Thursday, January 13, 2011

Growing up Polish, becoming American

At a recent annual meeting of the Polish American Historical Society in Boston, I was invited to join a panel of poets reading verse about their experience of "growing up Polish-American." I did not, I grew up Polish... or maybe not even that... In my remarks, I talked about my immigrant experience and about my grandparents and family history affected by the war. I was born and raised in Warsaw, but I trace my roots to eastern borderlands of Poland.

My compatriot, Czeslaw Milosz, whose footsteps I followed from the Polish Kresy, north-eastern Borderlands, to the Far West of California, often wrote about the spiritual richness arising from the clash of cultures in areas where Poles, Belorussians, Lithuanians, Jews, and “Tutejsi” – people from here, have lived for centuries. After the conquerors of America returned home with some new root vegetables and the new plantings spread around Europe, they shared a cuisine, eating not only the local blincy, bliny, nalesniki, or pancakes, but also placki kartoflane, or latkes…

Many languages, many religions: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Judaism, even Islam, represented by the Tatar settlement of Kruszyniany, established in the 17th century by a Muslim captain of cavalry Samuel Murza Krzeczkowski, his soldiers and some other Tatar officers were granted land there by the Polish king. My grandmother’s village of Bielewicze is not far from there, and not far from the ancient old-growth forests, the "puszcza" of Bialowiez. Her name was Nina Niegierysz. Her father, my great grandfather came from somewhere in Ukraine, and bought a large estate in Mieleszki, in the Voivodeship of Bialystok. I have a picture of my great grandfather as a boy in Odessa. Who were these people? Memories are lost in the turmoil of history. Even the birth certificate of my father was burnt during the war.

Thanks to this part of my family, I’m not even fully Polish. My grandmother married a local man, Wincenty Trochimczyk, and this is how I got my Belorussian last name. She did not speak or write Polish; having dropped out of high school to work on the family farm, she wrote in Russian alphabet and spoke to her Polish grandchildren in Belorussian. My father, Aleksy, started learning Polish at six, and spoke with the Eastern borderlander accent, pronouncing the consonant H differently from CH.

My mother Henryka Wajszczuk was born in Baranowicze, in Nowogrodek Voivodeship (now Belarus, previously Soviet Union, but Poland before the war), and her family belonged to impoverished Polish landed gentry. An online family tree is maintained by an American cousin, Waldemar Wajszczuk. The family roots go back to the 16th century and there are many branches spread out across the world.

The extended family includes such memorable characters as my mother's uncle Dominik Hordziejewski, who used to ride in a horse buggy across his vast estate to the famous lake of Switez or to Nowogrodek church, but who lost his mind after the Soviets took over and forcibly resettled him and his family to Gdansk Oliva. They had 24 hours to pack the remnants of their possessions in less than half of a railroad car. Try squeezing a manor house into that! Of his herds, he was left with one cow. He spent his last years dressed in his best coat and top hat, grazing this one cow in the parks and by the roads of his new city. Before the war, he had shepherds doing that on his estate...

My Polish grandmother Marianna Wasiuk gave me my first name, which I changed to my childhood nickname of Maja only in California, after a decade of being annoyed by being called Ma-ri-a, like the heroine of the West Side Story, an alien name for a stranger... My parents met after the war, while studying and helping rebuilt the destroyed Warsaw.

Thus, I am a hybrid, urban and rural, sophisticated and simple. I am primarily a highly sophisticated and educated city-dweller. I spent 10 out of every 12 months in the capital of Poland, Warsaw, studying music, literature, and history, attending theater and opera premieres, art openings, and exclusive receptions. Looking back, I would call myself a "fashionista" or a "social butterfly" in high heels and fancy dresses. But for the two months of the summer I was transformed into a country girl working in the fields, picking mushrooms and berries in the forest, making hay, carrying water from the well, or cooking strawberry preserves on a wood stove. For some reason, when remembering my childhood, those summer days glow with happiness never experienced in the most sophisticated environments of rainy Warsaw.

The loss of the native land, vividly experienced by all emigrants, is a frequent theme of my poetry, often juxtaposing the old with the new. Here's a poem inspired by my childhood in the meadows of Bielewicze, an idyllic land, remembered during a walk in the Big Tujunga Wash...

Dragonfly Days

The California dragonflies are
as they should be – orange,
enormous, flying in formation
above green algae blooming
in the winter stream.

A hairy bug looks for a crevice
to hide his ugliness,
straight from the pages
of a horror book or a painting
by Hieronymus Bosch –
a creature that could have been,
but is not.

A blue heron floats down.
His majestic wings beat slowly
until he finds a reedy alcove
for an al fresco dinner. Transfixed,
I watch his shape-shifting ways –
a cruel flash of movement erupting
from a graceful silhouette
standing still as a priceless etching
amidst the rocks.

Once, I knew such dark-winged herons
watching us scare away the fish
from their river with our childish giggles.
Red-billed storks picked their lunch
of frogs and crickets from the trail
of freshly cut grass, its straight rows
measured by the motion
of my uncle’s scythe
across the meadow.

Like long-legged pets,
storks followed the man
who fed them. They paid no notice
to a silent child trying to catch
a butterfly in her small hands,
watching bright blue dragonflies
over a ditch filled with rainwater
and forget-me-nots.

Blue and orange, the dragonflies
still haunt my memories, hovering
above the smooth surface
of long forgotten stream,
beneath the tranquil expanse
of high noon sky.

The key word is “once” – the pastime is one of comparison: then and now, there and here, what was and will not ever be and what is and will continue to be with a full weight of the presence. This poem was included in my first book of poetry, Miriam's Iris, or Angels in the Garden (2008).

The sense of loss and distance is also making an appearance in the poem about birch trees, my favorite of all. There were birch trees near my grandparents houses in both Bielewicze and Trzebieszow. My parents planted them, with oaks, in their country garden on the outskirts of Warsaw. Inspired by a painting by Steven West depicting the aspen, the poem includes a paraphrase of a title of a book on Russian “bieriozka” letters written on birch bark in old Russian villages. I got the book from my father, Aleksy, who had worked as Russian translator and electrical engineer and spent over 20 years in Persian Gulf, Iraq and the Emirates.

A White Letter

The aspens look at me. The eyes of white birch
reproach: "Where are you, why are you there?
Not here, with us?" Yes, I was supposed to keep
collecting yellow leaves each fall.
The branches sang softly, trembled
in the slightest breeze, anxious to fly away.
Birches shed their bark in broad strips and sheets
I could use to write love letters and stories
of olden times, but did not, seduced
by the allure of paper and keyboard –
the tools of memory that keeps the eyes
of the birch trees wide open as they whisper
I will send you a birch bark letter -
“я тебе берёзку пошлю…”*

The poem was written for an exhibition of paintings at APC Gallery in Torrance, and published in a chapbook by Poets on Site of Pasadena. Perhaps poetry can only grow "on site" - somewhere it takes root?

When looking for a place of my own in California, I picked Sunland - with its village atmosphere and friendly neighbors it reminded me of those villages of my childhood where everyone knew whose granddaughter I was... The beauty of Sunland's landscape - our gardens and mountains, the colors, the sunlight - does not cease to astound me. It feels all the more vivid right after coming back from wintry, snowy, beautiful, historical but ultimately quite grey Boston.


Photos of Sunland and Big Tujunga Wash by Maja Trochimczyk


  1. Maja, thank you for posting this and telling your story. I especially liked the poem "A White Letter." My mother grew up in a wooded area west of Lvov, and she sometimes talked about the beautiful birch trees that stood around her house.

    I wish I could have been in Boston to hear you read your poems.

  2. Recently Ewa Parma asked me, "Why did you stay?" We know, don't we, that it's not because "I fell in love with democracy." But aside from other reasons, not necessarily positive, I truly did fall in love with coastal California, and now "j'ai deux amours -- mon pays et California." For birches, I substituted aspen . . . for sweat-peas, bougainvilleas. No, not the same, but their flamenco kind of beauty complements the bucolic beauty of the Polish countryside. So: I have two loves. Thank you for a marvelous post.

  3. Maja, I totally enjoyed reading about your past and your present as well! The dragonfly poem is lovely. I can see those birds and insects going along living their lives even when disturbed by humans!

  4. Thank you all for the comments and thanks, especially to John for the invitation to the PAHA Poetry session that resulted in this blog.

    As for the two loves, Oriana - you are right. In a different poem (Ode of the Lost) I talk about replacing the "nightingale" with the "mocking bird" - the grey bird with a strong, fluted voice.

    Mina - thanks for liking the dragonflies. They are a peculiar type of insect, jewel-like and charming in orange or blue.