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Polonia - Pani Dewicka and Other Stories

Polonia is the story of Pani Dewicka and her descendants. In many regards she is but a symbol of those who have struggled under cruel regimes that have invaded other countries.  For it is written that we were all once strangers in a strange land.

It is a multigenerational story detailing the struggles of a ethnic family that eventually immigrates to the United States. The saga references actual places, people and events. It is none-the-less a work of fiction. Certain real incidents have been altered or re-imagined in the telling of this tale.

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Part One

Pani Dewicka

 Congress Kingdom

 

On the Western Edge of the Russian Empire circa 1904

The sun had long since buried its ruddy complexion when Bronisława, her shoulders hunched beyond her tender years, pushed open the rough sawn door to the cottage.  The creak of the hinge was her only welcome. Exhausted from the day’s drudgery, she shuffled over to the table and striking a match lit the lamp that awaited her return. The glow was enough for her to make her way to the fireplace where she rekindled the embers. Mustiness and smoke filled her nostrils. She took two potatoes from the pocket of her sukienka[1] and began making soup. Little Władysław, named after his father, had not yet come home. His was a difficult life for a lad of eight. Not quite an orphan but he might just as well have been. His father had been shot during the war, killed somehow, somewhere, no doubt buried beneath the soil of some foreign land. The young lad and his mother did the best they could trying to keep together as a family.

    The small cottage they lived in had been abandoned during the fighting. Their own cottage burnt to the ground by government troops quashing the latest insurrection. It mattered little to the troops that those who lived there took no part; their goal was to send a strong message to those who did.

    There was little food left in the village and even fewer peasants. Most were killed or fled the conflagration. Even the Nobles, who lived in the village, had a difficult time. Very little money was left to hire servants. In this regard, Bronisława was fortunate. She was a fine cook, not afraid of hard work for little pay.

    The cottage they called home was no more than a single room alongside of which was a large shed; built from round logs, laid almost as they grew with little trimming. At the corners, the logs projected a couple of feet so that when wood was scarce they could be cut off for fuel. The fire was built on a broad drum made of packed clay called a stara kobieta or 'old woman'. The walls were covered with soot, a reminder of the past.

    As the soup began to boil, the pleasant aroma replaced the dankness. Bronisława gently touched the inlaid wooden box that sat on the shelf above the table, her forefinger stroking its smooth exterior. More than a box, it was a vestige of a better time, a better life. Memories laid up just as each small piece of hand crafted wood was carefully inlaid, a complement to each other piece. The colors of the wood mimicked the moods embraced within. The memory box was one of the few possessions she brought with her when she left. She didn’t need to open the box to read any of the letters. Long ago they were committed to memory.

Ukochany[2],

Even now I picture you at the window waving your good bye. Your silhouette against the light from the candle etched into my fondest memory. The thought of you gives me the courage to go on, knowing one day we shall be reunited. I give you my solemn promise that upon my return I shall never again leave your side and we can begin anew our endeavor to start a family.

I have been given new orders. In a few days we will be moving out. The generals have asked for volunteers to go East on a special mission with the promise of early release upon its completion. I do this for you my love. I count the moments till we are reunited.

Your beloved,

Właduś

    The memory of that letter lingered long after it arrived, a time just after her child was born. Pan Dewicki never even knew he had a son. Bronisława’s letters never seemed to catch up to him. This was not the first letter he sent in the months since the Russian authorities directed him to report for duty, a requirement of every man in the partition. It was midsummer when that particular letter arrived. Bronisława didn’t know at the time that it would be the last. She remembered every detail of the day and rehearsed them in her mind as she dipped her wooden spoon into the soup, stirring up memories.

    The story told by those who knew Pan Dewicki was that he disappeared in Russia, or perhaps Siberia, no one could remember for sure, when his wife was pregnant. Village legend had it that the senior Władysław gave all of his belongings to his friends in the Russian Army because he wanted to travel light and was being sent to the east, presumably into China where the Russian Empire had designs on a warm water port.

~

    The Village of Ostroweic where Bronisława lived was in Congress Kingdom, the partition of Poland carved off by Russia when the Satanic Trinity, the empires of Prussia, Austria and Russia divided the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth a hundred years earlier. The village was on the edge of the Carpathian Mountains and before the latest round of fighting was well known for metallurgy. The town had tripled in size over the past generation and the population outgrew its economy. The lack of jobs fostered unrest among the peasants and established a period of migration to the west.

    The insurrection that cost Pani Dewicka her home was in no small part prompted by the unrest and fueled by the harshness of Russian taskmasters.

    Neither little Władysław nor his mother cared much for the Polish Socialist Party that had provoked the revolution and for a brief period had taken over the village. They didn’t have time for politics. They had had enough of war to last a lifetime. But the unrest between the people and the government was deeply imbedded into the culture by then. For Pani Dewicka there was little interest in the praca organiczna (organic work) that attempted to instill social change through grass roots efforts. Her interest was parochial, providing food and shelter for her son. That is not to say that she didn’t hate the Russians for what they did in taking her husband from her. She never forgave that nor any of the beatings the teachers gave her son when he forgot a Russian word and used his Polish in school. It wasn’t long before she stopped sending him to school altogether.  And there was that darn Orthodoxy that the Russians kept trying to ram down Polish throats. Pani Dewicka was Catholic and wanted to raise her son in the faith of her father. Religion was the only way she permitted herself to express pride in being Polish.

    Little Władek, as his mother called him, worked at Zakłady Ostrowieckie, the local steelworks. He kept his distance from the shop stewards who were always trying to stir up unrest among the workers. He wanted no part of that nonsense. He needed the few meager kopecks he was given. He worked hard for them sure but he always had. It was just the way life was; work hard, go home, eat, sleep, then work hard again.

    America was on everyone’s lips. One could scarcely walk down the road without hearing it discussed. So it was not unusual at all that Władek from an early age developed a burning desire to go there–even before he knew where ‘there’ was. 

    There was also a time when he wanted to go to the Polytechnic that had been opened in Warsaw. Czar Nicholas II himself had visited Warsaw in the year of Władek’s birth and established the Russian school. But then he and his cousins also made plans to travel to America. For Władek it was but a dream. His mother forbad him from leaving for that foreign land.

~

    Pani Dewicka had just finished bringing the soup to a boil when Władek came in the door. The smile on his face as he greeted his mother told her that the aroma of the soup had reached him long before her greeting.

    “Sit down Władek, eat.”

    Already the poppies sprinkled his eyes. Władek could barely keep them open as he finished his soup and a piece of stale rye bread that he dipped into the broth wiping the bowl clean. He crawled off to his mat in the corner, covered himself with his coat, and fell asleep.

    Pani Dewicka could but smile at her son sleeping in the corner as she cleared the table and put away the remainder of the soup. Nothing was ever wasted. Food was too scarce, too precious. She washed the pots and dishes in water heated on the fire then crawled off to her corner and fell asleep to be awakened what seemed like only a few moments later by the rooster. There was never enough time for sleep.

    She roused herself from her mat. Her bones ached from sleeping on a hard floor for most of her twenty-six years. Still she was happy. She looked with great affection on her son as he slept peacefully. She lived for him.

    It being Sunday, Pani Dewicka prepared herself for mass at Kościół Michała Archanioła. The church had stood on a hill near the Kamienna River for almost three hundred years. Prince Janusz Ostrogski himself had commissioned the church with three altars. The main altar was originally dedicated to the Archangel Uriel, but after it was partially damaged by a flood, the bishop of Kraków thought it a sign from God and rededicated the church to St. Michael. The two side altars were dedicated to St. John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. The church stood as a testament to the faith of the people.

    Sunday was the only day that mother and son had together. It was only fitting that they start the day with mass.



[1] dress

[2] beloved

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