I remember that my father had a small stash of Christmas cards from relatives in Poland. After a bit of searching, I was finally able to track them down.
The cards, dating from the 1950s and 1960s, were mostly addressed to my grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska Kowal from her two younger brothers, Stanisław (also known as Staszek) and Władysław (or Władko). There is also a card from a niece named Lusia.
I already knew about Stanisław and Władysław because they were identified in my grandmother’s 1966 obituary under the names Stanley and Walter. Following that lead, I was able to locate birth records in the national archives in Warsaw.
Stanisław and Władysław were the youngest of seven children born to my great-grandparents Jozef Bosakowski and Maria Buczna in Założce, Austria. (Jozef had three other children through an earlier marriage to Honorata Maslowska, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25.)
Ludwika and Julian died in childhood, before the two boys were born. Their three remaining siblings – Katarzyna, Honorata and Wincenty – all emigrated to the United States between 1911 and 1913. So Stanisław and Władysław, who were barely teenagers at the time, were left behind just as life would be turned upside down.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, Założce – a town six miles from the Russian border – would find itself overrun with enemy troops. Over the next four years, opposing armies would push the front back and forth, bringing another wave of destruction to my grandmother’s hometown. I wonder how the two boys coped.
After the war, Założce found itself inside the borders of Poland, which had been divided up between Russia, Germany and Austria for over a century. But while a few cousins emigrated to the U.S. after the war, before a crackdown on immigration made that difficult to do, Stanisław and Wladyslaw did not join them. I wonder why they stayed. Perhaps their parents were still alive and they were the caretakers. Or perhaps they looked forward to the prospect of living and prospering in the new Polish republic.
Either way, they would have enjoyed two decades of normalcy before even more unimaginable tragedies unfolded during World War II. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, his secret pact with Stalin placed the eastern part of the country, including Założce, under Soviet control. And just two years later, Nazi troops rolled through in a futile bid to conquer the Soviet Union, bringing a more brutal and deadly occupation.
By the war’s end, with the Soviets in control once again, Polish inhabitants of the region would face a campaign of terror and ethnic cleansing from Ukrainian militias. Założce (now known as Zaliztsi) would remain in the Soviet Union, along with all the Polish territory seized in 1939, while Stanislaw and Władysław, along with their Polish friends, neighbors and relatives, were forcibly resettled in western Poland, hundreds of miles from their ancestral home.
This was a huge tragedy for the family and I plan to write more about this period in a future post. Incredibly, I never heard a thing about it growing up. I asked my Uncle Walter (my father’s youngest brother) about it and he said, as far as he knew, that his mother came from Poznan, Poland.
Life must have been hard for Stanisław and Władysław after the war. Poland, now a repressive communist state in the Soviet bloc, was utterly destroyed in the war and the economic situation remained bleak for decades. My uncle remembers helping my grandmother, a woman of very limited means, send packages to her brothers in Poznan with used clothes and some money tucked inside.
The Christmas cards from the 1950s seem particularly grim – essentially black and white photographs of a Christmas card design with a postcard template stamped on the back. Some look home made. But one card has a famous Communist era slogan stamped on the back: Cały Naród buduje swoją Stolicę! (The entire Nation builds its Capital!).
By the early 1960s, the cards get a little prettier – printed in color with embossed details and a sprinkle of glitter.
The messages on the cards don’t reveal much beyond formal holiday pleasantries. In a 1956 Christmas card (interpreted roughly with the use of Google Translate and my own rudimentary Polish), Stanisław wrote that he and his family was healthy and that he hoped my grandmother was the same. Along with wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, he wrote that he wished they could share an opłatek, the traditional Christmas wafer, but unfortunately they were far away.
In an undated card from the same period, Władysław sent generic holiday wishes signed Wladko z rodziną (Wladko and family).
The cards were enclosed in envelopes that are long gone, but I have been able to figure out that by the late 1950s, Stanisław lived in Godziesze, a small village 70 miles southeast of Poznan. Władysław lived further south in Pilchowice, another small village 20 miles west of Katowice.
I would love to find out more about the two men. I know from my grandmother’s obituary that they were still living in 1966. And I know they each had families. In the 1980s, I met a relative named Helena who I’m guessing was Stanisław’s daughter because she lived near Poznan.
I also found two longer letters from Władysław dated 1965. I will need help translating them but, already, they provide interesting new details – including tantalizing references to letters from my grandmother. I wonder if those letters are still in the possession of distant relatives in Poland.