Sunday, January 24, 2021

Portraits of Survivors - Babcia, Prababcia, Grandma, Great Grandma... (Vol. 12, No. 1)

 My Aunt Barbara recently found and posted a photo of her Grandmother, my Great Grandmother, Konstancja Wasiuk. Born Sudnik Rynkiewicz, she lost her husband in 1935 in the eastern Borderlands ("Kresy") that are now Belarus, but were then Poland (1918-1945).  Konstancja's mother, my Great Great Grandma, came from landed gentry, Woyno Sidorowicz, from the Nowogródek area. Konstancja and her husband Wladyslawl Wasiuk lived on a country estate called Kamionka in the same county.  After the death of her husband, she survived the war, living successively under the Soviet occupation (1939-1941), German occupation (1941-1943), and back again Soviet occupation. The area became a part of the Soviet Republic of Belarus to 1990 and the country of Belarus after that. 


This city is a cipher without a face. Just splinters 
of images caught on paper.  The blustery winter 
street with a round poster stand just like in Warsaw. 
The opulent interior of the photographer’s studio
with a bearskin for naked babies, a mahogany stand 
for First-Communion girls, with rosaries and lace gloves. 
Flowers for Marshall Piłsudski, tightly held in a fist
by the prettiest girl with locks of curly hair.

That’s all. No childhood street corners, no velvet 
and muslin curtains of the family home. 
No church bells. Some forgotten shrines.
This was the site of battles. In 1916 — 100,000 dead, 
far less than the 700,000 of Verdun. Known to no-one.
Still, each life matters. Once more: Baranowicze 
where, in forty-two, forty-eight priests and teachers 
were murdered in cold blood. By Germans?  Soviets? 

The German rule meant disappearing in the ghetto.
Half of the town gone. The Soviet rule equaled 
crowded freight trains to Kazakhstan, Irkutsk, 
and Arkhangelsk. For me, this city is a cipher, 
only existing as the birthplace of my Mom.

Lucyna tells a different story — bus trips to Świteź,
Mickiewicz’s poems, silver ponds at Grandpa’s farm.
Spring: white bells of the lilies of the valley, 
picked by the bucket.. Summer: gold fields,  
sunflower heads as huge as dinner plates. 
Autumn: the Soviets came. Nothing 
could save them from deportation, ruin — 
you know — life as usual. 

(c) 2016 by Maja Trochimczyk, from "The Rainy Bread: Poems from Exile"

After the war, Great Grandma Konstancja moved for the last year of her life to Trzebieszow,  near Lukow in the Lublin Voivodeship (Province), where my maternal grandparents lived: Konstancja's daughter Maria, with her husband Stanislaw Wajszczuk and children, my Mom Henryka and my Uncle Jerzy, plus Barbara born after the war.  (The family tree of Wajszczuks with some seven thousand entries is online includes those names, but not Konstancja - ).  I heard she loved music,  so maybe, my fascination with Chopin is a tradition inherited from her, via my Grandma's radio and listening to the daily Chopin Hour concerts at noon that were the fixture of my childhood? I do not know for sure. I just do not know enough. 

She looks pretty here, with a pleated hairstyle, traditional in eastern Slavic countries, called the crown.  My Mom said her Babcia Konstancja was very pious and very mean. Apparently, she was not happy in a small, crowded, poor farm-house with two bedrooms and no running water. It is not hard to guess why - she was traumatized by the war, loss of family, loss of her real home near the city of Baranowicze.  Konstancja's Catholic faith was steady and deep: once she got tired of living as a refugee, a permanently displaced person, she decided to die with Lord Jesus on Good Friday. She went to bed on Monday and waited until Friday, when she breathed her last. Such faith! If only were she able to use it to love her Grandchildren and tell them stories of the lost past, instead...

So, if Konstancja Sudnik Rynkiewicz Wasiuk was a piece of music composed by Chopin, what piece would she be?  The music has to capture her youthful serenity in a noble home, comfort of extended family and country estate. Then, there must be a dramatic storm that interrupts and breaks the serenity...  Ballade No. 2, in F Major, Op. 38 seems to fit the bill... Here it is, played by the young Krystian Zimmerman.

Christmas 1938 in Baranowicze, my Grandparents with my Mom, 
her brother and Great Aunt Wiktoria in a white dress.

When I was studying musicology and sound engineering in Warsaw, I met a composer, sound designer, Tadeusz Sudnik Hrynkiewicz who told me he was my cousin. I never understood how we were connected. Finally, I know! Great Grandma Konstancja, from a landed gentry family of Sudnik (Hrynkiewicz and Rynkiewicz sound like variants of the same name), married somewhat below her status, assuming the last name Wasiuk - this name, I think, could only be of a farmer, not of someone of a noble origin. However, my Aunt tells me that Wladyslaw Wasiuk was connected to the most powerful aristocratic family of the area, Duke Radziwiłł: attended their events, dinners, and hunting parties. Wladyslaw's brother worked as an administrator on the Duke Radziwiłł's vast estate.

 Grandma Maria with her sister Jadwiga, married Hordziejewska

One of Konstancja's daughters, Jadwiga Wasiuk, married back into the landed nobility. As a wife of  Dominik Hordziejewski she lived on a large country estate in the same county of Nowogrodek. It was the favorite place of my Mother's that she visited with her parents in a horse-and-buggy. She loved trips to the lake Switez, and eating blintzes with butter in the huge, warm kitchen... After the war, Ciocia Jadzia with her husband and son ended up on Gdansk Oliwa, forcibly resettled by the Soviets, who confiscated their manor, all possessions and lands. . . they could keep one cow and some furniture, that would fit in half of a railway carriage. Here's a poem to commemorate their fate.


Her mother’s aunt, Ciocia Jadzia works in a kiosk in Oliwa
selling papers and razor blades in a ruined city
of charcoal buildings and five-year plans
She hides the best blades for her faithful clients
in the kiosk on the way to the Cathedral
where angels with puffy wooden cheeks
triumphantly blow their golden trumpets
walls and benches shake with the majesty of Bach
the gold-starred ceiling shimmers
in summer evening cold
The music of the seaside vacation heals the grey hours
of the girl, sitting in the kiosk, selling matches and tickets
after Ciocia Jadzia goes home to cook dinner
for her silent husband, drunk artist son
She works — Uncle Dominik, a proud nobleman
in a top hat and a black Sunday coat
walks through Oliwa’s parks
with his last, prize-winning Holstein cow
He grieves the loss of his estates — the life he had had
before that fateful train ride from the East
He still sees the red-roofed manor with a white porch
bronze oak leaves scattered on the gravel path
silver gray of Lake Świteź
golden rye fields before the harvest
He walks home to rusty bricks pocked by bullet holes,
smoke-dark hallways, and a burst of color
in the courtyard where asters tremble —
in last evening breeze –
a bouquet of fallen stars

(c) 2016 by Maja Trochimczyk, from "The Rainy Bread: Poems from Exile"

What would have been Ciocia Jadzia's portrait by Chopin?  I picked Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31, very dramatic and full of twists and turns, restarts and digression. Pathos interrupted by moments of sweet delight.  Krystian Zimmerman again does the honors of playing this work, for my maternal Great Aunt, Jadwiga nee Wasiuk Hordziejewska:

My Grandma Maria nee Wasiuk Wajszczuk (1906-1973) was a real beauty. Haughty and elegant, she never stopped being a city girl from Baranowicze, displaced to a village where she ended up after running away from the Soviets in the winter of 1939-40.  I retell that story in a blog about my gold heirlooms, my Mom's sapphire engagement ring that now graces my finger... After Soviets invaded Poland on Sept 17, 1939, and uncle Glinski, a Polish soldier, was shot in the street by NKVD, his widow, Ciocia Tonia (Gransma's sister, Antonina) was deported within 24 hours to Siberia with her sons. My Grandpa Stanislaw, who had worked for the Polish Radio Station and the Polish Railroads, was next on the list; he went into hiding, moving from one place to another every couple of days. He had good friends that helped! 

In a month or so, my Grandma sold what she could, bought gold Krugers (Krugerrands, South African coins) to sew into my Mom's coat and hide in her toy bear. Then, just before New Year's Eve, they left everything and took a train to the border, to walk at night across the frozen river Bug to the Polish side. Though occupied by the Germans, this area was still safer for a Polish family of a former Polish government official, much safer than their town of Baranowicze, occupied by communist Soviet Union. Deportation to Siberia or death would have been their fate if they had stayed.

Babcia Marianna, Dziadek Stanislaw with 
Mama Henryka (Henia) and Uncle Jurek, Baranowicze park, 1938.

I wrote about that time in my "Slicing the Bread" poem from the book of the same title, published in 2014.  Here's a story of the escape through the winter landscape, as told my my Mother, from "The Rainy Bread"


The Soviets came in 1939.
They shot her uncle in the street, 
and took his widow, Aunt Tonia, 
with their two sons to Siberia. All in 24 hours.

Her father did not wait. He sold what he could.
They went through the “green border” 
back to his family near Lublin.
Germans were not half as bad. 

Two pairs — a parent, a child — walking quietly
in a single file through deep snow drifts.
Long shadows on the sparkling, midnight white.
The guide took them in a boat across the river Bug.
Smooth, black water between brilliant banks.

Twisted tree branches, turning.
The moon hid behind clouds.
Stars scattered.  On the other shore,
the guide told her to take off her coat. 
He ripped out the lining, counted 
the gold coins her mother had sown 
into the seams.  He tore apart her teddy bear, 
took the jewels from his belly. 

I got frostbite on my cheeks and hands that night.
Look at the spots, she told her daughter.  
We had paid him already. You cannot trust
anyone, not anyone at all.


They finally arrived in Trzebieszow the ancestral village of my Grandpa Stanislaw Marcin Wajszczuk (1895-1973). His father, my Great Grandfather Franciszek Wajszczuk (1862-1935) was the village's Mayor and a poet, too... 

Trzebieszow, Winter 2016, photo by Barbara Miszta

Apple tree in bloom, Trzebieszow. Photo by Barbara Miszta

So  it could be said that the family was well established in that large and vibrant village, where houses lined the road in a single file, for miles on end. While grateful for survival, the refugees from Baranowicze were starving through the rest of the war in a two bedroom house, with 20 people crammed together into bedrooms with wall-to-wall fold-away beds. Outdoor bathroom, no running water, and very little food...


Her mother's hunger. One huge pot of hot water
with some chopped weeds ‐ komesa, lebioda
she taught her to recognize their leaves,
just in case‐plus a spoonful of flour,
for flavor. Lunch for twenty people
crammed into a two-bedroom house.

The spring was the worst ‐ flowers, birdsong,
and nothing to eat. You had to wait
for the rye and potatoes to grow. The pantry
was empty. She was hungry. Always hungry.
She ate raw wheat sometimes. Too green,
The kernels she chewed‐still milky‐made her sick.

Thirty years after the war,
her mother stashed paper bags with sliced, dried bread
on top shelves in her Warsaw kitchen.
Twenty, thirty bags...enough food for a month.
Don't ever throw any bread away, her mother said.
Remember, war is hunger.

Every week, her mother ate dziad soup‐
fit for a beggar, made with crumbled wheat buns,
stale sourdough loaves, pieces of dark rye
soaked in hot tea with honey.
She liked it. She wanted to remember
its taste.

(C) 2014 published in "Slicing the Bread" (Finishing Line Press), reprinted on Quill and Parchment:

Here we are, coming home from Church in Trzebieszow.

I earlier commemorated my Grandparents in a mazurka poem from the Chopin with Cherries anthology (2010). My Grandpa played a folk fiddle in a folk kapela, and his violin, decorated with ribbons, was a source of much delight in my childhood. I often asked him to play for me and danced with my brother to the lively obereks and mazurkas. . . We loved to eat the baked mazurkas, cakes for Easter, one of the specialties of Grandma. 

 How to Make a Mazurka (fragment) 

             after Chopin’s Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4,

               for my Grandparents, Stanisław and Maria Wajszczuk,  
               who could play and bake their mazurkas like no one else

Take one cup of longing
for the distant home that never was,
one cup of happiness that danced
with your shadows on the walls

of Grandpa’s house, while he played
a rainbow of folk tunes
on his fiddle, still adorned
with last wedding’s ribbons [...]


I dedicated the "How to Make a Mazurka" to Chopin's Mazurka op. 17 no. 4, wistful and nostalgic, full of emigre sorrow...  Here it is played by Josh Wright. 

My mother at First Communion, Baranowicze, 1937.

So far, I wrote too few poems about my Grandma Marianna, who was an amazing chef, baker, and hostess. Elegance personified! Speaking proper literary Polish amidst a sea of peasant dialect; always wearing white gloves and beautiful dresses, with elegant jewelry.  My Mom inherited her gift for baking and giving parties. The very first poem I wrote about my Grandma is in my book "Slicing the Bread" - she taught me the meaning of war-time hunger that she experienced, and the displacements that scattered the family around the world.


Her Grandma showed her how to hold
the knife, cut a straight, narrow strip,
keeping the creamy flesh nearly intact,
ready for the pot of boiling water.

Don’t throw away any food.
The old refrain.
My sisters, Tonia and Irena lived on potato peels
in Siberia.
 The girl is confused. She knows
Ciocia Tonia — glasses on the tip of her nose,
perfectly even dentures — but Irena? Who is that?

They were all deported to Siberia. Not sure how
Irena’s parents died — of typhus, or starvation, maybe?
They used to pick through garbage heaps,
look for rotten cabbage, kitchen refuse
to cook and eat. They cooked and ate anything
they found under the snow, frozen solid.

The water’s boiling. Babcia guides her hand:
You have to tilt the cutting board
toward the pot, slide the potatoes in.
Don’t let them drop and splash you.

What happened next? The orphaned children
went with the Anders’s Army and the Red Cross
to Iran, Switzerland, Chicago.
The kitchen
fills with memories. Mist above the stove.
Grandma piles up buttery, steaming,
mashed potatoes on her plate. Eat, child, eat.  

Ten years later, Aunt Irena came to visit.
She looked like Grandma, only smaller.
Her legs were crooked. 

(c) 2014 by Maja Trochimczyk, reprinted in "The Rainy Bread" 2016

The "river" Krzna - called a river, though really not much than a stream
flows through flat Trzebieszow fields. Site of great fun at vacation time. 

A more recent poem is dedicated to Grandma Marianna's exile in a village, where she did what she could to protect her identity and pride.  This is published in "The Rainy Bread: Poems from Exile" of 2016.


Ko-ko-ko — the clucking of hens
is a homey refrain of my California morning.
Some neighbors got themselves a chicken coop
in our sunlit village on the outskirts
of a grand metropolis.

Ko-ko-ko — the sounds take me back
to vacations with Grandma. Too proud
to stoop down to the level of peasants, she
wore a thick apron and gloves for work outside,
took it all off every time she walked into the house.

She could kill a rooster swiftly with one strike of the axe
and peel off the feathers in a gruesome spectacle
of steaming blood and guts.

Ko-ko-ko — dark orangey goo of the egg yolks
colored with a gold hue the best Easter babka,
the muslin one, so tall and delicate that children
were sent out while it cooled atop feathered pillows
in the locked bedroom.

We ate the rooster soup, rosół,  with home-made noodles
Sliced with the sharpest knife, from a sheet of dough
dried in the same room on clean white linen towels.

Ko-ko-ko — the hen measures time as I think of Babcia.
In her city youth, she never touched a chicken,
a fashionable niece of a rich landowner,
she wore her pearls and an ostrich-feather hat
for the Sunday ide to church, while the farmhands
worked as hard as she does now.

A lone lady in a peasant village, she learned
how to pick the eggs and bake a babka.
She has her crystal vases full of lilac, still,
but she knows how to cut off the rooster’s head
with one blow, how to cook her unexcelled rosół
with fresh carrots she picks from the garden,
like a lady, in gloves. 

(c) 2016 by Maja Trochimczyk, from "The Rainy Bread"

Now, to think of a piece of Chopin that captures the spirit and personality of my Grandma, Maria nee Wasiuk Wajszczuk... I did not have to think for a long time at all. Chopin's "Heroic" Polonaise in A-Flat Major Op. 53 has the grandeur, nobility, bravery and pride, with tumultuous section of national drama. Here it is played by none other but Artur Rubinstein:

Easter table of Mom with her grandson Marcin, Warsaw 1980s.

Great Aunt Tonia (Antonina), Grandma Marianna, Great Aunt Jadzia (Jadwiga)
with their daughters, Aunt Basia (Barbara) on the bottom right in the back, 1960, Gdansk Oliwa. 

A line of brave, courageous, feisty women - who loved to cook, host parties, dress up, sing, dance, go out. They did not play the piano, as far as I know - but all loved listening to Chopin. They were all survivors, all displaced from their homes in one way or another.  What do you do when the "winds of history" take you from country to country, from one continent to the next? Change your hair color? Style? Name? 

My Mom was a brunette and become a blonde, a color she picked after turning grey. Black hair color looked awfully fake in Poland and she spent half of her life as a blue-eyed blonde. She loved singing, sang in a chorus as a young girl, but never learned to play any instruments, and never pursued an active career in music. Gave me lots of opportunities to listen to Chopin at home, bought my first LPs of classical music...

Mom at 39, her favorite age 

Mom at 64 in Abu Dhabi where my father worked for 20 years. 

If my Mom, Henryka Teresa nee Wajszczuk Trochimczyk were to be composed by Chopin, with her fantasy, warmth and  deep, unstable emotions, would she be a Polonaise? Probably not, too straightforward... Maybe a Ballade? The Ballede No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52 would fit the bill -  so sublimely sweet and tensely dramatic, and profoundly sorrowful, despite the surface gaiety... Let's hear Krystian Zimmerman again:

Mom Henryka and Maja at one year old.


—- is all there is, all you take with you when you go
from country to country, carried by the winds of change.
The merciless gale of history blows you backward
to the time before homes were homes,
before safety, before love.

Hold on. Language is all there is. You’ll leave
your sentimental treasures — a miniature
flower vase from your cloistered Godmother,
brown like her Franciscan habit and warm eyes.

A worn sapphire set in the ornate gold ring
Dad bought in Moscow for your Mom’s engagement —
scarred by work and trouble, washing dishes,
work, always more work.
A suitcase of photos you are too raw
with grief to open — one day, you say,
I promise, I’ll do it, one day.

Language is all there is. Words slip back
under the avalanche of hours. What you took
was yours then, what is theirs now?
Rough tones of Polish mountain village resound
through the gilded salons of an L.A. mansion.
They speak a 17th century peasant dialect in Quebec.

Out of one accent, not yet in another,
you sound foreign everywhere, to everyone.
You keep your word in-between kingdoms.
One day, you’ll find new treasures.

Language is all there is
until your New Day comes. 


Sapphire engagement ring of my Mom.

So we can think and write and keep the shards of memory alive, with just a couple of photos, just a couple of stories, never enough, never with a proper context. What do we really know about the past?  The gift for music, the love of music, beautiful singing voices pass on through generations. No pianists? Not a problem... The love of music stays alive. 

Now to play the game again, what piece of Chopin would I be? If I could be a piece of music? Maybe Fantaisie Impromptu Op 66 with its shifting moods and unpredictable directions? Serenity interrupted by frantic motion? Maybe... Recorded by Rousseau.

What about my daughter, Anna Claire Harley-Trochimczyk? She sings jazz choir, and barbershop style choral music, but if she were a piece by Chopin, I think she would have been the Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23.  Here it is, played by Krystian Zimmerman.

Maja Trochimczyk with Daughter Anna Claire Harley Trochimczyk, USC graduation 2011

Mama Henryka as a butterfly, 5 years old, Baranowicze, 1934

Maja at four, dressed up as a snowflake and brother with a bow and arrow

Daughter Ania at 3 years old in Warsaw

Thanks to Ciocia Basia and cousin Waldemar Wajszczuk we now have the Wajszczuk family tree. I do not know of similar family trees for the Wasiuks, or Sudnik Hrynkiewicz, or for my father's side, Niegerysz and Trochimczyk.  I'm also grateful for the scanned photos, used here along with the ones I inherited from Mom. 

Ciocia Basia with frost flowers in the winter.