The year is 1958.
The photo portrays my mother and father looking content with life, standing on the side of the road. He is embracing her lovingly, as he will for the rest of his life. She is his rock, his friend, the person who takes care of the practical side of his life. Their personalities are different but they mesh together beautifully. My parents, brother, and I live in Wałbrzych, a medium-size city in Lower Silesia, Poland, where we settled after leaving the Soviet Gulag.
My father, a quiet, unassuming man, was always studying to improve his knowledge. He loved classical music and even performed in the movie theaters, playing the piano before the start of silent movies. He was a loving husband and father to me and my younger brother. He was highly educated in spite of not being allowed to study in Poland due to “numerus clausus” (a quota for Jewish students). For this reason he was forced to go to Lausanne, Switzerland, to obtain his medical degree.
My father was the main breadwinner in our family, a well-known physician, and a specialist in lung diseases, allowing us a relatively high standard of living. Since our hometown, Wałbrzych, had six active coal mines, he never lacked work. He also was known to have a great ability for languages, speaking many languages, even Esperanto.
The short, pretty blue-eyed blonde standing next to my father in the photo is my mom. Her sweet looks belie the strength of her character. She was a practical, sociable woman in charge of the good running of our household and did most of the child rearing. Her only sister was murdered in Belzec and she is greatly missed. Like my father, my mother was also known for her successes in education. I will always be proud that she was a recipient of a law degree from the prestigious Jagiellonian University, the only woman that year to receive that degree. Unfortunately, she never worked in her profession in postwar Communist Poland, as it would require putting her moral and ethical principles aside.
Our small family was changed after I left Poland to come to the United States to marry Marcel. Long letters followed, words of love and longing to be together. Only after I became a mother myself, I would better understand the depth of my parents' sadness, mitigated by the news of my happiness. Fortunately, the separation would not last forever and my parents decided to join me in the US. In preparation, my father learned English all on his own. He needed an excellent knowledge of the language to be able to pass the tests necessary to practice medicine in the US. This test required listening to patients' histories that were presented in all kinds of accents. Especially difficult for him were the Southern accents. Some diseases, not known in Europe, like Rocky Mountain spotted fever, were difficult for him to diagnose. My 62-year-old father, with a strong will and hard work overcame all difficulties and passed this test. Even though he had a contract for a job in the US, the Polish Communist government would not release the family by refusing to issue them passports. It was the time of the Vietnam War raging, and the Polish government did not wish for my father to replace American doctors going to war. At this point, my mother’s bravery came into play. She bribed an official in the passport office and, after a clandestine meeting at a church in Kraków, she obtained the precious passports. The danger of this mission was enormous.
But life in the US was not easy for my parents due to different lifestyles, different culture, and missing old friends. However, being together, seeing their son thrive and watching their grandson grow, compensated for the changes. My father passed a New York license exam and got a job in the Hebrew Home for the Aged. My mom helped out by taking care of small children and getting a job as an X-ray technician. They were finally able to joyfully celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and to travel together. Unfortunately, my father passed away from a heart attack when he was 73 years old. My mom continued living in New York City, enjoyed reading the New York Times from cover to cover, and was interested in politics, especially adoring President Clinton. She visited us often until the ripe age of 93.
My parents will always be remembered by us as intelligent, hard-working, and loving people who overcame the hardships of the Soviet Gulag and fashioned a life of decency, empathy, and built a closely knit family. I miss them every day.
Lives well lived.
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