I first met Irena and her husband, Gene, years ago at the Polish booth at Tucson Meet Yourself, our fair city's annual celebration of cultural (and culinary!) diversity. My partner had taken Irena's Polish class in a desire to connect with a Polish-speaking grandfather. Sadly, my partner's dziadziu died before she could put her new language skills to much use, but she remained friends with Irena.
This year, Gene died. Later, over a dinner of kielbasa and pierogi, Irena shared some of Gene's quintessentially Polish story.
He was born in 1924 in the village of Tarnogrod, near the Ukrainian border. When the Nazis and Soviets overran Poland to start World War II, Gene was just a teenager.
Within a month, the overmatched Polish Army was completely dispersed, but many Poles refused to submit. An underground resistance movement mushroomed from the wreckage, with hundreds of autonomous cells forming in villages and neighborhoods. At the age of 16, Gene did what relatively few people of any age had the courage to do: He joined the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), what became the largest resistance formation in Europe. He acted as a courier, of sorts—a "liaison of intelligence," as Irena puts it.
"Everyone wanted to fight for freedom," she says. But Gene actually did.
At one point, Gene was detained and consigned to a labor camp. On the train, with the bitter wind of dead winter whistling outside, he considered his fate. His captors had told him he was going to work in a munitions factory, but he had heard that it was actually a death camp. In the first two years of the war, 1.5 million Poles were forced from their homes by the Nazis and the Soviets, and half of those perished. Out of desperation, or pride, or perhaps sheer stubbornness, the boy leaped from the speeding train.
"He expected to die," Irena says. "But the deep snow saved his life."
In Poland last summer, in the museum at the former Auschwitz concentration camp, I saw photographs of leaders of the underground resistance. In their defiant eyes, I saw the same fire that must have ignited Gene's heart on the train. "They had no chance in World War II, the Warsaw uprising, the underground," muses Irena. "But they fought anyway."
Miraculously, Gene evaded recapture and made his way home, where he laid low for a while, but he soon resumed his resistance activities. In 1943, as they did with hundreds of Polish villages, the Nazis "pacified" the area—they surrounded it and emptied it of Poles. Gene witnessed entire Jewish families being killed, while he and his family were sent to a nearby concentration camp for a month, then on to a labor camp in Germany.
On an application for reparations long after the war, among such headings as "Personal Injury—Medical Experiments," "Death of Child" and "Slave Labor," is Gene's testimonial of that time: "We were interrogated, beaten, starved and denied medical attention. I was suffering from dysentery, and my father was swollen beyond recognition. My mother died within two months of forced labor, from a gangrenous hand." Gene survived two years in the camp and was liberated at the war's end.
After immigrating to America, he met and married Irena and eventually settled in Tucson. In some ways, they continued to resist the oppression they had left behind. Irena became director of a refugee-resettlement program, helping Russians, Vietnamese, Bosnians and even a few Poles find housing, work and medical care. She could recall to them her own desperate time as a child in a refugee family.
Gene became vice president of the Polish Solidarity Organization, supporting Lech Waesa and the Solidarnösc labor movement that broke the Soviet stranglehold on Poland in the 1980s. With a proud clarity in her voice so characteristic of patriotic Poles, Irena says, "I don't think we get the credit, but it was because of Poland that communism fell."
I vividly remember my own discovery of the Solidarity movement. At the age of 17, blissfully ignorant in my soft suburban American cocoon, I opened the newspaper one morning to a stirring image of Waesa's gritty unionists standing against the blast of Brezhnev's water cannons in the streets of Gdansk. It seemed so hopeless, yet heroic, to resist the mighty Soviet regime. I was captivated.
On this quintessentially American holiday, I am thankful for stubborn and courageous Poles who stand in the streets and jump from trains to be free. And I welcome such determined resisters as Gene and Irena, no matter where they come from or what language they speak, in the hope that our nation might be enriched by their experience and strengthened by their resolve.