My mother is an amazing woman. She was among the first to graduate from Johns Hopkins’ nurse practitioner program, she earned her master’s degree while in her late 40’s, and, for more than 25 years, she ran a highly regarded clinic for children with genetic diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Her research has been published in medical journals and she has presented at conferences. She has incredible strength, compassion and optimism. But it’s not my mom that I want to honor today; it’s her mom – my grandmother, Aurelia.
My grandmother was born in 1919 in Lublin, Poland. Her father owned a significant amount of real estate and raised horses which were then sold to the Polish cavalry, so her family was financially comfortable. One of five children, she had a happy childhood, even today she speaks of the parties that lasted three days and riding the horses on the family farm.
At 17, her family arranged for her to marry my grandfather. A landowner with a large farm, he was considered a good match. She says that at the she was not thrilled with an arranged marriage to a man 10 years older than she, “but that’s what you did back then.” They had two children within three years, a boy and girl. And then all hell broke loose. In 1939, the Germans invaded Poland.
The Nazis located many of their camps in Poland, and in the notorious Belzec work camp was built in Lublin. As my grandparents had a rather large farm and owned many horses, their land and possessions were confiscated by the Nazis. They left their home and stayed with relatives for awhile until, like many, they were they were rounded up and stuffed on to a train – they had no idea where they were being sent or what their fate would be.
My grandmother does not like to talk about this – I can’t imagine she’d want to relive even one second of the unimaginable horrors that she witnessed – but this is what I’ve pieced together through our conversations. She and my grandfather were separated when they were put on the train. She had no idea if he was alive or dead. They were shoved into a corner of the train with no food, facilities, and just one small window for air. She and her children spent days without knowing their destination. Finally, the train stopped and they were led into the notorious Dachau concentration camp in Germany. She was assigned to the work camp (she was considered a political prisoner) and put to work in the kitchen – which probably saved her life and her children’s lives. They had a little food and she was able to keep her children with her while she worked.
During the liberation the camp was bombed by the allies, she says that she had to lie on top of her children to protect them from the falling debris and chaos that surrounded them. That’s about all I know about this time. She refuses to speak about it, which is understandable.
After the camps were liberated in 1945, she and her children walked nine miles to the city of Munich, Germany. She knew some people there and hoped that they might help her. Like so many families, she searched desperately for some information about her family, which was primarily done through word of mouth. It took almost a year, but she and my grandfather finally reached each other and made contact with her other family members who were, miraculously, alive. My grandfather had some work in Munich, so they stayed there temporarily – Poland was a mess and it was impossible for them to get home. During that time my mother was born and the family was struggling. But by then, my grandmother had something else in mind; she wanted to come to America.
She had heard that Eleanor Roosevelt was touring Europe and visiting many of the temporary camps that had been set up for former prisoners who had nowhere to go. Never one to sit back, she pushed her way up to the front of the line to meet Roosevelt and plead her case to go to America. She and her husband had skills, they knew people in America and she wanted to start a new life in the United States. Roosevelt must have liked what she saw in my grandmother and put her in touch with people that could help. A horse farm in Eastern Pennsylvania was looking for someone to manage their stables – they were hired and they packed up for America.
But their luck ran out when they arrived – the people who were supposed to employ them had moved. They were in a new land, where they didn’t speak the language, have jobs, or any money. They knew a few people from Lublin had moved to Pennsauken, New Jersey, so, with three small children in tow, they got on a train and went to find them. As in Munich, the kindness of friends and neighbors had come through for them. Eventually, my grandfather got a job in a manufacturing plant, and my grandmother in a factory sewing and beading wedding dresses. They saved their money, bought a house and sent their three children to Catholic school.
My grandparents became proud US citizens and members of their community, sponsoring other family members to come to America from Poland. Both my mother and uncle earned graduate degrees, while my aunt married her high school sweetheart and became a stay-at-home mom – she now owns her own business and at 75, still works four days a week. My grandfather died almost 35 years ago and my grandmother has lived independently since then. At 94 years old, she is a passionate gardener, cook (you should taste her pierogi!!), and has the mental acuity of a person half her age. She knows more about the state of American politics (and has an opinion on everything and everyone!) than many people who were born here. She complains about her aches and pains and is contemplating a knee replacement. She has 7 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren and never forgets a birthday.
My grandmother, or Babchi (grandmother in Polish), has always been a source of inspiration to me. She has led an incredible life. She has experienced both the very best and the very worst of humanity. Her resilience, strength, and perseverance are unparalleled. She is the essence of the word “survivor” and I am honored to be her granddaughter.