the-flesh. We live in three different countries; I realized we might never again share gossip over pizza. We said goodbye on Ulica Florianska. I surprised myself by crying, and by actually wanting to hug. I'm one of those non-huggers; I usually just hug out of politeness. I wanted to hold on, not to let distance have them. But I had to surrender.

Malgorzata, a Pole living in Germany, found my work, by chance, through the internet. In Poland, we cooperated intensely on a public talk about my book. In just a few days, we had traveled together to three Polish cities. One Sunday night we stood in Rynek Glowny. Tomorrow she would fly back to Germany; I to the US.

"Yours is not a very sentimental goodbye," I observed, peeved.

"I am not a sentimental person," Malgorzata countered, briskly.

I am a writer. She is an accountant.

We were next to St. Mary's church. When the Mongols invaded in 1241, an arrow pierced the throat of the trumpeter in this church's spire. His warning call was interrupted. Ever since, the hour is tolled from St. Mary's church by an abruptly interrupted trumpet tune, the Hejnal.

Night was falling on Europe's largest medieval square; mist was rising from the cobblestones into the stoplight-haloed air. Malgorzata coolly departed.

And then, unsentimental still, she suddenly turned. "I love my country when you write about it." St. Mary's church bell struck the hour, and, just as Malgorzata's footsteps died away down a misted Ulica Florianska, the trumpeter began the Hejnal – that national song of heroism, of sacrifice, a song that always ends abruptly. This was Poland, and the country would insist on providing the atmosphere.

I reconnected with two people I had known when I lived in Poland the year of 1988-89. The man and I had not had any contact of any kind in twenty-two years. And here we were, seated at a sidewalk café on Ulica Juliusza Lea, blueberry pastry in front of us, dry lightning parting the July sky hanging over the fruit and vegetable stalls across from us, having the same argument we had in 1989, but using different words. I thought of a poem I had written to him that has remained ensconced in the cover of my diary for over two decades. Would I have the courage to voice that poem's exhortations now? The moment never really arrived for those words in 1989, and it would not come this afternoon. I wondered, did he realize that there had been dry lightning in our sky that night twenty-two years ago?

The hammer of my own heart and the whispered cautions of my own head were both too loud for me to register this renewed contact. He suggested that we meet again. I agreed. At least I could attempt to be fully present through our next encounter. But time and distance swallowed him up. We never met again. I remain in that place where the wave has taken you, and your heels are over your head, and you are waiting for the wave to pass, so your soles can nestle on ground, again, rather than expose themselves to unfamiliar sun. When I am once again perpendicular to earth, I will have to ask, Did we really even meet? What did we say? Was it good? Was anything resolved?

Later, I was seated on a bench outside the Piast student dormitory, chatting with Stephanie, a Polish-Greek-American from New Jersey. "Polish and Greek?" I asked. "Open a diner. The Germans will invade." Suddenly, in front of Dom Studencki Piast, there was Tenia, whom I had met in that very structure twenty-one years before. Tenia was with her three children. I had met their father in Dom Studencki Piast, as well. I remember his courting Tenia; I remember Beatrice Ekwa-Okoko, half Cameroonian, half-Polish, and I vetting this man as a potential husband for Tenia, right here in Dom Studencki Piast.

I jumped off the bench and embraced Tenia. I could hear Stephanie comment, "That is a very long hug." The world slipped away and it was just Tenia and I. You're only supposed to say that about romantic relationships.

We strolled Krakow. We sought makowiec, my favorite Eastern European delicacy: ground poppy seeds spiraled between layers of rich dough. My mother used to supervise me as I baked it, back before the war on drugs when poppy was still affordable and we owned a cast iron grinder for the seeds. That kind of heavy, specified kitchen utensil does not respond well to our rapidly moving world and I have no idea where the grinder is; I miss it every Christmas and Easter, and I miss makowiec, too. Tenia ran into two friends, and they joined our strolling salon. Tenia's attention was divided. I realized that she would soon have to cut her visit with me short.

Aware of that goodbye on the horizon, I tried to cauterize the pain. I stood up. "I have to go." I thought I'd escape the bakery quickly and cleanly. Tenia followed me out onto the street. Her large eyes were red and wet. Interspersing her hugs with little, aborted speeches, she hugged me once, two times, three – it almost became a comedy. Almost.

I returned to my dorm room at Piast and felt I'd been hit by a car. The pain didn't have any words attached. It was not, "I will miss her so much." It was not, "Remember that fight we had on that train trip to Bialystok when we ended up in Lodz."

Two of the toughest goodbyes in my life: the death of my brother Phil, and the death of my Uncle Jan Cerno. I sat and thought. What if I received a note, right now, stating that it had all been a mistake, that Phil or Jan had not really died, but had been alive this entire time, just completely inaccessible to me? And that one or the other was about to walk into the room and we were to reunite?

One might think that such a note would bring celebratory joy. The return of something very valued, but lost. Instead, I felt a sense of utter horror. Losing both of them had been so hard. Reuniting with them would torment me. Why did we lose all those years, all those years when we could have been together? Sealing over the wound with an insensible scar was too much work. That scar is my investment, and I will remain more loyal to it than to the promise of contact that might quiver with pain.

One of my best moments during this trip to Poland. I was rushing down Ulica Karmeliczka in the early morning hours. There were few people. A middle-aged woman, short, with short, dyed black hair, was walking toward me. She was shuffling items from her wallet. She dropped something, and moved on. Was she dropping
litter? That didn't seem like a particularly Polish thing to do.

I was rushing and not focused, but I felt I had to pick up the item the woman had dropped. I glanced at it. It was the size of a credit card, and it looked official. "Prosze," I mumbled, halfheartedly. The woman kept moving away from m
e. "Prosze pani," I announced, more forcefully. The woman turned around. I did not move toward her; I held out the item. She stepped closer, focusing on my hand. She sprang to life. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "How could I have?" She took the item from my hand, and, never looking at me, just kept saying, "How could I have lost this?" and "Oh!"

I don't think she ever realized that I was just a tourist. She had dropped something evidently important, and on the almost empty dawn sidewalk I happened to pick it up and return it to her, in response to an inner prodding. I kept walking my way, she, hers. If I had not traveled thousands of miles to that anonymous encounter, she might have lost that important item. I don't know.

I don't drink coffee or tea. People think it's weird. They ask me why. I never tell them. Here's why: I grew up in a town of immigrant laborers. My mother's friends would come to the house, sit around the table, drink coffee or tea, and the lament would begin. I remember isolated words: my old man, the kids, the priest, the boss, lousy rotten ingrates, cancer, what are ya gonna do? I swore: I'll never be an immigrant, and I'll never drink coffee or tea, because I don't want this pain.

So, I was never an immigrant. I never rode the one-way ox cart; I always purchased a round-trip ticket. But I always knew it would be my destiny to be a traveler. And that pain finds you, no matter how rapidly or glamorously you move.


I thank editor Daniel T. Weaver for including this essay in Upstream Two, available on Amazon here. Culturally aware Polonians will purchase Upstream Two; it is a celebration of Polish-American writing.

The website for Upstream Two is here.


  1. It was a pleasure reading that Danusha. It made me remember everything I love about Poland and want to go back too. You tugged at all the right places for me.

  2. Thank you for the essay. Upstream Two - duly bought.

  3. Thank you for the positive feedback.

  4. Thank you Danusha. This evening, before bed I enjoyed wondering through your memories and stories about Poland last summer... so many meaningful connections and that astonishing pain when there is the true feeling of love present. You remind me of my longing.

  5. Kim, thank you so much for your beautiful comments.

  6. Danusha, thank you for sharing your gift of speaking soul to soul. I feel united with you, in another room because you bravely explore the depths of what parents such as ours experienced. Your words breathe a substance unto what was intangibly present growing up first generation in Canada after WWII made returning impossible for my Polish parents. How beautifully you express it. Yes, Canada is home, another room, but I long for Poland even though I was not born there. Life is a big house, many ghost tenants of past relationships.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
These themes include the false and damaging stereotype of Poles as brutes who are uniquely hateful and responsible for atrocity, and this stereotype's use in distorting WW II history and all accounts of atrocity.
This blog welcomes comments from readers that address those themes. Off-topic and anti-Semitic posts are likely to be deleted.
Your comment is more likely to be posted if:
Your comment includes a real first and last name.
Your comment uses Standard English spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Your comment uses I-statements rather than You-statements.
Your comment states a position based on facts, rather than on ad hominem material.
Your comment includes readily verifiable factual material, rather than speculation that veers wildly away from established facts.
T'he full meaning of your comment is clear to the comment moderator the first time he or she glances over it.
You comment is less likely to be posted if:
You do not include a first and last name.
Your comment is not in Standard English, with enough errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar to make the comment's meaning difficult to discern.
Your comment includes ad hominem statements, or You-statements.
You have previously posted, or attempted to post, in an inappropriate manner.
You keep repeating the same things over and over and over again.