By Agathe Osinski
Photograph by Prima Alam
In the chaos of my uprooted life, there is nothing more soothing than listening to my grandmother talk about her childhood. Whether my studies or professional life have brought me to Brussels, London, or to Berlin, year after year, I return to Warsaw. For a weekend by train, with almost as much time spent travelling as actually seeing my family. For a week around Christmas time, in the freezing and dark Polish winter, with the only warmth emanating from steaming bowls of barszcz and the sound of laughter of my loved ones gathered around the table. For a couple of weeks in the summer or autumn, when the circumstances permit it, to take walks in the forest, hugging trees with my grandmother. “Only birches have the good energy,” she insists, waving away my invitations to embrace the pines, willows and oak trees that we pass.
Usually one or both of my sisters will come from France at the same time, and sometimes my uncle will join us from Spain. We fly in from across Europe to be together in Poland, in this country that continues to have significance for us despite many years spent abroad, despite feeling like foreigners at times, despite the frowns we get from the grocer when one of us makes a grammatical error that reveals our exoticism. We return, perhaps because this is where our roots are, and we need to feel them and see them and taste them, and to listen again and again to the story of how we were distanced from them.
As I lie with my head in her lap, eyes closed, my grandmother strokes my hair with her smooth hands. Her wide palms gently trace the shape of my head and her long fingers, adorned with a few simple, silver rings, explore the texture of my hair. My grandmother‘s large limbs supposedly bear witness to her Tatar heritage, and yet when I compare her legs, arms, neck and feet to my own, it is hard to believe we share a common lineage. Next to her, I will always be a child. At eight-eight (or eighty-seven, she can’t be sure – her birth certificate was destroyed during the war), she can barely see. An eternal fog has settled before her green-grey irises, but her memory is sharp, especially when it comes to those early years of her life.
My grandmother grew up in the Poland of the 1930s. This was a Poland celebrating its rebirth as an independent state, a politically chaotic but hopeful Poland with Warsaw, its gleaming capital, dubbed the Paris of the East. My grandmother’s father, Jan, was a renowned pediatrician and a man of high morals, the kind one can only read about these days. He was a devoted husband, caring father, brilliant practitioner and talented painter. His wife, my great-grandmother Zofia, was born on a large estate outside of Warsaw and studied pedagogy before marrying Jan. Despite her aristocratic background, she was deeply sensitive to social inequalities from a young age and developed progressive views that put her at odds with her own parents. Zofia had many suitors, or so the story goes, but finally chose Jan to be the father of her children.
Together, my great-grandparents lived in a spacious apartment on one of Warsaw’s busiest avenues, a flat that doubled as Jan’s clinic. My grandmother lets out a melodic laugh, shaking her head in disbelief as she tells me about the games she played with the children in the waiting room, about all the contagious diseases she caught from those little patients, about how much those kids loved her father. As always, I ask her to tell me about her brothers. I never knew them, but it’s easier to picture my grandmother as a child by imagining her surrounded by her siblings. Drawing implicit parallels between her brothers and my own sisters, I imagine their playtime, their discussions, and that unique, intimate dynamic which governs relations among kids in a household.
“Oh, Jerzy was sweet, lovable, the very essence of kindness,” she recalls of her eldest sibling.
“And Stefan?” I ask.
“Stefan was the wild one, always devising mischievous plans. But he was charming, too! Our mother loved him more than anything.”
With a note of nostalgia in her voice, my grandmother describes Sunday mass and dinner, when the family would gather around the dining room table. In the pictures she shows me, Jan is tall and dark and holds a long cigarette in his hand. Zofia is elegantly dressed with small, round glasses that have become fashionable among those of my own generation. Jerzy looks thin and pensive, and Stefan, just two years older than my grandmother, is handsome and boyish-looking. In the only remaining pictures of my grandmother’s early life, she is five or six years old, and yet she looks as she does now: stout, solid limbs, a slightly off-balance pose, a broad smile and sparkling eyes that never quite meet the photographer’s lens.
At those Sunday dinners, Jan took the time to check on the health, education and general wellbeing of his offspring after a busy week of caring for other people’s children. Zofia’s mother and sister were regular visitors to the household, and passed out marzipan treats to the kids after the meal. It’s the stories of those rituals, those traditions, those moments of unity that comfort me the most. As if, in my own unsettled life devoid of patterns, I can anchor my existence. The stories of my grandmother’s cheerful childhood help me to gain a sense of belonging to this world.
Back then, the life of my grandmother and her family was comfortable and busy in Warsaw. The real adventures came in the summertime, which was spent in their country house outside the city, near a small artist‘s village on the banks of the Vistula. For two months each year, my grandmother, Stefan and Jerzy ran free, away from the noise of the city, the traffic and their schoolteachers. I can almost taste the blueberry pierogi of those summer holidays, coated in powdered sugar and served with dollops of cream.
Their dreamlike childhood ended unexpectedly with the outbreak of the Second World War. The Nazi invasion from the West on 1 September 1939 was followed by the Soviet attack from the East on 17 September: within two weeks everything had changed and my grandmother had become an adult, aged twelve. As she narrates this part of the story, her voice grows quieter, her words sound heavier. The anecdotes are filled with stress and suspense and although I know exactly how the story ends, I follow her on the journey of unknowns and through the heartbreaks of war.
Throughout the occupation, my grandmother and her brothers were involved in underground resistance activities organized by the scouts. During secret meetings held by the family at their apartment, Jan would play vinyls loudly on the gramophone, pretending to host festive gatherings. At one such meeting, a friend of Jerzy’s accidentally fired one of the guns hidden in the apartment. The explosion roused suspicion amongst the neighbors, who gathered worriedly in the staircase of the building. With courage, Jan joined this group of neighbors, to dispel any suspicion that the blast might have come from his apartment.
Although the Nazis had shut down the official education system (with the exception of technical schools, for which Poles were deemed worthy enough), some children continued to attend secret schools. My grandmother attended one such establishment which operated as a technical school for tailors. Whilst continuing to learn in general lessons, the school also sewed uniforms for the German army. As a sign of resistance, the students sewed seams which came undone once the uniforms were worn by Nazi soldiers.
The Warsaw Uprising broke out on a clear summer’s day in 1944. Jan, Zofia, Jerzy, Stefan and my grandmother were all involved. The boys, aged nineteen and twenty-one, were part of a battalion, fighting for their city with other boy scouts. Jan and Zofia worked in hospitals, tending to the hundreds, thousands of soldiers injured each day. My grandmother worked at the hospital and helped to build barricades. On the second day of the Uprising, a stray bullet hit her best friend in the chest and passed through my grandmother’s ankle. She lifts the leg of her trousers to show me the scar but the moment passes in silence over the trauma of witnessing death in the wake of adulthood.
Another day, a missile was fired at the building where she was taking one of the rare baths of the Uprising. She ran out half-naked but safe, her wet skin untouched while flames devoured and destroyed the house and most of the surrounding buildings. By the time Warsaw capitulated on 2 October 1944, not much remained of the Paris of the East. The boys were sent in cattle wagons to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany and Austria. My grandmother wanted to go with them, to fulfill her duty until the end and accompany her injured fiancé, but her brothers plead with her to stay in Warsaw with their parents. So she stayed, reluctantly.
Photograph by Reelika Ramot
As Yalta was signed and the war came to an end, Poland found itself in the Soviet sphere of influence. Returning soldiers – young, rebellious patriots – were deemed a threat to the infant regime which was clawing its way to power. One by one these soldiers were interrogated, thrown into prisons, tortured, and persecuted. Discouraged from coming home, charming, mischievous Stefan settled in London and sweet, lovable Jerzy found refuge in Belgium, together with his wife and their best friend Piotr, who became my grandfather many years later. None of them ever returned to Poland.
Meanwhile, in 1947, my grandmother enrolled in Engineering Studies at the Warsaw Polytechnic University, where she met my grandfather on a canoe trip shortly before graduation. As a teenager, my grandfather had dreamt of studying political science or international relations. With the new post-war world and the Communist regime tightening its grip on Poland, the best bet was to study a subject with as few links to politics as possible - Electrical Engineering seemed like a safe choice. My grandparents married in 1954, one year after the death of Stalin. The following year, my mother was born.
Decades later, as a student, my mother was involved in Solidarność (Solidarity), the trade union and social movement that opposed the Communist government. At first, Solidarity was tolerated by the regime, but in 1981 the threat of social and political change became too great and the Communists clamped down on it, plunging the country into martial law in an attempt to regain control over it. In those years, the glimmers of hope for a future in a free Poland seemed bleak, and work was hard to come by for those with close ties to Solidarity. In those years, my mother met and married the son of Piotr, who was born and raised in Belgium next door to Jerzy and his family. On one summer day, my mother packed her belongings into her tiny Fiat and followed my father to Belgium, then to Russia and the U.S., then to Germany, and finally full circle back to Poland, nearly twenty years later. But having grown up as expats - the more comfortable version of a migrant – my sisters and I never really felt at home anywhere. We studied in Belgium and in the UK, and we have lived and worked and loved in more cities that we can count on our hands. Our cousins too, are scattered across the world, and grew up speaking French, Spanish, English, German, and yes, Polish too.
And so it goes, the story of my broken family, the story of émigré life and mispronounced surnames. From that first generation who cut off ancient roots and replaced them with the seed of restlessness, passing it on to their children and grandchildren. The first of many lives spent settling, re-settling, endless travels and continuous shifts, from city to city, from country to country. Poland is an independent state now, and so much has changed since 1944. And yet, we continue to wander. But from time to time, my wandering brings me back to Warsaw, to where it all began.
There, I lie my head in my grandmother’s lap and close my eyes.
Agathe is a modern day nomad, splitting her time between Brussels, Warsaw and Berlin.
She holds degrees in economics from the Universite Catholique de Louvain (Belgium)
and politics from the London School of Economics (UK), and recently left her job in
consulting to focus on writing, travelling and yoga.