Meeting my Great-Grandmother All Over Again by William Kowalski
Writing a book is always hard. It gets harder the deeper you dig for your material, because
that's where the secrets are buried, where the painful things live. And the closer a subject is to you, the more difficult it becomes to view it objectively enough to write about it. In the case of my great-grandmother, Aniela, who was born in 1892 and lived to be 98 years old, it was nearly impossible. From an early age, I had deified her as someone who bridged oceans, cultures, and centuries. How do you write about someone to whom you owe such a large debt?
I'd written and published thirteen books by the time I decided to approach the subject of my great-grandmother. I wanted to write it because I wanted to get to know her in a way I was never able to when she was alive. I wanted to see her through new eyes, and perhaps gain a new appreciation of what she went through. I wanted to share her with the world.
But how do you get to know someone who has been gone for almost thirty years? The answer is easier said than done: research.
Of course, I couldn't just Google her name. She was a humble Polish-American woman who died long before the internet existed.
But I could find out what her life might have been like. I could learn about her crossing in steerage, and I could explore the history of Polish Buffalo.
All these topics turned out to be far richer than one little book could contain. I wasn't attempting to write a historical work; nor was I trying for great literature. I wanted to write something accessible, in common language, with universally-recognized themes and ideas. I wanted other people to know her, even though she would have been mortified by all this attention. She never thought of herself at all; she would scarcely even sit with us at the dinner table during our large family holiday meals. Instead, she busied herself with bringing dishes to and from the table, allowing herself a morsel here and there from someone's unfinished plate, and washing the dishes in the tiny kitchen of the modest home she shared with my grandparents in the Buffalo suburb of Kenmore--much to the frustration of the younger generations of women in the family, who were brought up in the age of feminism.
So, I read and read and read. I found accounts of what village life in rural Poland was like. It was at a minimum unpleasant, and at worst horribly repressive. Her tiny village near Poznań was in German-occupied territory. In fact, when she was born, Poland did not even officially exist as a political entity, and had not since the 18th century. It wouldn't be recognized as a nation again until ten years after Aniela had emigrated to the U.S.
I read, too, about the passage across the Atlantic, on the great ship Kaiser Wilhelm II. That name had been passed down through generations of my family, and I came to find out that it saw wide service as an emigrant ship; no doubt millions of Americans living today are here because the seeds of their future were borne upon it. But the steerage, where the poor people stayed, would have been a very disagreeable place, with bad lighting, foul air, worse food, little or no privacy, rude crew, and occasionally drunken, lecherous, thieving, or even violent fellow passengers. The people in steerage were regarded by the crew as barely one step above livestock. The journey would have been awful for a sixteen-year-old girl who had probably never been further than a few miles from her home, and who was used to fresh air.
I read, too, about the Polish territory that Buffalo had become by 1908, the year Aniela arrived. There were hundreds of thousands of Poles living there by then. Polish was spoken everywhere; you didn't even have to learn much English to get by. Buffalo was in many ways just a branch office of the mother country. You can still see this legacy nearly everywhere you look, in certain neighborhoods: on street signs, on shop windows, in phone books, in cemeteries. Buffalo is a giant Polish footprint in the soil of North America.
Life was still hard in America, but infinitely better than it had been. In Poland, common folk like my family were essentially still serfs, living in a feudalesque system that had remained mostly unchanged for over a thousand years, maybe longer. They had no hope of improving their lot in life, no chance to become property owners or merchants, no education, few legal rights, no reason to believe that anything would ever be any different. All they had to comfort themselves with was vodka and religion. And they were subjects of the Prussians, a warlike people who believed Poles would be better off either Germanized or dead. It was even worse for their countrymen to the west, who lived under the Russian boot, and to the south, where the Austro-Hungarian Empire held sway.
In America, all that Old World hatred and rivalry was suddenly ancient history. In theory, everyone was an equal. A man could earn the princely sum of twenty or thirty cents an hour in one of the many factories, and you could buy your own house using a new-fangled scheme called a "mortgage". You could rent out your property to tenants. You could save money and send it back home. You could vote, if you were a man (remember Aniela arrived before the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote). America was a miracle. Nothing like it had ever existed before in the history of the world. No doubt my great-grandmother could scarcely believe her luck; no doubt she was constantly fearful that the dream would evaporate one day, leaving her with nothing.
I didn't know anything about being Polish when I was growing up. I was raised in Erie, PA, two hours from Buffalo, and by the time I came along in 1970 we had become thoroughly Americanized. I grew up on video games, Gilligan's Island reruns, and Hardy Boy novels. The most serious threat to my future seemed to be my own laziness and recalcitrance. My mother was of different ethnic stock altogether--German and Irish, mostly, although the wonders of DNA testing have recently revealed that our family history is really just one long tale of migration from a range of very far-off places, from the sands of Israel to the frozen wilds of Scandinavia. The ethnic part of being Polish played no role in my life at all.
The only thing about me that is really Polish is my last name. It's the most common Polish name there is, which is something I've always taken a perverse pride in. There is really nothing special about my people--except that they are mine, and except that we survived. I wrote this book because I wanted to know more about what it means to come from Polish people, besides the snide jokes and insults, beyond the stereotypes and the barely-remembered traditions. I wanted to know about the quality of the people I came from. I wrote it as part of my continuing effort to find out who I am.
Our family story is no different from many hundreds of thousands of other stories, but it is that very commonality that makes it worth telling. This book was a way for me to share our story with other families who might not be able to tell their own stories, or who might not even know them. If you are Polish, maybe your family is like mine. Certainly we have some things in common, and we all have much in common with immigrants from other places, too. This is what I love about America, and what I love about books: both have the power to emphasize what brings us together. We are far better off when we pay more attention to those things than to our differences. Our journey towards improvement didn't end just because we landed in America. That was only the first step.
I will always be grateful to Aniela for having the courage to take it.
William Kowalski will be reading from and signing copies of THE BEST POLISH RESTAURANT IN BUFFALO at the PolishFest in Latham, New York, from June 1-3, 2018.
Learn more about William Kowalski at his website.