As the rain trickles down and taps my windowsill over and over, never seeming to end, I have a story for you. A tale that can come only out of the melting pot that is America; one that is so real it seems impossible. I first learned of this story through my extensive discussions with Ohio 2nd US Congressional Candidate Marek Tyszkiewicz.
As I heard about Marek’s parents, I felt happy and sad, joyful and devastated. All the disconnections, pain, loss, but also new hope, happiness and family fill this story that belongs in a collection of stories of immigrants who overcame immense struggles to reach the shining beacon of liberty, the United States.
Marek’s father, Stanislaw, was born in 1912, in the rural parts of Poland. A love for nature and an understanding of its importance led him to obtain a college degree in Forestry & Wildlife and earn a prestigious position maintaining a wildlife preserve, Marek told me. He also related that “military service in Poland at that time was also mandatory and Stanislaw was a Lieutenant in an anti-aircraft battalion.”
As all might remember, because it was the event that was one of the most pivotal in human history, on September 1st, 1939, the Nazi army invaded Poland, setting off a chain of events that led to 75 million deaths, the invention of nuclear weapons, and America’s emergence as a superpower. As Marek said during our discussion, “Hitler’s intention was to eliminate all Poles, both Jewish and Christian. Poles were referred to by Nazis as subhuman. Hitler’s command was to kill ‘without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language'”
Marek said, “Poland, assuming the Soviet Union would remain neutral, deployed troops to the western front to confront the Nazi assault. On September 17, 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east.” Stanislaw answered the call to duty, and his battalion was tasked the job of defending the Polish President’s train out of the country.
When the President, Władysław Raczkiewicz, reached France, Stanislaw duties were over and the battalion dismantled. Evading the Germans invading while in the east, and the Soviets invading while in the west, Stanislaw had to walk home, careful not to attract too much attention to himself.
As he was still in his officer’s uniform, a Polish farmer with a huge heart ran out courageously into the road and warned Stanislaw that the Soviets were rounding up Polish officers and executing them on the spot. The farmer gave him a change of clothes that he put on and then he continued to walk home.
As the darkness enveloped over the land, the silence broken only by Stanislaw’s footsteps and the drone of war planes every so often overhead, Stanislaw walked. However, he ended up being caught by the Soviets. He denied that he was a Polish officer, so instead of being executed on the spot, Stanislaw was sentenced to hard labor at a Siberian gulag while 22,000 of his fellow Poles were executed in the forests of Katyn.
The grueling train ride to the labor camp took weeks for Stanislaw. Marek told me, “When the train arrived at the gulag, one of the Poles challenged a guard by saying ‘you can’t treat people this way.’ The guard drew his pistol and executed the man with a bullet to the head. The guard then turned to the rest of the Poles and said ‘any other complaints?’”
The labor camp Stanislaw was delegated to worked the over 10,000 Poles and many others to produce gold, nickel, tin and lumber, pushing them to the point that only 583 survived.
After Hitler’s daring invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin let the Polish prisoners of war go with the intent that they would fight the Nazis. Stanislaw made the trek to the Middle East to rejoin the Polish Army, which was now serving as part of the British Army.
At the end of the war, Poland was annexed to the Soviet Union and because of this Stanislaw became a refugee in England. This man had the courage to be able to not return to Poland because it was no longer free. He had to leave behind his homeland, his heritage, but a brighter future was only possible if he lived the American Dream. He became a refugee to England, where, as the Brits celebrated the turning of a New Year in 1947, he met a fellow Pole named Halina.
Halina’s story is just as intriguing as her significant other and just as important. Halina, Marek Tyszkiewicz’s mother, was born in 1927, the daughter of a World War I veteran, and a mother who died when Halina was an infant. Her father remarried, and the family lived on a piece of land given to her father in return for his service to Poland. It almost seemed to be perfect, living in the Poland countryside, until the month of September in 1939, when Poland became a battleground between the Germans and the Soviets.
In 1939, when Halina was 12-years-old, her family received a late-night knock on the door, accompanied with an order that the family leave the house. Her family, which besides herself included her father, her stepmother, and two brothers, rode a boxcar train to a labor camp in Siberia, now prisoners of the Soviet Union. As the fall turned to winter, the temperature dropping, freezing physical objects, the feeling in Europe also turned to winter, where not just physical things were frozen, but souls too.
When the family reached the labor camp, a difficult choice had to be made. There were two options for children ages 9-14. They could be like all the adult laborers and conduct physical labor, earning them a food ration. The other option was for them to get an education, but that came with no food ration. Though an obviously hard choice, Halina’s father decided to send her to school.
This is evidence that Halina’s father probably believed that freedom would triumph over oppression in the end and that education for his daughter would be necessary when the war came to a halt. Making difficult choices instead of cowering away, and the belief in the necessity of education, both still shines through generations later in his grand-son, Marek.
Even though Halina could not supply her family with her food ration, she definitely still pulled her weight to support them. While in the camp, she carried water from the river (Marek told me that if she spilled any, it froze instantly), cooking the meals the best she could from the meager rations, and washing the dishes and clothes by hand. Due to disease spreading like wildfire in the labor camp, she made sure to wash everything the family used very well. She worked even through being frost bitten, her hands and feet slowly ending their ability to be used, her eyesight failing.
When Stalin was pressured by Churchill into releasing Polish prisoners to fight the Nazis in 1941, Halina’s family was free. The suffering, the toiling under the oppression of the Soviets, was over, but Halina’s personal suffering was not nearly over. She was almost to the point of death, so weak, suffering the effects of untreated disease and frostbite. Her family was desperately finding somewhere that they could get her healed.
Marek told me, “Her father had heard of an agency in Iran that was accepting orphaned children. He knew Halina was near death and would not survive long without help. He declared her an orphan and sent her on the back of a Red Cross truck to the Persian city of Isfahan. Near death when she arrived, the Iranians saved her life and the lives of countless other Polish children. In Poland even today, Isfahan is known as the City of Polish Children.”
Sometimes we forget that as much as we are different than some places, we still share a lot in common.
When Halina was 14, when she was recovering in the Iranian orphanage, she overheard that a group of nuns were opening a school for young refugee girls in Palestine. Halina was overjoyed and immediately agreed to join the endeavor. Marek said that “living in Palestine was Halina’s happiest childhood memory.”
This peaceful time was soon to end, however. In 1947, after the horrors of the Holocaust, the newly-formed United Nations announced plans for separate Palestinian and Jewish states. Violence broke out, fracturing along ethnic and political lines that still exist today, and Halina, along with other refugees, was shipped off to Britain.
In Britain, in a former British Army base turned Polish refugee camp, Halina and Stanislaw met among the cheers and new optimism of New Years 1947. As the world began to move to the future, where the threat of fascism was replaced by communism, so did the newly-married Polish couple. America was the beacon of freedom that they looked to after suffering so much, sad that Poland was no longer free, but optimistic that life in America would offer much more.
Marek said that the transition to American life was easier for them than others because they lived in England first and learned English before coming to America. “People often said my mother spoke the ‘Queen’s English.’ My father had a much heavier accent and it definitely wasn’t the Queen’s English,” Marek said.
The couple pursued the American Dream to its fullest, but understood that it would only come with hard work. Stanislaw became an employee of the Department of Transportation, helping to put into reality, among other things, Eisenhower’s interstate program. Halina worked second-shift in a factory, and when they had saved enough money, they purchased an 80-acre farm. Marek recalls planting over 500 trees a year on the farm, slowly but surely turning it from a farm into a nature preserve, just as Stanislaw had wanted to do in Poland.
As Marek grew up in America though, his first language was Polish. He actually learned English thanks mostly to watching PBS, probably learning it from the compassion of Fred Rogers or the inventive program that still teaches children today, Sesame Street.
Marek said that the greatest thing that he remembers about his father is the fact that he always wanted more for his children than he had. Marek told me that his father was frugal, with the kids wearing hand-me-downs and that they never took vacations, but that the money Stanislaw saved was used to put all four of his children through college. The greatest thing he remembers of his mother was her compassion. Marek said, “Family was everything and she made it clear that family came first and trumped everything else. She was the matriarch of the family.”
Through his parents suffering at the hands of oppressors, but finding hope and freedom in America, has made Marek Tyszkiewicz the man he is today. Though both Stanislaw and Halina are gone, their legacy lives on through their son, Marek.
Marek, now a modern American business man, is a staunch believer and protector of the American Dream due to his parent’s journey. Raised to value the freedom he has in America, he is a man that dreams to protect the American people in Congress.
In a time that cynicism seems to rule our society and politics, Tyszkiewicz honors his parents as a shining beacon for hope, in striving to get things done for the best of the American people so that all can continue in the American Dream.