In a semester abroad in Krakow, you can meet young students from all over the world. Many of them have come to the country from which their ancestors emigrated or fled many years ago. For them, America was considered a land of the future, for themselves Europe is ‘the place to be’.
The year is 1913, shortly before the first big, world-changing war. Poland is still divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Pole Walter Kumięga, great-great-grandfather of 21-year-old Walter Kumięga IV, named after him, decides to leave the old continent of Europe and emigrate to America. He wishes – like so many others – a better future for his family and a life in freedom. He founds a chicken farm in Maine, which will become the livelihood of the family for the next few years. “At some point, the chicken farm became a carpet cleaning company, run by my grandfather to this day,” says the proud grandson, who studies International Relations at the University of Maine.
A few years later, after the First World War, Kate’s great-grandparents decided to leave their native Poland and set off to the New World. Arriving in a Polish community in New Jersey, Kate’s great-grandmother Julianna dies of typhoid fever, and her husband “orders” a new Polish wife by letter about the church – she becomes the stepmother of Kate’s grandmother Florence and her brother.
A fairytale stepmother
“My family is unbelievably matriarchal, I know almost nothing about the men in my family! Not even the names. Nana told about her stepmother things that are otherwise known only from fairy tales: from the beginning she treated her two stepchildren badly. She locked them in closets or in the storeroom, starving them, beating them. She was a good mother only to her own three children giving birth to her husband,” recalls Kate.
However, because the stepmother is very unhappy with her new home and wants her back to Poland, the return to Europe is a done deal. When Florence is 13 years old, she is left behind by her father in the Polish community, alone with her younger brother. From then on, she has to work in a nylon factory to get herself and her brother through. With the help of the aunts and uncles present, she succeeds in finding a husband and starting her own family at the age of 20.
When the living conditions in Poland deteriorate drastically during the Second World War, the stepmother asks the abandoned, unloved stepchildren for money for their farm, which they refuse to pay. “The fate of this part of the family is unknown to us,” Kate continues. “But it’s very likely that I have aunts, uncles, cousins and cousins here in Poland.”
Many family stories have one thing in common: Auschwitz
Also a part of Rhoyas family comes from Poland. 23-year-old Rhoya is studying history at the University of Washington. Her family members are from Iran, England, Poland, Lithuania, Austria, Canada, Germany. On Rhoya’s family history alone could write a separate article. Her godmother Eva Schloss, for example, is Holocaust survivor and step-sister of Anne Frank.
Rhoya’s great-grandfather fought in Poland’s home army against the Nazis, but was captured and sent to a labor camp. His son was also politically active and came to Auschwitz. In 1945, they were among the lucky ones who could be liberated and survived. Independently they left Poland and went to England, where they found each other again and decided to leave the European continent forever and emigrate to Canada.
While Rhoya likes to talk about her complicated family history, Sami, a 21-year-old New York psychology student, tends to hold back. “Actually, my family does not really come from Poland. My ancestors are from Lithuania and Hungary. The only Polish in her biography is unfortunately Auschwitz. “She mentions between two sips of raspberry syrup, which she drinks in the Polish manner with a straw. “My grandfather Alfred Friedman and his mother Dobris survived several concentration camps and, most recently, Auschwitz – the only one of my family. My great-grandfather and grandfather’s three older siblings were murdered there.”
This serious part of the family history is also the reason why Sami finally came to Krakow. “Okay, to be honest, I first wanted to go to Amsterdam. But in the end, the country where the fate of my family was decided was more interesting. And it’s so much better than I ever thought!”
Here in Krakow Sami can rediscover her own faith through the busy Jewish community, which, according to the guide, is growing steadily. Every week, the JCC, the Jewish Community Center, in the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, organizes shabbat dinners, readings, concerts, workshops, and, at the end of June, the Jewish Culture Festival, one of the largest of its kind in the world.
New experiences on the “Old Continent”
Going back to the land of their ancestors, exploring their own roots is the intention of many exchange students here in Krakow, but also in the whole of Poland. Their ancestors fled or emigrated to the world, in this case to America – their descendants, however, meet 100 years later back on the “Old Continent”.
Polish culture is experienced together with students from all over the world: we drink beer with raspberry syrup in one of the many “Pijalnias” from Kraków, eat Pierogi, dance wildly to the Polish rock music of the band “Kult” or listen devoutly to the music of “Gypsy And The Acid Queen “. We ride a bicycle along the Vistula, go to the night of the open synagogues, talk a lot about politics. In doing so, we discover shared values, future expectations and fears, and find that the sails of many freedom seekers and those looking for the future turn towards Europe.
“I know that everything is not going well in Europe. Nonetheless, if I did not have my family in the States, I would immediately move to Poland or Germany after graduation, “says Walter, whose idea was already longer to come to Europe. “Here I can finally be myself. Besides, there are just the better metal bands here.” He laughs and Rhoya nods. Anyway, her plan is to study, move to the UK and probably stay there forever. “Without health insurance, I can not live in America. The program will expire in two years – thank you, Trump! Thanks to him, I can no longer afford the ‘grad school’ if I still want to study law. So what’s left for me?”
To this half-rhetorical question we can only clench our lips, pull our shoulders up and shake our heads as a sign that we too have no idea. We agree on this day that we need to stick together as a young generation in and of itself, across borders and oceans. “So that we never have to experience stories like those of our ancestors, na zdrowie!”, Sami touts us to us, and we thrust our glasses together with confidence and determination.
This text was first published on: hastuzeit.de