Thursday, May 10, 2012

Proud to be Polish-American

Pulaski Day Parade New York
It has been fifty years since I lived in Greenpoint, a neighborhood in New York, borough of Brooklyn and a large community of Polish immigrants. I have visited Greenpoint a year ago and not much has changed through the years. People in the supermarkets still speak in Polish and signs written in Polish on their establishments. There are many Polish restaurants that specialize in Polish food such as pickled herring, pierogies, kielbasa and stuffed cabbage.  As you walk the streets you hear the Polish language spoken. The neighborhood's Catholic Churches include large stone structures and there are private Polish Catholic schools. Polish Americans live in the quiet streets in houses and brownstones that have been built many years ago. Greenpoint attracts so many Polish immigrants because of the existing community helps them to adjust to life in the United States.

 Poles that came to America to start new lives worried about forgetfulness. Parents feared that their children would lose touch with their heritage. Many retained connections with the old country, generally through friends or relatives still living in the old country. Polish immigrants had many obstacles to hurdle, forming communities of their own kind, they managed to help one another. Many Polish immigrants arrived after WW ll and from war torn Europe, America seemed like a haven. My parents lived in labor and DP camps for ten years before they came to America. Many left tiny villages in their countryside and resettled in the busy streets of New York, Chicago and other cities. in their homeland many were farmers and the bottom of the economic ladder.

Polish immigrants faced harsh prejudice, unskilled, they worked endless hours to make a living. My father worked as a janitor cleaning offices at night, hardly making enough money to support seven children. I never realized as a child we were poor because everyone in the neighborhood shared the same economic fate. Many poles earned a reputation that gradually hardened into a stereotype. Many people viewed Poles as rowdy, ignorant and drunks. Polish or " Polak" jokes have been laughed at by many as well as comedians. The " Polish " people described in the jokes as naive and stupid.

The election of a Polish Pope brought pride to the Polish people and a positive Polish-American self image.  I remember  Pope John ll coming to Greenpoint and my father wished he could be there to see the Pope, at that time he was living in upstate New York. When they flashed a photo of the Pope on the television, my father took his photo off the T.V. and framed it and hung it on the wall. He was proud to be Polish ! Poles have made great contributions, Czeslaw Milosz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1980, Hollywood and television as well. Gloria Swanson  , actress, Polish decent, Roman  Polanski, Polish filmmaker, Bobby Vinton, singer, his huge hit " My Melody Of Love " and so many more.

Schooling was important, I went to a Polish Catholic school, Our Lady Of Consolation, where Polish was spoken as well as English. To this day I am amazed how my parents were able to pay school tuition for the six of us with my father's income. My sister was a baby and there was no such thing as preschool then. Very few Polish- America children attended public schools, parents viewed it unchristian and demoralizing institutions that would rob the children of their cultural heritage.

For those who  left to come to America from Poland felt responsible to help the Poles left behind. Even though we didn't have much , my mother would pack up boxes of outgrown clothes and donate to the church to send to Poland. Women had control of the family and the men went to work. Although Poles retained much of the Old World values they did not want a mirror of Poland, a country they fled with fear, the women responded to their new freedom as difficult as it  may have been, the pressure to keep the family fed and dressed left little time for any other activity.

The contributions of Polish Americans are many. There is no area of American Life in which Poles have not left an imprint of their own.

Monday, April 30, 2012

With A Blink Of An Eye, Another year, Another Birthday

There comes a time in our lives we all eventually have to deal with aging. One good way to deal with it and accept aging is with humor and a positive attitude. So what if the aging process happens, it eventually hits everyone. One positive thing about getting older that it isn't my fault. How do I know that my youth is all spent? Well my get up and go has got up and went, but in spite of it all I am able to smile, when I think of all the places I have been and all the things I have accomplished.

My First Holy Communion.
I was born in the so called " Baby Boom", started as soon as WW ll ended. For those that think 60 is the new 40, good for you ! The 1960's created the youth movement, 1970's and 1980's were the yuppie years, finding the way to the corporate world. Today Boomers are in their 60's and once again a new shift in their lives. Boomers are now worrying about retirement. They are concerned whether or not politicians will cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Now the oldest of the millions born from 1945 to 1964 are turning and are becoming senior citizens.

Yesterdays are over, I want to see, touch, and hear what I have lost. I'll smile and wipe my tears if I could go back in time. I never had the chance to say goodbye to my mother and father, never got to say I love you, I thought it would be tomorrow. Memories are locked in my mind of childhood past. Every year on my birthday my Godmother would send me a birthday card with $5.00. I never met my Godmother, just knew she immigrated to Chicago after WW ll. To a child in the 1950's that was a lot of money. Mother's day was always a corner away from my birthday, so I used part of my money to buy my mother a gift, an apron, lipstick, hankie and she would tell me I shouldn't be wasting my mother on her. I was proud that I was able to get something for her. Those birthday cards and money stopped coming when I was 16, never knew what happened to my Godmother, that was the last year I heard from her. On my 7th birthday I received my first Holy  Communion on my birthday, and fifty years later my grand daughter received her Communion on the same day. She looked beautiful and brought me back to that day fifty years ago.

Today I look back of what I have achieved so far, a husband of 43 years, a family I love, grand kids I  adore, friends who have proven themselves through the years by standing beside me through laughter and tears, and a career I enjoyed for over forty years. I came to the conclusion I am still as young as I  want to be, I may be older today than I have been before, but I am younger than I'll ever be again.

Friday, April 27, 2012

In Search of Family History

My mother ( right) photo from website.

There are so many questions I have about my parent's past life during WW ll in Poland and still looking for answers. Both my parents died young, my father Walerian Brejwo at the age of 68 died of a massive heart attack, my mother Katarzyna Meilnick was killed at the age of 55 by a drunken driver. When they died they took their memories with them. As a child I was protected from the cold careless world. I had turned my back on my history growing up for what was the past to someone like me who only had dreams of the future. I feel an unexplainable desire to learn and write about the foundation of my life. Today I read documents , look at old photos, conscious of the power of names, places, my roots. I now crave the past.

During my search, a facebook friend posted a website, A site with WW ll photos and videos of war time Poland. There are thousands of photos on this site of different cities in Poland during the war. These photos are priceless and show the tragedy and hardship of life during WW ll. Some photos were submitted to the collection by family members or friends, and then there are those photos that have no information at all. In my search of this website I came across a photo in the Lida section , the first  photo as I opened the page. I looked at the photo very closely and I knew the person in the photo, it was a photo of my mother sitting in the front row on the right with two other women and a group of children standing behind her. According to the web page the photo was taken approximately in 1941 so she must have been 26-27 years of age. I was stunned, tears of joy, and so elated that I came across this photo. I contacted the person who established this website and asked him if I can have a copy of the photo of my mother. He was a gentlemen and the very next day he Emailed me the photo. I do not have many photos of my mother in her younger years and cherish the ones I have. This photo is priceless. I do not know the history behind this photo but I will do my best to research it.

My mother was born in 1914 in Wilno, Lida area, she was left an orphan at the age of two. Her father died fighting WW l and her mother was killed during the war. During WW l , Lida was occupied by German troops. In 1919 the Red Army established Soviet power. On September 30, 1920 Poland and Soviet troops fought in and near Lida, the battle of Niemen. In 1927, there were twenty four factories in Lida. 1928 were rapid years of growth. Lida was an important garrison of the Polish Army. From June 1941 to July 1944, it was occupied by the German troops who killed almost 25,000 people. On September 18, 1943 the Jewish Community of Lida was rounded up and taken to Majdanek, where they were murdered. By September 1944, Lida was in the Grodno Region. This area in now known as Belarus.

I also received a letter from the International Tracing Service ( ITS) about my Uncle Jan Brejwo, my father's brother. I have never met my Uncle and my father never saw him again after 1947. According to the letter I received , he was held under German war captivity in Poland and put in Stalag Xl-B as a POW. He was imprisoned at Torun Poland in a fort that held Polish POW's that was converted to a Polish prison. The district was Grudziadz Poland and the location of a German concentration camp, a sub camp of Stutthof.

This has been a successful week in my searches. I  feel I need some kind of closure, there is a mystery that haunts me. So many people that endured and suffered during the war kept their memories to themselves and have died with them. The first generation of children are now searching to answers of the past. Those that are fortunate to have their parents living is a blessing. Then there are those like me that have a burning desire to  want to know . I will not stop, there isn't a day that I regret that I did not ask my parents questions or show interest of their past. Then on the other hand ,  they left the war time memories behind and started a new life all over again like so many. Their new struggles in a new country, America

Monday, April 16, 2012

My Father's Beacon Camera

My Father's Beacon Camera

Whenever I look back through old family photographs I get a little melancholy. As I go backwards in time I am also reminded how fortunate I am to still have my father's camera, a Beacon made by Whitehouse products in Brooklyn New York. The camera has a lens with metal bellows and takes 16 images on 127 film and has a leather carrying case made in the 1950's. My father encouraged my love of photography, telling the story behind the photograph.

My father, Walerian Brejwo was a man with strong convictions, opinions and strength. He lived through WW II and learned that only through hard work and commitment you can reach your goals. During WW II a bomb dropped on the DP camp we were living  in Germany and he realized we have been saved, not by mere luck, but by the hand of God. He was a man devoted to his family. My father worked for everything he had. He set his site on something and worked for it. Everything was paid by cash, he did not own any credit cards or even have a checkbook. He took pleasure from simple things in life, he loved music and I remember the first radio and record player he brought. I must have heard that 78 LP vinyl record  " Good Night Irene" and "Tennessee Waltz" played a millions times , to the point my mother wished she named me Irene.

Growing up in New York I remember my father carrying his camera everywhere we went.  It was always hanging around his neck almost like it was part of him or a tie. I often find that having a photograph reminds me of how I felt at that certain time the photo was taken. Memories can be triggered by photos of places and people; it takes us back in time. Whenever my father pressed the shutter button, he was framing and stopping that second in time for the future to look back at the past. Life is a picture, as I page through the years, sometimes I shed some tears. So many faces I have known,  some have passed away and others have grown. A photograph is a memory to hold.

My Father, photo I took with his Beacon camera.
I have a great passion for photography, did I inherit the gene from my father? My camera comes with me everywhere I go and sometimes hangs around my neck. The Beacon camera is not worth much dollar value, but to me it's priceless. It was my father's, thirty years passed on  and a memory that  keeps him alive in my heart and will always cherish it. Sometimes it's hard to realize, when the photos are spread out before my eyes, with all the pictures my father took, our whole lives are in the old photo book. A photograph is a memory to hold of happy times and pleasant things, however new or old. It is a mirror that reflects our lives in the past.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The letter , coming to America

Example of an tenement Apartment
" An opening for a job and housing in the United States is available for you. Your job will be an unskilled worker. You must start to learn and speak English now. Your destination in the U.S.A. will be 257 East 10th Street, New York. This opportunity has been made possible to you by the combined efforts of the Protestant and Orthodox Church in America." A letter written to my parents from the Church World Service on June 5,1951. At the time my parents received this letter we were living in a DP camp Larger Kurhessen Kaserne in Hann Munden Germany. From here we were sent to Camp Wentorf , a regional Resettlement Processing Center and the last camp we lived in before we came to America.

WW II in Europe had come to an end in 1945 and an estimated 7 to 11 million displaced persons were still living in Europe. President Harry S. Truman called upon Congress to enact legislation that would allow some of the wartime refugees to enter the United States, thus became the Displaced Persons Act. The Act stipulated that only applicants who have been in resettlement camps would be eligible for American visas. The Act also insisted that all applicants must present guarantees by sponsors that housing and jobs would be waiting for them. Refugees admitted to the United States were also aided by voluntary social service agencies, accredited by the Displaced Person Commission. Most of these agencies were created by religious and ethnic groups. Among some of the relief organizations was the Church World Service , who sponsored my parents. By the end of 1952 more than 400,000 displaced persons were admitted to America. More than 70% were refugees from Eastern Europe. Many arrived on the shores of America with hope in their hearts and determination to make a better life for themselves and their children.

My parents had a hard time as newcomers to America, it's not easy to start a new life in an unfamiliar country. Most immigrants had to learn a new language and a new way of life. Jobs were often hard and mostly unskilled labor with low wages. Many moved into their own poor neighborhoods where they lived in crowded tenements.  My family , father, mother, three brothers and I came to America on November 11, 1951 . I don't remember the trip over since I was only two and half years old,  my older  brother has a good memory of the day we arrived. What I do remember is our first home in America  on East 10th Street on the  lower East side of New York.  The apartment was a  small four room railroad flat on the second floor. It had a small kitchen with a bathtub , one toilet with a overhead wooden tank and a pull chain to flush the toilet , a so call living room and two small bedrooms. We had very little furniture, a couple of beds, a crib, and a sofa. My parents life long possessions was one trunk that they brought over from Germany.We had a icebox that required blocks of ice to keep it chilled. I loved when the ice man would show up , he always gave me a chip of ice ,  I pretented it was ice cream. My mother washed the clothes in the bathtub by hand using a wash board  and hung the clothes out the kitchen window on a clothes line. To invite someone over you had to be creative, because of little money, food was scarce and lack of appiliances. The children played on the paved streets and people hung out on front stoops or fire escapes. The neighborhood  felt safe, parents really did not  worry about their children playing on the streets, there was always an adult keeping an eye on them. I was one of those kids, it gave me street sense and grew up faster than most pampered kids. You were lucky if you lived on the lower floors , they were walkups and no elevators. I remember going to the basement and watching my mother shoveling coal into the furnace of the building in order to  get a discount on the rent.

For over 150 years the Lower East Side of New York has been a haven for immigrants seeking a better life. Later many families improved the living conditions by moving from the Lower East Side to other areas. My parents moved to Greenpoint Brooklyn, a Polish community that still exsits today. There is now a museum on Orchard Street,  New York, called the Tenement Muesum, the lower East Side of New York will always be known for it's historical immagration.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

DP Camp Rehden and Diepholz

My Mother ( with cigarette ) and Father behind her.

Hitler made the decision to turn Poland into a purely German area within 15-20 years during WW II known as The Germanization of Poland. Various plans regarding the future of the original population of Poland was made with the deportation of Poles to Western Siberia and the Germanization of four to five million, although deportation really meant that Poles were to be put to death. There were millions of Displaced Persons ( DP'S) in Germany during WW II , most of whom were brought  in for forced labor and used as slave laborers in factories and farms in Germany. Many of the DP's from Eastern Europe did not wish to go back to their country of origin at the end of the war fearing retaliation by the communist regime. There were Ex-Pows, displaced persons, former slave laborers and concentration camp inmates in Europe of which 2.5 million were in the British Zone of Germany. DP Camps came into existence after the German capitulation in 1945. there were thousands of DP Camps in Germany from different nations.

In the British Zone was camp Rehden, a labor camp that my parents were living , as well as two of my brothers Eugene and Henry. My brother Frank died as a baby and is buried in the Rehden cemetery. My brothers Eugene and Henry were born in a DP camp in Diepholz , which was on the grounds of the military airfield Fliegerhorst, that had been badly damaged by the bombings in February 1944. Air strikes took place on the air base which 78 bombs fell. I remember my parents talking about the bombings and how part of the plant they were in got hit and my Mother's leg was badly injured and scared for life, a  memory that stayed with her  every time she looked at the long scare on her leg. The bombings were a large scale attack with 90 four-engine bombers of the Americans and the plant was destroyed to a large extent. My parents from here went to Rehden Camp,  it was a former German Army Camp that held a large ammunition depot which was scattered over a huge forest area with bunkers mainly underground. The Army personal was housed in low stone buildings and the labor force , mainly forced labor , in wooden barracks in a separate area from the Army buildings. The location of the compound was about 3K from the village of Rehden. This camp became one of the many camps my parents lived. The main occupants were Poles, but there were some Lithuanians, Latvians,and Ukrainians at the beginning but soon were transferred to other camps  because of constant friction  among each other. Rehden became 100% Polish and administered by the British as it was in the British Zone. Within a short time camp Rehden became the Polish center for Higher education for all Polish DP camps in Germany using the Polish system with the equivalent of high school education and eventually was called Polski Oboz W Rehden KR. Diepholz. When I was searching for information on Camp Rehden, I  came across  a gentlemen who lived in the camp at the same time my parents did and was nice enough to send me photos as well as his description of the camp. Erwin lived at the camp from 1945-1950 and had an excellent memory of Camp Rehden and has been very helpful on my search  of the camp.

I think of my parents often, the more I look at the old photos from WW II , I admire the strength, endurance and the fight for life they had. I was a child protected from the cold careless world. Through all the trials and tribulations that they have faced and endured let not their spirit be restless , for they are always here with me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Searching For Relatives

My Father's Sister Frani and her daughter

As a child I always thought  there was something missing in my life. I wondered why I didn't have any grand parents, uncles, aunts or cousins, like so many of my friends had.When my friends would say they were visiting relatives, I was jealous; I would make up stories of visiting my grand parents or cousins. My parents had many friends that shared the same fate they did living in DP camps ( displaced people camps) and  memories  of coming to America. There was a special bond among these friends, sharing stories from WW II and the hard times they endured during the war and lived. These friends of my parents became my aunts, uncles and cousins, but still I missed not having grand parents.

My mother was left an orphan at the age of two, her parents were killed during WW I , her father died fighting the war, and her mother killed during the war, she never knew her parents. My father was born to Bleslawa Brejwo and Anny Rubiel in Poland and had a brother Jan Brejwo and a sister Frani. My parents , three brothers and I came to America on November 11, 1951, after being displaced during the war and living in DP camps for ten years. My uncle Jan was sent to Greta Australia with his family. The Greta Army Camp was opened in 1939 as a training camp for WW II soldiers and in 1949 was transferred to the Department of Immigration which became one of Australia's largest migrant reception center from 1949 to 1960 as part of the post-war immigration to Australia. Over 100,000 migrants seeking a new life passed through the Greta Camp . My parents were also to be sent to Greta but because of my mother's bad health at the time , they were sent to America. From Greta my uncle moved to Maitland, after the flood of 1955 in Maitland they moved again. My uncle had a wife and three sons, Marian, Zdzialaw and Jan Brejwo. My older two cousins have passed on and Jan is the only living relative of his family. It took my father twenty years to find his brother after being separated in Germany. Their correspondence was shorten by my father's brother's early death. It was sad , so many years searching and such a short time being connected again. Today's modern technology and the web , I was able to find my cousin Jan Brejwo living in Australia. It has been  six years since we got in touch and because of Jan , he gave  me the information written above. Since he was born in Australia in 1953 , he has vague memories of any other family.

I have been working with the International Tracing Service (ITS) to find out any information of my father's sister Frani and her two daughters.I doubt my aunt is living but would love to find my cousins. I wonder where they are ? What is their life like ?Sad, I don't even know their names. My father never talked about his sister , I did not  know he had a sister until I came across this photo after his death, written on the back" From your sister Frani  my two daughters."War changes people's lives , separates families and many never see each other again. I yearn to find them, how vital it is to have family and roots of generations pass.

I am hoping that someone who reads this, might recognize the photo or know of my cousins. The photo shows a life of hardship of war torn Poland that they endured. Where ever they may be, I thought of you today, but that is nothing new, I thought of you yesterday and tomorrow too. May God watch over you.

My Father's brother Jan  and his sons.